Welcome to the final round of the 2015 Flash Fiction Contest. After a full year challenges, we’re down to the last contest, and one of our finalists will be taking home the grand prize. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported our year-long contest by reading, writing, and entering the monthly challenges, and another special thank you to our panel of judges, who have done a great job all year.
The overall winner of the 2015 Writer Unboxed Flash Fiction Contest will be announced on Sunday 13th December 2015, and will receive:
- A signed copy of Dave King‘s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
- A signed copy of David Corbett‘s The Art of Character
- A 15-page manuscript critique by bestselling author Catherine McKenzie (double spaced, normal margins, Times New Roman 12pt font)
- A one-hour Skype lesson with Scrivener expert, Rebeca Schiller
- A free, non-transferable pass to attend the next Writer Unboxed UnConference (does not include travel or hotel expenses)
- A copy of John Vorhaus‘s Poole’s Paradise
- A copy of Erika Liodice‘s Empty Arms
- A copy of Grand Central, a compilation of stories featuring Erika Robuck
Remember that all these finalists will receive a beautiful “Edit” poster from Three Figs Villa, as kindly donated by the generous Cyd Peroni. Congratulations to all finalist.
Please join me in saying another congratulations to everyone who made it to this stage of the contest. It was such a tough competition every single month, and all of them did wonderfully well to make it this far. Congratulations to Vincent Bracco, Anna Chapman, Tonia Harris, Natalie Hart, Ann Howes, Kate Magner with 3 entries, Meghan Masterton, Isabel Summers, Larissa Thomson with 2 entries, and Pauline Yates.
The final entries
Each of these stories is based on the photo above. We’d love to hear which ones are your favourites, and which one you would vote for as the winner. In no particular order, I give you:
Entry 1: The Shadow is Dead
I moved down the middle of the street like a model on a runway of honey: sinuously, slowly. No more sticking to the shadows.
Finally, I saw his reflection in the restaurant menu display. “You came.”
“I always do.”
He sounded so tired. Resigned. Hopeless. I angled the umbrella to hide my face as he fell into step beside me.
“What’s the deal with the flashy red umbrella? What are you playing at?”
My heart pounded hard enough to echo across the cobblestones.
“I heard about Colombia. That was sloppy to get killed in a hit and run.”
“I liked the irony. After everything I’ve gotten out of—”
He halted. “Did you want to see me one more time before killing me?”
“What?” The light from the store was too bright. I wasn’t ready to face him yet. “I didn’t bring you here to kill you.”
The umbrella shook from my death grip. “To start a new life. With you. I have a new face, a new body.” I whispered, “I can be anyone.”
“They’ll find you.”
“I knew my doctor would be killed a week later but I still paid him enough to keep my fake name out of his records. It’s been a year. I’m free.” I let him push the umbrella aside.
“The Shadow really is dead.” He was almost smiling. “Long live…”
“Angelica. But only if she can live with you.”
And then we made a spectacle of ourselves. Because we could.
Ah, the Parisian look. The artfully tied scarf, the self-possessed air. It’s easy if you’re tall and long-limbed, like me. It’s harder if you’re a yeti, like me. But even a yeti can pull it off.
Teenaged yetis are like teenagers everywhere: antsy, rebellious, itching to get away. My getaway came when desire met luck. Prowling around on the lower slopes, I chanced upon a discarded copy of Vogue. What marvel was this? Those unbelievable garments! Those exaggerated poses! I began practicing them, out there in the snow. That’s when an agent saw me, pounced, cooed over my “exotic features,” and promised to change my life.
Disguised in nondescript clothing and whisked away on a plane, I landed in Paris and began my journey toward runways and photo shoots. First came a full-body waxing. I cringed and cried. But if pain was my ticket to glamour, so be it. Makeup applied to my “exotic features,” and quivering with anticipation, I began modeling those wonderful clothes. I learned the walk, the haughty pout. I’ve been a roaring success for four years.
But I miss the snow, the high cold air. I miss other yetis. Fame is lonely. Paris, the City of Light? Give me the pure light of the highest mountains. I’ve been saving up for my return fare, and secretly letting my body hair grow. I can still walk these cobblestones under my umbrella and look like a real Parisian, but soon I’ll fly back to where I’ve always belonged.
I have four steps to go before I’m at the front doors of the church. They’re solid wooden ones that open to the outside, and they need a good yank just to get them open. This is tough to do with only one hand free, what with the umbrella and the baby.
Inside, it’s about forty steps to the Nativity. What’s it made of? Plastic?
“Shhhh, you can’t cry yet,” I whisper.
There’s Mary—always wearing that blue linen thing. It’s comforting. I’d like to be wrapped in it, if I were a baby—and Joseph. He’s a sonofagun. To marry her even when he totally knew the baby wasn’t his.
“MaryNJoseph’ll watch you, sweetpea.”
That wouldn’t happen nowadays. Mary’d get the boot.
“No one even noticed you inside me, you know. Grandpa just said, “You’re getting fat.”
None of my friends said anything either. Must’ve been the big sweaters and empire dresses.
“You know, you’re pretty teeny for such a big bump. Was just a coupla pushes though and you were here. Wailing. Don’t look at me like that, with them eyes. We’re nearly there. Please, don’t cry.”
Baby Jesus needs to relocate. I put him down by the cow. Sorry, Jesus.
Hope there’s no one here.
“Ok, I have to go now. Before someone comes. They’ll find you soon, but shhh, please, stop crying.”
I have forty-four steps to go before I can put my umbrella up and walk away, pretending like the last nine months never happened.
He says you have gone translucent and gives you a red umbrella for your birthday. It is the same shade of red as the dress you wore the first time you kissed him.
A red that reminds you of the Orient, of a girl who stole an old man’s bike. How free she was and you look down on those streets now, sun-bleached. You want to tell him how that girl seeped from your skin when he became a viper.
Here is color. Black and blue. The sick green of a thumbprint on your forearm.
Clouds scuttle across the sky like crabs and you can smell the ocean through the open window. The salt water taffy of it dries your throat with longing. The rain comes at last and he watches you leave from the kitchen window.
Around the corner, he can no longer see you. His girl with the red umbrella. The heart becomes an anvil in its chest. Heavy. Tapped by some unseen instrument. You grasp for an iron railing at the end of a familiar street.
A bike leans against the store where he sent you for cigarettes.
Some girls, you think, never stop being impetuous. They trade umbrellas for stolen bicycles.
Some girls study maps and memorize the names of streets vipers don’t know.
You lift your face in the rain and laugh. How funny it is to become more real even as the world, soaked, turns to rice paper.
Entry 5: Framed
“That’s when I noticed his body.”
The inspector nodded as if every foreigner who opened their lover’s door found a corpse laying in wine and blood.
“What did you do next, Mademoiselle?”
“I screamed, I guess. Delores, the housekeeper, came running then left to phone the police.”
The inspector nodded again. His focus remained on me, though, the American mistress and, I slowly realized, the prime suspect in Marcel’s death.
I squeezed the mug of spiked coffee Delores had stuffed into my hands. “I didn’t do this.”
The inspector brushed my claim aside. “No one saw you arrive?”
“Just strangers, I think. When I found Marcel’s bicycle on the curb, I let myself in.” My stomach churned. “After that…”
A vision of blood and spilt merlot blended with a burst of crimson, the swish of an unfolding umbrella, and the departing click of heels on cobblestone.
“She wouldn’t have.”
“She?” The inspector leaned in, curious. “Who?”
I closed my eyes, letting the memory firm. The remembered alleyway failed to show me her face but despite the dim light and misty rain, Marcel’s ex-wife was the only one I knew with a reason to plunge a knife into his back.
At the inspector’s prodding, I spat out her name and the address where I thought the murderess lived.
While the inspector directed his officers after their new lead, I retreated into my coffee’s bottomless black where even darker plots against Marcel’s killer steeped.
Entry 6: Ascension
Hell’s demons had been following me since the restaurant. I kept the umbrella tilted and my face in darkness, but I couldn’t hide what anyone with honed senses would discern. The demons knew me the same way I knew them.
The question was whether they wanted a fight.
I didn’t, at least not tonight.
Rain pelted my umbrella in a pitter-patter, obscuring their skittering feet and murmuring. Both hushed at the next corner where the river divided the city as well as separated this world from the other side.
The border with Heaven usually shimmers for those who know it’s there. But for me and others who’ve been cast out for their sins, it’s invisible.
The demons stalking me would see it easily. They’d also notice I couldn’t conjure up an entryway, that I couldn’t cross the expanse, that I remained in the riverbank’s gloom.
“You don’t have to.”
Orias appeared beside me, the fallen angel nothing but shifting smoke and a golden gaze.
While the demons tittered, I blocked his feline stare with a twirl of my umbrella. “The rules haven’t changed, Ori.”
His offer arched through the night, creating a bridge back to where I wouldn’t be forced to live as a stranger in my own skin. The honey-sweet ambrosia, the smell of lotus in bloom, and voices debating in harmony, seemed to float across the river, teasing me like Eden’s apple, and giving me the nerve to ask,
“What happened to no gifts this year?” Suzanna peeled away the brown wrapping paper.
As she revealed a print encased in a plain black frame, Aaron joined her on the couch. “I thought of you as soon as I saw it.”
“Why?” Suzanna tilted the print for a better view. “You can’t see who’s beneath that red umbrella.”
“I like to think it’s you.”
“Is this how you see me? Walking European streets in the rain?”
“You always talk about traveling.”
“When I have the time and the money.” Suzanna returned to the print. “This is probably as close as I’ll ever come.”
“Then it’s a good thing that’s just the appetizer.” Aaron held up a birthday card. “Now for the entrée.”
“Entrée?” Suzanna shook her head. “That’s the last no-gifts promise I make with you.”
In a feigned huff, she plucked the card and broke the envelope’s seal. The ticket inside left her breathless but she sagged into the couch’s cushions when the date and destination became clear.
“You didn’t.” Suzanna found Aaron beaming as a roadblock of responsibilities rolled through her mind. “I can’t.”
“You’ve earned the time off.” Aaron scooped up her hand. “It’s time you follow your own dreams for a change.”
“I…” She blinked back tears. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You could ask for some company.”
Suzanna let loose a pleased laugh. “What makes you think I’d do a foolish thing like that?”
“Because I know the perfect place for dessert.”
Entry 8: Leaving Home
They ate dinner together every evening, father and daughter, the silent clatter of utensils, and afterward, while Addie washed the dishes clean, her father’s footsteps descending the apartment stairs toward the bar.
The morning she left, Addie set out the breakfast dishes and pink camellias. She held the cold brass knob as if it were a hand, and knowing the door would always stick, pulled it firmly but gently closed.
She hesitated in the lobby, hearing a voice, small and sweet and familiar.
“Going to work so early, Miss Addie?” The eight-year-old’s hands clutched her dear Teddy.
“Not today, sweetie.”
“Did you get fired?”
“Heavens, no. I have an appointment.”
“Don’t forget your umbrella. It looks like rain.”
“That’s why I’m leaving.”
“Will you be coming back?”
“What about Teddy?”
“He’s yours now.”
She hurried passed windows and doorways where she pictured people who cared and wanted to know everything they could about you.
“Leave any time you please,” he’d mutter, always from another room.
She imagined a brilliant sky above her red umbrella, the way she always imagined a smile behind his newspaper.
Aboard the train, drawn to the passing scenery, setback houses and imprecise gardens, she knew by now breakfast would be cold, the newspapers scattered, the warning about saving electricity uttered, his steep figure boarding the bus.
By evening, the rain ended, a tired and excited Addie, her stomach empty, walked the wet unfamiliar streets. It was time to let go, and letting go, arrive.
Our hotel is in the middle of a city block, sandwiched between the opera house and the hospital. I suppose you could say we’re stuck between businesses trafficking in sorrows – death, disease, injury—but there’s more to it than that.
It was mid-November when she walked through the revolving door into our lobby, a scarf wrapped around her head, her red umbrella dripping on the carpet, her face deeply flushed.
I was the bellman on, so I asked if I might take her bags and umbrella for her. She nodded, then shuffled to the front desk.
For Nolan,” she mumbled. “Josie.”
I saw her swallow.
“Right,” said Ruby. ”Room 404.”
Ms. Nolan turned for me and, as we got in the elevator, she said, “I’m here for a bit.”
“I’m here for Chemo.”
I reached over and squeezed her hand.
“But no cab for me yet,” she said. “I’m going to try walking. There’s something about footsteps on cobblestones…”
“You’ll definitely need this back then,” I said, and passed her her umbrella.
For two weeks, she walked in the rain to the hospital, and we waited anxiously for her return each night.
It was still raining when she checked out.
“This is for you,” she said quietly, handing me the umbrella. “Seems I’m destined for sunnier skies.”
And with that, she reminded me how, for her, courage was never loud or ostentatious. It was small steps and deep breaths – which she took for as long as she could.
The alley. Dark. Deserted. The buildings either side cast shadows as gloomy as the drizzle of rain. Jocelyn shivered. Her fear lurked here. But if she didn’t retrace her steps, face the place of her torment, the trial, the conviction, the year of therapy, would mean nothing. She’d remain a victim.
The heels of her shoes clicked on the cobblestones. The red umbrella she carried would draw attention but she wanted to be seen. She’d hidden in the safety of obscurity for too long. It was a step; small but a step towards reclaiming her confidence to walk the streets alone.
She positioned her umbrella so she couldn’t look over her shoulder. This step was harder. She looked straight ahead but when a boot scuffed the cobblestones behind her, her breath froze in her throat. She quickened her pace but a man drew alongside her.
Jocelyn’s heart pounded. Her legs grew weak. But if she stopped walking, this alley would plague her nightmares forever. She had to embrace her fear not succumb to it. Use it to heighten her awareness; empower herself. She glanced at the man. He wore a suit not a trench coat. Held a phone, not a knife. He was a stranger but strangers weren’t evil. Evil wore a different face. She knew what that face looked like now. This wasn’t it.
She took another step. Matched strides with the man so she walked by his side. Then as the rain poured down, she offered her umbrella.
Entry 11: Bend in the Road
The red umbrella was supposed to cheer her. The moment she saw it in the store, its jaunty colouring was somehow as reminiscent of Jessie as the smell of peppermint tea or hearing the gentle opening riff of that Jack Johnson song she always replayed.
Instead, the allure of the winding street soothed Jade. The pretty umbrella tilted against her shoulder, almost forgotten against the faint patter of rain. She walked slow enough to appreciate every detail. Jessie would have loved the narrowness of the road, the way the windows stretched skyward on either side. She would have smiled at the intricacy of the lamps, decorative as well as utilitarian.
It was a bittersweet view, comforting but lonely. “Take our dream trip,” Jessie had insisted. “Please – one of us has to…Just because I’m dying doesn’t mean you are.”
Jade had promised, throat aching with sorrow that built, unceasing, from the first day of Jessie’s diagnosis. Sometimes it felt like she was dying too. They had never been apart. How did twins go on without each other?
Taking a deep breath, Jade tried to focus on the present. She and Jessie had longed to visit Barcelona, and now she was here. She knew what Jessie would have suggested. “Let’s go to the first café we come to. Coffee shop, wine bar, absolute dive – whichever, we’ll go, and we’ll leave with a story.”
It was Jade’s adventure now, in Jessie’s honour. Hoisting the umbrella, she moved toward the bend in the road.
Entry 12: The Rue de Paris
“She’s coming,” Francois said. He carefully hooked a finger around the faded yellow curtain, pulling it aside. A sliver of the Rue de Paris, and a glimpse of a red umbrella appeared. His wife licked her fingers and pinched the candle flame. It died with a hiss. The Rue was perilously silent. Not a dog barked, nor a scooter honked and no other humans were about.
“What will she do?” Marie whispered, her voice trembling, as she held the baby close to her breast.
“Nothing. If we stay quiet and dark, she’ll pass us by.”
“How does she know?”
“Perhaps she doesn’t.” Francois put a finger to his lips, and kissed the top of her head.
Outside, the slow click-clacking of high heels echoed through the narrow streets, bouncing off of the cobblestones and closed windows.
They listened and silently urged her on, but the footsteps stopped outside their door. The woman’s harsh breathing disturbed the night and Francois pulled his wife to him. The whoomph of a closing umbrella sent an icy shiver down his spine. Suddenly it seemed colder, and darker as a street light flickered and died.
“Monsieur Francois! Open the door, s’il vous plait,” the woman commanded and shattered any remaining illusions they were safe.
“Non,” Francois said softly, closing his eyes, knowing it was over.
“You’ve left me no choice. The police are here as well.”
“Leave us alone,” Marie cried.
“No, Madame, I won’t leave. Not until I have my baby back.”
Entry 13: The Red Umbrella
Hesitating, I crawled out from under the bed and gingerly crept to the window. The room was dark, though it was daylight. Crouching, I listened intently for sounds of voices. The reverberation from the unrelenting bombardment had ceased, but I had lost all sense of time. Placing my ear to the floorboards, I hoped to detect the raspy voice of Mrs. Windermere in the apartment below. For once I would have been consoled to hear her inexorable disparagement of Mr. Windermere, but all was still downstairs.
Pulling back the curtain, I glanced upwards at the haunting shapes of smoke billowing across the grey sky. Mustering the courage, I raised myself to the window’s sill and peered into the familiar distance. Stunned, I gasped when I beheld flames amidst the remains of crumbled buildings that had stood for generations. The full scale destruction that so many Europeans had endured in the decades before me, I believed unthinkable in America. As I gazed bleakly upon the desolation, a fighter jet swooped over what had been Pete’s Tavern where my father and grandfather had tossed down a beer after a day’s labor at the mill. Devastated, I sat immobilized, my back against the wall, when there sounded a muffled tapping in the street below. Arising from my despair, I watched with propitious amazement as a young girl dressed neatly in a smart black suit, and red umbrella unfurled overhead, walked assuredly down the lane defying the dystopian reality before her.
Which story is your favourite?