The Charm Bracelet

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.

“Not really.”

“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.

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.”

Jovi Runs

Another excerpt from my work-in-progess YA novel…enjoy.

The stadium was full, the band played the Landry Longhorn’s fight song and people began taking their seats. There was excitement in the air and the metal bleachers vibrated with the noise. Jovi and Opal found a group of classmates to sit with behind the band. Opal sang along with the fight song and they both clapped.

Jovi scanned the crowd and found her family in their usual seats. The twins were on their feet, dressed in cheerleader uniforms and shaking pompoms. Sassy and Grant sat in the seats on either side of the girls and both checked their phones. Jason and Analise faced each other, their foreheads touching. Jovi felt self-conscious and looked away, embarrassed as if she had been peeking through closed curtains. But her heart warmed with the knowledge that her brother and his wife were so deeply in love.

She watched as her Dad made his way up the stadium steps with a small bag of popcorn in each hand. He took a seat between Cora and Clementine. The twins abandoned their pompoms and dove into the popcorn. Jovi’s Mom was at home, and probably already asleep. Everyone being accounted for, she turned her attention to the field.

The boom, boom, boom of the bass drum brought the fight song to an end and the crowd roared as the ball was placed on the forty-yard line and Landry prepared to the receive the second-half kickoff.

Jovi knew very little about football. She was there to show school spirit, see some friends and family, and to cheer for Graeme. From listening to him talk during their date last weekend, he played offense, was a running back, whatever that meant, and wore jersey Number 22. She studied the scoreboard and saw that the Longhorns were ahead 7-3. Then she scoped out the field and spotted Graeme, in the familiar orange and white uniform, standing on the sidelines. A warmness filled her heart.

The next hour flew by and Jovi saw and understood very little of the game. There was so much going on in the stands that it was difficult to focus on the boys running up and down the field. There were trips to the concession stand, members of the band throwing candy and gum at the crowd, and the cheerleaders performed too many back flips to count. When the score was 14-6 and there was ten minutes left to play, she stood and told Opal she’d be right back.

 “Aunt Jovi!” Cora and Clementine chimed in unison, and rushed to give their aunt a hug.

 “Hey you little cheerleaders, who’s gonna win?”

 “The Longhorns!” they cheered loudly.

She hugged her Dad and Sassy, then Jason and Analise. Everyone was talking at once. Grant stood a few feet away, in the aisle, having a conversation with someone Jovi didn’t know.

Dark hair framed amber eyes. His features were strong and he stood at least 3-4 inches taller than Grant, who was six feet tall. His handsome face and imposing stature disturbed her sense of balance. She couldn’t look away, and met his rugged gaze head-on, freezing her in place. His eyes raked her with a fierce possessiveness. A sudden warmth crept across her cheeks and, flustered, her eyes darted to her feet. She could still feel the power of his gaze and her heart raced.

 “…. Cross-country meet in the morning?” Sassy asked.

 Thankful for the distraction, she turned to face her sister. Her head felt as if it was detached and floating. “Um, yeah, Marble Falls,” Jovi managed to find her words. Opal is spending the night and she’s going with me.”

 Then she turned her attention to her father, still lightheaded. “Oh, Dad. After the meet in the morning, Opal and I are going to Austin so she can shop for a homecoming dress. We’re going to stay the night with her aunt, then drive home Sunday morning. I’ll be back in time for dinner. Mom said it was alright.” She rambled. Hands clammy, her stomach churned.

“So you won’t be around to help in the orchard.” His gray eyes turned stormy.

“Mom said it was okay. I promised Opal…” Her voice sounded hollow. She felt faint. Why was she lying to her family?

“Well then. You do what you think is right,” he said.

Why had he chosen those words? He could probably see right through the lies. She gulped in a much-needed breath. “Yes sir.”

What a mess. Why had she agreed to take her best friend to the audition? Opal kept things from her parents all the time. But lying to her Mom and Dad was new territory for Jovi. Her stomach twisted in knots and she felt a strong compulsion to run.

From the corner of her eye she saw Grant and Sir Hotness move toward her. She was in no condition to meet the intriguing stranger. “Well, I gotta go,” she blurted, then turned and bolted down the bleachers.

I Only Drink Coffee When I Need It

The heels of her pumps tap, tap, tap against the marble floor with each brisk step down the long hallway, a queasy mix of confidence, excitement, and fear swirls in her gut as she makes her way to the door bearing her name. Here she pauses, takes a deep breath, and enters.

She closes the door hoping to have a few minutes to herself before her first official day begins. ‘This is where I will do the work of the people. They elected me and I will proudly serve to the best of my ability,’ she muses; absently rubbing her right earlobe between thumb and forefinger, brow furrowed, left arm hugging across her middle, hand tucked under right elbow (subconsciously imitating her grandfather’s ‘thinking’ posture perfectly). ‘There’s a lot of work to do in this district and I will start with the sad state of education, and…’ Continue reading