I am a huge fan of the NYC Midnight writing competitions. They run annual contests for writers of short stories, flash fiction and screenplays. Entrants from all over the world are placed in heats, and are allocated elements they have to include in a story. These might include a genre, a particular character, a location or an object. You then write a piece that meets a word limit in a set period of time. Each contest has a number of rounds. It's highly competitive and there are usually several thousand writers at the beginning of the competition, who are gradually eliminated round by round.
I enjoyed the short story competition earlier this year and made through two rounds, and have just completed the first round of the Flash Fiction competition. I'm thrilled to say I won my heat, and I thought I would share my winning Flash Fiction (1000-word) piece here. It's called Flame.
The rules for my heat were: write a drama, set in a library, featuring a scented candle.
I hope you enjoy it.
You wouldn’t have noticed it, just as you wouldn’t notice any building you never go into, unless something was different. There are several long tables on the sidewalk outside the library, laden with books. A handwritten sign is taped to the front edge of the middle table. BOOK SALE. They have to get rid of outdated stuff to buy new volumes, you suppose. People are browsing, running desultory fingers over the spines.
You cross the street, hesitantly. Behind the tables, you can see the steps that lead up to the doors. So many versions of you have climbed those stairs – the excited five-year-old, one hand sweaty in your dad’s big fist, the other clutching your stiff, new library card. The diffident, plump ten-year-old, haughtily ignoring the children’s books and stalking to the adult section to pluck George Eliot and Daphne du Maurier from the shelves. The tense sixteen-year-old, running in to escape the shouting at home, the calculated indifference at school and the swirling, sticky, black anger within – the sense that none of this was turning out the way it did in books.
You don’t go up the stairs now. You don’t need to. You know exactly what is behind those doors. You know that if you walk between the shelves, three alcoves down on the left-hand side, there’s a window seat with a cracked plastic cushion, where the afternoon sun falls golden and warm on the back of your neck and your legs stick to the plastic when the summer heat is strongest.
That’s where he found you, knees drawn up, a thumbnail in your mouth. You sensed his shape at the end of the row of shelves and glancing up, saw a tall, hollow-eyed boy, older than you, with thick dark hair and wide, bony shoulders, as if he might one day grow wings. Boys at school treated you as a joke, so you dropped your eyes to your book, hoping he would go. But he came down the aisle, and without speaking, flipped your book closed on your thumb so he could see the cover. Plath. You looked up surprised, but he wasn’t looking at you. He was frowning at the title.
“No,” he said, “No. It’s not enough for you. You need something more. More.”
He walked away quickly, and you stared after him, thinking he was crazy, but still feeling the weight of his hand on the book. You didn’t open it again. A minute later, he returned, holding a slim, hardback volume between his palms. He plucked away your book and replaced it with his own. The back cover faced up and you saw a fierce, hawk-faced man with a shock of grey hair.
“This,” the boy said. And he came to sit at the end of the window seat and watch you, his eyes hungry and attentive, as you opened the book and began to read.
He saw you. He told you you were beautiful, brilliant, passionate, insightful. He brought you books like offerings to a goddess. He listened, enraptured as you talked about them. He liked to sit on the window seat and rest one cool hand on your ankle as you read, and then hold your hand as he walked you home through the darkening evenings. He took you to his room, which was piled with books and papers, a jewel-colored Oriental rug on the floor. He read to you in hushed tones and listened to you when you told him you wanted to be a writer, were a writer. Wrote.
“Me too,” he said, “I write too. But you, with your deep eyes and your brilliant, bruised spirit. You’ll be great. I will make you extraordinary.”
He opened a drawer and took out handfuls of candles. He arranged them around the edge of the rug and lit them. The room filled with the scent of cinnamon and spices. “Like a souk in Rabat,” he said, and he laid you down on the rug and covered you with his body.
You blazed inside. You sparkled and the words spilled onto the pages like water and you stayed inside, writing for days.
You looked for him to give him what you had written, but he was not at home. You found him at the library, in your window seat, looking out at skies now heavy with cloud. His eyes were flat when he looked up at you.
“Where have you been?” he said. “I needed you. I needed you here.”
“I was writing,” you said, and handed him the pages, so crisp, so carefully typed.
He nodded, took them and left.
No word for days. You fretted, watched your phone, went to the library. You went to his house. He opened the door and looked surprised to see you, as if you were an unfamiliar relative or a door-to-door salesperson. You followed him to his room. Your pages lay, indifferently tossed on the floor, creased as if they had been folded in a pocket.
“What did you think,” you said, not daring to add a question mark.
He talked then. Oh, he talked. Indifferent, he said, banal. Derivative. Female. So disappointing. Not deep after all. For the first time, you noticed the stretched, white skin around his nostrils. You looked down at his fingers and imagined him pinching the wick of a candle, snuffing out a flame. You left.
Years later, you would learn the candles came in polythene bags of 50 from IKEA. The rug too. You would laugh about it, but the light remained extinguished.
You cross the road now, and join the ranks of browsers. It takes time to find it, but there it is. You pull it free from its companions and pay for it.
At home, you light a candle, cinnamon-scented. You pull the pages from the book one by one and burn them till they rain black ash on the table. The cover, with the hawk-eyed, grey-haired man, refuses to catch light.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.