Contest #211 shortlist ⭐️


Fiction Mystery

The fire crackled a tune that seemed altogether mocking in its cheeriness, the dancing flames darting up to greedily gobble up the next letter that was tossed to it, setting the shadows to join this strange ebb and flow of flickering light. Yet another letter was tossed into the fireplace, curling first at the corners before burning away under the icy gaze of the woman watching this. She kneeled before the fire, skirts billowing around her like a discarded flower, chestnut hair flowing free about her shoulders, the closest to an emotion reaching her face coming, in truth, from the way the flames cast shadows across her features in a sort of mockery of the emotion she lacked. 

Abigail did not turn her gaze from the well contained inferno at the sound of the doorway to the study clicking shut, but she did pause, one of the very few letters not yet reduced to a pile of ash hanging in the air. 

“It’s done then?” the woman questioned coolly, speaking with all the steadiness of an uninvested diplomat. 

“What kind of question is that?” came the reply of her younger brother, Henry, as he set the scuffed medical case – if they were going to have to do horrible things, he had claimed, the least they could do was do it properly - down on the table, “Of course it’s done.”

“So we’ll be okay now?” Abigail tilted her head ever so slightly to face the man, but had to turn back again within the span of a heartbeat. 

He just seemed so young, and yet so tired as he stood there, equal parts a professional and a child steal his father’s clothes to play at being an adult. She pretended not to notice the dotting of blood against the stark white of his shirtsleeve and rolled it back down again, it was nobody’s business but his own what had drawn it and whether it was his own or not. It was a curiosity that she knew too well never lead to anywhere she would want to go.

“I don’t think we have any say in the matter.” the man returned clumsily, seeming to find a spot on the floral-patterned carpet to be just fascinating enough that he did not, in turn, have any obligation to face his sister. 

“That doesn't mean anything.”

“Nothing really does mean anything nowadays,” he countered with the sense of echoing somebody else’s words rather than having any real investment in them on a personal level, “That’s what’s so-“

“Stop that.” Abigail snapped, sounding a little more irritated than she necessarily intended to convey, turning back to face him again. The irritation cooled swiftly, however, leaving a weariness to her that seemed to age her terribly. “Stop trying to play the cynic. It doesn’t suit you.”

This hung in the air with a strange weight for several long moments. Just before it seemed as if Henry was going to let the comment die there as it was, his composure broke. A smile, shaky and not holding anything akin to merriment to it crossed his freckled face, followed quickly by a strange laugh that seemed as though it would have much preferred to have been a sob than a laugh. 

“And the rest of this does then?” asked he, trying to regain his composure, though all this achieved was a mirroring of his sister’s own weariness, “Surely you don’t think so little of me?” 

 An inelegant sigh slipped through the woman’s lips as she took this moment to rise to her feet. The last of the letters were unceremoniously tossed into the awaiting flames together, not giving them the dignity of their individual destruction as she had the others. Her other hand raised to the high collar of her shirt, trailing the place the already fading bruises had dotted her skin, before, and with a pointedness to the motion, let it drop to the far more pressing task of smoothening out her skirts.

“I don’t know what to think.” she admitted as if this was of no real substance to anything at all.

“Do you want to know a secret?” Henry asked, a lingering childishness to the question, “Neither do I and I don’t think I want to.”

“You think you don’t know what to think about not knowing what to think? That is an awful lot of thoughts to not think.” 

The absolute absurdity of Abigail’s statement was enough to bring a strange mixture of emotions to break the attempted coolness of her façade. It started as a giggle, then a gasp and something that could have been a bark of laughter or a cough, or something that landed in the spaces between the two. It was an entirely manic sound, but in her defense, she rather thought she was deserving of at least a little bit of mania at that moment.

“Apparently not enough to have avoided this, it seems.” the man replied, almost letting himself offer an awkward attempt at a laugh of his own to join the dying trail of his sister’s own. 

“Hey, don’t be like that, I did say I was sorry, didn’t I?” the elder of the two remarked in an attempt to settle herself a little. Though there was just one too many wavers to her statement to think she had been entirely successful in this. 

“No, I don’t think you did.”

“Oh,” she paused, “Well, I’m sorry now.” she stated relatively simply.

“No, you aren’t,” her brother returned simply, “Nor do I think you should be. I’m not particularly fond of the fact you got me involved, but I don’t think you have any reason to be sorry a4rbout it all.” He paused, adjusting his glasses in the nervous sort of habitual way that he never quite managed to shake from boyhood, “Besides, do you think being sorry would be enough to restart a heart once it’s fallen still?”

“God, I hope not!” the woman exclaimed, her eyes widening slightly. This did not seem to quite come from a place of direct alarm, but it did carry more of a weight to it than she was particularly fond of sharing.

“Me neither,” Henry stated in a falsified nonchalance, “It's better this way.”

Ever the pragmatist, Abigail set about pacing short, quick paths across the study as if the outward movement might allow her to catch up with the racing nature of her thoughts. The swishing of her skirt-tails set the fire to swirl up excitedly as she moved about the space. Her gaze clouded somewhat, though it half-trailed the bookshelves in the study as she set about trying to organize her own thoughts in such a neat and presentable manner.

“So, what now?” asked she as she fell still, letting the coolness creep back into her demeanor once again, “We go back to living as we did before any of this ever happened? Just forget all about it?” 

Now, coolness was not so very natural to Henry, far more caught up in a nervous disposition, but there were times when he was perfectly capable. Few and far between, certainly, but they did happen all the same. So, leaning back against the desk that had been dragged off to the side of the room with one hand, lazily examining the bloody cuff of his shirt, he seemed entirely at peace with the world.

“Forget about what?” asked he, and that was the end of it. 

August 12, 2023 06:00

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20:17 Sep 26, 2023



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Amanda Lieser
15:28 Sep 16, 2023

Hi Eddie, Congratulations on the shortlist! I love how we were just dropped into all of the action for this piece. Your dialogue felt incredibly realistic, and it solidified the relationships between your characters, without bogging us down all the details of their past. Your last line was especially clever, and I absolutely adored it. Nice work!!


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Story Time
16:52 Aug 30, 2023

" An inelegant sigh" is such a great turn of phrase. The entire story had this classic feeling to it, and I love that you ended it with an abruptness that really telegraphs a certain confidence as a writer. Great job.


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Philip Ebuluofor
10:43 Aug 27, 2023

Your surname kept pushing you in my mind to the last of those professionals you finished school with their names ringing bell in your head. McKenzie. Congrats.


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Charles Corkery
05:12 Aug 24, 2023

Good job


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Marty B
23:05 Aug 22, 2023

I liked the feeling you evoked with this sentence-'He just seemed so young, and yet so tired as he stood there, equal parts a professional and a child steal his father’s clothes to play at being an adult. ' A lot is left unsaid, which adds the mystery! Thanks!


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Nicki Nance
14:00 Aug 19, 2023

Your capture of their emotional reactions is brilliant.


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