I recently entered the NYC Midnight short story competition 2018, a contest where 4,000 writers get randomly put into heats and have to write a 2,500 word story in a week. The Genre, the Subject and a Character is chosen for them. I found out today that I got through the first round, which means me and 624 others will be writing another story this weekend, (Jews, let me hear you groan for me?) in the hopes of getting to the finals. Here is my round one entry, which I’m delighted to say came third in it’s category. What do you think? 🙂
Character: A Nihilist.
Ashley heard the door creak open, but she didn’t turn her head. She couldn’t look at his face. She braced herself to hear his voice, but when it came she still wasn’t ready. She was never ready anymore.
“I just came to say goodnight.” He paused. “Did you eat anything at all today?” he asked her, softly. She didn’t answer, watching his hands reach out to take the bowl from her bedside table, still half full of congealing Pumpkin soup. He stood there for a moment, waiting. “Princess…” he started. “Isn’t there anything I can…”
“Don’t call me that” Ashley snapped at him, turning away. “Not anymore.”
The door closed with the same creak, leaving her alone again. For a second, her eyes paused on a photo of her father, taken when Ash was just a kid. He was swinging her into the air, the joy emanating from the photo like physical warmth. It must have been taken right before that witch of a stepmother cast her spell over him. Whatever it was, it was enough to make him forget her late mother and marry a woman who hated his daughter instead. He had died just 18 months later.
She looked back at the screen of her computer, Disillusioned was open, more comments pinging up every few seconds. They were all the same, the women on her group. They had started out incredibly happy, euphoric even. They had all found their versions of happily ever after, only to realise that life didn’t work out as planned. That there was no God, no grand plan, no right and wrong even. Everyone ended up alone. United in that isolation, they shared stories and talked at all hours. When inevitably they suffered from bouts of hope, which they all did from time to time, they reminded one another that nothing mattered.
Ash? You still there?
That was Alex. She had grown up religious and been abandoned by her family when she realized that God was just another version of the Easter Bunny.
Yeah. I’m here. He came in. He’s gone now.
Why don’t you just get the divorce? You’ll be happier. You can start over.
Start over? You think I can forget about him? When everywhere I go I’ll see his face? Whatever. Let’s not talk about it. It doesn’t matter. What’s new with you?
As she waited for Alex to reply, she let her mind drift back. How could she have been so easily fooled? Yet, even now, she remembered the wedding. Everyone smiled and danced and told her how happy they were for her, tilted their heads in empathy at how sad it was that her mother and father hadn’t lived to see this day. After that, how could she say no to the dinner invite, to celebrate the marriage and put the past behind them?
The truth is, it was obvious that her stepsister Trudy was up to something the second they had walked through the door. From the moment she took both of their jackets and put them in the cupboard, to the way she was laughing too much at their jokes. It drove Ash mad how she over emphasized that ridiculous limp of hers which just reminded everyone of how this all began. She should be in a lunatic asylum after what she had done. Who cuts off their own toes to get a guy to stay with her?
They had been dating for about 4 months at the time. Of course, self-centred as ever, Trudy had got it into her head that he was coming around to their house all the time to see her. Ash thought back to that night, that ridiculous night where she had been playing a match and forgotten her football boots. Always the knight in shining armour, he had heard her panic over the phone and had gone over to her house to pick them up for her…
As soon as Trudy had seen him at the door, she had gone into flirtation mode, he told Ashley later. Touching his arm, getting him a drink even though he was just there looking for the shoes and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. And then as he was heading for the door, that insane scream from the kitchen, where the carving knife had “accidently” fallen on her toes, severing the two smallest. Of course, he took her to the hospital, and called her mum to come look after her. By that point, Ashley had borrowed shoes from one of the subs, but when he arrived, holding her footwear by the laces and with this crazy story about her evil stepsister, he couldn’t help but laughingly call her Princess. Her name was even Ash, she was the perfect Cinderella. What does that make you eh? she had laughed back. Fancy yourself Prince Charming?
That night at dinner, Trudy was being too nice, and Ash couldn’t wait to leave. To speed up the process, she had helped to clear away the last of the dishes, taking them into the kitchen. That’s where she saw Trudy. Her stepsister had her eyes tightly closed, and was gripping her new husband’s empty plate tightly in her hands. She had almost laughed at the intense look on Trudy’s face, until she heard the strange sounds coming out of her mouth. There was only one way to describe it; an incantation.
Ash would never forget the look on Trudy’s face, or the words out her mouth as the sisters locked eyes. If you have to have him, so will everyone else.
It was a year later that her friends first started sending her a link to the website. Isn’t that…? Have you seen….?
Your Real-Life Prince Charming the webpage tempted. The photo was large, and to add insult to injury it was from her wedding, with her image cruelly photoshopped out next to him. The testimonials were already taking up most of the page. He’s so kind and attentive, the best boyfriend I’ve ever had…. They don’t lie when they say Prince Charming, I modified mine for extra politeness and manners, it’s like having a partner who is also a butler, insane! … The first real cloning experience with no glitches, no sudden ageing, no heart defects, and programmed perfectly, it’s like I stumbled upon my true love!
Ash felt so stupid. Knowingly walking into a house filled with witches and expecting to be able to get away scot-free. Whatever cordial of science and magic Trudy had used, she made sure to tweak the personality slightly with every single one she sent out, enough that the police had said there was technically nothing illegal going on. The laws on human cloning were so new, the issues so nuanced, that the world and the courts were still catching up with the science.
It didn’t matter anyway. Even if she could close down Trudy’s business, (her thriving business, she should add, which had made her a millionaire) there were already thousands of Prince Charming clones on the arms of women everywhere. Trudy had hidden her black magic behind science and technology, and Ash had handed her the final ingredient for her cauldron, her husband’s DNA.
Not all the clones were kind, some had an edge, as she had learned in the early days when she still had a job. She had come home from work one evening to her husband wearing a sweater she didn’t recognise, and then been followed to the bathroom where she picked up on the unusual scent of his skin too late. She was held down and shown again and again what kind of happy ending she truly deserved. The police had almost laughed when bruised and shaken she had tried to describe him, another challenge which hadn’t yet caught up with the world they now lived in.
Since then, Ash didn’t really go out. One had joined her department, and she couldn’t sit opposite him all day, so she had given in her notice almost immediately, making money tighter than ever. She was too frightened to leave the house alone, and when they went out as a couple, she’d get knowing winks from women in the street, as if they shared a secret which Ash didn’t want to be privy to. She would catch sight of her husband’s broad build, blue eyes, or sandy coloured hair in the line for checkout at the supermarket, or in the driver’s seat of a car as it flew past. She kept the blinds closed now, even in her own room.
After a while, she couldn’t even look at him. How could she smile and chat idly with the image of her attacker, despite logically understanding that it wasn’t him who had hurt her? And even if she could, does true love still have meaning if everyone could buy it online for £1999? If you could pick it out as a Christmas gift and have it delivered to a friend’s home packaged with a bow? Her Prince Charming had turned out to be replicable and ten-a-penny, a doorway to more hurt and desolation.
The lights flickered above her head, jarring her from her reverie. Uch, she thought, checking her laptop battery and the time. 11.55pm. A power outage would suck right about now. Ash had got into the habit of chatting on Disillusioned most of the night, as the majority of her friends were at least 5 hours behind GMT in the USA. She caught up on sleep in the mornings.
Just then, she felt a cold breeze, and looked sharply towards the closed windows, sitting up a little taller and turning her eyes towards the door. She heard nothing. The hairs on her arms were standing on end, there was a prickling sensation on the back of her neck. The thought came unbidden into her head, as clear as a voice speaking to her out loud; There’s magic in the air.
Suddenly, the lights gave another sputter and then turned off altogether, making Ash gasp involuntarily. Was this Trudy? She began to move from her bed towards the switch by the door, but was distracted by something on her laptop screen, the only thing visible in the dark room.
A private message had appeared in her toolbar, and as she watched, the cursor moved without her direction, opening the email before her eyes. She held her breath and looked closer, her whole body poised for fight or flight. The name on the email caught her attention. Bonne Fee. Her French was pretty rusty, but didn’t that mean… Fairy Godmother? As she read the words, coloured sparks filled the air, fizzing and crackling like harmless versions of fireworks, just like on New Year’s, piercing the silence with the sound of expectation and renewal. Ash followed the sparks with her eyes, tasting the unfamiliar flavour of belief. This was really happening.
Before she could read the email, from across the room she saw her mobile phone light up. She moved towards the glow and saw that her PayPal app was open on the screen, despite her not even being able to remember the password at this point. She stared at the app, momentarily stunned as the numbers spun upwards in front of her eyes. How many zeroes was that? The sparks escalated into a frenzy of reds and greens and blues and yellows, bursting and teeming with enough light to dissipate any amount of darkness.
Suddenly, when the noise and light were almost too much to bear, the numbers stopped moving, the sparks petered out, and immediately, the overhead light turned back on. Ash turned to look at her computer, which lay open on the bed. It was exactly midnight. All was still.
Picking up her phone with the tips of her fingers, as if touching it too much would make the numbers disappear, she returned to her laptop and looked back at the message on her screen. It was just a name and a number, and not one she recognised. Tapping the name into Google, she glanced again at her usually empty PayPal account as she waited for the search engine to do its thing.
Ashley sat on the beach, with her sunglasses lifted so she could read her magazine. She sporadically sipped from a cocktail next to her, one of those proper ones like you see on the adverts, in a pineapple and everything. She turned to her husband and grinned.
“Having a good time?” he asked her.
“The best.” she said. “The perfect 20th anniversary trip. I can’t believe we waited this long to come here! We should have chosen the Bahamas for our 10 year anniversary instead of going to Paris.”
“If I remember rightly, at the time you said you would die if you didn’t get to see the Mona Lisa!” he laughed. “Anyway, I’m glad we waited. It’s perfect for our 20th, now the kids are old enough to be left with a nanny.” He looked at a photo on his phone. “She sent this over this morning, did you see? Ella is literally covered in Cheerios and milk.”
“Not our problem!” Ash answered cheerfully, glancing at the photo before reaching for her cocktail again.
She reached over and idly stroked his neck with her fingertips, touching the tendrils of his dark hair, almost jet black. It would never go grey, she reminded herself. Just like how he would never get shorter, his spine having been surgically altered to make him an inch taller. Hating the idea of catching him without contacts, his blue eyes had been made permanently dark brown, she could now hardly remember them any other way. As she slipped her hand under his collar, she imagined one of the clones in her mind’s eye, fairer skinned, and aging so differently from her own spouse. She could hardly reconcile those faces with the man beside her, not any more.
She thought back to that day, seeing the details of the world’s premier cosmetic surgeon appear on her Google search. The Transformation Package. It cost so much that it was usually only bought by the government in place of witness protection programs, which had died out in the twenties. Glancing at her phone again as she bookmarked the webpage, she hadn’t been surprised to see the matching number on her PayPal app.
“Sorry, what did you say? I was miles away.”
“I said do you want to get some lunch?” He was holding her shoes out for her, waiting for her to join him. She nodded happily, thinking how much hope there was in the world, and about the unexplained magic that had saved their true love.
She slipped into the shoes. They were a perfect fit.