Contest #134 shortlist ⭐️

43 comments

Crime Funny Contemporary

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: Some swearing


The only problem with breaking into your neighbor's house is if someone else beats you to it.


The Mastersons are gone for the month, summering in Fiji or Acapulco or wherever people go when they're filthy rich and can afford to flaunt it by using words like "summering." Before leaving, they'd asked me to watch their house. For free, of course. I smiled and told them they had nothing to worry about. It wasn't until their blue Bugatti sped down our dead-end street that I finally uncrossed the fingers hiding behind my back.


Burglary 101: A good heist is all about patience. For two weeks now I've spent night after sweaty July night sequestered in my stuffy attic with my telescope trained on the Masterson house: their backyard swimming pool, their organic vegetable garden, their novelty chicken mailbox. Think Rear Window, only I'm not as handsome as James Stewart.


Why wait so long? Because breaking into someone's house the first week they're on vacation is so predictable, and the second week even less subtle. But the third week—no one ever suspects that third week.


Which is probably why, right now, during the middle of the third week, as I'm zipping up my black coveralls and adjusting my ski mask, as I'm stooping down to peer through my telescope, which has become a worse habit for me than day drinking, I can feel my heart free-fall its way to the basement.


Across the street the shadow of a person creeps toward my neighbor's veranda. It's almost midnight. Everything is dark outside, like a chocolate cake when you don't bake it right, and the person shines a dim light in front of them. I hold my breath as they reach the door's smart lock. Their fingers bounce around the keypad with all the dexterity of a fat kid in a confectionery shop. Then the numbers light up and the door swings open and they slip inside the house.


I wait a few more minutes, expecting to see a lightbulb spark to life in one of the windows. When the place remains unlit, I grab my cell phone and a black Hefty bag and then I'm off, gliding across my house to the front door. Think Risky Business, only I'm not as smooth as Tom Cruise.


I'll be honest with you: When I arrive at the Mastersons', fulfilling my promise to watch their house is the furthest thing from my mind. Really, I just don't want whoever's inside to take all the good shit before I get a chance.


The smart lock keypad awaits my touch. My fingers move with all the dexterity of a fat kid running a mile, but the numbers still brighten and the door swings open, coaxed by the passcode that I'd obtained after several months of attic telescoping.


Inside, the house is as dark and chocolate cakey as outside. The scent of vanilla lingers in the air, sprayed every fifteen minutes via one of the house's thousand automatic air fresheners. From the kitchen comes the sound of a cabinet being opened, wine glasses clinking. Using my phone's flashlight, I make my way toward the noise and hope whoever's in there hasn't yet discovered Mrs. Masterson's sixty-piece bone china dinner set.


I'm not sure what exactly you're supposed to say to someone who's hunched over and dumping a whole drawer of silverware into a burlap sack, so I aim my flashlight at their back and settle for a classic. "Hi, how's it going?" Nice and casual, not too confrontational, with a hint of politeness. Maybe I am as smooth as Tom Cruise.


My words come as the last knife in the drawer hits the bottom of the sack. In an instant the person drops both drawer and sack, grabs something from their waist, clicks a button. Blue light appears like magic. A thin strand of electricity crackles to life. Pointing the taser gun at me, she shouts, "Put your hands up and don't fuckin' move!"


I'll be honest with you: I've always thought people who talk about love at first sight were full of it. But now, standing there in front of this woman—because there's no doubt the voice belongs to a woman—I get what they mean.


Think of the most beautiful woman you've seen. Sandra Bullock, probably. Then imagine her standing there pointing a stun gun at you in your neighbor's kitchen, legs like a desert oasis, curves like a rainbow, brown hair flowing down her back as she straightens her trigger finger. Because that's exactly what this woman is like.


At least, I imagine so. She's wearing a black latex catsuit and a matching ski mask that make her look formless in the veil of night, even in the taser's blue glow. Not one inch of skin showing.


But sometimes a voice is all you need to really know someone. That's how all my previous relationships have started, with a voice, and those were nice, while they lasted.


"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" I say, taking a few steps back and turning off my phone's flashlight to show her I'm harmless. "I come in peace." 


"Who are you?" The words bubble like acid rain. My feet take another step back without asking my brain. The taser is still aimed at my chest.


"I'm the Mastersons' neighbor." I point vaguely in the direction of my house. She starts to close one eye like she's about to open fire, so I add, "And believe it or not, I'm here to do the same thing you're doing."


Slowly, finally, she lowers her weapon so now it's aimed at my crotch. It's a small victory. I take what I can get these days.


I want her to trust me, so I run my hand along the wall in search of the light switch. If she could only see the Hefty bag in my hand, she'd know where we stand. At last the switch pricks my thumb and all at once we're bathed in pure white light.


"Cut that shit off!" she hisses, and it's like Jesus himself said the words, they sound so beautiful. And so is she, probably, but the light switch clicks and it's dark again.


She looks out the window, swivels her head from end to end of the sidewalk. Then she taps a button on her taser and the blue crackling is gone, replaced by a regular flashlight, which she shines directly in my eyes. "Are you trying to get me caught?"


"Sorry."


"Unbelievable," she mutters, and crouches to pick up her burlap sack, leaving the silverware drawer on the floor. The sliver of moonlight from the window makes her look like an angel. An angel who's approaching the sixty-piece bone china collection with my name on it.


I rap on the wall twice, and it works. She stops, turns to face me. The moonlight reveals only the left side of her ski mask. "Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot," I say, peeling off my own mask with one hand and offering a truce with the other. "I'm Mack, by the way."


She stares at my proffered hand like she doesn't want to contract whatever form of leprosy I have. The night air is a blanket, heavy and warm around us, filled with the songs of crickets and cicadas. We stand there listening to the house groan under our feet, above our heads.


The ski mask feels like a dumbbell in my hand. "This is usually the part where you tell me your name."


"Mmm, no," the woman says, arcing her taser-flashlight across the adjoining living room. She marches to the baby grand piano in the corner, no doubt trying to devise a way to wheel it into the night.


"Okay. Okay, I'll just call you Jenny," I say, following her. "That was my last girlfriend's name." Which is information that was supposed to stay in my head before my mouth sabotaged me. But now it's too late. The words bridge the space between us like a Chinese finger trap, binding us together as accomplices.


She pauses, one hand poised atop a stack of outdated sheet music—Beethoven or Bach or Mariah Carey. Turning around, she stares at me behind her ski mask and opens her glossy mouth. It doesn't matter that she showed up to a robbery wearing lipstick. It doesn't matter that she almost tased me two minutes ago. My heartbeat quickens all the same, and my blood rushes to places where it probably shouldn't be.


Slowly, finally, she says, "Shut up, Max," and dumps the music into her sack, Mariah Carey and all.


And it doesn't even matter that she got my name wrong. She could read the yellow pages cover to cover and I would listen forever, falling asleep and waking up to the sound of her voice every day.


So, yes, I shut up. We shuffle to separate corners of the living room and inspect our potential treasures. And let me tell you, it's the longest five minutes of silence in my life.


But then, as I'm snatching a handful of angelfish from the Mastersons' aquarium and tossing them into my garbage bag, curiosity creeps up on me like it's driving a "Free Candy" van, and I can't help but to ask, "How did you get past the smart lock anyway? It took me meeks of watching with my telescope to get the numbers." I cringe hearing the word 'meeks,' a hasty overcorrection when I opted not to tell her how long my spying has actually been going on.


Jenny scoffs from across the room where she's trying desperately to pry a taxidermied deer head from its throne above the mantelpiece. "Really? You couldn't figure out 1234?" She turns and gives me a dismissive shake of her head. "They're Boomers. It's not frickin' rocket science."


Another candy van question slips out. "Why are you doing this?"


She sighs and stops tugging but keeps her hands on the antlers. "I'm just taking what I'm owed, that's all," she says. Her voice is different than before, softer maybe. "I mean, seriously. These people can go to Acapulco for a month but they can't afford to pay their employees a decent wage?"


"So it was Acapulco," I murmur.


"You know something? I'd probably be home right now watching Netflix if Ed weren't so fuckin' stingy."


Whether she means Mr. Edwin Masterson or Mrs. Edna Masterson, it's impossible to say, and I don't feel it's my place to ask. "I see, I see."


"What about you?" Jenny has given up on the deer head, opting for the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf instead. "They aren't paying you right either?"


I could tell her the truth: that the Mastersons have never wronged me, have always invited me to their cookouts and their Christmas parties. That I'm just a guy with too much time on his hands, all the time in the world, and something to prove. That I'm invading someone else's life tonight to try to find some meaning in my own. That I'm a spineless, indecisive loser and I'm destined to let the world walk all over me.


That last one is what my previous girlfriend told me anyway. Old Jenny. But that was three years ago. People can change in that amount of time, right? I would never have thought of breaking into this house three years ago. If that's not change, I don't know what is.


New Jenny is staring at me, awaiting my answer. "Uh, yeah, something like that," I tell her, plunging my hand back into the aquarium.


"Figures." She flings a tattered Gutenberg Bible into her burlap sack. "Hypocrites."


***


Burglary 201: Always use the toilet before a heist.


When I return from the bathroom—couldn't have been in there more than five minutes—the living room is abandoned. From the kitchen comes the rattle of a teacup and a saucer and then I know. I know this woman is no angel.


In the kitchen Jenny stands on her tiptoes to reach the top of the cabinet. She curls a few fingers around a piece of Mrs. Masterson's bone china, a white teacup with floral patterning. It is the penultimate item in the cabinet.


"What the hell are you doing?" I say as she lowers her body, cup in hand. My voice, louder than expected, ricochets off the now-empty walls like a pinball.


She startles, then slips her present into her sack, a reverse Santa Claus. "What does it look like?"


"You're taking my bone china set is what it looks like."


Jenny shrugs and points to the lone piece in the cabinet, a plain-looking white saucer with gold trim. "All yours. Have at it."


"No." I grab my soggy Hefty bag from its spot by the aquarium, stretch it as wide as it'll go. "Give me half."


The air freshener on the wall vomits vanilla mist as Jenny cocks her head. "So," she says, nodding at the cabinet. "Do you want it or not?"


"Half," I demand.


She snorts and shakes her head, done with me. Hauling her sack, she troops down the hallway toward the bathroom. I have to stop myself from grabbing her arm. The equation is simple arithmetic: She has a taser, I don't.


The saucer is an orphan in its cupboard, waiting for someone to take pity on it. It's cool to the touch in my longing fingertips. My Hefty bag is still gaping like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo, but I slide the saucer in my breast pocket for safekeeping.


The toilet flushes and Jenny emerges from the bathroom, still dragging her riches. She frowns when she sees me standing there.


"You know, I think I misjudged you, Jenny. You're not an angel at all, you know that?"


Her laugh is like the curtains bulging from her sack, velvety and hideous. "Oh, I'm not an angel? Breaking news: More at eleven!" Her taser-flashlight falls on my trash bag. "What, you think you're some kind of saint? These people aren't my neighbors."


"I'm supposed to be watching the house, actually," I confess. "That's really why I'm here. Mr. Masterson put his faith in me."


"Well, you're doing a great job." Jenny opens a hallway closet and inspects Mrs. Masterson's collection of mink coats as though she's in a bookstore, contemplating life's hardest decision: paperback or hardcover. "Let me know if you need a letter of recommendation."


My face feels like it's summering in Acapulco. The novelty of Jenny's sarcasm has worn off. Now it leaves me grinding my teeth.


"Look, I'm gonna step outside," I tell her, tapping the imaginary vape pen in my pocket. "I need a smoke break."


"Ten minutes, max," Jenny commands with all the authority of a Walmart manager. I'm still wondering if that meant 'maximum' or if she'd simply mispronounced my name again when I stumble out into the night.


A hot, gentle breeze greets me on the sidewalk, a gift from the passing cars on the next block. My house sits across the street, pale and lonely and devoid of bone china. The telescope in the attic is pointed directly at me, watching. The Mastersons' novelty chicken mailbox taunts me. They are all waiting for me to do what it is I actually came out here for.


Why not? Why not fulfill my promise? Just so she can walk away with my dinner set while I get to drag some dead fish home?


It only takes a few taps of my phone. Then a voice on the other end comes through, high-pitched and much too perky. "911, what's your emergency?"


"Hi, how's it going? Yeah, hey, my house is being broken into right now," I say, and pray this woman doesn't know what Mr. Masterson sounds like as I give her the address. She's got a mountain of questions for me high as Everest, and I listen to myself answer them.


Only I'm talking on autopilot because I'm too busy thinking about the two Jennys, old and new. How Old Jenny would have called me spineless for what I'm doing now, turning someone in while being part of the problem. How New Jenny came here tonight because she wanted to right a wrong. Because she believed in something. At least one of us has a good reason.


And that gets me thinking: She can't be all bad, right? Maybe not an angel, but not all bad. She did let me have the last saucer.


Maybe we just started off on the wrong foot.


Maybe we could get to know each other better.


Maybe then she'd even tell me her name.


The operator is still talking a mile a minute when I interrupt. "Hold on, I think. . .I think there are two people in the house now. Yes, another one just joined." And when I feed her the Mastersons' address again, I whisper, "Please come quickly."


But I'll be honest with you: That last part is for dramatic effect, just to see how long it'll take someone to show up to a fancy place like this. Five minutes? Ten?


What do I care? I have all the time in the world.


The operator tells me it won't be long, that they're sending someone right now to come help. She asks me to stay calm and remain where I am, so I stroll to the front door. I can hear Jenny's voice before my feet touch the porch, cussing one of the Eds out as she lugs her sack across the marble floor. Her bone china jingles in the night like a plea, begging my lone saucer to partake. I retrieve it from my pocket, give it a squeeze, and step inside, ready to see the mistakes we've made.

February 26, 2022 04:12

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43 comments

Jeffrey Niemann
12:40 Apr 24, 2022

First story I read by you, and I liked it quite a bit. Looking forward to checking out your other stories. :)

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Zack Powell
19:51 Apr 24, 2022

Thank you, Jeffrey! This is one of my personal favorites, so I'm glad you liked it.

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Kelsey H
08:00 Mar 01, 2022

I enjoy your writing so much. You have a really great style, descriptive and characters with emotional depth and interesting situations. The guy waiting weeks to rob the house and then someone getting there first, love the idea of that. I liked how you sort of used repetition to show his view of the world, like how he compares himself to movie actors. I loved the chocolate cake metaphor too, it's kind of an odd thing to compare with but for the character, with his unusual thought pattern, it really worked. The interaction between him and "...

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Zack Powell
17:01 Mar 01, 2022

Thank you as always for your lovely comments, Kelsey! I think our styles are pretty similar, so I'll throw that compliment right back at you. (Your story from this week is still on my mind, days later.) Repetition is the absolute fun thing for me in fiction. I love having lines/images/objects come back later in the story. Makes everything feel a little more connected, you know? Bone china sets sell for a killing on eBay, so the conflict there just writes itself, haha. And thank you, you know first and last lines are my jam. I spend probably ...

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Kevin Broccoli
16:14 Aug 09, 2022

I got so caught up in this when I scrolled down to the final line I let out an audible sigh. It was riveting. Great job, Zack!

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Zack Powell
17:01 Aug 09, 2022

Thanks, Kevin! This one was a blast to write, so I'm glad you got something out of it.

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Patrick Samuel
13:33 Jun 27, 2022

Arsene Lupin meets Trouble in Paradise and ends up in a War of the Roses. Love how the character gradually reveals itself from amoral to full-on crazy (the casual way he mentions throwing the angelfish into the bag is the kind of details that makes a dark comedy both darker and funnier). Of course I should have known he was crazy when he called Sandra Bullock the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Has this guy ever watched a Milla Jovovich movie?

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K.J. Dyer
00:21 Jun 08, 2022

Two Jenny's and two Ed's what a brilliant way to eliminate the name game. Finding the write character names is always a challenge for me, but I loved your use. Your writing is really nice to read.

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Zack Powell
06:41 Jun 08, 2022

Thanks, Kevin! I hate juggling too many names in my stories, so this was my way of ridding myself of that problem. Glad the writing came through for you.

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Zelda C. Thorne
11:35 Jun 02, 2022

"and my blood rushes to places where it probably shouldn't be." - 🤣🤣 What a fun story! I want to know what happens next. Opening chapter of longer work?? I want to read these two again.

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Zack Powell
18:08 Jun 02, 2022

Thanks again, Rachel! In my mind, these two definitely go to jail after this, LOL, so I'm not sure if there's much wiggle room there to explore these characters further, but I liked them well enough, so who knows? Wishing you the best of luck on the completion of your novel!

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Zelda C. Thorne
22:57 Jun 02, 2022

They could escape prison... Thanks! I'm getting straight back to it 👍 (the novel)

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Amanda Lieser
22:52 Mar 11, 2022

Hi Zack! Wow! This story was so great! I really enjoyed the way you had 2 characters named Jenny. I also loved how the cake description came into play throughout the piece. I was highly intrigued by your characters and I liked how you had a rule book for burglars in the piece. This was a well deserved win! Congratulations!🎉

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Zack Powell
23:00 Mar 11, 2022

Thank you, Amanda! And a belated congratulations to you too for getting shortlisted that week! I literally just saw on my activity feed that you posted a new story, so I'll go check that out. Thanks again for reading.

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Bradon L
21:20 Mar 07, 2022

This is spectacular! The line “curiosity creeps up on me like a free candy van”, might be my favorite line but it’s hard to say cause there are so many good lines in here!

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Zack Powell
22:23 Mar 07, 2022

Thank you, Bradon! The candy van line is my personal favorite, so that's a huge compliment.

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Philip Ebuluofor
07:57 Mar 05, 2022

Interesting work.

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Zack Powell
15:10 Mar 05, 2022

Thank you, Philip!

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Philip Ebuluofor
10:32 Mar 09, 2022

Welcome

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Kevin Broccoli
17:10 Mar 04, 2022

That first line was perfect and really set the tone so well. It reminded me of Tom Robbins with that well-balanced sense of humor and darkness. Great job.

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Zack Powell
17:48 Mar 04, 2022

Thank you, Kevin! You've given me another author to my reading list. Congrats again on your win.

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Tsvi Jolles
16:58 Mar 04, 2022

Hey, Zack, In terms of the chocolate cake, this story does have a rich feel to it. Much like a chocolate cake with many layers and so much decoration. The characters are very alive and motivated, and the plot appears to be upbeat and effective. Congratulations on making the finalist list, and you're becoming a trend. I love this line: “That I'm just a guy with too much time on his hands, all the time in the world, and something to prove. That I'm invading someone else's life tonight to try to find some meaning in my own.”

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Zack Powell
18:03 Mar 04, 2022

Thank you, Tsvi! Very, very kind of you to say. I adore your chocolate cake analogy. Glad the characters and the plot felt lively (I can never tell if they'll fall flat when I'm writing). The line you quoted almost didn't make the final draft, but he needed some kind of motivation for his actions, so it stayed in. Glad to hear it worked. Thanks again for your kindness. I really do appreciate it.

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Cade Galvan
18:47 Mar 03, 2022

i love the story so full of funny comments and just the way you made mack and or max was extravagant. and the employee gifting the family a good old fashion revenge. remarkable zack plane remarkable!🤯

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Zack Powell
21:49 Mar 03, 2022

Thank you, Cade! Humor writing is not my strength, so I'm glad you found it funny!

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Sharon Hancock
02:55 Mar 01, 2022

😂😂😂 I love the voice it’s so funny and genuine. I especially like how he calls them old and new Jenny. Loved it!

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Zack Powell
04:24 Mar 01, 2022

Thanks, Sharon! You're a hilarious writer yourself, so that's a huge compliment!

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Sharon Hancock
20:17 Mar 01, 2022

Thank you so much! Your comment about my comment about your story made my day😻

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Clyde Laffan
00:41 Mar 01, 2022

This was fun. Your MC is a mess, day drinking, killing fish, stealing from his neighbours yet I loved him all the same. Protagonists only have to be relatable, not likeable and I think you got this. The fish was my favourite part, I didn't know whether to laugh (it's kinda funny) or stop reading (it's kinda sick)! Great stuff.

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Zack Powell
04:27 Mar 01, 2022

Thanks, Clyde. I personally love messy protagonists, so this guy was a blast to write. Totally agree with your take on relatability vs likeability. And the fish part was also my favorite. Thanks for reading, and good luck this week in the contest. You've got a great story!

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Wafflez Wasfound
23:59 Feb 28, 2022

I loved this stroy. By far my 2nd favorite, (beacuse Where I Am Going, You Cannot Follow is 1st on my list). Keep up the amazing work, so I don’t have to pay attention during ELA (don’t worry, my ELA grades are fine) lol.

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Zack Powell
04:25 Mar 01, 2022

Thank you as always, Awexis! That one is still my favorite too, but I'm glad you enjoyed this one second-most. Thanks for reading these, and good luck with your ELA endeavors, LOL.

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J.C. Lovero
03:09 Feb 28, 2022

You do a very nice job with comedy, Zack. I chuckled several times while reading this story. Somehow, I really liked the MC, even though he was technically stealing from his neighbors? Perhaps something is wrong with me lol. Lots of personality wrapped up into this one. As always, love reading your stuff!

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Zack Powell
04:34 Feb 28, 2022

Thanks as always, J.C. Just trying out something new again, this time as a personal challenge to write something more upbeat and lighthearted than what I usually go for. The MC was a lot of fun to write despite his flaws, so maybe something's wrong with me too, haha. Thanks again for reading, and I'm looking forward to your next story.

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J.C. Lovero
18:23 Mar 04, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist friend! Happy to see this creative piece get recognized!

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Zack Powell
18:48 Mar 04, 2022

Thank you as always, friend! Looking forward to reading your story tonight when I finish writing my own for this week.

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J.C. Lovero
22:29 Mar 04, 2022

You're onto something with comedy, funny guy! Looking forward to your next story.

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Riel Rosehill
07:07 Feb 26, 2022

Hey Zack, Congrats on making the shortlist with your last piece! This one, on one hand I found the Mac strangely adorable (what's wrong with me?!), on the other... The fish didn't deserve this. What was that all about? Not adorable at all! It was a super fun read and your first line was a Hook with capital H. Also well done for doing a "love at first sight" (though, one sided) without making it annoying and unbelievable - it just went so well with how bizarre everything else was too (Because who steals fish, and like that?! Haha)

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Zack Powell
17:36 Feb 26, 2022

Thank you, Riel! I actually felt sooo bad writing that line about the fish. They definitely did not deserve it. And thanks for the compliment on the hook - they're my favorite to write, and the lines that I spend the most time editing. "Bizarre" is a great word for this piece, LOL. Thanks again for reading!

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Riel Rosehill
22:24 Mar 04, 2022

Back to say congrats on making the shortlist - those fish did not die in vain! X

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Zack Powell
23:28 Mar 04, 2022

LOL, thank you, Riel! I'll feel slightly less awful going to sleep tonight knowing that the fish served their purpose well.

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Dale Pal
08:26 May 27, 2022

What are the protagonist in the story

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19:04 Feb 27, 2022

Love this paragraph...Just like Maddy is, just like I am, because she could never take care of anything. God… what am I talking about? She was the most caring person in the world. And I lost her… because sometimes we lose things and they never come back and all we have left is just an empty space that will never be filled again because nothing else fits into that space where they fitted like a perfect puzzle piece.

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