NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2020 – First Round

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.”

Excerpt from my WIP – YA Novel

pink sunriseThe sunrise bathes the stadium in a pretty pink glow, but I just might puke.

Coach takes my jacket and looks me in the eye. “Jovi, there’s no need to be nervous. You can run three-point-two miles in your sleep. Forget that it’s Regionals. Use your mantra: Just another run. You got this.” He pats my back—three quick exclamation points on the end of his pep talk.

Easy-peasy.

“Yes sir.” I walk toward the starting line. Just another run. Just another run.

This is not just another run—if I don’t win today, and place at State in two weeks, I’ll never get a running scholarship and college will be out of the question. There’s zero money to help make my dream come true. If I’m going to be the first one in my family to go to college, I’ll have to find a way to pay for it myself, and a scholarship is at the top of the list.

The bleachers are packed. It’s a sea of colorful blankets and jackets pulled tight against the crisp dawn. Yet, none of my family is here. Just like every other day, Dad, Luke and Sassy are working in the pecan orchard, and GrandMary doesn’t drive. If Dad had his way, I’d never run another mile in my life, and I’d spend every spare moment working in the family’s pecan business: clearing branches, bagging pecans, shelling pecans, cleaning equipment, whatever needs doing. It’s Dad’s life. It was his father’s life. And he wants to make it my life.

My best friend, Morgan is here, but only because I bribed her with ice cream after the meet. Morgan has perfect skin the color I like my coffee—with three creamers—can sing like an angel, mixes plaids with prints, and doesn’t know right from left or north from south. She changes the color of her wild curls with her mood, and right now I’m glad I can spot her pink hair in the stands. Otherwise, I’d be here alone. Again.

Fifty-seven other long-legged, pony-tailed girls line up on the grass at the one-yard line. I wedge myself between green and gold, and purple and white. Somewhere in the pack, wearing black and gold, with matching size ten Nike’s, is last year’s state champ, Shianne Boggs. She may have big feet, but off the course, she’s the girl with the $100 blowout, designer jeans, and way too many trophies.

“Runners, take your marks.”

I crouch into position with one foot in front of the other, one hand on the ground. Eyes straight ahead. At least I know this course. It’s my third time at Wimberley Regionals. The next twenty minutes of my life will be fields, creeks, hills, and a wooded path wide enough for four fast feet.

“Set.”

Okay adrenaline, work your magic.

The shot cracks through the air, turning my tension into thunder. I bolt forward.

It doesn’t take long for me to pull out front, along with six or seven others. Shianne’s weird exhale whistling in my right ear helps me focus. My jitters are gone. I have one job to do—win this race—and it’s starting to feel do-able.

The first mile is fast. Maybe five-minute-mile fast. My heart is a machine in my chest. Elbows bump. Colorful running shoes slap the ground in comfortable rhythm. My body is slick with sweat.

Several minutes tick by in an instant. All I know is my breath and my heart and my desire to win. I can do this. I’ve won my share of races but this is the one that counts. Winning today would be an upset but Coach says it’s my time. He’s had me in the gym lifting weights and doing flexibility training for months and I feel stronger than ever. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life. A win today would change everything.

With less than a mile to go, I’m one of four leaders packed in tight, and the pace is grueling. Quads on fire, lungs exploding. We splash across a creek—the cold water on my legs a refreshing surprise. I lean in and climb the last hill, giving it all I’ve got. One more turn and we’ll be back at the football field for the final 400 meters around the track.

It’s way too crowded in the turn. I’m on the inside. Not enough room.

Can’t find my footing.

My right elbow slams into another runner. Black and gold tumbles into my fall. Shianne Boggs. We’re a slow-motion collision of arms and legs and sweat.

Until our heads slam together.

And a dark explosion swallows me.

Why I’ve Been Neglecting my Blog

You may have noticed I haven’t been posting on my blog much in recent weeks. This is because I’ve been devoting all of my free time to writing a Young Adult (YA) novel – a contemporary coming of age story of family, friendship, and toxic love.

Here’s an excerpt. More later!

Couple

There was a quiet knock on Jovi’s bedroom door.

“I gotta go,” she whispered.

“No! You have to-”

Jovi disconnected with Opal, set down her phone, and minimized Twitter on her computer screen. “Come in,” she said as she turned in her swivel desk chair.

Vivian opened the door and stood at the threshold.

“Hi mom!” Jovi nervously glanced around her messy room. Clothes covered every surface, and she had not made the bed. She was just about to say something when Vivian stepped toward the dress hanging on the closet door.

“I love what you did with the skirt here,” Vivian said, running her fingers across the cloth. “Wait, is this fabric from one of your old Easter dresses?”

Jovi pulled her legs into the chair and sat cross-legged. “Yeah, and the lace at the top I got from one of your pageant dresses. You said I could use what I wanted from the trunks in the attic. I hope you don’t mind,” Jovi rambled. It had been so long since her mother was in her room, she found herself fidgety – worried she would say something to scare her away. She cleared her throat and calmed her voice. “I’m sorry it’s such a mess in here. I was going to straighten up but I need to finish my essay first. And I need to get outside to- ”

“You’ve got quite a flair, Jovi Joy. Quite a flair,” Vivian interrupted, still admiring the dress. “Aunt Dovie has taught you well. I think you may be a better seamstress than she is now.”

“Oh well, I don’t know about that. It’s just fun. And I figure, why buy clothes when I can make something I really like, and that fits me,” Jovi said. She picked up an ink pen and clicked it up and down. “When I do buy something, I just end up ripping it apart anyway, you know? And making something else out of it.”

Vivian didn’t reply. She walked over to the window and parted the white muslin fabric draped over a tension rod. Unlike the view of the orchard from Vivian’s room on the back of the house, this window looked straight down Caddo Creek Road.

Jovi recognized the sudden gulf between them. It was as if her mother had walked through an invisible barrier into another world. A world where sadness, worry and fear swooped in heavy and hard threatening to never let go. With all the enthusiasm she could muster, she picked up the conversation. “Thank you again for giving me free reign of your old clothes.”

Silence.

“I’ve been wearing some of them as-is. Vintage is the new black!”

No reply.

“I can’t wait until it gets cold enough to wear your old suede jacket with the fringe. Opal is going to flip when she sees it!” Jovi could hear the sadness seeping into her own voice.

“If that jacket could talk…” Vivian said quietly as she let the makeshift curtain fall.

Relieved, Jovi got up from her desk and crossed the room. She wrapped her arms around an impossibly tiny waist and rested her cheek against the upper back of her mother’s cotton shirt. Vivian’s arms hung loose at her sides. Jovi tried hard to reconcile the person she held with the vibrant woman her mother had once been. High-school cheerleader. Beauty queen. Budding photographer.

“You and I will learn to surf next summer,” Vivian said.

Jovi didn’t know how to respond to the impossibly optimistic promises that often flew from her mother’s lips. They sprang from nowhere. Bright ideas. Daydreams, that when spoken aloud crashed into reality and shattered like broken glass. Last week Vivian had proposed they go skydiving.

“That’ll be fun Momma,” Jovi said as a single tear fell from her cheek.

The back door slammed. “Junebug,” her father yelled.

Jovi’s body went stiff.

“Go,” Vivian said as she turned to face her daughter.

“I love you Momma,” Jovi said, looking into her mother’s beautiful green eyes. Then she flew from the room and down the stairs.

After The Baby Rabbits Disappeared

2013-10-12 12.46.19

Excerpt from my book, More Than Everything

A year goes by.  A year of life in the fast lane with lots of money, and we finally move out of the rent house in town.  Shane’s paranoia has maxed out.  He is now convinced we are being watched and is sure the cops are listening to our calls, so he finds and leases some property out in the country.  Ten secluded acres in Wise County.  There is an old run-down trailer house, a big barn, a chicken coop, and a huge garden plot.  There is no phone line and Shane likes it that way.  Shane decides that it is secluded enough that we can live there and he can cook his speed there too every few months when we need to make more money.  He and his buddies buy a big, prefabricated barn and put it out there next to the trailer.  We store all of our furniture and boxed belongings in the barn for the time being and live in the old, furnished trailer with the ratty gold shag carpet, a gold crushed-velvet sofa and a heavy, Mexican-style wood coffee table in the living room.  In the kitchen there is a yellow Formica table and two matching chairs that is the spitting image of the one my parents had when I was growing up.  The one that mama would sit at, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone while she swatted me away like a fly.  One bare light bulb hangs over the center of the table.  One bedroom is empty and in the other one, we throw a double-size mattress on the floor and use a cardboard box for a nightstand.  We stack other cardboard boxes on their sides, so the openings face outward, forming a series of cubby holes, and use them as a dresser for our clothes.

It is great being out in the country, far away from the junkies.  Our dog, a black lab named Dino loves running wild.  A friend brings his dog out there too, also a black lab, and Dino is in heaven.  Those dogs play, run, swim, hunt and have the time of their lives.  For several months it is bliss; just me, Shane and the dogs living quietly, taking long walks in the woods and going fishing.  Shane and I have never spent so much quality time together.  It is nice.  We are relaxed out here away from the city.  Shane actually talks to me and hardly ever yells.  He tells me things I’ve never known about him and I fall in love all over again.  We sit in lawn chairs under the stars and listen to the crickets and the hoot of an owl.  We sleep soundly and make love loudly and shower together every day.  Shane finds an old tiller in the barn and after a day of tinkering on it, has it running like a top.  He tills up the huge half acre garden plot for days and the earth is rich and fragrant; I sit in the big middle of the loose dirt grabbing handfuls and letting it sift through my fingers like all-purpose flour.  We plant every kind of vegetable you can think of and revel at each tiny, green shoot that sprouts from the ground.  We buy rolls of chicken wire and patch up the pens and fill them with chickens, turkeys and geese.  We spend the spring mending fence, planting flowers, and sprucing up the place.

One day I am the only one home and I’m mowing the front lawn barefooted.  I decide to go inside and put on some shoes before I try to mow the backyard where the grass is six inches high.  I turn off the mower, run inside, grab a pair of socks out of the sock cubbyhole, and my tennis shoes from the closet and sit on the edge of the bed to put them on.  As I’m tying the last lace, a large plastic thermos suddenly tumbles down from a shelf in the closet and lands at my feet.  I jump up and look into the closet to see why the thermos would have fallen and I’m eye to eye with a huge chicken snake, as big around as a can of Coke, coiled and stacked on the shelf like a garden hose. Continue reading