Flash Fiction Challenge (He Wrote, Week 04)

by Dave Smith

As I mentioned last time, this week’s challenge is a little different. We decided to participate in the Flash Fiction Challenge at terribleminds.com. This week, we had to choose only four items from a list of ten, and then had to incorporate them into a story of around 1000 words. I chose an unopened envelope, a rocking chair, a child’s toy, and an iron horseshoe. My original idea was an Amazing Race – Bear Grylls – Survivor meets The Most Dangerous Game (wouldn’t that be a helluva reality show?). Unfortunately, reading it now, I think it steered too far toward Hunger Games. Not at all what I intended. Oh well, enjoy anyway!

Shane knew there wasn’t much daylight left and he had no idea where other contestants were. He was so delirious he really didn’t care. The absurdity of his situation stoked his rage for Mr. Bartholomew. Shane wanted to cut the puppet strings and escape that man’s twisted game, but any attempt at skirting the rules was a direct path to losing.

Shane hadn’t eaten in five days and hadn’t found water in nearly two. His head felt like it was occupied by an army of sledgehammer-wielding dwarves trying to escape. His feet were heavy and clumsy, as if shod with a dozen iron horseshoes.

Weak with a deep, gnawing hunger, a handful of grubs and wild blackberries looked like a gourmet spread. The sweetness of the berries balanced the funky, beefy grubs. Shane was amazed at how so little could boost his energy and spirits. He needed it to find the next waypoint before dark or he’d end up a meal for something else. He forged on in the darkening wilderness, stopping occasionally to check his navigation course.

Panic started to settle in just before he found the familiar yellow and green flags marking the waypoint. There were six small shelters – down two from the waypoint last week – each built from weathered vertical boards like an outhouse, and not much bigger than one. Shane couldn’t see lights inside them, so he couldn’t tell if anyone had beaten him there. Wolf howls and a human scream in the forest told him at least one shelter wouldn’t be occupied that night.

He opened the door to one with his name. Resting on an olive green military cot was an unopened yellow envelope, also bearing his name.

He opened it to retrieve a map and a note that read:

Congratulations, Contestant. If you’ve made it this far, your chances of winning are very good. Rest up, diligent traveler, you’ll need it.

If you’re cold and hungry, you should find a pack under your cot with a change of clothes and a small meal.

The next, final, leg of your journey is short. At dawn, you’ll be awakened to begin. Leave everything but your map and compass in your shelter. That includes any tools and weapons. This race is run on desire, determination, and heart, not violence against your competitors. You all know the stakes. If you want this bad enough, you’ll win.

What if you don’t win? Well, as they say, second place is the first loser. I advise against losing.

Sincerely,

H. Sydney Bartholomew

Shane sat on the cot and leaned against the wall. The tension of the upcoming journey knotted his stomach. It took a tremendous effort to eat the meal provided, but the calories were essential if he wanted to have any hope of beating the other contestants.

Sleep was so far away. He closed his eyes, but couldn’t relax. Too much at stake and the cot felt like plywood.

Though not asleep, the trumpet at dawn startled Shane. He sprung to his feet and out the door, looking left and right to see who else might have overnighted there.

He was one of only three. Bragg to his right, and Weaver to his left looked just as startled and weary. They momentarily locked eyes and then began their sprint to the finish.

Shane and Bragg headed south. Weaver headed the opposite direction. Someone had miscalculated navigation, but who? Thirty minutes into the sprint, just trailing Bragg, Shane found the stream shown on the map.

Bragg tried to ford it first using nothing but sheer will and brute force. Shane, found a pine branch to help brace himself against the current and methodically forded just below Bragg. The water was icy cold and pushing against the current reminded Shane of the times he and his brother pushed granddad’s Lincoln to the gas station. The rocky streambed was slippery, sending both men for a shocking swim more than once.

Bragg landed on the shore first, but slipped back into the stream, twisting his ankle and cutting his shin. His determination unperturbed, Bragg hoisted himself out of the water and started up the path to the finish, a small house noted on the map. Shane, cold and wet, but uninjured, pulled himself from the stream shortly after. It was a foot race up the hill, but the hobbled Bragg couldn’t outrun Shane.

Shane, lungs and legs burning from exertion, stumbled up the steps onto the front porch of the house. The front door was flanked by armed guards. They let Shane inside, but forcefully stopped Bragg as he crested the hill.

A sudden, uncontrolled release of tears paralyzed Shane at the threshold. He could hear children playing through the closed door across the room. A haunting, familiar melody from a violin filled the room. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Shane saw a well-dressed man playing the instrument. The creaking of the floorboards and the rocking chair he was seated in kept perfect time with the melody he played, as if they too were instruments.

“Mr. Bartholomew sends his greetings,” the man said softly, continuing to play. “You’ve managed an upset. Tell you the truth, Shane, we didn’t have all that much faith in you. Big money was on Bragg, but Lady Luck wasn’t on his side.”

Shane stood in silence, tears welling in his eyelids.

“You know what you won, don’t you?”

Shane nodded, choking on the lump in his throat.

“See that door right there? Open it,” said the man.

The click of the latch and creaking hinges couldn’t break the joyful voices and laughter of dozens of children. Shane scanned the room, knowing these were sons and daughters of his competitors. His knees crumpled as he realized that, in his selfish pursuit to survive and be with his own child, so many others were now orphaned.

But then he saw her.

His daughter, Tera, sat at a table with four other children. They were taking turns playing with a gyroscope, a child’s toy Shane remembered enjoying when he was little. Tera saw him as he made his way to her and screamed excitedly as she leaped for him to pick her up.

Shane turned to the well-dressed man.

“So what happens to the other children? Are they adopted, sold, or what?” he asked.

“Shane, even if you knew, would it change how you played the game?”

“No. No, it wouldn’t. She means everything to me.”

“That’s what I thought. Now get outta here. Your escort off the island is waiting.”

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