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They Stood Against the Sky · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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The Pain Network
Hey Professor. How are you?

The time right now is… 6:49 PM, your time, which means the deadline for my essay is a little over 6 hours away.

And I haven’t started.

I have a plan, though. I’ve got a four-and-a-half hour drive ahead of me to get back to my hotel. And I was dreading it, because I did it already this morning going the other way, and I discovered that having nobody to talk to for four-and-a-half hours can drive a guy insane. Or at least this guy.

But then I remembered my phone has voice-to-text. Let me just see if it’s working…

Alright. It’s all one paragraph and there’s no punctuation, but it’s workable. Yeah. That’s fine.

Here’s the plan. I’m thinking if I get everything out there, if I can just spit out all of my thoughts during this drive, I’ll have just enough time to slap some formatting on it and send it over before midnight. And I’m not gonna get rid of any words either. Formatting only. And fixing typos I guess. But that’s it.

It’s been… a couple days, Professor. Holy shit. I don’t think I’ll forget this little excursion for as long as I live. And right now I just have to talk about it. I hope that’s okay.

This is gonna be a mess. And you’re not gonna accept it. And I’m still gonna fail. Just like every other course this semester, and every other degree I’ve wasted my money trying to finish. But so help me God, this time I’m at least gonna get something in.

So. Car’s in drive. Sun’s setting. Let’s get started.

Do you remember the last time we saw each other?

We’re in your office, right? You’re grading some poor bastard’s essay. I’m telling you how I’ve finally figured out what my essay is gonna be about. I’m also bleeding horribly from my neck. The gauze I got from the clinic on campus is doing just enough to stop me from ruining your carpet.

It looks every bit like I’ve just tried to kill myself, but you just take one look at me and go back to your work like this is a regular interruption for you. Like I didn’t just tell you the greatest essay idea ever.

“Pain?” I remember you saying. You don’t even blink. “Lots of psychologists have written about pain. You’ll have to be more specific.”

Well, you’ll be happy to know I got more specific. In fact, I probably took that advice a little too far.

It’s that cut on my neck that starts everything, you see.

I’m shaving in front of the sink in my shitty undergrad dorm, and I’m looking through myself in the mirror, and because I’m so busy thinking about what I’m gonna write about, I forget you have to lift your razor before you move it across your neck. Clumsy me, right?

So now suddenly I’m bleeding out into my sink and I’m looking at my red face in the mirror and the toilet paper I’m using to seal me back up is just not cutting it at all. And I realize something. I’m in so much pain.

I mean, the cut fucking hurts.

The fact that I have to go out in public like this fucking hurts.

The fact that I have to go to the clinic that smells famously like cat pee fucking hurts.

And the fact that all I have to show for my morning brainstorming session is a gash on my neck and zero ideas, well, that hurts like a bitch.

Suddenly the cut doesn’t hurt as much as the embarrassment. And I think that’s interesting. I wonder, what else happens to people when they’re in pain?

But you were right that I had to get more specific. You usually are.

Because pain is pain. Everybody knows it. Everybody’s had it, is having it, will have it again. Except those people with the weird nerve problem that makes them lose the ability to sense it. I used to envy them, but now I just feel sorry for them.

Anyways, I start researching right away. I wish I could say I go to the library, but I just fire up Google instead because it’s 2018 for fuck’s sake. One day you old fogeys will come around.

So I search for the word pain. I find out that I need to be more specific (turns out you’ve got a point), so I start searching random sentences that pop into my head.

“i’m in pain”

“i’m in so much pain”

“seeking help to relieve my pain”

I have like twenty of these, and I look through like the first twenty pages of results on each one. I’m just looking for a spark. Some idea. Something specific.

And then there it is.

Past all the narcotics ads, past all the unmentionable Craigslist posts and the My Chemical Romance fanpages, is a single forum post with no responses. It’s on one of those online medical advice websites. You know, where you ask strangers on the internet to be your doctor? Because those are always a good idea, right?

And it says:


Take that in.

This person—this tiny, insignificant, unheard voice on the internet—has been in pain for ten years.

I click the link. It reads:

Hi there,

I’ve had a headache for ten years. I feel it all over. It’s dull. It’s sharp. Nothing really makes it better. Nothing makes it worse, except time.

I go to sleep with it. I wake up with it. Nothing has any effect, especially not drugs. It’s tearing my life apart.

Any help is appreciated.

No bad ideas.

That’s it, word for word. You can look it up. I have it memorized.

So my mouth is hanging open as I read this post. And then I see the date it was posted and my mouth falls even further open.

Ten years ago.

There’s a chance this person has had a headache for twenty god-damn years. I mean, what the hell? I don’t know how Google pointed me to this post, but God bless its little algorithmic heart for doing so. Because it’s just guided me to the Pale Blue Dot of cries for help. Something’s telling me, There’s way more to this. This is something an aspiring psychologist could write an essay about.

I decide I need to interview this guy. No matter what. If anyone knows everything there is to know about pain, it’s the guy who’s had it for twenty years straight.

There’s just one problem. I don’t know who the hell he is. This guy has no info on his profile, other than the name he chose when he signed up.


Take it from me—that describes a lot of people.

So I decide I’m not gonna let this guy’s post go unanswered. I decide I’m gonna leave a reply. I make an account, I get all ready to post, and as the little line is flickering the the giant white box, I realize I have no idea what to say. What do you say? But I try my best. And I know you’re always telling me you should never get too emotional when you’re studying somebody’s brain, that you always have to be impartial, but something about this post makes me think this guy might appreciate some emotion, so maybe look away now.

I reply:

Pain can come from anywhere. It can come from inside you, or from the outside. It can range from a papercut to a third degree burn, and even the former can feel worse than the latter if it’s happened to you more recently. Pain wants to help you, but it can just as easily destroy you. And no pain should ever last as long as it has for you.

I want to talk to you about your pain. Please respond and let me know if we can chat.

My only hope is that NotSoGreat’s account is tied to his email address and that he hasn’t gotten a new one in the last ten years. But, well, you know me. Any excuse to sit on my hands for a couple days and I’m all for it. Of course, I get no response.

End of story, right? Not quite.

See, if psychology doesn’t work out? Then maybe I can pursue a degree in private investigation. If that’s a thing. Or if it’s not I’ll invent it.

Alright, so get this.

There’s a little flag right under this guy’s name, and I don’t know if that’s automatic or if he put that there intentionally, but I’m thinking it’s my only hope. It’s blue, it’s got a yellow bird and a fancy crest on it, and written at the top it says: State Of Oregon.

So I start nodding in my chair. Easy enough so far.

But Oregon is a big state. Most of them are. I’ve got no name and no city and tens of thousands of acres to work with.

But I do have his profile picture.

They’re on a hill, this person in pain taking the picture, and his dog. A German Shepherd. They’re overlooking a city that doesn’t have any skyscrapers at all, just a messy grid of flat white houses and a whole lot of trees.

I’m thinking, This looks like a park. A kind of lookout point at the end of a hike where you can take pictures of your city and show off to people that you chose to do a hike that day, and that you saw your house from there.

The dog is on the left, sat down, facing the city. It’s looking back at the camera. And I know you’re not supposed to read into a dog’s expression, but I swear he’s glaring at me like I’ve just challenged him to a fight and he’s daring for me to make the first move.

From the right edge of the picture, there’s this long, skinny white arm, reaching out towards the city. With a thumb and a forefinger, it’s pinching down on a single house.

And if that doesn’t scream, Come find me, then I don’t know what does.

So I find him.

I Google for cities in Oregon this big. There’s not many. I search:

“lookout point portland”


“lookout point eugene”

No dice.

“lookout point bend?”

Hello, Bend, Oregon! Hello, Pilot Butte State Scenic Viewpoint!

I’m out of my chair now. I‘m fist pumping. I’m checking out some photos from that lookout and right behind some Asian tourists posing for a photo op is that same freaking house.

I’ve already got another window open looking for plane tickets, and I’m not even questioning this stupid, terrible decision. I mean, no matter what I find, I have to miss classes finding it. And I could find nothing.

But maybe I feel I’m done disappointing my profs. Or maybe something supernatural is guiding me. Maybe it’s just that damn dog, daring me to come find its owner and ask him what pain really is. All I know is that I’m booking my ticket and under my breath, I’m saying:

“You want specific? I’ll give you fucking specific.”

Fuck, I never checked my battery. Hang on, just gonna sneak a glance here…

Hah! 91%. You know, I was kind of hoping it was a lot less.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Oregon, Professor, but I think you should. Because I fell in love with it a little. And the reason for that won’t surprise you. See, Oregon doesn’t really know what to do with itself. But at the same time, it’s okay with that.

Because it has a bit of everything. It’s got mountains. It’s got cities and farms. A coastline. But Canada has taller mountains. New York is a nicer city. Iowa has farms on lock. And California has a better coastline. But all that’s okay with Oregon. Because it’s just okay at a lot of things.

Seriously, name a famous landmark in Oregon. Like, world famous. That’s right, you can’t.

Oregon: We’re Not Trying Too Hard.

Oregon: Don’t mind us.

If I could marry a state, well, I’d probably go with New York. But I’d hang out with Oregon whenever I could.

I’m off-topic.

It’s a plane, a bus, and a walk to get to the house in between NotSoGreat’s forefinger and thumb. And I have an itch the entire trip. An itch that I can only scratch with my pen and my notepad, which I’m clutching in either hand the entire time. I must look like I could interview the first person that made eye contact with me. But really, I’m just taking in the sights. I don’t even care that it’s raining the whole time.

And then I’m there. In front of a big brown door.

And then I’m knocking. And then it’s opening.

The house is bigger than I expected. Two stories up, one story down. The inside’s this expansive foyer with a winding staircase and a chandelier that’s got so much glass it could double as a disco ball if you shone enough lights on it. I’m thinking, It’s the wrong house. I screwed up. Nobody with chronic pain could live here. NotSoGreat could never have a life this good.

This house also has a 50-something-year-old man standing with one hand on the door and his whole body leaning against the frame. He’s got a trimmed beard and is wearing business clothes even though it’s Saturday.

And I’m having flashbacks to writing my reply in that random forum thread. To how little of an idea I have of what to say. Or how English works.

Only this time, I have an actual person in front of me.

“Hi,” I start.

“Hello,” the man says, his eyebrow climbing up his face. “Can we… help you?”

“I’m looking for a friend,” I say. It’s borderline the truth. I clarify, “Their… head hurts.”

His eyes flash. His mouth opens a crack. Suddenly I hear footsteps—socks on wood—patting towards the door, and a woman appears, the same age, in a short green dress. She’s holding a pair of knitting needles in a fist by her side, and a half-made scarf in the other.

“Alex?” the man says.

I’m thinking, Alexander. Alexander the Not So Great.

I say, “Alex, yeah, that’s him. Alex.”

Their mouths close. The woman presses her lips together as she sighs through her nose and crosses her arms.

“Alexandra,” the man says.

I’m thinking, Alexandra the Not So Great.

I’m thinking, You idiot.

I’m thinking, These two are Alexandra’s parents, and they’ve just realized that I don’t know who the hell she is.

I stutter. “I-I-I—”

Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad.

“I saw a post. Online. From her. She was looking for ideas about her headache. I wanted to ask her a couple questions.”

I hold up my pen and notepad like they’re a bribe.

The air gets thicker. There’s this miasma choking my heart. There’s this heat stinging my eyes.

They keep staring. I’m realizing that no matter what they say, It’s not going to be good news. I wait for it.

The father says, “We haven’t seen her in three years.”


I wish I could say I’m looking for a way out now. I should be. It’s a dead-end. Nothing to see here. But instead I’m just recalculating. Because I’ve come a long freaking way. And hell, I did say that I’d interview the first person I saw, so, what the hell? Why not these two?

I tell them who I am. I tell them where I’m from.

I tell them I’m studying pain. And that I thought she would be an interesting case study.

“There’s a lot more to her than her pain,” the mother says. “Do you understand that?”

“Okay, I’m not just studying pain,” I say on the fly. "Also… what it does to someone. How it changes them.” I lower my paper and pen. I say, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”

Even though I do.

They look at each other. They shrug. And for some crazy reason, they say, Okay. Sure. They say they have some time.

So they walk me inside—ask me to please remove my shoes—and they take me to their living room. It’s got framed pictures all over the mantels and shelves and tables. Pictures of the two of them, a lot younger, with an ever-present little girl. She has short blonde hair and she’s never, ever smiling like they are, except for the pictures where she’s with her dog. The one who challenged me ten years into the future. The one who’s probably no longer around.

“What would you like to know?” Alex’s father asks.

“Everything,” I say. “But from the start.” I click my pen open.

“The start,” the man repeats. His eyebrows do a little hop. “I guess we should start with the crackhouse.”

My mouth is already dry. And The professor’s already thrown this in his fucking bin.

What the hell am I doing?

Could you… I don’t know, merge at the fucking speed of traffic? Cheers, pal. Now I have to cut someone off.

Wait, no. Sorry… I promised myself I wouldn’t do that anymore. I don’t know who you are, random car. Let’s just both get to where we’re going.

So, Professor. Let me tell you about Alex.

Like most of us, Alex comes into the world as a screaming child. Unlike most of us, she's five years old when she comes into this world, or rather, when the police find her in the basement of a crackhouse in Portland, screaming herself hoarse.

Somebody hears the screaming coming from inside, followed by a group of ragged, missing-teeth drug addicts spilling out of their beloved crackhouse and into the street, various clothing and pills and needles falling out of their hands and pockets as they go. And the wailing keeps going and going until the police arrive and storm inside, and that’s where they find her. The girl who would later be named Alex.

She’s standing in place, wearing a dress a size too small and probably stolen from the thrift store. Her eyes and fists are clenching, her head is thrown back and her mouth is gaping. A woman, it has to be her mother, is sprawled out on the floor, the remnants of foam still seeping out from the corners of her mouth. A rubber tourniquet is still wrapped around her elbow.

The police want to help. Really, they do. But Alex’s moaning is freezing their feet to the floor. It doesn’t sound like a young girl. It’s too deep. It wavers between different tones at random, like that of an animal who can only roar sadly. Then one officer—smart guy this one—realizes why she sounds like she does.

She’s deaf. Alex is deaf.

The officer stalks up to her and just hugs the poor thing. Funny, how easy it is to approach a problem when it’s not a mystery, right? And Alex just collapses into him and keeps screaming that deep, mournful scream until she falls asleep and they carry her away.

They take her to the station and try to find out who she is, but of course, there’s nothing. She’s unregistered. The mother herself is unregistered too. All they can see from her is that she has a sewing machine that she used to make dolls, and that doesn’t exactly narrow it down.

And this girl can’t speak, or communicate in any form. She’s an alien, as far as anybody is concerned. She might as well have been born right there in the crackhouse, next to her dying mother, at the age of five.

So she ends up in the care of these two. The ones I’m interviewing. They were really her only choice, the father being a well-off businessman, and the mother being a social worker for deaf children. And the two of them are smiling at me as they’re saying this. They say they never cared that she was quiet, hard to reach, hard to relate to at times. They say she’s the best thing that ever happened to her. I believe them.

I’m starting to wonder why they’re telling some random asshole all these things. Not wondering enough to ask, though.

It’s not an easy transition for young Alex. Going from a drug den to a two-story suburban house with two loving parents is tough, even if it’s a pretty sweet trade. In fact, these two are so loving, that a few years into the new arrangement they offer to get her one of those cochlear implants—one of those things that gets embedded in your skull, with a little outer part that loops around your ear. And together these two gadgets bypass all the mechanical nonsense in your ear and sends signals straight to your brain. And then the deaf can hear.

You know those videos, right? Where the deaf baby hears their mother’s voice for the first time? Well her parents want that for Alex.

But she refuses. She doesn’t let them. She says, or I guess she signs, that she’s alright the way she is. And she doesn’t much like the idea of doctors drilling around in her skull.

Fair enough.

The parents get kind of quiet now, back in the living room, like they want the story to end there. I kind of do too, but nobody’s getting fooled. I ask, “When did the headaches start?”

“Headache,” the mother corrects, practically slapping me with the word. “There was only one.”

I hold my hands up. “Okay, sure. Sorry. When did it start?”

They say she’s 12, maybe, when she first makes the sign. With both hands, a thumb and forefinger pointing towards each other, twisting a little, and pinching the space in front of her forehead. And you don’t need to know sign language to know what that means.

My head hurts.

So they give her aspirin. She keeps signing. A head massage. Keeps signing. There’s low pressure, they tell her. That causes headaches. So they wait for the storm to pass and for the pressure to go back up. It does, but she keeps on signing.

Eventually she stops. They ask her if she’s feeling better. She shrugs. They shrug. And then they go to work, drop her off at school, whatever. She’s stopped signing, but only because her arms are tired. They tell me they wish they had pressed her harder. Paid more attention.

A bit later, she’s 13. She’s been doing that headache sign for a few months now, off and on. Each time the aspirin, the massage, the waiting patiently for the storm to pass. Each time it doesn’t work. I mean, they tell me it does sometimes, because she’ll smile and she’ll nod. She’ll say, That’s better, with a big two thumbs up gesture. I’m thinking little Alex is a liar.

And I’m still wondering why they’re telling me all these things. Maybe it’s helping that I’m not writing anything down. I’m just listening, with my ears and mouth wide open. I decide to keep doing that.

The father continues.

Eventually, they hear a strange noise from upstairs. Like a struggle—like someone’s broken inside and she’s fighting them off tooth and nail. They run upstairs and they find her in her room, silently roaring. She’s on the floor, pounding her head so hard she must have been seeing lights. She only stops to pinch and twist the space in front of her forehead with her thumbs and her forefingers.

My head hurts.

“I mean, what are you supposed to do?” Alex’s mother asks me. Pleads with me. “What are you even supposed to do?” She puts her head in the space between her thumb and her forefinger. She looks away.

“What about… the hospital?” I suggest.

“Yeah,” the father says. “We’re getting to that.”

It was right away, they say. Right after the incident in the bedroom, they get in the car, both of them, and they go to the hospital as a family. They demand the best doctor, and they get him. Real diagnostic genius, this guy. He gets right down to Alex’s level and as he’s doing the standard checks he’s asking her to describe it for him, as her parents translate.

Dull? Okay. Sharp? That too? Okay. Where? Everywhere? Hmmm. Troubling.

So he draws blood. It’s the best blood he’s ever tested, he says. He schedules her for an EEG, whatever that is, and again, she passes with flying colors. And he’s saying these things to her with a big smile on his face. So far, no issues. So far, everything is fine. Her mood, her parents are telling me, is only getting worse.

So he books her for an MRI. He even offers to run the test himself since the parents are starting to like him. He says if anything is going wrong in there, he’ll find it. He promises. Alex asks if he can then take whatever he finds in there out. He pats her on the head and tells her, Let’s run the test first. Her parents remember the icy glare she gave him after he says that. They don’t even have to translate for her.

When they first go into the room with the MRI, the giant metal tunnel that cuts you up into slices and shows the doctors every piece of you, Alex gets uneasy quick. More clingy than normal. But they go in. She lies down. She stares up at the giant metal ring that she’s just been told is gonna get really, really loud. She shuts her eyes.

The doctor slides her inside, gets her parents to tell her to lie perfectly still, and then all three of them go into the other room, and the doctor turns on the machine.

And for the first time since her mother died and she came into this world, she starts to scream. She screams like nothing else. She clutches her head and finds blood.

Everybody present learns a lot of things that day.

Turns out the crackhouse woman wasn’t Alex’s birth mother. They did look nothing alike, her adoptive parents tell me. But the real giveaway is that a drug-addicted outcast in a crackhouse basement could never afford a cochlear implant.

Turns out she has the inner part already. Had it when she was a baby at some point, and the surgical scar healed up so well that the cops, the parents, and the doctor all missed it. If she’d had the outer part, too, she could hear. If she’d had the outer part, they wouldn’t have stuck her in that machine.

Turns out that the ‘M’ part of the MRI knows exactly where her implant is.

Turns out it wants to bring it out to show everyone what it’s found.

It almost rips her ear off, and it tears her skin in several places. The doctor schedules her for emergency surgery and he takes it out himself, grafts on as much new skin as she needs, and does it all free of charge. He tells the parents that it must have been installed incorrectly and caused the headache. Case closed.

The parents scream.

They say, “Why wasn’t there a check for this?”

In my chair, I say, “Yeah, what the fuck? What the actual fuck?”

The doctor makes the mistake of saying there is something he could have done. That he could have done an X-Ray first but assumed it would be a waste of time. His best excuse is that they didn’t make it clear how, let’s say, underground, the first five years or so of her life were.

That excuse doesn’t go over well.

He apologizes. They sue. The parents, I mean, but with Alex’s unmitigated blessing. They sue the lab coat, the shirt, and the pants right off of him, and just like that, it’s goodbye Doctor Assumptions. The thing about malpractice insurance is that it gets so expensive after you use it that you wonder if you ever really had it in the first place.

There’s a long silence, back in the living room. They both look at me, hands clasped together. They want me to say something, or at least it sure looks that way.

And then it hits me. Why they’re telling me these things.

They want absolution. And they’re not picky where it comes from.

I find I don’t know what the hell to say. I find that’s becoming a theme in all this. I wait for them to stop looking at me. To stop thinking I can give them anything because I’m not exactly a smart person already and if they think I can…


Let me just take a breather for a few minutes.

It’s a beautiful night, Professor. Half-moon, just a few clouds, and a whole lot of dark blue. Good thing, too. Not sure my phone would hear me if it was raining.

I leave soon after this story. Because there isn’t much left to tell, and it ends with Alex leaving her parents at age nineteen.

She has to take a few months off school, first. Then finish it just that little bit after all friends.

‘Friends’ isn’t the right word, the parents tell me. The mother punches the table a little and says they abandoned her.

I ask, “Why?”

“Because she hasn’t stopped signing,” the father says. And then he does the motion in front of his own forehead.

Alex goes through high school, which is a great place to rebirth yourself, right? But she does no such thing. There’s no new friends. No old friends. No romance. No success, but no failure either. She just gets through it. And those are her parents words, not mine. She gets through it. That’s all her life is at this point, her mother says. Getting through it.

I want to say, What else is new?

Shortly after high school is when Alex leaves. But not before she withdraws and withdraws and withdraws. She spends days at a time in bed. She talks less about her headache with her parents, and they tell me they don’t know why.

I want to point out that they clearly have trouble relating to it. That her friends probably did too. That talking about it wasn’t really getting her anywhere.

But I don’t know for sure, so I stay quiet.

The next part of the story is something they don’t know but I do. At some point after high school, she takes her dog to Pilot Butte Scenic Viewpoint. She squeezes her home with her thumb and forefinger and takes a picture. She makes a silent cry on the internet.

But that’s not all she does. She also saves money as a waitress for a couple years and never buys anything for herself until the day she sits her parents down and tells them she’s leaving. She tells them, She’s found a job, a place to live, and a shitty old car to get her there. All at once. They don’t have a chance to tell her she’s not ready, because clearly she’s ready as hell.

She’s nice enough to give them an address. And they visit a few times, but they always have to be the one to ask if they can come, and over the years they ask her less and less and less, because it’s exhausting. They don’t get anything from these visits anymore.

They’re not saying this part, though. I am. I’m remembering your lectures, Professor. How you said people only visit each other—only build and maintain relationships—if they have something to gain from it. I remember hating that part of your lecture, but you’re dead-on right. You usually are. And when these two tell me they haven’t visited her in over three years now, I figure that’s because it must be as fun as visiting a puddle of water that lives an hour away.

And of course, it’s not like the puddle ever comes to visit them.

Because Alex never comes back to the house that she pinched with her thumb and her forefinger in a photograph all those years ago, not having any idea that she was gonna send some snotty upstart psychologist on a wild goose chase after her.

Not having any idea that he was gonna keep going.

I ask the parents for the address.

If you’re still reading this far, Professor, that’s fucking awesome. Really, you have no obligation. But if you’ve come this far then I have some good news. I think you might like this next part. And I’ll tell you why when we get there.

I’m at the new apartment by the time the sun goes down. And good thing too, because I wouldn’t have been brave enough to try and find it in the dark. You might say Alex returned to her roots after she left mom and dad, what with her new digs being a basement apartment in a complex that looks permanently water damaged, located in a place where you can hear sirens more often than you can’t.

I knock on the door, and this time, before it opens, I give myself time to think of what to say. I mean, I come up empty-handed, but I at least try.

Who opens the door is someone I’m not expecting. It’s not Alex, unless she got a sex change and grew a couple feet. Maybe got a couple tattoos. Took up smoking, shaved her head, and started a serious training program.

“I’m looking for Alex,” I blurt out right away. I’m thinking, If she’s not here, I want to know as fast as possible so I can leave.

The guy in the doorway take out his cigarette and tosses it in a jar by my feet.

“You a friend of hers?”

“Not really.” I suddenly have to swallow. “I only know her through her parents.”

“Oh, fuck,” he says back. He looks ashamed of me. “What did they tell you?”


“About their poor little deaf girl? With the chronic pain?”


“Well, it’s all bullshit. Sorry, kid, but you’ve been lied to. Just as she lied to them. Just as she lied to me.”

I should turn away and leave now, but I don’t. I ask, “What do you mean?”

He pulls out another cigarette. I don’t even know where he got it from. He says, “Come inside.”

I say, “Okay.”

I’m thinking, Why am I walking inside right now?

I’m thinking, This is where I die. In a dilapidated shit-heap with an angry thug.

I’m thinking, Hang on. This guy doesn’t seem like the absolution type.

Turns out this guy’s name is Derek. Turns out he knows Alex about as well as one person can know another. Turns out a car, a job, and an apartment weren’t the only things Alex got when her parents weren’t looking.

“Four years, we were together.” He shakes his head and takes another drag. “You know what it’s like being with someone like her?”

I say, “I don’t.”

“First, you feel kinda sorry for her. Deaf and in pain? Fuck, what a sell. What an interesting person. You think that maybe you can help her.”

I ask, “You do?”

“Yeah!” he yells. “You think, maybe you can help each other. He rubs his arm. There’s a big gash down the side of it, under the snake-skin tattoos. It’s the first time I notice it.

He continues, “But then, helping’s not enough. Suddenly you have to go easy on them all the time. Suddenly they need special treatment whenever it’s convenient for them.

Once again, I’m not writing. I’m kind of too scared to.

“And look, I get it. She had some rough going growing up. Her childhood that she can’t remember. The accident at the hospital. Being deaf. It sucks. But a person like that, they start to get addicted. And then when people no longer care about those things, she comes up with this headache. And you believe her, because, fuck, what reason do you have not to?”

He starts to count on his fingers:

“And when that becomes old news, she starts losing her memory. She stops focusing on anything. She stops taking responsibility for things. She loses her job. She wants you to bend over backwards for her.”

He keeps going like this for awhile. And Professor, this is the part that I think will make you proud. Because when I arrived at that door my heart fucking bled for this girl. After everything her parents told me, I mean, how can I not feel sorry? But then, this prick. This Derek guy.

He’s making some really good points.

I’m thinking, either I’m writing an essay about what pain does to a person, or I’m writing an essay about why someone would fake it. I’m thinking, I don’t care which is true.

I’m being impartial. I’m not being emotional. I’m just looking for answers.

Meanwhile, Derek’s voice is shaking a little, but he’s still venting:

“And then one day you go see a psychologist with her and they tell her it’s all in her head, and she just freaks. She jumps over the desk. She grabs them by the suit jacket and keeps signing and signing and fucking complaining.”

I’m thinking, This guy would be good at charades.

“Then she makes up some bullshit about not caring what the psych said. She just wants to move to Cannon Beach and settle down and never have kids and just wait until she dies in as easy of a life as she can have. Fuck, can you believe that? And when I tell her no, she just runs out. Doesn’t even take her phone. She just gets in her car and she’s out of your fucking life.”

There’s a long silence now. I think this is the first time he’s ever put this to words. I’m thinking, I’m getting great psychologist practice.

He breaks the silence. He says, “I learned sign language for this fucking girl.”

The silence comes back worse than before.

I break it this time. I say, “Cannon Beach?”

He says, “Yeah. Really small town on the coast. She said we should move there and build a house. I tell you, it’s all about running with her.”

“Cannon Beach.”

“There’s no way she went there, kid. She doesn’t have the follow-through for it.”

And I say, “Goodbye. Thanks for the chat.” Because I have to get back to my hotel and go to bed. And I have to rent a car and drive for four-and-a-half hours tomorrow.

And the drive is as awful as I expect. I’ve already told you that. But I’m still stuck with the feeling that this is going to be worth it. That I’m being neutral. I’m being impartial. I’m only here to study somebody’s pain, or somebody’s fake pain, or somebody’s imagined pain that still feels real even if it’s not. And I’m going to write an incredible essay in one day, start to finish, and I’m finally going to achieve something.

Sometimes I think I’m Superman. Which is weird, because I’ve never been Superman in my life.

I mean, deep down, I’m not expecting anything. I figure I’ll find nothing, but at the same time, I’ve already got enough material to work with if I stretch it enough. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a little more info in Cannon Beach.

The first place I go is the hospital. Call it a hunch. My legs feel like I’ve just run for four-and-a-half hours, and my back feels like it’s turned into concrete, but I make it there. To the hospital. Because where else is a girl in her condition gonna go?

I stop off at the front desk, and I say, “I’m looking for a girl who might have been through here. She had a headache?” And I’m thinking about her mother saying she’s more than her headache. But I gotta admit, it identifies her pretty well.

Because the nurse laughs. She says, “Yeah, she’s been through here.” She pages a doctor to come downstairs to see me.

...What's on the radio?


Fuck no.

It's me.

God, no. No Adele, please. Not now.

Fuck it. Almost there. Almost done. Final push, here we go.

The doctor greets me with a lot of warmth. A nice handshake, too. Not too firm, not too soft.

He takes me to his office. The whole time, he’s lecturing me about doctor-patient confidentiality. He’s telling me he can’t just talk about any of his patients, and he can’t even say who has and who hasn’t been in this hospital. He’s saying these things really loud.

Then we get there, and he sits me down, the two of us surrounded by a bunch of models of the brain—some that can be taken apart, some that aren’t supposed to be taken apart, but have been anyways. He shuts the door.

“But then,” he says, “Alex wasn’t my patient. Not in this hospital, anyways.” He folds his hands across his lap. “Sorry for the lecture, but… I don’t want to get accused of malpractice twice.”

My shoulders drop. “You?” I say.

Him. Obviously.

“I see I’m famous,” he laughs. “I don’t suppose it’s for a good reason.”

“The MRI.”

The doctor frowns. “Let’s not talk about that.”

I squint. “What else is there to talk about?”

Instead of answering me, he starts talking about something else.

There’s a reason the nurse knew the girl with the headache. My hunch was right; Alex’s first stop, after breaking up with poor Derek, is this very hospital in Cannon Beach. Right down to the same front counter and the exact same nurse, just about a year ago. She walks right up, waits for the inevitable, “Can I help you?” and then, in the deranged voice of a monster, she asks the nurse to go fuck herself.

Then her middle finger goes up. Then the other. She spreads them wide, and starts dancing around the lobby, saying, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck all of you.” Her voice is deep. Wavering. Like a monster trying to speak.

She gets all their attention. Then she moans, “Thanks for nothing,” as she departs.

And everyone’s feet are frozen to the floor, because of her voice. Except one doctor, smart guy this, who has it all figured out. This doctor finds her familiar, and pretty soon he’s sprinting to his office to grab his keys.

He follows her South, South, South. She runs red lights. She blares her horn. Even an ambulance has to stop for her to blaze through. The doctor, following the rules of the road, loses her pretty quick. But he doesn’t stop searching for that shitty green car, with the bumper hanging low on the back. And eventually, he finds it.

She’s driven out of town, all the way to the top of a cliff.

A cliff leading to the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Ocean two hundred feet below, littered with jagged rocks.

She finds her wailing, maybe for the last time since she came into this world. She’s leaning against the wheel well of her car. Something under the hood is on fire. He walks in front of her. Her eyes don’t move. He says a word, then remembers himself and pulls out a pen and paper. He writes:

Head still hurts?

She starts signing like crazy. Gesturing at the car. Then pinching with her fingers. Then her head. Pinching. The car.

He figures the car broke down right at the crucial moment.

He writes:

What have you tried?

She snatches the paper and the pen. He thinks she’s gonna throw it over the edge, but she just starts writing. Scribbling. Slashing at the paper. She lists and she lists and she lists.

Pain Management

She throws the list on the ground. He picks it up and reads it over carefully. He write something and hands it back to her. He has to tap her shoulder to get her attention.

How about an X-ray?

I’m not gonna cry. I don’t even know this girl. I’m not gonna cry.


Pain can come from anywhere. It can come from inside you, or from the outside.

Alex’s parents were in pain, because they couldn’t help their daughter no matter how hard they tried. The doctor was in pain, because he lost his career and had to start over somewhere else. Derek was in pain because he poured four years of his life into a relationship only to have it come to nothing.


Fucking Alex.

Fuck’s sake, Professor.

Alex was in pain because she had a piece of a sewing needle inside her brain.

The doctor tells me, “It showed up on the X-Ray like a candle flame.”

Here I am.

I tell him, “That’s wrong.” I say, “That’s bullshit. How was there no entry wound? How was she even alive? How did the MRI not kill her instantly?”

The doctor puts his hand on my shoulder. He’s smiling, like he’s reliving a pleasant memory. “If the needle was put there when she was a baby, her head would expand and grow around it. And my guess is it was nonmagnetic.”

“How the fuck?" I respond.

I want to hurl. I want to punch things. I want to drive all the way to her shitty boyfriend’s house and run him over.

So much for being impartial.

“Why didn’t she tell anyone? Why didn’t she call her parents? Her boyfriend?”

Why didn’t she get a spot on national television to tell Planet Earth to suck it?

“I hope that’s not what you’re going to do,” he says. He’s serious. Grave, even.

I ask, “Why the hell shouldn’t I?”

“Because if she wanted them to know, she would have told them herself.”

“But…! It wasn’t all in her head!”

His head drops. He comes around to my side, and he waits until he has my attention. Then he says:

“Why does the needle change anything?”

And all I can do is just rub my face in both hands and swear. And then a couple tears come and I’m sniffing. I tell him, “I’m sorry.” I throw in a, “Fuck.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Your reaction doesn’t hold a candle to hers.”

“Where is she now?” I ask.

“Not here. But I assume somewhere to get surgery. Maybe in a country where it would cost less.”

“You didn’t ask?”

“That’s none of my business.”

Words can be such a brick wall sometimes. I bend forwards and let my pen and notepad hit the floor. He gives me a second, but I need ten minutes. At first, it seems like it’s all been a waste of time.

But it starts coming together. I start to realize… I might have an essay. Or at least, as many words as one. And soon I’m driving back. Skip a few hours, and, I am… back at my hotel.

Oh my god, I just scrolled through it. Fuck, I’m sorry. About a lot of things.

I guess…

I don’t know.

I wish I could say that there was a hero in this essay, but there aren't any. Alex treated those around her like garbage. The doctor should have done the X-ray the first time he met her. Her parents could have tried a little harder, and Derek could have just given her the benefit of the doubt.

In the end.... I’m glad Alex found the source of her pain.

I guess the rest of us will just have to keep looking.
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#1 · 6
· · >>Miller Minus >>Paracompact >>Miller Minus
Full review may come later. I don't make any promises these days, but I really do want to dig into this story because I think it deserves it. Initial thoughts:

-this entry is excellent and the author has a lot to be proud of, especially with their character voicing and setup, some of the best I've ever seen in this competition.

-minor tonal / stylistic issues detract from but don't disengage the reader

-I have minor quibbles over some minutia of psychology here, and it seems apparent to me that this story was written by a layman

-some plot contrivances towards and the conclusion wrap too nicely for a story this stylistically grounded and messy, so much so that I would argue it's a major problem with the story as a whole.

-really mediocre set of ending lines that evokes a very maudlin sentimentality unbecoming of a story like this

-final couple hundred words is unfortunately dedicated to holding the reader's hand and explaining what the story was about as if the reader is an idiot

All in all, I think this was a very impressive entry in both style and content gimped by poor handling of its conclusion. I don't want to come across as overly negative, because I honestly believe this was one of the strongest entries I've read in the history of this competition. That being said, I don't expect it to be much of a crowd-pleaser, and no doubt this story's resolution will sour a good number of people on this entry.
#2 · 2
· · >>Cassius >>Miller Minus
Excellent voice work. A good journey, lots of twists and turns. There's lots to like here.

This story weirdly feels both too long and also like we didn't really dig deeply enough into any of these characters. We rush right by Derek and the doctor. If you want this to be a short story, I think you'd have to make major cuts to have room to really zero in on and flesh out the other scenes. I could also see this piece being a candidate for a lot of expansion.

The one thing I'm really iffy on is the frame. It's creative. It's different. But it also feels a little childish, while also limiting what you can do with the story. I love the journey, the need to write an undergrad essay is pretty trivial. A journey this intriguing deserves an equally intriguing call to adventure. Any college student is going to write dozens of essays. Maybe something a little more unique and specific to this character?
#3 ·
· · >>Paracompact >>Cassius
Funny, I thought when I checked the" Guessing" page that I would see Chuck Palahniuk as an option. He must be using an alias.

At least, I think that's what you were going for here. Either way, the voice works superbly, and as an added bonus, it's nice to see this narrative style being applied to someone who isn't an – admittedly endearing – complete psychopath.

But putting all of that aside, I have to talk to you about the message in this story, because I don't know what it is. I have several guesses, but that's really way too many. Is it about mental health? Is it about giving the benefit of the doubt? Is it about sucking it up and moving on with your life no matter what? Is it about excising shitty people from your life?

I was thinking halfway through my reading that, based on the title, the story would be more about relating the different types of pains to each other and bringing up concrete examples of ways that it screwed up all of their lives. Or maybe examples of how all these different pains are causing the same outcome. But not a lot of that happens. The journey itself is thrilling and the narration is great, but it's not really landing for me what you were going for. But then, there's a good chance that's just me.

There's a thin line between presenting multiple interwoven ideas for the reader to consider, and simply presenting disconnected ideas at random and wishing them the best of luck. It kind of felt, in this story, that the author upturned a box of puzzle pieces onto the floor and sprinted out of the room, not informing me that some of those pieces don't even belong to this puzzle. I need at least the edge pieces and a few colour groups, you know? I can figure out the rest from there.

This plays into what >>Cassius pointed out about the ending being problematic, and especially that third last paragraph with the heroes and the lack thereof. What is that there for? You'll notice some of those messages I listed above are straight from that paragraph. It's like having stew with a bunch of ingredients that individually taste great but all clash and undermine with each other. And having that stew upturned over my head.

Okay, I promise no more metaphors.

If you ask me, the strongest message is in the doctor's last piece of dialogue. I like that it can be interpreted as a reminder of what all the doubting did to her, while also being a commentary on the stigma of mental health. After all, why does there have] to be something physically wrong?

Anyways, that's all from me. At the end of the day, the structure of the story works perfectly well, and there's only a few minor things here and there that could be changed for cosmetic upgrades (maybe the MRI was busy and the EEG whatever that is wasn't?) All that needs changing is lasering the focus onto what you're trying to say. Luckily, the narrator you've chosen would make patching that up a cinch.

Good luck in the contest!
#4 · 2
· · >>Cassius >>Miller Minus
This was really a phenomenal read. I've yet to get to all (or even half) the entries, but I find it quite hard to imagine another entry will displace this from the very top of my ballot. In other words, it's certainly a Top 3 for me.

Others have given this some rather thorough analysis so far, and I might come back to post a more detailed response of my own. But for now, I'll just voice my disagreement with a repeated critique lodged against the ending, namely that it was too sentimental.

>>Miller Minus

final couple hundred words is unfortunately dedicated to holding the reader's hand and explaining what the story was about as if the reader is an idiot

It reads to me like perfectly fine ending "filler." Really, the story ended with the brilliant line: “Why does the needle change anything?” But it's not like the author could've actually ended it there, given the frame. What follows, including this "borderline sentimentalist" paragraph:

I wish I could say that there was a hero in this essay, but there aren't any. Alex treated those around her like garbage. The doctor should have done the X-ray the first time he met her. Her parents could have tried a little harder, and Derek could have just given her the benefit of the doubt.

sounds like it's perfectly in-character for our sentimentalist MC, who is after all recording this extemporaneously on a voice-to-text (admittedly, the eloquence of the MC's supposed stream-of-consciousness while driving of all things does stress my suspension of disbelief, but that's creative license for you), and is a necessary sort of denouement for an email to a professor. At the same time, it at least offers a little post mortem discussion of the moral of the story, albeit slightly cheesy.
#5 · 5
· · >>Miller Minus
Okay, I came back, cue applause. This is a bit of difficult piece to workshop simply because of how the ending really in my opinion really overshadows most other critiques I would have about the story in terms of priority, but I don't want to simply harp on the ending for the entire duration of the review. So let's jump into a series of more minor complaints before getting into "the main issue."

Probably the most minor of minor complaints is that the Professor in the story has no name. I highly suspect, given that the story is exactly the word limit, that the Professor did in fact have name and removed to fit within the word count. The fact that the professor doesn't have a name is not only damaging in the fact that it removes some color and sense of identity from the professor being dictated to, but also undermines the informal voicing of the narrator. It comes across as overly formal for our narrator.

The opening could use some work in regards to the hook. It's serviceable and gets the exposition necessary to understand the scene off in short order, but it's rather dry and lacking flavor. I don't mean to imply that you need to pad down the scene with pointless details or random thoughts that don't contribute anything to the overall narrative, but it could certainly help to tinker with the structure of the scene and really try to get the most character out of what is essentially four to five paragraphs of explanation of the premise.

There are many instances in this story where there the suspension of disbelief is strained. The strain is caused by two main factors: plausibility (i.e. realism) and contrivance (the artificiality of the story-telling medium). The former is the less important, but more frequent than the latter, whereas the latter is a critical issue, especially approaching the ending. But we'll get into the ending later, so for now let's talk about plausibility.

When I say plausibility, what I mean to say is that the events depicted describe a situation that likely wouldn't occur in the manner presented. It's the feeling of "this probably wouldn't happen as described, or if it could, it would happen for reasons other than the reasons presented by the author." The difficulty of writing in the real-world, as opposed to fantasy land, is that real world situations often have a lot of intricacies and specifics that require either personal experience or a lot of research to properly convey true-to-life.

For example, it's pretty apparent that you've never been a psychology student, or if you have, you've only taken a few introductory courses twenty years ago. Luckily for you, the mistakes you make are mostly undetectable to someone who isn't familiar with psychology as a field, and in general, pretty minor. Conversely, it is unfortunate for you that I hold a degree in Psychology. A lot of the situations that happen in this story can reasonably be played off as being part of the narrator's ignorance, or the fact they're a bad student, but then you have lines like such:

Anyways, I start researching right away. I wish I could say I go to the library, but I just fire up Google instead because it’s 2018 for fuck’s sake. One day you old fogeys will come around.

Everything we do is digital. If you're trying to do any research, the vast majority, I mean 99.9% of all your citations will be from scientific journals found in online databases that the University leases. In fact, many of my professors advised not going to the library for research. It is much easier to seek out current peer-reviewed scientific journals by using a database than rooting through a likely outdated and limited set of publications that may or may not contain the information you're looking for.

But maybe this is a shitty university and they don't have access to PsycINFO or PubMed or any of those places for the students. Maybe the narrator is just incredibly ill-informed and doesn't know that when writing any sort of psychology paper, you're going to have to have a ton of citations from peer-reviewed journals, and that you need to do research. But it doesn't really stand to reason why the professor wouldn't use a database. It makes even less sense for them to use a library.

The professor's assignment must have really poorly defined guideline for the narrator to think even from the beginning that this sort of approach would be accepted, or the narrator is just really, really dumb. I could reasonably buy that the narrator's intrigue about the situation got the better of him, but he seems to think he could somehow work this excursion into an actual, usable paper. I mean, psychology isn't an English class where you can just write a colorful anecdote about a personal experience related to a prompt. The narrator calls this a "case study."

This isn't a case study and even it if was an undergraduate can't ethically conduct an actual case study.

Moving on, it's really, really unlikely that the same doctor would be running all of these tests and overseeing them personally, and is especially unlikely that he, in addition to being some sort of neurology wunderkind that runs all his owns tests, he also is an expert surgeon capable of performing on-the-spot skin grafts. Even Doctor Strange wouldn't do all this shit himself.

Speaking of which, the MRI probably wouldn't rip the cochlear implant out, but it'd very likely cause some damage. This isn't a huge complaint because you're basically taking dramatic license here, but I figure I'd point it out anyways.

Also it's pretty unlikely he'd order an EEG. Also you don't "pass" an EEG.

They sue the lab coat, the shirt, and the pants right off of him, and just like that, it’s goodbye Doctor Assumptions. The thing about malpractice insurance is that it gets so expensive after you use it that you wonder if you ever really had it in the first place.

Really, really, really unlikely. Given his status as "best doctor" in an immensely specialized field he's probably at minimum pulling in 200 grand a year, probably closer to 300 grand. If he's also a surgeon on top of that he's likely making at least half a million. But even if we were to throw the issue of salary completely out the window, the amount of punitive damages that Alexandra would receive on a successful malpractice suit probably wouldn't even crack over $500,000. In the world of lawsuits, some pain and suffering plus some scarring isn't really all that much, and I can't imagine it'd be enough of a payout on his insurance to raise his premium so high to run him out of business.

Really, the easier explanation was that the hospital fired him. Which, they probably do, considering he's at a different hospital, but the reader doesn't know that for certain.

There's also a problem of him supposedly being "the best doctor in the field" and making a very serious and obvious oversight in not ordering an X-Ray. There's really no plausible reason why he would think an X-Ray, specifically a CT scan, was a waste of time, especially because an MRI isn't designed to look for possible injury or malformations in the skull itself. So there's really a conflicting characterization of the doctor as the result of this oversight: is he really a good doctor, or is he incompetent?

Signs point to the latter.

But I digress. I could yammer on and pick apart every little bit of minutia, but these details are less important to the understanding the overall story. Remember that I wanted to talk about contrivances?

The issue of there actually being a physical problem with Alexandra doesn't comport with the presentation of the story, and in fact, the story itself highlights how this is an issue early on: Why didn't Alexandra's parents get an x-ray? Or even better, why didn't they get another MRI? Either way, the question of the problem was completely unanswered, and the parents never gave any sort of adequate reason why they simply didn't try again with a different doctor.

The entire ending is predicated on these massive leaps in logic that honestly left me a bit dismayed while reading. She just so happens to run into the doctor who recognizes her after a nearly a decade and decides to go on an action-adventure chase after her and she tries to run her car off a cliff to kill herself, but she won't just jump? The story went a little bit off the rails at that point, and I think the story is actually improved substantially by having a different doctor realize she should have the x-ray instead of relying on a very odd set of contrivances to get them both back in the same place.

Of course, our main character is able to find said doctor just on a vague presumption that she may have been to a hospital to tell the doctors to go fuck themselves, which in that of itself is very suspicious. The entire story the main character has had a rationale that has been explained to the reader in detail about how he was able to track down Alexandra, and in the last stretch of the story he basically just says, "Well I thought it was a good idea to go there because I had a feeling about it."

Again, just to be a smartass, I'd like to point out here that when she provides the list, she puts down "MRI" which indicates to me that she may have gotten a second MRI after the first one. If that's the case, that MRI would have detected it, because despite being non-magnetic, its effects on the brain would be perfectly viewable, and the needle itself would likely have interfered with the imaging.

The story wraps up far too quickly and isn't paced well, so there's not enough room to answer all these middling questions or really give a more plausible explanation for how all these fantastical, Charles Dickens-esque coincidences happened to pile-up in the last act.

And I'm not even halfway through my gripes. What you're (presumably) going for is tonal disaster. In one hand, you're saying, "well all of this terrible shit happened because nobody cared enough to do the right thing and Alex was kind of a bitch" and on the other you're waxing poetic about us finding the source of our pain. These two sentiments do not gel together! In fact, the last line, which is a rant in that of itself, doesn't fit the entire story.

So I'm going to respond and comment on what >>Paracompact said in regards to his opinion on the ending and offer my own perspective.

is a necessary sort of denouement for an email to a professor.

This kind of thinking is what I believe lent the ending to being bungled. It's not necessarily wrong on paper, and I even go as far to would say it's a generally good idea for stories structured like this to adopt this more analytical and tidy approach to a conclusion. Main character says the story itself is an essay, it's likely he should end in his conclusion. But this sort of clean, orderly narrative structure runs right up against the messy, disorganized, and slapdash style the plot and narrator adopt. The down-to-earth realism imbued by the narrative voice is undercut by the hollow artificiality of his summation and flowery sentimentality felt in the final few lines.

So there is, I would argue, a real sense here that the author needed to break form for the ending, keep things disparate and away from an easily described thesis, because ostensibly that's the sentiment the entire story is trying to impart or at the very least, not be so glaringly direct. I wouldn't expect the end of Fight Club to be:

"At the end of the day, we were all just guys just looking to feel alive. I hope one day I feel alive."

namely that it was too sentimental.

albeit slightly cheesy

That is the crux of the issue. This isn't a cheesy story, in any way shape or form. My point of critique isn't that it is too sentimental, it's that it's ham-fistedly so. The area you quoted is not huge issue in that regard, although I think it's guilty of hand-holding the reader a little bit too much, it's the two lines that follow, which in my opinion are absolutely awful.

Really, the story ended with the brilliant line: “Why does the needle change anything?” But it's not like the author could've actually ended it there, given the frame.

Nah man I toats disagree bro the author isn't like beholden to the man brah he can end the story whenever he feels like and isn't like constrained by artificiality of story structure if it's in line with the overall theme of the story broseph. The only thing that prevented him from ending on that line is that he didn't create a resolution that supported ending on that line, not because he couldn't.

I'm going to bring up a positive now. I'm sure the author will be pleased after like 1800+ words of ball-busting I've decided to pay him some sort of compliment.

>>Miller Minus

If you ask me, the strongest message is in the doctor's last piece of dialogue.


The story's best message is related to that, but best exemplified by "the puddle metaphor." It's something that's felt throughout the entire story, but only put in front of the reader's face once: the idea of suffering is something that begets pain and isolation. You said earlier that you had difficulty deciding what the main underpinning of the story was, and for me, "the puddle metaphor" is best answer I have.

To be more specific, I believe the story is an exploration of the social nuances that prevent people from getting help and prevent people from giving it. People come in with the best intentions to help someone they care about, but often they can't relate, lack the resources, or simply the wherewithal to help someone, and a person in need can often be abrasive, distant, or difficult to deal with. A person with depression can often be withdrawn, aggravated, and prone to lashing out; the sort of personality traits that people often actively try to avoid and stigmatize. Same with Alex. Really, the entire story could be broadly applicable to anyone who suffers from some sort of chronic condition, physical or mental.

The important reverse that is missing from the "there are no heroes" sentiment here is that there also are no villains. Everyone tried to help in their own way, but they failed, not because they were bad people, but simply because they lacked the persistence to keep trying in the face of an unconquerable adversity, and Alex herself didn't do herself any favors, as she is both the victim and victimizer.

That's a mature and nuanced theme, delivered compellingly with elements of mystery added in. How fun!

Anyways, expansion is a good idea as >>CantStopWontStop mentioned. I suggest cutting or repositioning the Adele cutaway; it doesn't fit in tone with the surrounding scenes and undercuts the mood. I assume it was meant to be a a comic reprieve from the drama, but the current length of the structure doesn't support that quick series of mood-swings.

Really, I'd like to sing more of this story's praises, but I've already typed so much up and this review might as well be its own entry at this rate, plus people liked this story a good deal, so I think the author doesn't need much more of a self-esteem boost from me. Thanks for writing.
#6 · 1
· · >>Miller Minus
Oh my god, this... fuck, I want more.

Also, curious how the needle would have gotten there.
#7 · 2
· · >>Miller Minus
Some line based commentary with a summary included there. Please keep in mind that most of my commentary is done in the moment and may, at times, be a bit cheeky or irreverent. Read at your own risk. Might add some more stuff tomorrow when i'm not half asleep.


EDIT: Derp. Comments should now be viewable. Just reopen it.
#8 · 4
So it turned out it was me.


I'm writing this approximately 13 hours from the big reveal and I'm going to paste this in before I've even looked at the results because I could be anywhere in the finals ranking, and it's not going to change how I feel about this, so here we go.

The night before the fic submission closed, and I had run out of time to try and patch this up any further, a little voice appeared in my head that said, "Don't do this." It said, "Don't you fucking do this. You know this is a bad idea."

There were three reasons for this. Yes, number one, I had a pretty good feeling that the plot wasn't going to hold up under scrutiny. And that parts were rushed and/or shallow. And that once again I had bumped into the word ceiling without finishing the story. But these things tend to happen when you abandon your idea at hour 10, and then come back to it in hour 40 because you maybe found a framing device that's just serviceable enough and maybe a voice that can be used to really sprint through the story and get it in there on time.

I knew I was in for trouble when, not a day into the contest, a good friend of mine who always reads my work (praise her), sent me a message that we needed to talk. We needed to talk about that ending. Her question was simple: Why?

And I already knew what paragraph she was upset about. And I didn't honestly know why, yet.

I'll get to that.

The next thing I know, Cassius is telling people on the discord that he's really digging this The Pain Network story that he's reading, and I just… It was excruciating, watching it play out. I had no way to warn him. It was like watching a train careening towards the flat face of a mountain. Except the train was going to be fine—the mountain was going to be totalled. And after the dust cleared the train was going to have some notes for me.

My number two reason for thinking this was a bad idea is that this story is really, really personal. Big reveal, here we go: The story about the chronic headache was written by the guy with a chronic headache. What can I say? I've spent five years with this thing, it might as well do something useful and be a fucking muse.

I'm not going deep into this. But I will point out that there's very little of my situation that mirror's Alex's … adventure, let's call it. Her situation is far, far worse than mine. And the reason for that is the reason for a lot of things that went wrong: I spent too much mental effort trying to remove my own situation from the story as I wrote it. All I wanted was to break this story down into something that said how I felt about what I've been through without it coming off as whiny, or self-indulgent, or self-serving, or a cry for help. Because I didn't want it to be. I just had something to say.

And I refused to let myself submit this anonymously because then I'd probably go way too far into the whiny deep-end without having any consequences.

Consequences being, having to write this retrospective. The third reason I was telling myself this was a bad idea.

I'll mention two problems with the story that my poor frame of mind explains rather easily: That inadvisable paragraph where I guided the reader right into the message I wanted (for obvious reasons), and the lopsided stakes between the narrator and Alex herself. That second one is an easy fix, really. Give the narrator the same problem. Make that forum post resonate so well that he drops everything to try and find out if her answer is the same as his. Make him dictate, not to a professor, but to his parents, or something sentimental like that. And then all that psychology bullshit is gone and the stakes are suddenly perfectly level. Easy, right? If only it didn't involve more work to rip myself out of the story.

I've learned my lesson here. Next time (if there is a next time) I'm going all in, come what may. I'd rather people think I was a whiner than someone who kneecaps his own story over and over again for no discernible reason.

Oh, I haven't even gotten to my fake review yet! What fun. Zero thumbs up, huh? That's probably fair.

See, after I had my phone call with my friend, and >>Cassius left his first comment, I thought, What do people think I'm trying to say here? That's what I wanted to know more than anything else. My apologies for being a teensy bit manipulative here, but my review was only partly the usual red herring—the rest of it was a strategy to encourage people to put their interpretations into their reviews, by playing the fool who had no idea what the hell I was trying to say in order to get someone to respond with their hot take. I don't really have anything to say except that I wasn't expecting to hook the biggest fish of them all:

I believe the story is an exploration of the social nuances that prevent people from getting help and prevent people from giving it. People come in with the best intentions to help someone they care about, but often they can't relate, lack the resources, or simply the wherewithal to help someone, and a person in need can often be abrasive, distant, or difficult to deal with.

I knew I had put that in there somewhere (everywhere). Thanks, >>Cassius. I don't suppose you can let me out of jail now?

That's really all the big stuff I have to say about this story. I'm happy to have submitted, in the end. It was a good exercise. And weirdly therapeutic? So that's an added bonus.

Thanks to everyone for dissecting and pulling apart every contrivance you found. There's nothing I saw that I really have any response for other than, "Yeah, you're probably right." I'll save all of this in a folder somewhere and maybe pick it up again in a few years to see if I can't turn this into what I really wanted it to be from the beginning.

Thanks again, and congratulations to our medallists and our finalists.

Some other notes:

-I was being insincere when I said “maybe” Chuck Palahniuk was the inspiration here. I had just read his novel Survivor, and I decided that his voicing style was so goddamned annoying and that I wanted to try and do it better. The schizophrenic, A-B-C-A-B-C-A-B-C, style made my face hurt because it pulled my attention in so many different directions at once. I wanted to see what it was like doing a similar thing without being so ADD about it. I think it worked well on the whole, if not for everyone.

-I saw Rao in the Discord ask why the cochlear implant parts were installed separately, but the outer part is just an earpiece, and would be easy for her to lose. Something I can defend! YES!

->>CantStopWontStop, if I do pick this up it certainly won’t be getting any shorter. Thanks!

->>AndrewRogue, thanks for your line-by-line, and especially the summary at the end. But I will point out that that typo you caught near the beginning happened when you pasted the story to Google Docs, so there.

-What the fuck was I even thinking with the Adele gag. Possibly the most boneheaded move of the whole story.

-Thanks a lot to >>Paracompact for the defense there. It's nice to know that someone can enjoy what I've written, and that, in theory, none of their enjoyment would be hampered by fixing what others had qualms with. It's a nice feeling.

->>AllegedlySombraHimself, thanks for reading and welcome to the writeoff!

-This pic2fic round was a lot of fun and I can't wait to do it again. Hap's piece was particularly inspiring, and the other pieces I tagged helped me work it all out too.
#9 · 4
Wow. That's just the icing on the cake. Thanks so much for reading everyone.