Contest #158 shortlist ⭐️


Crime Fiction Drama

This story contains sensitive content

[possible triggers: intimidation (slight), mention of drugs and trial]

She flicked the wheel of the lighter. Sparks shot up, followed by a small flame which she held to the end of the cigarette dangling from between her lips. ‘Talk; you’ve got about five minutes to convince me to let you live.’

‘In that case, mind if I have a cigarette too? That’s executioner etiquette, isn’t it, or is that just Hollywood?’

‘Just Hollywood,’ she said, but offered me her pack of cigarettes with her free hand just the same. Her other hand, the one hidden from view inside her jacket, pointed a gun at me. Not of the Hollywood variety, this was a Nambu M57, it would get the job done. ‘Time’s ticking.’ She pulled back the hammer for emphasis.

The clicking sent a shiver through my entire being, commanding every single hair to stand at attention. ‘Would you believe me if I said I did it because I love you?’ I asked. A futile attempt at lightening the mood. The strange thing though, was that I meant it. Even then as I looked at her, knowing full well she’d kill me once the smouldering tip of her cigarette reached the filter.

‘Really, Takashi, you did it because you love me? My dad is in jail, mom’s awaiting trial for complicity, and Itsuki is awaiting whether he’ll be behind bars for five years or twenty-seven. I thought you liked Itsuki.’

‘I did. But you didn’t,’ I said while I tried to light the cigarette I kept in the corner of my mouth. It was true. Although I didn’t like him at first, he became much like a brother rather than just an in-law after we got married. I didn’t look at her as I said it, I was staring at the graffiti frog that had made its appearance on the wall across the train tracks two weeks ago, but I knew the face she was giving me. I remembered every line that appeared on her usually smooth skin. ‘You always complained about how he badmouths you to your dad at every opportunity he got. It’s the only reason he was going to take over the company. You’re smarter, more experienced, and more ambitious than he was or ever would be. It should’ve been you and you know it. As for your da—’


‘As for your dad, Hina, he chewed it up,’ I continued. ‘All of it.’

She poked me with the barrel of the gun to let me know who was in charge here. ‘That’s no reason to have them locked up.’

True. It wasn’t. But it was convenient. For years, even before we got married, she had been complaining about all of them. Her dad most of all. Ever since she was a little girl, she had been preparing to take over her father’s company when eventually the time would come. She made sure she got the best grades all throughout primary and middle school. Even at university, she had always been at the top of her class while on the weekend she inspected contracts for business deals and saved the company millions by spotting hidden clauses. But none of that mattered. Once Itsuki was born, he was all her dad had cared about.

I took a deep drag of my cigarette. Marlboro gold. I always hated lights; they miss that slight scratching sensation when you inhale. ‘Isn’t it though? Five years ago, during Christmas, when your dad announced that Itsuki would take over your position as CEO, you said you never wanted to see any of them ever again.’

‘I didn’t mean that!’

‘Then you didn’t mean it either when you repeated it, after he gave you “the opportunity to develop your skills elsewhere” for your birthday, I suppose?’

She was angrily fingering her cigarette, flicking of ash that wasn’t there. I could only hope she was a little more careful with the trigger, I still had three minutes left after all.

‘Mind if I get something from the vending machine?’ I asked. ‘Last meal and all that.’ I got up before she could give me an answer and walked over to the overpriced candy dispenser. I fumbled in my pocket for my wallet that wasn’t there. ‘Can I borrow a five-hundred-yen piece, hun?’

She didn’t move, just raised an eyebrow.

‘Fine.’ I looked around, but of course there was nobody around at this hour, the parking lot was empty but for four cars. I turned a quarter turn and forced my elbow through the glass. ‘Ahh! Motherfucker! That looks a lot less painful in the movies.’ I took three packs of Pocky from the machine, careful not to cut my hand on the sharp edges. Strawberry, matcha, and the regular ones. ‘I wasn’t sure which ones you liked best. I thought strawberry, but it could’ve been matcha as well. Anyway, here’s both,’ I said, and sat back down on the hood of my beat-up Honda Odyssey.

She didn’t try to take any when I offered the box to her; just took another drag of her cigarette which was reaching the halfway mark by now. I always liked the original best myself. I took a drag of my own cigarette before taking it from my mouth and taking a bite of four of the chocolate covered sticks at once.



‘I still don’t get it. How can you eat and smoke at the same time?’

I lifted my shoulders in answer and swallowed before blowing out the smoke I’d been holding up in the air to be carried off by the wind. I never had a problem with eating and smoking at the same time. I knew many people who did though. ‘Back to what I was saying. I did it for us. In return for the evidence about the shipments of cocaine I gave to Nasanto Corp, they offered me a billion yen. A billion, Hina! You’d be rid of your family; we could both quit our jobs and move somewhere else; we’d never have to work again. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a dream; you wouldn’t have to teach at the high school anymore. No more overtime and compulsory socialising with colleagues. Isn’t that what you always wanted?’

‘Not like this. They are still my family. And how do you think this will look for me, with my family name ruined I’ll be seen as the daughter of some drugs cartel. My parents weren’t like that. They didn’t even know about it.’

The arms of the gold-plated station clock twitched. Ten thirty-five. The dial was beautifully decorated with the image of a sun that, in the morning, reflected the sunlight so brilliantly that it seemed to shine itself. Now, it was barely visible at all.

‘True, that was on Itsuki. But none of that would’ve happened if you’d been in charge. Besides, your dad will be out in, what, three years? Your mom’s sentence will be even shorter, I doubt she’ll even have to do any jail time at all.’

‘You just don’t fucking get it, do you? You think that’s the story the media’s going to run with, that it was just my brother and the rest of us had nothing to do with it? Sure, I might not be seen as an accomplice, but I’m part of that family. You didn’t ruin just them, you ruined all of us.’

Honestly, I didn’t get it. Maybe it was because I’d never been close to my own family, or just because we were rich now and could go wherever we wanted. ‘You took my last name when we married, no one will associate you with them once we move somewhere else. Where’d you want to go? Osaka, or maybe Kochi? You always loved the beach. Hell, we could even go to Europe, you pick a country and we’ll be on the next flight.’

My eyes were fixed on the entrance of the empty train station. One of the lights illuminating the statue a little to the left of the gates was flickering and drew my attention. It was a statue of a man, but I didn’t recognize him. Over the past six years I’d been coming here, I’d never taken the time to read the plaque.

‘You’ve got about one minute left,’ she said, inspecting the cigarette clutched between her fingers. ‘I’ve got to say, you’re doing a real bang-up job so far.’

The gun was still pressed in my side, but it didn’t scare me as much anymore. It was just there. ‘What would you like me to say? That I’ll buy you the most beautiful jewellery, a nice car, a big house with a pool? We can have all that if you want, but you already know that.’

She let another grey cloud escape from her mouth as she nodded. Then she turned to look at me and gave me another look. Go on.

‘We could have kids, a bo—’

She scoffed. ‘Really? You think having kids will fix this? We tried having kids, remember? It didn’t exactly work.’

‘We could always adopt them. You used to dream of having a boy and a girl. The boy had to be older, you always said. If we adopt them, you can make sure we get that.’

She let out a deep sigh. ‘It’s almost time, Takashi, anything you want to say, I suggest you say it now.’

I took a drag of my cigarette as I thought it over. Your last words are hard to come up with on the spot. I took another drag, while staring at the statue again. Who is the statue of?

‘Takashi?’ Her tone was annoyed more than angry. She prodded me with the gun once more.

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m thinking about it.’ I looked back at her. Her eyes didn’t have any emotion left in them. No love. No anger. No sadness. ‘I still love you. I’d want those to be my last words. I still love you.’ I repeated.

She shook her head. Then, right as she shot away the still smouldering cigarette butt, the ten thirty-eight train drove into the station. I took a final drag of my cigarette and shot the butt ahead of me.

‘That’s my cue. Sayonara.’

August 10, 2022 09:31

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Amanda Lieser
21:28 Sep 05, 2022

Hi Joey! I think what I loved most about this story was the incredible imagery you created and the fact that it was heavily focused on the dialogue. I loved the way you built in details around the characters’ backstories and paced those details out like little morsels on a trail for the reader to enjoy. I also loved the way you chose to focus on one perspective rather than bounce between the two MCs. Nice job and congratulations on the shortlist!


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Samuel Eppley
08:58 Aug 19, 2022

Such a great story, better than mine anyway. So suspenseful. Once i read the first paragraph i had to read the whole thing, couldn't skim it or it would've been a waste. Love the way you create the tension between the two characters, how they love each other but hate each other at the same time. One thing that you also did amazing on was how you set two time constraints. One is the burning cigarette and the other is the clock. This really sets the mood and creates a portentous atmosphere. The pacing is really good as well. You detail the in...


Joey Balk
16:04 Aug 19, 2022

thank you for your review! I'm really glad you liked my story. PS. I just read your story. Don't sell yourself short, your writing is great!


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Michał Przywara
22:10 Aug 15, 2022

This is a fun story! You ease us into a lot of criminal family history at a good pace, and we don't get bogged down with exposition. The characters come across well. She's pissed, she might even want to murder him (but maybe not – we don't know how committed she is, and if her reputation being ruined is such a concern, adding "murdered her husband" to the list is not great) and he seems to take that old saying about it being easier to ask forgiveness than permission, to an extreme. We believe him when he says he loves her, but the money is...


Joey Balk
06:21 Aug 17, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read my story, I'm happy you liked it! I tried to really mix up the action with dialogue and description to not infodump everything at once. It was also my first time trying to work in some foreshadowing with Takeshi looking at the clock (he knows the train schedule from having taken te train for years to go to work), and some symbolism with him paying attention to the shiny clock and not to a statue he walks past every workday. throughout the story all Takeshi does is take, starting with bumming a cigarett...


Michał Przywara
13:56 Aug 19, 2022

Congratulations on the shortlist!


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Tricia Shulist
15:12 Aug 14, 2022

So, what happened? First person voice, so Takashi lives, or is this like Sunset Boulevard, where he’s a dead narrator? I enjoyed the way you wove their history and circumstance into the dialogue, without an info dump. Good story. Thanks for this.


Joey Balk
18:19 Aug 14, 2022

Thank you! this is my first time sharing a short story, so I'm really glad to hear you liked it! I omitted who said the last line on purpose, so it could be either Takashi or Hina, depending on the reader's interpretation. Either Takashi says it and takes the opportunity of the incoming train to get away so that if Hina were to shoot, she'd go to prison and join the rest of her family. Or the other option, Hina shoots just before people get off the train and she gets away in time.


Tricia Shulist
09:29 Aug 17, 2022

Ahhh, good one. I like that you can interpret it any way that you want. Thanks. That makes it even better.


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