YeahWrite! is a resource I recently discovered through an awesome Facebook group for writers participating in NYC Midnight’s 2016 Flash Fiction Challenge.
Only 10 writers advanced to the Final Round of their Super Challenge #2 flash competition.
There was no prompt for the final round, just a genre mashup:
I had 1000 words to work with and here’s what I threw together:
Prospecting is rough work and it tends to wear a man down. Gold is hard to come by up in the hills, and sometimes there’s more to be found than mere wealth.
It was long past dusk when the old prospector rode into town on a broken-down mule. Tin pans clinked together where they hung from stuffed saddlebags. The noise joined with the slow, deliberate drumming of the mule’s hooves to create a jarring melody that nobody heard.
Decent folk had long since sought their beds but the saloon had a reasonable crowd. Laughter and music floated out of the building into the cool night air.
The mule stopped at a hitching post in front of the saloon. The dusty man atop the scrawny animal drew a breath and lifted his head, his eyes reflecting golden light as would a cat’s in the night.
He dismounted and ascended the steps to the saloon, paused a moment, and pushed through the swinging doors. The murmur of voices lulled momentarily as patrons glanced toward the newcomer before resuming their conversations.
The prospector stood at the bar holding his pack as the bartender approached. “Thirsty,” he said, his voice a rasping croak.
The bartender fetched a bottle. “Whiskey, old timer?” He eyed the man. “Coin before drink.” The prospector tossed a small nugget of gold onto the bar. The bartender picked it up to inspect it and gave the prospector an appraising look. “Ain’t no coin but it’ll do, I s’pose!” He poured whiskey into a chipped glass and set the bottle beside it on the bar.
“Hungry,” the prospector said roughly.
The bartender squinted. “I might have a bit of chow if’n you have more’a that coin.”
Several men had taken note of the prospector’s patched canvas pants and coat, his tattered hat. His old boots with worn-down heels and stiff, cracked leather. His bulging pack, held within protective arms. They exchanged knowing glances.
Another man at the bar tapped his glass on the scarred wood surface. “Git the old fella supper, Lyle. Put it on my tab.”
The bartender snorted. “This man’s pretty rock mightn’t cover yer tab neither, Henry,”
“Go on now, Lyle. Be about it and let me converse with my new friend here.”
The prospector’s head swung toward Henry and he lifted his glass toward his benefactor. The men silently toasted and knocked back their drinks.
Henry moved to the stool beside the prospector and lifted the man’s bottle. “May I?” The prospector didn’t respond so Henry refilled both of their glasses. “To new friends,” he said, clinking his glass against the old man’s. They drank again.
“What’s in the pack, old timer? Did ya find yerself some gold up there?”
The prospector didn’t speak so Henry continued as the music stopped and conversations around the room quieted, all eyes on Henry and the old man.
“I happen to have a claim up that’a way, clearly marked. Where was ya digging? Ya got yer papers?” The prospector remained silent so Henry reached for the pack. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”
Quicker than Henry could see, the old man’s hand whipped out and grabbed Henry’s wrist. His hand was cold, his grip firm. Henry yelped in pain. “What’s got ya so twitchy, old timer? I just wanna know what ya found and whereabouts ya found it.”
The prospector raised his head and Henry recoiled at the lumpy skin of his face, at the shimmer in his eyes. “Cave,” the man croaked through dry, cracked lips. A black tongue flitted from between his crooked teeth to swipe across his lips and the whiskey roiled in Henry’s belly. “Dark,” the prospector said, his grip tightening on Henry’s wrist. “Trapped.”
“I don’t want no trouble, old man,” Henry said, his voice reedy with fear. He’d forgotten about claims and papers and what the prospector’s pack contained.
Henry didn’t notice that the piano music had stopped or that Lyle had returned with the prospector’s supper. He only watched with disgust as the skin on the prospector’s face shifted. It rose and fell as though something beneath it was moving around, trying to get out. His eyes widened and his breath escaped in a keening moan as an arachnid appendage crept from the corner of the prospector’s eye.
When the skin began to split and inky black spiders erupted from the gap, Henry’s bladder let go. A large, hairy one emerged from the prospector’s coat sleeve and crawled onto Henry’s wrist. Pinpricks of blood bloomed where it touched him as it scampered up his arm. Several more followed and when Henry began to scream, they found their way into his mouth.
“Hungry,” the prospector said as he yanked Henry toward him and sank his teeth into the choking man’s throat.
People scattered as spiders began to pour from the prospector’s clothing. His figure shrank in stature as the creatures burst from him, stripping away clothes and skin alike. The torn skin flapped like paper as the old man, still attached to Henry’s throat, rode the dying man’s twitching body to the ground.
Lyle gaped as a bottleneck formed at the door and fleeing patrons were overrun with thousands of spiders. Fear immobilized him and the men’s screaming filled the bar as Henry’s choking faded to a gurgle. Soon, the only sounds were the rustling of the spiders and a wet slurping. The prospector was gone and in his place crouched a creature the size of a child, black as night.
It raised its head and surveyed the saloon with large, golden eyes, watching the spiders that covered the men on the ground. Everyone else had made it out and Lyle jerked as he realized he was the only one left alive in the saloon.
He dropped the plate and before the clatter had ceased, the nightmare creature was crouched atop the bar, its sparkling eyes on Lyle. Its teeth were impossibly long, too long to fit into its mouth, and Henry’s blood dripped from them. Lyle stood rooted to the floor, incapable of moving, of fleeing.
“What are you?” Lyle’s voice was raspy.
“Hungry,” the creature snarled as it leaped.
11/17/16 – UPDATED WITH JUDGES’ FEEDBACK!
What the judges really liked about ‘Fool’s Gold’:
- Horror and Western genres melded beautifully. Slow reveal of the prospector’s true nature is masterfully handled, building suspense from the moment he’s introduced. The use of italics to establish early on that the prospector’s very speech is different from the others works nicely. Language is remarkably vivid, creating harrowingly clear visuals. Structure is very successful at a pretty impressive amount of world-building in a very short amount of time; the prospector’s extremely sparse dialogue is entirely sufficient to give the reader all the information they need about the internal logic of the horror trope elements. A genuinely scary and disturbing horror story.
- Your descriptions of the prospector and the donkey were rich. The word choices in the dialogue added to the Western setting.
- The prompts are excellently implemented–I was absolutely chilled by the spiders, especially due to the pacing, tone and diction. Very creative content as well; it’s ready to be submitted for publication.
- Solid pacing and a believable world make it all the more disorienting when the spiders show up. The prospector-creature’s single-word-dual-meaning voice is eerie and effective, making the reader go back through for foreshadowing they missed the first time.
- Great ending, and suspenseful as a ghost story.
Where the judges found room for improvement:
- The paragraphs and sentences in this story have a pretty uniform length and structure. Changing that up, especially at the climax of the story, can increase the pace of the action and heighten tension.
- The ending of the story was slowed down by several mentions of spiders coming out of the prospector’s body. The beginning of the story could have hinted more that something wasn’t right with the prospector to make the event in the saloon more believable.
- There are a few structural spots where I’d space the dialogue out for effect. Certain lines might jump out more, like when the old man starts talking about the “Cave.”
- A few clunky phrases mar this overall excellent story, mostly around Lyle’s actions. The story might have been better served by using a more extensive vocabulary rather than tacking simple adjectives onto simple words with such frequency.
- Overuse of modifiers at the beginning of the story.
11/18/16 – UPDATED WITH WINNERS! (Spoiler Alert: I won 1st place… holy shit, right?!)
First Place – $225
Paige Vest – Fool’s Gold
Paige’s story wove together elements of both tropes in a clean, effective story that one of our judges described as “the stuff of my next batch of nightmares.” There’s more than gold in them thar hills, and this story panned out. I’m done with Western puns, guys, I’m sorry.
Second Place – $150
Jaimie Smith-Windsor – La Muerte
Jaimie took the “Western” theme in a not-stereotypical direction, combining gorgeous visual and auditory elements to set a dystopian post-apocalypse scene that our judges wanted to know more about. Well-delineated characters and a continual sense of foreboding ramped up the tension in this story.
Third Place – $75
Amy Palen – Unearthed
Amy went back to the classics for this story: the secret crime, the bordello, and a supernatural element reminiscent of Poe’s Telltale Heart. While utilizing known tropes can make a story feel predictable, this one was more like settling down with a much-read book of short stories – even knowing what’s coming, don’t read it late at night.