Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Contests are Hard

Elizabeth Guy at runs a fun recurring short story contest. I like the contest because the judging typically makes sense to me and the first prize includes line-by-line editorial. It also doesn't hurt that I've had some modest success in it. 

Below is my entry (unedited save basic formatting) for last fall's Intense Suspense edition. 

The prompt for the contest (all the contests there are prompted) had something to do with a cell phone failing at the most inopportune, life-and-death moment. I can't find the exact prompt any more or I'd have included it here. The stories were limited to 1500 words.

Many times when I enter a contest, I know my story has no chance. But in this case, I liked what I'd written and quietly had high hopes. 

In the end, I didn't win (though I did get an honorable mention). The editor (Ms. Guy) summarized the different ways in which a cell phone failed in the stories. Sadly, mine suffered the same fate as something like 70 other of the stories. I had focused on story flow and, basing the cell phone's death on a real-life event, hadn't even thought to get creative on that count. 

I don't know if I'd have won had my cellphone died more creatively. But I'm sure I'd have improved my odds.

I don't think it's possible to over-estimate how bored an editor must get during the vetting of stories for a prompted contest. It's probably best to discard your first few ideas and roam (even arbitrarily) far afield in the chase for a good story. 

Here's the winning entry

And here's mine . . . 


     It was the kind of day when the blacktop, rolling off to the horizon, melted in the shimmers.
     Laurel passed the black Impala on I-10 twenty miles before she pulled off for gas. It had low-profile rims and roughly-applied Bondo down one side, but was worth noting only because it rode for uninterrupted miles on the dotted line.
     She’d forgotten the car and its driver’s habits by the time she pulled up beside a pump.
     The T-phone, propped in a cup holder, rang the instant she stepped out onto the pavement. It was a pay-as-you-go model, and no-one but Trent had the number.
     Even two months into their relationship, butterflies fluttered inside her as she anticipated the sound of his voice.
     “Hi, Babe,” he said. “I’m an hour away and already aroused.”
     “Oh, my God, me too.”
     “You naked yet?”
     She laughed as she moved to the gas pump. “They frown on that kinda thing here in Arizona.”
     “Hurry up and cross the border then so we can get to partying. Blythe awaits.”
     “Just gassing up and taking a nature break, then I’ll be breaking all kinds of traffic laws.”
     “Don’t get caught.”
     “I won’t.”
     “See you in a few. You’re too far away.”
     Trent had been the one to suggest a meet-in-the-middle spot between their distant lives. Blythe, a desiccated desert town on the California-Arizona border, was the winner. And this was their third trip in six weeks.
     The affair, born of an innocent note on Facebook, had seemed like a near accident. But it brought her to life in ways she hadn’t felt in nearly twenty years.
     Inside the mini-mart, a weary space weathered by too many years of foot traffic, she gravitated to the candy aisle. She was looking for Altoids but had an odd sense of embarrassment when she saw a little boy digging through the nearby toy section.
     Altoids were only mints, after all, and the kid couldn’t know what she had in mind. But she knew what she had in mind.  
     The notion of explaining the word ‘fellatio’ to Little Timmy Thompson made her giggle.  
     The boy glanced her way and gave an awkward smile as, outside, the Bondo’d Impala pulled up to the pumps.    
     Over by the beer fridge, a man and a woman--presumably the kid’s parents--were too-intently studying brands of cheap domestic twelve-packs. Studying like the choice might actually matter. 
     The T-phone rang again, and she picked up before the end of the first ring.
     “Are we there yet?” he asked.
     She was distantly aware of a drop of sweat sliding down between her breasts. “You’re crazy.”
     “Happily crazy.”
     “Hang up now, Trent.”
     “Hanging up.”
     Turning slowly, smiling at the sound of Trent’s voice (was there anything more enthralling than the days of being smitten?), she sensed more than saw the Impala driver approaching the front door.
     Something metallic flashed in the sunlight, and it took her a second to realize it was the man’s prosthetic arm, an animated hook of sorts.
     A soldier, maybe? A victim of a disfiguring accident?
     He opened the door with his manufactured arm. The cold sound of metal-on-metal made her wince.
     He was smiling, but it was the most mirthless smile she could imagine, his eyes going entirely untouched.
     She had to fight her instinct to nervousness. Hold your water, she thought. There are scary people everywhere. Some of them don’t even kill people.
     She watched the man behind the register tracing the motion of the newcomer with his eyes. But almost immediately, the angry man said something that put a surprised smile on the cashier’s face.
     Laurel felt herself relaxing, as well, as the traveler approached the beer fridges.
     She had just turned to glance back at the tin of Altoids when a loud pop shook the room.
     She felt it in her diaphragm as much as she heard it. Someone--she supposed it had to be her--squealed.
     She turned toward the beer-shopping couple when she sensed movement.
     The twelve-pack they had finally chosen spiraled in slow motion, end-over-ending until it struck the ground at an odd angle, hard on a corner, the man falling as an afterthought beside it.
     Immediately, beer hissed from a breach in one of the cans.
     The prone man was all lifelessness. His wife, still upright at his side, stood lifeless in her own way.
     Even in her heart-throbbing confusion, Laurel was moving now. She could tell that Trent was still talking, yelling most likely.
     In a thoughtless blur, she grabbed the stunned little boy standing next to her and rushed toward the back of the store.
     The toy he was holding, a space-age squirt gun, clattered to the floor.
     Another pop rang out, and again she flinched.
     A thin, warped door blocked her way to the back; it swung feebly when she yanked it aside. The stink of mildew and stale beer assaulted her as she hauled the boy into the darkened stock room, its contents more fit for a garage than for grocery.
     Off to the left, a door to a narrow bathroom. To the right, neglected yard implements and a stack of mismatched boxes piled high.
     She knew that the shooter would come for her and the boy.
     Two shots out front most likely meant two dead people.
     Inside the store, itself, only one target remained.
     The volume of Trent jabbering at her seemed to fill the quiet back room. She thumbed the mute button and rushed to the open bathroom.
     In the tightness of the sweltering room, she set the boy down. As soon as he was on his feet, she put a silencing finger to her lips.
     After closing the door behind them, she unmuted the phone, planning to dial 911.
     But before she could, the boy began to cry.
     Trent’s voice came over the line again, “Laurel? Say something!”
     She reached out to touch the boy, to reassure. But in that motion, the phone, still clutched in her hand, bumped free.
     It struck the rim of the toilet and somersaulted off the porcelain before its plunge to the bottom of the bowl, the sound of Trent’s questioning voice coming incoherently over the line until splashdown. For only an instant, she stared into the bowl. 
     Then her hand went to water.
     She shook the phone violently, thinking only briefly of the filth painting her arm. 
     Her attention went immediately to the little window above the toilet. It was hinged on top and swung outward. The boy would fit easily, but she was convinced she couldn’t wedge her hips through that space.
     From the front, a third shot rang out.
     Trent’s voice came again, his words unrecognizable through the watery murk around the speaker.
     Panting heavily, she lifted the boy and pushed him up by his bottom, forcing him through the window. A small cry came a second later when he hit the ground outside.
     “Run,” she said as forcefully as a whisper would allow. “Hide.”   
     On the phone, more panicked sounds from Trent.
     “Trent,” she said. “Call 911.” 
     But only gurgling noises returned before a clear, “Damn it, Laurel, you’re sca--”
     She tried then to hang up, to dial 911 herself.
     Every button press went unrewarded.
     And then, nothing.
     It was dead.
     Entirely dead.
     She knew only that she had to hide, to tuck herself in any possible crevice and pray.
     After twisting the lock on the bathroom door, she exited and slammed it shut behind her, hoping to distract.
     She hurried to the back of the stock room and wedged herself between wall and boxes.
     Within seconds, the door to the stock room swung open.  Dust flecks, upset by her movements, floated in front of her, glowing in the sidelight from a tiny nearby window.  
     The room was silent now save the shooter’s heavy footfalls and rapid breathing.
     As he approached the bathroom, Laurel felt herself relax, if only slightly. But the relaxation collapsed when, in a blur of motion, he raised his gun with his flesh-and-bones hand and lashed out with a booted foot, shattering the jam. The door slammed against the toilet with an angry clank.
     She watched his silhouetted profile as he studied the empty room, his eyes soon moving to the open window.
     He grunted and fired a shot at the toilet, the explosion painfully loud in the dark, hot room.
     With a curse, he turned toward the front as the sound of water streaming onto the cement floor continued.
     His walk was painfully slow, and Laurel held her breath as he moved.
     He was finally in the doorway when he slowed and turned back for one last look.   
     And then it came.
     Trent’s voice--the ‘dead’ phone still clutched in her hand--clear as day. “Laurel, say something!”
     As the shooter’s legs came to a halt, Laurel closed her eyes and whispered, "I love you, Trent."

### the end ###