NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

2020 Round 1: Genre: Political Satire, Location: Forest, Object: A Laptop

TWO THINGS AT ONCE

The Red Leader and the Blue Leader noticed the changes slowly.

At first, there were empty seats at their rallies, a few vacant rows in the back. Then there were the depleting numbers in their campaign reserves. Money, once abundant, now felt tight around their necks: not a yet noose, but a necktie, always there to irritate them.

Then, there was less personal mail, love letters and death threats alike. The piles of envelopes grew thin, the emails scant. The messages that did come were fiercer than before. The writers only wanted two things of the Leaders: sainthood or demise.

Streets emptied. Traffic became an unnerving memory. Those left on the roads were quick to forget—speed increased; road rage raged. Businesses boarded up.  Few were left to buy meals, groceries, gas.

With the election impending, the Red Cabinet and the Blue Cabinet persuaded their Leaders to talk. They were losing numbers, votes.

Pacing around his office, the Red Leader picked up the phone: “I’m sure you’ve seen the numbers.”

“Who hasn’t?” said the Blue Leader, clicking lacquered nails on her desk. “You’ve scared off half the country.”

“Me?” He yelled. “What about you?”

By then, the line was dead.

WITH CITIZENS MISSING, TENSIONS TURN UGLY, the newspapers read.

In a bar with the news playing, two men fight with pool cues. A Red faction takes hold of a neighborhood; families pack their bags at gunpoint. In a classroom, a student borrows a pencil from a Red Supporter; later that afternoon, she is cut from the soccer team. A couple divorces, splits custody. In an unfamiliar bedroom, their two-year-old wails.

The Blue Leader holds a rally, sees only angry faces and blacktop. She ends her speech early as a supporter strikes a match. On the internet, the Red Leader asks citizens to return. “How can you say that when some of them are Blue?” His supporters rage.

DISAPPEARING CITIES, the newspapers read. Bills aren’t paid. Lights go out. People ask God to bring home the missing. When night falls again, their hatred grows stronger.

It’s a year before they even think of the forests.

When the Red and Blue Leader arrive, they bring podiums. The forest people stick their heads out of their hammocks. Thousands of them, eyes blinking calmly. They don’t seem confused to see us, the Leaders think. They seem serene.

“Good citizens,” the Red Leader booms, “we’ve come to bring you home.”

“Before we focus on solutions,” the Blue Leader interrupts, “I would like to understand you. Tell me why you’ve come here.”

A woman stands out of her hammock. Since she began the migration to the forests, facing the Leaders has been her biggest fear. But after so many months away from them, the Leaders seemed smaller, sillier, angrier.

A year ago, she went to the grocery store with her eight-year-old daughter. A carton of milk, usually labeled with the market’s name, now read “Endorsed by the Blue Leader.” She looked from the milk to her daughter. Suddenly she saw her with an adult face: furrowed and fuming. Could she raise her in a world without nuance, a world where she couldn’t be two things at once? She put the milk back.

The woman spread the word how anyone would: she created a private thread. THERE IS ANOTHER WAY, it read. Soon, the people came to the forest in droves. The criterium was simple: build the shelter for a member of the other party. Reds built for Blues, Blues for Reds. Then, you can stay.

“If you help each other swing from this tree to the other, we will listen,” the woman says to the Leaders.

“Speak louder,” they command her. “You speak too softly.”

“This tree to that one!” Her daughter yells from behind her. She’s clutching the lifeless laptop that she’s been instructed to guard. Every so often, they use the outlet at the diner two miles south to charge it, post again, bring others to freedom.

“How silly!” says the Blue Leader.

“A waste of time,” agrees the Red.

“It’s unfair for me to work with a partner less agile than I,” says the Blue.

“Untrue,” seethes the Red, removing his shoes. “Please note that I’m cooperating with the request of the people.”

“Please note that so am I,” says the Blue, racing him to the tree.

The forest people watch at the Leaders climb. The bark dirties their suits, tears holes in the fabric. They fight for their footing as they shimmy up the trunk.

At the top, the Blue Leader takes hold of the vine.

“I’ll go over first, then I’ll toss it back,” she says.

“Toss it? You’ll never be able to reach. Let me go first and throw it back to you.”

The forest people look on as the Leaders argue. They want to tell them should swing over together, but they don’t dare intervene.

“You’ll never see it my way,” says the Red Leader as he lifts a hand to strike. The forest people feel the allegiances of their past lives tingle in them, bubbling to the surface. They want to yell at the Leaders, urge them to fight. They want one to be victorious, finally, after all this time. They want things to be simple. One Leader to follow. One truth.

The Red Leader and Blue Leader hold each other by the wrists, shift their weight, push. They don’t speak words anymore; they make noises.

As they struggle, the woman places her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and turns her away from the Leaders. Quietly, they walk back to their hammock. One by one, the forest people follow suit, leaving the Leaders to fight, knowing that whoever wins will bring them no answer.

Suspended in air, the forest people finally hear a thud. They don’t move to look; they hold still and focus on the sight above them: the sky at sunset, laced with clouds, turning their world deep purple.

***

2018 Round 3: Genre: Thriller, Location: A Restricted Area, Object: A Thermometer

Points: Honorable Mention

SHADY ACRES

When Lucille from 19E opens the door, I smell her first. Lavender and some knock-off brand of sugar. She coos at Gram, who’s standing beside me holding a pie. The old ladies hug and I wait to be acknowledged.

“And how old are you?” Lucille crouches. One of her false lashes hangs from her skin by a strand of glue. She looks, I think, like melting plastic.

“Thirteen,” I say. She smiles but says nothing, like she can’t think of anything I might like to hear.

Lucille’s apartment is bigger than Gram’s. Two tables stand in a large dining room, their surfaces covered with casseroles and other meals to be served rectangularly. Old ladies are always bringing them. Lost a spouse? Have a lasagna. Your daughter’s in rehab? Take some crab dip.

When I moved into Shady Acres with Gram, the Grief Brigade loaded us with Tupperware and sticky bread for weeks.

This morning, Gram had flour in her hair. White on white, like she’d turned to powder. She’s never been a cook; we keep takeout menus on the kitchen table, arranged carefully as roses.

“What’s the occasion?” I asked.

“Lucille’s grandson,” she said, fanning her face with a magazine. “Treatment didn’t take again. She was hopeful this time ‘round.”

I say nothing. Gram’s told me about Lucille’s grandson. I’m supposed to be excited to have another kid living in Shady Acres, but it’s hard when he’s eight and apparently dying.

That is, if he isn’t dead already. I look at him now and try to decide. He’s in a wheelchair with his eyes closed, his head against a pillow that reads, “be courageous, little soul.” He’s so pale I can see through him. Blue veins train-track around his eyes.

Lucille puts the pie down and floats towards her grandson.

“Evan, sweetie.” At his name, his eyes open. I feel Gram beside me, mouthing an exaggerated hello.

“He wanted to say hi for a minute. Didn’t you?”

Evan does nothing until Lucille touches his head. Then, he stiffens and nods his agreement. I try to make my face look not sorry for him. I remember feeling my mother’s hand on my head, waking me for school or to move me into bed when I fell asleep watching TV. Gram’s hand is gentle, but it never feels right.

“He’s tired,” Lucille makes a show of whispering this. “Company is a lot.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” Gram sounds both sorry and eager. Lucille rolls Evan down the hall to his bedroom. We hear a lock click.

“How ‘bout we dig into this pie?” Lucille scurries into the kitchen, her heels clinking as she sets out ceramic dishes. “See that bouquet?” She motions over her shoulder. “From the management here. Such sweethearts.”

Gram sticks her nose into a bundle of flowers. “They’re lovely.”

“What if he has to go to the bathroom?” I say.

“Michelle,” Gram warns.

“What? She locked him in.”

Lucille stops walking and turns to me before smiling my question away.

“He’s hooked up to a catheter, dear. No need to worry.”

“What if he wants to come out?” I know I’m being rude, but when you have dead parents, people expect it.

“Michelle, please…” Gram laugh-scolds me, looking at Lucille like aren’t children ridiculous?

“His immune system can’t stand a thing. I keep visitors away as much as I can.”

“Of course,” Gram says so that I don’t have to.

We sit and eat Gram’s pie. It’s burnt. Lucille gives me a tall glass of milk without asking if I want one. The ladies sip tea and I gratefully zone out of their conversation.

“Where’s the bathroom?” I ask and Lucille points me there.

“Be careful, please. Stay away from Evan’s room.”

In the hallway, I notice a small white square on the floor. As I step closer, I see that it’s a photograph—a man, a woman, and that looks like Evan. Except here, he’s smiling. He has substance on his bones. He’s posing with his parents on the beach. He looks older in this picture than he did a minute ago, but in reality he’s around the same age as he is now.

I look up. It’s the bedroom door that Lucille locked. The photograph is here, right at the base of the door. Did Evan slip this under here? How would he?

I look behind me—they’re still talking. I bend down and take the picture.

It’s the girl you just met. I write on the back. Can I come in?

Carefully, I slip the photograph under his door. I hold my breath and—within the minute—hear the faintest click. I slip through the opening.

He’s standing there, pale as ever.

“You can walk?” I say and he puts a finger to his lips. He looks terrified.

“Is that you?” I point to the picture he’s holding. He nods.

“What happened?”

We hear Lucille laugh wildly at something Gram must have said. Evan cringes.

“I wasn’t sick before,” is all he says.

I look around the room. The walls are covered in inspirational quotes—You can beat this! You’re stronger than you think! Anything is possible! There’s an empty syringe on the nightstand. When Evan sees me notice it, he pulls down the back of his pajamas, revealing a constellation of red dots on purpled skin.

Orion’s belt, Mom pointed out when we went camping. When it’s dark, you can follow it anywhere.

 I close my eyes. They’ve stopped talking. I take out my phone and snap a picture of Evan. I look around the room for anything else and there, I see it, a thermometer and a lighter, lying side by side—the tip almost melted off.

“Michelle?” Lucille calls. Her heels click and we know, we know, we only have a minute, so I pocket the thermometer and he runs back to bed.

“Hey. I believe you,” I say while the key jangles in the lock.

***

2018 Round 2: Genre: Action/Adventure, Location: A Taxi Cab, Object: A Plastic Fork

Points: 12

SOME FRAGILE PLACE

When I give the driver the address, he tells me I shouldn’t go.

“Nice lady like you?” he asks in his accent from elsewhere.

I repeat myself and he shrugs, pulls out into the street. Likely, he thinks I’m foolish for ignoring his warning. I want to tell him that I mean no offense, that he’s simply mistaken about who I am. I lean against the window and recall the thrill of being identified as “nice” by a stranger. Being able—encouraged—to pretend.

Does Maya ever feel that? How haven’t I asked?

An air freshener shaped like a pine tree sways from the rearview. The driver honks and it gives me a headache. Maybe this will end in a car accident. Death is a fantasy I’m accustomed to indulging. The girls at the Center say the same. Total blackness, the perfect finale—we’ve all followed it like a dangling carrot.

If I die now, I know what’s at stake. I founded the Center so that one person, just one, would be committed to these girls. You’re good for one thing, Johnny always told me, sliding his hand up my thigh, and if I protested, to my neck. This place, these girls, this is how I stopped believing him.

Maya still calls her pimp her boyfriend. We keep girls on special watch until that changes. But what do you call the man who says that you’re family when you have none? These men don’t wear velour jumpsuits; they don’t carry wads of cash. Johnny always smelled like Axe cologne. He split his burgers with me, bought my clothes. He asked one thing in return.

Maya’s fourteen. For months, she’s slept at the center. She’s completed the freshman coursework and is scheduled to move up. She’s thriving; all of our notes say so. Before she went missing, she hadn’t mentioned her “boyfriend” in weeks.

“This the place?” With his chin, the driver points to a motel. I thought the ride from Manhattan to the Bronx would feel longer.

“Do you mind staying? I’ll pay for your time.”

“Look, lady, it’s a bad part of town. If you wanna risk your neck that’s one thing—“

“Please. Anything.”

He turns around. Plexiglas separates us. He winks, says, “anything?” I meant money. I know I meant money, but something in me, some fragile place that collapses again and again, questions what I did to imply I was offering more.

“A hundred.” I swallow, hard. He nods, bored by me. He pulls out a newspaper.

The motel is known. A number of our girls have mentioned the name. It’s in Maya’s paperwork—she reported it the night she found the Center.

I breathe slowly and eye my sneakers. The taxi floor is dirty. There’s an empty water bottle and a take-out fork.

After the interview on her first night, Maya took a shower. She dressed in the same pajamas as the other girls and went to bed. When I made the lights-out round, I found her huddled against a wall, brushing her wet hair with a plastic fork.

“Hey,” I said to her, “let me get you a brush.” It’s not unusual to see our girls use everyday items for grooming.

She shook her head no, no. She might have been crying, but it was too dark to tell.

“Are you sure? It’ll hurt less.”

Maya was sure. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her it would be okay now. But how could I explain what she was in for? Instead, I sat cross-legged on the mattress and stuck out my palm. Reluctantly, she handed me the fork. I ran the teeth through my own hair, wincing as it caught the snags. Her breathing slowed as we passed the fork back and forth between us. By the time our tangles were out, I think I saw her smile.

I grab the fork, pocket it, and step out of the cab. I walk towards the motel, but before I reach the door, someone—someone strong and reeking of bourbon—grabs me from behind. The man laughs wetly in my ear.

“This the one?” He says. I listen for an answer while I struggle, but none comes. I look down at his exposed arms and see this pimp’s defining tattoo: a large black anchor. I’ve found Maya’s boyfriend.

With his lips against my cheek he says, “can I help you?”

“Maya,” I manage.

Angel,” he says pointedly, “is right here.” He spins me around so I can see her. She looks so small in her rhinestoned tank top, her scuffed heels; the abandoned parking lot could swallow her whole. “Tell her what you want, Angel.”

“I want you to go,” Maya says. “I wanna stay here.”

“Sweetie,” I begin, “I know you’re scared.”

“I’m not scared,” she says in a practiced voice.

“You heard her,” the man says. I keep my eyes on Maya as he walks me over to the taxi. “Now get the hell out.”

Another version of me is terrified of this man. Another version of me is eyeing the taxi, longing for its safety. But she isn’t here now. Therapy, eight years, and an idea of love separate us. It’s not that I’ve left the other me behind. Every day, I wake up and fight for her freedom again. Who, if not me, will fight for Maya’s now?

The man pushes me towards the car. His nails dig me a bracelet of welts.

“My pocket,” I choke out. “There’s money in my pocket. Please, take it, okay? Give her tonight off.”

He laughs. He will take my money and still make Maya work. These are the rules of his world. He pulls the contents from my pocket, throws the fork onto the blacktop, takes the cash.

We both see it lying there—Maya and I—this speck of white breaking the abyss. We look at each other, just for a moment, before he pushes me in the car.

***

2018 Round 1: Genre: Romance, Location: A Catacomb, Object: A Credit Card

Points: 15

BOTH ARE TRUE

It’s hard to see down here, so you take out your keychain flashlight. You hope security won’t yell at you, but if they do, you doubt you’ll care. You’re finally here, and you need to read it again.

Dear Rick,

Happy sixth-month anniversary of my death! Please, relax. I’m not trying to be cruel. And I don’t use the word “happy” ironically here. You made it through sixth months that I can’t, and don’t want to, imagine. And if Cora is handing you this letter and this credit card, that means you’re still kicking. Even though they might be very meager, very weak, baby-learning-to-swim kicks. If I know you, you’re managing. When we lost the baby before Emily, your grief-face put mine to shame. Your strength astounds me, Ricky. (Smile, okay? It’s me).

Twelve years of marriage. I bet you didn’t expect to learn anything new about me after I was dead. Ha! Your wife was a complex creature, Rick, brimming with intrigue. An admirable planner, too. Last night, you ransacked the kitchen drawer where we keep the important documents, distraught because we’re missing money. I knew what was wrong when I asked you, but of course you told me “nothing,” because you believe I’m too sad and too sick to be bothered with something as trivial as your livelihood. I didn’t push it. I know taking care of me brings you something close to comfort. I also know where the money went, and has been going, for the last few months. Again, please don’t find this cruel. If I suggested putting money aside for this, for you, you’d have laughed. Plus: a little spy project always prolongs terminal illness, didn’t you know? Siphoning a few bucks from the joint account, depositing and splitting your paychecks—I felt pre-chemo. I actually did.

You remember how I studied in Rome before we met, before I started shaving my armpits again and pretending to like the outdoors so you’d go out with me? I was a student, a baby, on the cusp of something. Somehow I knew that the trip was the last Thing before the Thing. I had no idea that the Thing coming for me was a man with a bizarre compulsion to polish his shoes every morning, who my friends thought was too old for me, who carries me on his back every time it snows and made me remember why I ever wanted to trust anyone. I never guessed that my last act on earth would be sending this man to Rome, but after months of being hooked up to these beeping (noise description and censored adjective) machines, I’m certain there is nothing else I want. Surprise, Ricky. You’re going on a trip.

The account’s set up. For whatever you need, use this card. Jimmy knows and has agreed to give you the week off. (Cue: you looking up from this letter, marveling at my genius). Do the thing up, Rick. Coliseum. Spanish Steps. Throw a penny in the Trevi for me and try the hazelnut gelato. My only stipulation, as your dead wife who will turn in her grave if her ghostly demands are disobeyed (relevant since I’m cremated?) is that you make it to the Catacombs.

When I was abroad, I spent a lot of time there. They fascinated me. They’re so creepy to us now, but when they were built, they were sanctuaries. Actual human skulls lining walls, decorating the place like crown jewels. The air is so different down there—thick and musty—that it’s hard to breathe if you don’t stay long enough. If you do, if you persist, your lungs adjust. Your body finds a way to cope. Trust me. I did it.

Do you know I still think about the miscarriage? Especially now. I think about the blood running down my legs that day, saturating my maternity skirt. My first thought was: I must be dying. With a damp paper towel, you cleaned my thighs until the white turned a thin pink. You called the doctor. You tried not to panic, not to let on that you knew it was over.

I thought I must be dying. Eventually, I knew that I wasn’t really wrong. Even though I lived, my body had experienced death and somehow, both things were true. For months, I felt like I was walking through a Catacomb nobody could see—a dungeon where death was the focal point. I’d try to imagine our daughter or son as someone with a voice and a face and a life. When I did, I couldn’t stop picturing this sanctuary where the dead are allowed to exist among the rest of us. I wondered if I could make the trip back to the Catacombs, if there’d be some healing there. I always thought there would be. When you make the crossover, you can let me know.

Kiss Emmy. Hug my mom. Breathe the dead air and think of me. It’s okay to feel life down here for a while. I never wanted to leave you, Ricky. I’d have savored those years, the grey hairs, the sagging skin on our hands, knees, and unmentionable places and I would have loved you everyday. But maybe, now, it’s no use for me to pine after life. Maybe, instead, you can feel me where I am. Maybe you don’t have to be afraid of it.

With love,

Amanda

You fold the paper along its perforated edges, slip it into your jeans where you’ve kept it on the plane, in the hotel, in the gelateria. A woman and her daughter pass you, the little girl stomping and the mother, scolding her. It’s an echo chamber that amplifies words and the silences between them. You walk toward the wall, to a human—a dead one—whose skull is here, stuck in ancient cement. You ask the remnants of the face: “and who were you?” You pause, inhaling, waiting for an answer to come.

***

2017 Round 3: Genre: Crime Caper, Location: A Roller Coaster, Object: A Bikini

Points: Honorable Mention

TO CHANGE THE THINGS THAT I CAN

At the fair, my daughter wanted to see the mermaid. So what did I do? I paid the five bucks to see the goddamn mermaid. I handed the money to an old man sitting on an overturned bucket outside of a tent. He pulled back the tarp—all mysterious-like—to let us in.

We got in there and, no joke, I almost ripped my eyes out. It was a goddamn mannequin wearing a fish-scaled bikini. The legs, completely separate—not even an attempt at a fin. The face, blank. The head, round and white. The asshole didn’t even bother with a wig. I grabbed my daughter’s hand and dragged her straight out.

“You bastard,” I yelled. The old man cocked his head as though he couldn’t hear me. “You bastard,” I repeated, leaning into what seemed to be his good ear. I watched a drop of my spit land on his shoulder.

He nodded and smiled, like my reaction was expected. He licked a finger and continued counting bills.

“Dad, let’s go.” Maria tugged the sleeve of my jacket. I was embarrassing her. Not just that—I was embarrassing her at the Plymouth County Fair: one event my ex-wife and the judge from the custody battle allow us to attend together. Once I complete eight more months of anger management and reach Step 7, we will be given every Saturday together instead of every other.

“Sweetheart, he scammed us,” I gestured to him as proof of my anger. This is called Justification and it’s an unhealthy way of excusing rage.

“I want fried Oreos,” she said, her tone a mixture of fear and fake excitement, trying to distract me from my Trigger. At eight, my daughter is very much like my ex-wife.

“Listen to the girl,” the old man said without looking up from his cash. He let out an ugly hoot, which quickly devolved into a back-bending cough.

That’s when I felt it. Pulsing behind my eyes. Twitching fingers I wanted to wrap around his wrinkled throat. I said the serenity prayer in my head twice. I conjured an image of my sponsor—a woman named Luciana who always addresses me, the singular person, as Family. “You don’t want to hurt this man, Family. Not in front of your little one.”

I breathed, and reluctantly conceded to Luciana’s floating head. I crouched down to Maria.

“We’re gonna get you fried Oreos.”

She nodded. I turned back to him: smug on his plastic-throne, lording over the money he swindled. I lowered my eyes to see his: milky, clouded by cataracts.

“Until later,” I said.

Seth, A-top, Harold, and Mel were immediately in. Chuck had to talk it over with his sponsor. Art’s wife said no.

We arrived at the fair in separate cars. We perused the rides, the games, careful to keep our distance from one another—we weren’t there as a group. I wore a fake beard that made my cheeks itch. All of us had on baggy clothes that made our armpits sweat in the August heat.

We needed perfect timing. We needed patience. We needed to stifle our Reactivity to reach our Greater Goal. There could be no blowups, no hotheads, no mistakes.

I went first.

“A mermaid, you say?” I asked the old man on the bucket. I didn’t plan to use the British accent, but it felt right.

“Genuine goddess of the sea,” he said. He smelled like bratwurst and motor oil, just as I’d remembered.

“How marvelous.” I slipped him a five.

Inside, I took the screwdriver from my pocket and got to work. One screw in each side of the neck, like Frankenstein, held the head in place. As I twisted the screws, they grew longer and then fell in the grass by my feet. I held the head between my palms and popped it off of the body. I paused to look—eyes, nose, and lips all barely there, a suggestion of a face. I stuffed the head in my jacket. Mel, who had been assigned an arm, would be approaching next.

I threw my beard in the trash and waited by the rollercoaster: Tybalt’s Tycoon. A wooden, rickety thing with an enormous drop that should have been boxed up years ago. Louis, the man who operates it, is a pal.

“Think me and my buddies can get our own ride? There’s like, six of us.”

“You’re gonna have to wait, chief. There’s actual kids who want on.”

I balled my fists at his tone. I said, “Sure thing.”

After we were all there, clutching our stomachs to shield what we carried, Louis let us on. As he opened the gate, I texted Art who was dutifully at home with his wife.

Call in 2.

We needed Louis to start the ride before he got the anonymous call that his truck—his goddamn precious Chevy– was stolen from the lot. Once we began our ascent, his phone rang. Next thing we knew, he’d hopped the fence and bolted.

The thing about Tybalt’s Tycoon is its lack of speed. The click, click of the climb lasts a good three minutes—the perfect amount of time, I’d say, to reassemble a mannequin.

We cracked up as we did it, pushing limbs back into sockets as fast as we could. Our wives had left us. Our children feared us, but we had kept it together for this. We’d gotten justice without drawing blood.

Harold, who also attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings, removed his shirt and slipped into the bikini. As our car crested the top of the hill, we clutched the emotionless mannequin. The car lingered at the very top—a moment of unsettling calm– before falling forward.

As the camera flashed, our faces grew red from our loudest, wildest screams.

***

2017 Round 2: Genre: Crime Caper, Location: Golf Driving Range, Object: A Salmon Filet

Points: 15

THE LONG SHOT

You arrive, as I knew you would, Mr. Stevenson, at two o’clock on Sunday. This is your usual engagement at the range, so I am not surprised to see your corvette pull into the valet area. This model is slightly out of date. I wonder if you have plans to upgrade to a newer model in the near future. I know how quickly you grow weary of your possessions.

I position myself in front of the club for your arrival. Maurice, the valet, has just returned from a drop off.

I say to him, “Mo, your girlfriend’s on the phone. She seems pissed off.”

“Shit,” Maurice palms his forehead.

“You might want to take it.” I motion towards the clubhouse. “Line one.”

“Can you cover this guy?” That’s when Maurice points to you, Mr. Stevenson, and I catch a glimpse—only an outline through your heavily tinted windows—of your head, held somewhat cock-eyed, in annoyance I’m sure. I know a man of your status does not like to wait for his service.

“Sure thing, bub,” I tell him.

You get out of the car, sporting a lilac polo shirt—a Lacoste gator snarling from your breast, and your usual leather glove.

“Afternoon,” I say cheerily as you hand me your key. You look past me, Mr. Stevenson, as men of your status often do. A shame, I think, that you will not recognize my face when you see it again.

Elise had described you differently. It only makes sense—my wife knew you years ago, when you were a much younger man. You wore your wealth uncomfortably back then, she’d said, like a jacket you were still breaking in. In the months I have worked at the club, retrieving the golf balls that you carelessly drive into the range, I have observed a level of self-assuredness in you. I assume this developed after years of enjoying power over others. I have heard your joyous laughter every time you hit a ball that particularly pleases you. I have seen how you rotate the gold ring on your pinky finger before each shot: a gesture, that you seem to believe, brings you luck.

When I took this job after Elise’s death, I was not surprised to find that you prefer the driving range to the regular golf course. There are no consequences on a driving range. There is only muscle, swift movement, the illusion of success without the anxiety of being ranked against your peers. This, of course, attracts a man like you. So I have done what you are unable to do, Mr. Stevenson: I have been very patient.

It won’t take long for Maurice to realize that I’ve fooled him about the call, so when I pull your car into the parking garage, I act quickly. I remove my pocketknife and draw a slit—not too deep—down my forearm. I barely whimper, Mr. Stevenson, despite the pain this brings me. I dab at my cut, transferring my blood to various locations in your car: a smear on your steering wheel, a drop in the backseat, a dribble on the otherwise spotless carpet.

Next, I extract the package from my sports jacket. The raw salmon feels cool against my chest. I am glad to be rid of it. The salmon may be a bit sentimental, I’ll admit. However, I do not know how many women you have wronged in your life, Mr. Stevenson. I do not know how many husbands have sought revenge from you. I hope that the salmon will clarify my motivation. Consider it my personal signature.

You took her out to a nice restaurant that evening. You both ordered the salmon filet with herb butter, a delicacy. Yours, as you may recall, happened to be undercooked. My Elise, my good-natured Elise, suggested that you send the fish back to the kitchen. It is then that you made a lewd comment, in regards to the raw fish, that I would never sink to repeat. She tried to run following dinner, but you didn’t let her. You covered her mouth with your hand. You forced her into the back of a taxi that you had waiting. You paid the driver to keep quiet.

She could smell the fish on your breath, she told to me. A stench so suffocating: strong as the arms that pinned her writhing body down. Those arms, I know, belonged to you, Mr. Stevenson. Perhaps now you will learn to loosen your grip.

I wrap my cut with gauze, stanching the blood. I pocket your keys and get into my own car. I had looked up your address on the member registry, had driven past your mansion many times before this day. Your house key hangs from the ring that now rubs against my thigh. Did you ever think, Mr. Stevenson, that you should be more careful?

Your family—a lovely wife, two children—is in the Hamptons for the weekend, enjoying your lake house. When I read Janice’s post on Facebook, I knew the time had come for us, Mr. Stevenson. I made my peace with it swiftly.

I park my car in the woods.

Inside your house, I space out the letters. So many letters that I’d written, all with different dates, different pen ink, different pads of paper. All of them detailing what you did to my wife and my intention to turn you into the police, to contact your family. You never read these letters, of course, or knew of their existence. Bribery is not enough to avenge my Elise. But now, when I am found here, there will be no question of your motive.

I pull a knife from your kitchen drawer, careful to only touch the blade, to keep your DNA on the handle.

Elise passed quietly in her sleep, Mr. Stevenson. Despite the years she suffered with nightmares and fits of anxiety, my wife passed peacefully. Would you ever have imagined?

***

2017 Round 1: Genre: Drama, Location: Cybercafe, Object: Snail

Points: 15

RESIDUE

He’s there, at our usual table, bobbing his head to one side as though trying to shake water from his ear. He scratches his hair with a primal vigor that could suggest fleas. I wonder if we were not here in the Terrarium Café, if my son would ever allow us to meet elsewhere, if these motions would earn him stares.

“What’s the matter?” I ask and he starts—he hadn’t seen me approaching from behind. I watch as he registers me. His bloodshot eyes comb the contours of my face and then soften.

“Headache,” he explains and it is enough.

“Coffee?” I offer. I leave my bag on the empty chair and approach the barista for our usual: two cups, large and black.

Here, the employees wear camouflage and cheeky grins. They are proud of their diverse resumes. They are environmental science students with an affinity for the caffeinated beverage. Care for creatures and coffee, they boast, happy to explain how the Terrarium Café collapses the boundary between the cyber and the natural worlds. Because in this day and age, why should we have to choose?

Vegetation billows from the walls and between each computer station, thick and green. The café clicks with Internet searches and hums with lazing insects. As always, the top news story is saved on each Home Screen. I squint at it today and catch the grainy image of a child whose body was just found in a wooded area, not too far. I cluck my tongue, think shame. I lace my fingers through the mug handles and blow a fly from my arm.

“Did you hear about it?” I motion to the computers with my head, setting the mugs down.

“’Course,” he says. “I’ve been here all day.”

“Why don’t you apply here? You’re practically putting in the hours.”

He shrugs, tearing a leaf from a nearby bush and splitting it down the perforated middle. Clear liquid seeps from the vein and onto his hands. He wipes them on his t-shirt.

“Well, I think you’d love it,” I push. I have learned to push with him: into the average classes when he was younger, into the rehab program, into the custodian job he has now. He’s the kind of person that needs a push, and according to my ex-husband, I’m the kind of woman with her palms out and waiting. Pushed him right out the door, he said the day he left us.

“You think they’d hire me?” He looks at me through the tops of his eyes, fingers splayed against his chest like two crouching spiders. “Try again,” he scoffs. “Not this guy.” He balls the torn leaf and throws it somewhere behind my head.

“You love the outdoors. Always have.” I reach across the table, recalling the summers he would sit on the porch, head-in-hands, rocking along with the pulsing cicadas. How he would stuff his shoes with soil, twirl blades of grass inside his ears.

He glances at my hand before reaching towards the bush, this time pulling off a handful.

“You know what’s fucked?” He asks, not looking at me.

I blink, waiting.

“You can’t–get–ahead. I can’t get ahead.” He rips the leaves into sections, stacking the torn pieces into a small tower with artistic diligence.

A camouflaged employee that I hadn’t noticed hovering over us leans across our table.

“Please don’t deface the shrubbery,” she says with practiced sweetness. My son drops the leaves and raises his palms in mock concession.

“Bitch,” he murmurs as she walks away.

I close my eyes a beat longer than a blink. I say nothing.

“That kid, the dead kid,” he runs his tongue across his teeth. “They say they found bugs inside of her. Dead bugs shoved up inside of her. Did you hear that?”

I tell him no, I hadn’t heard that. I take a sip of my coffee.

“These people,” he lifts his arms, “these people would save the bugs. They’d cry about the goddamn bugs before they gave a shit about that kid.”

It isn’t true, of course. I tell him so.

He turns to the bush once more. I watch as my son comes face to face with a snail idling on a leaf. He tilts his head, in the curious way of small children and puppies. He picks it up by its shell.

“That’s what’s wrong. People like them.” His voice is low, to himself. I want to ask if he’s forgotten me.

He places the snail down between us. It inches the beginning of an escape. Together, we stare at the streak of moisture it leaves along the table. The soft, malleable body. The hairline spiral down its shell.

“They think I’m the problem.” With one finger, he pins it to the table. “And that’s the problem.” Slowly, he begins to peel. Each fiber releases with an almost-silent tear. The body writhes, but my son presses harder.

The café sounds amplify. The clicking, the buzzing, the whirring hum.

“I helped.” A quick swipe of his tongue. “I helped her.”

I hold a blink. Then, there is a shell my son might have found on the shoreline. A body like a dormant slug. He picks up the leaf fragments and pushes them, with one strong thumb, inside the empty shell.

I feel wetness beneath my eyes but make no move to wipe them. I let them leak.