"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)
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.
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.
"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.
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.
By Kristin Goodman