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

Mosquitoes buzzed, but kept their distance as the aroma of insect repellent overpowered the smoke coming from the dying campfire. The counselor was getting to the good part of the ghost story and the campers were all quiet, straining to hear the raspy whispers of the protagonist. The sudden sound of footsteps approaching on the pine needle carpet silenced the group. All heads turned simultaneously and the little girls screamed when a man emerged from the tree line, dressed in torn clothing and carrying a pack. The pack started to move as an infant's startled cry joined the panicked chorus...

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

Carl Was Wrong
By Jacqueline Leigh Brasfield, Ngaio, Wellington, New Zealand

It wasn't that late but several people were already asleep in their bunks, exhausted from the day's work. The others were finishing up the evening chores and checking the camp. I'd come in to escape the bite of mosquitoes and lay in bed reading a dog-eared romance novel by candlelight.

The Baron crushed me against his massive chest, running his fingers through my raven tresses as he murmured in a rich, heavily accented baritone. "I'll love you forever, my darling. Until the very end of the world."

I heard a muffled cry come from the neighboring cabin and looked up from my book. Carl grunted and spoke without opening his eyes. "Kids are getting restless. Get someone to tell them a story or something. I gotta sleep."

"I'll do it," I volunteered. The Baron could wait.

Carl nodded his thanks, rolled over and pulled his sleeping bag over his head. He squirmed like a giant larva, trying to arrange his bulk around the protruding springs in his mattress.

There was a still a bit of light in the sky when I stepped outside. A thin stripe of turquoise hugged the horizon, clinging to the edge of the earth for dear life. I stood and watched until it was gone. Poof. Like blowing out a candle.

Another shrill shriek came from the cabin as I marched over with my hands on my hips. "Hey, whatever you're doing in there, quit it. Let's go to the fire pit to roast marshmallows and tell stories."

A dozen rowdy kids rushed out the door, laughing as they raced toward the wide path that led down the hill. I slouched and shuffled behind them, hands shoved in the pockets of my jeans as a yawn threatened to dislocate my jaw. Oh shit. No marshmallows.

"Hey Abe, go get the marshmallows would ya?" Abe was the oldest of the kids and was nothing if not agreeable.

"Yeah sure," he said as turned and shoved his glasses back into place. I watched him lope back up the hill on his gangly legs.

When I got down to the pit the children were waiting expectantly, a motley collection of wide eyes, giggles and fidgets. Wasn't long before we had a fire roaring and I got on with the business of telling tall tales.

"What I'm about to tell you really happened. It took place right here in this very forest only 20 years ago..."

I launched into a classic campfire yarn.. A story more silly than scary and proven to captivate even the rowdiest of kids. It was near the climax of the story when I heard rustling in the bushes behind me. Good timing, Abe.

Except the expression on the children's faces told me it wasn't Abe. I looked over my shoulder and saw a ragged man with a bulging pack staring back at me with red-rimmed eyes. His face was smeared with dirt. His clothing torn. The kids must have thought me a magician, conjuring up some horror from the woods through the power of my storytelling.

"How many more are coming?" I asked him. "Don't know," he replied hollowly. "About a dozen more maybe? We lost some on the way." The muffled cry of an infant came from a pack he held gently against his chest.

A dozen? We didn't have room for a dozen. But Carl had said we wouldn't turn anyone away so I jerked my head toward the path and said, "You can rest up there." The man nodded a vacant thank you and labored up the hill. He narrowly avoiding being bowled over by Abe who skidded to a halt and looked questioningly at the man, and then me. I sought to reassure him with a smile and gestured for him to sit down. Abe jogged over obediently but frowned as he sat.

I returned to the story with gusto, counting on the power of distraction keep the kids from asking questions about the man.

It worked, mostly but Abe kept looking up at me. When the story came to its shaggy dog conclusion, the kids collapsed into giggles but Abe sat stoic. Unimpressed. He only looked away when two more figures came out of the bush. Teenage girls ill prepared for the woods, arms linked together tightly, dirty faces streaked with tears. "Oh my god, like..." one of them blurted out before she started to cry.

"Shhh," I comforted. "Up there," I said as I pointed toward the path. "Or you can stay and roast marshmallows with us, if you'd like." They shook their head no and headed up the path, sluggish with exhaustion.

"It's okay," I assured everyone. "Some more people to help us with the camp. It'll be fun. Abe, pass 'round the marshmallows. You guys want to hear another story?"

My throat was tight with worry and I was aware that my false cheer was making my voice go up an octave. Abe noticed as well but went about the business of gathering sticks and roasting marshmallows, much to my relief. As the kids licked melted sugar from their sticky fingers, I started telling another campfire classic. A few more people came out of the woods and headed up the path but the children weren't interested in the strangers anymore. I was grateful for that.

I was halfway through the second story when the first flash lit up the sky. It was followed by a deep, bone rattling thunder. I had no idea it'd be so loud - even this far away. A few of the children started to cry. The distant hiss of wind in the trees made me worry. I didn't think we'd feel the wind. Carl had said we'd be far enough to see the flash but not the cloud. That we'd be okay. That we'd be safe.

"Come on guys, just some thunder and lightning. Let's get inside." The kids filed up the hill obediently but Abe stood fast, his eyes fixed on the horizon. "It's kind of pretty," he said in a quiet voice. "Like fireworks." I looked over at him and saw the mushroom cloud reflected in the lenses of his glasses. Small, but unmistakable.

Carl was wrong. We weren't far enough away at all.

What Jacqueline 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)

Contest guidelines are HERE.

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