Contest #199 shortlist ⭐️

75 comments

Contemporary Happy Sad

Papa said it was a mistake to let Uncle Dale go shopping on his own, even if it was just down to Sammy’s to pick up smokes. He said that we support our troops in this house, and that it weren’t in no way proper to send a hero off on his own, forced to wheel his own chair around – even if it was a beautiful first day of summer, and even if Uncle Dale had wanted to go on his lonesome. And when Uncle Dale finally came back, we all knew Papa had been right.

We spent all afternoon watching the clock. I knew it was an eight-minute-and-thirty-one second walk to Sammy’s, and it was a three-minute-fifteen bike ride – unless Cousins Lidia and Bert were visiting, since they didn’t have bikes and weren’t allowed to ride, so then it was an even six-minute sprint – and Mama figured it would take Uncle Dale thirty-minutes on the dot, one way. And she said she was being conservative, which meant she was right.

And Annie – not Aunt Annie, because she was just Uncle Dale’s girlfriend, and she’d been with him since before he was a hero and she stuck around through the worst of it and Mama called her a hero too – just spent her time crying, and saying that we should never have let him go alone – and Papa nodded – and how he was poor and alone and he needed her, because every good man had a good woman standing behind him, pushing his chair to the shops.

We sat around the clock watching it tick and tock, and Mr. and Mrs. Doncaster from next door came over with a casserole and sat with us. Only Grandpa wasn’t watching the clock, because Grandpa was a hero too – only he’d been a hero for much longer and much harder – and he mostly just sat watching the TV, even when it was off.

We watched that Elvis Presley clock for what felt like weeks, and twenty-two minutes after Uncle Dale left, we heard the front door open.

He never made it,” Mama whispered, taking Annie’s hand. “It’s not even half an hour yet.

Annie cried harder, and she got to her feet because she knew her man needed her and that was all that mattered.

Mrs. Doncaster put her casserole in the oven and Papa took a swig of beer. And then he spat it out and dropped his can when the door swung open and Uncle Dale entered.

Despite his ordeal, Uncle Dale was smiling. He had a smile like the horses at the merry-go-round at Fiddler’s Park and he was breathing heavy like he had just run a mile.

Sister Marlene elbowed me in the ribs so I covered my ears just as Papa cussed. I wasn’t supposed to hear him cuss, and I didn’t, but I know he cussed because that’s the only reason Sister Marlene ever elbows me in the ribs.

And then I gasped.

Uncle Dale stepped into the house. He walked through the door.

Everyone gasped, except Annie who shrieked.

“Hello, everyone!” Uncle Dale said. He held up a Sammy’s bag and pulled out a carton of menthols. “You’ll never guess what happened.” His smile was brighter than the sun.

“We don’t guess in this house,” Papa said, but his voice wasn’t as hardwood as it normally was. He kind of deflated into his chair and everyone else sat down too, huddling around him, and we watched Uncle Dale from across the room. The light of the day surrounded him and he looked like something out of a movie, like maybe an angel or at least an alien.

“There I was, just rolling along, when my wheel got caught in a rut in the busted sidewalk. As I baked in the sun trying to get it out, a shadow fell on me and I saw a strange woman approaching. She was dressed like she was going to one of those Latin dance classes. She smiled, and said I looked like the kind of man that didn’t dance to anyone else’s tune but my own. Well, I told her I don’t dance much at all anymore. Well, she offered her hand and helped me up. And wouldn’t you know it, we just danced right then and there, in the middle of the sidewalk with only the wind for music.”

We were all silent – even Grandpa stopped wheezing.

“Well, I spun her around, we had a laugh, and she said, ‘See you around!’ And I said, ‘Same to you!’ And she walked off, and so did I. It didn’t even really occur to me until I had finished at Sammy’s.” He grinned and slapped his knee.

There was more silence, but Mama was always a great hostess and she knew it fell to her to do something, so she frowned and said, “So… this woman. She was a doctor?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Uncle Dale.

“She’s a faith healer then?” said Papa.

“Didn’t hear a word of faith, unless the flamenco’s a prayer.”

Annie wiped her eyes and planted her fists on her hips. “Well then, just who is this gas station tart?”

“Annie, please.

“Who is this convenience woman, if she’s not a doctor or healer? That’s what I want to know.”

“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before.” Then Uncle Dale said something even I knew wasn’t smart. “But I’ll never forget her.”

Annie harrumphed.

“Annie, please! I thought you’d be happy for me.”

“Now just wait a moment,” said Mr. Doncaster. “Annie’s got a point. I mean, what do we even know about this woman? She’s not a doctor, she’s not devout – what is she then? What business of hers is it who walks and who rolls? Maybe she’s a fraud.”

“A fraud?” said Uncle Dale.

“Yeah, a fraud. Maybe you’re not really walking, Dale. Maybe she just tricked you.”

Uncle Dale’s smile faltered, but everyone else started murmuring approval for this new idea. After all, it was plausible. Probable even. People were always trying to take advantage of heroes these days. In any case, we all cheered when Uncle Dale sat down at the dinner table to join us for casserole, since he was about the height we expected him to be, and Papa said that thankfully the whole sordid affair was behind us.

But it wasn’t.

The next day, Uncle Dale continued walking around. All of the next week, even. Papa kept grumbling and Mama kept shaking her head, and Annie was all the time crying. The Doncasters talked to the Palmers, and the Palmers talked to the Singhs, and soon the whole neighbourhood knew.

One day Mama sighed real loud and finally asked, “Dale, where’s your chair?”

Uncle Dale said he didn’t know. Forgot it when he started walking, and it wasn’t there when he came back. Mama declared it her mission to help him, to find the expensive chair for him no matter what – even though he said it was all right and he didn’t mind it.

The third week of summer, Uncle Dale asked me if I wanted to go to the park to throw a ball around. Heck yeah! We ran all the way there. We spent the whole day just throwing it around and it was the most fun I’d had in years, since Papa never took me to play ball anymore. But I noticed some of the other park goers watching us, and they pointed and shook their heads. It was a fun day, but I could see it getting to Uncle Dale.

About mid-summer, we found Papa standing outside the house, admiring the wheelchair ramp he installed just last winter.

“It’s a fine piece of work, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Sure is,” said Uncle Dale.

“Well, would it kill you to use it?” Papa snapped. “To show the least bit of appreciation?”

“But–”

“But nothing, Dale! I cannot stomach such ingratitude.”

Uncle Dale took me fishing the weekend after, and to get to the old fishing spot he used to go to with Papa and Grandpa way-back-when, we had to hike through a forest. It was a beautiful spot, even if the fish weren’t biting. He said fishing wasn’t really about the fish anyway, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. When we got home though, things turned grim.

Annie’s face had nearly washed off in all her tears. She dragged her suitcase through the living room and said she was leaving.

“Annie! But why?”

Annie sobbed. “I can’t take this anymore. You play with a girl’s heart, Dale. You’re cruel! Do you ever think of anyone but yourself? All of my girlfriends have heroes to wheel around, and me? Just what am I supposed to do with a man that can walk under his own power?”

“Annie!”

But she slammed the door and departed, her wailing fading into the distance.

A week later, Uncle Dale took me swimming, but his heart wasn’t in it. He said he missed Annie dearly, and I missed her too, on his behalf. When we got home, we found the Doncasters whispering with Papa. They all looked up when we came in and narrowed their eyes on Uncle Dale.

“What’s up?” Uncle Dale said.

Papa leaned back in his chair. “Listen, there’s something we need to discuss.”

“I don’t want to point any fingers,” said Mr. Doncaster, “but a co-worker of my brother’s friend once heard of a case where… well.” He grimaced, shrugged as though he were sorry. “There was a hero who pretended like he wasn’t. Even though it hurt his family and friends, even though they begged him not to. Even though impressionable young people could see the shameful business.”

Uncle Dale frowned.

“And worse,” said Papa, leaning even further back in his chair, “the government chose to believe him. And they cut his benefits!”

“But–” said Uncle Dale.

“–Just something to think about,” said Papa, scowling up a storm. “Something to really think about. Oh, and Dale, I don’t want you hanging around my kids anymore.”

“But Papa!”

“Shush.” And that was the final word.

Uncle Dale stopped smiling after that. He seemed like a shadow moving from room to room, and when I tried to get him to play with me – even just doing a lame hopscotch in our yard – he said we better not.

On the last day of summer, Mama said she had a big surprise for us, and she gathered everyone in the living room. We were all sitting around the table – including the Doncasters – but Uncle Dale was off standing in a corner, alone, with his shoulders slouched. Everyone was kind of grim, except Mama, who was beaming.

“It took me all summer,” she sang, “but I did it! I can fix this family.” She clapped her hands and called into the kitchen, “Oh, Annie!

Uncle Dale looked up, halfway to smiling – the first time in weeks.

We heard Annie approaching. There was the rhythmic clacks of her heels on the linoleum, as well as a kind of rubbery whumping and an intermittent squeak. And then she stepped into the living room, wheeling an empty chair before her.

“Ta-da!” Mama said.

Everyone looked at Uncle Dale. They were all smiling, all grinning and revving up to laugh and cheer. All but Uncle Dale himself. I saw his smile of a moment ago vanish. His face grew pale and I saw sweat bead his skin. He looked at Annie and she gave him a big, encouraging nod – and he took a step forward.

My family started cheering for him, “Go Dale go!” A low rumble, repeating. Each time it finished it pulled him forward another step, and their cheering grew louder. He clutched at his throat, unable to breathe, but their song pulled him closer all the same.

When he looked at them, they all nodded encouragement. When he looked at Grandpa, he got a resigned shrug. It was all Grandpa could muster.

And when Uncle Dale looked at me – I froze. I wanted to shout Run! Be free! Be the best Uncle Dale you can be! but nothing came out. The song took hold of my bones and I clapped in time with it. And I saw the light go out of his eyes.

Uncle Dale sat down in the chair, and everyone cheered. Papa popped a champagne, Mama jumped up and down, and Annie wrapped Uncle Dale in a blanket and kisses.

Uncle Dale sat down in the chair and never rose again.

May 24, 2023 23:23

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75 comments

Jack Kimball
00:14 May 27, 2023

This highlights a very real psychological phenomenon in my view. Comfort zone. Peer pressure. Family and friends not really wanting a success as what does this say about themselves? As example, anyone achieving something, a successful business, a health program, quitting drinking, (being a successful writer…). How many behaviors do we discontinue, only because the resistance to our change is too great? A really good question is, “why am I doing that?” All too often I find the answer is; because what I want to do will be too difficult, surel...

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Michał Przywara
20:24 May 28, 2023

Right on, Jack. Comfort zone and peer pressure are great ways of looking at it. I think there's truth to the saying "we most hurt the ones we love", even if it's inadvertent. We get used to these people, get familiar with them, and then if they try to change - even if it's for the better - it can be jarring. Maybe we're afraid we'd lose them, and so we resist. Or maybe if they try to improve, it shames us about ourselves, so we put them down and drag them back. Well, of course it doesn't always go like this - indeed, there are times where ...

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Katy B
16:25 May 26, 2023

This is really fantastic story-telling, Michał!!!! I love it!

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Michał Przywara
02:39 May 27, 2023

Thanks, Katy! I'm glad you enjoyed it :) I wanted to go a little more surreal this week, and I'm glad it paid off. I appreciate the feedback!

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Mary Bendickson
04:48 May 25, 2023

Yes, happy and sad. True drama. So well told from a child's point of view. How can one understand not being happy for someone becoming un-crippled? Great to see this one on the exceptionally short shortlist! Knew it was a winner when I read it. So much insightful commenting also. 🎉 Congrats!

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Michał Przywara
20:48 May 25, 2023

Thanks, Mary! It was certainly a strange idea that crossed my mind this week, but there's no shortage of strange behaviours people exhibit - particularly when they fret over what other people are, or are not, doing. I appreciate the feedback!

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Sarah Saleem
09:19 May 29, 2023

I really like the writing style, and the message of the story is great too!, it's like people don't like us for who we are but the version of us in their mind.

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Michał Przywara
01:34 May 30, 2023

Thanks, Sarah! Yes, I think that's right on, and trouble brews when the real person diverges from the mind-version. I appreciate the feedback!

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Ace Baker
20:55 May 28, 2023

The voice is strong...and totally fits the character and setting. It's nice when all elements combine to create a united effect. Nicely done.

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Michał Przywara
20:53 May 29, 2023

Thank you, Ace! I've been more mindful lately of developing a unity of effect, and so I'm glad that's starting to bear some fruit. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Chris Miller
12:40 May 28, 2023

Interesting story, Michal. Lots going on in there. The importance of Dale's circumstances to the family's identity says a lot about them, while not necessarily clarifying what that is, leaving it for the reader to decide how they feel about them. It has a nice, weird, counter-intuitive feel that makes it work as a satirical look at the issues raised. As a SEND teacher I actually met parents who more or less forced wheelchairs on their able-bodied children. It's a real-life phenomenon with some complex psychology at play. Thought provoking...

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Michał Przywara
20:55 May 29, 2023

Thanks Chris! Oh wow, I didn't realize that was a phenomenon that went on! Complex psychology indeed. It's easy to have a gut reaction to that, but that's probably short-sighted and doesn't consider everything that's involved. But something like that could be a good topic to explore in a story too. "nice, weird, counter-intuitive feel that makes it work as a satirical look" - glad to hear it. I was certainly angling for more of a surreal thing. You mention the family's identity, and I think that's right on. It seems like we often define ...

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Zack Powell
17:21 May 27, 2023

I think this cracked my top 5 list of Przywara stories. That ending, man. The whole story is phenomenal, but that ending took it to another level. So many good things going on here (and I apologize in advance, because I can't possibly get to all of them, but the list includes the following): The idea of heroism and what it means to be a hero. (Love that the grandfather provides a contrast to Uncle Dale, by the way.) What an inversion of this concept: someone not being considered a hero because they don't have the wounds to show for it. The ...

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Michał Przywara
01:11 May 29, 2023

Thanks, Zack! This has made my day :) I think you're right, the happy here is fleeting, and the sad prevails. Idealism and conformity are two great words for it. Dale made a choice, to return to how things were, to keep the peace. Was it the right one? Hard to say. We can probably say it wasn't fair to force the choice on him, but so it goes. We don't often like our ideas being challenged, do we? Even if (especially if?) they're challenged by a loved one. I'm not entirely certain where this strange story came from, though the prompt playe...

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Zack Powell
15:22 Jun 02, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist, Michał! In a week where there were only a handful of winners, I'm beyond pleased this was one of the finalists! (And this story was my winner pick, so I'm doubly pleased to see it get recognized in some capacity.)

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Michał Przywara
20:39 Jun 02, 2023

Thanks Zack! I also am pleased :D And now it's time to start work on the next one :) Have a great weekend!

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Delbert Griffith
14:18 May 26, 2023

Fantastic story that hits at a central theme of humanity: ownership. Everyone owned the uncle in some respect - except for the nephew, who told the tale. A little in the vein of "To Kill a Mockingbird," in that a child sees a lot of truth and the adults see what they want to see, which isn't usually the truth. Reviving the wheelchair for Dale was a death for him, though we don't really know if it's a literal death or a figurative death. I tend to see it as literal because of the wording of the last sentence. And Dale was dying anyway; no on...

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Michał Przywara
02:26 May 27, 2023

Thanks, Del! Ownership - that's a great way of looking at it! I had in mind an idea that those around us might make some sort of claims on us, but ownership specifically is a great word for it. Particularly when you say "escaping from the pigeonhole they had placed him in". There's something jarring about someone we know well changing. It's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and indeed often happens when we try to improve. But some people seem to have trouble accepting this, don't they? I had this vague idea of a reverse Kafka's Meta...

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14:17 Jun 03, 2023

Some very deep themes in this story. It really shows how people like to play roles and feel important. Annie prefers being a caretaker of a 'hero' rather than having Dale be able to walk. At the end I could see how clever it was to have the narrator be an almost outside observer that told him to run, when the whole rest of the family wants to have Dale return to being their prisoner.

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Michał Przywara
22:23 Jun 03, 2023

Thanks, Scott! Yeah, roles - how we're perceived - can be very important. More important even than what we actually are, even if it comes at someone else's expense. I think the narrator was just as much a prisoner of the social forces as Dale. Despite his personal desires, he ended up joining in with his family. I appreciate the feedback!

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Kate Winchester
22:33 Jun 02, 2023

This is a great piece! Poor Uncle Dale! I really like how the story is told through the eyes of the child. Congrats on the shortlist!

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Michał Przywara
21:15 Jun 03, 2023

Thanks Kate! It was a nice surprise :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Kate Winchester
21:32 Jun 03, 2023

Welcome and thanks for reading mine! ☺️

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17:47 Jun 02, 2023

Twain style satire. People wanting credit for being supportive rather than being supportive

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Michał Przywara
17:55 Jun 03, 2023

Thanks Anne! And that's right on, I think. It's more important people see you doing good, than actually doing good - or at least, if often seems that way :( I appreciate the feedback!

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19:47 Jun 03, 2023

I’m still thinking about it! It really is a marvelous little farce. People constantly want to be heroes (direct reference to that in the veteran fetish these people have is really nice layering), but they’re much more subtle in what they tell themselves about it—drawing this all the way out is both hilarious and a great spotlight on the way that we figuratively cripple others by wanting to come their rescue.

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Michał Przywara
20:12 Jun 04, 2023

Yeah, we are the heroes of our own lives, right? All good points. I think there's still lots of room to explore this in other stories, and "figuratively cripple others by wanting to come their rescue" is a great way of phrasing it. Perhaps we need to be needed.

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Anna W
04:31 Jun 02, 2023

Wow, powerful story, on many levels. Really enjoyed this one!!

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Michał Przywara
20:44 Jun 02, 2023

Thanks, Anna! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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Marty B
04:34 May 30, 2023

'People cut down the tall poppies' is the quote that comes to mind. The society Dale and his family live in, of wounded heroes and the people around them who base their roles on serving the heroes is not too different from other societies where assigned roles are allocated, by racism, by sexism, by other isms. I really liked this perspective of a kid trying to understand the rules of these categories, (which dont make sense) and how they relate to his Uncle Dell who has been visited by a miracle. By staying in the society, choosing his fam...

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Michał Przywara
20:46 May 30, 2023

Thanks, Marty! Yeah, that's a keen observation - cut down for standing out. I think kids' perspectives are great for exploring these things, because they're not yet saddled with all the this-is-just-how-it-is baggage we accumulate throughout life. So perhaps they ask more honest questions, particularly if something doesn't make sense. I appreciate the feedback :)

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Graham Kinross
11:16 Dec 13, 2023

Congratulations on being shortlisted. “every good man had a good woman standing behind him, pushing his chair to the shops.” And telling telling people at the hospital he’s waited long enough for his appointment so they need to hurry the f*** up. This is messed up. They wanted him to be in a wheelchair? Screwing up his rehabilitation for what? That’s awful. I know personally what it’s like to get back the feeling of independence, not after an injury but because of a seizure and someone wanting me to give that up? I’d tell them where to sho...

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Michał Przywara
21:47 Dec 14, 2023

Messed up for sure. I don't think this is a healthy family, and they seem to appreciate Dale not for who he is, but for what he is. He becomes less a person and more a status symbol, and getting better jeopardizes that. Seems like lots of people get stuck in ways like this - well, maybe not like *this* as this dips into absurdity - and it's always interested me digging into that and finding out why. Is it something like Stockholm syndrome maybe? Or some people are so averse to being alone, they'd sooner stick to a terrible group. Thanks,...

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Graham Kinross
23:46 Dec 14, 2023

You’re welcome Michał. It’s probably not as far from reality as it should be. I could imagine this happening somewhere for sure.

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Ferris Shaw
14:43 Nov 05, 2023

Societal habit is a terrible thing.

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Michał Przywara
03:40 Nov 06, 2023

Definitely can be! A very powerful force. Thanks for reading, Ferris!

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Bob Long Jr
16:41 Sep 25, 2023

Wow .. what a story Michal! I had my chuckles but man, i geel so badly for Uncle Dale ..

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Michał Przywara
20:36 Sep 26, 2023

Thanks, Bob! Yeah, he was in a rough spot :) Personal desires vs family pressure. Glad you enjoyed this surreal tale!

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Laurel Hanson
13:06 Jun 20, 2023

I saw this a while ago and wasn't able to respond at the time, but I am back on grid for a little while so wanted to address this story. It is masterful. The commentary it makes about hero culture, the way we celebrate it and accept its consequences... I am not sure I can quite express myself here, but this is some worthy satire. Congrats on the shortlist, but also just for producing this powerful story.

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Michał Przywara
20:38 Jun 20, 2023

Thanks, Laurel! That's made my day :) It was a fun one to write, and gave me an opportunity to play around with some ideas. I'm glad it resonated. Thanks for reading!

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Riel Rosehill
10:58 Jun 08, 2023

Ooof I'm so late reading this but I see why it made the shortlist - congrats again! This story is possibly the darkest, most twisted tale I've ever read on this site. How this upside-down looking world highlighted true selfishness and disregard for others in the real world made it difficult (or impossible) to read and not cringe at the whole of humanity. It'd be one of those hard-to-watch but absolutely brilliant movies if it was made into one (would be cool!). A perfect example of grotesque fiction. I absolutely loved it. Also, “We don’t gu...

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Michał Przywara
20:54 Jun 08, 2023

Thanks, Riel! "possibly the darkest, most twisted tale I've ever read on this site" - wow, thanks! It definitely was meant to have a dark side, beneath what otherwise seemed innocuous. And I love the term "grotesque fiction"! I hadn't heard it before, though I am an occasional fan of grotesque art. I've always had a soft spot for the everyday horrors we inflict on each other, which arise from misunderstandings, ignorance, or plain old having-to-be-right. The actions we get away with, because there's enough people around that agree with t...

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Robin Owens
01:48 Jun 08, 2023

Beautifully sad, a wonderful read.

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Michał Przywara
20:55 Jun 08, 2023

Thanks Robin! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

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06:54 Jun 05, 2023

This is wonderful - easy read, easy to know who was who, and lovely yet sad story. The bit where Grampa watched tv even when it wasn't on. I love this kind of story! xo

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Michał Przywara
20:58 Jun 06, 2023

Thanks, Patricia! I think Grandpa knows more than he's letting on :) I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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