Have you ever held an idea, breathed life into it, watched it grow, stand tall and walk on its own two legs? Have you ever run a business, maybe even forged your own from nothing? It’s tough stuff. And I would know – I’m going on 11 years running my own. I suppose anybody can make the attempt, but to run a business successfully – and with integrity – is a herculean (and widely underappreciated) task.
       The more time transpires, the faster things change, and the harder it becomes to start something new. Perhaps it’s a symptom of our schooling bent on creating good little worker bees instead of free-thinking individuals, perhaps it’s a lack of morality from the power brokers at the top, or maybe we just live in an age of unfertile ground, where the fear of failure outweighs whatever sparks are igniting in the minds of our fading youth.
       It makes me wonder if the entrepreneurial spirit is dying a slow death. We have bigger businesses, bigger governments, bigger schools and bigger non-profits, and whenever something grows disproportionally huge, it seems to stifle creativity, suffocate prosperity, and swallow the very nature of what it means to be human. Just give our culture one honest glance and you might feel what I feel – like a man marooned, left behind on an island of the past, where once upon a time we celebrated those who dared to dream big dreams.
       And then dared to try.
       Have you ever held an idea, breathed life into it, watched it grow, stand tall and walk on its own two legs? And have you watched helplessly, on your knees, the very thing sail away with nothing more than a hollow, crushing goodbye? No? Well then, likely you’ve benefited from those who have. For behind every enterprise is a man (or woman) of steel, holding the structure aloft through their indomitable will like Atlas incarnate, keeping the wheels moving, the show running, and grinding forward one day at a time.
Danny Hankner
Danny Hankner


submission feedback
(Historically, we've tried to provide personal feedback to stories submitted to us that, even though they weren't accepted, the author or story showed real promise. As we continue to grow, so do our costs and constraints on our time. Moving forward, we will only be providing personal feedback to our paying members. See below for some of the responses we've received to our critiques over the years.)
Good evening, Dan,
       Thank you so much for your feedback! I really appreciate you taking the time to message me, and it means a lot to be considered for your wonderful site. You consistently publish engaging works, so I trust your criticism. Keep up the amazing work! I'll surely be submitting again in the future. - Pat Lombardi

       I appreciate you taking the time to give me honest feedback on ’The Dwindles’, which was indeed a hard story to write. I’m going to save this email in my folder for the story. After some time passes, I’ll have another look at it. Thank you also for inviting me to resubmit. With how impersonal publishing can be, it’s refreshing to receive feedback. Thank you again! - Travis Lee

       Thanks so much for your kind feedback - looking over the story again, I definitely agree! I will rework and be happy to submit again once you reopen. - Samantha Kelly

       I've been on the fence about responding because I know many editors prefer not to receive them, but I wanted to thank you for your kind words about the story and for your constructive criticisms. You didn't have to take the time, but you did, and in a world of form rejections, I'm grateful. I look forward to revisiting this story and resubmitting in February. - Mike McMullin

       Thank you so much for the great feedback. I really appreciate you sending helpful, actionable edits. Your notes really made me feel like you read the story and really thought about what you liked and didn't like, and I sincerely appreciate that. Thanks again, and keep up the great work! - Alex J. Barrio

      This is helpful feedback. Thank you so much. I'll definitely send you something again. -S.P.

       Thank you for this kind note, Danny. And thank you for turning your grief into something that brings story and comfort to others. Until we all meet again. -David Liss

(Reflective / Nostalgic / Small Town)

The Proving Ground
By Danny Hankner
       I don’t remember much about the hardware store: natural light filtering in from the big glass windows on Main Street, the aromas of rubber and steel and grease, the back cement hall slathered in dark blue latex. There were creepy orange footprints winding to the restroom as if some leprechaun snuck in during the boom of downtown America, stepped in fresh paint, tacked his way to the bathroom and poof, just up and disappeared. And my little four-year-old mind played with the idea, tasted the infancy of speculation; how did these footprints come to be, and where did they end up?
       It was the late 80’s, the birth of that awful pairing of colors (deep blue and Nickelodeon orange) - the heyday of tasteless colors, mullets, and montages - when I recall my dad referring to some land cow of a woman who would waddle into the hardware store and just nuke the toilet, and him talking about the reek, and another man - perhaps the plumber - holding his hands wide like a fisherman embellishing an impossibly large catch, laughing over the improbability that what remained had birthed out the backside of a human being.
       This was one of the many topics of breakfast discussion, where the managers of the downtown stores would gather, coffee steaming under thick mustaches, plates clinking like every diner from a bygone era, a union of men managing, their backs to Main Street, watching as the infrastructure rots, as the customers bleed out to the sparkling ends of town, simply surviving, a different type of trench warfare, an unspoken understanding that when war comes, so do the casualties. Was it always in the back of their mind, like inmates on death row waiting for their name to be called - the notion of another store closing? And when it came, did they return to work in black as Taps echoed over the loudspeakers, or did they merely shrug, grateful that it wasn’t yet their day?
       A block down Main Street, forever spinning, was the blue and red spiral of Bob’s Barbershop. My dad would drag me in on Saturday mornings where we’d cram into a seat against the wall, listening to an analog TV chattering on low volume, the buzz of trimmers and the snip-snip-snip of expert scissors, hair shedding like an off-colored snowfall. Here, gentlemen gathered to gossip, interact, laugh and catch up on whatever had happened over the last 30 days. The haircut was simply the necessity, the excuse.  And when my turn came, I’d hop up in the chair, staring out the window as the cars and the years rolled by, watching as the Saturday mornings of childhood morphed into the fading afternoons of adolescence, Jeopardy playing endlessly, classmates shuffling home after school in oversized ratty T's, worn sandals scuffing the sidewalk, scanning the window chalk new releases on the movie rental store across the street, which later transformed into package deals like “Five movies for five nights for five bucks,” eventually climaxing with the ghostly script informing us that the store was shuttered, closed, done.
       How long has it been since I last sat in that chair? How much has changed downtown? How many businesses have come and gone in my absence?
       I ran into Bob recently, in the window and door section of Menards, which is a regular stop for me but about 40 minutes south for Bob (and everyone from my hometown). He’s retired now, his once light brown hair powdered white. We talked about my dad – did the past tense always come so easy? - and how Bob’s now at an age where all of his friends are dying. Sometimes, when you lose something, you focus only on the crater it leaves, never realizing the ripple effects or thinking about others; what it means to linger on in the lonely twilight of existence; what it means to ask the big questions, always without answer.
       Not long after the bump-in, I had a dream. I was back in Maquoketa and in need of a haircut, only Bob had moved locations and was testing out a new business model: Bob’s Burgers and Barbery, where you’d sit down at a table and Bob would cut your hair while you looked over a menu. You ever watch Nathan For You? It’s this show where a comedian pretends to be a business guru who pitches wild ideas to failing businesses in last-ditch efforts to save their enterprise, like a gas station selling gas for 10 cents a gallon, and then making customers hike up a mountain to get the rebate form, or a horse farm attaching weather balloons to lighten the weight of obese adults for trail rides, and thus expand the customer base. All of his schemes were equal parts brilliance and insanity, and when I woke up, that’s what came to mind. It was like back in high school when my friends Boz and Cody made a pact that if they failed at life, they’d start a Hide-N-Go-Seek Pizzeria, where, after ordering, you’d go hide somewhere in the store, and if the employees couldn’t find you in 30 minutes or less, your pizza was free. The downtown would’ve been a perfect place for this idea to grow, fester, wither, and die: a capitalist cemetery, the modern burial ground.
       When I think about the downtown, I remember all the marching bands from the tri-state area parading past the old buildings on a frosty autumn morning, blasting trumpets and twirling batons amongst the chatter of cymbals and percussion, us parking at Fareway and hiking a block to watch the marchers, blowing into my hands to keep warm against the frightful chill and wishing just to go home, never realizing how special this moment was – Oktoberfest, where our tiny little town swelled with thousands of budding musicians for one glorious morning - and afterward, begging my mom to rent the X-Men game for Sega Genesis, back when Movies America was still on Main Street, years before they moved up to Platt, years before they met their ultimate demise like all movie rentals must.
       But Fareway, the regional grocery store where I worked as a teenager – and we’re talking circa mid-2000’s here – still rang everything up manually, the checker’s fingers snapping like lightning on plastic keys as they punched in every digit. And we that replenished the merchandise, fighting over the sticker guns (or ferreting away the good ones deep in the caverns of seldom-stocked shelves), the kind with those orange peel-off tabs that you adjust, click, and slap on every can of tuna, bag of pasta, frozen tub of ice cream. The manager, Mike, had this burning intensity about him, and if you were passionate about running a grocery store, you could be passionate about anything - like his love for the Iowa Hawkeyes or the color black: black pants, black coats, and most certainly black vehicles. I recall Nemmers attempting to hawk his Trans Am, and when he broached the subject, the first words out of Mike’s mouth were, “Huuuwhat color is it!?”
       It was black.
       A few weeks after I chatted with Bob in the window and door section, I bumped into my old manager, this time in the lighting department.
       “Mike!?” I said. Just a week prior, Mike had announced his retirement.
       “Danny Hankner!”
       We chatted; about Maquoketa, retirement, and his plans for the future. Mike had such an engrained work ethic – clapping like a one-man pep rally and blitzing around the aisles while we teenagers dragged ourselves in at 6:00 AM - that you just imagined he would keep on running the rat race until he keeled over. I asked him about his decision to hang it up.
       “You know,” he said, his words crisped by both resolve and melancholy, “I came into work one day, and it just hit me. It was time.”
       Did you know that only a few short years after I put in my two-week notice, Fareway picked up and relocated near the highway? I think of all the businesses that have come and gone, department stores and pawn shops, restaurants and retail - how many will last to retirement, and how many will close their doors before ever getting a chance to flower? And through the years you watch them plucked, one by one, like blocks from a Jenga tower until the structure destabilizes and begins to wobble.
       When you hear about these legends – these great men who have been standing tall and steady at their professions since the dawn of your existence – there’s a sadness that seeps in, crawls over your heart and makes itself comfortable, like an unwelcome squatter that never goes away. And these men pass now into their golden years, and we emerge from their shadows, ill-equipped, unprepared, rubbing eyes and knocking knees like it’s our first time on two feet. Who are we to take their place – waiting out there in the void of long-faded youth, like rusty tools in a garden shed - to take our seats on thrones once revered?
       Not long after Fareway relocated, there was a fire. As fate would have it, I was back in town and had spent the night at my parents’ house, and what I awoke to was a black death hanging in the sky, a monster made of smoke and ash towering over Main Street. Ours alone wasn’t enough; fire departments from neighboring counties were on scene, pouring thousands of gallons into the heart of downtown, icicles sprouting on the edges of their nozzles like stalactites.
       Eventually, they put the beast out of its misery, but not before it devoured businesses and apartments alike. The rubble - asbestos-ridden - sat there for years. It’s now a grassy knoll where parties and banquets and gatherings are held, but what the flames took with it was more than just steel and brick, but memories going back a century. I wonder, was my dad’s old store lost in the blaze? Like I said, I don’t remember much about the hardware store, not even the exact location.
       But this wasn’t the first disaster weathered by my old town, nor will it be the last. Remember the flood of 93? The Maquoketa River hemorrhaged water everywhere; Obie’s restaurant was flooded and forced to relocate, even the cornfield by Boz’s house was permanently swamped into a marshland, where my dad and I would head down there and throw a line in, catching the tiniest bass you’d ever see, whisking them home and dumping them into our fish tank.
       Bob had a picture hanging on the wall of his barbershop, of when the waters poured over the cement barriers of the dam, swallowing the parking lot, sweeping trees and boulders away like suds down a bathtub drain. I remember staring at the picture while waiting my turn. The wait seemed like forever - and wasn’t that the crux of our childhood, endlessly waiting to grow up, nab our licenses and speed away to strange worlds and new beginnings where we could leave our old lives behind and forge for ourselves a brand-new destiny?
       It’s a bittersweet revelation that all the things we had could slip away like sand through our fingers, when we had assumed they would be there waiting upon our return, as if they were immortal, and we with them. Yet when I think of the downtown, I’m back in Bob’s Barbershop: there is yet no fire, Fareway is still parked just around the corner, and my dad is alive and snickering. Jeopardy is on, and Bob snips away, never answering the questions. Does he know them all, ingesting the show day after year after decade? And if I spoke – over the buzz of trimmers, the jingle of daily doubles, and every sweet, fleeting memory – what would I say? Would I frame my thoughts in the form of questions, like:
       Will time just slow down?
       If I scream, will my lungs give out?
       Is this what it takes, fire and flood and the disintegration of years?
       Before realizing that our friends and families and neighbors were the pillars we built our lives upon?
       And sailed away from?
       And miss more than anything?
       And if we reach forward, will we find what we’re looking for?
       Out there in the void?
       Or right here?
       Where - between the peaks - we grieve and suffer and linger on?
       Is this, then, what it means to be alive?
       Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, or look up at the stars, or let the water fall heavy on my shoulders while standing in the shower, I think about that fire. How many livelihoods and homes and memories burned with it? How many more were vanquished in the years before, and how many will find their bitter end in the days ahead? They've long hauled off the debris, grassed it over, yanked out the stoplights and slathered on new pavement and parking. The downtown has cleaned up well, but who’s there to benefit? No more hardware, shoe, or furniture stores, long moved is the pharmacy, the trinket shops, and the book store that peddled as many Pokémon cards as it did novels. Remember The Loft, which, years later, morphed into The Brick Tap? A few of my close friends had started that one, climaxing in the same crushing decision that my dad and so many others had to make.
       Do you know the sting, the pain of letting go?
       Are we then merely the firemen of this life, dousing flames, fighting the blaze with everything we’ve got until our fingers freeze and our lungs burn black, struggling another day on the battlefield - our proving ground, the unholy land, a new Jerusalem of ashes and memory – so that we never have to stop and ask the questions burning in our souls, wondering what we have yet to live for when our best days are behind us, remembering to remember, and forgetting to forget: strolling down the sidewalk on a warm sunny day and holding your dad’s sweaty palm as he opens the glass and steel door, where you’re met with the aroma of rubber and grease and the wide open world?
       And you think: how can a man recall so little about a hardware store that sat once upon a different time in a strange land they called downtown…and yet remember everything else?
About the author:
          Danny Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager. Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as a master electrician for his own company. In his spare time, Dan rides and builds mountain bike trails, scrapes infinitely spawning cat hurl off the basement floor, and runs Story Unlikely, an award-winning literary magazine where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. His work has besmirched the good reputations of Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Tenth Muse, and many more unfortunate publishers, as well as being awarded semi-finalist in Writers of the Future.

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Literary Spotlight
       The famous Writers' HQ Couch to 5k Words writerly training programme has been carefully created to ease you into a regular writing practice, while simultaneously showing you how to find the energy to keep going, make your practice fun and enjoyable, and find time in the un-time-able.
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The Excrement List
Disobey our submission guidelines, 
and find yourself amiss.
Disobey the guidelines,
wind up on the list.
(It's like when restaurants used to post bounced checks on the wall, but for the digital age)
As a publisher, we have rules that writers must abide by if they want to get published. Some of these aren't that big of a deal, but others, like ‘if you submit to our contest, don't submit this story anywhere else until the reading period is over,' or ‘don’t mark our emails as spam', are a major no-no.  Offenders get put on our ~dun dun dun~ Excrement List, aka lifetime ban on getting published. We keep this list to show people that - for once - we're not joking. Don't be like the perps below - you're much too savvy for that:
Gillian W, Cat T, Adam M, Olasupo L, Mick S, Leslie C, Patricia W, Tim V, Andrew F, Sam P, Aaron H, N. Kurts, Paula W, Marcy K, Mark301078, carnap72, N. Phillips,  A Bergsma, Sharon S., Mfaulconer, Mikeandlottie, Rebecca C, Nathaniel L,
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