story unlikely

Real people. Real places. Real stories.


Whatever happened to the art of storytelling? It's become a lost relic, along with our identities. But here, we're revitalizing this once great craft. Don't worry, you're in good hands. After all, if laughter is medicine, then Story Unlikely is therapy for broken souls.

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Me, you, & the road ahead

Thoughtful / Humorous / Vivid

The Doors

Thoughtful / Deep / Powerful

Short Story Contest

~$500 first place prize
~NO entry fee

Short Story Contest

We've decided to host a short story contest, and throw a bunch of fat cash in your face while we're at it

Contest guidelines below. READ CAREFULLY. Failure to do so may result in disqualification!

Story Guidelines:
The short story contest is open to everyone with a brain (this is more restrictive than you think). There are no restrictions on genre: fantasy, sci fi, memoir, fiction/nonfiction, etc - we don't care as long as it's a good story. Our goal is to connect great writers with readers craving great stories (and pay really stinkin' well, without charging writers a dime!). The story itself cannot exceed 2,250 words.

What do I win?
First place will get a cool $500, publication in our monthly mailer and will also be featured on Story Unlikely's website. Honorable mentions will receive $25 and will be published in the monthly mailer.

When can I submit?
The submission period runs from October 1st through December 31st. Our reading period is January through March.

When will my story be published?
Stories will be published at random throughout the following calendar year between April and December, authors will NOT be notified ahead of time (we’re storytellers, after all, why wouldn’t we add a little suspense?), so authors MUST be signed up for the mailing list to be eligible for prize and publication (Don’t worry, we only send out ONE email (story) a month – we can’t stand getting our emails blown up, and we know we’re not alone in that).

How do I submit?
We accept email submissions ONLY.
Attach the ENTIRE story to the email (Microsoft word doc or docx). Be sure to remove ALL forms of identification from the story (If your story happens to be about you, just be sure to remove your last name).

Send your story in the following manner:
Email to


Email Title must be in the following:

Submission: Title, Author Name, Fiction/Nonfiction, Sub Genre (if applicable or desired)

(In the text)

Dear Editor,

[Insert FIRST 250 words of your story (rounded to the nearest sentence) here]

# (insert page break)

(Insert short author bio, including any previously published stories, as you want it to appear below your story if/when published)

Contact information (best email contact, phone number (just in case), and email)


Do you accept multiple submissions?
No, one submission per author.

Do you accept simultaneous submissions?
No – do not send your story entry out to other publishers until the announcement of the winner has been made.

What type of formatting should the story be in?
We actually prefer block paragraphs (if for no better reason than to see who actually read this), but anything remotely standard is fine - we're not picky on formatting, so long as its not obnoxious.

Any tips on winning this thing?
Sure, here’s a little secret – most stories get ‘bumped’ before we finish reading the first page (that’s right, we’re a merciless bunch). A trained eye can tell the quality of a story and the ability of the storyteller from only a few sentences, so tighten that opening!

What are you looking for?
To put it simply, good stories. Entries will be judged both by the technical and literary quality as well as the author's ability to tell a story. All entries must be previously unpublished. Here’s what we’re NOT looking for: Excessive anything. Think PG-13, R if necessary. We're not attempting to salt the earth with more cultural dogma couched as mediocre fiction, or writers who are jockeying for the title of Most Woke. There’s enough of that already out there. You want to impress us? Write a good story. You want to win? Write a great one.

Anything I missed?
Likely you skimmed over two things, and they're OH so important:
#1. We announce our winning and honorable mention stories with a bit more dramatic flair – in the monthly mailer. So be sure you are signed up and receiving them, otherwise you might miss the highlight of your own story! (actually, you’ll be disqualified, so even worse. You can unsubscribe at any time, just wait until the contest is over, otherwise we'll consider that a withdrawal of your entry). Scroll down for the sign up form.

#2. Re-read HOW we want you to submit (like, the first 250 words of your story, we really do need that in the body of your email - it is of utmost importance to us). It's so important that we will post a sample below...

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Story Unlikely retains First North American Serial Rights upon publication, along with the rights to publish in any future anthology or compilation. The author retains all other rights to their story. (In other words, you can publish your story anywhere else after it's been published here, we just ask that you mention that it was published in Story Unlikely first.)

Me, you, & the road ahead

Thoughtful / Humorous / Vivid

Mr. Bowman, our 8th grade language arts teacher, came equipped with a winning smile, a killer 5 o’clock shadow, and a face that screamed ‘put a glass of champagne in my hand, a wink in one eye, and sketch me in black and white, Daddy-O’ to any 1950’s product marketeer. He had a good sense of humor, his jokes always softened by a delivery of background dancers - those classic Bowman big ears – but sometimes, the inner football coach overruled his sensibilities.

“Can I borrow a pen?” I remember asking during one study hall.
“Sure,” he said. “For ten pushups.”
I understood his ploy – teaching kids about work and reward – but I was fat and fourteen and all I wanted, as the Brits would say, was a bloody pen to finish my homework.
“I just need to borrow it for one minute,” I said, understanding that the physics on his ask just weren’t going to happen.
“10 pushups.”
Had he asked for sit ups I could’ve managed, but thanks to (SPOILER ALERT) a poor diet and lack of exercise, I had reached my pinnacle of portly, a physical void in my youth where he might as well have asked me to sprint a marathon.

Speaking of which, can I take a moment to shout out to all my overweight friends out there?

Remember those stupid fitness tests in middle school, like ‘how many pullups can you do’?
“I can’t do any pullups,” I explained to Ms. Suthers.
“You have to try.”
“Why? It’s pointless.”
“You get a zero if you don’t try.”

As if junior high wasn’t awkward enough, let the heifers hang from a chin-up bar and struggle for a few grueling nanoseconds before collapsing back to level ground. Or how about the awards at the end of the year, where the kids who were obviously in way better shape than the rest of us got publicly acknowledged for being in obviously way better shape than the rest of us? But it didn’t end there with the top 10%, Lord no! Then they had to further humiliate us by offering accolades for everyone who attained physical mediocrity. By the time they were done calling names, the only ones left seated in shame were the fat and the lazy – which by the way would make a killer title for a western spoof.

And lest we forget about the skin fold caliper; the giant, plastic lobster claw that informed us just how fat we were. “Pinch the skin hanging below your bicep, measure it with the caliper, and boom, there’s your level of obesity, down to the tenth of a percent!” Despite my obvious bias, my skepticism was running on Defcon 5 when I first beheld this instrument of embarrassment.

“How can something that measures your arm accurately count your entire body fat?” I questioned.
“It’s calibrated to do so.”
“But what if you just have fat arms?”
“You don’t just have fat arms.”
“Some people do.”

The whole thing was highly suspect and prone to deliberate user error. What’s most ridiculous was the notion that we needed a machine to confirm how overweight we were or were not. By the time we entered high school, the technology advanced to a hand-held gadget that electrically measured your fat cells. I had started running after 8th grade, so depending on the year I was somewhere between average and good shape, and all I remember is seeing who could best scam the machine by flexing our entire body as it sent tiny doses of voltage through our system.

The rest of language arts is really kind of a blur to me. Outside of once accidentally ramming my elbow into the back of my seat and completely losing arm function for the next hour, the bulk of my memories consist of paper football. And there really isn’t much to divulge about that, either, only we played a lot of paper football that semester, so much so that when Mr. Bowman brought in then Iowa Cyclones starting quarterback Sage Rosenfels to speak in front of our class (and sign autographs), I pulled out my most prized possession on hand; a paper football. Sage was a former student of Mr. Bowman’s who would not only go on to play in the NFL, but also rip a raunchy fart on the bench at 5th Ward Park and promptly blame it on me while we were playing tennis.

Flatulence or no, he signed my paper football without question - which was certainly a step up from what my friend BJ had Iowa Hawkeye Jovon Joghnson sign years later at the mall in Dubuque.

“Will you sign this?” asked BJ, holding up the item in question. He had been waiting patiently in line, and now was his time.
“You want me to sign your nut cup?” asked the very athletic defensive back.
“I played DB in high school,” responded the not very athletic BJ. “It would mean a lot to me.”

My most vivid memory of language arts actually had nothing to do with Mr. Bowman. I was sitting in class one day nursing a strong desire to vomit when suddenly the appetite turned to an emergency. I rose from my seat and headed to the door. Mr. Bowman, standing in front of the chalk-board, paused mid-sentence.

“Where are you going?”
“The nurse’s office,” I lied.
He ended the query, and I shut the door behind me.

But there was a problem. The nurse’s office was to the left, the bathroom to the right – if I headed to my intended destination, he’d know I was lying. Thinking on the fly, I moved left, towards the stairs, but once out of sight, I ducked down (below the height of the glass window on the door), spun 180 degrees, and slunk under said glass window and towards the nearest restroom.

As I hurried along, I could feel the inner turbulence roiling against the walls of my stomach, could taste the acidic warning of impending upchuck. Meaty morsels began to climb my esophagus, rising on geysers of half-digested Salisbury steak. I pressed my lips together and slapped a hand over my mouth, but a strong current broke through my defenses, parting my lips and streaming through the cracks of my fingers. It landed with a splash on the hall floor.

I didn’t look back.

I’d like to say that I made it into the restroom, kicked down the door and relieved myself, but that wouldn’t be completely true. I made it to the bathroom all right, but the great tragedy of Maquoketa Middle School is that there are no stall doors, and for the love of God I’ve never understood why. I staggered in and vomited all over the toilet – big, heaving thrusts where you have to grip the porcelain to maintain balance against such violent force. Now enter the plot twist; while I hurled, I felt something happening on the other end. No, this can’t be, I thought between retches. Not now! But there was no denying the movement. I was faced with a terrible dilemma that no teenager should ever encounter. I wiped the vomit from lips with the back of my arm, quickly shimmied off my pants and plopped down on the toilet.

And to my horror, while the diarrhea coated the inside of the bowl, the vomiting returned.

There were no barf bags at hand, no trash cans within reach, not even a pitiable, worn baseball cap left abandoned in the corner to aim for. All I could do was turn my head slightly askew, shower the floor in vomit, and pray to God that no soul would wander in and witness this carnage.

We sampled a variety of prose that year in language arts; To Kill A Mockingbird, Edgar Allen Poe, some buzz-kill of a story where a guy in the Alaskan wilderness tries to start a fire and stay warm, fails, dies. We read The Outsiders, then watched the movie. None of these piqued my interest, but Mr. Bowman seemed affected by the literature. At the end of the year, he had us sit silently in our seats as he pressed the play button on his boombox.

“You guys are going off into high school, and your childhood will be left behind,” he explained as the music began to play. It was ‘Forever Young’, by Rod Stewart. “You’ll look back and cherish this moment.” And then he added, with that classic Bowman smile where you didn’t quite know his angle, “It’s okay to cry.” There were probably a thousand better moments to symbolize our Coming of Age, but hey, I guess it beats, as the Germans would say, ‘Brechendurchfalling’ in a middle-school bathroom with no stall door.

But let me try, anyway.

A few weeks have passed. School’s out, summer’s in full swing, and you’re lacing up your shoes to do something you absolutely despise. You wait until dark – not because you’re committing any crimes - but to hide your inexperience. Cicadas solo in the trees, a slight breeze rolls in, tickling the muggy air as you step across the driveway. There is no green light, no cheering fans or pistol firing off – just the silent, salient flicker of a firefly; just me, you, and the road ahead.

You don’t know this as you take your first awkward, heavy steps, but what you’re about to do will alter your life in ways too powerful to express in epilogues or epitaphs. The excess begins to melt. The pounding of your heart is replaced by drums, guitars, and your favorite run mix. Your legs grow strong, your lungs huge, your gait proud and swift. Stubble covers your face, calluses envelope your hands, lines form at the corners of your eyes. The miles race by, so fast that by the time you come to a halt, sucking in oxygen and looking up at the night sky, that you can’t help but wonder; the buzz of adolescence, the surge of invincibility, the aromas of midnight are now long gone. They have become a hangover, a love letter to your youth.

You think back to all those years ago, sitting in language arts and listening to Rod Stewart, and remember.

It’s okay to cry.

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ABout the author

Dan 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 an electrician for his own company, 12 Stones Electric, and running Story Unlikely, where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. Dan's work has appeared in places like Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Bending Genres, Memoirist, and more.

The Doors

Thoughtful / Deep / Powerful

My basement was a labyrinth of old furniture, piles of figurative crap, boxes as far as the eye could see. Narrow walkways of thin carpet stained with ghost outlines of old cat puke connected the quadrants; a play area with wooden shelves stocked with Discovery Toys games, canned food, and this rickety old ‘Triple Desk’ that likely originated from a one-room school house. I don’t know how it ended up in our basement, but it led to us playing ‘school’ more times than I can count – and I always protested, “I hate school, why would I want to PLAY it?” My insubordination would earn me a quick trip to the ‘principal’s office’, which was code for standing in the corner over the fresh dumps in the cat litter box.

Past the desks and canned food rested our laundry area that seconded as a ‘wrapping station’ for my mom come December, a little corner where hung my dad’s clothes, and, of course, the massive train table that fused the other half of the basement together. Indulging his fascination with these great diesel-powered works of man, my dad built this model shrine out of 1x3s and OSB, and laid probably a mile of track. He could run two or three HO scale engines at a time, and proudly oversaw their endless circles with his own railroad conductor’s hat and drink in hand. A master switch sat next to the control boxes, allowing him to change the track, sending the engines down back country roads, through balsa wood bridges and under mountains made of plaster.

But the table was far from complete – perhaps it was one of those projects that could never be finished, for there was always another track to be laid, another cliff to sculpt, another boxcar to build. Expansion aside, the maintenance was eternal thanks to our endless parade of stupid cats and their obsession with heights and windows. We could no better keep them off the table than we could shout down a storm. They waited in the many shadows until we weren’t around, knocking over model trees and flattening all manner of scenery in their wake.

Though I was never into trains like my dad, my friends and I would spend countless hours abusing his Great Work, racing engines, piling up and crashing model cars in a railroad destruction derby, or loosing the gerbils and running them down with sinister delight. Whether it was out of authentic enjoyment or mild guilt for our abuse, I took to helping my dad. I recall waking up early on Saturday mornings and climbing down the creaky wooden stairs, mixing sawdust with green, brown, and black spray paint. As the sun peered in through the small basement windows, I’d spread a coat of Elmer’s glue over the OSB and sprinkle on the fake grass.

Other times I’d work late into the evenings by wrapping a scrap of white cloth over my index finger and rubbing the dirt off the tracks. It was tedious work, and the discomfort on my fingers was akin to the dull pain when you first pluck a guitar for too long, but if the engines were to run, then the tracks needed to be cleaned.

It was about this time I began habitually listening to the radio, specifically B100 and the Open House Party, where some middle-aged DJ took calls and played 90’s pop rock for 12-year-old girls. My favorite song of all-time hit the radio – One Headlight, by the Wallflowers. Lead Singer Jakob Dylan (son of the legendary Bob Dylan) named the album Bringing Down The Horse because of how much of a struggle it was to produce. He said they had very little help, and that nobody seemed to believe in them. I remember that song climbing all the way to #2 on Casey Kasem’s top 40 and stalling. And even though I was just some kid listening at home, it sort of killed me inside that they never made it to #1.

Just as I wasn’t as into trains as my dad, neither was he into music quite like me. He’d usually work in silence, and when driving, his dial was always tuned to the constant static of AM radio. Aside from the Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits CD we got him for Christmas one year, there was only one album I ever witnessed my dad listen to.

I don’t remember when he had purchased the CD, only that on rare occasions he’d bust it out and transport himself back in time, nodding and humming to Riders On The Storm or informing me how People Are Strange. The Doors were a band from my dad’s youth, which at the time seemed a far-away, black and white relic, as remote and distant as death itself.

“I eat more chicken than any man has ever seen,” my dad would chant along with the lyrics, and cackle climactically, as if this were some great inside joke. He had this fantastic, unexplainable sense of humor, always able to find the jest in life’s awkward - or even morbid - moments.

“You see all those people there, Dan?” he’d query when watching classics like It’s A Wonderful Life or The Ten Commandments. “Yeah, they’re all dead now.” And he'd grin like he just aced a semester test without studying. “Well, maybe not that little one right there,” he’d offer, pointing to a child bounding across the screen, “but the rest of them - all dead.”

Perhaps my dad’s sense of humor was a product of that era. That’s what I always thought of the name ‘The Doors’, anyway, chalking it to up to another 60’s drug-induced, one-liner inspiration. It wasn’t until very recently that I learned the truth of it.

“There are things known, and there are things unknown,” front man Jim Morrison once said. “And in between are the doors.” I sat back when I first read those words, letting the weight of that simmer on low. Ironic that such deep ruminations about the human condition would come from a man who would walk through a door which would take his life at age 27.

All songs – whether classics from the 60’s, the 90’s, or today – I associate with pictures. Some are blurry, abstract images impossible to describe, but others come with crystal clarity. Just like my dad with The Doors, when I hear the song One Headlight, I’m sucked back in time, listening to B100 and gluing fake grass onto the train table. My dad’s clothing rests in the corner just past the washing machine, his hats hang from the rafters, and I can still hear the clinking of the ice cubes as he swirls his plastic cup.

All these years later, the train table is still there, suffering a slow deterioration like every enterprise does in the absence of its maker. The cats have long destroyed the miniature flora, the tracks are coated with dirt and hair, derailments abound. We’ve gathered upstairs for dinner. The children request to run the trains, just like they did with grandpa. I sigh, knowing what must be done, and take my finger to the cleaning rag. The engine, a black and crimson Chicago Great Western, flickers as it struggles over the neglected track. One of the boxcars uncouples and loses a wheel, the rest spill like dominoes. As I work to realign them, Jakob Dylan whispers in my ear.

~Well this place is old, it feels just like a beat-up truck~
~I turn the engine, but the engine doesn't turn~
~It smells of cheap wine, cigarettes, this place is always such a mess~
~Sometimes I think I'd like to watch it burn~

It’s been two years now. The pain has subsided, but I still think about him. Still miss him.

~I’m alone, I feel just like somebody else~
~Man, I ain't changed, but I know I ain't the same~

A grandpa is something I never had, although I read about them in books. They fished, hunted, and built things in their garages with you. There are many voids now, and this continued absence for my children is one of them.

~But somewhere here in between the city walls of dyin' dreams~
~I think of death, it must be killin' me~

My nephew, Henry, by nature of being the oldest of the grandkids, has the sharpest recollection of grandpa. Of course, my daughter Macy has inherited my recollection, and in time, I suspect her memories, though few, will outshine them all.

~Hey, hey, heeey. Come on try a little, nothing is forever~
~There's got to be something better than, in the middle~
~But me and Cinderella, we put it all together~
~We can drive it home, with one headlight~

Sometimes, when I think about my dad, I wonder what he was like at my age. Where did his mind go as he ran his business, provided and cared for his family, or ingested the death of his own father at the same age? What songs popped into his mind as he laid the foundations of his train table, set the track and ran that Chicago Great Western on its maiden voyage around the basement? Did he understand then what his son now knows, and what his grandchildren have yet to learn? That in this life there are knowns and there are unknowns.

And in between are the doors.

Want to read more stories like this? Join the mailing list below to receive an Unlikely Story every month.
Our emails are text heavy, and often get filtered to spam - be sure to add to your safe contacts!

ABout the author

Dan 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 an electrician for his own company, 12 Stones Electric, and running Story Unlikely, where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. Dan's work has appeared in places like Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Bending Genres, Memoirist, and more.