NYC Midnight are an organisation outta NYC (who'd've thunk it?) running regular writing competitions - short stories, flash fiction, screenwriting, etc. They give you parameters and you have to write based around strict guidlines. It's quite good for getting the creative juices flowing. I've entered two of the comps; last year's Flash Fiction and this year's Short Story. Both times I've scored genres I don't even read let alone write in. Funnily enough, when they've challenged me the most, I've done better in the end.
This here is the first story written for the 2010 Flash Fiction challenge: 1,000 words, 28 hours. I was assigned horror/a wishing well/a baby stroller. I struggled with this a little; I realised after the first draft that I'd actually written a ghost story, not a horror, and so had to re-work the ending. I think you can tell. Keen to hear thoughts...
It was hotter than usual in Oodnadatta; the town’s weekly delivery of supplies from the big city hadn’t yet arrived, and the pub was running dangerously low on beer. Its lone ceiling fan creaked away, threatening to dislodge itself from the exposed beam at any minute. The tin roof made the run-down local akin to an oven, but the whole town was in here today. Today, of all days. Because it’s happened again.
The baby stroller has appeared at the old wishing well.
The well, now disused but once a focal point for the thriving wartime community, has stood in the centre of town since the late 1800s. At its dark and dank bottom, coins spanning a century contain the wishes of generations. And, it is said, the bones of Jack Thompson, the newborn son of Alice and Jack Snr. Local legend goes that young Alice, distraught at the news that Jack Snr had gone MIA along the Oodnadatta Track after setting off in 1952, went crazy with grief and threw Jack Jr down the well. But she immediately regretted it. She refused to be moved from the well, cooing to soothe the cries of her months-old son. Late the next day, the cries ended, and Alice disappeared.
Plenty of those in the pub remember the Thompsons. Oodnadatta’s population has steadily declined since then, partly due to economic reasons, partly due to the legend. Those who have left along the dusty track have always been young’uns. The stroller is the reason; the stroller, and the spectre. The stroller, the spectre, and the tragedies.
The stroller has appeared at the well at daybreak the day after a local lass announces a pregnancy; it’s done this for the last 40 years. Yesterday, Kayleen and Craig Wilson, newlyweds and new to town, revealed their happy news. Craig is a truck driver; he’s away at the moment. They had been waiting for him to return before announcing the pregnancy, but Kayleen’s elderly neighbour, Madge, had guessed. The announcement was made at the pub last night. This morning, the town awoke to see the stroller.
Kayleen heard about the legend for the first time last night, and went home ashen-faced. Spooked. She heard how the stroller appears. She heard about the exodus of procreating-age residents since the ‘70s. She heard how those local lasses who do stick around, and get pregnant, don’t stay pregnant for long – not once the stroller appears at the well. Tonight, the cries of a newborn will ring around the town, and the spectre of Alice Thompson will be crouched by the well, singing to her dying son at the bottom.
Perhaps in a peace offering, Kayleen was seen at lunchtime by the well, laying flowers for young Jack; Madge was with her, a protective arm around the newlywed. It was the only time she was seen today.
Now, the town is abuzz, but the sun is setting, and the residents don’t want to encounter Alice. The pub empties, and everyone is locked up in their houses.
And, as the sun sets, the cries ring out. Alice can be heard soothing young Jack. “Hush-a-bye baby, don’t you cry...”
Kayleen can hear the cries. She’s locked herself in her bedroom, drawn the curtains, locked the doors and windows to her small house on the main street. It’s a basic house; the bedroom, sitting room, bathroom and kitchen all come off the central hallway. There’s a veranda running all the way around the outside; in the dusty backyard, an old swing set creaks in the wind. Kayleen has been trying to get hold of Craig all day, but he’s been out of range. She can hear Alice calling, and Kayleen is frozen with terror. She tries Craig again; no luck. She’s never been one for ghost stories... But she can hear it! She can hear the baby crying!
She tries the police, but: “Sorry, love. We can’t get involved.” No further explanation. She’d be angry, but now the whispering is getting closer. And Alice is no longer calling for Jack; she’s calling for Kayleen.
There’s footsteps on the veranda; a rattling at the door, then at each of the windows. Alice is trying to find a way in. Kayleen mentally checks the locks on each of the openings. The bathroom window!! Too late... Alice is in the house. She’s calling for Kayleen as she moves slowly down the creaky hallway. Kayleen is frozen in terror, too scared to breathe. She finds the strength to move to the window, and climbs out.
She runs down the street, towards the well. Alice’s spectre is no longer there; probably because the white figure is stepping from Kayleen’s veranda, heading towards her, calling for her. Jack is still crying at the bottom of the well.
Kayleen runs to the Maguires’ house, knocking in panic on the front door. She calls out for help, but Col appears at the window, and shakes his head.
She runs to the well. The figure is closer now. But Kayleen can see it’s not the spectre at all.
Kayleen breathes a sigh of relief.
“It’s only you. I thought Alice had come to get me!”
“Oh, but I have, Kayleen dear. I have.”
“Madge, what are you playing at? This isn’t funny!”
Kayleen begins to remember Madge’s story. She’d been away from Oodnadatta for years, and returned a while back. Around 40 years ago... Around the same time that pregnant women began to be harassed.
The moonlight glints on the edge of Madge’s knife.
“I lost my baby; why should you get to keep yours?”
Madge is now facing Kayleen, across the well. Kayleen remembered the stories; all those girls, no longer pregnant, and with the name “Jack” scrawled on their bedroom walls in their own blood. Some of them had survived, some of them hadn’t.
And then she heard it, a town full of voices, in unison, started to sing.
“Hush-a-bye baby, don’t you cry...”