The first place winner of the most recent On The Premises short story contest, Carole Lanham’s “Maxwell Treat’s Museum of Torture for Young Girls and Boys,” is a heartstopping and original piece of work. Here’s the intro:
“If you turn the lever the wrong way, you’ll hear a click and a pitchfork will swoop down and skewer your big dumb head like a meatball,” Maxwell Treat said, pointing to the La-Z-Boy recliner cordoned off with hot-pink jump ropes in the back of the museum. Lumbar support aside, the machine was pure Spanish Inquisition. “You’ll hear a click if you turn the lever the right way too, only the buckle will snap open and you’ll get to go free.”
“Which way is the right way?” Hayden asked. At the time, Maxwell only smiled. “Hop in and find out.” That was two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago, Hayden Finch had no intention of putting Max’s chair to the test. But sometimes things change. Sometimes a boy can’t help but find himself with a pitch fork aimed at his big dumb head, and no way out but to make a choice.
It maintains a comic tone that I think serves to emphasis serious themes of choice and loss. As often happens, I worry that saying much more will ruin the story, since much of the tension for me depended on not knowing anything about what to expect. I will say that Lanham delivers on every promise she makes in this intro. Well worth reading.