Here it is! My official entry for the 1st Round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. As many of you read here, this turned out to be a much bigger challenge than I anticipated. However, I’m satisfied with the final outcome. So enjoy. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it!
Reminder, I had to write a 2,500 word short story based on this assignment:
by Jenna Willett
Brief Synopsis: A little boy escapes his mom’s wedding to hunt fairies and imaginary monsters in the forest. Little does he know there are real monsters in the shadows waiting to pounce and swallow him whole.
“Was that thunder?”
Charlie glanced up from his second slice of wedding cake and frowned at the pigtailed girl. Annie’s blue eyes were wide and focused on the sky beyond the white tent. The black night looked even blacker against the white tables, white candles and white flowers surrounding him. Even his white suit seemed to glow against the dark.
The little boy stared into the darkness with his best friend, but he didn’t see anything. “I dunno. Maybe it was a dragon?”
“Really?” Annie gasped.
Charlie nodded and took another bite of cake. When they’d first arrived at the ginormous mountain cabin yesterday, his mom had pointed at the misty forest bordering the manicured lawns and said, “Don’t go in there, okay? There’re monsters that’ll swallow you whole.” She’d snapped her teeth and ruffled his black hair. Charlie had stared at the swaying pines, fascinated. Real monsters to hunt, battle and slay? Awesome!
Unfortunately, his new stepdad hadn’t given him a chance to find one.
Charlie scowled across the wedding tent and wrinkled his nose. He didn’t like Paul. Paul frowned too much, he smelled like smoke and toothpaste, and he always tried to act like Charlie’s dad, even though he’d never had a dad and didn’t see why he needed one now. Plus, Paul stared at him. Like, always. Charlie would look up and catch him watching him across a room or in the rearview mirror. It was weird.
But Paul wasn’t watching Charlie then. Nobody was. Not even Annie’s parents. Her dad was snoring across from him, and her mom was asking a waiter about the chef. (“I must have his card! I’m hosting a charity event…”)
Charlie swallowed his last bite of cake and slipped off his chair.
“Where’re you going?” Annie hissed.
“Meet me on the back porch.”
He was already slipping through the crowd, quickly, before anyone could stop him. He sprinted out of the tent, across the front lawn, and into the cabin. Upstairs, he snatched his small Superman flashlight from his bedroom and stuffed it into his pocket. He wasn’t afraid of the dark, but Annie was. Plus, he didn’t want to get lost in the woods.
Charlie bolted downstairs and into the fancy kitchen.
“Hey, little man! Aren’t you suppose to be out front?”
He skidded to a halt by the back door and looked up. Mr. Harris’s round face smiled down at him while his chubby hands packed leftover meatballs into a container. Charlie stared at the meatballs. Earlier, Mr. Harris had given him a plate of them. “I added barbecue sauce for you.” The chef had winked and then told Charlie magical stories about the forest as he ate them.
The same forest Charlie was determined to explore.
Before he could think of a lie to tell Mr. Harris, the kitchen door swung open and Paul swooped in. His black gaze shot from Mr. Harris, to the bustling waitstaff, to Charlie. His bushy brows snapped together. “Where are you going?”
Paul’s scowl deepened. He walked over and kneeled in front of him. Charlie held his breath. He hated that smokey, minty smell!
“You know your Mom doesn’t want you wandering off. Not with all these strangers around.” Paul motioned behind him.
Mr. Harris stuck his tongue out at his back. Charlie almost laughed.
“Come on.” Paul stood and held out his hand.
Charlie ignored it. “But Annie’s waiting for me. We’re gonna…catch fireflies.” It was the best lie he could think of.
“Fireflies?” Paul looked suspiciously at his empty hands. “Don’t you need a jar for that?”
“Here you go.” Mr. Harris appeared and handed Charlie a jar with a wink. Charlie grinned. Why couldn’t Paul be more like him? Nice. Fun. Cool.
His stepdad glared at the pink-cheeked chef and then at Charlie. He shook his head. “You’re going back to the wedding. Now.”
“Or I can take you upstairs and–“
The lights flickered.
“What the hell?” Paul frowned up.
“It’s probably just the comin’ storm,” Mr. Harris said. “The power acts up whenever we get a dandy.” To prove it, thunder rumbled outside. The lights flickered again.
Once. Twice. Off!
The kitchen went black. Someone gasped and dropped a plate. Mr. Harris sighed, Paul swore, and Charlie ran. He yanked open the door and crashed into Annie waiting on the porch.
“I know, I know.” He thrust the empty jar into her hand and took out his Superman flashlight. “Let’s go!” He jumped off the porch and sprinted for the forest.
“Charlie! Wait! Where are we going?”
“To catch fairies!”
“Yeah, I heard they live in the trees and only come out at night!” Mr. Harris had told him so that afternoon while he’d eaten the meatballs.
Without looking back at the shouting voices inside the black house and black tent, they sprinted into the woods. Fat raindrops started falling and lightning flashed across the sky. Annie squealed, but she didn’t ask Charlie to stop or go back. They raced on, deeper and deeper into the woods until they could only hear the thunderstorm and their own breathless laughter.
“There!” Charlie stopped. “Did you see that!”
“The trees!” He tilted his flashlight up. “There!” He plucked an imaginary fairy out of the pine and wriggled it in front of Annie’s round eyes. “See?” She giggled and opened the jar’s lid. He dropped it inside.
They hunted and plucked fairies out of the trees until Charlie grew bored. He found a sharp stick on the wet ground and held it up like a sword.
“Hey, I want one–“
“Shh! Do you hear that?” He crouched and pointed the light at a clump of trees.
“No, what?” Annie whispered.
“I think it’s a dragon. The one we heard earlier.”
A growl of thunder rumbled around them. Annie gasped and clutched his arm. Charlie grinned and pictured a fire breathing monster stomping out from behind the branches.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I just need to stab it through the heart and–“
A crack of thunder exploded over their heads. Annie screamed and dropped the jar. The lid popped off and all but two of their invisible fairies escaped into the stormy sky. So did his dragon. Charlie watched it fly up, up, and away with a disappointed frown.
“Ch-Charlie? Can we go back now?”
“Back?” He lowered his sword and looked at Annie. Her teeth chattered and her blonde pigtails looked like wet spaghetti noodles. His own skin was covered in goosebumps from his drenched suit.
She nodded. “Please?”
His shoulders slumped. He didn’t wanna go back, not if it meant his mom was married to Paul. Stupid, smelly, frowny Paul who watched him too close, like he actually cared about him. But how could he? Paul wasn’t his real dad. He couldn’t really love Charlie.
A twig snapped behind them. Charlie spun around and aimed the flashlight at another clump of trees. The branches rustled. Unease crept up his spine. Had his dragon returned? Or was this another monster? A real one?
“I wanna go back!” Annie squeaked. “Please, Charlie? Please?” She yanked impatiently on his arm.
“Okay!” He gripped his sword and slowly backed away from the trembling pine needles.
The ground had become slippery and slimy, and they were forced to shuffle along. Even then, Charlie fell once and Annie dropped the jar of fairies twice. One of them escaped as another twig snapped behind them. He swung the light around.
“Shh!” He held his breath and searched the shadows, certain he’d find a beast…But there was nothing. He lowered the light, confused. Was it all his imagination? Sneaky goblins and mischievous fairies? Or was there a real monster out there? One that could swallow them whole?
“Here.” Charlie gave Annie the flashlight and gripped his sword with both hands. She happily took it and started walking again–fast.
“Hey, slow down!” he yelled when she’d gotten too far ahead of him.
“I’m trying–” His foot slipped on a rock, and with a surprised yelp, he tumbled over. Mud soaked into his knees and pebbles scraped against his palms.
“I’m fine!” He groped around for his dropped sword while looking over his shoulder at the shadows. He swore one was moving closer and closer to him. Fear churned the wedding cake in his belly.
Annie’s bloodcurdling scream pierced him at the same time something big landed on his back. It shoved Charlie to the ground and crushed him beneath its suffocating weight. He cried out as its sharp paws sunk into his suit and its hot breath puffed against his neck.
Charlie whimpered, too terrified to move.
“Get off him!” Annie’s shrill cry was followed by a dull thunk and a howl of rage from the monster. It sprang off of Charlie. He rolled over and froze.
Annie was gone.
And she’d taken his Superman flashlight with her.
He blinked into the pitch-black, only broken by an occasional flicker of lightning. Charlie’s quivering fingers scrabbled through the mud until they found his sword. Relieved, he stumbled to his feet. But he didn’t know what to do, where to go. Which way was the cabin? His mom? Paul? Suddenly, his stepdad’s stern watchfulness seemed warm and safe.
Lightning flashed overhead. The woods lit up.
A monster was barreling towards him, white and vicious and huge! He dove around a tree. “HELP! HELP! HEL–” The monster’s claws tore into his shirt and tackled him to the ground. Charlie rolled over and stabbed upwards.
He stilled, stunned by the familiar voice. “M–Mr. Harris?”
A blue bolt illuminated the chef’s pink face. Charlie stared up at it, speechless. What was Mr. Harris doing there? And why was he attacking him? And why was he looking at Charlie like he wanted to swallow him whole?
“Naughty boy.” The chef yanked the stick out of his shoulder and flung it away. “Very, very naughty.” He licked his lips and winked at Charlie. Winked, just like he’d winked at Charlie a hundred times that day. The cake rolled in his stomach again. He didn’t understand. He’d only ever battled goblins and dragons, not men who liked to smile and wink.
“You should’ve gone back to the wedding like your daddy told ya.” Mr. Harris leaned down and shoved his nose into Charlie’s hair. “You smell so damn good. And you taste like sugar.” He licked Charlie’s cheek.
The cake burned the back of his throat. Charlie swallowed the bitter sweetness to scream for help again.
“Shhh!” Mr. Harris covered his mouth. “This’ll be our secret.” He began pawing at Charlie’s muddy clothes. “Our little, itty-bitty secret.” He reached lower and fumbled with Charlie’s belt. He yelped and started thrashing and kicking.
It was useless. He couldn’t fight this type of monster. Mr. Harris was too big, too strong. Too real.
Charlie closed his eyes and pretended he was on a ship sailing across an ocean with Annie. Annie, who was probably dead. Dead because he’d been angry with his mom for marrying Paul. Paul, who cared enough about Charlie to warn him to stay close because the wedding was full of strangers. Strangers, like Mr. Harris, who liked to wink and kiss his throat.
“Get off my kid, you sick fuck!”
The furious roar echoed through the forest. Charlie’s eyes snapped open as another shadow sprang from the trees. It dropped its flashlight and yanked Mr. Harris off of him. For a moment, Charlie was too shocked to react. Then he crawled to the flashlight and aimed it at the two snarling men.
“Paul?” Charlie gasped.
“Run!” his stepdad ordered. “Go! Your Mom’s through there.” He jerked his head in the direction he’d magically appeared. Charlie was too numb to argue. He stood up to retreat, but tripped over a stick. He looked down. His sword! He swooped it up in a thankful grip.
“The kid was beggin’ for it,” Mr. Harris hissed. “He wanted it!”
“How dare you, you twisted piece of–“
The chef slammed his fist into Paul’s furious face. Blood sprayed out his nose and he collapsed with a muddy splat. The chef grabbed a rock and lifted it up.
“No!” Charlie lunged forward with the sword raised. Mr. Harris was a monster. A real, living breathing monster. He needed to be stabbed through his cold, evil heart, and slain just like any dragon or goblin.
A screeching purr paralyzed him.
From the shadows behind Mr. Harris, a ball of fur leaped out and wrapped its paws around him. The chef shrieked and twisted away, but it was too late. The bigger monster sank its razor-sharp jaws into his neck and thrashed its head side-to-side like a dog with a chew toy. Charlie gaped at the red-black blood gushing from Mr. Harris’s ripped throat, entranced and horrified.
Mr. Harris’s thrashing body slowed to violent twitches. Charlie stared into the dying monster’s eyes. They winked at him once more before dimming forever.
The wedding cake finally came up, vanilla chunk after vanilla chunk. Charlie kept heaving even after Paul picked him up and carried him away. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he repeated until they reached a group of shouting voices and blinding flashlights. Amongst them was his mom. Her white wedding dress was smeared with mud, and something black streamed down her cheeks.
“Charlie, Charlie. Oh my God, Charlie…” She hugged and kissed him and didn’t let go until they’d reached the cabin.
It wasn’t until much later, after the cops had talked to Charlie, a doctor had examined him, and his mom had put him to bed that his queasy numbness began wearing off. He stared at his nightlight and listened to his mom crying down the hall. She kept sobbing the word “Therapy”, while Paul’s deep voice comforted her with, “He’ll be okay.”
Hearing his steady voice warmed Charlie’s chilled heart. Paul really did care about him. No, he loved him. He always had. Charlie could accept that now, and he was thankful the smoky, minty man had married his mom.
Charlie sighed and looked down at the jar in his hands. Annie had asked him to keep an eye on the last invisible fairy while she went to the hospital. They’d found her huddled beneath a tree with a broken arm. She’d sworn a werewolf had crushed it after it had chased her away from Charlie.
Nobody had bothered to correct her, not even Charlie.
He opened the jar’s lid. The fairy flew out and fluttered around the bedroom until it found a crack and escaped into the night. Charlie watched it fly away with a heavy heart. It would be the last imaginary creature he ever believed in. After that night, he’d never pretend again. He didn’t need to.
Mr. Harris had proven monsters were real.
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