Contest #234 winner 🏆

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Speculative Teens & Young Adult

What has four faces, eight arms, and can’t tell time? The clock tower at Union Station.

Four clocks on the tower and none of them run? I mean, what’re the odds?

I peer up at the time and shade my eyes. It’s 6:47 pm. Always is, always will be. And all anyone knows is that on a Monday the world was a loud, frantic place and Tuesday it wasn’t.

Tuesday? Really? The world should’ve ended on a Saturday. Saturdays are fun. Used to be anyway.

But no. We get eternal friggin Tuesday afternoon where nothing changes.

Ever.

Good news though— we’re not alone at the Station. A couple dozen unlucky stragglers were in Union Station with Dad and me when the Big Sleep— I call it The BS— stopped Time two-and-a-half years ago. There’s a couple of amateur scientists trapped with us here I call The Eggheads. Dad says to keep that name to myself.

Dad’s the only thing that keeps me from running headlong into the subway tunnels where you shouldn’t go. There’s monsters lurking down there. Or maybe something worse.

“You think we’ll get another volunteer?” Tired of looking at the clock tower I bug Dad instead. His eyes hide behind the smoky brown Ray-Bans he’s owned since he was eighteen. He considers my question like it’s a teachable moment. In another world he’s a sixth grade teacher. Here, he’s just Dad.

He rests his hand on the lifeless monster looming over us. The hulking Metrolink train is a rusting metal dinosaur guarding Track 6A. It can’t move, which is just fine. There’s nowhere to go. Dad frowns as he peers into a vacant train car.

“I expect so, kiddo,” he grunts.

His white Dallas Cowboys jersey is too big for his small frame. Makes him look like a refugee in some dingy dive bar. But I guess when your shopping mall is the Lost and Found at the End of the World, beggars can’t be choosers. Dad waves a hand at the train tracks and a light wind balloons his sleeve open. I can see how scrawny and wrinkled his arm is as he affectionately pats the side of the train.

“Thirty-six miles to Clarita. Plenty of fuel in her and she’s nothing more than a big paperweight,” Dad says. “Used to get almost three-miles-per gallon. Though your actual mileage may vary.”

He grins. The world might stop but adult humor doesn’t get funnier. It just gets cornier.

He pulls his hand away and absently wipes his palm on his worn jeans.

“How come we never have volunteers run the O.C. tracks?”

Dad turns away and looks at the never setting sun hanging in the clear sky.

“I want a volunteer to run the track to Santa Clarita Station. I used to know someone there.”

“If you had one.” It comes out harsh. More softly I add, “A volunteer.”

Dad laughs. A humorless sound.

“Getting harder to find those, kiddo. Who can blame them?”

“Maybe it’s our turn,” I blurt out. Dad flinches, yet we don’t get struck by lightning. “You and me, Dad. We could run the tracks together down to the beach. Have a Daddy/Daughter Day.”

“I’ll find a volunteer. Santa Clarita will pan out,” Dad says, ignoring me. “We’ll get answers there. Got a good feeling about this one. Just because Riverside and Santa Barbara got gobbled up by The Anomaly doesn’t mean Santa Clarita’s gone.”

The Anomaly. I hate it when he calls it that. The Eggheads are rubbing off on Dad. Not a good look on him. Dad taught science. Does it make him a physicist here in BS World?

He has his little experiments. Sort of like those space probes NASA sent off into the solar system. Only instead of satellites combing the Universe for cosmic stuff, Dad’s probes are refugee volunteers he sends to run the tracks, searching for signs of life on Earth beyond Union Station. People-probes who volunteer when they get sick enough of Forever Tuesday in a train station after the aliens obliterated the rest of the world. (That’s my theory. My competition says it was a nuclear error. Jeez, I hate the Eggheads.)

“Maybe we should have a reverse lottery,” I suggest. If Dad’s gonna ignore me, why not change tactics? “Loser runs the tracks to San Clemente.”

“That’s nice, kiddo.” He’s pretending to not listen. “There’s answers out there.” Dad stares at the sun that never moves, never rises or sets, in the blue, L.A. sky. “In Santa Clarita.” Heavy sigh.

Dad looks like he could use a beer right about now. If there any were left in the refrigerated cold cases in the food courtyard— long since looted— I’d happily skip down the tunnel and grab one for him. But there’s none left to drink. Long ago sucked down by us Union Station captives of The BS. Of course there’s always the greenish spew that sputters out of the water fountains.

I don’t understand Dad’s determination. So far, there’s been seven volunteers who ventured out beyond the station after The BS.

Two marched out the front entrance beneath the four frozen clocks in front of Union Station our second day here and disappeared down Alameda Street.

Five ran the tracks, one towards Glendale, the other towards Ventura, the rest to the east.

Not a single volunteer returned. No one came back describing what the Big Sleep did with the rest of the world. My opinion? The BS wants us to find nothing. It’s highly efficient at erasing things. Union Station is the only world left and that’s all.

“What about the Eggheads?” I ask. “They just sit around having science debates.”

It’s true. Like, ‘What’s the true age of the Big Bang?’

Or, ‘Where does all the antimatter in the Universe go?’

And, ‘If a neutron farts in a black hole and no astronauts are around to hear it, does it make a noise?’

That last one’s mine actually. Dad doesn’t think it’s funny, but I think it’s a hoot.

“We can’t force them to volunteer,” Dad says. “Contradicts the definition.”

I stare at the back of his neck. It’s tough leather broiled a deep shade of burnt umber. It somehow seems sad and makes him look vulnerable.

“I’m going down,” I say a little too loudly. “Downstairs.”

Dad starts, looks over at me, eyebrows raised over his sunglasses.

I shrug and add, “Girl stuff. Um. Unless you need me here?”

Dad shakes his head. “No, it’s all right, kiddo. You go on.” He chuckles. “I want to watch the sun not going down.”

I consider telling him. Telling him what I’m going to do. Instead I lie.

“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

“Take your time,” he says. “And kiddo?” He pauses without turning around. “I know you’re sick of this— this sorry excuse for a future.”

My eyes well up and I’m grateful he has his back to me.

“But I’m going to get you out of this place. I promise.”

I swallow a sob and shuffle down the ramp to the underground passenger transit hallway where I stop and look back. Dad’s staring after me and I feel a twinge of guilt in my guts. I flash a smile and wave. He nods, turns away, and I start walking.

I don’t expect to run into anyone. When I practically crash into the Egghead I nearly yelp.

“Sorry.” A thin, nasal voice squeaks out. There’s a flash of spiky, ginger-colored hair over a rail thin body; the sour odor of sweat in my nose. A pair of piercing blue eyes are too close to my face and I back up a step.

“No problem,” I mumble. I glare at him and his face crumbles. The Egghead turns and practically runs down the tunnel.

I watch to make sure he doesn’t stick around. I’m glad I do when he stops.

“Do you miss the people?” His voice bounces off the concrete walls of the tunnel.

“What?” I don’t have the patience for this so my voice comes out pinched.

“People. I miss people. My friends. Family. Don’t you miss the people? You know. Your friends from school? Your mom? We might end up living forever like this. Be nice to have the people we love here, don’t you think?”

I want to march over to him, reach out and grab him by his chicken neck, and shout in his face, ‘I do have someone I love here, dumbass!”

But I just roll my eyes and laugh.

“Who the hell wants to live forever?”

The Eggheag throws me a funny look. Then he shrugs, turns and pads off down the hall. When he’s just a dot at the end of the tunnel I breath a sigh of relief.

Don’t you miss the people?

What a stupid question.

Before I make the walk to the connecting ramp leading up to Track 10B, I stop and glance east towards the subway station near the old, busted up aquarium. The fish were scooped out and eaten in the first days of The BS.

Now, no one crunches over the broken glass to visit the dirty, moss covered mosaics there, or stare at the shattered remains of the aquarium. Nobody braves the Red/Purple Line across the way. It’s best to avoid the subway tunnels once connecting L.A. County like giant arteries snaking across the region. I shiver when the subway calls to me. Maybe the ghosts are warning me off my plan.

Move!

A loud voice in my head shouts at me and I bolt. Gray concrete walls flash past as I run. All thoughts of empty, haunted subways flicker and fade in my mad dash.

I skitter to a stop under a shiny, white clock bulging from a wall near the platform tunnel.

6:47 pm, it laughs down at me.

“Suck it!” I hiss at the frozen face.

Embarrassed, I glance around, but no one’s here. The tunnel is just one more ghost town and I’m the only ghost haunting it.

When I emerge on Platform 10B, Dad’s there. Waiting for me. I can’t say why, but I’m not surprised.

“You weren’t going to say goodbye, kiddo?” he whispers, his voice hoarse. 

I smile weakly and shrug.

“You were right.” This time he’s the one holding back tears. “It’s our turn. And by ‘our’ I mean your turn. I can’t go with you, kiddo.”

“I know.” I’m whispering. If I speak louder I might break in two.

I want to collapse into a pile of broken memories and forgotten smiles, but there’s a hissing sound in my ears and I wonder if it’s my will draining out of me.

Thankfully, Dad’s voice reaches me.

“I have something for you.” 

I watch him pull some folded up papers from his back pocket. One is a map of Los Angeles. I see the words ‘Orange County’ on another. He holds them out like he’s Prometheus offering Mankind a bundle of burning sticks.

“Thanks, Dad.” I shake my head. “Not sure why, but I don’t need them.”

I expect him to argue with me, but he doesn’t.

Neither of us seems to want to make a big deal out of saying goodbye. Just a quick, awkward hug and I pull away from the embrace. But Dad drags me back. Clings desperately to me. Shaking like he’s the child and I’m the parent; his breath hot on my neck when he whispers in my ear.

“Tell your mother I love her, kiddo.”

I can only nod and step back. This time, he lets me go.

I look over my shoulder only once. Dad’s already fading. A dark smudge on a murky platform. A lonely outline beneath a sun forever stuck on 6:47 PST.

Frozen skies. Abandoned cars on the freeways. Scarecrow trees dying from lack of rainwater. Uninhabited houses with empty windows. Vacant parks and abandoned schoolyards. Strange monuments from a dead, ancient world. This is the scenery as I run the tracks south.

Days pass. Maybe years. Or decades. I’m not hungry. Not thirsty or tired. I don’t take breaks to pee behind dead bushes or under leafless trees. I don’t stop to wonder why there’s no bodily functions to attend to. I just walk the tracks south. I’m a homing pigeon on autopilot. I know exactly where I’m going even if the journey’s on rinse and repeat.

Until it isn’t.

I can only describe the change as the world suddenly starting to melt in slow-motion. Solids turn to gel as everything dissolves into wet, golden, buttery blobs under a disintegrating sky. Everything but the train tracks.

The Big Sleep is wounded. It’s softening as everything is turning into butter.

I should be afraid. I want to feel afraid. But instead, reality dissolving is just one more irony. It gives me a sense of satisfaction. It’s a stab in the heart of The Big Sleep and I’m Dad’s knife. I may melt away but I’m taking monster with me.

Something down the tracks flashes. I squint and make out a green shape rising from the buttery gold fuzziness surrounding the rails.

I don’t want to see it. I want to fade away, let The BS make a permanent memory of me. But then the shape on the tracks solidifies.

It’s a car.

Twin headlight beams at the front end punch through the butter. Red lights are waxy, smoldering cherries at the rear.

Dad’s old 1972 Ford Galaxie 500 Station Wagon. And it’s here.

Somewhere.

Nowhere.

For a split second I’m thirteen again. I’m in the backseat drawing Totoro in my sketch pad. Mom’s back at home and Dad and I are on our annual Daddy/Daughter trip to San Clemente. The clock on the dashboard leers at me.

6:47!

I relive the horror as fierce, white-hot eyes smash through the side windows of Dad’s old clunker.

An elephantine horn trumpets at Dad, ‘Get off the tracks!” The shrill ding-dinging of the crossing sign, the last sound I remember.

Then total darkness follows; a slow, rhythmic hisses underneath it.

I feel pressure. Bone wrenching pressure pushes down on me from every direction. I scream silently and the hissing abruptly stops.

Curious, I stop screaming. Somehow the hissing’s absence leaves a hole in me.

“Why is that happening?”

A voice. A woman is speaking. Soft, gentle. Familiar. Full of grace. Filled up with tears.

“I— I don’t know.”

A second woman. Professional. Perplexed.

“I’ll call the doctor,” she says.

The voices grow louder, stronger. Right next to me.

“This isn’t right. The ventilator. I turned it—“

“What are you saying?” The familiar voice is frantic. She’s shouting.

Without warning, bells explode all around me. I moan as the pain rushes back.

“Do something!” The woman is beside herself. Wailing. “Help her!”

Mom?

There’s a rustle of fabric, then a sharp jab in my arm. The pressure lifts and I’m spirited away from the pain.

When I wake the second time, the hospital room is dark. Someone’s closed the shades; the lights are down.

Mom is slumped sideways in a chair next to my bed, knees drawn up under her arms, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. Her breathing is deep, exhausted. She looks like she hasn’t combed her hair in weeks.

She’s absolutely beautiful.

I raise my head, feel a wave of pain suggesting I reconsider. I settle back and watch Mom breath in the dark. 

With time to think, I wonder what day it is. I don’t wonder where Dad is.

I already know.

There’s a clock on the wall not far from the TV. Some animal show is on, though the sound is off. The clock smiles down from its perch.

1:26.

Afternoon? Morning? Either is fine. As long as it isn’t 6:47.

Through blurred eyes I find a whiteboard near the window, date printed in precise blue marker letters.

September 4th, 2018.

Exactly two-and-a-half years since my very last Daddy/Daughter trip to San Clemente.

“Casey?”

Mom’s voice is tired and slurred, but awake. She’s at my side leaning towards me, her chin on her hands; fingers curled under like a praying mantis, eyes bright, gray, and wide.

“Hi, Mom,” I croak.

“Oh, Casey!”

Mom reaches out and gently rests her fingers on my arm. She’s sobbing, repeating my name over and as a tiger silently chases an antelope on the TV.

There’s long months filled with smiles and tears and pain pills. Loads of therapy. It takes some time but I learn to walk again.

When I force Mom to take me to Rose Hills one late afternoon, we share teary eyed memories of Dad at his graveside. We don’t talk about the fact that I shouldn’t be alive, DNRs, or lights at the end of a tunnel.

We just lay in silence on a blanket in the cool, freshly mown grass amidst a maze of gray headstones. A wispy layer of smog hangs in the late afternoon sky; it lends it a reddish glow. Cars whoosh by on the freeway below, almost drowning out the chittering of birds. Voices of mourners nearby carry on the wind and I recall the silence of the Big Sleep.

“Do you remember it?” Mom asks. “The accident I mean.”

“Very little,” I whisper.

I want to tell her about Union Station. About everything that happened (or didn’t happen) there. How hard Dad worked to get me back home. But I don’t say anything about any of it.

Instead, I give her Dad’s message and Mom pretends I don’t sound crazy.

I glance down at the brand new smart watch Mom gave me for my sixteenth birthday last week, but it’s dead.

I must’ve forgotten to charge it.

January 25, 2024 19:01

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69 comments

David Pampu
19:47 Feb 02, 2024

Many thanks for all the support and wonderful comments. I'm blown away by this community! What a wonderful place for feedback and encouragement for writers. I so enjoy reading everyone's stories here!

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Marty B
17:12 Feb 02, 2024

Great characters, the Casey has a specific voice that doesnt take herself, or anyone else that serious. I also took this as a light, science fiction tale, but it is not. Time is character too in this, people stuck in time, the effects of time on how we see each other and the world. The reveal was great, and made sense. Congrats and welcome to reedsy!

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David Pampu
19:57 Feb 02, 2024

Oh, thank you for your feedback. Time is a character here like you said. A little science fiction for sure! It's my first love!

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Tommy Goround
22:45 Feb 02, 2024

Totally worked. Was worried the changeover to dream would lessen the BS world. Nope. It intensified. Clapping.

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David Pampu
18:25 Feb 17, 2024

I think I rewrote the transition several times. This was a huge learning experience for me. Thank you for your kind comments!

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Molly Kelash
23:53 Feb 02, 2024

What a lovely story! I fell in love with your characters and was moved by it. The world building and language were exquisite (maybe one too many uses of the word "butter" or a derivative, lol, but otherwise perfecto!) Definitely deserved the win!

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David Pampu
18:56 Feb 03, 2024

Ah, too much butter! Yep, I agree. I appreciate the feedback, too. It's good to see the warts from another perspective. Thank you for the insight. :)

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John Rutherford
21:08 Feb 02, 2024

Interesting story, puts time into another world.

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David Pampu
18:27 Feb 17, 2024

Thank you for the perspective! Time seemed to want its place in the story so I let it have its say.

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John Rutherford
18:54 Feb 17, 2024

But it is important part. It's the horror and restriction of the story. Your feedback is interesting.

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Aarini G
18:02 Feb 02, 2024

What gripped me most about your writing were your descriptions, particularly: "I can only describe the change as the world suddenly starting to melt in slow-motion. Solids turn to gel as everything dissolves into wet, golden, buttery blobs under a disintegrating sky. Everything but the train tracks. The Big Sleep is wounded. It’s softening as everything is turning into butter." and "Mom is slumped sideways in a chair next to my bed, knees drawn up under her arms, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. Her breathing is deep, exhausted. She lo...

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David Pampu
19:54 Feb 02, 2024

Thank you for the detailed feedback. I really appreciate you taking the time to point out what worked for you. It means a lot to me. :)

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22:25 Jan 31, 2024

Loved all the funny side comments/quips throughout this read. The unique naming conventions and new vocabulary - eggheads, BS - really helped build a sense of how long a stretch of time has passed. Also great use of dialogue to break up the exposition, gave the story a more lively pace and flow. And the ending, loved it! What a unique take on a place where time has stopped in what seems literal at first, but becomes figurative with the reveal. Great work, thanks for sharing!

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David Pampu
04:37 Feb 01, 2024

Thanks for reading it and your observations. Very kind of you to comment!

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Ronja Roßberg
18:42 Apr 22, 2024

Wow. Very well written. I felt connected with the world and the characters. The atmosphere and setting were described so well it gave me shivers. Your way of storytelling added just the right amount of humor to not make it too dark. Perfectly balanced, entertaining and a good idea behind it, too. I really liked it!!

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Odile Glatz
12:38 Apr 01, 2024

you have talent, I couldn't wait to read on from the very beginning

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David Pampu
19:01 Apr 01, 2024

Thank you, Odile. I appreciate that so much!

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Mariana Aguirre
06:34 Mar 05, 2024

I love it

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David Pampu
17:38 Mar 05, 2024

Thank you!

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Mariana Aguirre
22:32 Mar 05, 2024

Ofc!😁

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Sidrah Nadeem
02:10 Mar 04, 2024

Oh this was so so good!! The plot twist at the end HAD me I almost cried about the Dad :( I loved vibing with Casey's personality and the concept of the Eggheads. This is amazing!

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David Pampu
02:27 Mar 04, 2024

Thank you Sidra. I cried openly, too. I think this story was cathartic for me in some ways. A conversation between myself and my own father who left way too soon.

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God Complex
17:02 Feb 28, 2024

This was absolutely gorgeous. There's something about the style or harmony of the paragraphs that really stuck with me. I must admit, though the protagonist isn't my favorite, but nevertheless good, the setting and the plot were truly amazing. Great job. This made my day.

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David Pampu
18:40 Feb 28, 2024

Thank you for the feedback! I’m glad the setting and plot struck a nerve with you. The setting (in time and space) ended up being characters alongside Casey. Your comments are very much appreciated!

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Kay Y.
21:42 Feb 26, 2024

This is honestly such a beautiful narrative, I really enjoyed your writing from the beginning, the playfulness of of it all despite the calamity really drew me in and brought your characters to life, showcasing their personalities. Also I did not see where it was going at all!! Such a good twist and I can honestly say it kept me interested from beginning to end. I think you had a perfect balance of light and heavy emotions that really kept me hooked. And the end made my eyes want to water. I really hope you have more works to share in the fu...

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David Pampu
21:19 Feb 29, 2024

That’s so kind of you! I never knew how rewarding writing could be. I like the advice that says write stories that you enjoy. I did that with this one not knowing how others would feel. If it stirred your emotions then I think I did what I set out to do. Thank you for your kind words and feedback. :)

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Nandini Shukla
09:44 Feb 25, 2024

"When I emerge on Platform 10B, Dad’s there. Waiting for me. I can’t say why, but I’m not surprised." Particularly loved this moment, it reflects the father-daughter relationship so well! The imagery was fantastic and felt oddly real. Beautifully written, congratulations on the win! Well-deserved :)

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David Pampu
18:44 Feb 25, 2024

Thank you! I spent many years at that station myself in the 90s. Though I live far from it now, and I'm sure a lot has changed, it's still a place I remember well. I'm glad you liked the father-daughter dynamic. It was based on personal experience also.

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Nandini Shukla
15:00 Mar 12, 2024

wow, wonderful! 🙌

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Karen Mobilia
19:28 Feb 22, 2024

At first, I thought it was going to be some kind of zombie apocalypse story. Loved the twist at the end. Very touching. It brought water to my eyes,

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Samaira S.
10:06 Feb 17, 2024

For a good while at the beginning, I had no idea what was going on, but as I read more, the story just kept getting more and more evocative and heartbreaking. Definitely cried when she woke up. Such a gd story and congratulations on the win!

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David Pampu
18:14 Feb 17, 2024

Oh, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I cried too.

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Charles Corkery
02:48 Feb 09, 2024

Wow! Brilliant!

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David Pampu
18:15 Feb 17, 2024

Thanks so much!

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02:21 Feb 09, 2024

I liked the pace of the story and the wit. Since I have not written or read speculative fiction, your story was a different type of adventure for me. I enjoyed how you played with the construct of time, how it is/is not measured, and the creation of a parallel time existence. Really interesting. Congratulations.

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David Pampu
18:17 Feb 17, 2024

I've been a fan of the Twilight Zone forever, and my attempt to honor the spirit of speculative fiction. Thank you for your kind comments.

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Jim Robison
04:04 Feb 08, 2024

I enjoyed you story a lot. Very nicely done. Congratulations. If you have a chance, I would appreciate your thoughts regarding my story "The Time Train." Thanks.

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Zack Herman
23:03 Feb 07, 2024

A well deserved win! Fantastic story...I see it as sort of an updated "Incident AT Owl Creek Bridge". I'm following you now because I'm almost afraid of what I'll miss if I don't!

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David Pampu
18:20 Feb 17, 2024

Oh my gosh! That's high praise as I love all things Twilight Zone. I didn't have that episode in my mind but I was definitely trying to channel some Rod Serling. Ambrose Bierce was an interesting character. His story was a great jumping off point for TZ.

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