NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2020 – First Round (Update: This story came in 2nd Place in my Group!)

It’s my first time participating in this contest, and I’ve submitted my story but won’t hear if I progress to the second round until March 31st.

In round one, each writer received their random assignments and had eight days to submit a 2500 word story.

My assignments:

  • Genre – Crime Caper
  • Subject – Plastic Surgery
  • Character – Comedian

Here’s my story. I have no idea what my chances are, but it was a challenge and I had fun with it! I’d love to hear what you think.

The Game

Holland Hunt stepped onto the stage after a lavish introduction. Applause was her favorite drug. Shoulders back, chin high, warmth spread through her body like liquid love. She’d been doing stand-up for twelve years, and while this glitzy casino wasn’t her largest venue, and the packed theater probably wouldn’t be her drunkest crowd, tonight’s performance might end her career. Could she go through with her plan to sabotage the show?

When the thunderous applause waned, she took the microphone from the stand.

            “Hello, Las Vegas!”

            Another round of applause gave her a moment to scan the first few rows. No sign of her brother. Yet. She wasn’t supposed to know about his new face. Had their Game pushed him to such an extreme? Or was there someone or something else behind his decision to have plastic surgery? Either way, tonight, she would put a stop to the madness.

            Holland had received the call three months earlier from a sorority sister who worked for one of Los Angeles’ top cosmetic surgeons. The friend explained that Holland’s twin brother, Harrison, had drastically altered his face. She’d even texted photos as proof showing him puffy and bandaged right out of surgery. Shocked, Holland had dropped her phone and shattered the screen. Now it matched her shattered heart.

            She pushed the dark thoughts to the back of her mind, smiled at the audience, and launched into her routine. “Anyone else have trouble sleeping? I’m a horrible sleeper. My brain won’t stop pondering stupid things people say. Like when someone asks if my twin brother and I are identical.”

            A burst of laughter fueled her adrenaline.

            She rubbed her hands together. “It’s fun to fuck with stupid.” She smiled through another round of laughter. Paused. “I look them right in the eye and say, No, my hands are bigger.”

            The audience roared.

            Her insides bubbled. These moments made life worth living. She zoomed her hand over her head. “Goes right over their pretty little heads.”

            The ones who didn’t get it laughed the loudest.

Holland learned early in her career that people loved her twin jokes best, and growing up with Harrison gave her plenty of material. “All brothers are annoying, am I right? But twin brothers are the worst. Mine has a gold medal in pissing me off, a black belt in interrupting my punchlines, and a master’s degree in stealing my stuff.”

            The crowd loved this one. Universal truths always struck a chord.

            “We’ve made a family tradition out of stealing from each other.” She walked to the front of the stage, leaned forward. “With a last name like Hunt, what did our parents expect?”

            The audience exploded.

Holland stood in the spotlight, unhurried, and soaked in the adoration. “But we’ve only ever stolen one thing. Our grandmother gave me a sweet little gold promise ring with a tiny diamond the year we turned thirteen. Harrison claimed; it’s not fair (that whine is exactly how he sounded).”

Chuckles rippled across the room.

“He liked my gift better than his—a flimsy tie clip he’d never wear—and promised to steal the ring from me. The next day, it was gone from my musical jewelry box. You know the one? It had a spinning ballerina and flimsy-ass lock that was more invitation than a deterrence.”

The audience laughed knowingly.  

“The next day, Harrison secured the ring onto his bicycle lock and said if I could open it, I could keep it forever. Within minutes, it was back on my finger. For the combination, he’d used our birth date backwards. Not much of a challenge.”

More loving laughs.

She walked to stage left. “He lied. We’ve been stealing that ring back and forth for more than twenty years. Each exchange is documented, in elaborate detail, on a spreadsheet. Yep, we’re certifiable.”

The crowd loved this.

“We call it the Game and it quickly became an obsession—one we were both well-suited for given our propensity for patience and Olympic-level competitiveness.” She faced the crowd and grinned. “And it’s made damn good thieves out of both of us.”

Uncomfortable chuckles rippled around the room.

“I’m the current winner.” She fanned her outstretched hand to reveal a slim gold ring on her finger. “I figured it was more secure here than in the hotel safe.”

The theater quaked with laughter.

Harrison would love that joke. Even though she hadn’t yet spotted him, she felt his presence. Always could. Their birthday was a few days out, and as adults, their tradition was to meet in Vegas. He knew her performance schedule. She knew he was in the audience.

She crossed to stage right. “I know what you men are thinking…you’re terrified by the idea of dating a woman with lock-picking and safe-cracking skills. Am I right?!”

A sprinkle of laughter.

“Why do you think I’m still single?”

Not quite a universal truth, but still funny. They ate it up.

“You women are wondering who has kept the ring the longest? Inquiring minds want to know. I get it. Currently the record is mine: three years, two months, nineteen days, and thirty-seven minutes.”

More laughter.

“But who’s counting.”

The thunderous applause lasted long enough for her to return to center stage and take a sip of water. She soaked in more audience love, but her gut twisted. If she hadn’t created the facial recognition software on her latest safe, maybe things would be different. Maybe he wouldn’t have made the ultimate, irreversible decision to alter his appearance. She did this to him.

Her jokes shifted to other aspects of the Game. She weaved in their obsession with books and movies about famous heists and robberies. There was the time in college when Harrison gave her a clue—Acne and Yon—which took her days to recognize as an anagram for Danny Ocean. This led her to a key taped inside Harrison’s DVD of Ocean’s Eleven—the key that opened the box that held the ring. Things got very interesting after that. All manner of riddles and puzzles were fair game. They read everything they could find on picking locks and cracking safes.

The jokes continued, and the crowd held nothing back.

Holland took a sobering breath. Soon, the show and the Game would end right before their eyes. With the element of surprise on her side, she would be the ultimate winner.

During another outburst of applause, she scanned the audience again. The man on the far left, third row back, had the right build and coloring. Difficult to tell in the dim lighting. New face. New shadows.

They’d only talked seriously about stopping the Game once. It was the night of their high-school graduation and they’d chosen to play the Game rather than party with friends. In five years, they had learned more about thievery than any law-abiding citizen should know. The multiple safes they’d collected as Christmas and birthday gifts were barely a challenge anymore.

After solving a series of riddles that led to clues about which safe to focus on, Harrison broke the code, held the ring between his long, masculine fingers, and danced around the room, taunting her. “I win, I win!” In an irritating, gloating voice, he’d egged her on, “You’re a worthy opponent, sis, but you’ll never be better than me, so why not call it quits?”

She could ignore the smug line of his smiling lips, the twinkle in his pale green eyes, the same color as hers, and even his stupid strutting victory dance, but she couldn’t admit defeat. Not to her equal.

Maybe if she’d listened to her brain that night, instead of her ego, things might not have gone so far off the rails. “Oh no, sweetheart,” she’d said, “we quit when I’m on top.”

The Game continued.

When she traveled to Barcelona for her first real job at a bank, he was working in London and came for a weekend visit. When he arrived at her tiny apartment on Carrer de Badajoz, above a grocery store, she told him, “The ring is in a safety deposit box at the bank, so don’t bother picking the safe in my bedroom.”

“Sera mio,” he’d winked. It will be mine.

At the airport saying good-bye, he’d produced the ring, a wicked grin on his handsome face. “I guess you’ll have to come to London next.”

What a Danny Ocean move. Her mouth hung open. “W…what? How?” He must have found her safety deposit box key…but the bank had been closed all weekend. Fear snaked up her spine. Had he crossed into criminal territory? Was he better than her? Braver than her? Willing to take the Game further than her?

Over the next ten years, in the name of the Game, countless laws were broken, but their rules held; no one got hurt, and the ring was all they ever stole. As the scope of their Game expanded, the challenges grew increasingly difficult, and their spreadsheet swelled.

The audience roared at her last joke. By now, Holland was certain she had identified her brother. Time to switch from her usual material and put her plan into action.

“Did you hear about the guy who went to a plastic surgeon? Yeah, he didn’t know how it worked, and he had the doctor make his nose bigger!”

Not hilarious, but some people found it funny.

Harrison glared and shifted in his seat. She made eye contact to let him know he’d been spotted, then focused on the audience. “His naturally chiseled chin must have been undesirable because he had it rounded.”

Confused silence.

She glanced at her brother.

In another room, his active bastard face could have started a war.  

Holland walked toward him. “You can have all the plastic surgery you want, but I’d recognize my twin brother anywhere. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Harrison Hunt!” Her arms spread wide, “Join me on stage, won’t you?”

Darts of anger shot from his eyes, and his chest rose and fell like he’d finished a marathon, but he remained seated.

Confused murmurs echoed through the room as everyone twisted and turned in their seats.

Holland returned to center stage and took another drink of water. “Don’t be shy. I have something for you.” She waved her hand in the air, indicating the ring. “Come and get it, no strings attached.”

The stage manager waved his arms frantically—mouthed, What the hell?

She held up a finger, begged him with her eyes not to drop the curtain. Please let me finish.

Harrison approached the stage. A long, slow breath escaped her constricted lungs. She stared at the barely recognizable man. If it weren’t for the eyes, and the slightly crooked front tooth, he could be anyone. “Let’s hear it for my…brother!” Her throat tightened and her voice went spaghetti thin.

The audience had to be wondering if this was part of the show, and only a few people brought their hands together.

Harrison smiled and waved as he walked across the stage.

The siblings hooked hands, kissed each other’s cheeks. Tears stung Holland’s eyes. She would get through this. There was only one way to put an end to the Game, to stop the madness, and it had to happen here and now.

She faced the audience, still holding her brother’s hand. “I’ve had fun sharing about our crazy Game, our spreadsheet, our mad lock-picking skills, and our fierce competitiveness.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “But tonight, it comes to an end.”

She turned to Harrison. “I never meant for any of this to happen.” She waved her hand in front of his face. “The Game has gone on too long, and now you’ve had plastic surgery. We have to stop the craziness.” She took a deep breath, slid the ring from her finger, and held it out for him. “The ring is yours. Game over.”

            Harrison didn’t take the ring. “May I say something now?”

            The audience sat in silence like they were watching a drama instead of a stand-up routine.

            He met his sister’s confused gaze, the malicious grin on his face brought her heart to her throat. Why won’t he take the damn ring already? I’m letting him win.

            He strolled to the front of the stage. “My sister is a brilliant comedian. Please give her a hand.”

            The crowd obliged.

            “She’s also a brilliant safe-cracker and coder. Her latest facial recognition software almost did me in. She fashioned the safe with a camera programmed to recognize my face and never open for me even with the correct combination. Magnificent engineering!”

            Some clapping cut through the tension in the room.

He cleared his throat. “Once it became clear what I was dealing with, there was no other option than to alter my appearance.” He gave the audience his profile. “What do you think? Not too bad?”

            A few hands came together.

            Holland moved toward her brother. “Please, Hair—.”

            He cut her off, jabbed his index finger at her face. “My turn, sis. You’re the one who wanted to do this in public.” He lowered his arm and turned back to the crowd. “She almost got me, but with my new face, I was able to by-pass the system. Take the ring. And replace it with a fake.”

            Gasps rippled through the room.

            Holland’s brain ricocheted like a bullet pinging and dinging between denial and disbelief.            He pulled a ring from his pocket and held it up for her to see. “This is the real ring. The one you have is gold-plated CZ.” He walked toward her, tugging at his ears. When they were a few feet apart, he stopped. “One more thing. I’m shocked you fell for my ploy.” In one swift motion, he pulled off his face—or what turned out to be a pile of silicone and putty. “I’d never actually go under the knife.”

            The audience was on their feet, the applause deafening.

Relief and anger and regret tornado-ed through Holland’s body. She was overjoyed to learn the plastic surgery was fake. But she was pissed. Pissed that he had played her. Pissed that he stole her spotlight. Pissed that he won.

She couldn’t find a way to hold her face that didn’t give all her emotions away.

He placed the real ring in her hand.

“Game over.”

3 thoughts on “NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2020 – First Round (Update: This story came in 2nd Place in my Group!)

  1. Wow Nessa, I love this short story, it got me from the start & held my attention to the end. You did great & should win! Best of luck!🍀

    Sent from my iPhone



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