Several months ago, I entered NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge on a lark (Link to contest information: http://www.nycmidnight.com/Competitions/FFC/Challenge.htm ). Contestants are assigned to a group, and each group is given a set of prompts consisting of genre, location, and an object that must all be part of the story. And your story can only be 1,000 words or less. And you have 48 hours to complete it. As a writer who has neglected fiction for a few years because it’s hard work to create compelling characters and stories, it was fun to have such a short assignment to chew on. You get to tell a story without all the daunting character and plot arcs necessary for longer works, but then you also only have 1,000 words to spin a yarn readers will enjoy. You have to be really tight on plot and exposition.
“Child’s Play” was my first round entry. I feel like my second round was weaker work than my first round entry, but I hope it’s good enough to put me through to Round 3. It’s probably a frivolous thing to hope for because this writing contest has very little bearing on the direction of my writing at the moment, but I’d love to make it to the final round. Rankings for Round 2 come out on November 6, which feels like a hundred years away. I ranked 4th in my group in Round 1, so I’m hoping that if I am ranked at all in Round 2 it will be enough to advance. (That’s surely more information than you ever wanted to know, but now you know what pops into my head at 4:00 a.m. when I can’t go to sleep…)
Without further expository information you never wanted to know but were forced to read through anyway, here is “Child’s Play.” I’d love to hear what you think if you want to leave a comment.
The McWane Center had been the perfect location. Birmingham was big enough that cartel members could come and go without suspicion and small enough that the police weren’t looking for smuggling operations. The food truck display at the McWane provided cover for the dead drops, and a small, gaunt man was waiting impatiently for the children’s museum to open so he could complete his assigned drop.
The job was simple, “So simple a child could do it,” as his boss put it. Tito rolled his eyes as he thought of that day in the back office. He knew the rest of the crew resented his superstitions, but why would anyone jinx an op like that? The boss was inviting trouble by taunting fate. The Saint Nicholas medal between his fingers assuaged his misgivings, and he shifted his backpack and looked at the McWane Center doors. A group of children rumbled past him, chattering with excitement about the day. A universe of new ideas lay before them, but Tito kept his face lowered; his world was already limited by a lifetime of bad choices.
Swap the cans and get out. It’s a children’s museum, not the Louvre. Kids will be touching everything, so no one will notice a can of tomato sauce. His pep talk continued the length of the sidewalk and up the front stairs. When he lifted his gaze, he froze for a split second. Why is there a security checkpoint? That’s new. Tito forced himself to continue moving and even mustered a smile for the security guard who pointed to the backpack.
“I just need to take a quick look, sir, so if you don’t mind opening that bag for me, we’ll get you on your way.”
But I do mind. “Sure. Here you go. What’s with this?” Tito waved at the metal detector and security search paraphernalia.
“There’s been some threats, so they added some extra safety precautions.” The guard motioned Tito through the metal detector as he searched the backpack. “Is this a can of tomato sauce?” Tito’s face blanched.
Relax. Breathe. There’s no way he could know. He took a quick breath and wrenched his face back into a smile. “It is. You never know when you’ll feel like whipping up some spaghetti Bolognese.” Not even Saint Nicholas can salvage that line. I am going to die here. No. Stop. Breathe.
“Ha! That’s my favorite! I don’t guess you’ll be using this can of sauce as a weapon, will you?”
“Of course not.” But my boss would.
The guard handed Tito the backpack and moved on to the next patron. Tito shook his head to clear the unexpected altercation from his mind and moved to the elevator. He tried to blend in and look interested in the lobby exhibits; focusing on his act kept the nerves in check. Tito knew he was overthinking the job – all he had to do was swap a can of tomato sauce in the food truck display – but he was afraid to let his guard down even for a second. If I get sloppy, I get caught. If I get caught, I die. The cartel did not tolerate loose ends; it eradicated them mercilessly. And this was his last chance.
The elevator stopped on the third floor, and Tito entered the main exhibit hall. There were a few mothers chasing after wild children and a class assembling in front of their teacher. He decided to wander through the atrium before entering the food truck display in the main hall. The class would soon disperse, and the swarming children would provide cover. The atrium display was musical instruments from around the world, and his thoughts were swept into distant memories of summer nights spent playing guitar by a bonfire. Stop it. That’s all gone now. This is your life now. Focus. He moved out of the atrium and toward the food truck display, constantly scanning the room.
Why is that guard up here? He does know. No, that’s impossible. He slowed his breathing and meandered around the miniature food trucks, feigning interest in the food styles represented. He eased toward the prep table to locate his target. Where is it? Tito knew from his boss that the tomato sauce always started out at the prep table. He came early in the day so it wouldn’t be out of place after children jumbled everything up. Am I really going to die because some brat moved a can? It’s here somewhere. It has to be. His search became more frantic as his chest constricted.
Breathe. No panic attack on the job. Not again. The cartel will kill you. His hands were cold and his palms tingled, so he sat at the bench nearest the prep table and compelled his fingers to work the zipper of his pack, then grasp the can of tomato sauce. All you have to do is find the can. He set his can down on the table and again searched furiously for his target. With each empty drawer and basket his field of vision narrowed and his lungs shrank. Tito’s pace grew frenzied as he raced his anxiety. Cans, boxes, whisks, bowls, all flew around him, but no tomato sauce. Now his hands and feet were lead, and his lungs uselessly gasped for air. His heart was racing to stop the meltdown, but he knew it was futile.
Tito barely registered the guard’s presence as a firm hand propelled him away.
“That was a nice try, buddy. The boss didn’t think you’d even make it that far. ‘Spaghetti Bolognese,’ ha! That was a little lame. Look, I’m sorry I have to take you out. It’s not personal, but you know the rules.” They stopped outside.
“So this… was all… a setup?” wheezed Tito.
“’Fraid so, buddy. The boss couldn’t risk you getting caught again.” The pistol glinted in the sun.
“So simple… a child… could do it. Shit.” Saint Nicholas jangled onto the pavement.