Over the summer, I signed up to participate in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Flash fiction is a fun test of a writer’s skill. Crafting a story with few words is difficult; each and every word has to move the story forward. Everything counts.
This particular challenge is fun in a couple different ways: First, it forces each writer out of his or her element, because it is prompted, and second, it involves lots of peer review and networking opportunities. I’m not a fan of contests as a general rule, but this one is going to become an annual tradition. Contests typically involve writing something that you’re comfortable with, and sending it off into a black hole. You hear back if you won. This contest is different! Every story submitted is given professional, editorial feedback. Additionally, if you choose to post to the forums, you get loads of critique from some amazing authors. And between rounds, there is much camaraderie and networking to be had.
For the first round, which was toward the end of August, my prompt was: Ghost Story / Museum / Tracing Paper. The story has to be in genre, must be primarily set in the provided setting, and has to include the item somewhere (though it doesn’t have to be a prominent prop). Stories must be 1000 words or less, and each round is 48 hours from prompt to submission! My initial entry is below. I scored 5 points, which is 11th place out of 42 contestants in my group. I’m pretty happy with that score, considering I was a first-timer in this contest. Hope you enjoy it!
The engagement ring dangled on a chain around my neck. I tucked it under my shirt as I shouldered through the heavy, glass door. My first day back at work after Rhys’s passing was sure to be one of awkward stares and questions, and a lot of tip-toeing around my emotions. Life goes on, the doctor told me. My life, maybe, but not as planned, and not for Rhys.
The Phoenix Art Museum was devoid of visitors so early in the morning. Employees bustled about their routines, readying for the day. I juggled my coffee and purse into one hand, pulled out my card key and inhaled a deep breath. With my best, fake smile plastered to my face, I opened the door to the restoration work room.
I walked past work stations silently, ignoring the quick glances my colleagues were casting my way. They hadn’t bothered to clear off Rhys’s desk. Our engagement photo sat among scattered papers and unfinished projects.
Kris’s hand on my shoulder startled me out of my lingering gaze. “Welcome back, Micah.”
“Thanks,” I replied, trying to avoid her dark, sympathetic eyes. I ran my hands across one of Rhys’s left projects. A piece of tracing paper sat taped over an ancient manuscript.
“We weren’t sure what to do with his work. Which ones you were… if you’d want to…,” Kris left the thoughts hanging. Rhys and I had worked on many projects together.
I clasped my hand over hers and shut my eyes to quell the tears. “I’m not even sure what project this was.”
Kris moved to the other side of the desk to look at it properly. She ran a finger over the traced text. “Micah,” she said, her voice thin, “You need to see this.”
I inspected the paper closer. My cup of coffee fell to the floor. Words in dark-red ink read Rhys Pike, The 12th of July, The Year of our Lord 2014. The day he died.
“This isn’t funny,” I said, turning on Kris.
“You’re right, it’s not.” Kris turned toward the row of desks and yelled, “Who did this?”
“Who did what?” asked John, the department director, as he weaved quickly through the tables.
“What was this he was working on?” I demanded, pointing at the book. “Who put this here?”
John shook his head, “I’m not sure. I don’t recognize it.”
I picked up the book and turned it over. The cover was thick, brown, sculpted leather covered in runic symbols. The heavy parchment pages were time-worn and brittle with blackened edges. I set it back on the table and gently lifted the paper tape to inspect the page beneath the tracing paper. The words were written in an ancient script. I couldn’t understand it, but the sight of the text made a chill run the length of my spine. I replaced the tracing paper and hugged myself tightly.
“I don’t know who did this or why, but it’s cruel and unacceptable.” John spat, his mouth drawn and brow furrowed. “I will figure this out for you.” He turned on his heel and stalked away.
I left Rhys’s desk for my own work, determined to bury myself in a project. Still, the day passed slowly. Every attempt at working was interrupted by coworkers delivering well-rehearsed words of attempted sympathy and comfort. When the old grandfather clock struck seven, I realized I had been alone in the office for quite some time.
“I guess it’s time to go,” I said to the empty room, heading for the door. The hairs on my neck stood at attention; footsteps behind me perfectly matched my own. I stopped and turned. No one was there.
I took a few more steps. Again, clomp, clomp, clomp. Perfectly in time with my own feet, but heavier. Harder. Closer. I whipped my head around. Nothing.
I was next to Rhys’s station. I set down my purse and picked up the photo of the two of us, cradling the silver frame in both hands.
<All those plans, erased,> a voice whispered behind me. Rhys’s voice. I spun to meet empty air.
“Who’s there?” I asked, feeling my throat tighten.
<Don’t worry Mics.> My pulse raced as I felt a single finger trace the outline of my jaw, like Rhys had lovingly done so many times before. <It has to be this way. He’s making me do this. Please don’t be afraid.>
Hot tears streamed down my cheeks and my whole body shook. “Rhys, is that you?” I asked the still and empty room.
<You can’t stop it, Micah. You saw the script, just like I did. He’s going to take you, too.>
I started to run, but stopped cold. The tracing paper over the manuscript on Rhys’s desk contained a new line of text. Below Rhys’s name was my own. The date listed beside it was today.
Non-corporeal laughter, not Rhys, but another voice, deep and menacing, echoed after me as I sprinted from the building. I didn’t even see the car coming. As I lay on the street, my soul slipping from my body, I realized I’d never get a chance to warn the rest of them.
Beyond death I found myself looking outward from between pages of the ancient manuscript, staring through a piece of tracing paper, my own name and Rhys’s written in blood-red letters. Kris reached for the book, her head turned quizzically. My screams of warning came as stone-cold silence as she lifted the paper and ran her fingers over undecipherable text.