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Fiction Inspirational Mystery

The old man knocked tobacco out of his long-stem pipe. “I would like you to solve the mystery of happiness,” he said, pointing his white eyebrows at me.


The only thing I hoped to solve was finding my way out through the labyrinth of corridors in my uncle’s estate. Hell, I barely graduated from State three months ago. And the only thing my Creative Writing major did was land me a waiter gig at The Ram’s Head Steakhouse in town. Solve the mystery of happiness? I knew Uncle Clarence was some industry titan—but really?


He kept right at it though. “I’d like you to write a book. Call it, Happiness Found, or something. You’ll figure it out I’m sure.” My uncle reached for his cherry-wood tobacco case, filled his pipe, struck a match, and drew in a few breaths on the flame. Trails of smoke drifted through the oak paneled study; bookcases lined the walls with leather bound volumes.


Taking in the scent of both cherry-sweet smoke, and a job, I asked, “Are you retaining me to write a book?" (I learned the word ‘retaining’ senior year in Book Marketing 405).


My uncle stretched back in his desk chair. “No. I am offering you an opportunity, Jack.”


“You won’t pay me?” My voice broke with a squeaky sound on the word ‘pay’.


“No. I will cover your expenses. You will need detailed receipts. I will open any door you need. ANY door. You will report to me every six months here at Kingmoor.”


“No pay?”


He gave me a steady gaze for near forever, then said, “Think about it. And Jack?”


“Yes Uncle Clarence.”


“Give my regards to your mother.”


“I will.”


“You can leave now.”


I did find my way out through the labyrinth and my green Prius was in the circular drive where I left it. I drove out by the winding drive through the park-like wooded grounds, and when the road looped, Kingmoor came into view. The gray stone mansion, forty rooms or more, dominated the top of the hill, with stables to the north, gardens, and the winery beyond; all wrapped in fall reds and yellows, chestnut trees, purple rhododendron, and the blue sky.


Pulling the Prius over to the side of the road, the wheels crunched on the gravel as I came to a stop. Sure, I was thinking, why not write up some reports, do the interviews my uncle set up? Besides (if I wanted to be honest with myself), looking at Kingmoor, maybe someday there'd be an inheritance.


*** 

The problem, of course, was no pay. But I worked on it anyway, and interviewed over the phone twenty-two captains of industry, as Uncle Clarence called them (Uncle Clarence introduced me), including Warren Buffet (I couldn’t believe it). I cataloged their answers, looking for patterns of consistency, a lot to decipher, a lot to write about—and it was a lot more work than I hoped it would be. In the mean time, a year went by at The Ram’s Head, and in my off-hours I wrote short stories, and tried to submit to the trades, which resulted in nothing but aggravation and rejection letters. But I put my writings together from the interviews, and started calling the too-thin stack, The Happiness Papers. I wasn't really doing much, and then it seemed in no time I found myself back at Kingmoor under the grips of Uncle Clarence’s white bushy eyebrows.


He was not a man to waste time on inconsequentials. “So what did Warren say when you asked him my question?”


“He said regards, but he’d drink all the Cherry Coke he pleased, thank you very much.”


Uncle Clarence gave a good chuckle, then asked, “What did he say about the secret to happiness?”


“He said all he cares about is the game, and the money is just a way to keep score.”


Uncle Clarence tapped his pipe on the desk, thinking, then said, “It’s been a year; all you’ve got is ‘money and possessions are not the secret to happiness’ from all these successful people?"


“I guess.”


“Jack, that’s a platitude. Almost everybody says that. They just don’t believe it. But either way, your instructions were to find the secret of happiness, not to find the things that aren't. Have you dug as deep as you can?”


“I could work harder on it.”


“There you go! I’ll see you in six months, not twelve Jack. Six. Say hello to your mother for me. Martha can cut you a check for your expenses on your way out.”


***

The next time I saw Uncle Clarence it was two years later and in all that time Uncle Clarence didn’t push me. Truth is, I’d pretty much given up on happiness, both for the book, and myself. I was still at the Ram’s Head, working now as an under-paid (in my opinion) assistant manager. My writing was sporadic you might say, to be polite, and the one beer after hours turned into three, which turned into five, which was then replaced with Jack Daniels.


As I came in to his paneled study Channel News was on Uncle Clarence's wall monitor and he motioned for me to take a seat. This was January 6th, and the TV trembled that day; men with American flags breached the stairs of the US Capital, pushing their way up the granite steps, and on to the porticoes. The heat of it was full-on, and Uncle Clarence’s monitor pictured crowds of men fighting and shoving, beating and crying; it was a mess. 


My uncle was riveted to the screen and I don’t think he noticed me much, or cared, but after some time he turned the sound down on the TV. He shared some quick pleasantries, as was his nature, and then asked, “So where are you on the happiness study Jack?”


With the interviews completed, stories transcribed, I felt confident Uncle Clarence would buy my answer. “The research I’ve done seems to prove positive thinking is the secret Uncle Clarence. Many people say the talk you have with yourself will instill a positive mindset.”


His face lit up red electric mad. “Positive thinking! So you’ve discovered the the secret to happiness is positive thinking? I’d have to think on that, and I’ll admit it does help for some, but that’s the biggest crock I’ve heard in a long time. You mean to tell me some single mother, say living in poverty in Duluth or Ipswitch, can gain happiness through positive thinking as the missing ingredient of the happiness recipe? People are smarter than that Jack, and they know hardship when they’re in it. It's true a positive outlook is a good thing, but every time I’ve been around some knucklehead who spouts, with that fake delight, over the top positive thoughts, in the face of real facts, I’ve run like a man on fire.”


“It seemed to make sense,” I said.


Uncle Clarence nodded to the TV. “Seemed to make sense? Do you see what’s going on at the Capital son? It’s lies that drove those people. Lies that all their problems have simple causes. But it’s a lie also that everything’s going to be fine if you just tell yourself it’s all good. There’s enough lying already and… and…” Now I don’t know your politics, and its not mine to judge, but Uncle Clarence then put his hand to his head, and his face fell with discouragement, and he was somewhere else, and I thought he was going to cry. On the TV monitor we both could see the doors to the Capital Building break down, and the mob force their way in. More to himself and not to me, he said, “Remember this day. It’s the day you realized how much you love your country.”


“Are you ok Uncle Clarence?”


He came back to our time and place and nodded to me. “Well, work harder Jack. Come back when you have the secret.” 


“Yes. Uncle.”


“And do it quick Jack. I don’t have a lot of time.”


***

The following summer I made one last final effort to put something together, but Uncle Clarence rejected my bullet points and stacks of research with a flick of his hand, one after another. What a waste of time, I thought, all for the hope of being included in an inheritance someday.


REJECTED. I had statistics, and had written stories on how lowering expectations increased happiness because the likelihood of failure was less. He said we should raise expectations. Failure and the lessons learned by failing when looked back on was a good thing, not bad.


REJECTED. An easy reject, pleasure was not the secret to happiness. Does a drug addict have the secret of happiness? Pleasure and happiness were two different things.


REJECTED. I wrote pieces left and right on social media. Social media causes unhappiness by depicting unrealistic images of beauty, popularity, and model human beings; the reversal being a lack of social media would be the secret to happiness. No. Social media, as bad as it is, if taken away, is not the secret.


***

My uncle’s funeral, not many months later, was an elaborate affair with no less than one-hundred eighty black vehicles, a sorrowful head lamped line from the town to Everette Lawn Cemetery, where large white tents were set up. The largest funeral ever in Tabit County, if not the state, they said. The eulogies were made and stories of a good man told. Even Warren Buffet arrived on a Lear to honor his friend. But now with the crowds gone, the speeches made, and the maneuvering for the places in the will and inheritance begun, I took a moment alone with my uncle by his graveside, and with a special purpose, for my mom that day had slipped me a letter. I opened the embossed white stationery with a blue wax seal in the image of a crown, my uncle’s mark. I sat back against the gravestone in the misting gray afternoon, a headstone simply reading ‘husband, friend, entrepreneur’ beneath my uncle’s name, year of birth, and death.


Jack,

You know by now I’m gone. What you don’t know is Kingmoor and all my assets have been given away to the state, created into a historical designation for touring of the premises, a park, and a non-profit charitable organization.


I also owe you an apology. I’m sorry Jack for setting you out on a mission to find the secret to happiness. I promised your father I would take care of his lost son and my only goal was to keep you writing.


As to happiness, there is no secret. Happiness is not something that can be bought with a check. Or even achieved. It just is. Happiness comes to you in a murmur, a whisper, and when you least expect it. And when it does come, its temporary and fickle. It’s an emotion, a side effect. You cannot strive to be happy. Happiness comes from apart, not within. It comes making a step toward who you want to be.


Jack, your ideal self, whether you know it or not, is to be a writer. Your happiness will come as the side effect in the still of the night, the rushing of the clock to get back to it, the turning of a phrase. So step to who you are Jack, go to work, and pick up a pencil.


See you on the other side. I love you son.

Uncle Clarence


***

It looked like the drizzle might go to rain, and I put the letter away and made my way to the cemetery entrance. I was more than a little out of my mind, and had a long way to go, but I was done with the Jack Daniels.


A kid on a bike almost hit me when I reached the sidewalk.


“Watch out boy!”


He pulled to the side and gestured to the cemetery. “That big shot was buried today. Did you know him? Are you a big shot too?”


“No. I’m a writer.”


“What’s a writer?” The kid started getting on his bike to peddle off before it rained.


“It’s someone who writes,” and I thought, maybe I’m the one who would have complete happiness, if it weren't for that one thing holding me back—not being true to myself.


The boy looked curious. “You’re crying mister. Are you sad?”


“No, I’m not sad.” And then, right then, I knew why I was crying, and I knew who I wanted to be, and I knew I was ready—and it was like Gabriel’s horn sounding to the high clouds, blowing it out, letting it free.


Like I said, I was a little out of my mind that day, but I looked at the kid straight on, picked him up with my heart, shook him with my soul, and declared, “You’re looking at Jimmy Stewart yelling Merry Christmas in Bedford Falls! You’re seeing a man clicking his heels three times—going home!” I said. “I’m a man whose gray sky is blue, and it’s raining butterflied sunshine!”


The saucer eyes of the kid on the bike stared back true. “You’re a nutty loon! Why’re you so… so … just what are you anyway?”


I was already gone, but shouted into the sweet air so both the kid and the angels could hear. “I’m happy is what I am! Just happy!”

March 07, 2023 15:10

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43 comments

Christy Morgan
01:56 Jan 05, 2024

You capture it brilliantly -- the meaning of happiness: As to happiness, there is no secret. Happiness is not something that can be bought with a check. Or even achieved. It just is. Happiness comes to you in a murmur, a whisper, and when you least expect it. And when it does come, its temporary and fickle. It’s an emotion, a side effect. You cannot strive to be happy. Happiness comes from apart, not within. It comes making a step toward who you want to be. I too have a character in a short story who is looking for that elusive happiness. ...

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Jack Kimball
21:42 Jan 05, 2024

Hey Christy, I've been a part-time writer with mostly business writing for a long time and became serious this past year in fiction and poetry. It means a lot to me that you enjoy my writing, so thank you for reading and commenting!

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Christy Morgan
22:19 Jan 05, 2024

I'm really enjoying this site, as I'm an aspiring storyteller too. I find the prompts interesting and challenging in a way that it stretches your resolve and imagination. I have to say that I'm impressed with the broad scope of topics that you've tackled. I'll have to check out your personal site in more detail, as it looked like you had additional works posted on it. I'm on Substack, as well, if you ever get the inclination to look for more of my writings. Nice to share and connect through a mutual passion!

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Jack Kimball
22:39 Jan 05, 2024

Sure. I'll check out Substack!

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Christy Morgan
00:08 Jan 06, 2024

Here's an easy link to it: https://christymorgan.substack.com/?utm_source=%2Fsearch%2FChristy%2520Morgan&utm_medium=reader2&utm_campaign=reader2 My stack is called, "Nothing to Offer." Hope you enjoy!

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Graham Kinross
07:40 May 23, 2023

How to be happy? Just be? Interesting stuff and well written. Great job, Jack.

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Jack Kimball
13:21 May 28, 2023

Thank you Graham. Appreciate you taking the time!

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Graham Kinross
22:13 May 28, 2023

You’re welcome.

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Russell Mickler
13:42 Mar 15, 2023

Jack - A very thoughtful piece with a lot of emotional currents. I liked the "Havasham-like" benefactor found in the uncle, and his reflections on poverty and current events. Your narrator's voice was excellent. It was well-paced with a beautiful ending. This was extraordinary work - nicely done. R

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Jack Kimball
18:34 Mar 15, 2023

Thank you for reading and commenting Russell. Given YOUR creative mind, maybe I was on to something. But alas, another Reedsy story seeing the brief light of day, and then filed on the dustbin of storeydom.

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Russell Mickler
19:08 Mar 15, 2023

Grin - I thought it was a great and powerful statement left by the uncle. He left your protagonist with more than just inheritance or money, you know, a gift you can't find anywhere ... delivered with practical, hard work. It appealed to me - I really liked it! R

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Irene Duchess
03:04 Mar 14, 2023

amazing, Jack. the whole time (until the end) I was waiting for what Jack's answer to happiness would be. and (this might just be me) but I feel like you might have been missing some punctuation?

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Jack Kimball
11:57 Mar 14, 2023

Thank you Lilah for reading and commenting! Where do you think I was missing punctuation?

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Irene Duchess
02:03 Mar 15, 2023

before and/or after some names? (again, this might just be me)

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Jack Kimball
02:09 Mar 15, 2023

I think you’re correct. I’ll correct them when I can. Guess that’s why writer’s use editors to check their work! Thank you for mentioning!

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Susan Catucci
14:01 Mar 13, 2023

Lots of layers here, Jack, and quite the journey. Defining happiness may be something like trapping sunshine in a jar. The uncle's eyebrows initially drew me into this and then the intrigue took hold and then fascination and finally the conclusion - I'm thinking this was a way home; we are home to ourselves and happiness? Can be many things to many people and, like love, you know it when you have it. I know how much I loved how Uncle Clarence looked out for Jack and how much better Jack became because of it. I love that Jack was nut...

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Jack Kimball
01:22 Mar 16, 2023

Thank you Susan. I really appreciate you offering comments.

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Laurel Hanson
21:49 Mar 12, 2023

This story kept me reading, waiting for the answer just like Jack. One thing I just have to say is thank you for not stopping at the "think happy thoughts" place and remembering that the easy answers of privilege are not really available for so many, that it is a falsehood that "some single mother, say living in poverty in Duluth or Ipswitch, can gain happiness through positive thinking as the missing ingredient of the happiness recipe." This is a great exploration of an idea that is important, though underrated in our quest for security, w...

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Jack Kimball
16:13 Mar 13, 2023

Thank you Laurel! I appreciate your comments. Yes, I was trying to inject a little realism and 'living in poverty in Duluth or Ipswitch' was the part of reaching for a more realistic effect. Glad you liked that part!

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20:10 Mar 11, 2023

Jack, this was a delightful story. I loved the reference to "It's a Wonderful Life" at the end. The narrator finding his moment of empowerment was beautiful, and it left me with a smile. This reminds me of a "cartoon" drawing that I saw once. A person holds a jar, labeled HAPPINESS. Someone asks them, "Where did you get that? I've been looking for it everywhere!" and they reply, "I made it myself." Well done!

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Jack Kimball
16:10 Mar 13, 2023

Hi Hannah. I appreciate your comments! You're the first to get the "It's a Wonderful Life", so maybe the movie is not as well known as a I thought. Glad you enjoyed it!

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Lily Finch
19:33 Mar 11, 2023

Jack, the combination of happiness and writing came through in this piece. I was surprised at the about-face the dark to light occurred with the MC. I particularly enjoyed dispelling the rumours that money buys happiness and that happiness can be sustained. I think people forget that sometimes in life too quickly. The relationship between MC and his Uncle was interesting. A bit of a mystery there but a bit more of the same each time the MC returned to visit UC. In the end, overall, this story is well-paced, with good bones and fantastic fl...

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Jack Kimball
19:43 Mar 11, 2023

Thank you Lily. I really appreciate you offering comments.

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Lily Finch
19:50 Mar 11, 2023

Anytime. LF6.

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Stevie Burges
14:56 Mar 11, 2023

Hi Jack, lovely story. Great themes - happiness and writing - what more could anyone want. Good imaginative story. Thanks for writing.

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Jack Kimball
15:53 Mar 11, 2023

Thank you Stevie, both for reading and commenting!

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Delbert Griffith
10:57 Mar 11, 2023

The evolution of the would-be writer was done very well. I'm not sure that I liked the abrupt tonal change from darkness to enlightenment, but maybe that's how happiness works. I really liked the uncle. Great character creation, Jack. You displayed a deft hand in creating such a character. I wanted to like the nephew, but I just couldn't feel anything but indifference. He needed more of a flaw than just drinking too much. His efforts at finding the secret to happiness seemed a little vanilla. These are minor critiques and border on personal...

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Jack Kimball
13:36 Mar 11, 2023

Thank you for taking the time to read 'Gabriel's Horn' Delbert. And especially thank you for sharing what you liked, but also where you felt the story could be improved. And I agree with you. Both adding a likeable human flaw to Jack, and not having such an abrupt "enlightenment" would have added more believability. The euphoric realization seems contrived in hindsight. So I learned some things, and my hats off to you for offering input.

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Viga Boland
17:48 Mar 10, 2023

Ok Jack. You just did it again. After I took your words to heart a few days back that I could write anything I wanted to, I dove into fiction for the first time in years. I was so happy with what I came up with. And then I read this. Oh boy. Seems that I came up with the platitudes about happiness that uncle Clarence mentioned LOL. But that’s OK because like your protagonist here, suddenly realizing after seven years that I can actually write fiction, guess what? I’m happy. And now that that’s out of the way, let me just say that this stor...

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Jack Kimball
13:50 Mar 11, 2023

Thank you Viga! I really do appreciate your reading the story. My personal view is the story is ok, but from reading the winners/short-listers, I need to work on 'detail' that better contributes to the mood and tone of the story. The old stand-by 'show don't tell' in other words. So I think I have a lot to learn, but the quality of writers I'm finding on Reedsy, though intimidating, is hopefully helping my writing.

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Mary Bendickson
22:09 Mar 09, 2023

An autobiography I presume? Stay happy:) "picked him up with my heart and shook him with my soul" "raining butterflied sunshine" oh, the details!

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Jack Kimball
22:31 Mar 09, 2023

Hi Mary. Nope. Fiction. I just used my own name to better get in the head of the main character. I was always a writer but... 'seldom had time when I was raising kids and running a business. When I retired',... I decided I wanted to learn to write. Those are much of your words, but they fit perfectly for myself. I'm just a non-published guy trying to figure it out and the people on Reedsy have been great. Best. Jack

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Carina Caccia
13:55 Mar 09, 2023

Hi Jack, There were bits about this that I loved. The cherry-wood tobacco case, the paragraph on one beer turning into two, then five, etc. I think "station[e]ry" might be a typo, however, and Van Gogh might have become famous posthumously. Anyway, I read the whole story and enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing!

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Jack Kimball
14:38 Mar 09, 2023

Thank you Carina! I really appreciate you taking the time to read this and offer comments. One of the wonderful things about Reedsy is gaining feedback to correct typos, but even more gain insight to improve our writing/story before the Friday cutoff. I switched out Van Gogh, corrected the spelling, and tried to make the punch of the story clearer. Again thanks. Jack

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Carina Caccia
14:54 Mar 09, 2023

Glad to hear it! I'm new here but I'm loving the Reedsy community!

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Wendy Kaminski
01:59 Mar 09, 2023

Brilliantly told, Jack! An excellent message - not the ending I expected, but the only ending that would do the story justice, absolutely. (One typo: " causes unhappiness [do] to") Thanks for sharing this!

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Jack Kimball
02:09 Mar 09, 2023

Thank you Wendy! As always, I appreciate your input. Special thanks for pointing out the typo prior to contest submission.

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Wendy Kaminski
02:18 Mar 09, 2023

My pleasure! :)

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T C Milton
19:17 Mar 07, 2023

Okay, I was considering entering this week's contest, but what fun's a contest if you can't win? And there's no way I beat this. Excellent story-telling--enthralling, mysterious, keep-reading-though-you-should-be-working good. Keep it up!

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Jack Kimball
22:56 Mar 07, 2023

Thank you TC! Knowing you are a proof reader/ editor, I appreciate your kind words more than you know. But still do your story!

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T C Milton
16:06 Mar 17, 2023

That this story didn't even make the short list is an injustice. A minor one, perhaps, in all of life's injustices, but, still... Don't be discouraged; keep at it!

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Jack Kimball
14:52 Mar 18, 2023

I appreciate your encouragement more than you know TC. I'm trying to take my wins from recognizing I sometimes get a little better: learning from fantastic writers on Reedsy, books on the craft of writing, and of course reading (I'm retired and my goal is to strive to be a published author). I thought Tom Bombadil's story was a well deserved win, and though I haven't read all the shortlisted stories, believe the creative imagination and sensory details of Laurel Hanson's 'Near and Far', as example, was first class. In my view, I have a wa...

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Viga Boland
17:52 Mar 10, 2023

Man…do I ever agree with your statement, TC Milton: “there’s no way I beat this.” That makes 2 of us 🥺

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