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Winter, 2007
24-Hour Short Story Contest
2nd Place Winner!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
It always happened when the room was too quiet. Random phrases were once again racing in and out of her mind. Black forest, red velvet, white wine, blue cheese, hash browns... Her hands tightened into fists and she furiously shook her head, trying to dispel the obsessive thoughts that assailed her daily.

She wiped her hands across her apron as she turned to the pot that was now boiling over. When she was putting the hot pan in the sink, she noticed a movement in the reflection of the window. She turned quickly, but her guests were still sitting motionless, right where she'd left them...

Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.


TABLEAU
By S. Dana Stiebel, Chatsworth, CA

It always happened when the room was too quiet. Those phrases were once again racing through her mind. Black Forest, Red Velvet, White wine, Blue Cheese, Hash Brown... Randi's hands tightened into fists and she shook her head.

She wiped her hands across her smock as she turned to the simmering pot. As she set the pan on the warming plate, she noticed a movement in the reflection of the window. She turned quickly, but the guests were sitting motionless in the vintage horseshoe diner booth, just as she'd left them.

Except for White Wine, whose head had rotated half a turn on its dowel, and was now looking at her with sad glass eyes.

Blue Cheese had been the first of the party, and the easiest to conceive. Smoke-blue hair swirled around a wrinkled face made clownish with bright rouge, scarlet lipstick and thick mascara. Randi still felt a little guilty about the clothing-black faux silk Capri pants and a leopard-print sweater purloined from Nana Wentz's closet after the funeral. The cork platforms were a thrift store find; Nana was more inclined to teetery patent leather stilettos.

The rest of them had come to Randi as she roamed the supermarket, or rode the elevator to her office job, or lunched at the vegetarian restaurant on Broadway. Red Velvet-the aging southern belle, tartish and shopworn, well on her way to becoming Blue Cheese. Her husband, Black Forest, her perfect male counterpart, his gut pushing at the Sansibelt waistband, a gold chain tangled in graying chest hair at his open collar. Their daughter, White Wine, and her depressingly suitable fiancÈ, Hash Brown.

Randi swirled the beeswax-and-paraffin concoction in the pan, and picked a brush from the canister on the counter. She'd quit last night at ten. Finished, she thought, with two days breathing room before the gallery installation. She'd poured herself a glass of Chianti and fell asleep in front of the television.

This morning, she'd wakened with a stiff neck and the utter certainty that she was not finished at all. She'd pulled a chair up to the booth and sat with them while she drank her morning coffee, studying each wax face, envisioning their moment. Black Forest caught in mid-gesture, his booming voice frozen at the climax of his story. Blue Cheese laughing, mouth open, dentures flecked with bits of food. Red Velvet's heavy-lidded gaze and sensual half-smile focusing beyond the perimeter of the tableau, directed to an unseen someone. Hash Brown leaning forward with his toothy smile and icy eyes.

And White Wine...

White Wine sat at the edge of the booth. While the Black Forest/Red Velvet genes were writ plain across her face, nature formed her with a far more practiced hand. Forest's pug nose reinvented itself as delicately upturned on her pale face, and Red's pillowy lips reappeared in a discretely sensual version. Her wide gray eyes stared into the scene with no apparent attachment, and her straight-backed posture engaged with no one else.

She didn't belong there.

Randi sat with her guests for nearly two hours. She sketched revisions, wadded them into balls, and tried again. She pulled at White Wine, repositioned her, and sketched again. Finally, she got up, made her cuts beneath the white turtleneck, and pulled the head free. She turned the body toward Hash and adjusted the neck to give the head a slight tilt. She mixed new wax.

Now with the wax beside her on the warmer, she prepared to cut into the face, to erase the stoic, vaguely sad set of the mouth and eyes. White would smile into Hash's shark-toothed face, lean toward him ever so slightly...

As Randi reached for her wax knife, something moved at the edge of her vision. She jumped, turned, saw that White's head had again rotated away from the tableau, and her body had shifted, tilting toward the edge of the booth.

SHE DOESN'T BELONG THERE!

The words exploded all around her, through her brain, in her ears. She sat rigid, eyes wide, staring at the sculpture.

And then she set to work.

* * *

"You've outdone yourself, my dear." Cyril Cunningham offered Randi a flute of champagne. "Hell, you've outdone us. Gavaille was actually raving about `Family Dinner.' If his review's half as effusive, you're on the map."

Randi nodded. The exhilaration of the opening was wearing off. The black pumps pinched her feet, and the black silk sheath constrained her body. Eight women, four men, and an art critic of indeterminate gender had told her she looked stunning this evening. She wondered if being on the map meant she could skip the pantyhose at her next show.

The gallery would close in fifteen minutes. The early crowd had dwindled to a few stragglers. A middle-aged couple stood looking at "Family Dinner," and Randi drifted toward them, listening for comments.

The changes had gobbled up her two-day lead and left her working on the piece until the gallery movers knocked on her door. She'd actually made a few subtle adjustments during the installation.

Black and Velvet and Blue and Hash had not changed. They sat frozen in their moment, perfectly themselves, perfectly engaged. White sat on their periphery, eyes forward, her expression still stoic and a little sad. But her body had shifted toward the booth's edge, her hips swiveled out, one leg taut and bent at the knee, the other poised to follow. She didn't belong. She was leaving, in every sense.

Randi stood behind the couple. They didn't speak, but the woman caught her breath in a hitched sob, and the man put his arm around her shoulder.

"We should go, dear," he said. "They're closing."

Randi watched them go, their sadness bleeding into her, but woven with a bright thread of elation. That's what art does, she thought. I've done it.

She slipped her feet out of the pumps and picked them up. As she straightened, she felt a new presence, someone standing at her elbow.

The girl was about twenty, slender, with a delicately upturned nose and discretely sensual lips. She looked at Randi with wide gray eyes and reached out to touch her hand.

"Thank you," she said.

The girl turned and walked away, following the couple into the night.

When Randi finally went to the door, the street was empty.


What Dana won:

$250 Cash Prize
Publication of winning story on the WritersWeekly.com website
1 - Freelance Income Kit Includes:
-- 1-year subscription to the Write Markets Report
-- How to Write, Publish and $ell Ebooks
-- How to Publish a Profitable Emag
-- How to Be a Syndicated Newspaper Columnist Special (includes the book; database of 6000+ newspapers; and database of 100+ syndicates)

ENTER THE NEXT 24-HOUR SHORT STORY CONTEST HERE!
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