Obscura Academy Challenge: Pen a Story Based on an Intriguing First Line

Welcome to the discussion for the latest Obscura Academy challenge: Pen a Story Based on an Intriguing First Line. You can share your short stories along with any comments and thoughts in the conversation below.

We can’t wait to read what you’ve written!

On the island of Tashirojima in the Miyagi Prefecture, the cats outnumber people, and the people like it that way. But on the other side of the world, there’s a small village where the people are outnumbered by a herd of vicious, bloodthirsty alpacas, and no one goes outside during the new moon.

On a small island in the Pacific Ocean, the residents cower in fear as massive casts of crabs take over their dwellings twice a month. The crabs lie in bed, waiting for the people to bring them large baskets of fish, barnacles, plants, snails, shrimp, and worms. Only after they are satiated do the invaders return to the sea.

In a part of one of Switzerland’s cantons, which I have agreed not to name, the population stays at home every other Tuesday between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. when the marmots and snow voles invade the town and devour everything in their path.

It’s hard to estimate the number of places where the people are outnumbered by local fauna; and there are those who swear that revealing the secret will bring on further attacks. I talked to a man would not reveal his birthplace, but shared the terrifying story of the dingoes who…well, it’s safe to say you’ve seen the movie and according to him “Doesn’t know it by ‘arf”.

No one knows why these people suffer such tribulations, while others get along famously with their resident species. Scientists have been studying them for years, and some have also fallen victim to this phenomenon. A graduate student on one of the south Antarctic islands disappeared, having ignored his team’s warnings about the massive waddles of bitter, vengeful penguins who emerge when the temperature hits 11°C and take their toll.

On the island of Tashirojima in the Miyagi Prefecture, the cats outnumber people, and the people like it that way. I hope this continues, but to prepare for the inevitable day when the cats turn on them would not go amiss.

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Marimo might be the cutest plant on Earth. And the deadliest. The agency needed a fail-safe emissary to infiltrate the target and knew Marimo, pretty, petite, fit, and brilliant, would easily charm the advance guards and outwit the superiors. The agency charged with dissolving threats and seizing assets could not have found a more capable or unsettling executrix than Marimo who knew the culture, spoke the language, and was conspicuously motivated. When she was recruited her unique skills were known to the agency and her work ethic and efficiency both impressed and disturbed them. Their choice was foregone even knowing they could face trust and containment issues with Marimo.

(It may be the beginning of a thousand stories or a declassified snippet of one. Who knows.)

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A Marimo Haiku


Marimo might be
the cutest plant on this Earth
thanks to trickery.

.

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Jean-Jacques Megel-Nuber didn’t always imagine he’d be living in his bookshop, but he knew he wanted it to move.

He’d tried to leave the premises several times since the untimely passing of his parents. Although he could get over their shared demise – an unfortunate accident involving a set of shelves suffering from the shell shock it acquired from a volume of war poetry – he could never get over the threshold and out the front door.

Eventually, his memory conspired to remind him of something his grandmama had told him a few days before her own untimely death, swallowed whole by a Swedish edition of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando: “Every book contains a soul, and souls require constant company. Without that, the outcome is inevitably a dark and shredding descent into nightmarish insanity, abject chaos and complete cosmic disorder.

Accepting that greater powers were operating far above his pay grade – and being very young, Jean-Jacques paid himself in lollipops – the boy resigned himself to a life lived entirely inside the bookshop. But that didn’t mean he was completely happy with where he was. To be specific, Jean-Jacques wasn’t happy with where the bookshop was, geographically.

The bookshop was located on a blustery wind tunnel of a street in a bleak and wintery city. As Jean-Jacques was a feeble, ailing young fellow – nourished and sustained mostly by the glum literature and shadows on offer in the bookshop and not fun, food, sunshine and family-friendly sitcoms like most kids – he really suffered in the conditions. The constant draughts that rattled through the bookshop’s rafters chilled his bones and tormented his psyche. Without his parents or grandparents around to distract him a little, the young man began to feel unbearably cold and unbearably isolated.

One night, fearing that he’d freeze to death cold and alone, he called out to the bookshop around him to express his fears. At the end of a cathartic outburst several constant-winters in the making, he decared that the two of them – both bookshop and owner – must move elsewhere at once.

This struck the bookshop as an audacious and outrageous suggestion. Answering back, it reminded Jean-Jacques that it had been in its present position since before Jean-Jacques was born and, indeed, since before his parents and grandparents and their grandparents and all their grandparents before them had been born. Indeed - it claimed - it had been there since before the explosion of the first novels, since before the first vellum was scraped from a sacred cow and since before early humans started developing fingers in order to scratch out theistic fan fiction.

But poor Jean-Jacques refused to back down. With palpable anguish he outlined their perilous position and convinced the bookshop that his frail human body would surely perish and die if he remained where he was. The bookshop heard how, without a custodian and unoccupied, its insides would be raided by indifferent bureaucrats and entrepreneurial carpetbaggers and eventually converted into a coffee chain branch or an electric cigarette emporium.

Horrified at a prospect worse than all Kafka’s nightmares combined, the bookshop agreed to its owner’s request. There was a sticking point, however, for the bookshop expressed doubt about its ability to move, feeling it was just way too heavy. Possibly wise beyond his years or maybe simply inspired by desperation, Jean-Jacques had a solution, however, and said solution would proverbially kill two birds with one stone. (Or, to be more accurate, kill two metaphorical albatrosses with one flaming room full of depressing reading material.)

Before dawn had dawned, Jean-Jacques had burnt through all the thousands and thousands of books in an upstairs spare bedroom that his father had designated the ‘Misery Lit and Tragic Life Memoirs’ stock space. He’d over-ordered during the misery-lit boom years of the early new Millennium before such harrowing and hopeless reading was supplanted by the rise of true crime, translated autofiction and YA afrofuturism.

All those tomes served no purpose to anyone beyond functioning as a symbolic memento of his father’s flaws and a reminder that there’s a lot of pain and trauma in the world. Jean-Jacques, thus, happily torched them all. He found his body warmed and his spirits lifted and the bookshop found itself, likewise, lighter.

So light, in fact, that it could leap up and away from its foundations. Bounding beyond the edge of the bleak and wintery city, the pair gallivanted and globetrotted across the continents in an action-packed odyssey later to be chronicled in verse form by Lord Byron. (Except Byron never finished it because the early cantos got eaten by his pet bear and the poet couldn’t be bothered starting again while he was occupied with the Greek War of Independence.)

Eventually, Jean-Jacques and the bookshop decided to call time on their escapades and adventures in order to settle down. They found the perfect site somewhere in the sunny southern hemisphere and soon discovered that customers would not be hard to come by, for wherever you go you’ll find folk attracted to the smell of paperback pages, the dust of ages and odd people who want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be reading. So it was that both Jean-Jacques and the bookshop found new peace, purpose and joy in life, and they lived that life happily ever after.

(Until the publishers demanded a sequel in time for the Christmas shopping season.)

By James Clayton.

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In the Fishlake National Forest in Utah, a giant has lived quietly for the past 80,000 years.

The giant, whom local residents will soon know by her preferred name of “Judy”, produces surprisingly deft woven mats and rugs, given her enormous hands, and has a penchant for word games. Unfortunately for her fellow players, her vocabulary is 80,000 years old.

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It was a normal day at the lab for Dave Remson until of of the unnatural guests escaped from from its room. As the alarms were triggered, Dave sealed the other rooms to prevent any other containment breaches from occurring.

The professional soldiers filled the hallways as the regular, daily, staff went into hiding in protected, and fortified, bunkers. The armed men were wearing thick tungsten body plates and carried weapons with ammunition the size of tennis balls. They surveyed the area non-stop with little information they had from Professor Remson about the beast. But as the day continued, nothing seemed to happen till nightfall.

One of the squads were reported respondent at 20:30. Later that night, another squad was reported missing during 20:45 with another group found dead by 21:10. The crews dead bodies laid lifeless, their tungsten plates were shattered across the blood stained floor with only the cracked chunks of the armor still attached to some of the bodies. The setting showed signs of gunfire due to the dents in the walls and bullets laid out, randomly, across the dark floor.

Between 23:45 and 24:55, the beast made an appearance through the security system. Cameras in the area revealed it clawing into one of the other rooms containing another one of the unnatural guests. The beast showed itself as a maraknya creature. It had four, unnaturally shaped, keen ended legs. Its face and torso was disfigured as his two arms, one being shorter than the other one, looked like ink sacks with claws at the end of it. Below the torso, where legs should be for its humanoid body, were missing, only with fleshy tubes lingering out, dripping a dark substance that only appeared to drip every so hour. After some examining by the squads, the creature stopped clawing at the door, then left.

It was 03:25 when Professor Remson, and his fellow staff, last gained contact with the soldiers. When they were rescued by the military, no remains of the squads of soldiers were found. All that was left were hollowed out pipes, walls, ceilings, even empty rooms, one of them being on of the neighboring bunkers. The lab was abandoned and the beast continued to roam the halls, feeding on the other unnatural creatures it could gets its claws on. Later that year, the beast was confirmed to be unmatched by another creature that breached its forgotten containment. Till this day, the new creature is still unidentified by the military and continues to roam the blotted out lab.

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It’s said that not all who wander are lost, and that’s mostly true. But sometimes you need to find your dinner so you can find yourself. I’d spent a good few hours roaming the streets, trying to find my one perfect restaurant, my one place to call home. Boston has an absolute bounty of them, but I might as well have been Sisyphus with his boulder, in my attempt to reach my one desired establishment. The city stretched out, an endless labyrinth. A beating, roiling heart of concrete, steel, and glass gave way to mazes of brick and stone, plaster and plywood forests, stretching unto the distant horizon. And every ring, every layer of the megalopolis was alive with the bustle of restaurants, with people hungry for life, with distinct cuisines ripe with self knowledge.

Ever did I wander, yet I refused to be lost—every step took me in exactly the direction I needed to go. Every step, another one on my hunter’s path, closer and closer to finding what I sought, and who. I hoped. It was wondrous, the sheer breadth of variety that the city and its suburbs held; a true smorgasbord of culinary adventure. Every neighborhood held a new assortment to sample; some areas were a platter of Asiatic cuisines, others a rich bounty of African tastes, while yet more were simple, common fare. Still delicious, but which was mine?

You are what you eat, and I had been hungry for a while. As I wandered I saw on every corner a new restaurant, and every restaurant held table after table. One of them would have ,if not exactly what I needed, something that would be a good start, an appetizer to a great feast to come. I contemplated menus in my mind. What suits my taste? What suits my soul? Who am I? Who do I want to become?

Am I a Parisian sophisticate, strolling through the sixth arrondissement, effortlessly at home on the Rive Gauche, baguette tucked casually under one arm? Am I a Jamaican beach bum, sweating bare chested over a plate of conch fritters and a Red Stripe? Am I a homey type, dipping my grilled American cheese into tomato soup as the snow drifts softly down outside, and I toy with a Sudoku? Am I a mountaineer at the foot of Everest, the taste of Kathmandu spice still lingering on my frosty tongue, bent double as I tighten my crampons? 

Should I learn the arcane ritual of a tea ceremony, or drink ice water straight from the stream? Will I hire a private chef to serve me, clinking crystal high above the street-level masses, or will I become a flat-lander, throwing scratch to chickens before I hand grind corn to bake my bread? What mix of sour or sweet, spicy or smooth, bitter or bold, hot or cold will constitute the banquet of my life?

Maybe what I’ve been looking for all this time was already within my grasp. Maybe I need a trip to the grocery store, not a restaurant. I don’t need to go out to nourish myself, I’ll bring what I need home. I have all the tools I need to cook, other chefs visions are not my own. I was never lost, but I needed to wander to reach what I already knew was home. I’ll cook up my meal myself, with a mix of the ingredients that seem right to me alone.

Time to write my own menu.
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With permission from the writers, I’m sharing a few of the wonderful submissions that we got via email.

First up is this epic tale of Apollo and his journey to save the kingdom of the stars, written by Lorelai Gerard. It’s filled with adventure, excitement, and mystery, and you can read it here: LorelaiGardner_OA writing challenge.pdf (69.0 KB)

Next is a story from Mary Clark that chronicles the journey of finding yourself lost and alone in a country where you don’t speak the native language.

It’s said that not all who wander are lost, and that’s mostly true.

Except in my case. I found myself lost. Completely. All alone in the depths of Marrakesh, Morocco. This was the first time my sense of direction and phone lost power at the same time. How could this be? I go through little alleyways with colorful shops on both sides. They are selling everything from olives to leather handbags.

At first I was wondering through the Sulk, this is what they call the thousand year old shopping district. It is a beehive of little alleyways filled with people, shops, motorbikes and odors. The colors drew me in. I kept walking down one alley into the next thinking I knew where I was going. It wasn’t until I started to try and find my way out that I realized I was lost, in Morocco, hoping and praying I could find someone that spoke English.

Initially I wasn’t too worried. Don’t all roads lead to home? As it became clearer that I was in fact lost I began to feel that little bit of fear in the pit of my stomach. Why did the men suddenly seem so menacing? Their dark hair and eyes along with their deeply tanned skin did not help to calm me. All I could think about was the headline “Old Woman Lost In Medina in Morocco” and that old woman was me!

First thing first. I’ll stop and have a cold drink. Get my bearings and then get the hotel out of Dodge. I approached a store front cafe, smiled and said “Good afternoon, may I have a Coke.” The gentleman smiled at me, pointed to the cooler at a Coke and said “yes?” I nodded. I sat down at one of the three small tables and enjoyed a brief moment of joy as the cool liquid trickled down my throat. Next I asked the man “Do you speak English?” He smiled, as all Moroccans do and replied “No English”. OK strike one.

I finished my soda and decided the best thing to do was backtrack. That idea lasted about 30 seconds when I came to my first cross alley and everything looked identical. Hmmm…there has to be a way out. This is a tourist town for Gods sake! Someone speaks English and someone can help me out of this maze. I looked to the left and I looked to the right - hoping to see something that resembled the town square. All I could see were more alley ways, more shops, more color.

Now I began to get a little nervous. What time was it? 5:00? 6:00? I knew it was getting late and I knew my fellow travelers would have started to worry about me, but even so what they do? In a city of roughly a million it can be hard to be found. I had heard to Morocco was a safe county and all of the cities and towns were safe and the people helpful. I was about to put that theory to the test.

After walking for what seemed like hours but in reality was only 30 minutes I found my way out! Yes here I was back in the square. All roads lead to home - or do they? I recognized that I was in a town square but it was not the one my Riad (hotel) was near. I had never seen this square before. What I did see though was a restaurant, a big European looking restaurant. I headed over there knowing I would meet English speaking people and someone could direct me through this maze of hell home.

So I guess when all is said and done it is true - that all who wander are lost - but I certainly was!

Next up is Casey Lowe’s story, “Get me Chase Holden!” This one starts off with a seemingly normal day on a film set, but really keeps you on your toes with its twists and turns.

"Get me Chase Holden!"

Just before nine on a drizzly, slate-colored Saturday morning, the grassy patches and paved paths around Central Park’s Turtle Pond were wild with activity. Everything seemed normal but it was all fake. Instead of New York, the scene was playing out on the backlot of a studio in Hollywood.

I was working on the set of a movie as an extra with my friends Kendra, Pam, and Brian. We’d worked on probably a dozen films together and it was always fun hanging out with them. This was good because despite the long hours, there’s a lot of down time on a set. Every new scene requires the movement of tons of cameras, lights, and people. While this is going on the actors go to their trailers and us extras go to a holding area which may or may not have food, working toilets, and comfortable seating.

On this shoot, though, we’d hit the trifecta: snacks were available at what’s called “Craft Service”, there were ample restroom facilities, and the holding area actually had sofas. Soft, comfortable, beautiful sofas! After the second or third scene of the day we had about an hour and a half to kill so we sat around and talked about the latest overnight success in town, Shonda Jenkins, and how every agent in the City of Angeles was calling her with audition offers.

In her best “Studio Boss” voice, Pam was yelling, “Get me Shonda Jenkins!” which put us all in fits of laughter for a good twenty minutes. Brian just smiled with an arched brow like he always did, and said, “We should make someone up, and start a rumor that everyone is looking for a meeting with them.”

Honestly, it sounded like harmless fun – a way to kill some time for that afternoon. So we started thinking about good, solid movie star names like “Ron Banner,” “Jane Evans,” “Tiffany Van der Dietzen.” Nothing quite hit the mark, so we got some lunch and settled back into the comfy sofas. After a few more failed attempts we’d almost decided to give up and start a game of spades, the official card game of movie extras everywhere.

Brian had a far-off look on his face for a moment, and then offered, “what about the name Chase Holden?” Kendra got a funny look on her face as she connected two thoughts together in an aha moment and said, “It’s got the sound of old Hollywood while also having a last name for a first name, that’s gotta get people’s attention!”

It was perfect. The name just felt right in our minds and on our lips so we hatched our plan: we would start by saying the name Chase Holden a little louder than the volume of conversation in the extra’s holding area. Then on set, as we passed the director, writers, stars, and assorted crew members we’d make sure to say the name to each other just loud enough for them to hear but not get its context. Finally, at the end of the day on our way to our cars, we’d make sure to loudly guffaw and use the name like we’d heard some juicy info about him. It was juvenile, but that’s the kind of thing that made our group so fun.

Thirty minutes later we had the chance to put our plan into action. An assistant director came by the extra’s tent and said we should hurry to set for the next scene. We got up and made sure to mention Chase to each other so that the other extras would hear us. Then, after a quick trip to hair and makeup for a touch up, and wardrobe for a slight costume change, we arrived on set and were sure to say Chase Holden’s name around the crew before taking up our positions in the shot. Forty minutes later, with the shot completed, the Director said “That’s a wrap for today, we’ll see everyone tomorrow. Check the call sheet for your start times!”

We changed out of our costumes and headed for the parking area, all the while making sure to say Chase Holden’s name in front of as many cast and crew as possible without seeming obvious. After some goodbyes we parted for the night and agreed to meet up a little earlier than our call time the next morning, so we could continue our whisper campaign. As it turned out, this was completely unnecessary.

The following morning, as we were walking to the extras holding area to check in, we passed by the hair and makeup trailer and heard one of the artists saying to the other, “Chase Holden may be coming by the set today so make sure to keep an eye out!” Further along, we said hello to a friendly grip who was loading lighting equipment and in response to our greeting he asked “Did you hear about Chase Holden? He might be replacing the lead on set! It could happen as early as today.”

This was equal parts gratifying and terrifying. It was fun to think that our evil plan had worked, but it was troubling to think that it had worked so well and so fast. On the spot we agreed to suspend our plan and just enjoy another day on set. No need to keep up the ruse, we’d had our fun. But sadly this was not to be the end of the story.

Throughout the day we kept hearing rumors involving the fictional Chase Holden, each more improbable than the last. Our smiles turned to frowns as we realized that people were actually stressing about it. Some worried for their jobs, others worried Chase might make a surprise visit to the set, while still others wanted to get a selfie with the phenomenon for their kids and would be heartbroken if they didn’t get the opportunity.

Yeah, this was definitely going sideways fast, but what could we do? Later in the week on the final day of shooting we said our goodbyes and agreed to keep things mum until we got together on the next film shoot. As it turned out, a number of productions were on hiatus so we didn’t end up working together again for almost a month. In the interim, the story of the “Boy from nowhere” grew and got picked up in the major trade publications and a cable show focusing on celebrity gossip. The search was on in earnest and the public wouldn’t be satisfied until they could see the next overnight success, Chase Holden.

As the start date for our next movie was approaching, I was looking forward to seeing everyone very much and couldn’t wait to discuss the “Chase Holden phenomena” that we had created. Then something happened that I never would have expected. I was listening to the radio on the way to the set early in the morning. The traffic and weather reporters did their bits then the entertainment person came on and announced that the star had come forward. He was working in Hollywood under everyone’s noses doing research for his next “project” as a lowly extra named Brian!

This last bit of information was troubling. Someone had clearly usurped our fake star’s name and claimed it for their own, but was the name Brian just a coincidence? I raced to the set and ran to the extras holding area where I found Kendra and Pam. They looked at me with blank faces as they had clearly heard the same reports. Anxiously we looked toward the door to see if our fourth friend was coming but it was in vain. It looked like he had turned his back on us. What was most worrisome, though, was the thought that he had planned this all along. It was his idea to talk up our fake celebrity and he had suggested the name. Were we just pawns in his master plan for success in Hollywood?

It didn’t take long to confirm that we were right. All day the cast and crew were talking about “Chase” and that he had “secretly” worked as an extra up until about a month ago. One writer gushed that, though he had a plain look, you could tell he had a “smoldering undercurrent of raw passion for the craft of acting that isn’t seen more than once in a generation…” This description of our former friend almost caused me to laugh out loud. It was just amazing to think how rumors can turn into legends in the blink of an eye.

In between takes on set, as we stewed in the extra’s holding area, we kinda went through the stages of grief. We started with disbelief: “How could he do this to us? It must be a mistake.” Then moved on to anger: “That’s it – he’s dead meat! I’m going to have a talk with him one-to-one,” Pam threatened. Finally, we moved on to acceptance: What could we do to change things? We didn’t have anything with which to fight him. Or did we?

Kendra got that look in her eye that said she was thinking about an elaborate, complex, multi-layered plan likely involving hacking supercomputers, breaking into NORAD, and then kidnapping a Saudi Prince. Happily though, she had a much simpler idea: “Let’s kill Chase Holden.”

I protested, “Wait, what? We shouldn’t actually kill Brian, even if he deserves it!”

“No, silly”, Kendra continued, “We’ll say that the real Chase Holden died in an auto accident up on Mulholland Drive months ago and that this guy, Brian, is an imposter!”

That seemed like a perfect way to get our revenge and we set out on our new course in the same way we had done before. Rumor had created Chase Holden, and rumor would be his downfall. As before, we saw results right away. If anything, this rumor was moving faster than the last. Maybe bad news does travel faster than good.

Within a day the set was full of talk about how Brian had stolen the identity of the late, great, Chase Holden, and soon afterward, all of Hollywood was in an uproar. Now the search was on for a villain, rather than a star. In a way I felt bad for Brian. I’m sure it had seemed like the perfect crime to him, but now he was persona non-grata at every studio. Our revenge seemed to be complete.

Days turned into weeks and there was no sign of Brian. It was like he’d dropped off the face of the earth. We actually started to worry and began to ask around everywhere we could. Finally, while working on the backlot of a major studio, we got some answers. I had been showing Brian’s picture around, without much luck, until I gave it to an old carpenter who’d worked at the studio his whole life.

Taking off his glasses, he squinted at the picture and said “oh yeah, that’s Chase Holden…could have been a really big star…too bad that he died so young.” I started to grab the picture back in frustration since he seemed to be just echoing our rumor. But then the old man continued, “When he went off to war in ’67 I was sure he’d return to me, but sadly he was killed in action.”

“Wait, I think you’re confused, this is a picture of our friend Brian,” I said, trying to hide my annoyance. But the old man persisted and pulled out an old newspaper clipping from his wallet. As he slowly unfolded it to reveal an obituary, there was Brian’s smiling face, complete with his trademark arched brow. All we could do was look at each other in stunned silence.

What had we done? Was it possible that Brian actually was Chase Holden? And did we deny him the chance to be the star he was meant to be? Those questions haunt me to this very day…

On the island of Tashirojima in the Miyagi Prefecture, the cats outnumber people, and the people like it that way. Well, the people were told to like it that way. By the cats. The cats also told the people how to dress, when to sleep and wake, and how to walk. The people liked that too. The people liked being directed by the cats because the cats were reasonable and well-groomed. The cats set up community councils on community issues, supervised trash collection and recyclables, invited the public to midnight sing-a-longs, and encouraged journaling.

The cats collected taxes, secured business loans, and supported local fishermen. The cats advocated for humane policing and sound environmental policies. The cats also organized and oversaw a community day of mourning when all of the local dogs disappeared overnight. The people mourned, but all agreed that the cats had presided in a way that everyone liked.

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