Taking another swing at the competition that changed my life last year: NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.
Counting myself as fortunate that I got assigned a horror heat. I read a good amount of horror last year, and have been looking to finally cut my teeth on writing it.
The original idea for the story as I workshopped it was far too complicated, introducing a game that was a variant on hide and seek and focusing on more of a family legacy haunting rather than a lawful evil party demon. Glad I had a week so the idea could percolate for a few days and I had the good sense to scrap the complicated parts of it.
When I had a first draft I was happy with, I was stunned–it was only 1,800 words. My cap was 2,500. What was I thinking?! Why was I handicapping myself this early?
Thankfully, I shopped it around to a couple trusted readers and got feedback on where I could expand. The end result is below. Enjoy!
Prompts for Round 1
Character: a tax collector
Caitlin Hansen finds a monster in someone else’s closet.
Many Happy Returns
“Stu,” Mrs. Andretti sighed, “did you eat the last of the cake?”
“Lucas is at basketball. I wanted to save him a piece.”
“Okay, well, don’t look at me. I didn’t get a piece either. One of the girls probably grabbed it.”
Another angry sigh. “Probably that Hansen girl.”
Caitlin, who had come to the kitchen to ask for a cup of water, froze on the spot.
“The Monopoly kid?”
“That’s the one. You know she already lost the hennin I made? And she didn’t even bring—”
Maddie came running in. “Mrs. Andretti? Can I use the phone to call my mom? I think I forgot my retainer at home.”
Caitlin took the distraction and slipped out of the kitchen unseen. She’d just stay thirsty.
Back up in the rec room—that’s what rich families who had one called it, anyway—it was chaos. Post-presents, post-cake, twelve girls were setting up sleeping bags and arguing over what to do next.
“We should have a pillow fight!”
“Where’s my pillow?” said Tanya. “It’s purple with pink polka dots. It was right here.”
“Pillow fight? It’s not even dark yet. We should play hide and seek!”
“Yeah, this house is huge! Let’s play hide and seek.”
“Has anyone seen my scrunchie?” Rachel whined.
“Hide and seek is for babies,” said Lauren. She suggested Sardines instead. She said she’d played it at summer camp and that it was way more fun than hide and seek.
Caitlin had never been to summer camp. “What’s Sardines?”
“It’s the more boring version people suggest after saying hide and seek is for babies,” said Andrea. She twirled a long, red braid around one of her fingers. Everyone laughed, and it made Caitlin’s stomach hurt. No one remembered that Lauren had actually been the one to suggest Sardines, so really they were just laughing at her.
“I want to play hide and seek,” said Justine, the birthday girl, and everyone shut up. Justine thought of a number between one and a hundred. Brittany’s guess was closest, so she was It.
First out of the rec room, Caitlin flurried up the stairs like something was nipping at her heels. The first corner she took found her in the master bedroom, all dark wood and fresh linens, with neat vacuum tracks across the soft, white carpet. Her stomach ached—I shouldn’t be here—but she had already gone this far; she might as well keep going. The closet was dark and open and deep, and suddenly she was at the back, wooden hangers crashing as she splashed into a curtain of heavy wool and tweed suits, tripping over the row of nice leather shoes lined up on the floor. She curled up small and pressed herself into the corner.
…Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, a hundred! Ready or not, here I come!
Happy footsteps thundered in the downstairs hallway. The suits stopped swinging. Caitlin’s skin prickled—from the itchy wool, or the crawling of hundreds of tiny spiders, she didn’t know. She bit back the urge to scream. She could get in big trouble for going in Justine’s parents’ room. Maybe Brittany wouldn’t find her right away. She could wait and find a new place to hide. But if she hid somewhere Brittany had already looked and not found her, they’d call her a cheater.
Caitlin could hear her heart. She wasn’t breathing. But she could hear breathing.
“Who’s there?” she whispered.
“It’s just me,” a voice whispered back.
Caitlin blinked against the darkness. She couldn’t identify the voice from just a whisper. In the dark, she couldn’t even tell where it was coming from.
This had to be a trick of some kind. Had to be. Maybe it was Andrea, or Justine’s mean older brother, or somebody else. Caitlin wouldn’t be baited by “Me.” She hugged her knees painfully tight to her chest and stayed quiet.
“Are you having fun?” Me asked.
Caitlin didn’t answer. Me asked again. And when she stayed silent, Me asked a third time.
“Why do you care?” Caitlin finally hissed.
“It’s my job to make sure everyone is having fun at the party.” Even in a whisper, Me spoke like any grown-up trying to explain something they thought Caitlin was too young to understand. “So. Are you having fun at the party?”
“Yes,” said Caitlin, “now stop whispering.”
“So why don’t you have something for Me?”
“Is that Justine?” Caitlin guessed.
“I’m not Justine. I’m Me. And if you’re having fun at the party, you owe Me.”
“Owe you… what? A present?”
“Call it what you will. I am just here to collect.”
Caitlin had nothing. She hadn’t even realized it was a sleepover party until after her mom had dropped her off. She’d have to ask Mrs. Andretti for an extra pillow and blanket, and ask Justine if she could borrow a pair of pajamas. She’d only brought Justine’s birthday gift, and it was pathetic compared to what everyone else had brought. Caitlin had seen the other girls exchange looks when Justine unwrapped the lackluster Monopoly Caitlin’s mom had found at the church rummage sale. As if the Andrettis didn’t already have Monopoly.
“I don’t have anything else. I just had the present for Justine.”
“But you are having fun at the party.”
“No ‘buts.’ You. Owe. Me.”
The sudden iciness of the whisper pricked tears in her eyes. Suddenly, Caitlin was crying, and the harder she tried to stop it, the worse it got. The sob she tried to silence cramped at her insides threatened to split her in half. Snot bubbled and ran in rivers down the back of her throat. If this kept up much longer, she was going to throw up, and then she’d really be in trouble.
“I—don’t—” She hiccupped each word, flushed from the hot shame of crying, “—have—anything!”
Me wasn’t moved.
“I got something from everyone else. Everyone except Caitlin Hansen. You’re holding out on Me, Caitlin Hansen.”
Caitlin repeated that she had nothing.
“Everyone received a gift bag,” said Me.
“Andrea—Wells—took—mine.” She hated saying it. But now that it was out, she couldn’t stop herself. “I saw her—sneak mine—and shove it in her—overnight bag.”
Mrs. Andretti had already scolded Caitlin for ‘losing’ the bag when she noticed Caitlin wasn’t wearing the cone-shaped princess hat with her name in glitter like all the other girls. Andrea Wells twirled a long, red braid on one thieving finger and told Mrs. Andretti that she’d help Caitlin look for it. Caitlin bit her tongue, knowing the truth would only have exploded from her in shameful, bawling tears. And when she said nothing in return, Mrs. Andretti made Caitlin tell Andrea thank you for being so nice.
Caitlin continued to cry quietly, face tingling, stomach churning. Now that someone—an adult—knew the truth, Andrea would get the lukewarm justice of a time out at worst and she—Caitlin Hansen—would be branded, perhaps forever, a tattletale.
“It is coming,” said Me.
Caitlin sniffed. “…What?”
“The girl who is It is coming.”
Sure enough, Caitlin could hear Brittany laugh as she found Veronica somewhere near the guest bedroom. She caught a snippet of distant conversation:
Who’s left? Only Andrea, right?
No, Caitlin too. Have you seen my sock?
Oh, I forgot about Caitlin. No, I haven’t seen it…
Caitlin’s body wracked with another sob, and Me shushed her.
“It won’t find you when she comes,” Me said, “but you have. To stay. Quiet.”
Suddenly—the bedroom door. The soft padding steps on the nice carpet. The heart-lurching creak of the closet door.
“I know you’re in here,” Brittany said. “I saw your footprints in the carpet.”
Caitlin said nothing. Brittany was just a shape hanging in the light of the doorway. The closet light switch was on the opposite wall, and she wasn’t going to cross the dark to get it.
“I’m going to tell Justine’s parents you were hiding in their room.”
Caitlin’s lungs were going to burst. She stayed still, sure that even in the dark, the nice leather shoes she was crushing were a dead giveaway. They were all knocked out of line save for one pair—the shiniest, blackest pair. And the nice woolen suit, with legs filled out and ending in the shiny pair of shoes. And a gloved hand, just inches from her face, clutching the handle of a leather briefcase. Someone was standing there. Someone she did not know.
Her eyes flicked up to where Me’s face would be.
The closet door shut with a snap. Brittany was gone, and the dark was back.
“Who else did you tell about the gift bag?” Me whispered.
Me was quiet for a long time. “There is value in this.”
Caitlin had no idea what that meant.
“Caitlin Hansen. You will not tell anyone what Andrea did.”
Caitlin nodded, even though Me couldn’t see her. Even if she tried to tell, who would listen?
“The secret will belong to Me,” said Me. “You will not tell anyone. Ever.”
“Swear on it.”
“I swear,” Caitlin said quickly. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Another pensive silence, with Me weighing her words. “This is acceptable.”
Caitlin realized she’d stopped crying.
“Remember,” said Me, “you claimed you were having fun at the party.”
“I lied,” said Caitlin. “I thought—”
“But you claimed it when I asked. If you had not, there would have been nothing to collect.” The iciness in Me’s whisper had begun to thaw. “In any case, I think you are about to.”
“About to… what?”
“Have fun,” said Me. “It didn’t find you. You’ve won.”
Elsewhere in the house, Andrea Wells started to scream.
“You shouldn’t have been so hard on her on her. It’s her birthday.”
Caitlin Garcia paused in collecting the dirty paper cups and shot her husband a look.
“It was a special necklace from grandma,” she said. “I told her to leave it in the box!”
“We’ll find it,” he assured her. Caitlin knew they could afford to replace it, but that wasn’t the point. “Reminds me, though—one of us needs to text Kayden’s mom that the Tooth Fairy needs to make a deposit.”
Caitlin made a face. “Kids these days really still believe in that stuff, huh?”
“Brooklynn would if you hadn’t spilled about Santa.”
Caitlin ignored him. She wouldn’t be baited into this argument again. Something just never sat right with her about imaginary figures scaring kids into thinking they were always being watched.
Her husband leaned in and lowered his voice. “You think one of the other girls might’ve took it?”
“Maybe.” Caitlin sighed. She hadn’t even thought about something like that. Perhaps she’d been wrong to yell at her daughter after all. “Girls are cruel like that.”
Her husband raised an eyebrow. All these years together, Caitlin realized, and she’d never told him about the time Andrea Wells stole her gift bag from Justine Andretti’s tenth birthday party.
He listened to her—really listened. Like she was relaying the crime of the century. “She must have been worried I would tattle. She cut off one of her pigtails with a pair of kitchen scissors and tried to blame it on me.” God, she hadn’t thought about that in ages. “I wasn’t anywhere near her when it happened, and everyone knew it.” Caitlin remembered the lopsided chop job, the way Andrea had just screamed—like a gloved hand had yanked one braid straight up and made a single, judicious cut. “I threw up all over the Andretti’s living room rug and got sent home early. Didn’t go to another birthday party until I was out of high school.”
“And you didn’t tell anyone? Pigtail girl didn’t get in trouble for stealing?”
“I must have told someone.” Caitlin paused, shoving down the trash before tying it off. “I can’t remember. But I never got a gift bag.”
“Juicy.” Her husband grinned as she handed the trash off to him. “That why you made the extra?”
It was Caitlin’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“Party bag,” her husband clarified over his shoulder. “It’s up on the dresser, if you wanted it for your scrapbook or something.”
Upstairs, Caitlin pressed an ear to Brooklynn’s door. Sniffling. Still crying. It could have been worse—Caitlin could have yelled at her daughter while her guests were still there. At least she’d waited until all the fun was over.
But maybe her husband was right. Maybe something had happened, and Brooklynn was keeping something to herself. Caitlin put a hand on the doorknob. She could almost remember what that age was like. Being laughed at. Getting branded a tattletale. The mortification of crying in front of someone. It all came back to her, hot and prickling like the crawling of hundreds of tiny spiders. The stomach cramping. The strange urge to scream.
She shuddered and drew back from the door, moving swiftly to the master bedroom. Her eyes lingered a moment on footprints left in the freshly-vacuumed carpet. The little bag on the dresser wasn’t one of the crinkly plastic unicorn bags that Brooklynn had picked out. But it was familiar. And old. The paper crumbled easily away in Caitlin’s hands. Precious trinkets spilled out: fancy caramels, felt finger puppets, a Wooly Willy toy. A princess hennin with Caitlin’s name in glitter.
And a long, red braid.
Caitlin’s eyes fell on the shiniest, blackest pair of shoes in her husband’s closet. She didn’t remember ever buying him a pair like that.
“Well? Did you have fun?”