Friday, February 22, 2008

NYC Midnight Short Story Contest Heat 23

So...I entered a short story contest. My limitations were I had a week to write it and it had to be less than 2500 words. I was assigned to write a fantasy story involving an ATM. Out of over 1,200 entrants they would pick the top forty stories to move to the final round. I came in around 20th with this tale of a man down on his luck, who discovers a tear in the fabric between worlds at the local ATM and the answers he has searched for since the murder of his wife become all too real.

I am not God
(2467 words)

The streets seemed darker than usual and Scott pulled his coat tighter around him. Threadbare and tattered, the jacket did little to keep out the cold, but he supposed it was better than nothing at all. Keeping his head down, he stared at the sidewalk before him. The shadows teemed with phantoms, lost people whose grip on reality had slipped, and eye contact could sometimes turn deadly. What would have been a safe ten minute drive home was now a dangerous forty minute walk thanks to a bad transmission.

In his head, he ticked off the bills he had to pay this week, trying to find a few extra dollars to fix the heater. If it were only him, he’d suffer through this winter as he had so many before, but his father lived with them now and at eighty-seven, never seemed to be able to get warm enough. And Joey, forced to grow up too quickly at eleven when his mom died two years ago, was beginning to lose faith in everything, but especially in Scott. They’d been so close once, back when the world was beautiful and bright. Was it too much to ask to be warm in the winter?

A soft breeze ran along the sidewalk, but no answers came with it. This year, like last year, the choice was a desperate one, warmth or food. He shook his head. They’d have to get in the mission line early this year, before the free blankets and food packages were all gone.

Up ahead he saw a man with wild, flyaway hair and carrying what looked like a machete, slip into the shadows of an alley and Scott chose to cross the street where he only had to avoid the occasional prostitute. In an apartment three blocks away his son and father waited for him, one angry, the other wilting and frail. How was it that paychecks from three jobs added up to just enough to squeak by? And even then only with the help of a landlady filled with compassion and understanding whenever the rent was late.

Taking a left onto Bayberry Avenue, Scott braced himself for the flood of memories attached to this street. On good days, he could shut them from his mind and walk these six blocks without tears. But tonight he was cold and tired. Depression rode him like some demon bronco buster intent on breaking his spirit, and that little bastard was really digging the spurs in deep.

He opened himself up to the taunting memories of a brighter time when his world still included Victoria, back when they were happy and Joey was still in diapers. Back before God closed his eyes and the world turned mean. They’d met on this street, lived on this street, loved on this street, and Victoria had died here. Two years ago, during a light dusting of snow, she’d parked her car and in the fifty yards between her Honda and the front door of their building, one of the shadow people took her from the world. Police found her body in an alley down the block, beaten, raped, and strangled. The snow had soaked her through and when Scott identified the body, her beautiful, long, brown hair was still wet and matted and a small puddle pooled beneath her neck.

Scott closed his eyes against the sting of fresh tears. It was that last image of her that finally destroyed his soul. Constant in his mind was the thought that she’d never again blow dry her hair, now forever plastered to her pale face, never again pull it into a ponytail to go jogging, never again brush it until it shined.

He hated this street, but he didn’t have to go as far as the alley where Victoria had died, only about half the distance. It was the only ATM on his way home and the closest one for twelve blocks. His Dad’s prescription needed to be filled, and Joey needed lunches for school. He would pull out the last remaining twenty from the only bank willing to give him an account and pray that the check he’d written to the electric company wouldn’t hit until Friday when his paycheck cleared. He still hadn’t gotten the heat turned back on yet.

The ATM jutted from the outside wall of the pharmacy, which had been closed for hours. The brick wall was covered in graffiti, but had been strong enough to withstand two robbery attempts to rip out the machine. The ATM was lit by a sodium vapor light from the roof of the building, but even as he approached, Scott knew something was wrong. The white pool of light spilled askew across the face of the automated teller, but the face itself was dark.

His shoulders fell, slumping even more, and he let out a deep sigh. For a moment he only stared at the blank screen and then tentatively ran his fingertips across the numbered keypad.

“That figures.”

He looked along the street for a long minute and his thoughts turned dark. A half mile away was the East Bay Bridge and a leap from there could solve his problems for good. A millisecond of bravery was all he’d need to step into the empty air. His heartache for Victoria and his failure as a father could end.

He stood there long enough for suicide to start sounding like a good idea, and then hastily turned and headed for home. The night felt colder now, or maybe it was the entire world that chilled. From behind him came a tinny, metallic chittering noise, like a mechanical chipmunk, and then a faint wispy sound like the faraway swish of a skater’s blade on ice. Scott turned around to see the last of four twenty dollar bills flutter to the ground.

It took several seconds for what he was seeing to sink in and then he slowly walked back to the machine. He nudged the bills with the toe of his work boot and then bent and scooped them up. Glancing cautiously up and down the darkened street, he slipped the bills into the pocket of his jeans, keeping them wadded tight in a protective fist. The screen of the ATM was still dark, save for a blinking cursor in the upper left corner. Scott punched at a few of the keys and when nothing happened, he pulled the bills from his pocket to examine them, to see if his luck had truly been good just this once. Satisfied, he folded them neatly this time and shoved them back into his pocket. “Thank God for small miracles.” It had been his mother’s saying and seemed to fit.

Immediately a chittering, high-pitched squeal emitted from the machine and words flashed across the screen:

I am not God

The words appeared just long enough for them to register in his mind before they disappeared again. He stared at the screen for a few seconds, and then with a glance at the security camera, he stepped to the front of the pharmacy and peered into the darkened store. He didn’t know how or who, but somebody was playing some sort of game. He decided to leave the money; with his luck, whoever was doing this would report the money stolen and point directly at him. Even if it was a joke, it was a mean one and he needed no part of it. But as he laid the money at the foot of the ATM, the chittering began again.

Joke? No. Keep the money

Scott blinked hard twice and re-read the screen. How could they know what he’d been thinking? Nervously, he stuffed the folded bills in his pocket and walked quickly away. The machine chittered again loud and insistent, but Scott kept walking. As he crossed the street, the noise became a sustained, high-pitched, parrot–like squawk rising in volume until it was all he could hear. It drowned out the sounds of the city, the traffic and the electric buzz of street lights, and resonated inside his skull like a dentist’s drill. When he couldn’t stand the noise anymore, Scott ran back to the ATM. The screeching stopped immediately but the screen remained blank. Breathing heavy, Scott closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the side of the machine. “Who are you?” His voice a whisper. “What do you want?”


He looked at the screen.

Do you miss your wife?

He groaned. What the hell was happening here? He was exhausted and not in the mood for games. The eighty dollars in his pocket would help ease his stress for a while, but the bills suddenly weighed a ton. “Yes,” he blurted. “I miss her. I miss her so much.” Scott stared at the screen awaiting a response. He was about to give up when the machine screeched again.

You have questions

He smiled grimly at the absurdity of talking to a machine, but he had never spoken to anyone about that night before and it felt good to get it out. “Yeah, I’ve got a few.”

There are answers

“Okay, I’ll bite. Why did she have to die?”

There are no answers here

His jaw dropped. “What the f...?” he said. It surprised him how much he had expected one. “What are you good for then?”

This machine is down. Sorry for the inconvenience. Please use our other ATM two blocks east of this location.

“Yeah...whatever,” he said and turned to leave. The machine chittered and the message blinked on and off and on again. His energy draining, he said, “I’m done.”


Not Yet

And then:

Please visit our other location two blocks east

Scott looked east along Bayberry. He could see clearly for several blocks. There was no ATM anywhere. He turned back to the screen.

Two blocks east

The high-pitched squawk began again and Scott started off briskly walking east before it could invade his mind again. After two blocks he stopped and turned slowly around in a circle. There was nothing. He looked back toward the ATM but it was dark, even the sodium vapor light had gone out. Turning to leave, he noted a soft, flickering blue glow emitting from the alley. A familiar, soft tinny chitter beckoned him forth. The alley lay before him like a waiting crocodile but he would not enter. This was where they found Vicki’s body. The chitter turned into the angry squawk and threatened to drive him insane in its intensity. His brain fairly vibrated with the sound. Cupping his hands over his ears, he fought against it until he no longer had the strength, and he slowly allowed the sound to pull him forward into the croc’s mouth.

Set into the alley wall, next to a trash bin, was an ATM with no markings, a screen and keypad encased in a frame but nothing more. The metallic squawk grew louder and he approached but ceased as he stood before the machine.

"ALL RIGHT!” He screamed. “I’m here, now what?”


Behind you

“What?” He glanced behind him just in time to see the wild-haired shadowman raise his machete above his head. Scott ducked to the left as the blade glanced off the wall, missing his head and sending angry sparks flying. The man pulled back for another swing and Scott tackled him. They fell into a pile of debris and the shadowman lost his grip. The machete clanged off the asphalt and slid a few feet away.

Scott rolled free and leapt up to run but a hand clamped around his ankle and brought him down. Suddenly the shadowman was on top of him, heavier and stronger than he looked.

With a primal scream, the man tried to bite Scott’s nose with his rotting teeth. Scott squirmed and bucked, fighting for his life, but when the shadowman’s teeth flashed too close, Scott head butted him. He shoved the man off and rolled toward the machete. Staggering to his feet, he stumbled toward the street.

From behind him, the shadowman screamed and lunged. Scott turned to face him and felt a knife blade sink into his shoulder. The shadowman yelped in triumph and drew out the blade before plunging it deep again.

He was going to die. Suddenly Scott was sure of it. He was going to die the same alley as Victoria...and he was going to die bloody. He could hear the tinny squawk of the ATM, rising in volume, but distant. Mustering his strength, he kneed the man between the legs and heard a satisfying pop. Shadow man screamed and staggered back a few steps. Scott fell to his knees. His hand closed on the machete. The ATM screeched at a fever pitch.

Shadowman came for him again and with the last of his strength Scott lunged forward swinging the big blade wide. He caught shadowman in the throat and a gusher of warm blood spewed forth spraying Scott in the face. The man’s mouth moved, but only a gurgle escaped. Blood soaked the shadowman’s shirt and then he pitched forward.

Scott leaned heavily against the brick wall. He was losing blood fast, becoming light-headed. He closed his eyes trying to muster the strength to find help.


He let out a weak chuckle. Pushing himself along the wall, Scott read the screen.

He killed Victoria. Tomorrow he would have taken Joey.

The tears came then, fresh and new. All the anger within him turned into a scream of rage and he threw the machete deep into the shadows of the alley. In a stumbling run, he left the alley, he had to get home – had to make sure Joey was alright. Weaving his way along the street, he prayed he would make it home before he passed out.

Twice he had to stop and vomit but somehow he made it inside his building and to his front door. His heart was racing and his mouth and nose were filled with the taste and smell of the blood soaking his shirt. He reached into his pocket for the keys, but his fingers no longer had the strength to grip them. He tried to knock but couldn’t. He moaned and haltingly slid to the floor. Drifting into the hall from beneath the door, he could feel warm air escaping. When the door opened a rush of fresh air warmed him, somehow the furnace was working. He glanced at the unit in the corner, sure he could hear a tinny chitter on the rising, heated air. And just for a second, as he slumped forward into Joey’s arms, he thought he saw a flickering blue light play along the furnace’s edge.