So for this round, I had one week to create a short story based on the criteria they gave me.
I had HORROR/ADVERTISING/ A BULLY
Here is what I came up with, I would love any feedback you would care to share, bit good and bad!
Feel the Burn
Jacob Bodeen tossed off the sheets and sat up in bed. This was the third night this week that he couldn’t sleep. The heat was part of it. His broken air conditioner wheezed and shook and tried to cool the place, but all it really succeeded in doing was pushing the hot air around the room like a soft breeze from hell.
Sleeping with the window open barely helped, but the bright lights of the billboard directly across the street lit up his room, painting the walls in their bright red neon. The advertisement was for some new brand of lipstick and both the lips and the stick glowed with the promise of electric sex.
The woman on the billboard, more beautiful than any he had ever seen, was looking directly at the camera with her lips, full and voluptuous, parted ever so slightly as the tip of the red lipstick was poised for penetration.
Jacob didn’t know anything about advertising, but he knew what he liked.
On more than one occasion he had stared back into those deep hazel eyes and pleasured himself. On those nights with his eyes closed and his mind lost in fantasy, he could swear the woman in the sign whispered the nastiest things into his ear.
He was handsome enough, and had dated women off and on most of his life, but none of them compared to the beauty out the window. And once those women got a good long look at the scar tissue that covered most of his body, they couldn’t run away fast enough.
With a sigh, he rolled onto his side and allowed the billboard to lull him to the edge of sleep with the soft buzz of its incandescent spotlights. His eyelids grew heavy and just as he started to drift, with the prospect of sleep no longer just a distant concept, a loud thud came from the bathroom followed immediately by the unmistakable sound of the toilet lid slamming shut.
Jacob rolled over, turning his back on the most beautiful woman in the world, and stared at the doorway to the bathroom. The neon glow of lipstick was not strong enough to penetrate the shadows that far into the room. He squinted into the darkness a minute more, listening. But when all he heard was the sound of his own breath, he lay his head back down; sure that sleep would elude him for the rest of the night.
Staring at the ceiling, trying to take deep, rhythmic breaths, a soft lullaby entered his thoughts. It was the same song his mother had sung to him every night as a child when the night terrors would wake him screaming from whatever nightmare they’d chased him through. She would come and sit at his bedside, stroking the top of his head and singing a sweet song of love and loss.
That was always the thing with lullabies, they sounded sweet and innocent but the words sometimes told a different story. And as the grown-up Jacob drifted away on the lilting voice filling his mind, he thought that tonight, the lullaby sounded just a bit sinister.
The thumping woke him around three o’clock. He came instantly awake. The room was like a sauna and the hot air had a weight to it that was hard to move through. It took real effort to raise his hand to his face and wipe the sweat from his eyes. There was a humid stickiness to the air, like when he took long showers in the winter with the apartment sealed up against the cold and the water hung lazily in the unmoving air.
The toilet seat slammed in the bathroom and Jacob started. He swung his legs over the edges of his bed and listened intently. There was nothing for a long time and then, softly there came a thump. It had been subtle and deliberately quiet, as if whoever was in there moved stealthily, not wanting him to hear. Or maybe they had wanted him to hear after all. Maybe whoever it was had made just enough noise that he would hear but the neighbors wouldn’t.
“Who’s there?” He called out to the darkness. Reaching beneath his bed, Jacob retrieved the baseball bat he kept there. He’d hit the winning run with it during the CIF playoffs his senior year in high school, and if it was good enough then he was damn sure it would be good enough for whoever was in his apartment.
Jacob edged toward the bathroom door. Snaking his hand inside, he flipped on the light.
He took a second, longer look, staring into the mirror which showed the shower and the rug on the floor and the towel rack where his towel hung, it showed the clothes hamper in one corner and the toilet in the other. The lid to the toilet was down. Across from the commode was a small window, too small for anyone but a small child to crawl through. Everything was clean and tidy and where it should be.
He edged around the door with his bat raised high and stepped into the bathroom. The smell hit him full force like a punch to the face, and he recoiled back out of the room. It had smelled of urine and shit and burned plastic, there was no other way to describe it.
It had smelled like his childhood.
A sudden, horrible memory slammed into him and he nearly slumped to the floor with the weight of it. He was thirteen years old and it was the last week of summer camp. For the entire summer Jacob had avoided a beating by the camp bully, a fifteen year old named Stanley Renker, though there had been several close calls. A dozen times in the mess hall, Stanley had knocked the tray from Jacob’s hands and whispered, “Feel the burn.” But Jacob was good at making himself scarce and for the entire summer, the dumped trays had been the worst of it. Until the final week.
They came for him while he slept. His cot was closest to the door of the cabin and they simply reached in and grabbed him under his blanket. He struggled and fought, but the blanket held him like swaddling and he was defenseless. Somebody pulled a pillow case over his head. He screamed and a few lights went on in some of the cabins, but nobody came to rescue him. It was summer camp after all and pranks were a part of the experience. They built character according to the counselors. They were harmless. By the time the adults figured out they were wrong, Jacob was nearly dead.
The bullies carried him out to the lake and tied his hands and feet with knots they had learned that very summer. They gagged him with a jock strap from somebody’s locker and tossed him into the blue plastic outhouse that stood lakeside for emergency use. “Feel the burn!” Stanley shrieked as Jacob struggled and lunged from the outhouse. Stanley shoved him back against the wall and Jacob slipped to the floor in whatever disgusting slime was there. The bullies laughed and slammed the door shut. Jacob heard a padlock snap into place and knew he’d lost the fight. He’d have to wait until a counselor came down for a swim in the morning. If this was the worst of it, he could bear it. The humiliation would be bad, but he would only have to deal with the jeers for another week.
From outside the outhouse there was a commotion and then a voice said, “Jesus, Stanley, what the hell are you doing?”
Stanley only laughed and repeated, “Feel the burn.” But there was something in his voice then, something that scared Jacob bad.
The sudden smell of gasoline filled the night air and Jacob edged to the door, peering through the crack at its edge. A soft orange glow filled his vision and then the first of the flames licked up the side of the outhouse. Jacob screamed and kicked at the door. The blue plastic walls began to run and molten plastic dripped from the ceiling onto Jacob’s skin. Within a minute, the entire outhouse was aflame and beginning to melt into itself. Jacob’s skin blistered as the burning plastic dripped onto his scalp and arms. His heart hammered in his chest and he knew he was about to die.
With every ounce of courage he had, amped up by the intense fear of being burned alive, Jacob lunged against the door, coating the right side of his body in burning plastic. With a shriek he lunged again, and the melting door bulged outward. With a third lunge, he broke through and the melting door wrapped around him as he fell. Rolling down the slight incline, Jacob threw himself into the lake. The plastic cooled immediately and bonded to his exposed skin. The world grayed before his eyes and he forced himself up onto the bank of the lake. As his head hit the dirt, he passed out.
Stanley and his goons spent three years in Juvenile Detention and were released on their respective eighteenth birthdays. Three years and they reemerged with a clean slate, while Jacob spent those same three years undergoing one hundred fourteen separate skin graft operations, and the rest of his life horribly disfigured. Twelve years of therapy had done nothing to alleviate the anger.
With a last look around the bathroom, Jacob flipped the light off, and in the afterglow of the dying filament he saw it. His subconscious registered the shape behind the shower curtain while his tired mind tucked it away as a shadow and a trick of the light.
Jacob climbed back into bed, blew a kiss to the woman outside his window and closed his eyes. From the bathroom came the unmistakable sound of the shower curtain being drawn slowly back followed by a soft thump. He sat up in bed just as his shampoo bottle rolled from the darkness and across the bedroom floor.
“Who’s in there?” He yelled as he jumped from the bed, his baseball bat already in his hand. Lunging through the doorway, he switched on the light poised to swing at whoever he found.
But the bathroom was empty.
The shower curtain was still pulled across the tub as he had left it, though the bathmat beneath it was wet and showed the very distinct impression of a foot. Jacob whipped the curtain aside and slammed the bat forward into the empty shower. He swung left and right, his heart beating a tribal dance in his chest.
There was nobody there.
He stood perfectly still, breathing heavy and feeling like a fool. Halfheartedly he swung the bat at the bunched up shower curtain and sent it flying like a vinyl ghost in the wind. Laughing a nervous laugh, he shook his head. He set the bat down, straightened the shower curtain and knelt to examine the bath mat. As he traced the moist impression, a woman’s voice slammed into his mind. “Behind you!”
In one fluid motion, Jacob snatched up his bat and spun around to face the empty room. He looked at his own reflection in the mirror and all at once all the breath left his lungs and he slumped forward. The bat grew heavy in his hands and when he dropped it he barely heard it hit the tile floor. Somebody had written on his mirror in what looked like blood. The words ran down and dripped red onto the sink.
FEEL THE BURN.
He stumbled backward out of the bathroom, pulling the door closed and didn’t stop until the back of his knees hit the mattress. Sitting down hard on the mattress, he fumbled for his cell on the nightstand. As he punched in the numbers, a loud thump hit the backside of the bathroom door and his brain suddenly brought forward the shadowy image he had registered earlier behind the shower curtain.
“911 operator, what is your emergency?”
The toilet lid slammed three times in succession.
“I…uh…I think someone is in my apartment.”
The bathroom door rattled in its frame as something heavy slammed into it from the other side.
“Are you in the apartment, sir?”
“Yes,” he whispered. There was the sudden, unmistakable sound of glass shattering and his toiletries being thrown around the room. It sounded like a war zone in there.
“What is your apartment number, Sir?”
“We have a unit on the way, Sir. Can you leave the apartment or are you confined in some way?”
“Help is en-route and will arrive in approximately three minutes, Sir. I suggest you wait outside for the officers.”
“Thank you,” he said and hung up. Stepping into his slippers, he headed for the door to do just that when the female voice in his head screamed, STAY!
He stood indecisive for a few seconds, his hand hovering over the doorknob. There was no noise coming from the bathroom and so he let himself relax. He sat down in a chair near his dresser and glanced out to the woman on the billboard. She looked as beautiful as ever with her slightly parted, invitingly full bright red lips, the phallic lipstick teased ever so close to them. Her teeth looked longer somehow and sharper. And she was winking at him.
The word infiltrated his mind again and he felt his sanity begin to slip ever so slightly.
A loud knocking at the door drew his attention away. “Police, open up!”
Jacob glanced back at the woman out the window. She was looking directly at him again and he thought he detected just a tinge of madness in her eyes. Her grin had pulled up a little further at the edges revealing long, white, razor sharp teeth.
“Mr. Bodeen?” A sharp rap at the door. “Are you there, Sir?”
Jacob rushed across the room and opened the door. A young, short officer with a sharp angular face stepped into the room followed quickly by his partner, a tall, wide man with a head of shockingly blonde hair. The big man glanced quickly at Jacob and then surveyed the room. There was no recognition on the man’s face whatsoever. Why should there be, the last time they’d seen each other was nearly ten years old. Back when they were kids. Back at summer camp.
The shorter officer spoke while the big man moved about the room like a panther stalking prey. “My name is Officer Harrington. You stated to the 911 operator that you believed someone to be in your apartment. Do you believe that to still be the case, Mr. Bodeen?”
Jacob only nodded. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the other officer. He stared, disbelieving. Ten years after nearly killing him, Stanley Renker had become a cop.
“The bathroom,” Jacob wheezed.
Stanley pulled his weapon and proceeded to the closed door.
“Please wait out in the hall while we clear the room, Sir.” Harrison followed Stanley the goon toward the bathroom door, unsnapping his holster but leaving the pistol sheathed for the time being.
Jacob came up behind them. “It sounded like an MMA fight in there,” he whispered.
They both looked back at him and for the first time, he noted a glimmer of recognition on the goon’s face.
Stanley turned back to the door and knocked. “Police! If anyone is in the bathroom you have ten seconds to come out or make yourself known.”
They held their breath. The seconds ticked by.
Stanley turned the knob and, with a deep breath flung the door open. He lunged through and Harrison went in after him. Jacob stayed where he was until Officer Stanley called out to him.
“Mr. Bodeen? Could you come in here please?”
Jacob braced himself and stepped into the bathroom. There was no damage, no broken glass, everything was as it always was. He glanced at the mirror. The words were gone.
“Well, Mr. Bodeen.” Harrison walked over. “Everything appears to be in order. Perhaps it was a bad dream that felt real.”
Jacob nodded but he wasn’t really listening. Instead he was staring over the officer’s shoulder at Stanley, and at the shower curtain behind him. A dark shape shifted stealthily behind the curtain until it was directly nearest the man who had nearly burned Jacob alive.
TAKE THE GUN! The woman’s voice screamed in his head. KILL HIM!
Before he knew what was happening, Jacob reached out and snatched Harrison’s pistol from the holster. He pushed it into the man’s chest and pulled the trigger twice. Even as the short man fell, Jacob pivoted and pointed the gun at Stanley who had his own pistol up.
“Feel the burn, Stanley?”
Recognition flashed suddenly on Officer Stanley’s face and his hand wavered.
NOW! The voice in Jacob’s head screamed, and he felt his mind snap fully. PUSH HIM NOW!
Jacob put his head down and charged. He heard Stanley fire once, twice, and then he plowed into the bully, knocking him back into the shower.
The scream in Jacob’s head was deafening and he dropped to the tile floor.
A sudden darkness swirled up and over Stanley, wrapping around him like a blanket. “It BUUUUURRRNNNS!” he screamed before the inky blackness poured into his mouth and down his throat. His eyes grew wider and his body began to convulse and in just a few seconds, Stanley ‘The Goon” Renker died.
“Feel the burn, fucker,” Jacob said and tried to stand but the world tilted and he slipped on the linoleum. There was blood soaking his shirt and pooling onto the linoleum. He tried to push himself up but his foot slipped in the blood, and he sat down hard. His head grew heavy and he rested it on the toilet seat. Words appeared on the side of the tub, written in what looked like blood, but Jacob knew better. He recognized that particular shade of red. It was lipstick.
I love you, Jacob.
He smiled a weak smile and closed his eyes while hysterical laughter filled his mind.