In the spirit of the new year, during a time when people are making (and already breaking) resolutions, Creative Loafing offers up to you three creative stories of change, gleaned from the entries we received in our second annual flash fiction contest.
Judging from the 1,000-words-or-less submissions, 2013 was a dark year for fiction writers.
Our theme this time around was "a coming of age story set in Charlotte," defined as strictly or loosely as the writer preferred.
First place went to Heather D. Freeman for her story "Knotted." She shares the perspective — beautifully — of a young girl who's dealing with family issues. What's captivating about this work, more than anything else, is the authenticity of the narrator. The obstacle she works to tackle is trivial compared to the bigger issue subtly framed by Freeman, but to this child, solving that simple problem, in that moment, means the world.
"Many of the most amazing people I've met in my life have been children," Freeman says, "so I write, animate and make art about children and parent-child relationships a lot. Many of the relationships are rather pathological, I hate to say, but I'm working on that."
Second and third place respectively go to Grady Michael Hill's "The Pecan Field" and Rob C. Baldwin's "Southern Summer Storm." I don't want to give away any details, but these two writers accomplish something in less than 1,000 words that many stories take pages to do.
Congratulations to our winners.
By Heather D. Freeman
Abby thought about cutting the knots off, but didn't have any scissors. She thought about asking the neighbors for scissors, but she wasn't allowed to talk to the neighbors anymore. If Mamma and Daddy saw her talk to them, that would be as bad as the knots. She'd be locked in her room for the rest of the day if she got caught.
She needed to stay outside. She needed to lie on her back with her feet in the sky, to hide the blue circus shoes with their yellow lions and the pink laces.
She saw a police car driving slowly down the street. Police have guns, so they must also have scissors. Abby ran up to it, tapping on the door, and the officer rolled down the window. The woman's long, serious face scanned like a hawk looking for rats just over Abby's head.
"Please, ma'am, do you have any scissors?"
"Scissors? Sweetie, what are you doing out here by yourself?"
"Ma'am, I need to cut off these knots, or I'm gonna get in trouble. Do you have any scissors, please?"
"Cut off — Where are your parents, honey? Are they around?"
"Yes, ma'am, inside our house. Over there. Can I borrow some scissors, please, ma'am?"
The woman said something into her radio, got out, and walked around the car. The neighbors stopped gardening, stopped playing and watched, but then went back to it, peeking at them now and then. The officer's long, long face frowned all around, but her hands rested loose on an enormous belt, like a Batman belt, full of guns and probably scissors and things.
"I don't have any scissors, sweetie. But I can help you."
The police officer's long face got shorter and she gave Abby a nice smile, the kind of smile neighbors and teachers gave her. Abby got worried she might cry again, because the police officer didn't seem mad about the laces at all.
"I was trying to tie my shoes, but messed up and I'll get in trouble. I just need bows, not knots."
The officer gave Abby that weird, grown-up, sad eyeball look and kneeled down, working out one pink knot at a time.
"So how are things at school?"
"Okay, I guess."
"Do you ever feel hungry?"
"No. Except before lunch at school. It's sort of late."
"Do you ever get in trouble at home?"
"Yeah. Sometimes." Abby wondered if the police officer was going to tell Mamma and Daddy about the knots.
"What happens if you get in trouble?"
"I get a time-out."
"What happens in a time-out?"
"I have to stay in my room."
"Anything else ever happen?"
She had to think about that a minute, but said, "No."
The officer looped the laces into big pink bows and explained the rabbit-around-the-tree-and-down-the-hole thing. She'd heard it before, but it still didn't make sense. Abby saw her Daddy in the window and he looked kind of mad. Maybe he knew about the knots. The officer looked at the house, too, at the kids playing across the street, at the neighbors gardening and peeking.
"You know. You can leave," said the officer in a quick, low voice.
"What?" Abby wobbled a little.
"You can leave. You don't have to stay with them. Parents should love their kids."
"But sometimes they don't. They don't have to, there's no law. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Um, I'm sorry, I don't know, ma'am."
"You don't have to stay. You can go. I'm just saying, you can leave."
Abby's stomach felt weird, like she had to poo all of a sudden. She didn't want to talk to the officer anymore. But she also didn't want the officer to go.
"OK. Um, thank you, ma'am."
"OK?" The officer looked at Abby so hard, she leaned back against the curb.
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you for fixing my shoes, ma'am. I'm glad you didn't have scissors."
The woman seemed sad again, and got up. The officer didn't pat her head and that surprised Abby. The neighbors had all patted her on the head, before they weren't allowed to talk to her anymore. She wondered if she wasn't going to be allowed to talk to the officer anymore, either.
"I'll see you around, sweetie. What's your name?"
"See you around, Abby." The police officer walked back around the car, her long, eagle face turned to Abby's house the whole time.
As the police car drove on, Abby pulled her eyes to the side without turning her head. She saw Mamma in the window now, too, her face tight, like a wringed-up dishtowel. Abby looked down at her shoes with two big pink bows, double-knotted just like her teachers did it. The circus lions jumped through hoops, paws pushing into the blue.
Heather D. Freeman is an associate professor of art at UNC Charlotte, where she teaches animation and digital media. This is her first published fiction and her art can be viewed at www.EpicAnt.com.
The Pecan Field
By Grady Michael Hill
I was just a kid, and it was just after noon. When Peter Bennett showed up, I was sitting on my front porch, waiting for my parents to come home. Peter was taller than me, slightly older, but he moved loosely as he walked across the yard, like he was carrying a weight over his head that he couldn't quite balance. I stood up as he came near, worried because he hadn't called that day. As Peter's friend, I'd learned two things: He never came over without calling, and he never took things too seriously.
"You alright?" I asked.
"Come with me," he said quietly, and my stomach tightened. Something in his voice told me he was scared, and I didn't know how to take it.
"Yeah, OK," I said quickly, and followed him to the road. After a few minutes, I realized we were heading for the long, sloping piece of land behind our neighborhood that ran along the highway. We'd spent many summer hours in the shade of the pecan trees that lived there, but it'd been quite a while. It was a 10-minute walk, and we went in total silence.
It became clear as we passed through the churchyard and into the field that things had changed since our last visit. What we found was a small brown plot, smaller and more ragged than I remembered. I stopped walking for a moment, looking out over the overgrown grass. Peter turned back to me.
"This way," he said, and I nodded. After a few seconds, I finally saw what we were heading toward. It was a small, gray lump, motionless in a dark circle of grass. As we got close, I realized the circle was drying blood.
"What ..." I stammered, and watched Peter step around the worst of it. He stood over the lump, which I could now see was an animal, badly mangled.
"It's Midas," he said, and I felt suddenly sick. I stared at the lump, saw the bones and the shredded flesh stacked in unnatural layers, and tried to visualize how, at some point, the pieces had made up Peter's beloved Australian Shepherd. Midas had been a loving and loyal dog, but he'd been known to escape from time to time. Looking down at him now, I could barely speak.
"Damn," I said quietly, and Peter nodded. We stood in silence for a long time, "What could have ..."
"Whitfield," Peter snapped. I looked up at him. I knew Whitfield, of course. He lived near the field, and he'd become a sort of legend in our group. He was old, really old, and never spoke to anyone, as far as we knew. "I'll show you," Peter said, and headed away from Midas. I followed, trying to rationalize what I had learned. Whitfield was unusual, sure, but killing (not killing, tearing apart) a dog was something else. We neared the old chain-link fence around his property, and I suddenly became very nervous.
"Pete, I ..."
"Look," he whispered and pointed over the fence. In Whitfield's yard, there was a small wire pen. Inside, two small dogs ran around, pushing against the sides. "He collects 'em. I bet he kills 'em off, one by one," Peter said, and I noticed how angry he sounded.
"Let's go home," I whispered, just before the back door swung open and the old man stepped out. We ducked down. He didn't seem to notice us as he walked toward the dogs, a hunting knife in his gnarly hand.
"Jesus, he's gonna do it," I said, but Peter had already moved, heading for the gate. I tried to grab him but missed, and he stepped onto the property just as Whitfield slid the knife through a dog's head.
"That how you did it?" Peter said loudly, and Whitfield turned.
"What the hell do you want, boy?"
"That's my dog back there," he said, pointing back at Midas and the bloody circle. Whitfield looked over and chuckled, breaking Peter's resolve slightly.
"C'mere. The both of you," Whitfield growled, smiling. Peter glanced over at me and I hesitantly stood, ignoring the fear that had started to creep up. We got near the pen and the second dog trotted around toward us, letting us see it clearly for the first time. It looked a bit like a wolf, but smaller, and it had a ring of dried blood around its mouth.
"Coyotes," Whitfield said, kicking the pen. I saw Peter's eyes widen as he realized the truth.
"It was them," he said softly.
"I'd figure so," Whitfield said as he moved around toward it, knife ready. I closed my eyes.
"I'll do it," I heard Peter say, and my eyes snapped back open. Whitfield looked at him for a moment, surprised. Eventually he nodded and held out the knife.
"No. No way," I said, and Peter looked over to me. His eyes were shining, tears building up but being forced back. He took a deep breath.
"It killed Midas," he said. He smiled politely, apologetically, and took the knife from the old man.
"I'm going," I said, hoping he'd follow me, but he just nodded. I felt very unstable suddenly, and backed away from the pen.
"I'll see you," he said, and I knew I could do no good. I walked through the gate, across the field, and into the churchyard, never looking back. I thought about Midas and collapsed slightly, stopping by the road. It all caught up to me then, and I sat on the curb, waiting.
Peter must've killed that coyote, I guess. He came back from the field a few minutes later, hands washed clean and his loose walk tightened a bit. He seemed darker, somehow older, and I knew right then that Peter Bennett would never come back from Whitfield's yard.
Something had died there, something more than Midas and the coyotes, something even more than the pecan field where we'd been children.
Grady Michael Hill is an award-winning screenwriting student at Western Carolina University. This is his first published short story.
Southern Summer Storm
By Rob C. Baldwin
It was in the dead of summer, when most should be living. The air was thick and hot, too much so for this time of the morning. I sat at the kitchen table drinking a beer and watching dark clouds gather in the horizon. It had been another long night of no sleep and frustration. She stood at the picture window staring toward town, over the tops of the corn. The corn was past its prime, and I planned to cut it, just as soon as I could gather myself to do so.
The thickness of the clouds quickly turned the daytime into night; I had seen this before and should have recognized the danger. I sat arrested by my own thoughts while the rain came in through the screens of the opened windows. She moved slowly from one to the next, shutting and locking each window after the last. Then she went right back to staring, over the tops of the corn toward town.
The funnel cloud took shape and first touched down at Uncle Jake's place, about 10 miles east. The rain was hitting our tin roof so hard, it was impossible for anyone to hear her. Afterward, I took shelter in the root cellar, where I stayed until I heard the rain slow, then stop. I depleted my stock of beer and became more drunk than I ever intended.
When I emerged from the cellar, the world had changed. My workshop was piled in a heap of rubble, and the corn no longer stood waiting for me; it was now on the ground, swirled in tangles and soaking wet.
Sirens of fire trucks and ambulances signaled the weight of the situation. My house only suffered a broken window and a few lost shingles. I went inside and passed out upon the couch until a neighbor woke me by shaking my arm. Simon Johnson (another neighbor) had found her body in the ditch next to my demolished workshop; her head crushed by a cinder block. I stood on the screen porch and watched as the hearse slowly pulled out of the driveway. Neighbors came by to share their condolences, I shook hands with most, but I was much too tired to talk. I expected a sheriff, but I later surmised it was obvious to all what had happened.
There was a large turnout for the funeral, everyone curious and caring. A "nice funeral" is an oxymoron, but it was a nice service, I suppose. Monroe Johnson from the town hardware store stood by himself, over in a corner, sobbing such that he could not contain himself. As he passed her casket, he gently stroked the corner with the tips of his fingers, then the undertakers lowered her into the grave. I walked the two miles home, guilty but free, and at least now I knew.
Rob C. Baldwin received his M.A. from Appalachian State University. He enjoys fly fishing, writing poetry and fiction, travel and working with friends on locally filmed movies.