Here is my entry for the finals of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015.
I had 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story based on these prompts:
As a a first-timer to this competition, I never expected to get this far. I feel very honoured and grateful.
I would also like to pay a massive thanks to all the people who have beta-read for me throughout the competition. Your help was invaluable.
Thanks for reading and, as always, feedback is welcomed.
Results will be announced (in the UK) on December 18.
By Donna-Louise Bishop
(Brief Synopsis: Armed with an old Zippo and a tin of lighter fluid, will Ashley be able to honour her mom’s dying wish and finally put to rest the past of Cornfield Animal Sanctuary? Twenty years on, it’s time she found out.)
Twenty years ago the apple tree would have been bursting with ripe fruit, ready to pick. Now it was dead.
Standing beneath a weathered sign welcoming visitors to Cornfield Animal Sanctuary, Ashley glared inside. The place had gone to shit.
Gone were the days when the smell of her mom’s homemade cookies wafted in the air. Now her nostrils were dominated by the stench of faeces and rancid water. The laughter of her youth had long been replaced with the whistling of the wind as it clutched at the corners of the abandoned buildings. Now the breeze wrapped itself around her body, playfully sweeping hair over her face, before toying with a chain hanging loose on the metal gate. The rhythmic ting irritated her.
As the puddle-stained ground began to absorb her well-worn Wellington boots, she sighed. It had been a favourite childhood pastime to stomp in the mud here, pretending to be various farm animals.
The day Pete moved in had been one of her mom’s happiest. That was the day the sanctuary became about more than just the animals; it was about the three of them building a home together and turning her mom’s dream into a real family affair. It had been a haven for them all, until Pete destroyed everything.
They had no choice after that but to leave.
Ashley extracted her foot from the mud and, distracted by the squelch from her boot, lost her train of thought. She forced herself to walk through the gate.
Most of the windows from the soiled concrete structures around her had been smashed. The fields near the entrance, once home to a dozen frail donkeys, had become an overgrown breeding ground for rats. She shuddered when she caught sight of one running into the undergrowth, its trail exposed as it flattened blades of grass in its eagerness to return to one of its many damp tunnels.
There was another large field behind the dilapidated enclosures. Before it became home to cattle, she played soccer with Pete there and recalled being kind of good at it.
Consumed by sadness, Ashley made her way into the belly of the sanctuary. What once had been a shelter built with love, was now the most depressing place in the world. She pulled her coat tight around herself and approached the old headquarters. Her mom’s office was above the storage room on the top floor and overlooked the entire site.
Stomach acid seeped into her mouth from the back of her throat as she made her way up the steel steps. The words “temporarily closed” greeted her from a sheet of paper stuck to the inside of the glass-panelled door. The sticky tape holding it up had dried out, turning yellow long ago. Ashley’s eyes stung. It was her mom’s handwriting.
The keys in her pocket burned like hot coal against her fingertips and she desperately wanted to turn back around. She had to do this though, for her mom and for herself.
Over the years the two of them had often talked about Cornfield. They spoke of happier times and agreed the worst part about leaving had been sending the animals away and watching as the volunteers left one by one.
A few months earlier, before cancer took her mom away, Ashley promised to rebuild what they had started all those years ago. Her mom had told her she wasn’t to let Pete win.
Ashley gritted her teeth and placed the key in the lock. It turned with surprising ease and she opened the door. A damp smell radiated from the room and she braced herself against the wall.
Nothing had changed. Even the familiar rings of coffee that stained the top of her mom’s desk remained. A self-confessed caffeine addict, she would often joke the first mug of the day was the same as putting on a bulletproof vest before going to war.
The small room at the back of the office called to her but it was like her feet were encased in ice. She stared at the navy paint peeling off the wooden door. She had to enter it, if she wanted to move on. The hinges squeaked.
The windowless playroom had also remained the same, untouched since that day. The same Barbie dolls strewn across the floor, the same bookshelf filled with every Sweet Valley High book she could get her hands on and the same baby pink couch where she would sit and waste the time away by daydreaming.
Everything changed following that last daydream of her youth.
It had been much like any other Sunday afternoon, except this time her mom was away and Pete had relapsed.
His boots were heavy on the ground as he made his way up the muddy yard and into the office. Up close, the smell of alcohol oozed out of his pores like worms wriggling to the surface after a heavy day’s rain. It seeped from his mouth when he whispered “our little secret” into her ear and forced her further down into the couch.
With her arms pinned down, his rough jumper slid against her skin as he forced himself inside her vulnerable thirteen-year-old body, grunting like one of the rescued pigs.
Thankfully, albeit too late, one of the volunteers heard her screams. Pete was arrested and justice eventually serviced, but living at the sanctuary hadn’t felt right after that.
Today things were going to change.
Ashley grabbed the couch by its faded arms and dragged it outside to the top of the stairs. She pushed it and watched it fall, twisting and breaking itself into an unnatural position.
Back on the ground, she pulled a small tin of lighter fluid from her pocket and doused the tainted furniture, before setting light to it with an old Zippo. The fire erupted over the surface of the couch and her face began to warm in the cool breeze.
She smiled as she looked into the heart of the flames.