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The Disparate Elements Flash Fiction Contest Results

Contestants were asked to use three objects - a bell, a spool of thread and a fountain pen - in a work of fiction of 500 words or less.

The winners receive a sense of accomplishment, the veneration of their peers, and a lifetime subscription to the elegant online literary magazine VerbSap, which, as you know, is absolutely free.

A hearty thanks to all of the many talented participants. Reading the entries was a pleasure and selecting the winners a challenge. Job well done.

First Place: Thieves, by David Howard

Second Place: Escape, by Anna McDougall

Third Place: Fish, by Tom Mahony

A special VerbSap Award For Cleverness to Jane Sutton for using For Whom The Bell Tolls as her "bell" element.

First Place: Thieves

By David Howard

The man squinted at the faded postcard of the woman.

"It’s Patricia Whalley," he said. "She was in Birth of a Nation, not a big role, of course, and some other silent movies as well. Not rare, but scarce. Seven dollars," he said, in a voice which told me he’d take less.

I didn’t care about the card - only about the old fountain pen in his shirt pocket. The shop owner, Oliver Northrup, had stolen the pen from my father at the Union Trust Bank, 20 years ago. It was a classic Parker Pen, given for 25 years of service. Northrup had opened an account, borrowed the pen to fill out the card, and taken it when he left. My father went to his store to ask for it back and the man denied having it.

A tinny bell sounded as the antique shop door opened and a woman dressed in a severely cut black pantsuit, with a black veil covering her face, came in. She nodded at the proprietor and went to a small table with a display of antique sewing implements.

"How much are these crocheting needles?" the woman, now hunched over the table, said in a loud voice.

"I’ll be with you in a second," the shopkeeper said. "I can let you have the postcard for $5." This to me, as he tried to gain a better view of the woman. I moved a bit to my left to look at the postcard in better light.

"I’ll take the postcard," I said, and that paperweight, too," pointing to one made of blue cut glass, underneath the countertop.

"It’s $75," he said, trying to keep an eye on the woman behind me.

"I’ll write you a check. Let me borrow your pen."

Northrup looked around the counter for another pen, then reached in for the paperweight. His head snapped up as the woman knocked a pile of sewing things off the table onto the floor.

"Miss," he said, "be careful, some of those are glass!"

As he moved from behind the counter toward the table, I reached over and took the pen from his shirt pocket.

"I’ll just write my check," I said as he tried to cover the pocket, but much too late.

The woman was on her hands and knees, trying to pick up a spool of thread and glass needle.

"Nothing’s broken," she said, looking under the table. Northrup knelt down, as the woman stood, saying, "I enjoyed looking, hope you do too," quickly lifting her suit jacket, revealing her bare breasts to the startled Northrup.

"I’ve changed my mind," I said, and quickly went out the door, hearing the man yell, "Wait!" with the woman right behind me.

As we turned the corner she waved her hand, showing three handcrafted antique thimbles on her fingers. I smiled, showing her my father’s fountain pen and said, "good job, not sure the flashing was needed, but thanks."

David Howard is a long-time newspaper writer and editor, currently freelancing. He has published some poetry and fiction in literary magazines. He received an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College in 2002.

Second Place: Escape

By Anna McDougall

The size of her hand lent itself effectively to the shape and weight of this pen as though she were the person for whom it was selected. Beth admired the elegant width variations created as she modified her hand pressure. Tom rarely used it. He carried the instrument to the office that first week, but within a month he slammed its case back on the desk in their bedroom. Beth knew he did not have the patience to make the transition from ballpoint to fountain pen. The latter requires very little pressure, so it can be difficult to adapt. Tom was not a delicate man.

It requires talent. Or practice. Either way, Beth used the pen to create beautiful script, with ease. There were few things she was good at, as Tom often pointed out, but this she did well. Beth spent many hours alone forming black letters as she did now, gliding across the paper with her husband's Cross fountain pen. With an oblique nib, thinner lines appeared on the upstrokes as she formed the light tails of letters at the end of a word...tired...peace...escape.

The pen had been a gift from Tom's sister at the time of his admittance to the bar. The Townsend model was platinum-coated so it would never tarnish or wear, and if it should, Cross boasts a lifetime guarantee. Beth had studied the pamphlet thoroughly. Most of the time, Tom didn't mind when Beth used his pen, if she sat only at this desk, and wrote letters to his mother or his sister. Of course, she had a secret stash of bonded paper on which she practiced her handwriting daily.

Setting the fine instrument on its side, she moved across the room and laid Tom's white dress shirt across her lap. Beth found the place where the button was missing; it popped off during his last fit of rage saved for her in private. The blood had come out in the wash and now she would reattach the button she found under their bed. Beth selected a spool of thread the color of pale hospital walls, passing over the white. He would notice the slight mismatch. She hoped others would too; that they would point it out to him.

When the shirt was repaired, she hung it in his closet and returned to the desk to review her letter. To him. To everyone. Beth lifted the beautiful silver pen and signed her name; slowly, perfectly. She then raised the pen and slammed it directly into the wood bending the nib permanently. Satisfied, she removed her slippers, and sat on the bed. Opening the bottle, Beth regarded the lethal collage of pills she gathered over the past month. The screwdriver she had mixed earlier burned her throat as she washed them down.

Head on the pillow, eyes closed, she thought she heard the bells on the front door announce Tom's arrival. This time she would not feel the first blow.

Anna McDougall writes fiction and creative nonfiction from her home in Calgary, Canada. Her work can be found at

Third Place: Fish

By Tom Mahony

Mark sat by the creek, staring at the water, listening to the fire crackle. His stomach growled. He’d been in the mountains for weeks, hiding from his life, and needed to eat. The food he brought had long since vanished. Catching a fish was his last hope.

He’d fashioned a crude fishing line from a fountain pen, a spool of thread, and a bell pilfered from an abandoned hunting camp. He bent and serrated the pen tip to form a hook, baited with worms plucked from the soil. Thread anchored the pen to a willow branch . The bell dangled on the line, allowing him to doze in the afternoon sunlight . When—if—the bell rang, he could hop up and spear the fish with a sharp stick before the line broke. So far, no luck, and he was famished.

If his fishing attempt failed, he might have to return home. Face the drunken fists of his father, the cowering ineptitude of his mother. Weeks ago, with the old man in full tirade, Mark loaded his pack and hiked into the mountains, vowing to stay forever. But to stay, he needed to eat. And to eat, he needed a fish. There was no other forage, save a few berries. The rabbits he pursued had grown elusive.

He studied the line. It sat motionless, the bell silent. C’mon, c’mon. He couldn’t go home. Not now, not ever. He felt comfortable here, safe. Up here, he had a dry cave and a warm sleeping bag. Up here, he wouldn’t wake to a midnight beating. Up here, he answered to nobody but himself. But he needed to eat. Dammit, he needed a fish.

The sun set over a ridge, draping the valley in shadow. Firelight flickered against the conifers. Mark eyed the creek in desperation. Suddenly, the bell rang, piercing the twilight. He grabbed his stick and ran to the line. A fish squirmed on his improvised hook. He speared it mercifully and returned to the fire, smiling. Safe for another day.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California. He studied fiction writing under Jim Dodge and has an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has appeared in Surfer Magazine and VerbSap.


Photo credits: Bell, Pam Roth; Thread, Christy Thompson; Pen, Maciek Muchon

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