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2016 BSFS Amateur Writing Contest winners at Capclave. Pictured from left: 1st place winner Irette Y. Patterson, 2nd place winner J.D. Gordon, and 3rd place winner S.L. Carney

2013 BSFS Amateur Writing Contest winners at Capclave. Pictured from left: 3rd place winner Eric Guy, 2nd place winner Rachel Kolar, and 1st place winner Holliann R. Kim

The Baltimore Science Fiction Society Amateur Writing Contest promotes the creation of quality genre literature in the state of Maryland. The contest was first held in 2013, and past winners are listed below. Click here for contest details and how to enter.

2016:
First place - "Witch Ball" by Irette Y. Patterson
Second place - "A Day in the Life of the Man Who Murdered 100 Billion People" by J.D. Gordon
Third place - "Piledriver" by S. L. Carney

2015:
First place - "A Thousand Solomons" by Christopher Mark Rose
Second place - "Hunted" by T. Eric Bakutis
Third place - "To Each, A Place" by Michael B. Tager

2014:
First place - "Captain Verge in the 21st Century!" by David Vaughan
Second place - "Very Happy and Very Productive" by Sherri Woosley
Third place - "Progenitor" by Rob Ross

2013:
First place - "Creatures of the Holy Well" by Holliann R. Kim
Second place - "Default" by Rachel Kolar
Third place - "DIY" by Eric Guy


Witch Ball
by Irette Y. Patterson

Hearth witch Anne Hart Jackson studied the witch ball from the safety of the office’s threshold. It was about twice the size of one of those big glass Christmas ornaments—plain with purple and gold swirls decorating it. Thin, clear filaments jutted through its hollow center like tiny fingers. It hung by a hook on its own display in a precarious position, the only clean place on the mahogany desk strewn with papers.

It could just be a trinket sold to antiquing Atlanta tourists trolling the north Georgia Mountains, Anne reasoned. That she was even thinking that it actually might have the power to trap magic and spells as advertised was silly. It was a freakin’, mutant Christmas ornament, for heaven’s sake, with a great story to separate weekend warriors from their money, but…

The grievances stacking up on her desk, the grumblings in the break room, the almost throwdown at the last division meeting where she had been checking underneath the conference table for a clear place to dive just in case things came to blows? All had popped up since Amelia’s employees had given Amelia the ball for Boss’ Day. That Anne’s magic stopped working in this office around the same time could just be a coincidence.

Yeah. It could. Except Anne didn’t believe in coincidences. She’d seen too much in her life.

“Anne,” a clipped voice said. “May I help you?” Anne looked up to meet the cold gray eyes of the woman behind the desk. Square black hipster glasses framed them. Amelia Bennett. Everything about her was severe, from the pointed features on her face to the wardrobe of gray pantsuits and white blouses punctuated with bloodred costume jewelry. “The Gray Witch” was what her subordinates called her behind her back, because of what she wore and her micromanaging ways.

Being in Human Resources, Anne couldn’t say anything, but she had noticed the number of grievances from this office was double than anywhere else in the division, and she had gone into action. She left batches of joy-enthused, homemade chocolate chip cookies in the break room on Wednesdays and started taking her breaks strolling the halls to amplify any positivity she could grab hold to. It had been working. She wasn’t a miracle worker, but at least this office had stabilized. Well, until recently, that was.

Anne crossed the threshold, stepping into the office holding the Styrofoam saucer with the slice of pound cake so tight it cracked. Already she could feel the energy drain, like when she stayed out too long in the sun as a kid. It didn’t hurt, but it did make her languid, stumbling as she crossed the office even though she wore flats. The fake pine smell from the overnight cleaners irritated her nose.

There was no point in trying to pretend that that thing wasn’t affecting her. She raised her mental shields—something she hadn’t had to do since her last visit back home for Christmas, when a couple of her telepathic Bow cousins coming into their powers had not yet grasped the concept of privacy.

The drain lessened a bit, but she couldn’t walk around with mental shields up all day; that would be tiring in and of itself.

When Amelia’s subordinates had given The Gray Witch the gift, they’d lied and told her it was a friendship ball, which it would have been if there were no filaments inside of it. It was an inside joke for the The Gray Witch to display a witch ball on her desk.

Real funny. That ball was dampening someone’s power all right, but it was the wrong witch. That ball had to go.

“I just came to offer you a piece of pound cake,” Anne said, thrusting the saucer toward her. “It’s the last piece left.”

“Bill and I are trying to eat healthier these days.” Amelia lowered her eyes to the desk, picking up another piece of paper to study.

Anne had been dismissed.

Anne stayed.

“It’s homemade,” Anne said. “All organic. Eggs. Butter made from happy cows.” She smiled and tried to gather a bit of the energy floating in the air to amplify it. Usually she could tie in to something: the smile of someone walking down the hall, the joy of finishing the last edit of an audit, or even the appreciation that someone surprised you with the last piece of buttery pound cake. That was how it worked—energy swirled around you. You could either make use of it or not. Her line of the family just had the ability to use it.

In this case, as she sent out her feelers, it boomeranged, piercing her shields. Pointed, sharp pain in her head, as if someone stabbing her brain with an icepick flashed in her head. She’d been out of practice protecting herself and had gotten lazy. Her mother had warned her about that, about being vulnerable, but there was nothing to do about it now.

A new blue thread ran alongside the witch’s ball purple–and-gold threads, itching itself along the glass. Once it made its swirling trip around the globe, it darkened and thickened.

Anne took a step to the side, getting closer to her goal. The ball mentally reached out to her and pinged against her sad excuse for shields. Just a warning, it seemed to Anne.

Well. Forget that.

Anne swung the plate wide, meeting her target. The ornament tipped over the desk, falling to the floor.

“No,” Amelia said, and reached for it. Anne stepped back.

It dropped to the floor...

And nothing. No crash. No glass breaking into tiny blessed pieces. No relief of the mental drain.

Amelia came around the desk and bent down to pick the intact ball up.

Time to get back in the game. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” Anne said, making a move to touch it, but there weren’t no way in hell that she wanted to touch that thing.

Luckily, Amelia saved her the trouble. The older woman picked it up and hung it right back on her display hanger.

“I’m so sorry,” Anne repeated, placing the cake on the desk. “I must not have been watching what I was doing. Is it, uh, safe here? All the files, while you’re reviewing them, you could knock it over. You could take it home, maybe? It would probably be safer there.”

“You’re right,” Amelia said. “I think that it should go on the bookcase so that we make sure that no one else tips it over.” She held it from its base and placed it along with the knickknacks given to her from clients that they audited. It was right between the glass star paperweight and the rectangle thing that looked like a miniature Washington Monument.

Great. Now the energy sucker was in a safer place. Time for a new tactic. “I’m sure you have place for it at your house. The light there must be so much better to pick up the colors.”

“I spend most of my time at this office, though,” Amelia said, “I want to be able to enjoy it.”

Amelia settled back behind the desk, looking more like a queen with the high-backed maroon leather chair framing her body. It was the same color as the statement bib necklace she wore and the hue of her lipstick. “Is there something else I could help you with?” She pushed the cake toward the edge of the desk. Rejected.

“Uh, timesheets. They’re due today.”

“Miss Jackson, is the world going to stop turning on its axis because the timesheets aren’t signed right this moment?”

Anne stood there in silence until she realized that it wasn’t just a rhetorical question and the woman before her with the glasses perched on her hawklike nose really expected an answer.

Anne said, “No, ma’am.”

“Well. Then you do whatever workaround you need to do to get everyone paid on time. After all, we can get around to it later.”

We, Anne thought. Like a royal We? Now that was kind of nuts. And so was the fact that she had been at this job for three years and at the end of each pay cycle, the timesheets had been signed on time.

Amelia scribbled something on a piece of paper, dropped it into her out-box, and reached into her in-box for the next item. She was an old-school kind of boss who liked paper. You could send her an e-mail, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. If you really wanted her to do something, you either had to put it on a piece of paper or you had to stop by and see her, no matter what she wanted people to believe about her. It was in Anne’s professional interest to know these things. Not only because she was a hearth witch, but with more and more people spending time at work, the workplace had almost become a home of sorts, making it was a necessity. No point in infusing chocolate chip cookies with the happy-happy mojo if no one would eat them because of an allergy.

“I understand that you work in human resources where things are different. But here, where we’re the profit center instead of an expense, we have deadlines. See,” Amelia said. Looking over her glasses, she raised her arm to over her head with her palm facing the floor. “I’m at this level and you,” she said, lowering the hand to the level at the desk, “are at this level. I need to do high level activities. You can take those lower activities and give them to someone else. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anne said. She put on her smile. “I’ll just take this cake back to the break room.” She dashed out of the room, energy returning with every step she took away from the ball. She dropped her mental shields in the hallway.

Okay. That didn’t work. She stared at the piece of cake in her hand. She went back to the break room and set it out on the table, hoping someone would take it. This crew needed everything they could get.

She left the breakroom and headed to the straightest path to her office. She needed to do something that day.

Anne paced the three steps it took her to reach the end of her gray cubicle and turned back around, rubbing the heart charm that hung from a gold bracelet on her wrist.

This was a place of power, though it didn’t look like it. One of her Hart cousins had quilted her a small mini-quilt of pastel blues and yellows that she tacked up on her gray partition that served as a wall. Her cousin Lila had made the royal blue mug that was microwavable and dishwasher safe. The mint tea she drank was grown at home, too. Everything that could be homemade, was homemade, and by her line of the family. She had never been so glad of that than today when she needed the energy boost. Plus, the further she was away from that…thing, the better she felt.

She was a Hart. She amplified good feelings and could infuse objects with it. A quilt. An apron. Something small and preferably something that wasn’t washed. Washing dissipated the energy a bit. In a pinch, edibles like chocolate chip cookies or pound cake could do the trick.

She suspected that it wouldn’t take long for the workplace to go into full meltdown mode. She’d already seen the cracks. She could just leave, get another job. It wouldn’t be hard, considering what she was. People wanted to hire people who made them feel good, and if there was one thing that a hearth witch knew how to do, it was to make someone feel good.

But she liked this place. She liked that it was a challenge, and even though her shields did not get a workout, her other skills did. She liked being needed. At home, she was one of many, and not very talented at that. She wasn’t the best baker and her stitches certainly weren’t straight. She couldn’t grow a vegetable to save her life. Here? She was special. Besides, she didn’t like being run out of anywhere. Her family didn’t run from anyone or anything.

She stopped pacing, reached out, and took a sip of the peppermint tea from her mug, her hands caressing the sides of it. Trying to break the witch ball hadn’t worked. It was sturdier than it looked. and they did have carpeted floor that would cushion any accidental fall. The Hey take it home suggestion hadn’t worked. But maybe there was a simpler way...

The idea came to her in a flash and she latched onto it with a vengeance—just switch the thing out. Just switch out the witch ball with a friendship ball—an ornament without the filaments running through it. They had to be mass-manufactured, right? They couldn’t all be originals.

Like any Hart worth her salt, Anne had taken pictures of the event with her digital camera. She also had a good memory when it came to colors. She remembered that the ball had been bought somewhere up in the mountains, according to the office’s latest audit. Who had bought it? The picture of a cloud of frizzy, red hair and a thin, long face like a fairy popped into her mind. Elyse. Elyse, whose favorite snacks were cheese puffs, had purchased it. And it was somewhere up in the mountains where Elyse had conducted her site visit, right?

With a couple of clicks, she was able to pull up the site visit database and figure out where Elyse had been. From there it was a just a matter of deduction. A couple of clicks on a search engine and suddenly she had a good approximation.

Because she came into the office early, it would also be easy to sneak into Amelia’s office and switch out the witch ball for the friendship ball.

She picked up the phone and punched in the four-digit extension to her supervisor, Wayne (oatmeal raisin cookies). “May I take the rest of the day off?”

There were certain benefits to being a hard worker who never took time off. When you asked for time off and you asked for it without giving a lot of notice and you happened to have a crack in your voice when you were asking for said time off? Well, it seemed to go well for you. It didn’t take long for her to close out of the timesheets and ask her co-worker Liz (hummingbird cake) to take it over for her.

She did not like to use her abilities for personal gain—plus the family matriarch Auntie forbade it—but this wasn’t exactly for her own good. It was for the folks toiling away under The Gray Witch. The witch ball’s effects did not reach as far as her area. Good thing, too. She amplified the good feelings, and Liz agreed. Anne made the note to bring a hummingbird cake into the office sometime in the next week.

She whispered, “Sorry, Auntie,” as she left the office and headed toward the mountains.

Within two hours with no traffic, she was in the general area. She did not trust gadgets--they were cold. She still used the good ole reliable Georgia Department of Transportation map. It showed every highway—state and federal. Where road names could change, numbers did not.

Armed with that information as a backup and the directions she printed from Google Maps, she was on her way.

She parked in a corner of the downtown square, and then took a look around. That was one thing she loved about old time squares. No matter where you parked, you were really just a couple of feet away from where you wanted to go.

She stepped up to the sidewalk and she almost could feel the town in its heyday. The one-story, modest county courthouse sat in the middle of the square. It had been turned into a museum. Fuchsia azaleas brushed up against the building. She searched for the titles of the shops lining the square. Olde-Tyme General Store? No. Quilts and Coverings? No. Vann’s Glass? Yep. That had to be the one. The outside looked like a log cabin. She stepped right in.

The place reminded her more of a crystal palace inside than a shop. It was rectangular in shape, and as soon as she made it through the door, the bells clanked against the door. She turned around to find actual bells tied in a red bow to the doorknob.

She stood at the entrance as she always did. Not usually someone who wanted to draw attention to herself, but considering who she was and her family, she took her intuition very seriously. She waited for something to cry out to her. This was, after all, the witch ball place. She should have been able to tell it from a feeling. She got a small headache from just one of those things. A whole shop of them should have been able to put her under. But they didn’t.

It felt happy. Whoever worked here, they were certainly happy, loved their work as artists usually did. She stepped further into the shop. There were balls. Witch balls with filaments running through them. Friendship balls, which were hollow.

There was even a “Sign up for special offers” fishbowl for her business card. She dropped one in the container. No one in her family ever won anything from those kind of things, but she always held out hope.

“May I help you?” The man around the counter poked his head out. She tested her gathering energy from him, but there was nothing. He didn’t take energy from her; in fact it was almost as if he wasn’t there at all.

And that had never happened to her before in her life. Positive? Yes. Negative? Unfortunately, yes. Neutral? Never.

She took a step back.

“Easy there,” he said, coming toward her until she backed against the door.

He was easy on the eyes, but too clean-cut for someone she would have figured belonged here. Clean shaven, with dark hair and deep brown eyes. She suspected that he worked indoor, and even though he wore a button-down shirt with jeans and leather lace-up shoes, everything about him said professional male. He didn’t belong.

But she needed his help.

She shook it off. “I’m sorry. You surprised me. I guess I didn’t see anyone there.”

“Sorry about that. I like to work on some things in the back while it’s slow. My dad runs the shop, but I’m here to cover for him since he’s on vacation.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” she said. And it made sense. Not the whole void thing, but in other places it made sense.

“But can I help you with something?”

He was too close and his eyes were too dark and everything was too much. If she had any sense she would leave right now, but she couldn’t. How could a void affect her like this? Well, there was one reason...

She stopped looking in his eyes to save herself, picking a spot beyond him. “Um,” she said. “I’m looking for something like.” She dug in her purse to pull out her phone, and then started scrolling through her pictures. Why did she have so many pictures? She looked up then and got lost in those eyes. Her cheeks burned, and she was glad that her skin tone was so dark that someone could not see it. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. She shook her head, still getting flustered.

“Sorry about this. I thought I had it right here.” She shook her head again when the pale hands came and covered her dark ones. “Let me help.” She was not going to look up. That would be silly. And something that she was not going to do.

She looked up and she felt, more than saw, the telephone leave her hands.

He scrolled through them. “You take a lot of pictures,” he said.

“Occupational hazard.” The phrase left her mouth before she could cram the words back in.

“What do you do?”

“I’m in HR.” Think. Think of something reasonable other than the simple explanation of being a hearth witch. “You know, um, I’m in charge of a lot of the get-togethers. For the job.”

“Hmmm,” he said.

She usually said that “Hmmm” like a non-committal statement when someone came into her cubicle and wanted to talk “off the record” in a conference room. Her supervisor called it the “HR Hmmm.” It was the first time she had been on the receiving end of a “Hmmm.” She didn’t like it.

He stopped scrolling through the phone. “Is this it?” He held it up.

“Yes, that’s it.” She took the phone from him and looked at it closely just to make sure he had the right picture. He did.

She smiled up at him. “That is definitely it.”

He stared at her for a minute.

“What’s wrong?”

“You have a beautiful smile,” he said. “Wow. That sounded like a pickup line.”

“I thought it was a nice compliment. Thank you. Now…” She needed to get back to business because even though he looked a certain way and he was not fooling anyone by closing the gap with them while they were standing, she was here for business. “I need a friendship ball just like this one.”

“Just like the one in the picture?”

“Yes. Just like that one. Is one available?”

“Well, not today. But I can make one and have it available for you next week that you can pick up, or we can ship it for you.”

“Are you sure?” She furrowed her brow and stepped around him to look at the glass balls decorating the shop. She picked up what she thought was surely a similar one. “This looks close to me.”

“But you want a ball that’s a friendship ball that’s close to the one in the picture.”

“Yes.”

“I made that witch ball. I remember it because I don’t usually make them, my dad does. I just figured to make one to keep in practice.” He closed the space between them. “If you want something just like that one, except for a friendship ball, then you’re going to have to wait until I can make it for you.”

Mr. Void made the witch ball. She was standing in a shop full of witch balls that did not affect her a lick. The one that he made gave her a headache. She ran through the connections pretty quickly.

It wasn’t the witch ball that affected her. It was his witch ball. Her head started pounding again, but not because of any object was draining energy from her. She rubbed her forehead.

He was at her side, taking her arm. “Are you all right?”

She looked up at him, feeling the pressure on her arm, and it swamped her. “I’ll take the friendship ball that you have here.”

“Are you sure? I can make one for you. I want to make one for you. I’m not a weirdo, really. I know how that may sound.”

“I know you’re not a weirdo. I know.” She straightened up. “And I know what I’m doing. I’ll just take the ball, please.”

He nodded and wrapped up a ball identical to the one in the boss’s office except that it did not have the strands going through the middle. But that wasn’t the reason why it affected her that way. It wasn’t the thing. It was the maker.

He placed the package in a plastic bag along with a business card. “Here you go,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said.

There had to be a mistake, she thought. She was halfway to the door when she turned around. “You really made that ball?”

“Yes.”

She nodded and left. The rest of it was academic. She’d switch out the ball in the morning before Amelia got to her office, and destroy it, and that would be that. She would go back to her regular world and everything would be fine.

Except that she could not. Destroy the ball, that was. She kept it at home, looking at it. It was a neutralizer with a side of headache. Just like the man who created it.

She never thought it would happen to her. Maybe there was more than one once-in-a-lifetime love for other people, but not for her people. Not if you wanted a child with abilities. If you didn’t, it would not matter. But the hitch was the abilities did not affect him or her, the spouse that is. And that professional man with the hazel eyes—in a witch ball shop, for goodness sake—was a possibility.

She fingered the business card that contained his information, then put it away. Who would want to be neutralized, to be vulnerable? Plus, this was different. He was able to create neutralizing objects. She didn’t want any part of that. Besides, he had not even asked her her name. It was all in her head.

When it got too much, she smashed the ball and took it out with the trash. Done. Over.

The office was back to normal. Amelia had even signed her timesheets.

Anne picked up the phone when it rang at her desk. It could be anyone. She didn’t recognize the number, but she was the point person for various projects, so that really did not surprise her.

“Yes,” she said.

“Anne.” The voice, that deep timbre, was so familiar that her head started to get lightheaded again.

“Hi, I was just calling to make sure that you liked the ball.”

“Yes,” she said, “I did.” She paused. “How did you get this number?”

“You dropped your business card in the fishbowl on the counter for special offers and giveaways.”

“Yeah. Right,” she said. “You’re saying I won something?” That would be a first.

“No. My dad is back at the shop and I wondered if you would want to go out sometime.”

“I don’t live in the mountains.”

“Neither do I.” He paused. “Look. There’s something about you. I want to get to know you better.”

“I...” Well, she knew exactly what would happen and how it would happen. Marrying your true love could do either one of two things—neutralize your powers, which was what happened to her mother, or amplify them, which was what usually happened. Your powers definitely didn’t work on your one true love.

“Take a chance.”

She looked over to her computer, the numbers giving her comfort. She wanted more of him, but she wanted to know what would happen.

And that’s when she knew that this was how it started with so many women before her. A look. A touch. And they went down like the Titanic.

So, was worth it? Who was worth it? And maybe being special was more than being someone who was outwardly courageous. Maybe it was someone who knew exactly the cost, the enormous cost, and decided to pursue true love anyway. Besides, her family didn’t run from anyone or anything.

She laughed. “What’s your name, anyway?” she asked.

“Colin.”

She fingered the heart charm on her bracelet. “Colin,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”

© Irette Y. Patterson 2016

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