Sideways (Short Story Challenge)

For two years in a row, I’ve submitted to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. In the Flash Fiction Challenge, writers have forty-eight hours to submit a story of one thousand words or less based on the prompts assigned. Writers have two ‘heats’ in which to earn points to make it to the third heat or be cut. The third heat winners move on to a fourth and final heat before winners are chosen.

NYC Midnight also has a Screenplay Challenge, a Short Screenplay Challenge, and a Short Story Challenge. This year, I decided to enter and submit a story to the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The rules and criteria for the SSC are a bit different than the FFC. Instead of two days, writers are given eight to cultivate and write a story based on their prompts.  The word count is more generous as well. Here were my prompts.

Round 1, Heat #11
Genre: Fantasy
Subject: Anxiety
Character: A surrogate mother

Number of words: 2,500 or less

Synopsis:  A young girl suffering from anxiety struggles to cope in a world that feels hostile and alien. It’s only when she discovers her roots that she begins to understand why she feels a stranger in a strange land.

EDITED TO ADD: Here’s the song, Sideways by Citizen Cope, that Kimi is listening to in the story in case you’re interested to hear it.

_______________________________________________________

Sideways

 

Plant True Kin seed in dark of night,

In fertile soil, out of Sight.

If it grows to eight and ten,

Pluck the bloom to start again.  – Other Folk weaving rhyme

 

Kimi recognized her mother’s favorite kvetch.

“She was difficult even before she was born. I should have known trouble was brewing from the weird cravings I had. Honeysuckle! Of all the strange things – honeysuckle! I kept my sanity by eating organic honey straight from the jar. It’s a wonder I have a tooth left in my head!”

A shriek of laughter bounded up the stairs to nip at Kimi’s ears. She swept past it, quietly descended to the landing, and paused. Feminine murmurs and the click of knitting needles emanated from the living room.

“Born three weeks late, but even with that extra time in the oven, she came out skinny as a plucked bird! Wouldn’t take to the breast at all – just cried and cried! And look at her now, nearly eighteen and still shopping in the junior’s department for her clothes! By her age, I was all hips and boobs!”

“Barbara, you’re a card,” someone squealed. “You couldn’t have expected her to look like you, all things considered -”

“Mom, I’m going!” Kimi yelled as she ducked past the doorway.

“There are pastries on the counter,” her mother called in return. Then, her voice lowered, but not low enough to escape Kimi’s hearing, “Kimi’s got her weekly shrink session. Anxiety. GAD, they call it. They’ve got her meditating, doing yoga, tapping, but nothing seems to work. I tell George I swore I felt her fretting the moment the doctor implanted her. I immediately started cramping and was terrified I’d lose her!”

In the kitchen, Kimi sailed past the patisserie’s box and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. She shoved it into her hoodie pocket, palmed an orange, and headed for the door.

Her cat turned from its sentry position, its expression impatient.

“I don’t blame you, Puss. I want out, too,” Kimi agreed as she liberated them both.

She ducked to avoid a moth on a collision course for her head and glanced back, brow furrowed. The moth glided between the gap as the door closed behind her. In the mire of other worries, it was quickly forgotten and, unnoticed by the craft club, it took one turn around the first floor then flew up the stairs into Kimi’s room to settle in a corner.

* * *

Kimi turned her eyes away from the city skyline. She imagined the office’s muted decor was designed to soothe, but all the glass and tall buildings beyond counteracted any calm she might have felt.

She had told Dr. Ian it wasn’t a fear of heights. It was all the towering, sinister steel. The brittle flash of glass and heavy, unyielding concrete looming overhead. It unnerved her. She’d been glad when her parents had moved from their apartment in Manhattan to a brownstone in Brooklyn. If they could just find a decent therapist there as well, she could stop the hellish weekly commutes into Midtown.

“Have you been practicing your tapping at bedtime?” Dr. Ian asked. At her nod, he continued. “And has it been helping?”

Kimi shrugged a shoulder. “Some.”

If she said no, she knew he’d press anti-anxiety meds again. He’d put her on them when she was sixteen. They’d made her feel so odd – had given her such vivid and disturbing dreams – she’d refused to keep taking them. And, in truth, the tapping helped a little, just as the meditating and yoga did. The problem was these methods were drops of calm in a sea of panic.

The session ended with Dr. Ian urging her to try the subway again, even if she only rode for one stop. “Use your visualizations, Kimi. You’ve got to try. You’ve got to push back before your world grows so small you never leave the house.”

On the corner, she let her hand wilt to waist level just as a cab cut across traffic to reach her. The subway was a half block away and the M would take her right to Central Park.  She could shelter under The Mall’s elms, lie in the grass, wander Shakespeare’s Garden or visit Huddlestone Arch – a reward for braving the suffocation and terror of the subway.

Kimi stepped back onto the sidewalk and shrugged off the curse, hurled in Farsi, as the cab spun back into the vortex of Theatre District traffic. The retreating beat of Persian rap music was absorbed in the general din as she turned and headed to face her demons.

As she descended the subway stairs, Kimi plugged her earbuds in. Citizen Cope’s ‘Sideways’ poured into her ears, sweet and warm as melted caramel. She was currently obsessed with the song although she preferred classical music overall. Lately, playing it on loop staved off the worst of her anxiety far more than any of the tools Dr. Ian had suggested. She hoped it would help with this exercise.

Entering the subway was like a deliberate descent into the grave. When she’d first read about the catacombs of Rome, she’d pictured the subway. It was every arcane monster hinted at in horror novels, every profane, slinking beast from every religious tome waiting to consume her. Inside its throat, she could hear the thrum of its blood and the pound of its heart despite the music directly plugged into her ears.

By the time she reached the platform, her face was slick with sweat and her heart struggled to escape her chest. It was the flock of lunch hour riders that swept her inside the train car rather than her own motivation. As they settled to roost at seats and poles, and she was freed from their forward momentum, she turned to escape.

A hot wave of adrenaline broke over her head as the doors closed inches from her nose. For a moment, she hovered above her own head – a balloon bobbing on the end of a long string – then she slammed back into the prison of her flesh.

The jostle of packages and movement of limbs pried her eyes open after what seemed an eternity.  She hadn’t felt the train come to a stop, but between moving legs she caught flashes of the open door. She rocketed forward like a pinball, propelled upward by each person and surface she encountered.

It wasn’t until her feet hit grass inside the park that Kimi stopped. She hiccupped a watery sound of relief and sank to the ground to press her face to the warm earth.

Comforted by the perfume of mown grass and blooming flowers, lulled by the lazy drone of a bee inspecting nearby clover, she dozed.

* * *

Kimi woke and sat up, scrubbed the dried sweat from her cheeks and blinked into the slanted, late afternoon sunlight. One earbud dangled free, but the other chanted, “sideways” into her left ear at half second intervals. She retrieved the iPod from her pocket and checked it for visible damage. It appeared unscathed, so she powered it down and pocketed both it and the earbuds.

With less time to wander and enjoy the park than she’d first anticipated, Kimi chose the nearest refuge, Hallett Nature Sanctuary. She sent a quick text to her mother that she’d miss dinner but would grab something in Manhattan before taking a taxi home. The exuberance in her mother’s reply, ‘Good!! Have fun!!!!!’ was unmistakable.

Kimi suspected she and her mother would both feel relief when college started the following fall. She’d been accepted to a number of schools, but had been offered a full ride at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Her parents had been prepared to send her anywhere, but Washington was her top choice and she was pleased to have earned the scholarship on her own. She was eager to go – well, other than the idea of getting inside a huge, metal death trap to fly there.

The first fallen leaves of the season crunched underfoot as Kimi followed one of the dirt paths winding through the trees. An occasional glimpse of tall buildings winked through the changing foliage, but for the most part, she was in the company of growing, living things.

It was at these times that Kimi felt her muscles begin to relax. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she pulled off her ballerina flats and dug her toes into the hard packed earth. She nearly put them back on when she rounded a corner and saw a man on the path ahead. Then she realized he wasn’t wearing shoes either.

In New York City, where aspiring models and actors waited tables and sold perfume, a person could become inured to beauty. Kimi had thought she was until the man smiled and she realized she’d simultaneously stopped walking and breathing. As if he realized his effect, he chuckled as he approached her.

His gait was confident, his movements lithe. He could have been twenty or forty, she couldn’t have said. His hair was silver, but his face was unlined and his eyes clear and sparkling with mirth.  He was no taller than she and was both trim and stylish in a navy pea coat, tapered jeans, and leaf-green scarf. His ensemble made his slim, bare feet all the more striking.

“Rayne,” He held out his hand and smiled wider. From the rich timbre of his voice to the flash of his teeth, he dazzled. “And you are Kimi.”

She pulled her hand through his fingertips before he could properly shake it. Rather than be offended, he laughed. “I should have liked to introduce myself better had we more time, but the truth is, we must make haste. The Liar has found the warren where we hid you, little rabbit, and will soon set his dogs upon you.”

Kimi stepped back as he reached for her elbow. He was attractive, but so was Ted Bundy, and a child wasn’t raised in the city without learning caution.

With a wink and tip of his head, he acknowledged her rebuff. He extended one leg, bowed low over it, and stretched out his hand. “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild, with a faery, hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

“Yeats,” Kimi breathed out in recognition. The poem was a favorite. Something in his recitation of it gently knocked on an interior door that unlatched and swung open.

“Yes. I promise to return you shortly  – within mere moments on this plane – for you are not yet ripened enough to pluck fully and are even less unassailable in The Land until then. But we must away there so you may see your birthright and better understand what safeguards must be taken ‘til such time you reach eight and ten.”

This time when he reached for her elbow, she didn’t withdraw, but merely stared in wonder. Every word he spoke was lunacy, yet somehow they translated to reason in her ears.

Perhaps the stress of the subway trip had snapped her mind, she rationalized. Maybe she was in a hospital. Maybe they’d administered an injection to calm her. This man – the odd look of him, the antiquated speech and its odd cadence – were all consistent with the vivid dreams she’d had while on the anti-anxiety meds.

“Listen to the wind in the leaves,” he demanded. “Hear The Land calling? Follow that voice. Look between the worlds and step sideways.”

“I don’t know what that means!” she contended as he tugged her arm.

“You do!” he insisted. “It’s plaited into the threads that comprise you. You would have seen The Land in your dreams – movement at the corner of your eye when deep in thought or focused intently on a task. Glance from the corner of your eyes, Kimi. Step sideways.”

“I don’t understand!” she pleaded. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“I’m Rayne, servant and advisor to the True Kin. You are True Kin. You are one of the first in a thousand years. You are Heir and caretaker to our kind! You are born to save our land by preventing the humans from destroying theirs!”

“You’re insane!” she cried even as she felt the truth of his words. “You’re talking nonsense and you expect – ”

A chilling ululation from behind them quieted her. The countering bellow of a pack of dogs fast approaching galvanized them.

“Sideways!” The sibilant hiss of the word still floated in the air a second after he stepped sideways off the path and into thin air.

Kimi indulged in a brief moment of shocked incredulity, her eyes locked on the place the man suddenly ceased to occupy. Then, the alarum of the dogs fast approaching spurred her into movement.

She’d spent most of her life ignoring the movement in her peripheral vision, ignoring the fantastic objects which morphed into common, everyday items on closer inspection. Ignored what seemed like expressive, humanoid faces on birds and insects, just like she’d done with the moth she’d encountered earlier that morning.

She took a deep breath and let the path in front of her blur to the background.  The world at the corner of her eye came into sharp focus. A new path appeared where, before, there had been nothing but dense shrubs. She stepped sideways onto it and Manhattan simply blinked out of existence.

The wood in which she found herself was denser than the one she’d just left. More natural and somehow wilder. Uninterrupted by the din of background traffic, Kimi could hear choirs of bird song all around.  The wind carried the sound and smell of a nearby stream to them. Most remarkable, however, was the deep and unwavering calm sinking into her bones.

“M’lady.”

Kimi turned and raised a hand to her open mouth.  Rayne bowed briefly, straightened, and swept his arm to introduce a slow-gathering group. They were the people from her dreams. People like her – slender, graceful, and sharp-featured with slightly slanting eyes. Her people. And alongside them, creatures half-human, half-animal, some feathered, some flying on iridescent wings. These were the beings she’d only read about in fairy tales and seen in vivid, medicine-induced dreams.

A smile bloomed from her mouth to her eyes and with a throat constricted with joy, she demanded, “Tell me everything.”

* * *

Human lore tells tales of Other Folk stealing their children and leaving behind changelings. No species of Other has use for human babes. It is the rare, planted Other that is left to fret and grizzle in the peculiar Human world. Few survive to return home, but those who do are True Kin.  –  Book of True Kin

END

————————————————————————–
Ellipses are used to separate the judges’ feedback.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

This is a highly relatable fantasy. The contrast between the “real” world and the fantasy world is at once stark and magically overlapping. ………………………Your story’s details are wonderful. You’re showing instead of telling. “The problem was these methods were drops of calm in a sea of panic.” Wonderful. “Poured into her ears, sweet and warm as melted caramel”. Great. You have one of the best handles on what a panic attack feels like that I’ve seen. “He was attractive, but so was Ted Bundy, and a child wasn’t raised in the city without learning caution”. Amazing. Your story’s pacing is great and every single one of your details is necessary. You’ve got these small seemingly insignificant details (like the off-handed mention that Kimi wants to go to Washington to study the first) that are fantastic instances of characterization.…You set a good pace with the changeling story. Your story was nuanced and creative. I liked each of the characters. The mother made me laugh, Rayne spoke in riddles, and Kimi was cautious and relatable.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) FEEL NEEDS WORK –

There is much to be fleshed out. Kimi’s anxiety — we sense that it is an effect of her living in the “real” world, not her home, but this is not spelled out. Her anxiety on the subway is well rendered; perhaps have her mention something about animals, or visions, to her psychiatrist. Also, more interaction with her mom, and perhaps more history about how the surrogate pregnancy came about . . . I’m left wondering. In a good way — but once these sections become more fully fleshed, you’ll have an even more complex and cohesive story! ………………………”Felt her muscles being to relax”, I think you mean beginning here. I’d like to know a bit more about her anxiety. Why does the subway freak her out? Is it just the subway or is it enclosed spaces, crowds of people,…? I’d also like to know a little more about the True Kin and who this person is that’s after Kimi!…I would have liked to read more of an explanation for why Rayne appeared in Kimi’s life at that particular moment in time. Also, you could have written more about how Kimi felt being a surrogate child.

 

 


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