Contest #228 shortlist ⭐️


Fiction Thriller Crime

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

The unnerving chorus of cutlery scraping porcelain echoed throughout the room. Tension hung thick in the air, palpable enough to reach up and slice into it with my steak knife. Beside me, my sister sniffed. From my periphery, I could see her red-rimmed eyes staring blankly at her untouched plate.

I cut into the slab before me, crimson juices forming a greasy puddle. I took a bite, relished the tenderness. The peas encroached into the sea of mashed potatoes like invading soldiers.

“Would you please pass the potatoes, Mary?” Mother asked from the other end of the table.

I nodded, heaving the dish over to my sister to pass on. Her gaze remained fixed on her plate as she sat on both hands, legs trembling. A small, choked sob escaped from her lips.

“That’s quite enough, Leah,” Father growled, stabbing into his own steak.

Leah shakily grasped the bowl, ushering it to Mother. Between them sat Jonah, barely peeking over the edge of the table and pushing his food about. At the tender age of five, he was blissfully ignorant.

I chewed a bit of gristle in the next bite, watching Father’s brow furrow as he took a sip of wine, a rogue tendril staining his snowy beard burgundy. He cleared his throat, an action which rendered the table still, waiting with bated breath.

“Children, the ultimate test is almost upon us.” I hated the way he spoke, like that of an old novel.

Mother rested a bony hand over his and listened intently. With her other hand, she fingered the gold cross hanging from her neck.

“We will not let the enemy destroy our union. We will not succumb to their devilish tendencies, for they are blind to the ways in which we serve Him. They will never know such unwavering love and loyalty. And, for that, I pity them.”

Mother nodded in understanding, her silvery bun bobbing. Father tossed his napkin over his plate and stood, chair screeching dully on concrete. We watched as he climbed the nearby staircase. Stray spots of maroon that had earlier leached into the wood marked his steps, evidence of what he’d done to protect the sanctity of his family.

There was once a time when I would have chased after him, lunging for the open door, yearning for sunlight. But the scar on the back of my head itched like an ugly deterrent.

I made it a point to constantly remind myself of who I was, where I came from. Fragments of memories–the way my mother used to rub my back in the morning when she woke me for school, the sound of my father’s work shoes on the hardwood floors every evening, the hum of the fish tank in my childhood bedroom–remained filed away in the depths of my mind, growing fuzzier with each passing day. But I dared not speak of these memories; they were mine and only mine.

Leah, now gangly and naive in the throes of adolescence, was more pliable. I imagined she couldn’t even recall things like the details of her mother’s face or the way it felt to ride a school bus. When Mother and Father told her something, she accepted it at face value.

And Jonah, in all his cherubic innocence, had never known another life. The harsh fluorescents were his sun and moon, every day the same. Sometimes it made me want to weep, but then I reminded myself he knew no different. Perhaps it was better that way.

Father’s thunderous descent broke my thoughts. Mother stood at his approach, collecting some of the equipment he came bearing. As he laid a piece before each of us, the breath caught in my throat. My eyes followed the transition from dark metal into laminated wood that led down to an unmistakable component: a trigger.

Out of the children, only I knew how to operate a gun. When I was eight years old, my father took me hunting for the first time. I recalled the way the cold seeped into my fingers and toes as we waited for hours. We flinched at any flicker of movement, which often turned out to be a rummaging squirrel. But then–he arrived. Statuesque and bristled, his sinewy figure strutted into the open field, unaware of his armed audience. His antlers were a thorny crown that dipped with him as he scoured the earth.

“Take the shot,” my father egged, helping me hold the heavy rifle. We’d gone over the process an umpteen amount of times, but now the steely grip felt wrong. I dropped my shoulder, finger slipping from the trigger as the barrel slung towards the ceiling of the treestand, and my father cursed. That was the first time my father swore in front of me.

In one swift motion he grabbed the gun, took aim, and fired.

I covered my ears and watched in silent horror as the creature’s body quivered with the impact. His legs buckled and he scrambled for a brief moment before taking off, blood spilling from his flank.

My father took my shoulders in his hands and kneeled square before me. “You don’t ever let the gun drop like that, especially with the safety off,” he scolded. Hot tears coursed down my cheeks, stinging the wind-chapped skin. My father profusely apologized for swearing and raising his voice, wrapping me in a hug. But I wasn’t crying because he yelled. I kept replaying the look of sheer panic as the bullet ripped through the deer’s flesh, the terror and confusion he must have felt.

We trailed our victim for a short while, following the blood-stained leaves of early winter. He didn’t make it far, having collapsed in a small clearing. Panting laboriously, his onyx eyes stared up in blank defeat, and I saw myself in their reflection.

Before I could process the scene, another shot rang out, and the deer stilled. A kill shot, my father explained, to end his suffering.

“When you see the enemy, you take the shot,” Father said then, breaking my trance.

I was back in my chair staring down at the weapon before me. Leah ran a trembling finger over the safety, ensuring it was on per Father’s crash course. Jonah, too small to wield such a device, was given a knife instead.

Never before had we been permitted to use any kind of weaponry; anything more than a butterknife was forbidden. Father and Mother claimed it was for our own safety, but I knew better. And that didn’t stop me from fantasizing–a ballpoint pen embedded in a windpipe, a broken bedpost as a club to the head. I’d had my fair share of time to ponder the possibilities. Leah and Jonah may have been taken at malleable ages, but I refused to fully yield.

The slight quiver in Father’s hands and the way Mother’s complexion paled meant it was all hands on deck. Though I didn’t know whose blood painted the staircase, sticky on the soles of Father’s shoes, it had led us to such a cataclysm that I dared to dream about life beyond the concrete. I yearned to return to a world where my name was my own, not the one I’d been forced to adopt. I longed to hug my mother and father, to bask in the sunlight on a summer day, to see my friends, to witness the light at the end of a nearly decade-long tunnel. Could this be the end?

The gunmetal was cool in my clammy palms. I contemplated aiming it at Father, or at Mother. It would be so easy. But what if it wasn’t loaded? What if it was just for show? And could I really do it?

“Let us go,” Father commanded, leading our ragtag troup up the stairs. 

At the top, Father unlatched the door, leading us into an empty hall with another door at its opposing end. Bringing up the rear, I glanced back into the abyss where time passed indefinitely. And as the next door opened into a moonlit room, I realized I would never allow myself to return.

Gilded crosses glinted from every wall as we wound through the house. And, like something from a movie, a muffled voice seeped in through the cracks in the windows and doors.

“Come out with your hands up!”

“Father?” Leah croaked. “Who is that?”

Father ignored her, the click of his safety flipping off. He slung the gun around his back, nodding at Mother as he approached the door.

The rush of blood thrummed in my ears. Leah mimicked Father and switched her safety off, and Mother did the same. Greasy coils of nausea knotted my gut as I followed their lead. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat. Nothing about the unfolding situation felt good or right or godly.

Father gripped the doorknob with a fierceness and turned.

Golden porchlight flooded the entryway. For a moment, Father’s face looked younger in the warm glow, and I wondered what led him to this path in life. Slowly, he raised his hands above his head and stepped outside.

“Drop your weapon!” an extraneous voice shouted.

“It’s over, Arthur,” another called. “Do the right thing and drop your weapon.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Father replied simply, as if he were declining an invitation to a party. “Your godlessness is a stain on this earth, and I have to protect my family from such evil. I can’t let you destroy the Lord’s work. You think you can interfere with His plan?”

Disconcerted grumbles echoed as a reply.

“Dear?” Father called. Mother, gun cradled in her arms, crept to his side. Her skin was sallow, brow damp with prickles of sweat. The woman, always so composed, seemed to be cracking.

“Mrs. Goodfellow, drop your weapon now,” the second voice commanded. Tensions heightened with each passing second. “Put down your weapon, and put your hands up.” Negotiations persisted, but I knew Mother was as stubborn as a mule and loyal as a dog; she would follow Father to the ends of the earth.

The crunch of boots on gravel drew near. Father stiffened. “Not another step,” he threatened, raising his gun.

“Don’t turn this into a standoff, Arthur,” the voice urged. “That’s not going to do either of us any good.”

A treacherous moment of silence ticked by. Every part of me trembled.

“I will not let you tear this family apart,” Father declared coldly. “Maude,” he said, nodding at Mother who lifted her gun. Her finger made contact with the trigger, and she pulled.

A deafening blast ripped through the cool, night air and all hell broke loose. Shouts of anger and bewilderment erupted, and I watched as Mother’s body lurched back in a swarm of bullets. In collapsing, her gun fired. I fell to the floor, covering the important parts of myself.

Father crawled lamely over the threshold, dragging Mother’s body with him. With a weak kick, he shut and locked the door. Blood from their matching wounds seeped into the floor, a crimson trail smeared behind them. Amidst the chaos, Father tenderly brushed stray hairs from Mother’s face. He caressed her cheek in his calloused hand as she gasped for air, her blouse soaked through and the cross dangling from her neck now stained.

Faint whispers of prayer spilled from his lips as he continued to comfort Mother. Barked orders swirled beyond the window panes, the thud of boots heavy on the porch. From the floor, I glanced around. Jonah was nowhere to be found.

“Jonah?” I called quietly. “Leah, Jonah’s not–” I turned. Leah lay face down nearby, arms splayed by her sides and gun resting under the nearby sofa. “Leah?”

On shaking limbs, I clawed my way over to her. Terror gripped my throat so viciously I struggled to breathe. Thick locks of brunette cascaded into the floor, shielding her face from view. I carefully grabbed her shoulder, rolling her over. A strangled cry escaped me as I recoiled at the sight. Blood trickled from her forehead down the bridge of her nose between lifeless eyes.

The bile that earlier threatened to purge itself did so then. I wiped my mouth, one last dry heave wracking my body, before curling up beside Leah.

Garbled whispers across the room caught my attention, and I looked to see Father lying beside Mother, gazing up at the ceiling of the foyer. Though worse for wear, he still managed to recite the Lord’s prayer unfalteringly. Mother remained limp, devoid of life.

“Mary?” Father called blindly, like a sick game of Marco Polo. “Mary, child, are you still there?”

I rose, stepping gingerly until I stood overtop of him. His snowy beard, once stained with wine, was now marred with fatal streaks of maroon.

“She’s dead,” I said solemnly. “Leah’s dead.” I didn’t want to reveal that Mother’s gun misfiring was the cause; I wanted him to think it was his fault–which, truthfully, it was. Everything was his fault.

“Sometimes, we as servants of the Lord must make the ultimate sacrifice–”

“Shut up,” I hissed, jabbing the barrel of my gun into his forehead.

Father grew silent for a moment. “Mary, you are a daughter of the one true King,” he rasped. “You are our last hope at ending the war of evil that has been waged against us.”

When you see the enemy, take the shot.

I sniffed. “You’re right, Father.”

His breathing was ragged, blood curdling in his lungs as we spoke. A twinge of sorrow panged my heart as I gazed down at the dying man before me. But then I remembered all the hurt he’d inflicted, all the years he’d stolen, and anger sizzled in my veins.

Realization flashed across his face. “Mary–”

A single blast rang out–a kill shot to end his suffering. The footsteps and chatter outside ceased. For a moment, the world was silent.

“My name’s not Mary,” I spat, dropping the gun. With a quick yank, I tore the gold cross from my neck, dropping it onto Father’s still chest.

A muffled cry emanated from somewhere close by. My heart clenched.

“Jonah?” I called, wheeling around in search of the noise. I padded across the living room to the pantry where the cries seemed to stem from. Carefully, I turned the knob and opened the door.

Head buried between his knees, Jonah sat curled in a ball.

“Jonah.” I rubbed his back, and he glanced up. His eyes shone with tears. “Jonah, it’s okay, I’m here.”

Just as the front door splintered open under the crack of a boot, I wrapped him in a hug.





December 16, 2023 04:48

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Marty B
06:49 Dec 21, 2023

Great suspense! At first we see the Father as the good guy, fighting against the evil enemy. Only slowly do we realize that the Father is the Bad Guy, and the children are hostages, forced to fight for his delusions. Mary is fighting against the brainwashing, and what she has been told is 'real'. The contrast with the deer was very powerful. Good luck in the contest!


Nicolle C
14:34 Dec 21, 2023

Thank you so much! That's exactly what I was going for :) Good luck to you as well!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Philip Ebuluofor
16:41 Dec 26, 2023

Fine work. Congrats. Many of them like the Father walking the face of the earth in the name of God.


Show 0 replies
Mary Bendickson
19:06 Dec 22, 2023

Gripping story. Congrats on shortlist.


Show 0 replies
David Sweet
17:26 Dec 20, 2023

Wow! I wasn't sure where it was going in the beginning, but it escalated quickly!! Great story. Gripping. I love the parallel with the deer and the father at the end. Thanks so much for sharing! Good luck with all your writing endeavors.


Nicolle C
18:38 Dec 20, 2023

Thanks so much for your feedback! :)


David Sweet
17:15 Dec 22, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist. Well-deserved. Keep up the great work!!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Radek Michalik
18:54 Dec 22, 2023

Loved the tension in your story! It's really well served by the small sensory details, such as the "cutlery scraping porcelain" during the dinner scene, and the deer's "onyx eyes." Speaking of the deer, I enjoyed that flashback, and how it is reflected in the character's actions by the end. The only thing that I'm a bit conflicted about is that ending. The protagonist's decision to take Father's life implies that he has left a lasting mark on her, despite her rejection of the "Mary" name and the cross pendant. I wonder if the protagonist'...


Nicolle C
21:38 Dec 22, 2023

That's an awesome point! I wish I had thought of that actually! Thanks so much for your feedback :)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.