Entry into NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2022
Once there was a forest ranger named Flores Granger. One day, as she was ranging the forest, Flores found herself in a deeper, denser, and darker part than anywhere she had been before. Wings were flapping without birds, twigs snapping without critters, and winds blowing without beans. Flores pulled out her smartphone, but there was no service. She looked up to navigate by the sun, but there was a thick cloud cover. She yelled “Marco!” in different directions, but no one answered. Standing still doesn’t get me anywhere, thought Flores, so she kept walking.
After a while, she came to a giant sequoia with a big red button, and a DO NOT PRESS sign. She walked around the tree to one side. Back at the button, she walked around the tree to the other side. Then she couldn’t fight it anymore and pressed the red button.
With a SWOOSH Flores found herself in the middle of an arena. Black bears, gray wolves, mountain lions, wild boars, red foxes, and other predators sat on wooden bleachers, watching her while they noshed on what looked like spareribs and slurped fountain soda.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” said a game show host with oil-slicked hair and a leaf-green sequined suit, walking towards her.
“Now we can start another episode of SEIZE THE DAY,” he continued. “The game where contestants play for doom or bloom. And what is your name, dear?”
“Fl-Fl-Flores,” said Flores, mesmerized by a lynx burping so hard at a bald eagle that its white head feathers stood on end.
“Welcome, Flores,” said the glittery host with a big smile and pinched her arm to get her attention. “Are you ready because I’m sure the audience is!”
Without waiting for an answer, the eager host spun around to look at the spectators and shouted:
“Are you still hungry?”
The crowd roared.
“Can you eat more?”
The crowd roared even louder.
“Would you like another snack?”
Led by the wolves, the crowd began to howl and screech.
“It seems you are it,” the host said to Flores. “Read us the rules, Kevin.”
A turtle sporting a burgundy butterfly shuffled into the rink, produced a piece of parchment from its shell, and read from it:
“The…rules…are…as…follows…show…us…what…you…got…if…we… don’t…like…it…we…will…eat…you…and…if…we…only…like…it…a…little…we…will…eat…you…and…if…we… don’t…like…it…enough…we…will…eat…you…the…end.”
“Thanks, Kev Kevino!” said the host, and the turtle left the arena at low speed.
“With what are you gonna whet our appetite?” the host enunciated at Flores, so tiny drops of spit hit her cheeks.
“Wh-wh-what?” asked Flores and fought the urge to wipe her face on her sleeve.
“Sing, dance, juggle, whatever,” said the host. “They like their food to be alive.”
“Oh, okay,” said Flores, though it was not. She had always had a fork-on-an-empty-plate voice and flat feet that went in opposite directions. But then Flores remembered that when her three neutered cats, Smitty, Witty, and Waldo, were in a scrimmage over the laser pointer dot, she could always calm them down with a story.
“Ready, set, start the clock!” screamed the host. The lights dimmed, a spot was put on Flores, and a kitchen timer above the arena was set on three minutes to human sashimi.
“Hmm, hmm,” said Flores to clear her throat, and the place fell silent.
“Once, there was a grifter called Rock. He made his way in this world by conning senior Floridians into deals that were way too good to be true. Anything Rock earned from his tricks he spent right away. He didn’t save for a rainy day, he didn’t save for winter, and he certainly didn’t save for retirement or his future children’s college education.
But his schemes didn’t always go well. One time, after a so-called client had gotten wise to the improbability of half-off hundred-dollar bills, Rock found himself far from home without a door to knock on or a table to sit down at. Being used to seizing the day, Rock was woefully unprepared for the darkness and hunger of the night. Not knowing what to do, he laid down by the highway and fell asleep. As he was slumbering, a patrol car came by and saw him.”
Flores took a breath and shot a look at the clock that was counting down fast. Only ninety seconds to go.
“‘State your name, Sir,’ said the officer after stirring him with the tip of his shoe.
‘I’m Rock, no, Stone, no, Phillips,’ said Rock, who was just waking up.
‘If you don’t know your name, Sir, I’ll have to take you in,’ said the officer.
‘No, I know,’ said Rock, ‘I was just confused because…my dog’s name is Rock.’
‘You named your dog after Rock Hudson, Sir?’ asked the officer.
Flores noticed a low but widespread smacking of lips from the crowd as the timer entered the last minute.
“‘Well, then I have to detain you, Sir, because there is a law against naming your dog after male Scorpio actors,’ said the officer.
‘No,’ said Rock, ‘I forgot, he’s actually named after Dwayne The Rock Johnson….’
‘That’s even worse, Sir,’ said the officer. ‘What if every pet was willy-nilly named after Kevin Hart’s friends? I’m sure you see why you have to come to the station.’
‘What?’ said Rock. ‘No, my dog isn’t even here. He’s home with my wife.’
‘You have a dog and a wife?’ asked the officer. ‘I’m not one to give you advice, but maybe you should stop talking.’”
Ten seconds, nine, eight...Flores was running out of time.
“And then the officer cuffed Rock and took him away. The end.”
DRRRIIINNG. The timer sounded, and the shiny host appeared back in the arena.
“So?” he asked the crowd. “Is the Flo-Doe a meal or for real?”
The animals began whispering among themselves, and Flores heard words like pickles and peckish, but also Sagittarius and solid.
“By a show of paws and wings, who says we eat her?” the glossy host hyped and raised both his arms up as if in victory. But only a quarter of the limbs present followed his.
“My, oh my,” the host exclaimed, “does that mean you want another story?”
The crowd grunted and whooped a yes.
“Well, there’s a first for everything, even seconds,” concluded the host. “Let’s start the clock then and play another round of SEIZE THE DAY!”
Relieved but flustered, Flores took a moment to get a hold of herself. Then she said:
“Once there was a middle-aged woman named…Dolores. Her husband had turned out to be a lousy conman who landed himself in prison. In there, he supposedly found true love with a limber yoga instructor from Kentucky called Kent Kenterson.”
Encouraged by a murmur of indignation, Flores continued:
“So Dolores was left with three neutered cats and no other way to support herself than a stack of coupons and an urge to collect shampoo bottles from motels. Nevertheless, Dolores vowed she would secure a future for herself. And so, Dolores began redeeming the coupons and stashing away the loot, which yielded new coupons and even more stashing. Since she only ever used what was necessary for her and the cats, Dolores was soon drowning in toilet paper, soda cans, noodle cups, and peanut butter. She never seized the day. She was always hoarding, hoarding, hoarding for tomorrow.”
Flores paused to look at the clock that still had a good minute left.
“One day,” Flores continued, “Dolores was lucky to score a coupon for two pork chops, but with no more room in the fridge or freezer, she kept them under the pillow in her bed. Soon, the pork chops started smelling a little ripe, but Dolores couldn’t bring herself to eat them, let alone throw them away. Her cats, however, were hungry and excited. That night the biggest cat jumped up on the bed to Dolores, dug out a pork chop, and ate it in one bite. The oldest cat saw the biggest cat licking its paws after the delicious meal and also jumped up on the bed, slid out a pork chop, and ate it in one bite. Then the littlest cat noticed the oldest cat shining its whiskers and wanted in on the feast. But when the littlest cat jumped up on the bed and looked under the pillow, there were no more pork chops, and it ate Dolores in one bite instead. The end.”
DRRRIIINNG. The timer sounded again and woke up the glimmery host who had dozed off with his head on Kevin’s shell.
“I’m awake!” he yelled and scrambled to his feet. “Where were we? Where are we? What do we say? Yay or nay? Did she SEIZE THE DAY?”
The spectators looked confused at the host, who realized he had been less than clear.
“Okay,” he said, “who wants to eat Flores? Raise what you can.”
An owl, two mountain lions, and three rattlesnakes indicated in the affirmative, although the snakes maybe just rattled for the sake of it.
“Who wants to hear another story?” asked the host.
Most everyone raised their paws or wings or tails. An eager coyote held up the big pads of two bears who had gone into hibernation.
“One time is none,” said the gleaming host, “two times are two, but three are a pattern. Are you going soft in the loft?”
That comment got him snarls and hisses.
“Let’s not delay,” he said, “let’s play SEIZE THE DAY!”
The host pointed to Flores while he retreated to the side. Flores was happy she hadn’t been eaten but worried she couldn’t come up with another story. But then she thought about how no one would take care of her feline boys if she died. Rock was incarcerated, and her neighbor was allergic to everything but kale and oat milk. Then she said:
“Once, there was a queen who vowed she would never marry. Many knights were disappointed, and one evil knight was outright angry because he had planned to become king by marriage. To get revenge, he went to the village and convinced the peasants to rise up against the queen. The peasants marched on the queen’s castle with pitchforks and torches.
‘Sharing is caring!’ they yelled.
‘We want meat and not your greed!’ they screamed.
‘Give us bread, or we’ll have your head!’ they shouted.
The queen was not afraid and invited the peasants into her castle.
‘Somebody told us you have everything, and we have nothing. That's not fair,’ said the spokesperson for the peasants.
‘I'm so sorry,’ the queen said, ‘I had no idea you felt that way. How good of you to tell me.’
And then she asked the treasurer to bring the treasure chest out. The queen opened it and said:
‘As you can see, I have seven gold coins. I will give you four so you can buy grain to sow. I will do the same with my three, and we will all prosper.’
Pleased with the queen’s generosity, the peasants left. When the evil knight heard that his plan had failed, he demanded the peasants give him the gold coins, which he then invested in cryptocurrency.
A year went by, and then the evil knight accidentally threw away the password to his digital wallet. Sure that the queen caused all of his miseries, he sought revenge again. Once more, he convinced the peasants to rise up against the queen. The peasants went to her castle in protest.
‘Hey Queenie, don’t be a meanie!’ they chanted.
‘Give us your gold, or your bathroom will mold!’ they bellowed.
‘One for us, none for you, or we’ll have to sue!’ they sang.
The queen was still not afraid, and she invited them in.
‘Somebody told us you have a lot, and we have so little. That is not fair,’ said the peasant spokesperson.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said the queen, ‘you’re right, that doesn’t seem fair.’
She had her treasure chest brought out and opened.
‘As you can see, it was a good harvest, and I sold my crop for nine gold coins. I will give you five coins so you can buy grain to sow, and I will do the same with my four, and we can all prosper.’
Reassured by the queen’s generosity, the peasants left. When the evil knight heard his plan had been foiled, he forced the peasants to give him the gold coins. Then he transferred them into a Nigerian prince’s account, but a year later, he had still not received the promised refund. Blaming the queen for everything, he wanted revenge once and for all. He convinced the peasants to rise up against her. Banging on pots and pans, the peasants went to the queen’s castle.
‘Queen, queen, queen, we hope you get gangrene!’ they hollered.
‘We have nothing, you have all, we ain’t playing pickleball!’ they belted.
‘One, two, four, we deserve more!’ they roared.
But the queen was not afraid and invited them in.
‘Somebody told us you laugh all the way to the bank, and we don’t even have a pawnshop. That is not fair,’ said the spokesperson for the peasants.
‘I apologize,’ said the queen, ‘I want to do right by you, but I need to ask who is that somebody who keeps riling you up?’
The peasants told her how the evil knight had stolen the gold coins she had given them.
‘I think you have been duped,’ said the queen. ‘This evil knight is not looking out for you and never will. It is high time we call his bluff.’
All the peasants cheered and clapped, and together they made a plan. When the peasants returned to the village, the evil night waited for them.
‘Did you rise up against the queen?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ the peasants said and tried not to snicker.
‘Did you kill her?’ he asked the peasants.
‘No,’ answered the peasants and suppressed their giggles.
‘What did you do?’ sighed the evil knight.
By then, the peasants couldn’t hold back their laughter anymore.
‘We saw the photos you sent to the queen to get her to date you,’ the peasants howled as tears streamed down their faces from the hilarity.
The evil knight turned pale as a sheet.
‘Not the ones where I…?’ he mumbled with embarrassment.
‘YES!’ the peasants cried, rolling around on the ground holding their stomachs.
The evil knight flushed red with anger and shame and stormed off into the forest, where he was eaten by a bear who took for a giant tomato.
Then the peasants and the queen started a farmer’s co-op, and they all lived happily ever after.”
Flores listened. No timer went off because the flashy host had forgotten to start it. She looked around the arena. Everyone was asleep. I guess I’ll seize the day, she thought and tip-toed over to the curtain that led back into the forest. When she passed the turtle, he stuck out his head and said:
And that she did.