This is the November Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is Shanel Wilson!

You may recognize the name. Shanel is also the sole finalist I awarded from the October Contest, and this time she grabbed the brass ring and is the winner.

December Contest: I’ll be announcing the December contest soon! (Probably next Monday.)

November Contest

I started the story below. See how Shanel seamlessly picked up the story after the red line and gave us a sweet and satisfying ending!

A Forest of Blue Eyes

by Shanel Wilson and Matthew Cross

Shim picked his way down the narrow, rocky track.  This planet was covered with rocks.  Rocks and nothing else, it seemed.  At least until today, when he found the canyon.

He leaned against the red, crumbly cliff wall and spat hard.  He tried to, anyway.  He was dehydrated and what came out was a thick, red glob.  He dizzily watched it fall to the green treetops far below.  His mouth was full of red dust.  In the first few days, the red spit used to alarm the settlers.  It looked so much like blood.  It only fed the rumors that God had cursed them.

Shim pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and wiped his sweating brow.  He was hot and tired.  He was also hungry and thirsty.  Very thirsty!  He probably should not have wasted his body’s moisture by spitting, but the red grains just got in the mouth and tumbled around and around.  Da said they contained silica.  After a few hours of breathing outside, it felt like you were chewing glass.  Even the three-ply scarves Ma made couldn’t keep it all out.

But Shim knew water was close.  Really just a step away.  The ledge was not wide, and if he stepped off the edge–one step and a long trip down–he’d find himself among the lush green trees.  And where there were green plants, there was water.

Shim chuckled wryly.  “It’s just one step away, Shim,” was the kind of joke Da liked to tell.

The track had been worn smooth by many feet over many years.  It had to be the natives.  Had to be because he had followed one of them this way.  It occurred to Shim for the first time that the natives, the ones nearest camp anyways, lived in this well-hidden canyon.

Shim had been the first of the settlers to see one, at least that he knew of.  And he’d tell Ma and Da and Mr. Johnson–Shim refused to call Mr. Johnson “Second Da”–as soon as he could find his way back to camp.

Da had gone to check on the Heddrys again.  The Heddrys had the closest landing site to Shim’s own clan.  Mrs. Heddry had lost two of her three husbands in the landing.  That would be hard on the whole clan as they tried to carve out their own homestead.  When Da had brought back the news two weeks ago, Shim had seen the pain in Ma’s eyes.  All she said was “We knew the Lord would demand sacrifices.  Mrs. Heddry has the faith so the Lord will provide for her.”

We don’t have time to do a search party for ya.  So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.

With Da gone, Johnson had his hands full with repairs.  Ma had set Shim a chore, and Shim was grateful to leave the chaos of the ship and a clan full of young ones.  Ma set him to look for food, water or wood.  Anything of use really in this unending waste.  “But keep within sight of camp plus five minutes,” Ma had said.  “If ya don’t see nuthin’ in five minutes, you turn right around and walk until you can see camp again.  Then walk five minutes in another direction.  Got it?”

He had nodded.

She placed her hand on the back of his head.  “Five minutes, ya hear?”  She held his gaze with a stern glare and held five fingers in front of his face.  Did she think he was daft?  He heard her.  But he didn’t dare raise his voice.  Not to Ma.  Not to the family matriarch.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, holding her gaze.

“We don’t have time to do a search party for ya.  So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.”

Shuffling down the narrow canyon path, Shim shivered, even as hot as he was.  He had managed to get lost anyway.  If he ever got back, Ma would take it out of his hide.  He was sixteen, but she’d probably bend him over her knee anyway.  In front of the little ones even, to make it a lesson for the whole clan.

He had not meant to get lost.  He had remembered Ma’s warning of keeping within five minutes of camp.  He had wandered nearly an hour in and out of sight of camp.  He had followed the rule real good.  But then he had seen something.

No, he had seen someone.  A girl.  

At first, it had just been a suspicion.  A whisper on the back of his neck.  Each time he passed out of the sight of camp–which was really just the remnants of the ship after Da made the hard landing–he had the sense of someone else.  Someone unseen.

At first, he attributed the spooks he felt to the strange landscape–formations of brittle, crumbly, red rock–and his nerves.  But then he had heard the sound of a rock skittering across the hard ground and the hairs on his neck and arms rose.  He was being followed.  He carefully backed his way towards camp, and once the top of the ship came into sight, the feeling faded away.

Now, he cursed himself for not going back to camp and asking Ma or even Johnson for help.  But once he had realized that the someone following him was afraid to go near camp, he lost most of his own fear.  He wove a winding path, sometimes walking away from camp, and sometimes back towards it, and started noticing signs of his invisible pursuer.  Sounds mostly.  A skid of skree here or there.

He trekked out towards the flatter land, where there was almost no cover.  Then he suddenly backtracked, came back towards camp at a run and passing on the other side of a large boulder that sat alone.  She had been hiding behind it, of course, as there was nowhere else to hide, but he caught her off guard.  He saw her shadow and then a foot.  He began running a large spiral around the rock, but she crept around it, staying just out of sight.  Winded and spitting red spit, he stopped.  He shrugged.  This was pointless.  She had nowhere else to go.

“Hey,” he called.  He waved his hand, real friendly like.  Not threatening in any way.

That’s when she tore off at a run, towards the higher, rockier ground.

Without thinking, he ran after her.

Her eyes were blue!  Bright blue!  He had never seen blue eyes before.

She was short.  Well, just half a head shorter than he.  And thin.  She wore all brown from head to foot.  And some kind of head covering with two small horns.  Her hair flew out behind her.  It was black and straight.  It looked so strange that he did not recognize it as hair at first.  She glanced back at him.  Her eyes were blue!  Bright blue!  He had never seen blue eyes before.  

He was so shocked, he stopped.  And then she disappeared into the jumble of rock formations.  He had followed, of course.  Climbed the rising ground, passed over a ridge, and, curse him, left sight of camp behind without a second thought.

He just kept thinking of the thin face with blazing blue eyes.  And the straight, black hair.  His whole family had red, curling hair.  Everyone back home on Davven had hair that curled.

Rocky desert ground with rocky cliffs to the right and an ominous stormy sky overhead, all with an ominous red coloration.
But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it. Photo by Patrick Hendry.

Even so, as stupid as he had been, he could have found his way home.  He was sure of it.  If it had not been for the sandstorm.  It came from the flatlands to the east.  At first, it was like a cloudy wall of red.  Stupidly, he had stopped and stared at it for a while, thinking mostly of the girl and wondering dumbly why the eastern sky looked like a red fog all the way to the ground.  He had even kept hiking over the ridges and away from camp until the sound of the wind reached his ears.  It made a wailing sound.

Disappointed, he had turned around and headed back. But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it.  He sheltered beneath a boulder at the bottom of a small ravine.  The wind cut at his skin like razors.  He pulled off his jacket and covered his head.  He pushed as far under the cover of the boulder as he could.

The storm raged all night.  When he woke the next morning, the world had changed.  He stumbled about through a red fog of dust.  One part of the sky seemed brighter, and he made his way into the bright morning light.  It was nothing but a flat desert.  And even when the red dust finally drifted away–fading like a fog back on Davven–he found himself entirely on the flats, with no sign of camp, of rock formations, or even of ridges.

He stumbled through the blinding brightness and heat for a day.  When the sun set, he curled up and shivered in his jacket through the night.  When he woke, he found a set of footprints in the red sand.  A shock ran through him.  Whoever left them had stopped and practically stood over him while he slept!

He had jumped to his feet.  He stood there, swaying, trying to formulate thoughts.  He was afraid to follow the footprints.  What if it was a trap?  He licked his lips and surveyed the horizon.  He spun slowly but it still made him dizzy.  Nothing but red sand and rock in all directions.

His stomach rumbled.  He licked his cracked lips. He needed water badly.  That decided it.  He followed the footprints the whole morning until he saw the slit of green cracking apart the red desert ahead.  If she had not come for him, if she had not left her footprints in the sand for him to follow, he would have died in the desert.  He had no doubt.  He had been headed in a completely different direction with no end of the desert in sight.

The footprints had to be hers.  They were small and dainty.  She was walking through the desert barefoot, no less.  The prints also looked odd.  As the heat of the day quickly rose with the sun, his head felt hot and stuffy.  Thoughts came slowly, but eventually it came to him.  She only had four toes.  Four toes on each foot!

The sun was far overhead when he found the trail down into the green canyon.  It was so lush below, but only hot and dry on the cliffside trail. His forehead burned under his hat, but he had stopped sweating.  He knew that was a bad sign.  His head and his mouth were hot and dry.  The trail was long and gradual and took its time leading to the canyon floor.  And his legs were beginning to shake.  On the narrow path, he could not afford a misstep, so he went slowly.

By the time he reached the bottom, he could hear the sound of running water.  Not like a creek.  Like a river.  The trail branched with paths going in both directions along the base of the cliff face and a wider one diving straight into the thick undergrowth.  He stumbled along it, following the sound of the water as much as the path.  The path suddenly widened at a riverside and went over a bridge made from a long log cut lengthwise.  He threw himself onto the red, sandy soil of the riverbank and drank and drank until he had to stop to breathe.

He leaned back on his heels, water still dripping from his chin, and he saw her.  Or he saw her eyes, anyway.  She hid in the greenery on the other side of the riverbank.  He stood and he heard rustling in the undergrowth behind him; he heard it even over the sound of the river.  He looked over his shoulder and saw pairs of blue eyes peering at him.  He looked back across the river and saw more.  Blue eyes everywhere!


The blue eyes continued to stare while he sat frozen on the riverbank. Shim’s mind began to race just as his shaking legs grew still. He wished Da was there with him. He would know what to do. But Da was not the one who had gotten himself lost. Shim was and now he was surrounded by peculiar natives. He reasoned that they must be friendly, or they could have killed him in his sleep or while he drank. He drew in a slow breath and slowly raised both his hands in a non-threatening way. He glanced around to all the eyes.

“Hello,” he said loudly over the river’s roar.

He heard more rustling, but none of the eyes moved from their hiding spots in the undergrowth.

“Thank you for helping me find water. You saved me.” He waited but again no response.

The gravity of his detour began to set in as it seemed his observers would keep their distance. Shim slowly bent down for one more drink from the river. He had no idea how long it would take for him to find Ma and the others.

It had been two whole days since he left camp. They must be looking for him, even after Ma’s warning, and he better not make them wait any longer than he could help. Then he stopped mid-sip and stared into the rushing water. Maybe they weren’t looking for him. Maybe Ma decided his disappearance was one of the Lord’s sacrifices like Mrs. Heddry’s husbands.

While he was lost in thought, Shim failed to notice the girl with the blue eyes had left her hiding spot and knelt beside him. He leaned back and saw her. Startled, he nearly fell into the river. Her small hand shot out to steady him. He looked into her blue eyes, feeling her cool hand on his arm. His eyes were mesmerized by hers, but he could feel only four fingers, just like the toes in the footprints he followed. He felt his lips curl into a smile. The first since he had landed here in the red rocks.

The girl slid her hand into his and stood. She motioned with her other hand for him to stand and follow her. He peered at the forest across the river. The other eyes had disappeared. He looked over his shoulder toward the path that led him down into the canyon and then down to the delicate hand in his.

“It’s just one step away,” he said, standing, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

He looked down into her eyes, grin spreading from ear to ear. A shy smile graced her beautiful face. She took a step forward and led him over the log bridge into the dark green forest.


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Shanel and I wrote together. She’s a great collaboration partner!

If you enjoyed Shanels’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the October Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest!

Flash Fiction Writing Contest – Photo by Derek Torsani (unsplash.com/@dmtors)

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is Jim Hamilton!

Jim wins the amigurumi collectible shown here.

I received so many great entries, and I’ll share one more finalist’s finish as soon as I can. You also can read some of my thoughts on why Jim’s entry shone above all the rest. (It’s stellar!)

November Contest: I’ll be announcing the November contest soon! (Probably next Monday.)

OCTOBER CONTEST

I started the story below. See how Jim snatched the baton after the red line and raced to an exciting and satisfying ending!

Almost Home

by Jim Hamilton and Matthew Cross

I look over my shoulder in search of the dark, floating shapes.  I stumble and fall face first into the crusty topsoil between rows of soybeans.  It’s almost harvest time, so the plants are half a meter.  Not tall, like corn, which can hide you.  I groan and roll over, looking up at the pure, blue sky.  No dark triangles up there.

Field of soybeans
It’s almost harvest time, so the soybeans are half a meter. Photo by Meredith Petrick (unsplash.com/@mpetrick)

I groan and make myself stand, even though my legs feel like jelly.  My joints ache, my head aches, and I shiver.  It’s the Vere.  I caught it either on the DR. ERNESTO GUEVARA, which everyone calls the “Che,” or on Mars.  Mars was already rife with the Vere, so it was not our fault.  And Earth had it before that, so I’m not the first to bring it here, either.  I’m just trying to survive it.

My facemask clouds with my breath.  I’m still wearing my entire suit because I don’t want to infect anyone else.  If not for my mask, I would be spitting dark, Indiana loam out of my mouth.

From behind the Old Barn and the windmill, a thin plume of smoke rises from the crash. The old, decrepit windmill still pumps the water for our irrigation. In a state full of wind turbines, the old windmill really stands out. People still use it to give directions by. It’s how I found home.

Old barn and windmill
From behind the Old Barn and the windmill, a thin plume of smoke rises from the crash. Photo by T.L. Strot (unsplash.com/@tammylynn)

I stole a local trader on Mars.  The owners didn’t need it any more.  I had to pull them from the seats, but I lay them respectfully beneath a nearby ship.  The trader was not made for interplanetary trips.  It did not have the fuel reserves for a fast shot between two planets.  But if you set your navigation correctly, you can save all your fuel for takeoff and reentry.  It’s a long, slow trip—weeks—but you can make it.

I made it, but just barely.  On Mars, a cop was cruising the abandoned spacefield.  My takeoff was too quick.  I was nervous and I’m not a pilot, so I burned a little extra fuel.  Precious fuel needed for landing in Earth’s stronger gravity.  But I survived the crash.  If I can get more fuel, I can probably get the ship working again.  I’m no pilot, but I’m a great engineer.

Still no triangles in the sky!  I should be glad, but instead I shudder, a cold spike running down my spine.  Is it so bad on Earth?  I push myself into a run to the farmhouse.  I still think of it as Granddad’s house.  We lived here with Granddad, until he passed away, and then it became Mom’s.  Like the generations before, we continued to farm the family land.  I did my share of chores, monitoring the cultivators and irrigators at the control board while I did my homework.  Once I learned some electrical, I even fixed a few machines for Dad.  And, yes, I drove a John Deere harvester every fall.  But once I reached midgrades, I realized I didn’t want to be a farmer like Mom and Dad.  I wanted to go to space.

Still no triangles in the sky!  I should be glad, but instead I shudder, a cold spike running down my spine.  Is it so bad on Earth?

I stumble through the soybeans.  The rows are too tall to climb over, especially in my condition.  I’m forced to follow the diagonal row instead of heading straight towards the house.  It’s still 100 meters away and I begin to wonder if I will make it, even without pursuers.  My legs are shaking so bad.  I slept the entire trip to Earth with autonav on.  I ran out of food three days ago, so there was not much else to do.  Between hunger, muscle stiffness and the Vere, I’m in pretty bad shape.

I focus on the white house, on Home, as I fight dizzyness and nausea.  My aching muscles, atrophied for two weeks, don’t want to move.  And when they move, they scream.  So I don’t mind getting all nostalgic.  I’m glad of the distraction, and my fuzzy brain is going there anyway.  I remember telling my parents I wanted to study engineering and not FarmAg at college.  It broke their hearts.  They had trouble conceiving me, and I was their only child.  And Granddad’s only grandchild.  Once I left, there was no future generation to take over the farm.

It may not matter, now that we have the Vere.  It’s sweeping across Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and Earth.

It may not matter, now that we have the Vere.  It’s sweeping across Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and Earth.  If it gets really bad—worst-case scenario, they say on news feeds—the remote asteroid colonies might be mankind’s only hope.

I need to get to the house.  I need to get inside.  Granddad was not exactly a Prepper, but he’d lived through two wars, and the basement was always stocked for the family to ride out three months.  And in flush years, Dad had always made a few upgrades to the security systems.  You know, just in case.

Sunflowers
I shamble across the green dooryard, skirting Mom’s giant sunflowers.  They wave joyfully in a light breeze. Photo by Nicky Osipova (unsplash.com/@voodoonicky)

I have not heard from Mom or Dad in several weeks.  Mostly because I never check in.  But at the very least Mom sends me a weekly vid with any news and asks for a call back.  I never call back.  Only for Mother’s Day or one of their birthdays.  Or Granddad’s birthday, which is kind of like MLK Day, a day to be somber and proud at the same time.  But no messages from Mom for weeks.

I need to get inside.  But I’m also afraid of what I might find.

My left leg suddenly gives out just shy of the end of the row.  I take another tumble and this time it takes longer to stand up.  My vision is going red, but my mind is so foggy, it just seems whimsical, not scary.  Red.  The farmhouse looks red, like it’s on Mars.  I giggle.

That’s not good, says a voice in the back of my brain.  You’re losing it.  I giggle at the voice.

I shamble across the green dooryard, skirting Mom’s giant sunflowers.  They wave joyfully in a light breeze.  I wave back.  When did this yard get so big?  I thought things were supposed to look smaller when you went back home.  The five steps to the wide porch are the hardest.  I have to drag my left leg behind me, and I trip over the top step.  I flail and stumble my way to the screen door.  It opens with my voice authorization.

I limp to the kitchen as the house system greets me.  “Welcome home, Cass!  It’s good . . . .”

“Shut it!” I say.

“OK!  You have messages.  One from your parents to all employees.  One to you from Mom and one to you from Dad.”

“Play the first one,” I say.

I hear Mom’s voice, weak but trying to be cheerful.  She says they are OK but they are showing symptoms.  They are headed into town to see the doctor.  It’s a couple week old, but I sigh with relief.  They might be OK.  They might just be in the hospital.

A field of wind turbines. Photo by Nathan Gonthier (unsplash.com/@natejgo)

I peek out the window and I finally see them.  Just two tiny triangles, but one is already veering off to the left.  I think maybe it’s headed to another farm, but it just keeps going down at a diagonal until it crashes in a field of wind turbines.  The lead ship comes straight ahead, following my smoke plume.


The red haze I’m seeing starts flashing and I suddenly realize it’s the HUD in my mask telling me I’m out of air. I rip it off and take deep, gasping breaths, trying not to hyperventilate as I do so. Almost immediately, I can feel my head clearing, and I’m beginning to function more normally again.

I look up and see the triangular attack ship headed straight for the farmhouse. At any moment, a deadly heat ray will flicker out and incinerate the house—myself included—and turn it into ash.

I look up and see the triangular attack ship headed straight for the farmhouse.

Helpless, I steel myself for that moment, watching the ship coming closer and closer. “Why isn’t it firing?” I ask myself.

The nose of the craft has dipped down and it’s no longer coming straight for me. In surprise, I watch as it crashes into the ground about a hundred yards away, just like the other one I’d seen. Maybe it has something to do with the wind turbines.

I’m thinking more clearly now, but I’m still lightheaded from lack of food, so I heat up a light broth and sip at it while I play back the other two messages from my Mom and Dad. Both are trying to sound optimistic, but they’re in stage three of the Vere. Maybe a few more weeks or a month to live.

I cautiously consume a protein shake and, feeling better, leave the house to check the wreckage of the alien ship. It had plowed into the earth, partially burying itself and I approach it cautiously. The cockpit is open and I can see the pilot inside. As I lean over to see more clearly, the chitinous head turns in its helmet and three eyes glare out at me.

I freak out and, without even thinking, pick up a large rock and bring it down on the faceplate of the helmet. I expected it to break open, but instead, it causes a narrow crack through which a green gas sprays into my face. I gasp in surprise and inadvertently inhale a good portion into my lungs. It burns like fire inside my chest, and I cough and cough, falling to the ground.

I must have blacked out.

When I come to, the sun is low in the sky. I stand up and stretch and marvel at the fact that I no longer seem to be suffering from the Vere. The aches and pains and nausea and headaches are all gone. I lean over the now lifeless pilot and find the bottle attached to its mask. I can see several more behind it in a rack. There is no doubt in my mind that they hold the cure for the Vere.

It makes sense that they would infect a planet with a virus to which they, themselves, were already immune. I head to the barn to get the truck so that I can get these bottles to the Quarantine Center in time to save Mom and Dad.

We’ll all be home soon.


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jim and I wrote together. What a fun collaboration!

For one more fun ending to this story, look for the featured finalist’s version in a separate blog post next week. Also next week, we’ll reveal the November Contest story beginning and the new prize!

Finally, if you enjoyed Jim’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross and Jim Hamilton

Just one great reason I chose Jim Hamilton as October Contest winner

If you read the collaboration story Jim Hamilton wrote with me, you probably already know why I chose him as the winner for my October Contest. He wrote a great ending to the story!

(If you have not read it, then read it now. It’s fun! And besides, this post has spoilers.)

All the October submissions were great! Next week, I will share one finalist’s story that you will also enjoy.

If you loved Jim’s version of the story as I did, you don’t need reasons to love it. But here is the 1 big reason it was chosen as the winner.

Image: White farm house. Text: October Contest Winner - Almost Home - Winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest - matthewcrosswrites.com
WINNERJim Hamilton is the winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest

1. It’s the ending!

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in running a finish-my-story writing contest: Pick an open-ended premise and leave it wide open. Let the contestants choose their own direction.

It’s not fun or exciting if there is only one possible ending. If I write the hero into a corner with only one way out, there’s no surprise for the reader. There’s no anticipation.

And it’s worse for the contestants. If there’s only one possible ending, what fun is that to write? Then it just becomes a matter of style. Who can write this one ending with the most flair?

So I’m constantly surprised by the endings that contestants come up with. The variety of endings surprises me every time, even though I plan for a story with endless possibilities!

Jim took me by surprise and I bet he got you, too! For whatever reason, I had imagined the “dark triangles” would be ships of local law enforcement. I figured they were headed towards Cass to enforce some kind of global quarantine. But, I try to include concrete details that are still open to interpretation. I want to leave a lot of room for my contestants to take a different view, a different approach, and give it all a different spin.

Jim did not disappoint!

He decided that the “dark triangles” were ships of an alien species, a dangerous enemy and the source of the Vere. Fantastic!

As I lean to see more clearly, the chitinous head turns in its helmet and three eyes glare out at me.

But wait, it gets better still!

I freak out and without even thinking, pick up a large rock and bring it down on the faceplate of the helmet. I expected it to break open, but instead, it causes a narrow crack through which a green gas sprays into my face.

I love this! In just a few sentences, Jim whips us back and forth. Cass is safe! No, Cass is in jeopardy! Wait, is Cass safe?

Then, BAM! It turns out Cass has found the cure for the Vere and will save the planet!

I didn’t even know if Cass could possibly make it to safety when I stopped writing my portion of the story. I really had no idea how to get Cass out of this jam. I left that task for my intrepid contestants.

And Jim delivered.

Thanks, Jim!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross