Contest #215 shortlist ⭐️


Crime Suspense

I should never have agreed to this.

Pale sunlight bleeds through the heavy cloud cover, turning the early 20th-century locomotives into the haunted bones of a disassembled mechanoid. Most of the station’s roof is caved in, revealing a frozen nerve branch of twisted support beams, but the building itself is intact, covered in bad-tattoo graffiti and standing sentry in the weeds. It overlooks a sinkhole in the center of the yard big as a football field. Tracks disappear into its open maw, dozens of rail cars piled together in the muddy gulch like broken toys.

“Right there...” the sheriff says, boots scraping along the edge of the hole. He aims a flashlight at the roof of a passenger car ten feet below. Someone used red spray paint to scrawl my name in big block letters: CORY BISHOP. The sheriff’s eyes gleam at me like they’re made of the same material as his badge. “Seems like maybe you two do know each other after all.”

“We don't. Everyone in Brooksville knows my name."

He sniffs as though he’s already considered that. “I brought a rope and harness. If you need help, just tug on the rope and I’ll haul you out.”

“Right. And if I break my neck, no skin off your back. Suspect's body found at the scene of the crime, his name written legibly on–"

“Bishop, she could be trapped down there."

It isn't underground or confined spaces that bother me. It's all this open air. And I don't trust Gutierrez as far as I can throw him. “Don’t you have some kind of task force that can do this? Why me…?”

"You know why."

I give an exasperated sigh. It’s because I’m what's known as a claustrophiliac– someone for whom confinement does not elicit fear, but great pleasure. It’s not a sexual thing, more like a kind of meditative ecstasy. But try explaining that to a judge when you’ve been caught living in the crawlspace of a sorority.

“Trust me, if anyone else was willing, you’d be the last person I’d come to. You were the last person. But it’s like you said…the whole town knows who you are. This could be your chance to change how they talk about you.” 

I wouldn't be who I am if I cared what people think. But the girl could be down there. Hands numb from the cold, breath forming on the air, I take the rock climbing harness from the sheriff and strap it on. “Careful,” he cautions, helping me get in position.

“Nah, I think I’ll be reckless and foolhardy."

The sinkhole is damp, rivulets trickling down the exposed earth and dripping on the rusted train cars. The sheriff wraps the rope around a piece of rebar sticking out of the concrete, then slowly begins to lower me inside. Thirty seconds suspended in the air is pure hell for an agoraphobic, and I have to fight hard not to panic, sweat creasing my palms. When my sneakers set down on the roof of the car, they echo with a thunk.

I plan out the smartest route. The easiest way seems to be to go inside the cars and daisy-chain my way to the bottom. “How’s it looking?” the sheriff hollers.

But I’m not in the habit of answering pointless questions. Quick as a rat, I slink in through an empty window frame, discovering the interior in surprisingly good condition. Pyramid lanterns in the ceiling, hardwood tables and chairs, ornate glass windows. If not for the occasional empty bottle or balled-up wrapper, I could imagine I’ve been transported back in time. But as I head down the slanted floor, I spot something strange: a ring light, the type favored by influencers, broken and crumpled in the corner.

Samantha Bledsoe has a livestream. According to the sheriff, it's still running, showing nothing but a black screen. It's been that way since midnight two nights ago when she came down here by herself.

I squeeze my way through the cracked-open rear door. The next car is standing at almost a ninety-degree angle, as though it tumbled nose-first into the gulch and stayed that way. I click on the headlamp the sheriff gave me, its beam cutting through the black like a laser. There’s something vaguely human-shaped at the bottom, but I can’t quite make out what it is. “Hello? Samantha Bledsoe?” I try. But there’s no response.

I lower myself inside with two hands, using light fixtures and holes in the iron frame as footholds. I make it as far as the fourth lamp before I slip and fall, plummeting into the darkness. I slam into the bottom, wind knocked out of me. Faintly overhead, I hear the sheriff cry, “Hey! What happened? Everything okay?”

“It’s fine!” I call back, wheezing. But it’s not. My lower back is thrumming with pain, and I’ve landed on a pile of something lumpy. Human bones. I bite back the impulse to scream and scramble to my feet. There’s an old dining cart beside me, its compartment door missing, revealing a child-sized skeleton within. My head pinwheels with wooziness, and for a moment I’m afraid I might vomit. But I manage to pull myself together, and I’m thankful for that because, upon closer examination, I realize they’re fake. The bones and the skeleton are made of plastic, nothing but cheap Halloween decorations. Did Samantha put these here?

Being down here brings up a lot of feelings. It reminds me of how my compulsion first began, shortly after my father died. I was thirteen. Mom brought me along to the funeral home, and I had to sit there and listen to a man wearing eighteen-carat cuff links reduce my father to an interest rate, because he had no tangible assets, and we couldn’t afford a proper burial. I’d stormed out of there as fast as I could and walked directly into the showroom, where a row of beautiful half-couch caskets lay in wait, beckoning me with their silk-lined interiors. I chose one made of cherry to compliment my green eyes. Climbing inside, I discovered it was far more comfortable than I’d anticipated. I reached up and closed the lid. I will admit there was a big wave of anxiety at first, but it quickly morphed into something else–deep tranquility, as though I’d crossed a finish line of some kind and could finally put to rest all the forces that had been battling inside me for years. From then on, I was hooked. I plumbed every nook and cranny of our house, from the loose floorboards in the kitchen to the chest in my parents’ room, to the old fridge in the garage, as though Dad’s death had left the world full of fissures, and it was my duty to fill them. I started skipping class to stuff myself into my locker. The assistant principal thought I was being bullied, and I had to explain that no, I just have this bizarre drive to burrow into tight spaces, like a woodland creature going into hibernation.

My musings are disturbed by the tinkling of glass, one of the lamps raining shards. There’s no one else here; it’s time to go. I tug on the rope to signal the sheriff, but nothing happens. I tug again. “Sheriff? I’m ready!” I call out. But the sound of my voice is swallowed whole by the car. The only reply is the hollow moan of wind against the boulders.


It’s going to be no easy feat climbing out with my bare hands. Impossible to go the way I came; I’ll have to risk pushing deeper into the gulch and pray for an opening that leads to the surface. I find a narrow aperture in the rocks and compress myself into it, sloshing through an inch or two of standing water.

Halfway through, I get stuck. The crevice has tapered to the point where it’s difficult to take a full breath. Anyone else would be losing their minds at this point, but I feel right at home. My heart rate sinks to a gentle thump, my breathing slows, and my mind grows calm. This is what I was made for. To progress forward, I have to inhale as deep as I can and pull my stomach in. I wiggle, slide, and scrape along the rock wall until finally, I’m able to squeeze through to the other side, emerging into a concrete tunnel. It’s a storm drain, a thin ray of light at the other end shining on a maintenance ladder. I stride towards it and begin to scale it, careful not to lose my purchase on the slippery bars.

On the surface, I find myself at the opposite end of the depot by the barbed wire fence. The sheriff is nowhere in sight, rope hanging limply against the rebar. Did something happen to him? Or did he cut and run? As I approach the station, I hear him shout, “Freeze! Put your hands up where I can see them!”

It isn’t me he’s addressing. I enter the building from the south end to find the sheriff’s revolver aimed squarely at a young woman in purple braids. She has her hands raised, smartphone clutched in one of them, her ridiculous puffball outfit casting a wonky shadow in the bright stage lights. Nearby is an expensive-looking camera on a tripod. “Relaaax,” she says, drawing out the word. “It’s just a live stream! We’re getting so many views from this, it’s not even funny.”

“You’re right, it’s not funny. Do you have any idea how many people are out looking for you, Miss Bledsoe?”

“Oh my God. Like literally all you had to do was check my feed. Is it even illegal to go missing...?”

“It's illegal to waste department resources like this, yes. Not to mention your poor family."

“Oh, they’ll be fine. I’m sure they hardly noticed.”

“Put your gun away, Sheriff,” I say. “She’s not a threat. Just an enormous brat.”

Samantha turns, seeing me for the first time. Her heavily-rouged cheeks lift into a megawatt smile. “There he is! Cory Bishop, the man of the hour! How does it feel?”

“How does what feel? Being lied to?”

“Being famous,” she says, brandishing her phone. “I put cameras everywhere, even in the sinkhole, strategically placed so you wouldn’t spot them. My subscribers saw it all. Everyone is calling you a hero. And look…you’re outside of your home! Years of court-ordered therapy couldn’t accomplish that, and here you are! You can thank me later.”

The sheriff marches forward to grab Samantha and put her in handcuffs. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”

“Why did you do this, Samantha?” I ask, outraged. “You went to this much trouble just for some stupid Internet thing?”

“Two birds with one stone, okay? You wouldn’t get it. I’m raising awareness. This place is a stain on our town’s good name. It needs to get cleaned up.”

The sheriff barks a laugh, hauling her towards the station’s exit. “Right. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that your parents are wealthy land developers who’ve been after this place for years.”

Samantha’s only reply is a disgusted “Ugh!”.


The past few weeks have been an endless onslaught of phone calls, e-mails, and enterprising journalists hovering at my doorstep. I’ve dodged them all. I disconnected my landline and switched off my cell. Posted a Do Not Disturb sign on my front door, though it hasn’t done much good. I don’t want to be in the spotlight. I don’t want to talk to anyone. If I never hear the name Samantha Bledsoe again as long as I live, it’ll be too soon.

The only person I allow to enter my home is the sheriff. He stops by every so often to check up on me. We sit in the breakfast nook to chat over coffee, though I usually have to draw the curtains to block out the flashing bulbs of the hungry photographers outside. But they usually go away after a while. “I see you received a gift,” he says now, gesturing to the cherry coffin in the center of my living room.

“Yeah. It was donated by the same funeral home that cremated my father. I guess they thought they might get some free advertising out of it.”

“Well, at least something decent came out of this.” I don’t mention how there was also a crowdfunding campaign on my behalf, and that they’d raised enough money to cover food, utilities, and rent for the next two years. “Cozy in there?”

I wink at him, smiling for the first time since this all began. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”

September 15, 2023 18:32

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Amanda Lieser
23:58 Oct 10, 2023

Hey Nicholas! What an interesting take on the prompt and an excellent shortlist. You taught me about a new condition while leaning on something most of us understand-when life gets too heavy and all you can do is stay home. I loved that this story starts off right in the action of it all and that we got a happy ending. I’d love to see a sequel to this story in Samantha’s POV-it might be fun to write as a spoiled brat. :) nice work all around!


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Mary Bendickson
05:46 Sep 29, 2023

Congrats on shortlist.


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Luca King Greek
13:32 Sep 21, 2023

The conceit was just a bit too much for me. I liked the overall arc or the story, and the premise - a tight-space nut-job - was fun. I also think the descriptive language was good right from the get-go (nerve branch, muddy gulch, etc). The cop and the influencer did not resonate with me, felt like plot devices only. In short, much to like, but didn't quite work for me... hope that's useful feedback.


14:11 Sep 21, 2023

That's fair. I almost deleted bc I feel the same about the overall conceit and cop/influencer, but figured no harm in leaving it up. Thanks!


Luca King Greek
16:53 Sep 21, 2023

Exactly my attitude! Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get this week’s conceit over the finish line. Best.


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Timothy Rennels
21:59 Sep 19, 2023

An excellent read where you took me by the hand and led me to unexpected nooks and crannies, wide-eyed the entire time. Bravo!


14:12 Sep 21, 2023

Thanks for reading!


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