I am participating in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, “a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours.” Fun, right? Here is my entry for the first challenge, having been given the genre of ghost story, location of quarry, and a propeller as an object.
The Disappearance of Clement Brown
The old quarry of Barlowe had long been closed, and for years only teenagers from the neighboring town of Lincoln and the odd treasure hunter drove down its dusty road. Everything was brown and grey, even the slate hills that rose sullenly in the distance, until one reached the quarry itself. With nothing to mark it, the sudden appearance of the dark pit might have been treacherous for its visitors. But the denizens of Lincoln dumped their unwanted items there, and old sofas and unsalvageable auto parts outlined the quarry’s boundaries, adorning its edges like a tattered necklace. That afternoon Clement Brown stood on the brink of the quarry, staring into its unknowable depths, even as every impulse told him to flee.
Clem had moved to Lincoln after graduating from Northwestern, taking a job at The Lincoln Star. The nearest city was nearly two hours away, and when he first moved to Lincoln, Clem told himself he would work at The Star for no longer than a year, just enough to build a portfolio for a larger publication. Nine months had passed, yet all he had were high school sports scores and “Around the Town” pieces to his name.
Even on the map Lincoln was set in an expanse of uninterrupted drabness, the tiny dot of Barlowe noted in smaller italicized letters beside it. Lincoln’s city hall and post office were housed in the same building as The Star, and the common hallway was lined with old black-and-white photographs from the twin cities’ shared history. Clem found himself returning to two particular images. Underneath the first was the yellowed caption “Workers Leaving the Barlowe Quarry.” Cigarettes dangled insouciantly from the mouths of the quarry workers, pickaxes slung over their shoulders as they exited the pit in a ragged line. One man looked directly at the camera, his light eyes unsettling in a deeply tanned face. The second image showed an old airplane perched on cracked desert earth. Clem wasn’t sure what drew him to this image; perhaps it was the lack of caption, the invisible pilot, or the distinctive sharp blades of the propeller.
It occurred to Clem that there might be a story in Barlowe, a community that sprung out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly. John Raleigh, the owner and editor-in-chief of The Lincoln Star, roared with laughter at the suggestion. “The quarry closed and people lost their jobs,” he told Clem. “With no work, who would stay in that dust bowl? Everyone moved to Lincoln or out of town entirely.” Still, Clem could not shake the idea. Despite what Raleigh had said there were no records of the quarry workers, nor proof that their families remained in Lincoln. Clem hoped for a story of a modern Roanoke, something that might propel him beyond The Star’s pitiful circulation.
Given its remote location, the eeriness of the quarry was not surprising. What Clem did not expect was the stifling atmosphere of the place: the thin desert air nearly unbreathable, and somehow the sensation of being watched. But after half a dozen trips to the Barlowe quarry, poking around rock formations and sifting through garbage, he had yet to find anything but dust and junk. Today would be his last visit.
Clem gave an old cushion a vicious kick as he thought about the story and the city; things slipping out of his reach. He did not see the giant propeller jutting out of the ground until he nearly walked into it. Half-buried and encased by hardened earth, it was nearly as tall as Clem. With a jolt of recognition he saw it was identical to the one on the airplane pictured in city hall.
Clem’s heart beat a little faster as he felt the rush of possibilities once again. It must have been nearly 100 years old, but the patina of age did not dull the propeller’s soft glow. He was sure he had walked this same path, tripped over the same floral cushion, but he had never seen this gigantic, ancient object. There was something almost otherworldly about it, and he shivered a little as he moved in closer to examine it. He ran his hand along the platinum surface of the propeller, and as he did, it made a sound like a yelp. He drew his hand back, and the noise came again, faint but distinct. Clem realized that the noise was coming not from the propeller but the depths of the quarry, and it was not a yelp, but a scream.
No other cars were parked along the edges of the quarry except his own. Clem knew Lincoln teenagers sometimes rode their bikes over to drink or do other illicit things. The sound came again, unintelligible but plaintive. Clem was unsure if he should go closer to its source or leave the quarry entirely. The sound increased to a dissonant chorus, one that rooted his body to the spot even while he was certain he should run. “It could be kids messing around.” Clem’s own voice startled him. “It could be an echo.” After a moment’s deliberation, he edged toward it.
Peering over the brink of the quarry, he saw nothing but increasing darkness reaching downward. It didn’t seem possible that someone would be there and alive. He strained his ears for the voice, but he did not need to. When it came again, it was not from the depths of the quarry but next to him, in his ear.
Clem didn’t know how he fell. The vast stretch of the quarry came to meet him, and as he plunged deeper he could see no end to it. Then he saw nothing at all. He wondered at the words whispered in his ear, and if they came from the figure he saw as he fell, standing where the propeller had been. “Join us,” the voice had said, and as Clem closed his eyes the darkness pressed all around him.
We were given our genre/setting/object on a Friday night, and had to upload our final(ish) stories a mere 48 hours later. As far as the contest was concerned, we had submitted our final stories, but assuming everyone else is like me (because when does that go wrong?), given more time there would have been a lot more contemplation and editing. Flash fiction is a good exercise for me as I tend to meander and dwell on backstory; it’s not a luxury afforded by the medium.
Everyone participating in the contest is in the same boat in terms of deadlines and limitations, and it was great fun to a) create a story given the very specific parameters, and b) see what other writers in the same group with the same parameters came up with. In addition to the eventual feedback from the judges, you can post your stories and get feedback from your fellow participants.
I would highly recommend checking out NYC Midnight to other writers as they run various contests throughout the year. I’ll be posting my next entry in the contest around mid-September, and in the meantime am enjoying imagining the worst possible combination of requirements (romance/butcher shop/pelican? fairytale/DMV/wicker basket?).