This week I am participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. Since this is my third time competing, I thought I’d share some of my previous entries, along with the judges’ feedback.
Last week I shared the story that got me advanced to Round 2 in the 2013 challenge. Today I’ll share the story I submitted for Round 2, which won an honorable mention but did not advance me to Round 3. The genre was ghost story, the character was electrician, and the subject was love.
Brenda Simpson sat on her couch in the dark, clutching the remote control and staring at the place where the TV screen had just blinked out of existence. Now all she could hear was the clicking of the radiator behind her head and the rustle of wind through the tree branches outside.
She put down the remote, grabbed her phone from the coffee table, and dialed. “Jimmy, my damn lights’ve gone out again,” she said when her son picked up.
Jimmy sighed heavily.
“You hear me?” Brenda demanded. Her voice sounded loud in the suddenly-silent house.
“I hear you, Ma,” he said. “Did you trip the circuit?”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“That’s what happened last time. All we had to do was flip the breaker switch, you remember?”
“No, I do not remember.” Brenda was scared, which made her irritable. She thought she heard the far-off mewl of a cat coming from somewhere outside, and the hair rose on the back of her neck.
“It’s ten o’clock at night, Ma. Just go to bed.”
“I can’t see a damn thing! What if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I fall and break my neck?” She didn’t like the darkness. It transformed everything she’d thought was familiar. The floor lamp was now a strange man in a hat, lurking in the corner. The armchair across the room crouched like an animal, waiting to attack.
“Why don’t you call your neighbor, what’s-his-name?” Jimmy suggested.
“He’s not an electrician. I don’t want him messing around when you could come over and do it right.”
“And anyway, I can’t let him see me like this. I’m in my curlers!”
Just then Brenda heard a scratching sound coming from the other side of the back door. Her heart seized, and she stared in the direction of the door. It sounded like the way her cat, Pudding, used to scratch to be let in. But Pudding had died two weeks ago. Jimmy had buried him in the back yard.
The scratching sound came again, and goose bumps ran up and down Brenda’s arms. “Jimmy,” she hissed into the phone. “Somebody’s here. Somebody’s standing on my back porch, looking in the window.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Somebody’s outside scratching on my door.”
“It’s probably a tree branch scraping the side of the house,” Jimmy said. “It’s windy out.”
“I need you to come over here right now, and I mean it.” Brenda tried to sound authoritative, but her voice trembled.
“Look, I’m not driving forty-five minutes over there just to find out it was something you could’ve fixed on your own.”
Brenda didn’t say anything.
“Why don’t you go down in the basement and flip all the switches off and on, and if that doesn’t solve the problem you can call me back, OK?”
Now that she was thinking about Pudding, Brenda felt tears prick behind her eyes. Lord, she had loved that cat. He’d shown up on Brenda’s doorstep the month after her husband, Karl, had died, as if the cat had somehow known there was a vacancy. Brenda had opened the door, and there was this skinny orange cat with big yellow eyes and a stubbed tail. No collar. That had been seven years ago now.
“Ma?” Jimmy said. “You understand? I put a flashlight for you in the junk drawer in the kitchen. So get that and go down to the basement. I know you know where the breaker box is because I showed you.”
“Fine,” Brenda grumbled. “But if I get murdered, I’m blaming you.”
“You do that.”
Brenda said good-bye and hung up the phone. All she had to do was make it into the kitchen and find the flashlight. Everything would be better once she could see.
She pushed herself up from the couch, bumping her shin on the coffee table. “Dammit,” she muttered. She began to shuffle towards the kitchen when she heard the scratching sound again. And, this time, she thought she heard a meow.
“Pudding?” she whispered. There was a slight thumping sound, and then silence. Brenda felt like her heart had dropped into her gut.
She moved towards the door, her arms and legs prickling. She could barely see, and she reached out her hands to feel her way. Finally she found the doorknob, turned it slowly, and pulled open the heavy, wooden door.
But no one was there. The porch was empty except for a few scattered leaves. The wind howled, whipping the tree branches in the back yard, and she shivered.
Then Brenda looked down. There, in the middle of the doormat, was a vole, dead on its back with its tiny legs stuck up stiff in the air.
She shut the door tight and locked it. She was starting to get scared now. Pudding had caught voles – he was a good hunter. And he’d leave them on the porch for her as presents. But Pudding was gone. Dead and buried. So who had left the vole?
Brenda moved towards the kitchen, anxious to get the lights back. But she didn’t want to go down in the basement all alone, in the pitch black. She considered waiting a few minutes and then calling Jimmy. She could say she had tried it, the thing with the breakers, and it hadn’t worked. But if he ended up driving over, and that was all it was, he’d be furious. Like the time she’d made him come over because she had thought the dryer wasn’t working, but it had turned out it was just unplugged. He hadn’t answered her phone calls for days after that.
In the kitchen, Brenda reached out, feeling for the drawer handle. The darkness formed a thick veil over her face, making it hard to breathe. She worried about reaching out and touching something horrible and unexpected. Like the hard shell of a cockroach. Or the plump, furry body of a rat.
She thought again about the vole outside on the porch.
In some ways, it was a relief that Pudding was gone. The damn cat had woken her up at six o’clock every morning, meowing pitifully. He’d beg to go in and out all day long, and if she didn’t open the door to let him out, he’d scratch the hell out of the furniture. But he’d sit on her lap when she watched TV and curl up purring at the foot of her bed when she went to sleep at night. She talked to him, too. Told him about her day, complained to him that her children never called. He was good at listening.
Brenda rifled through the junk drawer and found the flashlight. She clicked it on, and it worked, thank god.
She walked towards the door that led to the basement. The thin beam of light made it so she could see straight in front of her, but that just emphasized the darkness everywhere else.
She reached the basement steps, and out of habit she reached over to flip on the lights. Of course, nothing happened. She gripped the handrail and made her way down as the light from the flashlight bobbed eerily with each step.
“Ain’t nothing to be scared of, Bren,” she whispered to herself, but her heart was beating faster. Hell, she was scared of the basement during the day, when the lights were on. It was cold and damp and windowless, piled with boxes of old things – things that were too sad to look at and too sad to be thrown away.
She got to the bottom of the stairs. Now the light from the flashlight seemed to be absorbed by the blackness of the basement, and she squinted to see where she was going. She shuffled along the concrete floor towards the breaker box.
And that’s when she heard a meow.
She swung her flashlight back and forth. “Here, kitty,” she whispered hoarsely. Her voice echoed.
Another meow. She couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from, whether it was in the basement, or coming from upstairs, or outside.
The top of her head tingled, and tears smarted in the corners of her eyes. Damn Karl. Why’d he have to leave her all alone in this old house with its shoddy wiring?
She moved her flashlight back and forth. And then she saw something. In the shadows an orange cat with yellow eyes crouched between two boxes. She took a step closer, but then, just as suddenly as she’d seen it, it was gone.
She stood frozen, staring at the spot with her heart going wild. Had she just seen a ghost? After Karl had died, she’d thought for sure the house was haunted. She’d walk into a room and smell him – that smoky, moldy smell he had. And sometimes she’d sensed him lying next to her in bed. She’d been scared until Pudding had come along to keep her company.
“Pudding?” she called, looking in the place where she’d seen the cat. “Here, Pud,” she whispered. “I love you, little Pudding.” She’d always told Pudding how much she loved him. Something she had hardly ever said to Karl, or her kids even.
She shone her flashlight all around, but whatever it had been, it was gone now.
Brenda made her way to the breaker box. She hated this electrical stuff, was always worried Jimmy would get electrocuted one of these days. She reached out and flipped the first switch back and forth. Nothing. She tried another. On the third switch, the basement flooded with light.
“Oh!” Brenda realized she’d been holding her breath. She did the rest of the switches, just to be sure, then hurried back upstairs. The TV blared in the den. She walked over and turned it off.
And then she heard the noise again. A loud, insistent meow.
“What the hell is going on?” She had more confidence in the light. She marched over to the back door. “When I open up this door,” she said, “there best be a cat standing there, or else I’m going to think I’m going crazy!”
She yanked open the door. And sitting there on the porch, next to the dead vole, was a half-starved-looking cat, gray and white, with no collar.
“Well, hey there.” Brenda opened the screen door and stepped out into wind. The cat meowed and rubbed against her leg. “Hey there,” she said again. “Whatcha doing, huh? You hungry?” The cat began to purr.
“I don’t know why you don’t just eat this vole,” she said. “You gone through the trouble of catching it.”
The cat looked up at her and meowed again, and Brenda had the strange thought that this puny thing wasn’t the hunter. Maybe the vole was one last present from Pudding. But, of course, that was crazy.
“I think I got some tuna fish,” Brenda said. She bent over as best she could and rubbed the cat’s head with her fingers. Jimmy would yell at her about taking in a stray, but it didn’t look like this one had rabies or anything. It was just a creature needing a home.
She opened the door, and the cat trotted in. Like it knew there was a vacancy. Brenda made her way to the kitchen and opened a can of tuna. Just then the phone rang. She picked it up and cradled it against her ear while she drained the can over the sink. The cat weaved around her legs, purring loudly.
“Ma?” Jimmy said. “I’m sorry I was short with you. You want me to come over and see what the problem is?”
“No, I figured it out on my own,” Brenda said. “But I appreciate you, son. And I love you.”
“I love you, too, Ma,” he said gruffly.
She hung up the phone and looked down at her new cat, who was waiting expectantly for its dinner.
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED:
A well put together little piece — nothing we don’t need to know, tight dialogue, good grounding, clear character/conflict/crisis/change structure. What’s particularly done well here is the sketching of what it must be like to be a widow alone in the world, save for her son; I felt badly for this woman in her predicament, but she wasn’t painted in such a way that it was pathetic: she wasn’t whiny or stereotyped.
In addition, there are several nice lines in here; the paragraph about the shapes changing in the dark, in particular, is not only vividly rendered but is accessible (most readers, I think, can identify with what’s happening in that moment): “She didn’t like the darkness. It transformed everything she’d thought was familiar. The floor lamp was now a strange man in a hat, lurking in the corner. The armchair across the room crouched like an animal, waiting to attack.”//I also loved the line “–things that were too sad to look at and too sad to be thrown away.” That says it all about the junk we all have in our basements, and I think readers can make an instant connection to it.
There were also, I’d like to point out, no typos or misspellings. In my opinion, this is ready to submit to a magazine…….This was a very creepy story, and the atmosphere was well done. I loved the building of suspense!……
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:
I might suggest fleshing out, with a paragraph or two, her relationship with her husband — it was the one thing I felt was missing. Just one paragraph or so, done in similar fashion to the one about her son (for your reference: the one that mentions “Like the time she’d made him come over because she had thought the dryer wasn’t working, but it had turned out it was just unplugged. He hadn’t answered her phone calls for days after that.”) Something like that would give us just a tad more detail about Brenda and add a layer of depth; perhaps even play off the one line that’s already in there, the line that discusses her frustration at his leaving her with a house full of shoddy wiring…….
I found myself hoping for more of a surprise at the end… I hoped all the foreshadowing of a cat’s arrival was a red herring for something more sinister. I also don’t understand her relationship to her children; why is it that they don’t call? Just that she needs them to help her out around the house, or that she’s lonely? It’s nice that you give her a cat at the end, but I would’ve liked more of a solid build-up, more at stake in her relationships to herself and others…………………………….………………………