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Bret Fowler's picture

Always the Optimist

By Bret Fowler in Arrest Us

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Three small time criminals travel the country, knocking over bars and staying a step ahead of the cops until a chance comes along for something that could change their lives. 


Liam Hogan's picture
Liam Hogan from Earth is reading Hugo Nominations July 2, 2014 - 6:50pm

Hi Bret,

Good tone, good characters, solid thuggery going on. Nice (piece of) work.

It's always a bit tricky to write a character like this without upsetting people. So be it, perhaps, but you don't actually need to wave the red flag yourself :

"But a hundred grand, for that kinda cash, it wouldn’t matter if he was a homo." - you can change this quite easily, to say that for 100 grand, what he does is his own business or similar. Takes the edge of. Especially as you have already established he ISN'T a homo...

We need a little insight on the size of the narrator, early on. He's obviously useful in a fight, but how much more than that? The ability to knock over biker bars - not exactly the easiest of target?

The Christy / sucker to be rolled thing is a bit "last exit from Brooklyn" isn't it? Not a bad thing, but hardly subtle, hardly new.

Good development in the robbing the joint, though I'd suggest holding off on the having sex with Christy bit. In the middle of a raid? Doesn't seem likely, not just before a double cross...

Ultimately, I'd like to see a little bit more from the ending. You say John set it up for the money and the drug money, but having killed the mexicans, he's going to have to answer questions from the cartel anyway. (Anyway to leave one of them alive? It's the narrator who he's going to remember). And narrator takes his beating and everything a tad too easily. And what does John get out of leaving Donny and Christy alive? He's going to have to split the money with them... Hell man, I just want more!

But a proper crime piece, thumbs up, well done.

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 3, 2014 - 12:01am

Liam, thanks for reading. Straight to your points. (And if you're browsing reviews before reading, please go ahead and read the story first, lots of SPOILERS below.) 

Not exactly sure which direction you're going with the narrator being too rough or not rough enough when you say "wave the red flag". I can say his language got significantly less inflamatory during the editing process.

The physical size thing, or any description, always feels wedged in when dealing with first person. It's kind of immaterial anyway, isn't it? He's big enough to beat up drunks who aren't expecting a fight and he likes beating the crap out of people. 

Not familiar with "last exit from Brooklyn", but I take your point. There's nothing really original about this little crew anyway, aside, maybe, from moving constantly and hanging on to the IDs of the people they rip off for later use. They're small time who figured out a pretty good way not to get caught, but they're definitely from the Elmore Leonard school of not-that-bright crooks. 

Holding off on the sex . . . see above. The narrator is the brightest of the bunch (or he at least sees himself that way) but that doesn't exactly make him smart or all that disciplined. 

I get you, and wanting more is always a good thing to hear. Ultimately, a lot got cut for length and I thought it was clear, but here's the short version: John wanted to rob the cartel but needed somebody to take the fall for it. In order to pull it off, he needed both Christy and Donny on his side, otherwise the odds wouldn't be in his favor. Donny and Christy were both needed to get into the back room with the drugs, so they'd be implicated in ripping off the cartel if either one of those guys was left alive. As it is now, though, there are a whole bunch of witnesses who can give a very clear description of the guy who came in, shot up the place, threatened to kill everybody, and then shut them in a room. Donny and Christy don't even enter the conversation about the robbery AS LONG as the two cartel guys are dead. Anybody the cartel asks is going to have the same story. 

As for why John would want them alive . . . well, long term, there's no reason. They were useful to turn the tide on the narrator (we can call him "Doug", I didn't really mean to leave him nameless, just worked out that way) and Christy can help back-up John's story when the cartel comes sniffing around, but that's it. In that, anyway, "Doug" might not be too far off in what he thinks is going to happen to the two of them. 

As for how well "Doug" takes getting so thoroughly beaten, well, that's up for you to decide. He's not the most reliable of narrators, so is he really okay with it, is he scared of the cartel, does he think he couldn't really pull off his revenge scheme, or does it just sound like way too much work and he's justifying walking away? 

Hope this clears up anything that wasn't clear enough in the story. Thanks for reading!


Wonder Woman's picture
Wonder Woman from RI is reading 20th Century Ghosts July 3, 2014 - 8:35am

Your story has a good flow and colorful narration. I gave it a thumbs up, but I do agree with Liam, that by the end, I was wondering how our narrator sizes up. I actually went back and re-read the first few paragraphs to see if I could get a hint. I'm honestly not sure why this matters much, since you asked in your response, but it's funny that I had the same question in my head as Liam. I think, for me, I wanted to get an impression of his age more than anything. He talks about the college kid and about Christy being nearly 21, so I'm guessing he's older than they are. Again, not the most important of details, but it was just something that I found myself looking for afterward. 

I think "Doug" taking his medicine and heading out without seeking revenge is actually fitting since he is such an optimist, or at least, that's how he sees himself. He clearly thought about going back to kill the three of them, but since he sees himself as a glass-half-full kind of fellow, he almost convinces himself to just leave and find new sidekicks. I think that works. 

As far as the sex goes, I think it worked to have them getting it on in the parking lot after bashing up the college kid, but having sex during the raid did feel forced somehow, especially if she was planning on stabbing him in the back. Maybe just reduce it to making out or something to illustrate the tension? Just my thoughts. 

Anyhow, nice work. :)


Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 3, 2014 - 11:40am

Thanks, Wonder Woman. 

Well, so far two people are looking for some physical description of "Doug". Like I said, it always feels like that sort of thing is being crammed in with a crowbar in a first person narration, but maybe I can find somwhere it fits more or less gracefully. Ditto for the age. I figured "Doug" at old enough that picking up 16 year old Christy is super-creepy, so 23 or 24 when they first hook up, late twenties at the time of the story. Old enough that this whole rob-and-run thing is starting to get old, hence his fantasy of "someplace like Brazil, but where they speak English." 

Also two points against sex during the robbery. I think maybe the disconnect is that "Doug" sees himself as such a careful, well-planned guy, then he goes and does something reckless and stupid in the middle of their big heist. It's supposed to tell you something about "Doug" and maybe make you a little nervous. (Remember when Bruce Willis started making breakfast in Pulp Fiction? I'd love to generate that sense of pushing one's luck.) "Doug" isn't nearly as cautious or diciplined as he likes to think he is (which feeds into how he completely missed Christy and Donny planning to turn on him, and how much raw hate Donny has for him, and Donny most likely being gay) but unfortunately it looks like it plays as just jarring. As for Christy, for her it's basically break-up sex. She's as turned on at the idea she's about to royally screw the guy over as her standard blood fetish. No doubt there's some ugly stuff in her history. 

Again, appreciate the notes and thank you for the upvote!

Hector Acosta's picture
Hector Acosta from Dallas is reading Fletch July 11, 2014 - 8:14am


I enjoyed this quite a bit, and seeing as how you mentioned Elmore Leonard up there, I think I'm probably your target audience for this type of story.

I thought the control of tone and voice carried this story through most of the way. It was paced perfectly to me all the way up to the point where Doug is double crossed, and I personally agree with you that physical description isn't necessary for this story. I'm hoping you get a couple of more reviews so that can figure out if that's the case or not.

Had no problem with the language or tone of the story at all-thought it was pitch perfect in the sense that I never thought you were using the language just for shock's sake, it's how Doug thought and talked.

Writing wise, no complaints either. Good handle overall on that end.

My concerns have to do with how the story ends, to be honest. I know word limits are a bitch, so this might be a case where you'll have to either go beyond the 5k, or really hack at the piece to make mroe room, but I felt like Donny was seriously underdeveloped, to the point that when he turns on Doug, there's really not much of an impact. I like the idea of him being gay, but didn't care for him suddenly crying right off the bat, just because it seemed to come out of nowhere. John and Christy were better developed, but still a bit two dimensional when compared to Doug. There's a fine line between staples of the genre, and cliches, and while you never fully cross it, you're right at the border, and I think this story deserves better.

I'm fine with Christy double crossing Doug, but with how much you focus on Doug and her's sex life (she getting turned on when he beats guy, etc), that it doesn't really come into play in a meaningful way at the end. As much as I like the scene where they beat up the preppie guy, if you're looking to make room, I'd cut that bit out. Since you already have Doug and Christy having sex during the robbery (which I thought made sense in the context of your story), maybe have this be when John turns on him?

I didn't buy John letting him go. I really like the last line, about Doug being an optomistic and all, but it doesn't feel like you fully brought me there. The last couple of paragraphs feel rush, and Doug doesn't seem laidback enough to just decide to forget the doublecross, especially considering in the grand scheme of things twenty grand isn't a lot of money. Especially with the idea of the cartel hanging over you. I think there's ways to work around this - Have John shoot him but Doug survives and still has the kitty, etc that still get you to that last line. 

But again, I really liked this story and hope you revise it down the road to make it really pop.

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 11, 2014 - 9:35am

Thanks for the review Hector. 

I agree that Donny isn't really developed as a character . . . at all, and I struggled with that a little in a way that didn't have anything to do with the word count. Doug is the one telling this story, and he treats Donny as a loyal but particularly stupid dog. Since he doesn't really think of him at all outside of heaping abuse on him (and Donny doesn't stand up for himself until Doug has been neutralized) there really isn't any place for natural development. When he finally speaks for himself at the end, (it was intentional that he had no actual dialogue until then) I was hoping that it would shed light on all of the off-hand abuse he's suffered throughout the story. Perhaps even hint to the reader that the idea to turn on Doug originally came from Donny. The man is a big pile of anger and resentment that Doug just doesn't recognize. The tears came from finally busting down that dam of frustration. 

John letting him go (or not) plays on a pet peeve of mine. I hate it in stories where otherwise intelligent characters go around killing people who, from their perspective, don't absolutely need to die. Murder isn't a small thing for anyone who isn't a lunatic, and cleaning up a murder is a raging pain in the ass. Donny and Christy turning on Doug makes sense, but I don't see either of them on-board for just straight-up murdering him. John killed the two cartel guys, but for his plan to work they both needed to be dead. Doug being dead isn't a solution, it's a complication. Having Doug on the run gives the cartel a focal point without John needing to manipulate the crime scene, clean up Doug's blood, get rid of his car and his body, etc all within a couple of hours. As it is now, John can just report the robbery and murder to both the cops and the cartel almost exactly as it happened with a closet-full of witnesses there to back up his story, and every bit of evidence will support him. I'm swimming against the grain a little, since fictional criminals often think that spending hours with a bucket of bleach cleaning up blood and brains and shit and transporting and disposing of a dead body is preferable to just NOT killing somebody. 

As for Doug's capitulation, that's more a question of how reliable a narrator Doug actually is (as I mentioned elsewhere). I'm not sure how to make this more clear, but is he really that laid back, or is he convincing himself that it's not worth the effort? I could've easily ended the story on "revenge" and still used the optimist line, but I liked the idea that Doug isn't really that big of a badass. Instead of getting himself into something where the odds are really against him, he talks himself into believing it's not that big of a deal, that the people who betrayed him are doomed without him anyways, and that he can always get more money. He's working really hard to find the silver lining so he can justify NOT going on some revenge rampage that likely ends with him dead. 

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the whole shebang. Thanks again for your imput. Hopefully I'll find a way to address your points while retaining the stuff I mentioned. 

Casey Hicks's picture
Casey Hicks from Brooklyn, NY is reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman July 11, 2014 - 6:49pm

Very enjoyable lede. I was drawn in from the start.

I thought your characters were all very interesting. I didn't mind that others weren't too developed. "Doug" obviously has far too much confidence for his own good, and I like the fact that he's oblivious to being double-crossed. He doesn't even give us his real name, unless I missed it at some point. Being on the run since he was a teenager has made him almost a symptom of his vices. The voice you use to write him is very clear without being a comical Southern accent.

I like the way you take the "one last heist" trope and subvert it. He's framed, but he could get away. He's not too worried about surviving, and he has his backup stash. The bad guys all win, in a way.I really have no critical remarks other than maybe taking the optimist reference out of the beginning. It ties with the ending almost too neatly, especially given your title. Very well done!

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 29, 2014 - 1:50pm


Thanks for the comments! Sorry for the long delay in responding. 

I can definitely see stripping out the "optimist" line at the start. It's a little cutesy tie-in from the beginning to the end to the title. The story probably needs two references to it, but no more. 

Grant Williams's picture
Grant Williams from Wichita, KS is reading Friday July 17, 2014 - 9:57am

I really enjoyed this piece.  The pacing was good and it read fast.  I don't really mind that you don't give us a description of the main character.  His voice and actions tell us all we need to know.  I prefer to make up the image for myself.  While the language might be considered offensive, it's an offensive character (they all are), so if we're rolling around in his head, it's unlikely that he'd be worried about offending anyone.  As far as the sex goes, it's a bit unconventional, and in the middle of a heist maybe improbable, but they have a bit of a strange fetish to begin with, so while it felt a little out of place it didn't feel forced.  I liked that they didn't kill him in the end.  It would have been too easy and now it's open for the next piece in the tale.  Good job.

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 29, 2014 - 3:11pm

Thanks, Grant. 

Some of the previous (well, most of the previous) comments had some trouble with the mid-heist sex. It makes perfect sense to me for both characters, but maybe it doesn't fit in the narrative all that well. Doug does it because he's really not that bright and, to him, the hard part's over and it's been all he could handle just to wait the couple of weeks it took to plan the job. That hungry look in Chrissy's eyes is all he needed. For Chrissy, it's a turn-on to fuck him just moments before stabbing him in the back. To use a classic example that this story in no way lives up to, Chrissy's a Carmen Sternwoodthough not quite as psychotic. 

Laura Keating's picture
Laura Keating from Canada is reading The Aleph and Other Stories July 19, 2014 - 6:17am

Really like the voice in this piece, love consistent vernacular. The grit in this one was so real I practically need to clean under my fingernails now.

I did like that the narrator seemed blind to all his many short comings and continued to blame them on the company he kept; a narcissist who is not half as bright as he likes to imagine; wiley, but base to the end.

One thing made me pause. "Christy hides a sheathed knife up her snatch"
CRINGE! The logistics of that made skin crawl. Perhaps that was the desired effect. But honestly, how is the girl getting that thing out in a hurry, fast enough to get the jump on her guy? How is she moving, let alone dance around a pole!? Would it make more sense for John to have it tapped up under a counter for her, or stashed somewhere a little more convenient? It struck me as a little problematic . . .

Liked the ending. The double-cross was pretty obviously coming but because of the flawed nature of "Doug" you made it work. I was a little suspicious about John's plan to tell the Cartel's that it was all "Doug's" fault (sounds like a quick way to get your kneecaps rearranged, to me, Johnny) and wondered what would really befall Christy and Donny . . . but then it seemed that no one was quite as slick as they might hope, so it is okay to wonder.

Finally, liked the way you tied it altogether, the optimism and everything.
So nicely done.


Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 29, 2014 - 2:51pm


Thanks for the comments!

To resond to your thoughts, the knife thing is both kind of fun (in a cringeworthy way) and also absolutely necessary. She needs to get into that well-guarded back-room with a weapon, so there really are no other options. As far as logistics, it's totally possible and has been done. I have some prison-guard friends, and it's truly astounding what female prisoners can fit in their lady-parts with the right motivation. They've tried to smuggle everything from drugs and phones to knives and guns. Of course, a Bowie knife or machete or something isn't all that realistic, but a switchblade or utility knife or short stiletto is totally possible without that much restriction in movement. (From my conversations with people who know, I now know far more than I ever needed to about the logistics of keeping foreign objects secured up there). 

As far as getting the knife out, the cartel guy doesn't exactly have his guard up while a stripper dances for him, so I can see plenty of ways she could distract him long enough to get that knife at the ready without him knowing what she's up to. 

I think John's plan makes sense, but it didn't work for him to take the time to lay it all out for Doug with all the specifics. John was looking to rip-off the cartel, but needed a viable fall-guy. If the place gets robbed and the cartel guy and his bodyguard are the only two killed, that means a targeted attack on the cartel. John has a description of the guy and his car, with lots of people around to back-up his story. It was the cartel's security that failed, after all. And even if the cartel decides somebody was involved on the inside, their wrath would come down on the owner of the place, not really on John. And if anybody was implicated, it would be Chrissy, who has no actual connection to John since he isn't the one who hired her. The bottom line is that wherever suspicion falls, it won't be on John. I think there's enough in the text to infer this, but maybe I'm wrong. And, as you said, ultimately it doesn't matter, since it's possible John's idea might just be as bad as Doug's. 

Thanks again. 


Seb's picture
Seb from Thanet, Kent, UK July 20, 2014 - 10:40am

I liked it, although it took me a little while to get into it. Then this happened:

Christy hides a sheathed knife up her snatch

From that point on I loved it. Nice work.

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 29, 2014 - 2:53pm

Thanks so much. I considered stretching that out with specifics, but I kind of liked the idea of that being just the single line with no further explanation, like it's a perfectly reasonable place to hide a knife. 

Adam Jenkins's picture
Adam Jenkins from Bracknell, England is reading RCX Magazine (Issue 1 coming soon) July 23, 2014 - 10:27am

I enjoyed this one. It may not be the most original story, but it’s well written, engaging, and fast flowing.

I’ll take a few points from the comments raised. First off, the lack of description of “Doug”. Like Hector I had no issue with this. When I saw the comments, I skimmed back, and it was only then I realised they weren’t there. I had formed a picture of him in my head, though admittedly the Doug in my head is a little older than the one in you have in mind.

As for the underdevelopment of other characters, this is usually a bugbear of mine, but actually I thought it worked in the context. We see these people through Doug’s eyes, and he is incapable of seeing them in as fully formed people. Donny is the idiot sidekick, because Doug sees him as the idiot sidekick. Christy is only good for danger sex in his mind, so no other facets of her character are allowed to show. Doug is an unreliable narrator in many ways, so we don’t have to take his word for it. So although the double cross is not foreshadowed, we are so deep in Doug’s POV, it doesn’t matter all that much.

The sex in the middle of the heist thing. I can kind of see where you are coming from, but to me it did feel a little forced. You can argue against that because of the way you have set up the characters. I think maybe having Doug expect it and Christy refuse might have had more impact. That gives a very late foreshadowing, and for Doug may just confirm his decision to ditch her as soon as the heist is done and dusted.

Personally I liked the ending. The motivations are perhaps a little fuzzy, but I like the idea that there was just enough loyalty left in Donny and Christy to keep him alive. Doug isn’t just an optimist, he’s a pragmatist, so I can buy his decision to let them be, and to skip town with the hidden cash. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is perhaps, but in a genre filled with characters out for revenge and unable to let any slight go unpunished, I think he’s a breath of fresh air.

All of this is a long winded way of saying this is a solid thumbs up from me.

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 29, 2014 - 4:30pm


Thanks for the comments! 

I agree, there's really nothing original about the story. Especially in short crime fiction, originality is hard to come by so the quality must be in the execution. 

Thanks for being on-board with no "Doug" physical description. In first person narratives, a physical description of the narrator is the exception, rather than the rule. You never know what the narrator looks like in Fight Club and you never know what Walter Huff looks like in Double Indemnity. And when it is included, it's usually some wedged-in scene where the guy (or girl) describes themselves in a mirror. Unless it's super-vital, there's no real reason for it to be there, in my view. 

I'm also glad you didn't mind the lack of character development. That was something that really did bother me, especially with Donny. The guy doesn't even have dialogue, Doug just tells us what he said. As I considered it, though, it really seemed to work. I'm usually a huge "show, don't tell" guy, but in this case, Doug just telling us a lot of stuff just made sense, and really made it a lot more fun to write since I could stay locked-in to Doug's mind without breaking out to give the other characters a chance to develop themselves. Doug doesn't give a shit about Donny's (or Christy's) development. 

I get you about the sex mid-heist. Thanks for the suggestions, but they don't really work with the characters as they exist in my head. Doug didn't plan on having sex during the heist, but that come-hither look from Christy changes his mind. To him, the hard part is over, so why not? As for Christy, she's probably more turned on by the idea of betraying Doug than she is about Doug beating somebody up. I've said it before, but she's definitely at least adjacent to Carmen Sternwood in terms of fucked up and hyper-sexual. 

And to your final point, yes, thank you. With this genre and all of these, as you said, "characters out for revenge and unable to let any slight go unpunished" there's GOT to be some guys out there who are perfectly willing to let things go. Not all criminals are Parker. Not all criminals are badasses, though they may see themselves that way. Some guys, when faced with bad odds, just find a way to deal with the fact they got screwed while still sparing their own egos. It would've been easy to end this story with a big revenge thing, I even could've worked in the "optimist" angle. But I think the single most distinctive thing about the story is that he doesn't. He starts down that path, and then justifies walking away in a way that keeps his perception of himself intact, like it's beneath him and both of his betrayers are screwed anyway. 





Cmangano's picture
Cmangano from Maine July 29, 2014 - 12:27pm

Hey Bret,

Well done. A lot of the action came fast right at the end, something I'm not usually a fan of because it can sometimes feel rushed or under developed, but you handled it very well. I also appreciate how much sexuality this story had without resorting to random smutty descriptions or gratuitous sex scenes. Your voice and characters are very strong. Nothing to critique as far as I'm concerned; possibly ad a little more about John's motivation?

Oh, by the way "Christy hides a sheathed knife up her snatch." I know she's a tough broad but, Jesus. I actually paused at this point, thought about it and decided if that were possible without damage, I could definitely see this character doing it. Nice work.

Bret Fowler's picture
Bret Fowler July 29, 2014 - 6:05pm


In my experience, the worst thing you can do with lots of action is to rush it. In fact, writing action tends to be counter-intuitive, if you slow down and take your time, it increases the reader pace as they work through the intracacies, which makes it read faster. 

And yes, the sheathed knife, lots of comment on that, obviously. As I mentioned in a previous response, through many conversations with prison guard friends, it absolutely happens on a regular basis. In fact, I now know entirely too much about the logistics of keeping foreign bodies secured up inside lady parts. 

Thanks for the comments.