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I Did My Best · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Hungry, Hungry Hippo
"Really?" On the windowsill behind me, Harmon clicks his beak, his matte-black feathers drinking in the Saturday morning sunlight and making him stand out against the blue sky above the Russels' house next door. "That's the title?"

I tap the laptop screen. "It fits the prompt." The image that's struck my fancy from the gallery shows a young hippo woman sketched out in what I guess is pencil, her oversized t-shirt flopping down from one shoulder, its hem flaring slightly at mid-thigh, the word 'Bop' emblazoned across the front. Musical notes scatter over the page above her, her eyes clenched shut, her jazz hands up and activated, and the piece is entitled Dance Like No One's Watching. "Look at her. She's eager, ambitious, full of life: hungry, one might even go so far as to say. So I plan to start typing and see what sort of story shapes up."

He cocks his head. "Can I kibitz?"

With a snort, I turn back to the computer. "Would you leave if I said no?"

A low rattling sound comes out of him—I asked him once how crows make that noise, and he said it was a trade secret. "You know me so well."

Crooking my fingers, I let them dance over the keys.

The music started quietly, simply, a little slowly: a banjo plucking six individual notes rising in a slightly warped major arpeggio, then another six modulated to a related chord, a third set, and then a fourth very similar to the second before repeating the first and running through the cycle again. A stand-up bass joined in, a sonorous thrum harmonizing with the first note of each banjo run, then a fiddle began to arch a waltzing melody over the bed the other two instruments were providing.

That was Helga's cue. Straightening her back, she balanced on the toes of her right foot—

"Oh, Steven." Miranda has scurried up into the desk to the left of my laptop, her voice always somehow both squeaky and sweet. "Helga Hippo?"

I give her a glance. "When you're a mouse named Miranda, you don't get to lodge that objection."

She sniffs. "Perhaps I shall instead offer the old proverb that writing about music is as nonsensical as dancing about architecture."

Harmon gives another throat rattle from the windowsill. "Hang on, Mousiekins. Maybe this Helga's about to launch into a grand plie inspired by her love of Moorish arches."

Whiskers bristling and ears folding, Miranda makes a performance out of not turning around. "I've never understood, Steven, why you allow these common thugs and murderers to inflict themselves upon you."

"Hey, now," Harmon says, his voice as rough as Miranda's is smooth. "Some of us are uncommon thugs and murderers, thank you very much."

Miranda sniffs again. I manage to make my laugh sound like a cough and get back to where I've left off.

—cocked her left leg so its heel touched her right knee, and swept her right arm over her head. She was a reed in the wind at this point in the song, swaying and stretching with the music, moving but tranquil, lively but gentle.

Then the guitar and mandolin came crashing in, all five instruments jolting out a unison riff that shattered the idyllic mood. Helga leaped upward with a shimmy, crashed both feet onto the floor, and let herself cut loose.

"Wow." It's more a rustling click than a word, so I know who's joined us without having to glance over, black antennae waving in my peripheral vision to the right of the laptop. "I don't know that song, do I?" Don asks, and even though he's a really nice guy, I still don't glance over because, well, cockroaches freak me out a little sometimes.

Not wanting to be impolite and ignore him, though, I flick the 'Alt' and 'Tab' keys to bring the iTunes window up over the top of my Word document. I have Tony Trishka's album A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas all loaded up, and I click on the last track, the music I've been trying to describe now beginning to buzz out of the laptop's match-head-sized speakers. "It's called 'The Navigator," I say.

"And yet?" Harmon holds up one wing. "He's writing about a hippo, not a gator."

"And yet?" Don's tapping a couple of his legs to the song's shuffling rhythm. "He's writing about how she moves, so it could very well be about her gait."

"Also?" Miranda combs a claw through the fluffy gray fur of her chest. "If she's a dancer, she could very well be wearing leggings, and those are often known as 'gaiters.'"

A mewling sort of sigh comes rises from the floor followed by the words, "I should've killed you all long ago." Two tabby-striped paws reach over the edge of the desk, and Bruja hauls herself up into the space between the rest of the room and my open laptop. "You, too, Steve, for putting up with these morons."

"Me?" After years of dealing with Bruja, I know her threats aren't serious. When she wants to attack, she doesn't talk: she just attacks. "All the wonderful stinky cat food I've given you over the years, and you're ready to kill me just because of a few house guests?"

"Guests?' Bruja's eyes narrow. "Pests, I think you mean."

Wings flap behind me, and a warm, dusty weight lands on my shoulder, talons digging into the red and gray flannel I'm wearing over my Twilight Sparkle t-shirt. "And yet?" Harmon asks. "Who's supposed to be on pest control around here?"

"Indeed." Miranda's sniff seems louder this time. "I've already spoken my piece about common thugs and murderers, but this creature? I simply cannot understand why Steven continues to subscribe to her services! Why, I'm a better mouser than she is!"

"Agreed." Bruja runs her tongue over a front paw. "After all, you've driven every other mouse out of the neighborhood with your incessant whining and chattering."

"Ooo!" Don's antennae wince back like a snail's feelers. "Anybody got popcorn? 'Cause it sounds like it's cat 'n' mouse time!"

"No." I close iTunes with a swish of my finger and a tap of my thumb, cutting the music off in the middle of the mandolin solo. This brings my Word document back up. "It's Helga Hippo time."

The quintet broke apart into five-part rhythmic harmonies on the next chorus, all the instruments going their own way but adding together into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts—

"Cliché," Harmon mutters.

I scowl, hold down the shift key, move the cursor back up to the middle of the line, and try again.

—all the instruments going their own way like the petals of a flower opening up—

"Better," Miranda says with a nod.

—and Helga tried to convey that feeling, to move like the sun was touching her, shaking her awake the same way she imagined the players were shaking their guitars and fiddles and all. Hands up, fingers spread, eyes closed to better channel everything from her ears to her body without having to worry any other signals interfering—

A quiet but rapid knocking at the door and a voice cut through the music. "Helga? Hello? Are you home, dear?"

And suddenly Helga wasn't a flower anymore, wasn't a reed, was just a hippo in a tent-sized t-shirt blasting some fiddle and banjo tune way too loud on her boom box.

"Ah." Don's scuttled up onto the laptop at this point, onto that little strip between the keyboard and the screen, his little cockroach head tilted back. "The complication."

"Sorry, Mrs. Pekingese!" Helga called, flailing a thick finger at the boom box till she managed to hit the 'pause' button. Trying not to stomp, she took the five steps across the bare wood floor to the front door, pulled it open, and aimed her best grin down at the little dog lady from next door. "I guess I got a little carried away."

"Oh, not at all." Mrs. Pekingese always had her tongue lolling out like she was smiling, and Helga had never heard a cross word from her. Passive-aggressive words, on the other hand... "It's just that Mr. Pekingese will be getting home from the bus station soon, and you know he enjoys a nice, quiet supper."

Helga put on a look of distress. "Yow! I didn't realize it was getting so late! I've gotta get ready for my shift!" And as much as she wanted to slam the door in that smug and snuggly face, she instead dredged up her good grin again. "Thanks, Mrs. Pekingese! I really need to pay more attention to the clock!"

"You're welcome, dear." Something came into Mrs. Pekingese's expression, then, something softer than scorn though it still stabbed into Helga like a mid-winter icicle snapped from the edge of a roof.

Pity. Mrs. Pekingese was feeling sorry for her.

Pretending she didn't see it, Helga kept her smile in place, closed the door with the gentlest possible click, and again refused to let herself stomp. She'd been acutely aware of the time, of course—her practice session wouldn't actually be over for another three minutes—but she might as well call it a wrap, take a shower, and get ready for work.

"Can—" Don is practically vibrating in place. "Can she work in a candy store?"

"Coffee shop," I say absently, getting ready to type an 'hr' tag and move on to the next scene.

Don turns to me, and while it's physically impossible for a cockroach to give anyone a big-puppy-dog-eyed look, he still does it. "Please?"

"You know..." Miranda has somehow managed to haul my glasses case over from the nightstand beside my bed while I was finishing the first scene and is now reclining against it. "A hippo working in a candy store is a lovely visual, Steven. I can see her wearing a large pink apron and one of those darling little paper hats."

The prompt image flashes through my head, but this time, the hippo woman is dressed as Miranda described her. Still, I trot out one of my standard excuses. "But I don't know anything about working in a candy store! I'd hafta do research online or something!"

Bruja snorts from where she's curled herself at the front of the desk. "You'd hafta do the same thing if she was a barista. You've never worked retail at all, remember?"

"And," Harmon croaks in my ear, "you don't drink coffee. How many Barstucks or whatever they're called have you ever even been into?"

"Two?" Rubbing my chin completely fails to jog my memory: I've never understood why people think it will. "Maybe three?" I wave a hand. "But fine. Candy. Sure. Whatever."

Don starts a happy little dance, and I finally type the 'hr' tag.

The chocolate called to her the instant she walked in the door, but Helga didn't listen. She loved, loved, loved everything for sale at Esprit Confectionaires, but, well, she'd had plenty of time after her shower to make herself a lovely caprese salad, slicing the mozzarella to paper thinness and the tomatoes not much thicker. She ate half of it at home, savoring the basil leaves, and brought the rest with her to tuck into the little refrigerator in the staff lounge behind the kitchen for her 6:30 break.

"I swear!" Susie noisily sucked the cherry from the fifth chocolate-covered cherry she'd scarfed down in just the hour since they'd donned their big pink aprons and little pink paper hats to take up their stations behind the counter. "I gain three pounds just walking in here every day!" The Siamese was thinner than Helga's forearm, and she shook her head with a sigh. "It must be so great not to have to worry about that!"

The smile she turned up to Helga didn't have an ounce of malice in it—

"No," Bruja says, peering over the top of the screen: she tells me that my stuff reads better upside-down than right-side up. "If this Susie's a Siamese, then she's a bitch."

Miranda sits up straighter against my glasses case. "Excuse me, but that would be engaging in blatant stereotyping."

"Also?" Don raises one spiky front leg. "Bitches are dogs, not cats."

Bruja's eyes narrow.

I blow out a breath. "No predation during story time, Bruja."

"Yes, of course," she more spits than says. "But a girl can dream, can't she?"

In the zone, I'm already continuing.

—so Helga felt a little bad about the urge to step on the feline's foot that surged through her. "It must be," she said, but then two sparrows, a couple to judge by the nudging and giggling going on, come in from the outer food court and started hemming and hawing about what to get for dessert.

A steady stream of customers kept Helga's thoughts focused on smiling and recommending and ringing up various chocolates and toffees and caramels until a half-hour till closing time when Godfrey came in with a bag of rolled-up posters slung over his back. "Evening, folks," the groundhog said—

Miranda's sigh seems to well up from the furthest tip of her tail. I just grin.

"Mall management's got another promotional push coming up." He pulled one of the posters out, unrolled it, peeled paper off the adhesive strips, and stuck it to the inside of the window.

"Ooo!" Susie clapped her hands. "Movie night again?"

"Better." Godfrey took a stack of flyers from the bag and set them on the counter.

Maybrook Mall Dance Contest it said in big curling letters.

"OK!" Don slaps all three of the legs on his left side against the laptop case. "Crisis point!"

I just type another 'hr' tag and keep going.

After locking up Esprit, Helga automatically walked through the darkening mall to the 24 Hour Fitness Center at the end of the West Wing even though she felt too weird to do her regular workout. Nervous but excited, a feeling she'd always felt should have a single word, something like—

Sharpness presses against the top of my head. "If you type 'nervousited,'" Harmon says, his crunchy voice ever crunchier than usual, "I will hammer my beak straight through your skull and feast on your horrible, horrible brain."

”Fine." I delete everything after 'excited' and start again.

—fearful but wired, she couldn't decide what she wanted to do. So she did what she always did: changed out of her work clothes and into the sweats she kept in her locker before heading into the large mammal section of the gym to pump and pedal and stretch and stomp.

Fortunately, at 9:30 on a Friday night, the place was mostly empty. Unfortunately, the part that wasn't empty had Eddie in it.

"Whoo!" he whooped as Helga finished up her torso twists, his trunk curling a single ten-pound barbell. "You have got it going on, Helga!"

She just gave him a tight little smile, the same tight little smile she'd been giving him since she'd first heard his trumpeting way back on the first day of kindergarten.

"I mean it!" He shook a stubby finger at her. "You've always had the smooth moves, girl!" His eyes widened under his wrinkled gray forehead. "Hey! Did you see the poster out in the lobby! You should totally enter that dance contest!"

A delicate little sigh wafts from my glasses case. "I do so enjoy a properly executed Cinderella story." Miranda looks up at me, her rodent eyes wavering. "They'll present her with a lovely silver and gold tiara when she wins, won't they, Steven?"

A puff of fish-scented breath hits my nose. "Yadda, yadda, yadda." Still peering over the top of the laptop screen, Bruja shakes her head. "Always the happy ending with you, isn't it?" Turning, she jumps down onto the bedroom carpet. "Excuse me, but I've gotta find me a baby sparrow to mangle." And she saunters out into the front room, her tail sticking straight up like a flagpole.

Don scuttles down from the computer's keyboard. "Guess I'd better activate the Small Animal Alert System, then." He turns back and gives me a gesture that I guess would be a 'thumbs up' if he actually had thumbs. "Just keep going, Steve, and it'll be great!" He disappears between the edge of the desk and the wall.

I stare at the screen, my fingers frozen, but soft feathers stroke the back of my head. "You heard the bug," Harmon mutters. "Keep going to wherever it's heading."

With a swallow, I force my hands back into motion.

Helga shivered inside, but she refused to let any of it reach her face. "Dance contest?" She shook her head. "Like that'd ever happen."

Eddie's ears flapped open like big featherless wings. "Helga?"

"I mean it." The phrases had taken up residence in her head long ago, so it was easy enough for Helga to push them out her mouth. "Who wants to look at this crashing around a stage?" She waved vaguely at herself. "Folks want to watch butterflies dancing or cats or mice or hummingbirds: graceful people like that."

"But..." Eddie blinked three or four times. "You'd be really good."

"I'd be a hippo." She smiled to take the sting out of the words; she hardly even noticed it herself anymore. "You can't argue with the audience, Eddie." Patting her face with her towel—it was sweat, of course, the dampness on her cheeks—she turned for the locker room. "Thanks for the compliment and all, but, I mean, let's be serious here."

"Steven?" The gray fur of Miranda's forehead looks more like storm clouds than anything. "This is just a standard complication, isn't it? Or are you planning something unpleasant?"

When Harmon rattles this time, it's got a sharper edge to it. "How 'bout you head on back to your hole, Mousiekins?"

Rising onto her hind legs, she draws herself up to her full four inches. "I shall most certainly not!" She reaches out her forepaws to touch my elbow where I've got it crooked at the edge of the desk. "Please, Steven! You can't allow brutal vulgarity to triumph!"

I swallow again and insert another 'hr' tag.

Still restless, Helga left the gym without showering, jogged a couple laps around the darkened mall, then drove home without turning the radio on. Stars shone dimly though the orange glow of the streetlights, and she cranked down the windows, let the sounds and scents of the city sliding into sleep wash over her.

Climbing the two flights to her apartment—she always felt so crowded in the elevator even when she was by herself—she unlocked her door, squeezed through, and wanted nothing more than to slap the 'pause' button on her player so she could dance, dance, dance the whole damn night away.

But instead, she carefully poked the machine's power off, showered, and settled herself carefully into her extra-long, extra-wide bed. Tomorrow, Mrs. Pekingese would be heading off to her twice-weekly luncheon and bridge party about eleven, so Helga could work on her routine for a good four hours before she had to head back to Esprit.

Dancing like no one was looking, after all, was a lot easier when no one actually was. Cuddling into her five pillows, then, she slipped quickly and dreamlessly into sleep.

"The end!" I announce, taking my fingers from the keys. I wait for Miranda's objection, but it doesn't come. My glasses case sits all by its lonesome there at my left elbow.

"She went home," Harmon says. "And the look she gave you before she left? Imagine a person who's heart has been broken but who then grabs up the shards so she can start stabbing bystanders with them."

"Ah." I'll apologize to her tomorrow. I always do.

Harmon hops from my shoulder to the top of my open laptop, leans over to look at the screen first with one eye, then cocks his head to look at it with the other. "And now?" he asks.

I reach over and tap the 'Alt' and 'F4' buttons. Do you want to save the changes you made to Document1? the screen asks me.

Another hop carries Harmon onto the keyboard, one talon scrabbling to poke the 'N' key. "Maybe you could actually submit this one this time?"

Shaking my head would be a mistake, I know, since it would spread to my whole body and rattle me clear out of my chair. "Write like no one's reading," I say instead. "No audience, no hassles, no comments, no stabbing."

"Huh." He looks up at me, his face as blank and expressionless as only a crow's can be. "I guess the hippo isn't that hungry after all."

"Ravenous." The word comes out so quietly, I'm not entirely sure I've actually said it. "But opening the mouth just has too many consequences."

He rattles deep in his throat, spreads his wings, and with a flap, sails past me out the window. I turn back to the laptop and press the power button till all the machine's lights go off.
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#1 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
I've read all of these at least twice, and I am only now coming back to comment on them, from top to bottom.

I say this partially so that you know that when I call this a top contender for me, that's not just my excitement at reading this first.

Metafiction is damn hard to pull off. All too often it comes off as trying that little bit too hard to be 'fun and quirky' and instead coming off as a little tired and nonsensical. But here, you wield it like a master. I didn't think you could have an emotional punch with metafic, yet here I am--very much corrected.

I was surprised by how unobtrusive I found the animal helper-esque characters (I suspect there was some deeper meaning to them beyond voicing the author's own self-criticism, but I didn't find it), as they act less as characters and more for vehicles of the plot. But given the way the story is written...

I dunno man, I'm no literary critic. This just works for me. Good job.
#2 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
So this is really well written.

I really doubt even a crow would fumble the name of Starbucks, though.

I am conflicted about the place this story ends. While there certainly is some value to the parallel anti-climaxes, at the same time, is rather dissastifying to a degree that I feel it does interfere a bit with the emotional payoff. And then, of course, you do have to somewhat odd meta-positioning of the fact that the story WAS actually submitted (insofar as you want to take the meta-ness to that level - which the fic does invite by being directly about the circumstances of the Writeoff) which works a bit against the emotional punch of the story.

I think like Bartown, this story is a bit hobbled by the fact that it buries its heart pretty deep and misleads you about the actual nature of its conflict until the moment it becomes relevant. This can make for a nice little gut punch at the right moment, but, at the same time, it interferes with actually building to that climax since you're saving its reveal for that moment, leaving the rest of the story feeling a bit... perfunctory? An enjoyable perfunctory as we journey through the process, but a little lean.

And of course, the other issue with this particular short, sharp punch is you are writing it to an audience of writers. While it makes the struggle relatable, it also makes the ultimate conclusion... frustrating? Which I think goes against the tone you are going for. Because while the struggle is indeed relatable, the ultimate thing about writing is that you just have to fucking do it and put it out there. And that sort of self-pitying ending really rubs the wrong way, especially without any real build up to it. Like, I am not necessarily left thinking "poor guy", I'm left thinking, "God, just fucking do it!" And that might be a bit unfair, but that's sort of the problem about writing about writing to writer's who are writing.

And again, none of this is to say you can't have a protag that fails. But it makes blindsiding(-ish) with the failure a bit more of an issue.

All that said, I'm still not fully sure I'm correct here. It's a relatable punch, like I said. And the writing on the way up is fun (though Harmon's last line about Miranda might be a bit much). There's some good stuff here. I do think it would gain a bit from being a bit meatier on the way through. But I'm of various minds about the ending.

Also, as a pantser, I feel misrepresented. There's not enough bashing of the head on the desk, screaming "WHAT THE FUCK COMES NEXT?" :p
#3 ·
I'll pretty much agree:

With >>Meridian_Prime and >>AndrewRogue as to the strengths and weaknesses here and suggest that more stuff should happen in the middle. Give the hippo story the full three act treatment--what we have right now is pretty much just the first act--and have the author and his assistants kicking each other around throughout the whole process. And put me down as wanting one story to end well while the other doesn't. Either the hippo enters the contest and the author doesn't, or vice versa.

#4 ·
This story is difficult to stab review. It's very well written, though, so I can start there. All your characters are well realized and make great companions for the reader, the idea is unique, and at no point was I confused as to what was going on. And there's a lot to be said about pulling that off in three days.

Well, okay. There was one point where I was confused. It's just an editing thing, I think, but Harmon appears to ask Steven if he'd like to submit this story right after he has replied 'N' to saving the document, thus deleting it forever. Is he meant to be hovering a talon over the key, asking one more time, and then pressing it?

Speaking of which, it seems weird to me that he deleted it. The character is shown as somebody who clearly likes writing a lot, so it just seems weird that he wouldn't want to go back and read anything. It would kind of be like Helga finishing her dance, pulling out her iPod, and deleting the song forever. It's more emotionally impactful, sure, but to me it doesn't hold water.

I agree with Andrew's diagnosis about the ending. I mentioned in the fic channel that you were cheating a little in the relatability front, writing about submitting to the writeoff for an audience of people who submit to the writeoff. But then I do think more care could have been taken to how we would react, especially considering that this story made it into the competition. I can't say I found the ending very satisfying, because in my opinion, you can accomplish a lot in life with the most magic of words: Fuck it.

But still, you wanted the unsatisfying ending, and you nailed it. So I can't fault you for it too much. In my opinion, though (which isn't the same as being my advice in this case), I think the story would have been a lot more satisfying having those two magic words show up in this story (preferably in both Steven's and Helga's journey). Again, that's not advice, just my preference. I would have preferred a story about overcoming your fears and/or finding a way to withstand the slings and arrows, that's all. C'mon, Steven. Say the words and they'll set you free.

In conclusion… top of slate. Thanks for submitting!
#5 · 1
Thanks, folks!

And congrats to our other medalists. I'm still conflicted about the ending on this one--I wanted to do this whole "fantasy vs. reality/happy ending vs. unhappy ending" thing, and I fell in love with the image of the story ending with the computer shutting off. But I think I'd rather have the animal folks browbeat Steven into submitting the story since that's what my brain has to do to me every single stupid time I finish a story...

Anyway, it still needs more stuff in the middle, too, so on to the 2nd draft!