Creative Loafing is proud to announce the winners of its third annual flash fiction contest. For this go-round, we asked writers to include the following sentence in their prose: "We forgot to pay our heat bill." And with the recent spate of frigid temperatures, it certainly felt as if we had.
In past contests, our editorial team read and voted on the stories, choosing the three that left a profound mark on us in less than 1,000 words. The judging process was complicated: Think score cards and heated discussion over what a narrative should read like. This year, we went outside of the office to find someone to be the voice of reason.
Enter Coleen Muir, an award-winning writer and this year's contest judge.
Muir says she's quite familiar with flash fiction and loves how it relies so heavily on metaphor and language.
"As a reader, you have to be more willing to read between the lines when you read a flash fiction piece," says Muir, who received her MFA at University of New Orleans. "It's more creative. It's not necessarily telling a straightforward story."
Congratulations to the writers featured in these pages who weren't afraid to experiment a little.
— Kimberly Lawson
ABOUT THE JUDGE
Coleen Muir is an award-winning writer, the recipient of the Svenson Award for Fiction, Samuel Mockbee award in Creative Nonfiction, and the Gulf Coast Creative Writer's Award in Fiction. When she's not judging CL's fiction contest, she's teaching at Central Piedmont Community College and UNC-Charlotte and helping to co-edit Charlotte's local literary 'zine, Furious Season, with teacher/poet Shannon Kidd. Oh, and of course, writing. Her work has appeared in publications such as Fourth Genre, Silk Road Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Cream City Review, among others. She's currently working on a collection of short stories that deal with the rural South and working-class families.
A Slight Difference of Opinion
By Vance Cariaga
Judge's Comments: "In this story, the author manages, through primarily dialogue, to drop a very short story on the reader's plate about two characters who are unhappy with their choice to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, from Yonkers, New York. 'A Slight Difference of Opinion' has all the elements of what makes a short story successful — conflict, motivation, characters who want something, but face obstacles in obtaining it. One character wants to move forward while the other character wants to move back, and this, more so than winning the contest or paying the power bill, is the driving force behind this story."
"It's called what again?" Seth said.
"We forgot to pay our heat bill," Mimi said.
"It pays how much?"
"This is your plan to pay our heating bill? To win a writing contest about how we forgot to pay our heating bill?"
"It's an option, anyway. It's worth a try."
"It's an option, she says."
"It's worth a try, I said."
"For this we left Yonkers? Let's move to North Carolina, she says. They have plenty of jobs there. It's cheap, and warm. Warm. It's 20 degrees out there. We had the same in Yonkers."
"We also had a small cramped apartment in Yonkers instead of a house."
"That was not a small apartment. That apartment was okay."
"It was small. The neighbors were loud. It smelled funny. The Metro North rattled our windows every time it came by."
"It at least had a decent deli nearby. You can't find a decent deli here."
"That's what we should base our lives on. A deli."
"You told me before we moved, there's good delis here. You heard it on good authority, from some old college classmate you hadn't seen in 15 years."
"There's good delis here. You just don't want to find them, because then you'd have one less thing to complain about."
"What does somebody from North Carolina know about a deli?"
"What does somebody from Yonkers know about barbecue? But suddenly you're an expert."
"That dry chewy pulled pork. I can't swallow it. And that vinegar they call sauce."
"They had other types of sauce on the table. But you were too busy insulting the manager to notice."
"What insult? I didn't insult."
"You told him they should take the meat, sew it together, and make footballs out of it."
"Only after he told me to leave."
"Only after you told him he should consider hiring a cook sometime."
"And yet you insisted on paying the bill, even after he told us he didn't want our money."
"He told you he didn't want your money. I had nothing to do with it. He was a nice man, and you were an ass."
"Now I'm an ass."
"Always, you're an ass."
"Oh great. Now we start into it again. And after I told you about my blood pressure. You know what the doctor said about my blood pressure."
"The doctor said your blood pressure was slightly high. He said to reduce the stress in your life. If only he knew. Stress IS your life. Without it, you'd cease to exist."
"Right. And what would I have to be stressed about, anyway? It's not like I'm unemployed, and my wife is unemployed, and we're behind on our mortgage, and we might not be able to pay our heating bill. Oh, wait a minute — that's exactly the case."
"I make money. I've had some writing jobs."
"Some writing jobs. On a, what you call it, on a freelance basis. That pays great, as long as you can write about 400 of them a day. Did you call about that proofreading job?"
"It's a copy editing job. And yes, I called about it. I have an interview next week. Did YOU call about that temp position?"
"Packing cell phones into boxes? You think that's how I should spend my days? Me, who went to college, who used to make good money in technology?"
"Oh please. You sold cheap computers for a company that went bankrupt because the accountant was embezzling money from his boss, who was stealing money from his partner, who was screwing the sales manager's wife. That was some fast-track career."
"I don't remember you complaining when the paychecks came in. And now I'm down to packing cell phones in boxes. All that stooping over. And after I told you about my back. You know what the doctor said about my back."
"Your back. Your blood pressure. The cell phone job is only for a few days, then you move onto another job. The temp agency puts you into different jobs. Lots of people find full-time jobs that way."
"It's called what again, the name of the paper?"
"What paper? And don't change the subject."
"The paper with the contest. The forgot to pay the heating bill thing."
"It's called Creative Loafing."
"What kind of screwy name is that for a newspaper? Creative Loafing."
"Was I there when they named it? Who cares what it's called."
"What are you going to write about, this story that's supposed to help us pay our heating bill?"
"I don't know. I haven't started it yet."
"You haven't started it yet?"
"I was going to start it, but you keep interrupting me."
"So what are you going to write about?"
"Maybe I'll write about how Seth keeps interrupting Mimi as she tries to write. Heavy on the dialogue, but thinly plotted."
"You think I don't got better things to do than stand around here yakking with you? I got things too, you know. I'm busy too, you know."
"Busy doing what? Counting all the miseries in your life?"
"Calling my contacts in Yonkers. Seeing what's available up there."
"I'm not going back to Yonkers."
"So you keep saying. But we'll see, right? You write your little story about the not paying the heating bill. Meanwhile, I'll be putting together a real plan to get our financial lives back on track."
"Oh, the big shot. A real Warren Buffet."
Seth walked out of the room and down the hallway toward the other side of the house. Mimi stared at her laptop. The screen was empty. The best thing in the world for a writer is an empty screen. It's also the worst thing in the world. She had a story to write, but she had no idea where to begin.
By Anthony Sotelo
Judge's Comments: This story works on two levels, and by the story's ending, the reader discovers that the setting can be read as a metaphor for the couple's infertility. The narrator's attitude toward her relationship with Sam is expressed through the icy, and isolated, world that they exist in. Beyond this subtle layering, this story takes risks, trusting the reader's ability to read into deeper meanings of what is shown on the page. By the story's ending, one is left with a feeling of loss, which is always a mark of successful writing.
The anchor hanging on the wall dropped with a deafening crash as it shattered the glass buffet table beneath it. With her hands still bundled in a scarf, Iris inspected the wreckage. Hanging that anchor had always been a risky choice: Russian roulette of home décor. And now it had finally fallen.
"It looks like the ice made it too heavy for the hooks," said Iris. "Damn all this ice."
"I'll clean it later," said Sam from his armchair. "I have to clean all this at some point. When the sun rises, it will help melt the ice. I can't understand why it's so much colder in here than past years."
"It's because we forgot to pay the heat bill."
"Gas bill. We don't pay for heat just as we don't pay for sunlight. But we've gotten through colder winters than this. I've never seen the living room become some Siberian taiga."
Iris sat on the barstool in the corner where once a phone had hung from the wall before Sam demanded they stop paying for a landline. The chalkboard they had used to write down phone numbers remained, though a sheet of ice had enveloped it overnight. Iris leaned close to the board as more frost developed, droplet by droplet, making a thick crystal crust over the greenish-black surface. The carpet, the walls, the couch, and even the stool she sat upon had been overcome by the parasitic permafrost. The wool tips of her slippers became damp as ice began to spread to her. She bolted upright.
"This is unacceptable," said Iris. "Call the heat company ... gas company and tell them this is an emergency."
"I tried that already. I sent them a check, but it probably hasn't arrived yet."
"I wouldn't be surprised if the mailman has frozen to death on the side of the road. A blue bloated corpse with a bundle of credit card statements clenched in his fist. Crows peck out his eyes and a wolf devours his tongue. He's half-buried under snow and Ikea catalogues."
"If you were as clever as you were morbid, you'd have solved this problem by now."
"You want me to fix this? I have an idea. Get up."
"Come here and dance with me. We'll make heat, warm up this whole house." Iris grabbed Sam by his thumbs and tried to pull him up, but he wouldn't budge. His skin felt dead in her grasp like a fish at a market. She let go and ripped the quilt of his lap.
"Sam, your legs!"
Where his waist ended, two pillars of ice emerged and curved to the floor, his feet blending in with the frosted floor.
"I'm fine. It's actually kind of warm, like being in an igloo. Now give me back my quilt."
"No, this is too much. That can't be healthy."
The trashcans outside clattered and banged together. They looked up to see a white mass move past their window. A massive pair of lungs inhaled as a black nose pressed against the window, leaving a round smudge on the glass.
"Great, now your yelling has attracted local wildlife," said Sam.
"That's a polar bear! They're not local to New England."
"Give me back my quilt!"
She threw the sheet over his head and checked the locks on the door. She worried the bear would be drawn to the trout in the freezer. She remembered the freezer and how futile that seemed now. It must have been warmer in that enclosed space than in the living room.
"How small do you think I could contort my body?" she asked Sam.
She sat back on the stool and stared at the mess the anchor had made. The mess Sam had made. The mess she had made. She wondered how long the anchor would lay there atop the shattered glass and porcelain. They'd never adjusted the furniture since they moved into the house together. They'd never replaced the old heating unit. They'd never removed the cobwebs. And now the ice. Time had stopped moving ever since they'd moved in together, ever since they'd found out that their family could never grow.
Iris didn't bother Sam with any more questions. Instead, she stared out the window for hours until the sun fell behind the skyscrapers across the frozen river, the last rays making long red gashes across the bruised sky.
"It's dinnertime," said Iris. Sam didn't respond. "We have trout. We have soup."
She rose from the stool, a thin layer of frost sprinkling from her legs as she walked. She rounded the chair and found Sam glass-eyed with his mouth wide open like the entrance to an igloo. She allowed herself a few tears, but couldn't feel anymore come.
Besides, they'd just freeze on my face, she told herself.
She pushed his body to one side of the chair and sat next to him politely as though they were strangers sharing a bus seat. She watched the sunlight disappear completely and then saw what she had hoped for. The green and purple ripple of lights shone through the dark. She nudged Sam out of habit, then went back to watching the Aurora Borealis above the darkened cityscape. The breath rose from her mouth in thick plumes as ice entered her lungs.
Outside, no cars drove past.
Rita's Last Call
By Candy Rosenbaum
Judge's Comments: This story does an excellent job of creating a world that the reader can quickly enter into. Small details make this story come alive. The writer does a good job establishing place with the sidewalks, the bar.
It was nearly 1 a.m. and the snow was coming down fiercely. Usually, the street was full of college kids barhopping, but this night was even too cold for them. Anton had just finished his shift at the hospital and was heading to his apartment four blocks away. It might as well have been four miles away. The snow stung his face as he walked. Cold, hungry, and tired of being on his feet, he found a pub that was open called Rita's. Maybe they would at least have some pretzels or nuts, and he could sit until closing time. Maybe the snow would let up, he hoped.
The door chimed as Anton entered. Only one other customer was there. Anton politely brushed the snow off himself in the doorway. He sat at the end of the bar.
"What can I get ya?" the bartender asked with a dimply grin. She was short and plump, and reminded him of his Aunt Teresa. Anton looked for a name-tag. Surely, this was Rita, the owner.
"Just a Budweiser, and do you have any nuts or pretzels or anything? I'm starving."
Rita smiled, "I have some chips in the back, would that work?"
"Oh God, yes. Anything. Thank you." Anton made a mental note to leave a generous tip for this saint of a woman.
The other customer, a frail-looking old man, sipped his drink and peered at Anton, "Are you a doctor or something?"
"Oh ... no, I'm an R.N." Anton said, as he realized he was still wearing his powder-blue uniform.
"Ah ..." the man nodded.
Anton's face still felt frozen and his hands were still numb. Rita returned with some bags of chips. Anton warmed his hands with his breath so he could feel his fingers enough to open a bag.
"Sorry it's cold in here," Rita said. "We forgot to pay our heat bill."
Suddenly, the old man jumped up out of his chair. "What did you just say?"
"I said ... uh ... we forgot to pay ..."
"Your heat bill," the man interrupted, wide-eyed. "Oh dear. Not again. Oh no ..."
Rita and Anton looked at each other blankly. The old man rushed to the window and looked out.
"Sir? What's wrong?" Anton asked.
"Just ... wait. A bus will pass soon," the man said, motioning Anton to the window. Sure enough, a city bus loudly trudged down the road. He spun around and pointed at Rita. "You are going to have a heart attack, very, very soon. You won't survive."
"What??" Rita said, confused and offended.
"Listen, sir," Anton said calmly. "You're drunk. That was a pretty cool trick with the bus, but ..."
"No, no, this has happened before ... a few times now. Not always here, but, this exact series of events," he explained. "I meet a doctor ... or a nurse ... and then someone says they forgot to pay their heat bill ... then a bus goes by ... and then, someone has a heart attack, and dies! I'm not crazy!" The old man pointed. "You'll even try to save her, but you can't. It's her time," his voice trembled. "I can't watch this again. I can't watch her die. I'm sorry." And with that, the man left the bar abruptly.
Rita and Anton both stood stunned. After a few seconds, Rita exhaled. "Well that was weird ... I'm in perfect health," she said, trying to reassure herself, but Anton could see she was spooked. Her eyes glazed over. She felt tingly as if she would faint and grabbed the edge of the bar, swaying.
"You're okay. You're okay," Anton said, lunging toward her, steadying her. "I'll stay here and make sure."
Anton sat her down on a chair. He took her pulse, it was slightly elevated but nothing unusual. He got her a drink of water and checked her pupils. She was fine.
As the minutes passed, Rita felt better. "Thank you for being here."
Anton smiled, "I'm just glad you weren't alone with that nut."
He finished his chips and beer, slipped a $20 under his glass and promised Rita he'd visit again. She saw him out and locked up.
The snow had lightened up. Anton shuffled his feet to be sure not to slip as he started down the sidewalk. He got to the corner where he found the old man from the bar, lying on the sidewalk curled up in pain. He rushed to help the man. His pulse was erratic and he was clenching his chest. It was a heart attack. Anton dialed 911.
The old man painfully chuckled. "Ahhhh, it's me, not her ... don't bother, son." He gasped and smiled, "It's just my time."
Anton worked on the man until paramedics arrived, but it was too late. The man died, slightly smiling until his last breath.
Anton went home and was sleepless, trying to work out in his mind what had just happened. In the E.R. he had seen death more than most people, but he just couldn't wrap his brain around this one.
Many months passed and Anton had become a regular customer of Rita's. When autumn came around, the bars were once again packed with college kids.
Anton had some pretzels and beer. Another customer came in wearing scrubs, and introduced himself to Anton as an anesthesiologist. They struck up a brief conversation before the doctor's friend arrived.
A couple of young drunk guys sat at the end of the bar. They were loud. Rita just shook her head and smiled at Anton. They couldn't help but overhear them:
"Dude, my girlfriend's pissed."
"Ignore that chick."
"It was cold last night, she's really pissed."
"Uh oh, why?"
"We forgot to pay our heat bill."
Rita and Anton both froze.
Outside, a city bus went by.