Flash Fiction: NYC Midnight-Round 1a (2016)
NYC Midnight is an arts and humanities web site that produces storytelling competitions for writers and film makers. One of the contests is a flash fiction challenge. Participants are placed in groups of approximately 35 people. At 11:59pm EST on a Friday, each group is assigned a genre, a location and an object.
Writers have 48 hours to craft a short story — with a 1,000 word limit. The top 15 stories in the round receive points: 1st place=15 points, 2nd place=14 points, etc. 15th place=1 point. The scores from round 1a are added to the scores from round 1b. Only the top five highest total scores advance to round two.
Location: A solarium
Object: A doll
Score: This story placed 9th and received 7 points.
A Welcome Home
A man returns to his childhood home twenty years after an unimaginable tragedy to find closure.
For years, my parents told me we lived in Laughlin, a casino town pressed against the Colorado River at the southern tip of Nevada. I believed it until I was sixteen, when I was abruptly forced to leave home. I would later learn that we weren’t in Laughlin at all. Not even close. Not even the same state. We were actually in an untended and uncared for patch of scorched wasteland, somewhere on the outskirts of the Dead Mountain Wilderness preserve in California.
Sasha, my younger sister by four years, and I were home schooled by Mother, but only when she wasn’t knitting. Our parents wanted to keep us away from The Tethered, people they claimed would harm or steal from us. I spent most of my free time hunting rattlesnakes and rabbits. But what I liked best was catching toads in the fresh water stream that snaked through our land. But none of this occurred until after I had finished one of my three daily shifts tending to the family cannabis farm.
I hated that place, an underground solarium located behind the main house. It wasn’t bad at night, when the monotone buzz of overhead UV lights lulled me into a Zen-like calm. Days however, and summers in particular, were a different story. When the tarp was pulled away, the overhead sun blasted through the thick glass ceiling like a magnifying glass frying a helpless ant.
On one particular Tuesday, I was halfway through an afternoon shift when a monsoon blew across the preserve. I was ecstatic because flash floods would quickly follow, elevating the stream several inches. And that meant more toads, fish and water snakes. I stared at the digital clock on the greenhouse wall. When the timer hit zero, the steel door would automatically unlock and open, freeing me to the outdoors. I had my shirt off at thirty-seconds remaining. My shoes kicked off at ten. I slathered a palm of sunscreen across my face at two. When zero hit, I sprinted through the door, barreling over Sasha as she stood in the doorway.
“You’re going toading, aren’t you, Simon?” she asked, gathering a pair of nets she had dropped onto the floor when we collided.
“What’s it to you?” I replied. “You’re supposed to start your shift right now anyway.”
“Take me with you,” Sasha pleaded. “Dad’s still gone. And mom won’t be home until nightfall. They won’t ever know.”
The door to the greenhouse would remain open for another half-minute, after which it would lock again and remain so for the next two hours. What I should have done was shove Sasha into the solarium. But I didn’t. And when the timer hit zero, the smile on Sasha’s face said it all. She sprinted up the steps, a fish net in each hand.
“What do you mean, a Tethered took her?” Mother later asked. “You just left her there?”
“We were up near Moonbeam lake when a group approached us. We ran. But when we crossed the stream, the current knocked her off her feet and swept her away.” I checked Mother for a reaction. “I tried to catch up to her, I swear.” Mother pointed and I knew to immediately enter the solarium. I looked at the digital clock. A pause, a hum and three beeps. The display turned black before flashing red digits again. It was set for twelve hours. When the door opened the next day, a canvas bag packed with clothes was tossed at me. I never saw my family again.
Years later, a lawyer called. Mother and Father had died. They had left me something, but the attorney didn’t specify what. I had to go retrieve it, he explained. It had been twenty-five years since they kicked me out. I had never had a desire to go back. And I didn’t care to do so now. But I went anyway.
The house was empty. I tried to call the lawyer but couldn’t get a signal. There was nothing to take. It was a complete waste of time. I was about to leave when I decided to visit the solarium. I pulled back the tarp, only to find caked-on mud thick enough to completely obstruct the view below.
I returned to the house, standing at the top of the stairwell leading down to the solarium. I slowly managed the twenty steps down. When I reached the steel door, I tried the code, the last one I remembered. A pause, a hum and three beeps. It worked. But the weed garden was gone. The exhaust fans had been removed. A quarter of the UV lights didn’t work.
In its place were shelves. And dolls. Hundreds of them. I approached a shelf and read the paper placards next to two of the hand-stitched dolls.
Sasha, 15, riding a bike.
Sasha, 15, bleached hair for summer.
One shelf over.
Sasha, 16, along with Father to trade with The Tethered.
I walked towards the back wall.
Sasha, 36, celebrating Shoshana’s birthday.
I was confused. I remembered Mother and Father debating.
“Sasha’s dead. He should be too.”
“No, we will send him to the North; See what the Tethered will give us.”
I stared at the dolls, each one unique. But all eerily resembled my sister as well. Had Mother made these in Sasha’s memory? It was just creepy. As I turned to leave, a woman stood at the threshold of the steel door, startling me.
“Hello, Simon,” said the woman.
“Sasha?” I asked. But the woman didn’t answer. She smiled, holding the grin for several seconds before it disappeared, replaced by flowing tears that dripped down her face.
She took a step backwards. “Welcome home, Simon,” said Sasha. And then the steel door slammed shut. A pause, a hum and three beeps. The display showed two hours. When the timer showed one-minute remaining, I approached the door. But when the clock reached one second, the countdown stopped. It never started again.