Lauren Hough may be known for her spar-ready online presence, but in real life she’s pure warmth: years ago, she overheard us talking about the Insider Prize—American Short Fiction’s annual contest for incarcerated writers—at a coffee shop in Austin, and she walked up, and proclaimed, “I want to help!” So, this year, we asked her to be the judge.
This year’s submissions capture the uncertainty, loss, and despair so many of us have experienced in the past two years. But they also capture self-reflection, hope, and a desire to escape to a new world—whether to a post-pandemic future filled with millions or clones, or to a more humane existence for those living within the confines of our criminal justice system.
Though writers often specify which category they are submitting to in their cover letter, this can be difficult to determine when reading submissions on their own: surreal details of prison life can make memoirs feel like dystopian fiction, and fictional characters who carry immensely heavy loads often make short stories feel like memoir.
Hough writes that the winning memoir, “The Execution,” by Michael John Wiese, is “a heartbreaking, visceral exploration of the humanity one must lose and bury to survive an inhumane world, and the humanity we desperately cling to in order to maintain the hope we can survive.” For the fiction category, she selected “Falling Up” by David Antares, “a delightfully creative story,” with an “occasionally dry, often silly humor [that] is reminiscent of Vonnegut at his most playful.”
The runners-up were Jacob Rowan for his short story, “Life is Lonely, But at Least Together We Liveth,” and John Adams for his memoir, “Beautiful Meaning.”
We hope you enjoy these winning pieces as much as we did.
–Emily Chammah and Maurice Chammah
MEMOIR: Michael John Wiese, “The Execution”
“The Execution” is an absolutely stunning work of storytelling and reflection. I had to read it again after I stopped weeping. I wanted to take it apart and see how he’d done it. But like the best essays, there’s no way to figure it out. It just is. And what this essay is, is a heartbreaking, visceral exploration of the humanity one must lose and bury to survive an inhumane world, and the humanity we desperately cling to in order to maintain the hope we can survive. It’s powerfully written—switching from a detached voice, showing the learned detachment necessary to stay silent while witnessing a horrific murder and while explaIning the systems of violence that not only allow but encourage this brutality, to a deeply personal voice detailing the human cost of bearing witness to such violence. The Execution, as an essay crafting the profoundly painful into something exquisite, is perfect. And I am in awe.
by Michael John Wiese
In prison you learn a sixth sense. It is difficult to explain, but you can feel a change in the air. I liken it to a parent who suddenly realizes it’s quiet in the house; too quiet. This one day, as I read, I felt the hairs on my neck stand and there seemed to be an oppressive weight on my eardrums, like I was too deep in water. When I looked up, there were three men entering the tank. I had never seen them before. They were there to “smash someone out,” to beat someone to death.
I sat on my bunk and watched them beat this man, as he begged for mercy; I did nothing. This is the price I pay to stay alive in prison, the one overriding rule, “mind your own business.” I watched as a man was beaten so badly that he had few teeth left in his head, and I raised not one finger to help him. I heard his pleas, the whimpering moans, and gurgling breaths as he began breathing his own blood.
I was again helpless, like that three year old me who watched his parents walk away, and once again there was nothing I could do. I watched the prison system destroy yet another life and I knew soon a phone would ring somewhere and another family would be torn apart. A mother would weep for a child she could not help, a father would feel as though he may have done more, and a child would grow up never knowing the person his dad could have been.
After an eternity, there were guards beating at the Plexiglas and screaming for the men to stop. They did not stop. Finally, bloody and broken, the man drug himself to the exit. A guard in the picket popped the door so he could and get out of the tank. Totally terrified about what was happening in front of them, the guards outside the door slammed it shut again.
The man’s hope was shattered and his head sagged as one of the men grabbed his pants leg and drug him back into the middle of the room to continue his punishment. When “A-response” arrived, the man was no longer moving. Tear gas filled the tank and breathing became difficult. The toxic fumes, combined with the 100 degree temperatures, made the air sharp and it was hard to imagine I could take even one more breath. The three gang members were exhausted from their work and offered little resistance to the officers as they hand cuffed them. My eyes burned from the spray, but it was the event I had witnessed that had damaged the way I saw the world.
If I am going to be honest with myself, it’s the tooth that still messes with me. I am no dentist but I think it was a bicuspid. Gleaming white, it stood out against the grey concrete floor of the tank. One end was pointed and the other was covered in traces of blood turning it pink, such an odd almost feminine color in such a dark sadistic place. It sat under a metal dayroom bench for a week.
I thought about the man it belonged to. A man with hopes and dreams. A man that had made a mistake, perhaps even a terrible one, but that had not been sentenced to death. A man who was executed for possessing a small amount of cocaine. Life went on in the tank, but this lost piece of his humanness haunted me. It became a testimony of the humanity that would leak, at times pour, from me as I morphed into a strong enough animal to survive. It brought to mind all the lost men in prison, who may as well have been a bloody tooth under a bench for all society seemed to care.
After looking at the tooth for a week, I scooped it up in a piece of toilet paper. That night I brought it out to the recreation yard, and off by myself, I buried the tooth. I don’t know why I did this, maybe because I hoped someone would remember me when I was gone. When they came for me, I hoped against hope, a piece of me wouldn’t be left in that place, being kicked around for weeks until someone finally swept it up into a make shift card board dustpan to throw away.
FICTION: David Antares, “Falling Up”
“Falling Up” is a delightfully creative story told in captain’s log form when the world is ending and our last hope is the resurrection of our greatest scientific minds to save us before we disappear into a black hole, and Albert Einstein, who just wants to sleep. Schell’s occasionally dry, often silly humor is reminiscent of Vonnegut at his most playful. “Falling Up” is a deeply irreverent, wickedly funny story expertly told.
by David Antares
PHOENIX LOG: 0900, 29 March, 2029
One year ago, astronomers confirmed the awakening of the devilish black hole at the center of our galaxy. In other words, it started feeding again. With an appetite nothing short of, “We’re dead, Fred.”
Since we reside out in the boonies of the Milky Way, we have a little time before doomsday. But not much because it doesn’t have to eat us to destroy us. The deadly disruption of the orbits of centrally located stars and solar systems will soon ripple out to encompass our own.
Futurists have proposed only three scenarios which allow for the possibility of human survival.
Scenario 1. We migrate to another galaxy by way of generational space travel. This generation embarking on space arks with our great great to the umpteenth power grandchildren arriving sometime in the far future at our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. Plausible, but not for me. Never had kids. Don’t want any.
Scenario 2. Using advanced teleportation devices, much like the fictional transporters of Star Trek fame, we transport as many humans as we can to an Earthlike planet in the aforementioned galaxy. Pros—instantaneous arrival and survival for the “Me Now” generation. Cons—transporters have been in development for decades. A working model capable of operating at the scale we need and for the distance we need is, frankly, about as viable as figuring out cold fusion or creating a perpetual motion machine. In my opinion, not going to happen. However, my opinion is not the opinion of hundreds of companies who are suddenly funding transporter development projects. A fortune, astronomical in size, awaits the winner.
3. Last scenario. Our black hole goes back to sleep. Naturally, or we play Dr. Snooze.
Because of our past successes exploring the frontier of space, it was determined by the powers that be that space arks would be our best hope for survival. As I write this first log entry, intergalactic ships of various propulsion designs are being constructed around the globe.
Some branches of the military have opted for other strategies. Scenario 3, or whatever works, is mission goal for my baby, a top-secret scientific project known only as PHOENIX. Its method of reaching mission goal is currently roundabout, but rather ingenious. Genetic regeneration of some of the greatest minds in history.
Lt. Col. Julie Claymore, U.S. Army
Genetics Research and Development Lab
LOG: 0600, 31 March, 2029
The following subject samples confirmed acquired. 1. A. Einstein. 2. N. Tesla. 3. N. Bohr. 4. B. Franklin. 5. I. Newton. 6. L. da Vinci. Samples 5 and 6 are simply amazing. I cannot confirm or deny rampant lab rumors suggesting black ops and Vatican relics.
LOG: 0630, 16 August, 2029
Successful regeneration of four subjects! In life pods of my own design, they remain in suspended animation. Brain scans confirm abundant activity in their cerebral cortices. It is only speculation now as to whether or not they will be, when awakened, the intellectual giants they were in times past. If so, there is hope.
LOG: 0715, 28 August, 2029
Tesla, da Vinci, and Newton are awake. And very curious. Einstein remains asleep. REM confirms dreaming.
LOG: 0600, 31 August, 2029
Our three conscious luminaries all understand who they are, where they are, when they are, and why they are. Newton said, “We need to fall up.” A bit strange coming from Mr. Falling Apple. Of course, all are eager to help. And tests show our awake subjects have retained all of the knowledge acquired during their lifetimes. A bonus, but quite honestly, what I suspected all along. DNA, after all, is an information storage system. Who’s to say it is limited only to chemical and biological information. Consider instinct. Innate knowledge. Examples abound in the animal kingdom. The source of this knowledge must be deeper than memory. Beyond thought. The only viable suspect—DNA.
LOG: 0500, 10 September, 2029
Virtual reality learning is bringing our trio up to date in science, technology, theoretical physics and world history. It may take Newton and da Vinci a bit longer than Tesla to catch up. Stubborn Einstein dreams on. Some of my colleagues have suggested pulling the plug on his life support. Their time, they say, could be better spent on Leo, Newton, and Tesla. I’m leaning their way, but something holds me back. Women’s intuition?
LOG: 0920, 19 September, 2029
In all matters energy, Tesla, already ahead of his time during his time, is proving to be also ahead of our time. After a few crazy-looking additions to our emergency generators, he’s taken our facilities completely off grid. These dynamos were installed at the very beginning of the Cold War and he’s got them belching energy seemingly right out of thin air. Not a single drop of diesel inside them. It’s beyond amazing. And the man appears to be a dynamo himself. I swear, he donned a pair of glittering gloves this morning which looked as if they were made of aluminum foil. Sounded like it too, crackling as they did when he slipped them on. He then rubbed his hands together as if warming them and a ball of blue light appeared between them. Baseball sized and bright as the sun. He threw it sidearm into a bank of computers. Old IBM tabletops taken offline years ago. They came to life instantaneously, screens rolling with complex equations and undulating geometrical shapes in mortal battle for digital supremacy. Newton said, “Wowza,” a modern exclamation of amazement the old Englishman has taken a liking to. He sat himself down before one of the screens and took notes for several hours. Leo missed it all, having opted to seclude himself in a private room. “To catch up on the arts,” he said. From the man who painted the Mona Lisa, it seemed a logical pursuit, even an urgent need. He requested brushes, paints, and sheepskin canvases. As many as we could find. The sheepskin proved to be unavailable. We substituted stock canvases from the local Walmart. Leo said, “Whatever,” in Italian.
LOG: 1300, 20 September 2029
I continue to work around the clock. Caffeine energized every few hours, or is it minutes, I find I can stay awake three days straight. By the fourth day, however, I drop dead, and remain so for about 24 hours. I have taken to “dying” quite regularly, zipped up in a sleeping bag next to the life pod of Mr. E=Mc^2. I am thinking of asking Tesla to conjure up a ball of psychic energy and hurl it sidearm through Einstein’s dreaming mind. And right into mine. So I can tap into his subconscious. I’m tripping. I need to sle
LOG: 1450, 21 September, 2029
After reviewing my log entry for yesterday, I have made 8 hours of sleep, daily, absolutely mandatory. For the duration of PHOENIX. This includes everyone from security to our subjects. Especially me. But if Mr. Rip van Winkle ever wakes up, he will be excluded from the new law and expected to pull as many all-nighters as it takes to catch up. What the heck is he dreaming about?!
LOG: 1900, 21 September, 2029
Einstein woke up! Yea!!! After being freed from the physical restraints of the life pod, basically a clear dome top, Einstein sat up and his first question was, “Is this heaven?” I wanted to say, “No, you dummy, but we’re on our way to hell because you’ve been SNOOZING!” But I only said, “It’s a U.S. Army classified location, Mr. Einstein. And we need your help.” I know, I know, my guts could use a little backbone. Or my backbone could use some guts. As I’m thinking guts/backbone, Einstein says, “Your gut will save you.” Emphasis on GUT. Huh? So now I’m thinking Einstein must be psychic and a smart ass to boot. But I simply say, “Save me from what?” And without a hint of smartassness (is that even a word?), Einstein says, “The black hole.” So much for my worries about bringing him up to date. Then he says, “Can I go back to sleep?” What?! But he sounded as old as he looks and worn out, as if his few minutes of wakefulness had taxed his intellect to the point of exhaustion. Since time is relative and not a constant, which he proved long ago, I said, “Sure.” I can’t believe I said sure.
LOG: 1625, 23 September 2029
When relating the conversation of two days previous to Newton and Tesla, they were amazed. Which is quite remarkable considering their IQs. “Wowza!” said Newton for about the zillionth time. “He means Grand Unified Theory. Or GUT for short. The single solution to all the forces of nature. Strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic. And my own discovery, gravity.”
“He became obsessed with finding a GUT before he died,” said Tesla. “Or so history has noted. He must believe we’ve already found it. We must wake him, I think, and let him know we have not.”
“Not yet,” I said. “My gut says, ‘let him sleep.’ At least for now.”
At this point, Leo came out of his room. He carried a canvas toward us. When he got near, he flipped it over and we saw and literally felt his creation. Tesla ignited into a ball of blue light—all of him—sans foil of any kind. He hovered above the rest of us, in total awe of Leo’s masterpiece. Newton dropped to his knees and began chalking complex equations on the floor, sans chalk of any kind. How that worked, I haven’t a clue. And I, I, with all my military training, could not stop Leo’s painting from grabbing me by my G-spot and thrusting me into Ecstasy Central. Ravished mentally, physically, and spiritually, I let Tesla, Newton, and Leo worship in peace, and went to get my 8.
LOG: 1725, 25 September, 2029
Brainstorming ruled the day. A dangerous thing considering. Tesla kept sparking amidst such focused thought. So they wrapped insulation around him and proceeded. From that point on, one muffled grunt from Tesla meant YES. Two meant NO. All agreed a GUT would solve everything. With a GUT we could put our chomping black hole back to sleep. Nighty night, Doomsday Machine. But all admitted a GUT was beyond them, and only Einstein had a shot at figuring it out. If only he would wake up.
Thinking about the principles of Newton’s reflecting telescope, Leo promoted the idea of creating a gravity mirror. With a gravity mirror big enough, he proposed, we could bounce our black hole’s gravity back at it. This would create within it a stuffed-to-the-gills feeling which would supposedly induce sleep. Like the ravished-to-the-gills feeling had done to me two days before. Sounded good. However, after realizing Leo’s plan operated on the assumption of a cognizant black hole with a mind we could fool, the rest agreed Leo’s idea didn’t hold any weight.
The mention of weight got Mr. Falling Apple going. He brought up something he learned recently about negative energy. “Proven to exist by experiment already,” he said, “negative energy is unlike dark energy, and the regular energy of the Tesla variety.” At this remark, Tesla stomped a foot, but since no sparks resulted, he was pretty much ignored. Newton continued and made a convincing argument for the existence of negative mass. “If E=Mc^2,” he said, “then it’s quite obvious that NE=NMc^2.” Sounds logical. And mathematically correct. Right? “And the cool thing about negative mass,” said Newton, cool being another modern word he has taken a liking to, “is that negative mass has to weigh less than nothing.” What?! Less than nothing. I said, “How does that work?”
With a finger pointing skyward, Newton said, “Falling up.”
LOG: 0900, 15 October, 2029
By latest observation, astronomers estimate that roughly five percent of the core of our galaxy has slipped into oblivion. Sucked into the maw of our dark and hungry singularity. Natural disasters on Earth have increased tenfold. And this after the tenfold increase caused by climate change. The first of the space arks have departed. More are scheduled to leave in the middle of next month. Things are getting urgent and Einstein continues to sleep. Despite being subjected to bang-your-head rock music at 50 decibels above rocket launch. Saturn V. I’m not kidding. If he wasn’t deaf, he is now. Which is why I proceeded to punch, shove, kick, and slap him when no one was looking. On the cool, he looked rather bruised up before I got to him. I started thinking he must be dead, but no, REM confirms he’s still dreaming. Damn. Must be a good one.
LOG: 1600, 18 October, 2029
Our three resurrected saviors have been in seclusion since their brainstorming session back in September. Come to find out they have constructed a working model of Leo’s painting. Underneath those titillating, mesmerizing bodies, faces, and groping hands lurked nothing less than a visionary schematic of a negative energy dynamo. Or so they said. NED for short. Tesla was let loose to tweak and modify the contraption as he sees fit. He informed me today it would be ready for a trial run in about a week. And primed for maximum output. Could NED be a viable alternative to the GUT? A Hail Mary fourth down pass connecting us all to salvation? We shall see.
LOG: 1900, 25 October, 2029
The combo skylight-ventilation shaft directly above NED got suddenly bigger today. This occurred during NED’s trial run. A huge success by all accounts. We’ll, sort of. Negative energy was indeed produced. In voluminous amounts. Problem was, as NED churned out more and more of the stuff, NED transformed itself into a hunk of negative mass. From the inside out. Now, what is the main characteristic of negative mass? As Newton pointed out it weighs less than nothing. What we didn’t know, but learned by observation today, is that something which weighs less than nothing is immediately and violently repulsed by all things which weigh more than nothing. Ouch! With a velocity instantaneous and akin to warp 9, NED shot up, leaving a great big hole where our skylight used to be. Falling up turned out to be shooting up like a bat out of hell. NED, now, surely resided somewhere out in deep deep space. Exactly where we need to be.
LOG: 2300, 1 November, 2029
Yesterday I had sex with Tesla. Two reasons. There’s no denying his touch is electrifying, and I started ovulating two days before. We did it in my sleeping bag on the floor next to Einstein. If Rip van Winkle heard, saw, or felt all the sextricity in the air, he didn’t let on. Maybe he thought it was happening in his dreams. Obviously, I’ve reconsidered my avoidance of motherhood. If I can get knocked up in time, I’m sure I’ve got enough favors owed me to get my kid on one of those space arks. It’s the only way to ensure survival of my DNA. So this morning, for backup, I took Leo by surprise in the showers. 🙂
LOG: 1345, 4 December, 2029
I’m pregnant. Yessiree, missed my period. Always a telltale sign. So, whose is it? I guess if the kid comes out hurling lightning bolts, it’s a wrap.
LOG: 2300, 31 December, 2029
Our black hole continues to eat. Planets. Moons. Stars. All I have to do is look at food and I barf. Tesla, Newton, and Leo busy themselves with GUT theories, wormholes, and time-gravity invisibility cloaks. They’ve developed working models of the latter two. At the subatomic level. Whether or not they can make the quantum leave to cosmic scale remains to be seen. But hope is alive.
You know who is still sleeping. Still dreaming. And I believe his condition has become contagious, for we’ve all been sleeping a lot lately. Falling up in our own dreams. Up up and away.
Michael John Wiese holds a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies English/Business from Adams State University. He has published work in The Old Red Kimino, The Willow Review, The Listening Eye, the online poetry journal Ekphrastic Review, and the anthology Hear Us. He won the 2021 Willow Review Award in nonfiction for his short memoir, “The Inside Kind of Storm.” He is also a prisoner. You can read more of his writing at michaeljohnwiese.com.
A lifelong dreamer, stargazer, and creator of alternate realities, David Antares lives with his two granddaughters in mind and spirit, hoping tomorrow brings us all our hearts’ desires.
Lauren Hough is the New York Times bestselling author of the essay collection Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing (Vintage, 2021). She was born in Berlin, Germany, and raised in seven countries, and Amarillo, Texas. She’s been an Air Force Airman, a green-aproned barista, a bouncer, a bartender, and, for a time, a cable guy.
Emily Chammah and Maurice Chammah are assistant editors at American Short Fiction and co-direct the Insider Prize. Emily is a Fulbright Fellow and the winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her fiction can be found in The Common. Maurice is the author of Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, and a staff writer at The Marshall Project, where he reports on the U.S. criminal justice system.