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We Have a Winner :: The 2021 Big Moose Prize

The final results of the 2021 Big Moose Prize are in! And the winning manuscript is…

Labor Day by Jill Stukenberg

When two strange children show up alone, by canoe, Allie Krane, her husband Bud, and their daughter Cassie must reexamine the nature of their reality at the remote Northwoods resort for which they fled Chicago years ago. To Allie, who’d dreamt of raising a daughter away from the problems of the modern world, the children are final sign that like the small ecological disasters lapping yearly at their door the world is changing again beneath their feet. Bud finds his wife’s beliefs increasingly inexplicable, and her action in regard to the strange children as bizarre and dangerous as her response last year when Cassie found herself in trouble after the suicide of a friend. Told in three points of view, the family’s differing interpretations of what is changing around them becomes splintering, with final consequences for Cassie’s future.

 

Excerpt from Labor Day

Pencil! Scissors! Can opener!

At first the children’s cries were only vaguely alarming. Allie heard the shrieks from inside Pines, where the late summer breeze ferried their voices, isolated and individual, like lost birds or straggling summer tourists.

The cabin’s floor was strewn with the detritus of the project she’d begun at the start of the summer, more like a flood had washed through than a remodel was underway. A pulled cabinet perched atop the debris like a glacial sheaf ready to slide. Allie bent to extract one wooden handle from the rubble. Could this be the good hammer, subject these last months of a near man hunt in her household?

Jack knife! Screwdriver! Another gust brought the children’s voices as if offering guesses.

Allie followed the cabin path to the resort’s small beach, tapping the tool. She only frowned a little noting a place alternating rains and drought had nibbled at the path’s edge. Thin strands of swaying grasses and the rash of spike-rush that Allie was encouraging held everything—the one small clearing of their lawn with its swing set, horseshoe pits, and bonfire circle—from ruin.

Reaching Maples cabin, Allie understood what had been nagging her in the children’s cries: they weren’t followed by splashes.

“Corkscrew!” The girl called, twisting as she dropped, not into the water—glittering in the near distance with the inviting sheen of a Leinenkugel’s commercial—but from the top bar of the swing set.

“You supervising this?” Allie turned to her daughter. The woman Cassie was becoming flickered like a strobe light beneath the girl she’d always been—one who could track deer, wriggle a hook from a fish belly. Allie tapped the tool she still carried against her thigh. Its mysterious end terminated in short stubby spikes, each like a teenager’s lip stud.

“Not well,” Cassie answered, shrugging.

“Who are these children?” Allie asked.

***

Little Eagle wasn’t a large lake—in fact Eagle’s Nest was the only resort on it. Thousands of similar lakes pockmarked the Northwoods of Wisconsin. At its far narrow end, Little Eagle connected to Big Eagle Lake, though by low water in August even kayaks in the narrow passage would scrape the tops of the swirling weeds growing from the sandy bottom, paddles knock against submerged rocks.

Allie and her family had grown accustomed to meeting strangers in their yard—people who found their own way onto the dock before ambling up to Maples for official check-in. They didn’t usually arrive by canoe, nor did children appear without adults. Allie scanned the water, but it lay flat and empty.

Her daughter stretched her long legs and stood from the chair. Cassie often earned tips entertaining people’s kids. She almost always made more if they never discovered she was homeschooled too. Then they thought she’d be impressed by twenty.

“You visiting someone on Big Eagle?” Cassie addressed the boy.

“We saw the eagle.” The boy avoided her eyes.

Clearly siblings, both children wore swimming suits, the boy’s the baggy style that fell past his knees, the girl’s a one-piece with straps that crossed at the back like marionette strings. For it being the end of the summer, they seemed particularly pale. Video games, Allie diagnosed.

“Can we go swimming?” the boy asked.

“Kate always makes us wear our life jackets,” said the girl.

“Could we play with that paddleboat?” The boy was already in motion, calling over his shoulder. The paddleboat had spent the summer tipped against the grass bank, its white belly a beached sea creature’s, the flap of rudder in its tiny back nook the comic completion.

“It has a leak,” Allie said.

But Cassie grinned. “I’ll help them.” Despite the money she made off their parents, just as often Cassie “helped” new kids by getting them soaking wet, tripped up in lake weeds or turned around in the woods, shaking from stories of crazy ex-lumberjacks with chainsaws.

Allie paused by the canoe, its seats of frayed lawn chair netting. No life jackets. Still no sign of any adult in a second canoe out on the lake.

She took her new mystery tool with her to the house, tapping it against her palm.

 

———-

Jill Stukenberg’s short stories have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Collagist (now The Rupture), Wisconsin People and Ideas magazine, and other literary magazines. She is a graduate of the MFA program at New Mexico State University and has received writing grants from the University of Wisconsin Colleges and has been awarded writing residencies at Shake Rag Alley and Write On, Door County. Jill is an Associate Professor of English at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point at Wausau. She grew up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, has previously taught in New Mexico and in the Pacific Northwest. She lives in Wausau with the poet Travis Brown and their eight-year-old.

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Labor Day will be published in September of 2022. To see the full list of the 2021 Big Moose Prize finalists, click here.