Every quarter, my publishers (BookLocker) have a 24-hour short story contest. The idea is that you sign up in advance, and on the day of the contest, the organizers release the topic and a maximum word count.
So, I entered the Winter 2019 contest a couple of weeks ago. Here's the topic they gave us, with a limit of 900 words:
He should have found the first one by now! He walked faster.
Father had told him to take care of his mother and sister.
He had to check the traps! His head turned left, right,
and then left again. Identical snow-laden branches stretched
far into the darkening forest. Trying not to cry, he sniffed,
and then stopped, his nose in the air. Was that smoke?
He squinted through the trees, and saw...
And here's my submission. Results will be published around February 23. Enjoy!
My Sister’s Keeper
The snow crunches beneath my boots as I sneak through the bushes, following the routes that I know, from ample experience, will provide me with the maximum cover. Ordinarily I would be calm, confident, and while not exactly relaxed, you could say “in the Zone”. But this time I have an extra concern on my hands: Juliet.
“This is so dumb,” I mutter to myself, crouching behind a snow-laden hedge, using the telescopic sights on my rifle to scan for hostiles. Why, oh why did I agree to let her come with me? She’s only eleven years old, for crying out loud! Mom and Dad left me in charge of her; with no small amount of guilt I consider that this is probably not what they had in mind. But she had insisted! Didn’t I tell her that this wasn’t for little girls? Only about a hundred times! But she had brought out her most fearsome weapon: the tears. And eventually she wore me down. So I let her trade her tears for a rifle of her own and told her to stay with me. I must have told her to stay with me also about a hundred times. A hundred times! And we hadn’t been even five minutes into the forest when I turned around and found that she wasn’t there! As soon as I realized she was missing, I doubled back. There were her footprints, leading straight into an unprotected clearing! What was she thinking, dammit?!
No way I could just charge after her like that. Clearly there hadn’t been any hostiles when she entered the clearing, else her body would be there now–but I couldn’t take that chance. So here I am now, slinking through the undergrowth, scanning in every direction for Juliet–or someone who would kill either of us at the first opportunity.
I look in all directions, and see only identical, snow laden branches. “Juliet, where are you?” I whisper, not daring to raise my voice. I feel a rising dread. “No, Kevin,” I sternly address myself. “No going to pieces now. You’re not doing yourself or Juliet any favors by panicking. You are the master of this terrain. Play on your terms, not theirs.”
Two steady breaths, and I am back to myself. I focus on the situation at hand. Where are they, anyway? I should have seen at least one hostile by now. I know they are out there. If I haven’t seen them, then they’re smarter than the usual bunch. Time to check for traps. I grab a long stick from the frozen ground and balance my helmet on it. Slowly, gently, I push the headgear above the top of the bushes, so that it protrudes about two meters from where I’m crouching.
Suddenly I hear a noise behind me, like a stone hitting the ground, hard. Quickly withdrawing the stick, I spin around and see a small, smoking hole in the snow, about five meters away. Somebody has shot at my decoy, and missed. Instinctively I calculate the angle of trajectory. Within a second, I pop up over the top of the hedge and fire two quick shots in the direction where I know my adversary must be. A cry, the sound of breaking branches, followed by a muffled thud as the body hits the snow. One down.
Carefully I scurry around to find my fallen foe, all the while keeping an eye out for more of his buddies. A quick search of his corpse yields excellent results. His gun is twice as powerful as mine, and he has an ammo belt with five grenades. Had. Now, they are mine.
I am just congratulating myself on my conquest, when out of the corner of my eye, I see something else that doesn’t look natural, projecting from behind a nearby tree trunk. I whirl around, aiming my newly acquired blaster at the object, ready to fire. But there is no need. It’s just a leg. A leg, presumably attached to a body…
My heart sinks to my stomach. Juliet! Throwing caution to the wind, I sprint over to the tree, and peer around it, praying that I am wrong. But I am not. There she lies, lifeless, her rifle by her side. Numbed by what I see, I kneel by her side, forgetting where I am. I close my eyes briefly, and take in a deep breath.
Suddenly I stop. Is that smoke? I should not be smelling smoke. Something is wrong.
I yank off the Virtual Reality goggles, to find Juliet standing in front of me, a sheepish look on her face. She is holding a bowl of burnt popcorn. It stinks.
“I wasn’t enjoying the game,” she explains, “so I got out.”
I am annoyed. “Juliet! I was looking everywhere for you! Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving the game?”
“You looked like you were having fun, so I didn’t want to disturb you. I decided to watch a movie instead, and I went to make popcorn, but…” She shakes the bowl with a timid smile.
I roll my eyes. “You cooked it for too long, again?”
I chuckle and gently stroke her cheek. “Come, I’ll make some more for you. What movie do you want to watch, anyway?”
She lights up. “What about Terminator?”
I laugh. “Now we’re talking!”