NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2017 - First Place Winner
Prompt: political satire, tyranny, a prankster. 2250 words.
“A blobfish. Unbelievable.”
“Well, if they can elect a cat mayor, why not?”
Chester had been honing his sorcery skills since he was a kid, alienating his friends one by one until only Steve remained. Steve's patience had, until recently, surpassed his amusement. He much preferred drifting his way through gen ed classes and searching for chicks to bang.
Since the veil between
science and magic had been lifted, allowing the two to coexist, the world was
certainly a more interesting place, floating in that overlapping niche holding
all forms of possibility. People were initially freaked out by this new
reality, and they were slow to see the potential benefits.
When Chester wasn’t studying, he’d spend too much time casting spells and playing practical jokes, forgetting the rest of the world existed. With the upcoming presidential elections, however, his passion towards magic had multiplied, and all he talked about was using his amateur skills to create some superhero to save the world. But this—attempting to get a blobfish appointed to the oval office as a trick—was a silly waste of time.
And if only he wouldn’t make his obsession so obvious, grandstanding out here in the middle of the student union where anyone could walk by.
“Yes, they elected a cat mayor once, but that was different.” Another blight on the state's ridiculous, corrupt history. It was a puppet cat. Clearly the officials had a man behind everything; the cat was just the friendly face of the town. A blobfish had no personality, no intelligent thought...barely even a shape.
“What if we put this on him, though?” Chester whipped a costume hairpiece out of a bag labeled “failed dictator wig.” The piece was an odd color, wispy with no real volume to it, as though it may have been a dust mop meant for children.
Chester lowered his voice to a menacing tone. ”Now I wave my magic wand...”
Pam, the buxom brunette from Chemistry, swiveled into Steve's peripheral vision and smiled and winked. Steve yanked Chester's arm down sharply. A blitz of light and static frizzed out of the wand's tip, then reversed, lighting up the metal and sizzling through Chester's veins. Steve smiled back, and Pam snaked her way up the steps and into the university.
“Hey!” Chester chopped
weakly at Steve’s hand.
“That's Pam Cisneros, you twit.”
“You fucked up my spell, man!” Chester shook his wrist as though it were numb. The pads of his thumb and forefinger were blackened.
“Fucked up nothing.
You need to give this a rest, okay? There are other things out
there besides wizardry and elections.”
“You could have killed
Bob. Don’t you realize that the blobfish are going extinct? A whole
species might disappear—”
“You named your science experiment?”
“Magic exists, Steve, there are studies linking the old-fashioned scientific—”
“I read the lecture
programs too. I don't care.”
“You're not listening. Again.”
a whole school full of free pussy, all up for grabs, and you're sitting here
playing with magic wands, for Christ's sake. It's like you're still eight
“Some females want a
man who's ready to take on the world, make big changes! Think about that.”
“Chicks, see, don't care about magic. It's lame. The only spell you know how to cast is the one where your friends disappear. And this is why. They're out getting a life.”
Chester seemed to shrivel. He always put on such a brave face, never questioning or complaining that he was alone except for Steve, but now…
“You don't get it.
You'll be sorry. This would have been a great prank, but after this
you can forget about joining me.”
Chester slid the
blobfish, wig hanging on by the thin gum of slime covering its body, into its
water tank and sealed the lid. He hoisted it on one hip, water splashing
out the louvered top as he waddled back to his private dorm room. Steve's
stomach twisted as he squared his shoulders, remembering the day Chester's
parents had pleaded with the deans to give him a home away from home, even paid
extra for the space. Then they jumped in their car, stirring up dust as
they sped down the road. Chester didn't even get to say goodbye.
Worse, he never again got to say hello.
Chester stopped showing
up to classes. No one had seen him around campus for weeks, and Steve was
starting to worry about him. He thought about using his spare key to
check out Chester’s dorm room. He was restless, sorry, and just wanted to
take Chester out for a beer, or have a cookout.
Were blobfish edible?
Steve wandered through
the student union, hoping to see a pasty little guy in a wizard hat, digging
around in a purple and silver bag, and maybe talking to squirrels.
Propaganda promoting the new Independent candidate covered every open
space. Its—Bob’s—likeness revealed only a bit of brow and one
beady, judging eye, the wig hovering above like dandelion fluff. The
posters were matte, so the sheen of mucus wasn't noticeable. In big block
letters at the bottom of the posters was his name: Bob Fische. Steve had
to admit it was pretty clever, despite groaning at the pun. And it put
his mind at ease knowing that Chester mustn't have taken his comments to heart.
He'd probably cooled off already. He was just busy.
But as the election grew closer, there was still no sign of Chester. Bob was garnering more and more traffic on his websites and social media pages. Pictures and memes bounced around the internet until it was impossible to escape them. He even had his own blog, proselytizing about the dangers of outsiders and the ills of society and the need for vaguely defined reorganization...the usual rhetorical bullshit.
running for every office ever, were crooks. Steve figured the general population was smart enough to elect an
adequate guy without any effort on his part. It had worked well enough so
far. At least the disappointment that ultimately came couldn’t be
attributed to his bad decisions, and having more time for everything else in
life was worth a little willful ignorance.
But for some reason,
this one prank was like chains around his ankles. It was just so weird.
The blog posts were laden with subtle nautical puns and asides as though
taunting people to guess Bob’s real identity. Some people seemed to have
caught on to the joke while others said they just liked the cut of his jib—a
pun that only served to add to the confusion. The blurry border between
reality and whimsy was becoming as solid as a brick wall.
Any excuse for a frat party was a good excuse, especially when there was booze to dull the senses. Though everyone on campus was sick of all the election talk, Kappa Delta Phi decided to turn Voting Day into a kegger, inventing drinking games to take the edge off. By the time Steve showed up, passed-out idiots littered all three floors. The few brothers remaining upright whipped out their wallets and, with their skinny, sorority sweethearts draped over their biceps, made bet after bet about how the polls would shift. The raucous laughter and snide one-liners were funny for a while, but the noise had become overwhelming. Steve drifted off to the porch for another refill, enjoying the muted snippets of voices.
He plopped down on the
porch swing in front of an open window to listen to the Democratic candidate's
final address. It was a lot more tolerable with a little bit of
disconnect. She had a pretty voice but droned on forever, so her speech
was easy to ignore. Next up was the Republican. Her voice was
flintier and harsher but jingoistic and casual. Voters loved that folksy
shit; she'd probably win it. Steve raised his cup to no one and took a
swig. To democracy.
“Oh my God!”
“Everybody shut up!”
“I can't believe this guy's speaking!”
“Holy shit, no way.”
The voice sounded
familiar, but gurgly, as if the man was underwater when he spoke. Steve
sprang up and ran back into the main room, where the brothers huddled around
the TV making wagers in raspy whispers. Bands of blue, red, and white
stretched across the bottom of the screen, showing the Independent miles ahead.
The partiers cheered and toasted, their candidate the clear frontrunner.
The screen didn't reveal a live person, just a still of the infamous, half-face poster. Rather than make an appearance, the candidate had called in via Skype. The clamor softened long enough for Steve to hear the last half of Bob's statement: “Do you expect me to wave my magic wand and fix everything overnight?”
Steve dropped his cup,
splashing beer into a comatose pledge's lap. He needed to find Chester
before he got into real trouble. Idiot’s going to get himself arrested
for election fraud or something.
He hopped in his car and peeled out of the driveway towards the dorms. All the windows were dark except for an eerie blue light glowing from Chester's. He took the steps three at a time and burst in without bothering to knock.
Chester and a gelatinous pink fish shared a giant tank of murky water. The gurgly voice continued, only now it was giving a victory speech full of trumped-up lies and overzealous remarks about preserving “exceptionals”. The news anchor seemed to be eating it up.
Steve watched, paralyzed, until the host signed off and Skype went dark. Chester and Bob spun in their tanks at the sound of Steve clearing his throat. Chester's skin was slick like kelp and he seemed to sag. Bob's flaccid body had grown rudimentary limbs. His melted, sad clown expression and Chester's lopsided grin widened in unison. ”Hello there.” Both creatures mouthed the words, but only one voice came through. It was definitely Chester's, but with the frothy, salt-roughened sound of the sea.
“How are you, buddy?
I haven't seen you in a while.”
Steve couldn't tell who
was speaking. Everything was mirrored exactly: the words, the tone, even their
body language. ”What's going on here? Is that fish talking?”
“We both are.
There's no separating us now. We had an epiphany with that spell,
thanks to you,” they said with great appreciation. Chester's eyes shone
with pride and unshed tears. ”A few weeks from now we'll take over the
country, and in a matter of months, the world. We had no idea things
would be this easy.”
“How did this happen?”
“Blame the disintegration of the threshold between science and magic,” he said. ”It was a difficult thing for the average mind to understand. I empathize. Those—people—couldn't tell you which end was up, how many frontiers could be broken. Only a mind like mine could manipulate the two, bend them to my will. But now they're in the way.”
“In the way?”
“They should have taken
more classes in evolutionary science and the like. Clearly Darwin is at
work here! We can't have simpletons clogging up progress. We only
have room for our best. Creatures like us. Now people will listen
to us like they should have all along.”
In the corner was a fire extinguisher. Steve snatched it up and swung back to strike the tank. Lasers shot from Chester's fingers and electrified the metal, burning a cylinder into Steve's palm.
“Idiot. Water and electricity. Remember basic science? Once I harnessed the two within our bodies I realized we could become one, give ourselves what the other lacked.”
There was nothing else in the room besides books and electronics. Not a thing to fight them with. Steve backed out of the room, racing to his car in a daze. He sped down the street as the media vans rushed in.
It was painfully bright
and unquiet at KDP. The girls were crying. Some were calling their
mothers. The noise had morphed into a surging vibration that Steve could feel
in his bones. He grabbed at the brothers' collars with his good hand and
kicked at their legs, but they sat unfazed by the increasing abuse. The
polls were closed. It no longer mattered.
“Stop. We've never seen the likes of this,” one of the pledges said, nudging Steve away. He grinned, fascinated. He tried to sip his beer but missed.
“What do you mean?”
He pointed to the TV.
Cameras captured Chester's tirade, pointing his wand at a map of the city
hanging along one wall, casting spells that obliterated entire towns and
populations that were considered lower class. The crawl at the bottom of
the screen listed disasters at such a pace Steve couldn't keep up.
“Wow, I can’t even—I guess I’ll go to bed. Maybe when I’m sober this will make more sense.” The pledge rose and smacked Steve on the arm.
“Go to bed! Don't
you get it? He's coming for you next. He believes only those
with abilities in both worlds should live. People like you and me aren't
good enough anymore.”
“What? Who told you that?”
“He told me himself. Chester’s behind all this. You remember—”The brother chuckled so hard some of the frightened girls started to smile in spite of themselves. ”Oh, of course! I remember him! Good ol' Chester. That explains everything—it's all just a joke. This is just another one of his pranks. He doesn't, like, mean it.”
The Writer's Weekly 24-Hour contest is exactly that; a challenge to write a short story in 24 hours. The topic is emailed to entrants at the start, so there is no time to prepare material ahead of time. The topic could be used in its entirety or just vaguely, as long as it's obvious they're connected. The topic for the Summer 2014 contest was as follows: "She rolled her eyes as another one of her cabin mates tried to stifle sobs. She couldn't believe she had to stay at this horrible camp all summer! Her stomach growled. As she stepped toward her trunk for a forbidden snack, she tripped on a loose board. Curious, she leaned over to peek between the cracks, and saw..."
Sara rolled her eyes as another of her cabin mates tried to stifle sobs. She couldn't believe she was taken to this horrible camp for the whole summer! It was only the first day and already she hated it. She didn't even fully understand the language of the people running it. Her stomach growled. She rolled out of her tiny, lumpy bed and prowled around, thinking maybe one of these girls smuggled in something from supper. As she moved around in the dim moonlight she tripped on a loose board. She leaned over to peek into the gap and saw a pair of eyes staring up at her. She fell back and stifled a shriek. Curious, she leaned over for another look. It was so dark under the floorboards and the intruder's face was so streaked with grime that Sara couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl. The child's eyes darted around as though there may be a monster lurking nearby. Before Sara could speak a finger was drawn up to the intruder's lips as the other hand wildly beckoned.
"Okay, okay," Sara hissed, irritable from having done nothing but chores all day and being sent to bed without supper once she was told she was doing them wrong. It didn't matter where this child was going, as long as it was away from here! Sara lowered herself into the hole, the wood floor threatening to crack under the pressure of her chubby, 7-year-old arms. The ground was damp down there, and foul, like the animal smell of her aunt's farm.
"Where are you?" the child had retreated into the darkness but reemerged when Sara spoke. He grabbed her hand and only then did Sara realize he was a boy; his hand was larger than hers and rougher, and he was wearing an oversized undershirt. He pulled her through the dark tunnel, slowly at first, then more quickly as Sara became more sure of her footing. The boy was impatient.
"Hey, what's your name? Where are we going?" Sara asked.
"Daniel," he answered breathlessly, throwing the name over his shoulder as they ran. He did not answer the rest of the question, but followed up with a terse "Sh."
Eventually Sara saw a beam of light up ahead, like someone had left a door slightly open. Daniel leapt towards it, grabbing onto the precipice and raising himself up. He froze there, with just his head peeking out of the narrow space. Then, in one smooth motion, he disappeared upwards. Sara panicked; was he going to leave her here in the dark? Then Daniel's eyes peered into the tunnel and he extended one thin arm, his hand waving frantically for hers. She grabbed hold and Daniel pulled her up after him. Flopping onto her back, she saw that they were at the end of a long row of cabins. The yard was silent and dimly lit; it was not moonlight that had been shining through her cabin window, but the pale glow of large floodlights that gave everything a bluish tint. There was a fence surrounding the camp, and just beyond it sat a train. There were so many cars that Sara didn't have time to count them before Daniel sharply drew in his breath and pushed her up against the cabin wall. She was getting awfully tired of being shoved this way and that for a great messy nothing of an adventure, but then she saw what was the matter: a huge hulking man in a brown uniform stalked the fence slowly, a tough-looking dog chained at his side, panting so heavily his breath could be seen in the cool night air.
"We need to crawl under that fence, through that hole, there," Daniel whispered, gesturing at a point not far away from them but too far for Sara to see. "But we can't let that guard see us." Sara could see now that Daniel was about her size, but he looked ancient, like a little old man. "We’ll hide in that train, which is heading back north in the morning."
"Are you going home to your mom and dad then?" Daniel gave her a pitying look. His face pinched up like he'd been slapped and tears welled up in his eyes.
"Ausbruch!” The shout broke the silence and, almost simultaneously, the entire camp was flooded with garish white light. Sara saw the hole that Daniel pointed out, and it was closer than she thought. She could not see the guard and his dog or understand his language, but she knew the thunderous sound of many boots pounding the earth meant trouble. She clasped hands with Daniel and they darted towards the fence, staring straight ahead to avoid the eyes of the enemy. Daniel crouched to dive underneath when they sensed a movement from the train. More men in brown uniforms stepped out, clutching rifles. There were dozens of them, moving stiffly as they advanced, as though sleepwalking. The children heard screaming far in the distance, along with the shouts of "Halt!" They turned, searching desperately for another escape, when a cloud of smoke diverted their attention. A great plume was growing from a building to the southeast. Daniel's shoulders slumped in defeat. The guard with the dog loomed above them, and Sara understood.