A Shift in Seasons (Flash Fiction Challenge 2014, Round #1)

Flash Fiction Challenge 2014

(criteria listed below)

Round #1
Genre: Drama
Location: A marathon finish line
Object: A box of chocolates

Number of words: 1,000 or less

This was my first time participating in a Flash Fiction challenge. It was fun, a great learning experience, and really helped me hone my rusty skills.

Title:  A Shift in Seasons (word count: 976)

Grace could finally see it in the distance, the finish line. Though her view was unimpeded, she could just make it out through the harsh, slanting sunlight. One block beyond it, a traffic light changed from green, to yellow, and then to red on a road empty of cars.

She was one of the last entrants to finish. The double lane highway, cordoned off to keep out traffic, showed only relics of the crowd which had gathered at its sidelines. Slightly ahead of and to her left was a married couple, or so she had guessed. They wore matching black, Lycra running shorts, neon green shirts, and consecutive entry numbers. They were old but sinewy and had been jogging side by side since the beginning.

The beginning: decades, centuries, eons ago. Surely she’d started during another lifetime and, by some karmic twist, been reborn into this struggling body. Her heart was a trapped bird beating itself against the confines of her ribcage. Her legs were constructions of wood and rubber that were over-sized and ill-fitted.

Never before had she pushed herself this hard or run this far. She was proud she’d never slowed to a full walk although she’d come close. Very close. If she was going to be honest with herself, the majority of her gait had been more a flailing stumble than a real run. She’d also vomited ten miles in, dry-heaved for an additional five, and had nausea as her constant companion since, but she’d done it: completed a full marathon. Or, at least, she would. Very soon.

Grace realized it probably wasn’t smart to have entered this challenge being such a new runner, but the decision to do it hadn’t been based in logic. It was rare she acted impulsively or capriciously. She was the steady girl. Predictable. Reliable. Her report cards since first grade had lauded this. Her quarterly employee reviews agreed and approved. She’d gone online to simply look at the marathon’s information and then, suddenly, time had jumped forward and she was clicking ‘submit’ on the entry form.

When Grace had mentioned she’d entered – there was no point in trying to hide it – her mother’s face had transformed. The lax, rounded outlines had pulled back – tightened – the corners of her mouth and eyes narrowing and recoiling. It was an expression better suited to having witnessed something grotesque rather than hearing such innocuous news.

“Why would you do that?” her mother had demanded and, no matter the reasons Grace had offered, that mildly disgusted air remained behind each response. Truth be told, her mother’s emotional weather had been Offended with a chance of Sulks ever since Grace had taken up running at the beginning of spring. Even this morning, as they prepared to leave the house, her mother had worn an air of harassed martyrdom like a coat. It baffled and annoyed Grace, but trying to discuss it – to ferret out the problem – only caused her mother to become fussier, the sighs deeper, and the silences heavier.

A breeze stirred a litter of paper cups to Grace’s right and sent them skittering in a circular dance before changing its direction and sweeping upward. It cuffed her face, lifted the few wisps of hair escaping her careful ponytail, and cooled the apple red of her cheeks. Her frantic gasps for air calmed as she inhaled deeply the air’s distinctly autumnal scent. And, despite Grace feeling like a nuclear reactor in the midst of an inevitable, catastrophic meltdown, the breeze gave a new lift to her aching feet.

September wasn’t quite ready to give up its spot on the calendar, but Grace felt the change in seasons almost viscerally. She felt it as a shifting at her core. The spiders had been busier lately, more public in their comings and goings, more industrious in their web-building. The oak tree next to their apartment was throwing acorns at her window like a suitor calling her outside and its cologne had gained a subtle spiciness beneath its green notes. Officially it was still summer, but autumn was just on the peripherals, beckoning with promises of pumpkins and bonfires.

As her goal grew closer, Grace could now make out the figures of her mother and sister, Hope, just beyond. They sat side by side on folding chairs, heads leaning toward the other’s as they watched something on the iPad they’d brought along. A second gust of air carried the sound of their laughter to her where it broke bright and brittle like the late afternoon’s sunlight.

They had labeled this marathon a frivolous expense. Not so, the iPad. The iPad, Hope had argued, was for everyone and provided portable information necessary to her college courses. Grace had put two thirds of the money toward its purchase, her mother one, and her sister a promise to pay Grace back once she got more hours. Grace hadn’t had the opportunity to try it yet. If Hope was out so was the iPad and when she was home she and their mother used it to watch past seasons of their favorite programs on Hulu Plus.

Grace stumbled, nearly lost her balance, but caught herself before her palms met macadam. When she regained control, she glanced up to see Hope reaching beneath her folding chair. Her sister searched beneath it blindly a moment then finally found what she sought. She pulled out and placed in her lap a box of chocolates that spanned both thighs and frothed over with bright ribbon.

A block from her goal, Grace stopped. For a minute of thundering heartbeats she stood watching as Hope slid the ribbon off the box, her mother removed the lid, and they helped themselves to its contents.

Grace made a sharp right, slipped between two sawhorses blocking the side street, and walked the rest of the way home.

(Special thanks to Kathy for proof-reading for grammar, punctuation, syntax, and such things. Without you, I wouldn’t have known ‘Lycra’ must be capitalized as its a brand name – :D)
(Special thanks to Austin, Patty, and Stacey for reading for content and pleasure. I don’t trust any of you to be truly unbiased, but I love that you love me and appreciate your input anyway. <3)

I just got the feedback email from NYC Midnight’s judges on this submission. I’m posting it here for myself and you (italics and bold text by me for ease of reading). I’m psyched for the impartial views and advice on the story!

Dear Amy Francisconi,

The feedback from the judges on your Challenge #1 story from the Flash Fiction Challenge 2014 is below.  We hope you find the feedback helpful and you were inspired by the challenge!

”A Shift in Seasons” by Amy Francisconi – WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – …This marathon is a huge metaphor that works well for the story. Grace’s family is not perfect, but they are realistic. The dynamics of this family and why Grace has signed up are explained well. ………………Interesting idea for a story — and I like that the race symbolizes the gap between Grace and her mother/sister. …………………This was a well-written story with good descriptions…………………………….   WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – …This is a personal point of view; why not shift the story to first person so that the reader has full access to Grace’s voice and ideas? Similarly, a lot of the story is told through summary which makes the piece feel distant. Shifting the point of view would heighten the impact of the plot. ………………Something about the meaning of the race and its impact on Grace’s parents does not feel quite real. Why the reaction from her mother? Why this:  It was an expression better suited to having witnessed something grotesque rather than hearing such innocuous news. The character motivations need a little more work, even if the storytelling is quite clear. …………………More insight into why the marathon was important to Grace would have been helpful along with more details about her relationships with her mother and sister. This information would assist the reader in understanding her motivation and action for the ending….………………………