Arts & Life

2016 Central PA Magazine Writing Contest Winners

Written by WITF Staff | Aug 6, 2016 9:17 AM

The 2016 Central PA Writing Contest announced its winners earlier this year at a York College event. Two winners were selected from qualifying entries consisting of original, unpublished work.

First place went to Meredith Selvoski for her work "Dragon-Hunting for Beginners." 

The runner-up prize went to Angella Dagenhart for her work "Stones." 



Dragon-Hunting for Beginners

by Meredith Selvoski

I jerked awake when someone tapped on the window beside me. It was Cricket, finally finishing her overnight shift at the diner. I reached across the seat and shoved the passenger door open.

A rush of cold air came in with her and I turned on the engine. "How was work?"

She shrugged. "Slow. The new sheriff's deputy was in, though."

I eased out of the parking lot, taking it easy on the snow-packed roads. Cricket had a car, sometimes, but it was an ancient Chevy that she had to share with her brother, so I sometimes gave her rides to work. It wasn't too far for her to walk if she had to, a couple of miles, and she said she didn't mind the cold, but sometimes I wondered if she might be lying about that. Besides, I hadn't found a job over winter break, so I might as well spend my time ferrying Cricket around.

"Yeah? Does she tip well?"

"Yeah. I think she might be a dragon."

I turned so sharply that the car swerved a little and we slid until the car could get some traction. "A dragon," I repeated flatly. Thing is, this wasn't really an unusual pronouncement, coming from Cricket. Sometimes I think she's not all there, and I wonder where the rest of her is. "I've seen her. She doesn't look like a dragon. She looks pretty much like a normal person."

She sighed pointedly. "Of course she doesn't always look like a dragon, that would be a disaster. I'm sure usually she looks like a person, and then sometimes she turns into a dragon. She's a shapeshifter. But still, I could definitely tell she's a dragon. She was there with her partner, I guess they had just come off duty, and when I leaned over to pour her coffee she smelled smoky."

I pondered this for a moment. "Maybe she smokes."

Cricket shook her head. "Not smoky like that. Different smoky. And once when she thought nobody was looking, I saw her eyes turn gold. So I know she can change what she looks like."

She probably owns a woodstove and you saw a reflection from the sunrise, I wanted to say, but I didn't, because some part of me liked it when Cricket told me things like this. It's the same part of me that wanted to live in Cricket's magical world, a world where the new sheriff's deputy was a shapeshifting dragon, instead of the world I was in, where I was driving my best friend home from work and trying to remember where all the potholes were because they were covered in snow.

"Dragons live in caves," I pointed out weakly, drawing on my elementary school knowledge of magical creatures. "We don't have caves around here. Not good caves. We mostly have sinkholes."

Cricket gave me a withering stare. "I'm sure she doesn't live in a cave. I mean, she has a job. What would she put on her W-4 for work? She must have some kind of address. We should go look for her. I heard her mention something about how she lives out by the mountain, right up against the state game lands. If we go out there and walk around, maybe we'll see her turn into a dragon."

"Were you eavesdropping on the sheriff's deputies?" I demanded, and she raised an eyebrow. Clearly, dragons were fair game when it came to privacy violations. "She might attack us," I pointed out, feeling a little crazy for going along with the whole thing. "Dragons are dangerous."

This time she actually rolled her eyes. "I don't think the sheriff would let her be a deputy if he was afraid she might eat people."

And it was a stupid idea, just an altogether bad idea, hiking through the game lands in winter to spy on a cop, but I already knew I was going to go along with it because I always went along with Cricket's stupid, bad ideas.

Cricket believed in things so hard that I never had the willpower to argue with her. She wanted it to be real more than anyone I've ever met.
"Fine," I said, "but we're stopping first to get your winter boots, and then we're going to my house to get my heavy coat."

We ended up getting more than that, because Cricket planned it like an Antarctic expedition, but eventually we set off, traveling gingerly down a road that may or may not have been paved underneath the snow.

"How do we know when we're close?" My breath puffed out clouds in the cold. I couldn't decide if I was cold from the temperature or warm from the walking.

"There'll be signs," said Cricket mysteriously.

"Great," I muttered. "Signs."

We walked in silence for a while, our boots making grnk grnk crunches in the snow, while Cricket looked for her unfathomable traces and I tried as hard as I could not to look like a rabbit or a squirrel or any other animal, because even on a rotten cold day like this there was always somebody out hunting.

"The snow's melted here," said Cricket, breaking the comfortable silence.

I looked around: she was right. We were down in a small valley, and there were dead plants instead of snow beneath my feet.

"I think maybe it's just a sheltered spot," I suggested reluctantly. "I don't think this means dragons, necessarily. I think it just means less snow."
"It's melted," she insisted, irritation starting to wear through as her cheerful exuberance eroded. "From a dragon."

"Sure," I said, and the skepticism in my voice was finally heavy enough that she could hear it.

"You just don't know how to look at these things," she said, frustration in her voice. The silence between us when we resumed walking was a little less companionable.

We trudged up and over a hill, and without warning there was red breaking up the colorless landscape: red in the snow, red splashed over the rocks, red drying into brown and black.

"Blood," whispered Cricket, and went bounding toward it. "I think we must be close."

She has the self-preservation instinct of a groundhog, sometimes. "Just don't touch it!" I skidded down the hill toward her. "There are lots of reasons for there to be blood. We're in the middle of the woods. Maybe a coyote caught something. Maybe someone got a rabbit or a fox."

She inhaled. "No. I can still smell smoke." She gave me a look full of concern and frustration. "How do you not see that it's a dragon?"

The funny thing was, now that she had mentioned it, I could maybe smell smoke too. Not strong, acrid smoke, but maybe just the kind of lingering warm smell you get after your bonfire's burned down, the smell of a room where somebody burned incense two days before. But smells carry strangely in the cold, everyone knows that, and maybe we were smelling someone's stove three miles away or maybe it was just so cold that our noses weren't working right.

I could feel my restraint starting to fray. I was suddenly tired of tramping through the woods, I was sick of my face and feet being cold and rest of me being hot, I didn't want to be in the woods discussing if we could maybe smell smoke and knowing that we were going to have to walk back out of the woods exactly as far as we had walked in, except it would feel farther because now I was tired. Probably we would get lost and have to be rescued by the same deputy Cricket was suddenly obsessed with.

"Cricket--" I started to say, to put my foot down, but then there came a loud crack as a shotgun fired somewhere in the distance, and the noise startled the birds in the area around us, and they all took to the sky at once and my eyes followed them upward--

--And then there was something else above me, something large swooping overhead in a flash of green and gold scales and a tremendous rushing of wings and a wave of warmth from 

the heat pouring out of it like a furnace. A dragon living right near me, and I'd been out in these woods before, and how could I have missed it the whole time?

It's amazing, I thought, and somehow awful, and the realization dawned that awful should mean full of awe and that was me, staring up into the sky, feeling as much awe as I'd ever felt.

I glanced at Cricket, still frozen next to me, gaze fixed on the sky, expression looking like she'd just gotten everything she'd ever wanted. Her eyes seemed to be glowing golden, and I wondered what else I could have been missing.

About the Author 


Meredith Selvoski is the first-place winner of the 2016 Central PA Magazine Writing Contest.

Meredith Selvoski keeps trying to write urban fantasy and failing at the urban part, so instead she's trying to make rural fantasy a thing. She lives outside of Carlisle, so she knows what she's talking about.

She has a degree in English, which hasn't helped her on the job market but which does mean that she has proofread a lot of things for a lot of people. She has worked a number of retail jobs for stores that have later gone out of business, and by now she is roughly as good at closing stores as she is at working at them.

She enjoys bonfires, making costumes, talking about her characters as if they were real people, and daydreaming about what she would say or do in assorted unlikely scenarios.



by Angella Dagenhart

The sun flashes between the towering corn stalks. Their long, slender leaves reach out, grasping at my arms as I run. But I'm fast and not easily caught. You see, I've had a lot of practice running. I run from the empty, miserable, haunted house I call home. I run from the happy memories that were never made there and from the tragic ones that were. A mausoleum, every room looks just the way it did the last time my mother walked through. I run from the faded, cracked, Kodak memories of her. I run from the pall of her shadow that has draped over my life. And I run from my father whose only concern is filling the insatiable emptiness she left behind.

Stones dig into the soles of my feet, threatening to penetrate my skin. Sometimes they do, and little sparks of pain shoot up my leg, chipping away at the numbness I wear like armor. Shoes would have been more sensible, but I couldn't find them before I left. I set them out last night, but they were gone this morning. I knew they would be. My brief moments of freedom always come at a price, though one I'm glad to pay. I blink hard, sending a swell of tears trickling down my cheek, creating a puddle just above my lip. With a swipe of my tongue, it's gone. Warm and saline, it tastes like the sunrise, corn, and sadness.

I breathe in the morning and hold it in until my chest burns, trying to imbue my soul with its promise, its newness. I snatch every sound and smell--the birds, the cicadas, my own heartbeat, earth and fertilizer, grass, honeysuckle vine-- and lock them away, stored amongst the rows and stacks of other moments I have stolen. Smooth memories, like stones at the bottom of a stream. I sit and roll them around in my mind when the sharp, jagged edges of life threaten to rip me open.

The mountain starts abruptly where the field stops. Stepping onto the path leading into the woods, I am overwhelmed by loneliness. I miss Ben, the only real companion I've ever known. He tolerated trudging at my heels through the corn but yelped happily when we got to the mountain. Bounding ahead of me, he zigzagged from tree to tree, sniffing out rabbits or birds or finding strangle looking mushrooms growing on fallen, rotting trees. I was always nervous he would eat one and get sick. But it wasn't the mushrooms that killed Ben. It was me.

* * * 

My father hated that dog. Strange, since he was the one who brought Ben home. He found him--a ball of scrawny filth--behind his rig after stopping for the night at some roach motel. He asked around, but no one claimed him. So, they both came home. For a couple of days, Ben and his novelty brought some peace. For a minute, we almost looked like a family, laughing and romping around the backyard. Before long, Ben carved out a nook in my heart. He was my best friend.

 But, he was also much more than that. Somehow, he knew me. He knew how I felt and what I needed. Once, after a long night cleaning up after one of my father's drunken tantrums, I sat in Ben's fenced pen and watched the sky burn as the sun inched further above the horizon. We watched together. He didn't try to play, didn't nudge his nose under my hand for a pat or scratch. He just laid there. Occasionally, his ears would perk as a squirrel scampered up a tree, or a bird skipped from one branch to another. But somehow he knew I needed the peace we were sharing and did his best to keep from shattering it.

But, my father had other ideas. The nightmare he had made of the previous evening not being enough, he stormed outside slurring about coffee and his breakfast. Still drunk, or newly so, he barreled toward the pen like an avalanche, picking up momentum, becoming angrier with each step. Ben jumped to his feet and positioned himself between me and the gate. The hairs along his spine stood up straight. Long white teeth flashed. 

My father, blind with rage, didn't notice that he wasn't the only one with a mission. His was to destroy me; the dog's to protect me. As he stumbled through the gate and reached his swollen, calloused, chapped hand out to grab me, Ben snapped. He tore into my father's palm, splitting it open like a too-full sausage bursting out of its casing. Everything stopped. The sun stopped rising, the birds stopped singing, the squirrels froze upright - waiting. Listening. Like a storm was coming. Only, it didn't. After looking at his hand for a moment, my father simply turned and went back into the house. Without a word. Without striking out. The air left behind him was charged and electric.

 A few minutes later, he was outside again - his rifle tucked under his arm. My heart pounded in my ears. My nostrils burned with my own ammoniated fear and my eyes went dry. I dared not blink, though, fearing he would act in the moment I did. I wanted to see it coming. It seemed to take forever for him to reach the pen. Every detail of that moment etched a permanence inside of me. Even now, if I close my eyes for too long, I can feel the dirt under my hands, feel the grooves that my panicking fingers made in the earth.

Ben hadn't panicked, though. He stood still like a monument, staring glassy eyed at my father who was coming to tear him down. He didn't flinch, didn't seem to breathe. In my mind, I still saw him standing after the shot rang out. After my father had turned and walked back toward the house, his gun tucked under his arm. I still saw him standing there after I ran my hands down his coat, smoothing it over his wound until it was barely visible. Even after I buried my face into my bloody palms and red angry sobs slipped through my fingers, I saw him standing there.

My last memory of him--warm, metallic, bittersweet--mixed with the current of tears running down my face, past my trembling lips. It tasted like my mother's plated locket that I wear around my neck. It tasted like love. I close my eyes and again see him standing there. I reach up and touch my mother's heart. They kept it for me when she died. I bring it to my mouth and taste it. It is bitter and sweet and is all I have of her. I killed her, too.

* * * 
My father never wanted me. The doctors had warned him and my mother--a thin, anemic woman--of the potential toll a pregnancy would take on her health. She hadn't cared. She wanted to be a mother more than anything. "More than you love me?" my father had asked. He didn't like her answer.

I'll give him this; once she had her mind to it, he went along. Made sure his truck runs were scheduled around her doctor's appointments, decorated the nursery. He even hand-made my cradle. But when she didn't come out of the operating room. When he saw them rush me out in a bassinet while they hung bags of blood above her to replace what I had spilled. When they pulled the white sheet over her porcelain face - well, then he was done.

The soft bed of pine is a welcome relief on my feet. The deep mulched path winds up the side of the mountain toward the apple orchard. Only, it isn't a mountain, not like the rugged giants in my atlas book. This is more like a gentle fold in the fabric of the earth. Smooth. Rolling. The sun sits higher on the horizon now, and the cool morning air has been replaced by a warm, dense humidity. I walk now, my eyes following the ghost of my friend. With each step, bursts of citrusy pine cut through the stagnant smell of earth and rotting vegetation. A group of red-capped mushrooms pushes up through the leaf litter in a small clearing. They look like a troupe of circus clowns hastily buried, their noses the only thing still visible. 

I sit down in a clearning and draw a small cellophane bag from my pocket, spilling its contents into my hand. Small and smooth like stones, I shift them from one palm to the other. After a deep breath, I place them in my mouth. Sweet and bitter, they taste like freedom. For a long time, I sit expectantly. Nothing. Then, all at once, I am weightless. Lifted by the breeze, I float toward that space in the sky where all things seem to vanish.

About the Author 


Angella Dagenhart was born in Washington D.C. and spent most of her formative years in its suburbs. She made a slow migration northward, getting married and growing a family along the way, finally settling at the base of South Mountain in Fayetteville, PA in 2004.

After working in the mortgage industry and subsequently spending some time home with her children, Angella went back to school and earned a BA in English from Wilson College in 2013. It was there that she honed her writing voice and strengthen her analytical skills, tools she uses in her job as a Training Specialist at Dickinson College.

Angella is keen on puzzles and patterns and like to use them in interesting ways in her writing. She also likes the juxtaposition of the rural countryside, where most of her stories and poems are set, and the more sophisticated and refined tone that her stories' narrators tend to have.

When she isn't working or writing, Angella enjoys spending time with her husband, kids, grandkids, lumbering yellow lab, and pretentious tabby.


The 2016 Central PA Writing Contest is a partnership of WITF and PA Media Group and with additional support from York College of Pennsylvania. Central PA magazine is published by PA Media Group.



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