Speculative Fiction, Round II

December marks the last of the twelve monthly OUT OF THE SLUSH PILE, Novel Journey’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame opportunities. Next month we’ll announce our Grand Prize Winner, the best of 2010’s monthly winners.

Our readers must have saved their best stories for last, because this round offered some unusually good entries. The judges had to get out their fine-toothed combs to determine the winner.

The category was Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror. It was a close race, and the judges would have liked to recognize more than just one. But the final choice was agreed upon by all to be deserving of the award.

As outlined in the synopsis, this story is intriguing, original and well developed. It has good plotting, depth, and a satisfying conclusion. One might argue that there’s too much “telling” in the opening chapter. But even so, it reads smoothly, draws the reader in from the beginning and whets the appetite for more of this appealing tale. We couldn’t help but love this entry.

We are delighted to share with you, therefore, the first chapter of The Button Girl by Sally Apokedak of Marietta, Georgia:

The Button Girl
by Sally Apokedak

Chapter 1

Repentance Atwater sat still as a rock, clenching her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling. Staring at herself in the reflecting wall before her, she attempted a happy expression, but only accomplished the terrified look of a rabbit caught in torchlight.

Her mother stood behind her, gently raking her fingers through Repentance’s freshly washed hair. She hummed a lively buttoning tune, obviously unaware of the pain that would come with the night. A weeping and a wailing. There would come a weeping and a wailing. Repentance had been to plenty of failed button ceremonies. She knew what it felt like to stand helpless before the overlords as they loaded up the slave carts. Mercy Atwater began to plait Repentance’s hair. All the button girls wore braids to keep their hair from frizzing in the humid air.Repentance closed her eyes, trying to focus on the tune her mother hummed, but she could not shut out the sound of the steady drip from the fog-drenched trees. Even sitting in the back of the cave, through thick stone walls and two leather curtains drawn down, she could hear the incessant drip, drip, drip. A weeping and a wailing. She didn’t want to be the cause of it. But what could she do? Inside she’d been weeping and wailing all her life. She could go along with the buttoning, that’s what she could do. She could learn to be content like everyone else.

But she was not like everyone else. She tried to be. She wanted to be. She had practiced the precepts of Providence since she was no bigger than a swamp rat. To be discontent is to complain against Providence himself, to call him a liar, to say he has not provided as he ought.

And yet, Repentance Atwater was not content living in the breeder village. She was not content with the fog that clung like a burial shroud. She was not content with the oppressive heat which threatened to smother her. And, most assuredly, she was not content to be buttoned to Sober Marsh and to bear sons for the overlords to take as slaves. “You’re too quiet,” her mother said, after she’d finished one braid and started on the second. “What is there to say?” Her voice sounded high-pitched and desperate. Her mother seemed not to notice.”I know you’re worried,” Mercy said, “but you’ll grow to love Sober. Your father and I would never have agreed to the buttoning if we did not think it was so.”You had no choice, Mother. Who else would have me?”Mercy evaded the question. “You are a beautiful girl, Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding Atwater. A beautiful girl.”Repentance cringed at her mother’s use of all of her front names. No one in remembrance had four front names. The closest was Grace Renewed Springside, so named because a week before her birth her father had captured a second milk pig after her mother, in a fit of pregnancy fever, had gambled the first one away. Families rarely owned even one sow, and no one before had ever gained a second after the first one was lost. Grace Renewed, indeed. It was a fitting name for the baby, two-parter or not.”And you’re a smart girl,” her mother continued. “Sober will learn to appreciate that.””A beautiful and smart girl that no one wants.” Repentance said.She knew she wasn’t wanted. She was different from the others. It wasn’t just her name. She looked different, too. Everyone else had black hair and dark brown eyes. Repentance had hair the color of dried marsh grass and eyes a shade lighter–almost golden–with green flecks that flared up when she was agitated.”I don’t care that they don’t want me,” she said, “I don’t want any of them, either.” She looked at herself in the reflecting wall and her eyes spit green sparks back at her.Why would she want to be buttoned to boys who thought she was cursed?She’d heard the whispers all her life. It was largely supposed that Providence cursed her for some sin committed by her mother before her birth. And, truly, it must have been a terrible sin. What else would have required that her mother give her such a lengthy name? Repentance Joyous Forgiveness Abounding–it must have been a great offense for her mother to gush so over the forgiveness.The villagers didn’t think the sin forgiven, though. They assumed Providence had exacted payment from the mother by cursing the child. Why else would Repentance have such odd coloring, they wondered in whispers that could be heard across the swamp.When Repentance was little she’d often tried to discover what her mother’s sin was. If she bore the curse, she had a right to know the cause, she figured. But never would her mother speak of the deed.

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