Tomorrow is the deadline for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I received my assignment last weekend and was somewhat dismayed. I’ll just say that it was a genre, character, and subject I thought I had absolutely no interested in whatsoever. But I surprised myself by sitting down the other evening and knocking out a story I think is pretty clever. This is the magic of NYC Midnight.
Today I’ll share the story I wrote for Round 1 of the Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, which won 4th place and advanced me to the second round. The genre was romance, the location was a haunted house, and the story had to contain marshmallows. It could only be 1000 words. Later I ended up getting this story published in an online journal. Thank you, NYC Midnight, for making me write it!
WAITING IN THE DARK
Claire has been lying inside the coffin for what feels like forever. It’s so dark it doesn’t matter if her eyes are open or closed, and to keep herself awake she is eating jumbo marshmallows and thinking about Ben. Before their shift he asked her if she would do his make-up, and she said sure, even though he usually does it himself.
So she used a foam sponge to make dark smudges around his eyes, trying not to stare into them as she worked. She pressed flesh-colored putty onto his cheeks to look like open sores and combed gel through his dark hair. As she dabbed fake blood around his mouth, her fingertips grazed his lips, and her body flushed, the heat burning hottest in the outer curls of her ears.
She thought maybe something was finally going to happen — they were standing so close to each other, her hands still lingering on his face — but then one of the other zombies burst in, laughing about how he’d made some kid pee in his pants the night before, and the moment was lost.
Now, inside her coffin, Claire sighs. Soon Scream Manor will be closed for the season, and she’ll never see Ben again.
She hears the clomping of shoes on the old staircase, followed by a few echoing shrieks. Claire pulls on her mask and waits. The group enters her room, the floorboards creaking underneath their feet.
She waits a moment then pushes the coffin lid open and bolts upright. “Blaaaahhhhh!” She reaches towards a chubby kid with a shaved head.
Everyone squeals, clutching at each other, and Claire is glad. She hates when older guys come through and try to prove how not scared they are by laughing in her face.
The group disappears into the spider room, and Claire pulls off her mask. She’s worried it might be giving her pimples. She twists to the left and right a few times, her spine cracking, before lying back down.
She has just begun another Ben daydream when the coffin lid opens and an arm reaches in towards her. “Hey, what are you doing?” she says. But as her eyes adjust, she sees with a jolt that it’s Ben standing over her.
“Claire? Sorry, I didn’t realize anybody was in this thing.”
In the dimness, Ben’s eyes disappear into his darkly-painted sockets. “Do you mind?” And before she can say anything, he climbs inside the coffin and squeezes down next to her.
“If we close this thing, will we still be able to breathe?” he asks.
“Yeah. There are air holes,” Claire says, although she feels breathless at the moment. The entire left side of her body is touching his, making it hard to concentrate on anything else.
He pulls the lid shut, and the dimness turns to black.
“What’s going on?” She tries to sound casual.
“Shh!” he says, and for a few moments neither of them speak. Claire can hear Ben breathing next to her and feel the heat of his arm against hers.
“I was chasing this dude,” Ben whispers. “Right? That’s my job. And then he turned around and was like ‘zombie wanna fight?’ and he punched me right here.” Ben gropes for Claire’s hand and placed it on top of his stomach.
“That’s crazy!” Clarie feels as if her heart is beating inside her hand, and she wonders if Ben can feel her pulse through his ripped-up shirt.
“I know. He was like three hundred pounds and psychotic or something. He started chasing me and threatening to kill me, so I ran up here to get away from him.”
“That’s really crazy. You can hide in here if you want.”
They’re both silent for a moment, the darkness settling like a blanket around them. Claire wonders if she should take her hand away from his stomach. Her palm is starting to sweat.
“It smells good in here,” Ben says finally.
“Really? I think it smells like rubber from the mask.”
“No. It smells sweet, like vanilla or something. Is it your hair?” He turns slightly and sniffs the side of her head, sending prickles along her scalp. “No. Your hair smells like flowers. I mean, it smells good, but there’s something else that’s, like, sugary.”
“It’s probably my marshmallows,” Claire realizes. She takes her hand away from Ben’s stomach and feels around above her head for the bag. “You want one?”
“Yeah. Will you get it out for me, though? My hands are dirty.”
Claire pulls out a marshmallow and holds it towards him. “How should I, umm…” She can’t see his face, even though he is only a few inches away.
“Here… Can you feed it to me?” Ben laughs awkwardly.
Claire moved the marshmallow in his direction. Her hand bumps into his chin. “Oh, sorry.”
“It’s OK,” he says softly.
She pushes the marshmallow into his open mouth, her fingers touching his bottom lip, then she pops one into her own mouth. They lay there in silence, chewing.
“Are you doing anything after this?” Ben asks. “Matt’s having people over. I was thinking… If you wanted to go, I could give you a ride.”
“Maybe…” She doesn’t want to seem too eager.
“Or we could go do something on our own, if you want.”
“Yeah, OK.” A stupid grin spreads across Claire’s face, and she’s glad Ben can’t see her in the dark.
“Cool. I’ll see you after, then.” Ben pushes open the lid and staggers his way out of the coffin. A piece of putty drops from his face onto Claire’s neck.
“What about the crazy guy?” she asks.
“What crazy guy?” Ben tilts his head. “I’ll see you at twelve in the break room, OK?” He smiles at her and lowers the lid, and she listens to his footsteps as he descended the stairs.
Slowly, Claire’s heartbeat returns to normal, and she stretches out in her coffin, waiting for midnight and whatever will happen next.
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –
The entire premise of the story — the characters working at Scream Manor as a vampire and zombie — is humorous and funny. These characters collide, and the action is fun to watch (their conversations, their work, etc.). …This was a sweet piece. The details you incorporated into the text were evocative and engaging, and the character development was strong. Nice job……………………………………………………………….
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –
The writer could take more time to flesh out the power of this connection. Why do these characters like one another? How does the setting affect this? Similarly, the title seems too basic for such a sharp story….The ending here was a trifle abrupt. I would see if you could flesh it out, so that it didn’t feel so rushed