Hey kids! It's time for the annual NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition. Last year, I came within a whisker of making it to round two. Note to Carl who lives in his mother's basement in New Jersey: you ain't going to beat me by one point this year. I'm in it to win it, or to at least move beyond the first round.
I was tasked with writing a mystery in 1,000 words or less. The predominant location has to be a child's bedroom. A tropical fish must make an appearance. Here is my offering:
Celia curled her fingers into a fist and punched the pillow, grazing Ali’s face.
"Shit," Ali screamed, eyes blazing.
"I swear I'm gonna kill this crazy bitch."
"Cut," Mac, the director, yelled.
Celia leaned into Ali's 12-year-old face and whispered, “Not if I kill you first.”
Ali’s hand flew from under the blanket. She made weak contact with the side of Celia’s famous face. The face featured in hit movies. The face seductively smiling on the cover of the current Vanity Fair. The face sneering at her.
“Is that all you got, kid?” Celia cackled. She slid off the bed and approached Mac on the set of the child’s bedroom. A plastic mermaid whacked her on the back of her head.
“Oh, it’s on,” Celia said.
Mac grabbed Celia by the arm. He drew her into a hug to keep her from attacking the brat in the bed. He didn’t want to hug her. He wanted to choke her. She made his life miserable. She insulted and criticized people; drank too much; flubbed her lines; stumbled into furniture; bitched about pain and fatigue.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m just tired and I forgot my line,” Celia answered.
“Everyone, take five,” Mac announced. Ali scooted passed them on her way to eat at the craft service table. “Ali, lay off the candy,” Mac said. “You’re supposed to be an eight-year-old with cancer.”
“Lay off me too,” Celia added. “I feel rotten.” Ali shot her the finger.
Mac steered Celia to the bed. “Sit down. Talk to me.”
“I know you’re upset,” he said. “I read the Vanity Fair article. Your ex did a number on you.”
“Duh, ya think?”
“Did he really choke you in the limo after the Oscars?”
“Yeah, that’s why I got a restraining order.”
“Is the order still active?”
“Of course. He’s a psycho and he hates me.”
Mac wanted to say he’s not the only one. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Ali returned to the bed. Melissa, a production assistant, handed her the mermaid that resembled Barbie with a tail. She clutched it to her chest. Celia positioned herself next to Ali. They reclined in silence, not making eye contact.
Mac called, “Action.”
Celia looked at Ali and said, “I love you, my little marine biologist.”
Camera one zoomed in on Ali staring into Celia’s eyes. She blinked twice, took a shaky breath, exhaled and said, “Love you more.”
The mermaid slipped from Ali’s grasp. Celia set it next to the lamp on the bedside table. She switched the lamp off, turned back to Ali, and kissed the top of her bald head. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
“My last chemo treatment,” Ali said.
Celia smiled at her. “Good night, sweetie.” She got off the bed and walked across the room, pausing at the fish tank by the door.
“Leave the tank light on, please. I want to watch Curly.”
“Which one’s Curly?”
“The orange butterflyfish with the black stripes, my favorite.”
“Okay, but don’t stay awake long.” Celia shut the door. Camera two zoomed in on Ali’s beaming face staring at the fish.
“Cut,” Mac said.
The next day, Mac paced the floor by the bed on set. “Melissa, where the hell is Celia?”
“I don’t know, sir.” She handed him a cup of coffee and continued, “She doesn’t answer her phone, and she’s not in her trailer.”
“Have you checked with hair and makeup?”
“They haven’t seen her.”
Mac swallowed a sip of coffee. “Have you talked to her driver?”
“He’s not picking up. I left a message for him to call me.”
“Okay, we’ll have to work around her until she shows up.”
Ali fed the fish and wept. Her character had just learned the chemo wasn’t working. Melissa watched on the monitor. She marveled at Ali’s ability to cry on cue. Melissa made a mental note to get the saltwater tank cleaned.
Melissa had been surprised when Celia showed interest in the tank. She’d told Melissa the only happy memories she had of her father involved watching him care for the tropical fish he loved above all else.
“He was an asshole,” Celia said at the time. “Like father, like daughter I guess.” She’d laughed at her own joke. Melissa didn’t think it was funny. She thought it was true. She’d tried to keep Celia from fooling around with the tank equipment between takes. Distracted by the memory, she didn’t notice the scene had ended.
Mac said, “Listen up, people. I’ve got devastating news.” He looked at his phone. “TMZ is reporting the death of Celia Holbrook.”
LAPD detective Randy Forrester’s hard work wasn’t paying off. The toxicology report indicated poisoning; however, a month after Celia’s death the murderer remained a mystery.
Forrester was investigating on set the day shooting resumed after a script overhaul. Melissa stood next to the detective, watching Ali perform the fish-feeding scene multiple times. Ali’s hand hovered over the tank, triggering Melissa’s memory. She’d seen Celia scrape her hand on a piece of coral the day the tank arrived. Melissa had pressed her to go to the doctor to be on the safe side, but Celia wanted a cocktail. She told Melissa the scratch was no big deal.
“Cut,” Mac said.
Melissa pulled her phone out of her pocket and typed: coral cut. She read an article from USA Today that made her stomach clench. Turning to the detective, she said, “Were any cuts found on Celia?”
His face remained impassive, but his pulse sped up. “We need to talk,” he said. He knew the coroner had found an infected cut on Celia’s palm.
Melissa informed him of the incident involving Celia and handed him her phone. He read the story about accidental deaths attributed to the slow onset of anaphylactic shock after exposure to certain types of coral. He displayed an uncharacteristic grin when he realized Celia’s murderer was most likely Celia.
I'll let you know my score on this story as soon as I receive it on September 11. I'm pretty happy with what I wrote; however, after I submitted it to the contest I realized I'd transposed two character names in a crucial sentence. DAMN DAMN DAMN. I fixed my mistake before posting it for you to read. The mistake is highly likely to cost me some points. I'm so mad at myself, but what's done is done. I just ate a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream to make myself feel better. Of course, now I'm mad at myself for eating all that ice cream, but what's done is done. Thanks for reading my mystery!