Last year I took part in the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge and came tenth (I think it was) in my group overall. Unfortunately this didn’t get me through to the second round, but for a first try I was pretty happy with that result and it was a valuable learning experience.
Today I signed up for the 2019 challenge and though I have another look at the second of my flash fiction submissions from last year. If I remember correctly, my group was given the genre of drama, our object was salami, and our setting was possibly circus but I could be making that up.
Since I was no longer focused on writing a piece of flash to fit with the prescribed prompts, I decided to focused solely on ensuring the piece stayed under 1,000 words without losing the original plot. Fair warning, it’s somewhat dark.
The circus crowds poured out in waves of warmth and laughter, ushered past the gates by stout men in dark jackets. Tucked inside the shadows beyond the spill of the gas lamps Emeline smoothed her skirts in an excuse to work some of the feeling back into her fingers. The fabric stung against her grazed palms, but she pressed more firmly, focusing her attention on the burn.
James weight shifted beside her and she titled her head a touch to watch him. He followed the movement of the crowd carefully, lips moving as he counted.
‘Near enough,’ he said and snatched her hand. Gravel burrowed deeper and Emeline swallowed her cry. Screaming never helped.
The wide road between the edge of the city and the docks was almost empty now, but she ducked her head anyway as they skirted past the few remaining dawdlers. James quickened his pace as small, squat man with a heavy chain wrapped around his fist ambled towards the gates. He drew them together and looped the chain through the bars. James hand came down on top of it.
‘Wait, we’re here to see Madam Hammerish. She’s expecting us.’ Sweat glittered across James’ top lip and there was a tremble in his hand.
‘No Madam Hammerish here,’ said the short man. ‘Show’s all done too, should have got here by seven to see it.’ He rattled the chain. ‘Let go laddie.’
‘We made an appointment,’ James begged. ‘We have the rest of her payment!’
The little man paused and glanced at Emeline.
‘The boss doesn’t like it,’ he said slowly. ‘Thinks she’s asking for trouble with what she does. But that hag has a way about her and I don’t need her cursing my balls for harmin’ her trade.’
The chains came loose with a clatter and the little man pulled one gate open enough so James could pull Emeline inside. When she caught his eye, he flinched.
‘Touch of the witch about her too,’ he muttered and closed the gate behind them. He threaded the chain through and clicked the padlock into place.
‘Here,’ he said and passed James the key. ‘Just lob it back over after you’re gone. Wouldn’t do to have it go missing and all.’
James took the key from him and pocketed it.
‘Don’t get lost. I ain’t coming to find you if yous do.’
Careful not to look at Emeline again he turned towards the tents.
Not waiting to see the man vanish from sight James pulled away and steered her towards the other end of the camp.
‘In here,’ he said, once they had reach the further row of tents. He let go of her wrist and pushed her through a narrow opening. The rug caught beneath her feet and she stumbled.
‘You’re late.’ The old woman scowled toothlessly at them, her nails digging into Emeline’s arms where she had caught the girl. Behind her was a tiny space, stained green by the fabrics draped across a hanging lamp. There was no bed, only a hammock slung between two posts, and a scattering of threadbare cushions across a stained carpet.
Emeline felt her stomach flip.
James came in behind Emeline and placed his hands on her shoulders. ‘Madame Hammerish. It was good of you to make time for us. We appreciate it.’
Madame Hammerish’s scowl stretched into a smirk as he brought his purse around Emeline and held it out.
‘Over there,’ she ordered, and pointed to the cushions on the floor. ‘Best to get these things over and done with. It shouldn’t take too long.’
James hands moved down to Emeline’s shoulders and urged her towards the spot.
‘Wait, no!’ The words sprung out before Emeline could stop them. ‘I don’t-’
He spun her and the slap threw sideways, upending the room around her. No, it was wasn’t the room she realised as her skull thudded against something solid.
James brought his boot to her stomach and kicked the thoughts from her head.
‘Behave,’ he warned.
Bile came up and Emeline choked.
‘Get up,’ he said. He watched her crawl to her knees and then directed her into place with the toe of his boot. The cushions smelt of mildew and Emeline shuddered as Madame Hammerish followed her to the ground, wizened hands grasping at the fabrics of her skirts.
It was cold in the tent and the skin on her thighs prickled.
‘Just lie down and when this is over your gentleman friend can take you home safe and sound,’ Madame Hammerish soothed.
James came to kneel above her head, hovering above her.
She wanted to say no, refuse the brush of the woman’s arm against her calf, the metal inching closer.
She fisted her fingers in the loose material around her bodice, the slight curve of her stomach firm and real beneath her palms.
‘This will be almost painless,’ promised the old woman.
Painless, thought Emeline, closing her eyes.
That was what James had told her when he still had the energy to pretend long enough to lure her into a room alone. It only hurt when it was someone you didn’t love. That was the lie he had spun for her.
‘Here we go,’ said Madame Hammerish and she nodded to James. His hand closed over Emeline’s mouth.
‘It’s for the best,’ he said. ‘Trust me.’
Madame Hammerish’s hand touched her thigh and then higher.
No, thought Emmeline.
It wasn’t and she’d didn’t.
This was wrong.
All of it.
‘For the best,’ James repeated.
Then the pain began.