"This was harder than I expected. A LOT of incredible writers and stories. I truly enjoyed every one of them," writes fiction contest judge Trent Zelazny.

Choosing them was hard, he says, but in a good way.

Zelazny spent more than a week with the entries to SFR's annual Writing Contest before selecting the winners. They're just what you might never expect from twisted timelines: three tales with wrinkles and dark spots. Third-place winner Kristin Goodman's bio features success with comedy, but her version of a future with implanted tracers that monitor hormone fluctuation goes in the other direction in "The Sheol"; a story with a familiar pulse comes from Jill Cooper in the second-place choice of "The River Time"; and winner David Howard delights and mystifies with the favorite "Goober."

Zelazny spends most of his full-time work in Santa Fe with editing and writing projects, including one that is so top secret right now he can't explain who it's with or what is—but it's big. He's published crime, horror and fantasy fiction, and also works part-time at the George RR Martin's new Beastly Books next to the Jean Cocteau Theater. (He's also the child of the influential and local late sci-fi author Roger Zelazny, whose list of published novels is super long.)

SFR's staff asked writers to riff on the theme "the darkest timeline" this year. The days are approaching their darkest part of the year. But that's the not the only reason. We're also keenly aware that the trajectory we're on—as a society, a nation, a species, even—must be influenced by forces and angles that remain hidden.

Miss last week's paper? Read the winners of the nonfiction contest.
(Julie Ann Grimm)

Anson Stevens-Bollen

FIRST PLACE

Goober

By David Howard

Goober has always been pretty stealthy. Not just cat-stealthy, but weird, disappear and reappear stealthy. We'd see him in the den and then he'd walk out of the living room, at the opposite end of the house. The only path between them is the kitchen where we're sitting. We'd laugh it off, thinking he'd sneaked past and we just didn't notice. "I guess he jumped into another dimension and came out in the living room."

Sometimes he'd stare at the wall or the floor. Living in the country, we have a lot of bugs so we thought he'd found something interesting. Occasionally, I'd get up close and try to see what he saw. With the other cats it's obvious; a moth to munch or one of the boxelder bugs that invade the house in waves. Goober is different. If he saw a daddy long-legs, he'd swat and play with it but the stare is just a stare. Not even the chittering sound he makes when he watches the birds outside – just staring. We joked about this too. "Ha ha, he's looking at the little girl that takes care of him on the other side."

It became a thing, to make jokes about our teleporting cat, whenever he did something uncanny. "Where'd you go Goob? Do they have good treats? Did you get… tuna [or cheese or egg or whatever treat I was about to dole out]?" He'd do his strange little quack-meow, "wah" and orbit my legs in tighter and tighter circles until I gave him his treat.

We spoil the cats. We had to reel it in a bit because the other two started to get fat. Not Goober. He eats and eats and eats and stays skinny. He doesn't seem unhealthy but lithe and slinky, like one of the feral cats that haunt the neighborhood.

We worried a little about his weight and took him to the vet. And back to the vet. For urine tests. For stool tests. For blood tests. For more blood tests. Several hundred dollars and every bit of diagnostic machinery available to modern veterinary science later, the vet thinks he's older than his records show. Other than that, nothing. Except a lecture about letting Goober roam outside. I could tell the vet didn't believe me but we don't. Ever. Goober gets leaner and more muscular and never leaves the house.

At least not in any conventional way.

We'd just finished dinner and the cats were still milling around the kitchen hoping for snacks. Goober sat down, stared, and touched the floor. Not pawing at it but tentative, just touching, like when he plays with a loose strand of hair. He pulled his paw back and the next time he touched it his paw went into the floor.

"Goober!"

He turned and went to his food like nothing had happened. I walked over and touched the floor. Solid.

"Did you see that?" I asked my wife.

"See what?"

"Nothing. I think I had too much wine."

Not long after that episode I retired from my day job and started working from home. Goober's "travels" got stranger. Maybe it was always that way but now I'm around to see it.

I was sitting on the living room couch with a laptop and Goober went behind a chair. He appeared at a full gallop coming into the living room. When Goober runs fast, he sounds just like a horse. He has to accelerate up to it though and he didn't. He was just there, barrump-barrump, at full speed. He came to a sliding halt at the edge of the rug and did a quick look around. "Did anyone see me being undignified?" Immediately, he stuck his leg in the air and started grooming. His coat was full of dirt. I grabbed a brush from the bookshelf and started cleaning him up.

"Where were you buddy? That's some gnarly stuff in your hair. You are getting a little gray around the muzzle. Maybe the vet's right about your age."

Our cats are indoor cats. Except for a loose screen Goober exploited a couple of times soon after we moved in, they've never been beyond the sun porch. The dirt worried me so I checked the house from end to end to find out how he was getting out. Nothing. Nothing cat-sized any way. I got the house sealed up better but I never discovered an escape route.

The next time, I definitely saw it. I think. Goober was doing his thousand-yard stare by the cat tree in the den. I watched from the doorway because well, cats are weird and I'm easily amused. He stood up, walked forward, and disappeared. Maybe I watch too much science fiction, but I remember being surprised that there wasn't a warp-speed flash or a ripple or something. He just went from there to not there like he'd walked behind a mirror. I staggered to the kitchen and poured some vodka from the bottle in the freezer. I took a sip and then knocked it back. I sat there, staring at my phone wondering how to, or if I should, tell the wife. He's her baby. They've been together a long time – since before we moved in together. Way longer than we've been married. Would she even believe me? Am I nuts? Did I really just see that?

"Goober? Where are ya Goob-man?"

He strolled into the kitchen from the living room making his "I'm starving" quack and went face down in the kibble bowl.

This time he had dirt and some kind of burrs stuck to his fur. I'd just seen him in the den, literally a minute before, and he was spotless. Even if it was just a matter of him knowing a way out, he didn't have time to escape, run around and get dirty, and come back in. Thinking back, he'd have to have at least two ways in and out since he kept appearing at opposite ends of the house.

He finished his snack and jumped into my lap. I started petting him and picking burrs out of his fur. It's almost irrelevant at this point, but the burrs look like nothing I'd ever seen before. Not just in our yard, but ever. He had a nasty scratch on his head. Not fresh – more like a mostly-healed relic from a cat fight a week ago. He was on my lap this morning while I read the paper and the scratch wasn't there.

I am, was, a scientist. I'm not religious or superstitious. I pride myself on being able to figure things out or at least suspend judgement until I know enough to figure things out. Maybe Goober knows ways out of the house I haven't found. But I was thorough checking the house. Maybe he has a condition that ages him more rapidly than normal. But the vet didn't find anything unusual other than unexplained wear and tear. Maybe I am insane, had a stroke, or have some other reason for hallucinating. But I function as well as I ever did in every other aspect of life and my wife has seen it too, to a lesser extent.

The rational explanations don't fit the observed facts. Maybe-but, maybe-but, maybe-but, it's enough to drive me insane if I'm not already.

The questions go on and on: Is it just him or is the portal (for want of a better word) "open" and only he can see it? Do others (the other cats?) see it but don't go for whatever reason? Could I hold his tail and follow him? If I let go part way, would it cut off my arm? What if he came back without me? Does he even go to the same place every time or is it portal lottery?

Given enough time, I think I can structure experiments to answer some of them safely.

If I take it as a given that I'm not insane or hallucinating, there are a few things I know for sure although some of them raise new questions: Goober can go some place. I don't know if "some place" is some where, some when, another dimension, or something else entirely. The mechanism to move (move is even open to debate) from here and now to some place is unknown. Time, relative to our time frame, is accelerated in this other place. He ages and may have gotten in a fight but the actual "traveling" doesn't seem to hurt him. Dirt and burrs come back with him.

That's the part that really scares me. Things come back with him.

Grew up in Santa Fe. Live in La Mesilla. Retired from LANL in 2019. Discovered a love of film photography late in life.

Anson Stevens-Bollen

SECOND PLACE

The River

By Jill Cooper

It was the River Time, if you believed the Legend or, if you didn't, the River Thyme, for the herbs that grew along its banks. What was remarkable about the River, if one noticed, was that it always flowed at the same rate, unaffected by seasons, snow melt, fires or drought. It makes its way through the Town in its deep narrow canyon exactly as the moon makes its way around the earth in its elliptical orbit.

The Legend of River Time held that when someone inadvertently fell in, the River would not take him if it were not his time to die. But if it were his time, it would. Thus, the Legend embraces stories of dead old men lying peacefully at the bottom of the River and stories of healthy young boys clamoring out of the River.

***

On both sides of the river, the brush grew wild except for a small clearing on the south bank to make room for the tiny River Park bordering on Main Street where tourists came to visit the shops and restaurants. At the River Café on Main Street, a version of the Legend of River Time was printed on the back of the menu and the servers were encouraged to embellish the Legend for the diners.

And so it happened, one moonlit night, that Mr. and Mrs. Moxie from New York City were seated at Julio's table at the River Café. Mr. Moxie was a loud, angry, arrogant man of sixty-six, very rich and used to having his own way. Mrs. Moxie was half his age and something of a blonde bombshell. It was a loveless marriage and her role was apparently to make Mr. Moxie look good. Julio could tell that the Moxies had been fighting and the poor missus had been crying. Mr. Moxie ordered for both of them and after his first bottle of wine, demanded to know about this nonsense story on the back of the menu. Julio was prepared to oblige. After the second bottle, Mr. Moxie was eagerly taking in Julio's bogus tale of the temperamental redheaded chef who imagined his fallen cheese soufflé meant the end was near. He ran from the Café across Main Street through the Park to the edge of the canyon where he looked down at the River and saw an old gray man. He returned happily to his kitchen.

"They say," Julio continued, "that if you see a much older version of yourself in the River, you will live a long time."

"That so," scoffed the increasingly inebriated Mr. Moxie, who like many powerful men, was terrified of dying and eager for any sign of immortality.

"Go see for yourself," said Julio. "Go to the River Time."

"No, you don't," said Mrs. Moxie, who had been silent throughout the meal. It was the sad state of their marriage that he was more likely to do something if she objected to it. "It is dangerous and wet out there and you will slip in your new ostrich boots. Plus, you have had much too much to drink."

"I think I can handle it," snarled Mr. Moxie, who had spared no expense keeping himself fit. "You're going to be stuck with me for a long time. You'll see." He threw several hundred dollars on the table, grabbed his wife's arm and pulled her out the door to take a look in the River.

***

It was said that when the police recovered Mr. Moxie from the River, he looked much older than sixty-six. Even the coroner in the City—the body had to be sent away for a proper autopsy—found the dead man to have infirmities of old age which should have precluded his going to the River which was inconsistent with all the evidence of Mr. Moxie's excellent health the night he dined at the River Café.

As for what happened, Mrs. Moxie told the wholly credible story—there were no other witnesses—of how Mr. Moxie leaned over to see his image in the River and apparently slipped. Claiming to be afraid of heights, Mrs. Moxie had stayed back. When she heard her husband fall, she screamed for help. When he saw what happened, Julio blamed himself for making up the story that sent Mr. Moxie into to the River and quit on the spot.

It was also said that Mrs. Moxie was inconsolable, fainted and had to be carried back to the Hotel. When she emerged the next morning, she was no longer the blonde bombshell, but a sweet, simple, pale and unbearably tragic young widow. She had touched the Townspeople with her sorrow and they took her in. There was a great outpouring sympathy and communal grief. The Hotel forgave its bill and men and women she'd never met sent flowers and gifts with their condolences. The Hotel restaurant was crowded with diners hoping for a glimpse of the River Widow who was required to remain among them until the investigation was complete. The untimely demise of Mr. Moxie in his new ostrich boots was good for business. Little attention was paid to the coroner's report.

***

Señor Ríos lived alone in a small adobe cottage at the bend in the River where it turned down the mountain into the canyon. He was old but no one could say how old or indeed what his real name was or where he came from or how he knew everything or how he managed to get by-—nothing about him was known except that he was the Keeper of the Legend of River Time and would remain so until the River claimed him.

It was not surprising that Señor Ríos found nothing odd about the coroner's observations. It was clear to him that Mr. Moxie died before his time and that he must, therefore, have been killed, by his or another's hand. The River, never capricious, was not responsible.

Just days earlier, a small boy chasing his dog had fallen down the steepest part of the embankment and escaped unharmed. A "miracle" the local paper called it. At Sunday mass, the Father thanked the Lord for the "miracle" of delivering the boy—and his dog—back to the arms of his family. Señor Ríos rose from his pew to explain that it was the River, not a miracle. The River would not take the boy or the dog before their time.

"No es un milagro, he said. "Confía en el Río. No es la hora del nino o del perro." 

***

Marisol Smith, the town's prosecutor, was also in Church that morning. She was a serious, responsible young attorney who, on the one hand, respected the legal system, and on the other, believed the Legend of River Time. She had not been among those moved by the tragic widow. Nor had she ignored the findings in the coroner's report. After church, she waited for Señor Ríos.

"Excuse me, Señor," she said, "may I walk with you?"

"Sí," he said easily, as if he were often asked for his company, which he wasn't.

"You know of course about Mr. Moxie, the dead man taken out of the River."

Señor Ríos nodded. His pace was constant and Marisol fell into his rhythm as they walked down the River Road.

"And you know that Mr. Moxie appeared much older when he came out of the River than when he went in."

"Sí," Señor Ríos nodded.

"So," Marisol wanted to be very clear, "does the Legend of the River hold that Mr. Moxie died before his time? That the River didn't take his life. That someone else did."

Señor Ríos smiled. "Sí."

They had reached the turnoff for the Cottage and Marisol didn't think it appropriate to go further. Señor Ríos had confirmed what she thought was the truth. Now she had to figure out what to do with it.

***

At her office Monday morning, Marisol realized there was nothing she could do with it. She couldn't prove a murder charge against Mrs. Moxie based only on the evidence in the coroner's report and an explanation of that evidence by Señor Ríos. The Moxies' New York lawyers would make a mockery of her case, and more importantly, of Señor Ríos. They would grind him up in the machinery of the law and she couldn't let that happen. What was she to do?

The next Sunday after church she asked Señor Ríos if she might walk with him again. They went along quietly for a while, keeping the constant pace, until she cried out "It isn't fair!"

Señor Ríos was not startled. He understood her frustration even before she tried to explain.

"What can I do?" she wailed.

"Nada," Señor Ríos said.

"But it isn't right!"

"Lo siento. El Rio se encargara."

Marisol didn't understand what he said.

"Don't worry. The River will take care of it," he repeated in English and turned toward his cottage.

***

For her fiftieth birthday, Mrs. Moxie, now a rich, restless, dark-haired widow, returned to the Town, she told herself, to commemorate where her fortunes changed. She was not so perverse as to stay at the Hotel or eat at the River Café or indeed go anywhere near River. All she knew is that she had to come back and start again because, when she allowed herself to admit it, for all her good fortune, she was not happy.

Mrs. Moxie was accompanied by Oscar, a young, very pretty boy who made her feel good. At a bar far from Main Street, Mrs. Moxie and Oscar were drinking margaritas. Julio, the chatty bartender, suggested that, there being a full moon, they drive over to the Hot Springs on the other side of the Mountain.

"They say," Julio promised, "that if you make a wish at the Hot Springs under a full moon, it will come true."

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Moxie. She didn't want to go.

"Let's go," said Oscar, "it will be fun. And who knows what will come of it." He nudged her playfully. "You don't want to be a bore."

That was all Oscar had to say. Mrs. Moxie, like many rich widows with young lovers, was terrified of becoming a bore.

The road to the Hot Springs followed the River up and around the Mountain. Oscar was driving a spiffy convertible, lost in his fantasies of promises filled, when they crossed the narrow bridge over the River and didn't see the car crossing the other way. No one was hurt in the crash except Mrs. Moxie who was thrown from the car into the River where she drowned, strangely enough, in a few inches of water. Stranger still, when they pulled her out, she looked like she did when she was Mr. Moxie's blonde bombshell.

Cooper has enjoyed rewarding careers in education, mathematics, arts and the law. The Santa Fe resident who says she is "moved by the magic of the city" is turning her attention now to writing. She feels she is making some progress.

Anson Stevens-Bollen

THIRD PLACE

The Sheol

By Kristin Goodman

I release my breath and kick—hard. There is a slight uptick in my breath.

Stay calm, Anica. Level off. You can’t afford to make a mistake now.

The hum of the massive air purifier helps me stay focused in my Nous (my mind’s eye). In my peripheral I see my father. Hands clasped at his waist. His feet spread past his hips. His presence is massive in the dark expanse.

If I complete this sequence perfectly, I will be one step closer to earning my Iron Belt.

A rush of air alerts me that my competitor’s leg is swinging toward me. It’s a quick snap, as her foot barely skims my nose. Breathing in, I drop backward, swing my left leg up and plant it directly into my opponent’s femur. A loud pop echoes through the expanse, as she drops into the darkness and disappears.

I float in the inky black space, holding steady, keeping my heart rate even and calm. The battle is complete, but I must stay mindful of my adrenaline levels. Always. Even here.

I open my eyes.

Mac, my father, sits across from me on the floor. We are mirrors of one another, cross legged, hands cupped in our laps, breathing in sync. He’s a large man with thick eyebrows. His piercing green eyes are reminiscent of the forests I ran through in my childhood. It wasn’t that long ago, but it feels like we were living on a different planet. The only forest left is the manmade tropical grove we planted here. That’s what we’re told, anyway.

Atta girl, Mac says in a whisper. You are one meditation away.

I see a tiny tear well up in his eye. He is proud. I did good. The tear evaporates in the warm air, which is lucky. There are no highs or lows here. We must all keep our emotions steady, even in moments of fatherly pride.

Getting Mac’s approval is cool, but it’s more about survival than it is about pride. Becoming an Iron Belt in the mindful martial arts isn’t easy. But it may be the only way to stay a citizen in The Hive. Any rise in body temperature, any hormone fluctuation, could signal the tracers implanted in my thyroid and brain stem. The mindful martial arts help correct our emotions quickly if practiced.

All the citizens of The Hive have tracers. If you refused the implantation you were repurposed, which is the same punishment you receive if one of your tracers were to ever go off. So, you’re damned if you do, but you’re really damned, if you don’t.

There are two options for repurposing: be thrown to the Cannibals or be thrown into The Sheol. In case you’re wondering, I’d prefer the Cannibals. At least with flesh eating zombie like humans, there’s a one percent chance of escape. The Sheol, however, is an impenetrable and inescapable underground maze. Basically, it’s prison with no guards. They don’t need them. And if you are to somehow find your way out of the maze, which is a huge if, The Sheol would lead you directly out onto The Playa, aka Cannibal territory. I say, cut out the middleman and just get it over with. Being repurposed can be slow or fast. I prefer fast.

When I was seven, I watched Mac and Sol, my mother, martial art train with their bodies. That was before the revolt and before we had to relocate to The Hive. Watching them practice was like watching a ballet, from what I remember of ballet. Dancers moving through space, defying gravity and simultaneously using breath as a weapon and as a shield. No more of that.

Remember the tracers?

When the Triumvirate (our three bodies of government) took control and moved us into The Hive, every citizen was ordered to the medical center to be “traced”. The state media spin was that it was for our own good. What with the growing population in the fragile new ecosystem, the government began to create a fear campaign that we would run out of resources quickly, which would only start another citizens war. They were right, of course. Resources had become scarce and when I say scarce, I mean it: no oil, no clean water, no animals, no trees, nada. Whether the government created the shortage and chaos with their propaganda causing a run on our natural resources, or it was inevitable because of overpopulation and no regulation, it happened all the same. It was devasting and nobody wants to be left out or behind again. Those who were left behind, are out there now in The Playa. And while they may technically still be human, how they are living is not. It’s the stuff of horror movies. Back when humans paid to be scared.

Once every citizen of The Hive was traced—our hormones, our DNA, and our brains—they became government property. This property is monitored in The Cell. Only the Doge and the three leaders of the Triumvirate can enter and exit The Cell and the Workers in The Cell never leave. They live there. It’s very mysterious. All we’ve been told, is that it’s a complex monitoring system that tracks each citizen living in The Hive. It follows the created Hive parameters that we must all follow to remain citizens. These parameters are nearly impossible to follow: no violence, no rigor, no sex. Essentially, it doesn’t allow any citizen to experience a spike in their system that could lead to a revolt, overpopulation, or a crime of any kind.

The first few years in The Hive were challenging. Citizens weren’t used to behaving like robots and The Sheol nearly filled up the first three months. That kind of growth left the Triumvirate no choice but to rethink the purpose of The Sheol population. They needed to expand, so they chained many of the less intelligent repurposed and forced them into slave labor. They dug over five thousand more acres of tunnels for the growing population. By then, most of The Hive citizens acclimated to their new lifestyles, and they were happy to be where they were. Following the new rules, working a steady job, and spending your one day off lying on a green lawn of purslane and bittercress watching the fish orbit The Hive, seemed like a far better choice than living out one’s natural life in a dark, musty maze, and being just another link in a never-ending chain gang.

The state media stopped reporting on The Sheol expansion two years ago. I’m not sure if they stopped because the expansion stopped, or they realized it was stressful to hear about it. Every time they reported on it, the number of extractions increased considerably. Anxiety is not allowed in The Hive. I know that sounds unbelievable. How does a human avoid anxiety in a post-apocalyptic world? The answer is—we don’t. Which is why we practice mindful breathing and meditation.

I finished showering. Today we had hot water. That and the idea that I could finally earn my Iron Belt almost made me forget what today was.

My mother disappeared two years ago, today.

The report stated that she was murdered by a Worker who had gone rogue. But there was no video evidence of Extraction Machinery used on that day. Odd that the fine-tuned extraction team suddenly seemed messy and confused. There were rumors of a “glitch” or uncharged camera batteries. Nothing added up. The Worker’s name was never released, and no cause of death was determined. She was just reported to be dead, recylced.

I stepped into the skin dryer and pressed power. I’m accustomed to the up and down breeze of the vent now, whisking the water from my skin and pulling it back into the water plant system. When I was little it scared me to death. Every drop of water goes back to feed the fish and plants. Yes, every resource is micro-managed down to drops of water. If my ancestors had only started this practice in the nineteen seventies, perhaps we’d still have fish in the ocean and trees on the mountain tops. Hindsight.

The smell of grilled cheese wafts through our tiny cabin. We haven’t had real cheese in years. Then one afternoon my mom freaked out. She needed a grilled cheese and damn it she was going to figure out how to have one! She perfected vegan cheese. Or maybe I just can’t remember what dairy tastes like. But it’s good.

I watch Mac press the bread into the grill with his spatula. The cheese oozes out the sides. Sitting in the plastic chair, cold under my buttocks, I decide to ask.

It’s today, isn’t it?

He doesn’t look up. He keeps pressing. Willing it to be the perfect sandwich my mother used to love to make. Mac only makes grilled cheese on this day. For her. Last year, he stopped marking the day. He just made grilled cheese. I didn’t question his decision. Instead, it made me suspicious. Maybe he didn’t believe she was recycled, either.

Maybe he knew something, and he wasn’t sharing it with me.

Dad, do you think maybe she was repurposed and not recycled?

She was recycled, Anica. That’s what the report said. So, that’s what happened.

Being recycled means you died. Being repurposed means you committed a crime or chose to be a victim of a crime. In The Hive, if you are involved in a crime – either perpetrator or victim – you are at fault and you are sent to The Sheol to be repurposed.

Mac places the grilled cheese in front of me and begins to eat.

He had never lied to me before. Is this how it was going to be from now on? On the anniversary of my mother’s disappearance?

I push the food away.

I’m not hungry.

Mac looks up at me. His eyes widen. Now, I’ve done it. He leaps from his chair and jumps over my head. I duck and turn, just in time to see him land on a masked intruder wearing all black. He has the intruder on the ground in a choke hold.

No! Dad! Stop!

It was all so fast and efficient.

I hadn’t seen an extraction up close before. The red lights appearing from above our cabin and the Extraction Machinery dropping into the kitchen. The large arms grabbing Mac first; the intruder second. I feel my blood pressure go up, as my father disappears into the dark sky above me.

Breathe, Anica. Breathe.

The tracer in my neck sends a shock through my entire body. I fall to the ground. Darkness.

Kristin Goodman is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright recognized and honored at festivals including: The Austin Film Festival, Screencraft Film Fund, Screencraft Drama Screenplay, The Disney Fellowship, The Nashville Film Festival, and The New York Screenwriting Contest. She is the director of the national and regional touring live comedy show The Pump and Dump Show and directed Robert Shenkkan’s newest play Building The Wall at The Adobe Rose Theatre. She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and daughter.