NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest 2020 – Ch2 Submission – 2nd Place Winner Overall in my Group
Requirements: Horror/A Botanical Garden/Confetti
Synopsis: When teenagers start disappearing, the authorities will never look here.
Mary Rice still can’t believe Mr. Bradbury gave her this dream assignment of documenting springtime for the high school newspaper. She snaps photographs of purple tulips and lush greenery along the meandering paths of her hometown’s botanical gardens. At the pond, she steps onto a decorative foot bridge arching over the water. The late afternoon sunlight casts a golden glow and there are no tourists around to spoil her pictures. It’s almost magical.
“Hey, look at this,” Anne calls from the other side.
She isn’t thrilled to have Anne Shelley tagging along. The new girl’s hair is always greasy, her clothes are so last decade, and the way she lurks in shadows watching, hardly ever saying a word, is just creepy. The only way you know she’s around is when her bizarre charm bracelet, with too many of the same kind of charms, makes a sad, hollow noise like a broken bamboo windchime. It’s not pretty, or even cute.
Before answering, Mary takes several photos of the overhead cherry blossoms reflecting in the glass-like water. “What is it?” Her words are laced with annoyance, which she hadn’t intended, but even away from school, Anne is weird, and brings out the worst in her.
Mary had never spoken to Anne before today, so it surprised her when the new girl had been so quick to volunteer when Mr. B said everyone needed a partner. Usually Mary’s BFF would be here, but it seems she’s run off with her boyfriend. That’s not okay. They’d promised boys wouldn’t come before their friendship.
Anne is squatting low to the ground, poking a finger at the dirt. “Tiny silver stars.”
Mary crosses the bridge and joins her. A galaxy of mylar stars litter the ground, sunlight bouncing off them in all directions. “Confetti. Probably from a wedding. My cousin got married here last summer.” She adjusts the aperture on the school’s DLSR camera and takes several photos of the confetti from different angles, then scrolls through the images. “These are good.”
Anne stands and walks down a narrow path. “There’s a trail of it. Come on.”
Mary looks down the path at a tangle of tree branches forming an overhead archway. She’s visited these lush grounds all her life but has never noticed this path before. She turns in circles to get her bearings: atrium, tulips, meadow, fountain. This path must be new.
A cool breeze whips up, squeezing around her like she’s in the center of a storm. The hair at the nape of her neck lifts. She shivers to shake it off. A few more minutes won’t hurt, and she really should try to be nicer to the new girl. After all, Anne found the confetti that led to these amazing photographs. “Okay, but then we have to go. Stephen’s coming over to study.”
A few steps through the tunnel and it’s like they’re in a different world. The warmth of the sun is gone. Mary’s insides twist. Her palms go slick and she almost drops the camera. “We should head back.”
“Looks like someone left this trail of confetti for a reason. Maybe someone needs help. Don’t you want to find out?” Anne’s dark eyes are like glassy marbles.
“Guess I was right about you.” Anne continues walking.
Mary follows. “Right about what?”
Anne stops at the edge of a clearing.
Mary almost collides into her. The beauty of the grassy field bursting with wildflowers of all colors makes her forget the question. The sun is back, higher in the sky than it should be and most of these flowers don’t bloom until summer. How is this possible? This exact spot is where the freeway should be—filled with rush hour traffic. She must have gotten turned around. Disoriented, her head swims with so much conflicting information.
In the center of the impossible field stands a single door. Not a building. Just an old, paint-peeling door with glass window panes and green vines crawling up each side. Mary feels drawn to it. Ignores the tightening in her gut, the shakiness of her limbs.
“Let me take your picture by it,” Anne says. “You look so pretty in this light.”
Mary smiles at the compliment and relaxes a bit. This background will make for some amazing photographs for her social media. Why not? She hands over the camera.
Anne directs Mary to pose with the door, beside it, and on the other side looking through the glass. “You’re gorgeous,” she says. “The camera loves you. No wonder you’re so popular and date the cutest guy in school.”
Mary laughs. “Oh please.” She pouts for the camera, tangling her fingers in her hair, pushing the perfect beachy curls to frame her face. She wonders why she ever thought Anne was weird. This is so much fun.
“Everyone will flip over these photos. Now, open the door and walk through as you wave to the camera—like you’re embarking on a new adventure.”
Mary hesitates, then grasps the antique knob and twists. She turns to face the camera, steps one foot over the threshold, and waves.
“Good, now step all the way in,” Anne encourages.
Mary’s other foot crosses the threshold and the door slams behind her. She whips around. Her feet feel rooted into the ground. She can’t move. “What is this?” she screams.
Anne takes one more picture, then approaches the door. “I knew I was right about you.”
Mary claws at nothingness. “No, I was right about you. You’re a freak. Let me out of here.”
“You only care about yourself just like your BFF and her boyfriend did.”
“No, no, no,” Mary cries.
Anne grabs the sides of the door frame and bends them in. After a few quick folds, she holds a small rectangular charm in the palm of her hand. She snaps it onto her bracelet, deletes the photos of Mary from the camera—all but the last one where she’s screaming—and walks home.