No Way Back

Flash Fiction Challenge 2016

(criteria listed below)

Round #1
Genre: Horror
Location: A pottery studio
Object: A brain tumor

Number of words: 1,000 or less

Synopsis: Bob is desperate and grasps at the unimaginable suggestions of a specious advisor to solve his problem.

No Way Back

It only took the police two bodies to recognize the serial nature of my kills. They dubbed me ‘The Surgeon.’ In the news, reporters warned the audience that “some content was not suitable for all viewers.” Expert consultants gravely diagrammed the way I’d accessed my victims’ brains via a small incision below the eyebrow, through the eye socket, to remove portions of the frontal lobe.

I didn’t relish this violation of an individual’s autonomy, but I needed their frontal lobes to combat my increasing episodes of memory and vision loss. The squirrel who routinely visited our bird feeders explained this to me.

You can imagine my initial surprise when this wild creature stretched out across our deck railing in the afternoon sun and began to speak. Or conceive my horror at the concept of consuming brains. Yet, as I stood there, washing clay off my hands and tools, the squirrel spoke with such calm intelligence, I knew its decree was incontrovertible.

My wife had always accused me of having an ‘artistic temperament,’ but she’d complained that, of late, I’d become ‘irrational.’ I knew the temporal lobe controls the function of emotion, so I used a vintage trepanning tool to reach the temporal lobe of my next donor.

I made a pâté of it to spread on toast points.  I must admit, I did feel simultaneously better and worse after this consumption. No sooner had I eaten the pâté, I felt clearer in mind, yet overcome with remorse.

The squirrel, perpetually draped across the deck rail, scolded my lack of resolve and assured me the vagrants I’d killed would hardly be missed. That my contributions to society, to my family, far outweighed the deaths of these men whose greatest contribution would be in my aid.

I bought a Dremel with a Diamond Wheel 545 to get the parietal lobe I needed. How was I to effectively communicate with the squirrel and my wife if the centers for language and touch didn’t function properly? I put that morsel in our Bullet with banana, kale, and orange juice to make a nutritious smoothie.

After prolonged inability to perform, that night I was able to make love to my wife and use the soaring words of poets to expound upon my feelings for her.

Imagine my dismay when I soon began to lose my equilibrium despite all the difficult and sordid tasks I’d accomplished. The squirrel was disheartened as well. It hung over the deck rail despondently, its eyes starred with tears. It insisted I must continue to fight — for myself, for my wife, and for it.

The cerebellum lies at the base of the skull. Any hope of finesse was lost to my faltering motor skills. I used a hand axe to reach it and simply pinched out pieces to scoop directly between my lips. Even the squirrel shivered with delicate repulsion at my ineptitude.

I collapsed inside my studio — fell and cracked my head, ironically enough. As my curtain of vision slowly drew closed, I could see my victims above, their eyes full of dark disappointment. I had failed them. Failed myself. Failed my wife, and the squirrel.

#

When Marian’s brother-in-law, John, touched her hand, she turned her gaze from the family room window and smiled. She raised that hand to show the plush squirrel draped across her palm. ”I saw your youngest, Michael, admiring this, earlier. When I found it at a pet store, I had to buy it.

“It reminded me of this squirrel Bob and I always got such a kick out of. It would visit those feeders.” She gestured to a shepherd’s hook anchored to the deck railing beyond. “And, instead of running off like the others, it would stretch out along the railing, like this. “ She draped the thin, cloth animal between her two hands. “And then sun itself. Bob swore it was more intelligent than the others and had wisdom to share about enjoying life to the fullest. About seizing joy.”

Marian laid a hand on John’s arm. “Come out to his studio with me?” She followed his gaze to the guests gathered beyond in the adjacent rooms. Groups parted in the kitchen, only to settle again in clusters in the living and dining rooms, plates clutched in hand, voices subdued as they clucked to one another what a shame it was. So surprising. So quick.

“Just for a moment. They won’t miss me. Or, if they do, they’ll assume I needed a moment.”

They left through the side door and walked the short, brick path to her husband’s pottery studio. She unlocked the door and ushered him into the bright, cluttered room. “From the time he was diagnosed with the brain tumor until he collapsed, your brother spent every day here. One last week of normality.” Marian’s voice caught.

She paused to swallow and blink back tears. “This was his final work. When I found him, he was on his back, staring up at them with tears tracking his temples.”

She gestured to a table before them, but John’s gaze was already there. His eyes brimmed with unshed sorrow.

Five skulls lined the table, each one with a different section of the cranium missing. Fashioned of fine ceramic, they had been fired with a delicate, bone-white glaze everywhere but at the eye sockets, where tracks of darker glaze had been applied to suggest tears.

“They’re eerie and beautiful.” John traced his fingers over each one. “They almost look real.”

“Sometimes when he’d look at me in the days between his collapse and his passing, I could see he wanted so badly to speak – to tell me something –” Marian sighed and looked around the studio full of her late husband’s artistic expression, “but then his eyes would slide back to this,” she draped the toy squirrel over John’s hand, “and he’d get lost. And, then finally so lost he couldn’t find his way back.”


Judging comments received today:
WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{1702}  “The squirrel who routinely visited our bird feeders explained this to me” is a wonderful bit of characterization. I also think it’s a neat idea that this cannibal, who is controlled by a squirrel no less, is so nonchalantly consuming people and seems to take on super human abilities after he does so. It’s also interesting that he’s a spree killer, all of this happening in the span of a week.

{1615}  The writing is very smooth and flows well.

{1609}  By the second paragraph, the story has established a highly distinctive voice: “I needed their frontal lobes to combat my increasing episodes of memory and vision loss. The squirrel who routinely visited our bird feeders explained this to me.” Lines like these strike a fine balance between humour and horror – their absurdity is funny, but not so light the grisly implications are lost.
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{1702}  I think you might improve the strength of your story by forming a slightly more coherent narrative in the section of your story that’s from Bob’s point of view. Perhaps you structured it like that to suggest his deterioration? If that’s the case, you might consider showing the deterioration in other ways as well, perhaps he stops himself mid-sentence, simply forgets what he was going to say, or wanders off into a completely different train of thought (a progression you might indicate by using ellipses). Moreover, why does Bob have surgical precision? At any rate, I think playing around with your opening page or two, attempting to tighten up the structure, could improve the strength of your story significantly– and give you room to flesh out your characters even  more!

{1615}  There’s still a bit of uncertainty at the end. Is he actually a serial killer who eats people’s brains or was that all the delusions of someone suffering from a brain tumor? There’s just a hint of doubt at the end that detracts from the story. Try clarifying this.

{1609}  Though it’s a matter of taste, I found the switch to a third-person perspective disorienting. In such a short piece, and with such a distinctive voice established in the first half, I could’ve followed along with Bob a little longer. However, the crying skulls are a very nice way to end the piece.

How Grandma Saved Christmas

How Grandma Saved Christmas (NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, Challenge #3)


Many thanks to Gold Fever Press for publishing a longer (by 500 words!) version of this story on their site. They were a pleasure to work with and it was an honor to be showcased on their site!

 

How Grandma Saved Christmas

“I used to have two hands, like most people, until the year I saved Christmas.”

A dying fire and the intermittent blink of colored tree lights lit the room. On the couch a seven year old boy curled at his grandmother’s side. In his hand was the Iron Man action figure he’d opened earlier. He used it to climb the metal curve of his grandmother’s prosthetic hand.

“Santa’s sleigh broked down. You delivered toys in your snowmobile!” he prompted.

Broke down,” she corrected, “This was when I was even younger than your mommy is now. I drove my snowmobile to the North Pole. Not this North Pole, in Alaska. Not our home, but the real North Pole in the heart of the Arctic Ocean. It was a dark Christmas Eve just like tonight. My Ski-Doo was flying back to camp, barely touching the ground. I almost didn’t see them.”

“Rudolph and Santa’s reindeer!”

“A faint, red glow through the fog slowed me down. I saw Rudolph first and then the rest, all harnessed together. And behind them, on its side, was the sleigh. Its right runner was broken clean in half.”

“And Santa, lying in the snow,” the boy whispered with studied horror.

“He was sprawled on the ground, face down, not moving. Thankfully he wasn’t badly hurt, but neither he nor his sleigh could deliver gifts.”

“And Santa asked you – ”

“Santa didn’t ask. He told me.” The timbre of her voice took on a deep authority. “‘Abigail Margaret Yates,’ he said, ‘You have to load those presents onto your snowmobile and deliver them to all the good boys and girls for me.’ Well, I’m not going to argue with Santa, so I said, ‘Yes, sir! Just tell me what to do!’”

The boy squirmed impatience as his grandmother leaned forward and clamped the metal hook around her mug of cocoa. He allowed her one, careful sip of the steaming liquid before urging, “And Santa gave you an elf!”

“You’re jumping ahead,” she scolded. After another deft sip, she replaced the mug. “We harnessed the reindeer to the snowmobile, put Santa and the bag of presents onto the back, and took him back to his workshop. It was then that Santa assigned me a helper. He was an elf named Turna Kett.”

“All elves have a particular magic and Turna’s was slowing down the fast flow of time. That way, all the gifts could be delivered around the world in just one night.”

“Santa’s reindeer were still a little shaken up, so when we headed north and hit open water, I worried about making them fly. Luckily a pod of narwhal were nearby. They surfaced, heard that Christmas was in jeopardy, and offered to whisk us over to Russia to get those deliveries over quickly.”

“Narhwals have pointy unicorn horns!”

The grandmother smiled with pride. “That’s what we held on to as they swam. As we left shore, they began to sing. Seals and walrus joined them and began to sing, too. When we reached Russia, we realized their song had called all the artic animals. Tens of thousands of snow-white animals had gathered on the shore to meet us. Foxes and wolves, rabbits and ermine, snow geese and eagles! And each one took a brightly wrapped package to deliver to the homes of the children in Russia, Finland, and beyond.”

“When we distributed the last gift, we knew we had to get back to the North Pole. There were still thousands of gifts to deliver and Turna couldn’t slow time forever.

An orca let us hop on his tail and we rode him back like slippery surfboard. By that time the reindeer were feeling better. They rocketed us around the world in my snowmobile like we were flying a jet! That old Ski-Doo made it through the night, but never started again after that.

“But all the presents were delivered before Christmas morning!” the boy cried happily. Iron Man took a victory turn around the couch.

“Yes, Christmas was saved.”

“And Santa said you could ask for a special present that year for helping him!”

“Yes, he did.”

“And you asked for a pirate hook and a new, black snowmobile!”

She nodded.

“But you sold the snowmobile when my mommy was borned.”

“Born, yes.”

“But you weren’t sad because you knew that one day I’d be born and we would play pirates together.”

“Exactly.”

“Let’s play pirates tomorrow.”

“After you open presents.”

“Yes, after that.”

“It’s a deal.”

The boy pressed a kiss to his grandmother’s soft cheek, leapt from the couch, and flew Iron Man up the stairs to his bedroom. She followed his progress on the landing before her smile turned to the adjacent chair.

With a roll of the eyes, her twelve year old granddaughter declared, “I’m too old for that story.”

“Yes, I believe you’re old enough to hear the real adventure now. Come sit beside me?”

The grandmother tucked the girl’s legs over hers. “There once was a girl whose heroes were Admiral Peary and Ralph Plaisted. This girl dreamt of being the first woman to lead an expedition to the North Pole.  She grew up, bought a snowmobile, and mastered it. Years later, this woman was trying to beat Plaisted’s long distance record in one day. She didn’t slow into a turn. Her Ski-Doo flipped. Her arm was badly hurt and a friend had to apply a tourniquet. That tourniquet bought her time. It saved her life. But the surgeons couldn’t save her hand. She had to have a prosthetic.”

The hook gleamed in the firelight as she lifted it for both to consider. “I got this on Christmas Eve when I was twenty-three. I could have chosen anger, but I didn’t. I lost my hand, but I never lost my dream. I did get to the North Pole, just not the one I expected. Sometimes you have to decide what life gives you is a gift.”


FEEDBACK:
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY  ……I really like the approach you took with this story and you utilized the prompts very creatively. It’s also fun to discover the real story at the end……..A charming mix of hominess and action. Grandma’s narration of her initial  story is exciting and silly at the same time. ……I like how this is an adventure story, modern fairy tale, and morality tale all in one. You do a great job of creating a unique story mixing multiple genres.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK ……I love this badass grandma. She’s awesome. That being said, I kind of wish that the real story was a little more developed and the christmas story was a little simpler. That could definitely be a matter of taste…Did you try making the christmas story and the real story parallel action? (As in telling them at the same time, but going back and forth?) It could be an interesting way to take the audience on a journey, making us unsure which one is the truth. ……………The turn, when Grandma tells her second story, feels a bit abrupt. Perhaps nesting even more elements from the second story in the first could counteract this. You could also consider having her tell both version to the same child, who is skeptical after the first. ……Some more physical descriptions of things–the grandmother and her home included–would help bring them to life. Most of this is told by the grandmother and so keeps the reader at a distance, but at least help the reader to see her in the telling of it to bring the reader closer to the story.

An Affair to Remember (NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2015, Second Round)

Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

(criteria listed below)

Round #2 (Winner)
Genre: Horror
Location: An underground parking garage
Object: A bottle of champagne

Number of words: 1,000 or less

Synopsis: The desire for an old-fashioned romance leads one man to his death.

An Affair to Remember

Nat liked to think of himself as a Renaissance man. While he preferred a single-malt scotch to champagne, he appreciated the romance of bubbles chasing upward along the gentle curve of a crystal flute. He knew wine and how to pair it. He knew how to cook and how to dress. He disliked the term ‘metrosexual’ but accepted it and the dusting of contempt it held when his friends graced him with that title. He had learned long ago to brush that sort of thing off, like a trace of lint off a suitcoat.

Nat didn’t just keep abreast of current events via the newspaper, Time, and Newsweek; he also read the classics, old and modern. He could, and occasionally did, quote snippets of poetry or philosophers to accent a point or codify a thought.

The elevator dinged and Nat stepped in. The groomed lines of his mustache curved upward. He had, he acknowledged with self-deprecation, many leather-bound books. And, continuing on with that Anchorman theme, he was now stepping into a glass case of emotion. The elevator doors closed behind him and he turned to look out over the city.

The emotion contained within the glass case of the elevator, and the moving chambers of his heart, was longing.

The city at night was breathtaking. His office was in one of the taller buildings, and the ride to the parking structure beneath it was always a visual pleasure. There was still a hint of light clinging to the horizon, but his city was decked out in black velvet and adorned with glittering jewels. Diamond headlights and ruby taillights sparkled and danced as she beckoned him home.

Lately, Nat was gripped with longing. For romance. For a relationship of substance. He might allude to it in a humorous bon mot while out for drinks with friends, but in reality that longing was deadly serious. He ached for something with weight, with heft. Not just the gasping, momentary surge in the dark toward another body, but something that transcended flesh. He longed for that connection.

And lately, dating had lost its appeal. It was becoming apparent that most people his age lacked a certain subtlety of character he found attractive. They lacked mystery, grace, and – yes he knew it sounded snobbish – an element of refinement and class.

The elevator began its silent descent to the parking garage below.

A quarter of the way down, Nat’s eyes searched the face of an adjacent, high rise apartment building, and found their mark. Coupled with longing was now a blush of shame. He’d turned into a voyeur. He wasn’t proud of it, but he couldn’t stop.

Two months prior, he’d been making this same trip down from office to car and saw them: a couple. Just the dark silhouette of them dancing, really, framed in the sliding glass doors of the terrace. The image had so struck him, however, he hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away. They’d been floating – dancing, in candlelight – with the wonder of the city as their backdrop. They’d been bubbles waltzing inside a champagne glass.

Since that night, he’d searched for and found that apartment again and again. And he’d been rewarded by that same scene – moments that infused him with a similar longing – a handful of times since then.

The apartment owner – Nat now thought of him as Cary Grant – would appear, looking as if he’d stepped out of a classic, black and white film. There would be champagne. Candlelight. Dancing. Nat could almost hear the music: something with a full band and the sultry slide of a bow across an upright bass.

Cary Grant would guide his partner along the edges of the terrace window with that athletic, fluid grace every good, leading man should possess. And by the time Nat’s elevator would plunge into the darkness of the parking garage below, the seduction would have begun. Cary Grant’s head would have just dipped to his dance partner’s neck. His partner would tense for a moment, but as expected, would then surrender to the seduction.

There was a different partner every time, but that didn’t trouble Nat. The tableau was flawlessly perfect. He knew it was just a matter of finding the right partner for its happy ending.

Halfway down, a tiny flame caught Nat’s eye. The glow of candlelight pulsed to life against a familiar window and, then, Cary Grant appeared. Alone. Although dressed in his usual evening attire, he was still in mid-toilette. He hadn’t yet donned a tie, and his white shirt was opened, leaving a shadowed ‘V’ of skin revealed.

Nat watched as Cary Grant leaned a forearm against the window and then, a moment later, his forehead to the glass. It was then he noticed the man’s shirt sleeves were rolled to his elbow and realized: he hadn’t caught the man preparing for a date at all, but caught him alone.

The elevator abruptly cut the scene to black as it dropped into the underground parking garage. It left Nat struck numb and slightly breathless. Cary Grant had not simply been alone. He’d been lonely. Just as Nat was lonely.

The elevator dinged, the doors opened, and the tie Nat had slipped off during his descent slid from his slack grip.

Cary Grant stood there, stunning in his rolled shirtsleeves, a bottle of sweating champagne gripped in one fist. His eyes shone liquid promise in the garage’s dim lighting, but the hopeful smile he flashed was white and sharp as he took a step toward Nat and lifted the other hand in invitation.


Judges’ comments separated by ellipses.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

This is creepy and unsettling — it feels, certainly, REAR WINDOW-esque. The narrative flows well. The mechanics — grammar, punctuation, and spelling — are sound. The visuals are expertly rendered: “Diamond headlights and ruby taillights” and “they’d been bubbles waltzing in a champagne glass” aren’t only vivid, they tie in with the single effect as far as the “Cary Grant” brand of corny old elegance. Great job…………………………….I loved this story. Subtle horror at its best. So many great details–I feel Nat’s lonliness. I loved this line: “They’d been bubbles waltzing inside a champagne glass.” Truly, this is a masterpiece of flash…..

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

The synopsis states that Nat is lead to his own death, but that’s not clear. Does he jump out of the glass elevator (if one looks closely at the line “Diamond headlights and ruby tallights sparkled and danced as she beckoned him home” could be taken as his final leap if the ending were clear)? We need a few more hints that this is what he’s done, because the ghost of the Grant-esque character appearing in the parking garage isn’t enough to tell us that. At best, what we might glean from the ending is that he’s at peace because he’s finally seen his character without the woman.//The opening paragraph not only is wonderfully grounded, we get an instant impression of Nat. The issue, however, is that it goes on a bit long — what does the Anchorman position (or film, if that’s what’s being referenced) have to do with anything? We don’t get to see Nat’s conflict until almost three quarters down the first page. Cutting some of the business about the books and keeping up with the news would solve this problem of a slow opening–and since it never comes back, the story won’t miss it…………………………….It’s difficult for me to give a suggestion, other than perhaps maybe that there should be a heavier “tell” about Mr Cary Grant. If I didn’t have the synopsis, some of the really subtle hints might have gone right over my head. If I didn’t know this was horror, I might not have caught the ending….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oz, the Great and Terrible: (NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2014, Round #2)

Flash Fiction Challenge 2014

(criteria listed below)

Round #2 (Honorable Mention)
Genre: SciFi
Location: An all-you-can-eat restaurant
Object: A water gun

Number of words: 1,000 or less


Title:  Oz, the Great and Terrible (word count: 390)

You don’t go to Oz without a fully outfitted water gun.

You asked for tips and that’s the best one I can give you. If you have the coin, you’d be smart to equip that gun with a back pack reservoir connected by a sturdy, flexible hose. If you don’t, you’re either a thrill-seeker or a fool. Ask me, they’re the same thing.

Myths say a pair of ruby slippers will get you out of a bad scrape there, but I know a guy whose friend went with just the slippers. This guy said he tried to save his friend, but he couldn’t hold them off. Said his friend’s intestines were unlooping onto those slippers even as the guy tried to make them work. Now this guy, he can’t be around ticking clocks without wanting to scream. I don’t blame him.

I go to Oz’s capitol city every six months or so, but I’m in and out as fast as possible. You don’t get greedy and weigh yourself down; you only take the number of emeralds you can comfortably carry. Sometimes you’re lucky and you get a bunch with unusually good clarity. I heard about a gal who scored a batch that fueled her ship for nine months. Nine! I want to believe it, but I don’t know.

Here’s another tip: you stay out of places like this. It might seem like an all-you-can-eat restaurant is the smart choice before long space travel, but it’s not. You have to stay lean and you have to stay fast. I’m here to tell you that our greatest weakness is also our greatest strength. You stay hungry, you keep yourself small. Most of all, you learn there’s no shame in turning tail to run or finding a hidey-hole to duck into.

I see you smirking, kid. If you want to be a transport pilot longer than a year, you’ll listen and take heed. You eat light from the grain store you’re running and that’s it. And know this: that water gun you carry isn’t going to save your life; it’s only going to buy you time. You point it directly in their face, you get off a shot, and then you run. Because the most important myth you need to know about Oz is that it’s not monkeys flying around there. It’s cats.


(I didn’t get anyone to edit this one (a) because it was so short, I figured the odds of it having major errors was smaller (b) I got zero points on the first challenge which means I’d have to knock this one out of the ballpark to make it to the next round and I didn’t see that happening, so had a ‘whatever, fuck it’ attitude.

But special thanks to Kit, Patty, and the Other Amy for reading it beforehand. It was a late and last minute request for reading and you were all very nice about it. xo)


EDITED 11/17/14 with comments from the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction judges (posted below in quotations):

“WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – ……………The dialogue was really engaging and authentic. I thought it was in terms humorous, thrilling, and dramatic…….Great opening sentence!  And a great final 2 sentences!  A really clever blending of science fiction and fantasy with an authentic world-weary trusted narrator.  The story isn’t weighed down with extra exposition but is clearly and concisely written………….Some clever wordplay with Oz references…………………………………….   WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – ……………I felt like I dropped in on a section of a novel or short story – there were no parameters. That’s OK, but you have to make sure that the readers questions are answered. I wanted more information about the characters, setting, meeting etc…….Since the story is dialog, quotation marks could have been used.  Some narrative description to set time and place might have helped as well.  The story is short – just 415 words and so there is certainly space to add to it.  HONORABLE MENTION”

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….………………………