BookTok Writers' Group Submissions

June 27th, 2024

UNTITLED by Neil Christiansen

The sun was breaking over the horizon at the end of the street and the smoke was still wafting up into the air from the place where the house had previously stood.

It was cold when I stepped out of my car and walked through the snow to stand in front of the empty space. Everything was ash and rubble. The only things still standing were the front porch, the foundation, and the chimney. It was a disaster.

Two detectives walked up to me, one chewing on the end of a pencil.

"Fire Marshal Simons?" The one with a free mouth asked.

"That's right," I said. "What do we have here?"

The other cop took the pencil out his mouth and spit some wood bits on the ground.

"I don't think it's arson. At least not intentionally so. I pretty sure it's some kind of cult thing. Or at least some kind of religious extremism. An accident. Fire got out of control."

I looked over at the rubble and ran my fingers through my hair.

"And what has you leaning that way?" I asked.

"Animal bones," the first cop said. "Lots of 'em. Looks like they were doing animal sacrifice. Some kind of ritual burn and it got away from them."

"Human victims?" I said.

"Three. Looks like two were upstairs in bed based on their position in the rubble. The other one was downstairs in the living room. We're thinking that was the one that started it. Doing the ritual thing and a spark or flame got to the tree. That's when everything went up."

I nodded.

"People gotta stop putting real trees in their houses. They're a death trap."

I walked up the lawn, reduced to ashy mud from the snow that melted during the fire. I stepped up onto the slap and started poking through the wreckage of the house.

"Holy shit," I gasped. "You're not kidding about animal bones. This must have been going on for some time."

"Yeah," the second cop said. "That or they were doing one big ceremony tonight. We think that must have been the alter."

He pointed to a couple long warped pieces of metal, all shriveled up from the heat.

"Could be," I said. "Almost impossible to tell now. What are we getting from the neighbors?"

"Not much, most everyone was asleep. They say the family here was nice enough. Seemed normal. Thankfully the kids weren't home. Staying at the grandparents for the night so mom and dad didn't have to sneak around."

I shook my head.

"Somehow I don't think the kids are gonna see it that way."

"How so?"

"They just lost their home and their parents. That's going to be a scar they carry the rest of their lives. I don't think they'll feel very thankful about anything."

The cop looked defensive.

"I think what my partner meant was-"

"I know what he meant. It's fine. Just thinking out loud. Look, everyone always says their neighbors seemed normal, but you don't have an animal sacrifice cult in your suburban house without someone noticing something."

The pencil cop had shoved the thing back in his mouth and had stopped looking at me.

"Sure," the other one said. "So?"

"So how much of the neghborhood have the uniforms canvased?"

Pencil cop took it out of his mouth for this.

"Well, that is one weird thing. We've hit the whole block, both sides. North end were all very cooperative. Answered questions. Seemed shook, but helpful ya know."

"Okay?" I said.

"Right, but everyone south of the crime scene couldn't be bothered to talk to us. All of them had crying kids that they were trying to deal with."

"Friends of the family?" I asked.

"Some of them I'm sure, but the kids weren't home. They're fine. And why only the kids south of the house? What, the kids north of the house weren't friends with these kids?"

I bit my lower lip and studied the mess we were standing in.

"Marshal, you've got that look on your face. What are you thinking? What do you see that we don't."

"I'm not sure yet," I said. "Anyone see the couple earlier in the evening?"

Pencil cop looked down at his notebook.

"Uh, one guy. Said he stopped by a little after sundown with a group of carolers from the church. Came in after the song and had a cup of cider by the fireplace with the couple before moving on with the group. Didn't report anything strange."

I let out a long sigh and rubbed my eyes with my palms.

"Well, that's unfortunate," I said.

"What? That he didn't notice anything?"

"No," I said. That they were having a fire."

The other cop let out an exasperated breath.

"You wanna give us a hint at what's going on in that big head of yours Marshal?"

I looked at him with patience.

"Where do you live, Detective?"

"18th place," he said. "Mile and a half south of here."

I nodded.

"Well Detective, I suggest you get home to your family. Your kids are gonna need you this morning."

They both looked at me like I was speaking dutch.

"I'm telling you guys, it's gonna be a bad day, and Christmas is never going to be the same again."

FOILED AGAIN by Melissa Geissinger

Brad blinks into consciousness. The small room spins and large equipment buzzes and hums with a foreboding rhythm. It smells like a mix of strong cologne and salad dressing.

A deep chuckle comes from behind where Brad’s tied up and builds until it crescendos into full maniacal laughter. A dark figure steps out of the shadows.

“Doctor Penultimate, we meet again.” Brad pulls against his arm restraints in an effort to break free, to no avail.

“You’re too late, Brad!” Doctor Penultimate pinches his mustache with his black rubber glove. “In only a matter of minutes, all the most advanced technology in the world will cease to work, bringing tech giants to their knees! Civilization as we know it will crumble!”

Brad sniffs. “Are we in a van?”

Doctor Penultimate ignores the question. “In just five minutes, this machine will switch on, powering on the largest, most powerful electromagnet known to man!”

“MagLab? Did you hijack the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory from Florida?”

“Well, no. I found this DIY video on YouTube, and built this thing,” he taps on the machine that looks and sounds like it was assembled with trash cans, aluminum foil, and chicken wire. “Apple doesn’t stand a chance!”

“You bastard. Are we in Cupertino, California? At Apple headquarters?”

“Ehh. No.”

“A major data center then? Reno? Mesa? Newark!?”


“Wait. An Apple store?”

“I’ll show those so-called geniuses the meaning of a voided warranty! In just four short minutes, this giant electromagnet will destroy all electronics within an entire one-eighth of a city block rendering all technology utterly useless!”

“Wait, wait, wait. This whole plan of yours is because Apple won't replace your iPhone?”

“A little itty bitty teensy bit of water damage and they treat you like a criminal!”

“But, aren’t you one?”

“A what?”

“A criminal.”

“Well, yeah. Sure. But even evil geniuses need their fix of Candy Crush every now and then.”

“Did you try rice?”

“What do you mean?! You won’t trick me with your fancy distractions and bamboozling misdirection.”

“I mean, did you try putting your phone in a bag of rice?”

“Of course I did!” Doctor Penultimate shouts, then drops into a soft less-dastardly tone as he takes out a pen and paper. “Like, uh, long grain? Jasmine? Wild? Or like a pilaf sort of number?”

Brad sighs. “You realize how dumb this is, right?”

“You won’t be talking like that once I drop you into this vat of acid!” Doctor Penultimate grabs the edge of a sheet off the floor next to Brad and whips it away from him like he’s trying to do that tablecloth magic trick where everything stays on the table. When the sheet disappears, it reveals a bright blue kiddy pool situated under Brad’s chair.

Brad sniffs. “Is that. . .”

“Yes. Acetic acid.”

“So, vinegar? And from the smell of it, I’d say apple cider vinegar.”

“Well, it turns out hydrochloric acid is really hard to come by in a pinch!”

“So your solution is to cause mild irritation to my skin and/or eyes.”

“Slowly, until it consumes your flesh and you DIE.”

“Nope. Don’t think that’s how that works.”

Brad looks at the timer affixed on the wall that shows three minutes left.

“So let me get this straight. In three minutes, you’ll turn this thing on, magnetize all the iPhones, drop me into the apple cider vinegar, and then what? Make your escape?”


“And how will you get away?”

“Why, drive, of course! This evil lair on wheels is second-to-none.”


“What do you mean?”

“HOW will you drive after you fry your battery?”

“What battery?”

“Your car battery.”

Doctor Penultimate laughs. “You silly nincompoop. This is no Tesla. I wouldn’t be so daft as to have my entire base of operations built upon such technology as weak and primitive as a glorified double-A.”

“Oookay. Carry on, then.”

“Wait. What?”

“Carry on.”


“It’s just not going to work.”

“Of course it will!”

Brad groans. “You know what? Your name can’t even finish the job.”

“What do you mean?”


“Ha ha ha haaaa, yesss,” Doctor Penultimate clutches his fist.

“You know what that means, right?”

“Ultimate. But WORSE!”

“Penultimate means second to last,” Brad laughs so hard he starts to tear up. “You can’t even get all the way there!”


Brad tries to wipe the tears from his eyes but his arms are still stuck in place.

“Hey,” Brad sniffles. “Would you mind loosening up these straps?”

“Oh, sure. Let me get that for you.” With a terrifying rip, Doctor Penultimate undoes Brad’s right arm restraint.

Brad quickly reaches for his left arm, then ankles, releasing all the restraints. He leaps over the kiddie pool toward the back of the van and lands like a 10-point gymnast. “Ha haaa!”

“What?! No! That’s not fair!”

Brad pushes Doctor Penultimate out of the way slightly then pushes the off button on the machine.

“Blast! Foiled again! You won’t stop me next time, Brad.”

Brad grabs the handle on the van door, salutes to Doctor Penultimate, and jumps out. “See ya, Jim.”

“Later, Brad.”