I entered the NYC Midnight 2016 Short Story Challenge and am posting my first round story here so I can share it in the site’s forums for some honest (but hopefully also gentle) critiquing by the other writers who joined me in the challenge.
For this story, I was charged with creating a science fiction tale that included ice fishing and a character who was a coward (any of these can be interpreted somewhat creatively.) The story had to be told in 2500 words or less, and I just slipped under the wire with 2492 words.
With 2100 participants, we were broken into 60 groups; in order for me to advance to the next level of the challenge, I will have to rank among the top 5 writers in my group of 35. While I don’t have a whole lot of hope of moving on, it was definitely fun to stretch my wings this way. I’ve never attempted to write science fiction before (as will likely be painfully obvious to anyone who reads the whole story.)
This is a moderately long read, but if you are up for the challenge, I invite you to come along with me to a frozen lake in the wilderness of Montana on a cold, February night. Enjoy! – Cindy
The lights were the first thing Layla noticed. Shimmering and somehow dull at the same time, the white lights were just behind the tree line on the south side of Lake Chikunga, where the national forest began.
There shouldn’t be any lights on that part of the lake, she thought to herself.
Layla’s eyes were still burning with tears, so at first, she assumed the lights were shimmering because she was crying.
Max and LeRoy were arguing drunkenly again. But then, lately, they always seemed to be arguing drunkenly about one thing or another. Tonight, they were arguing about extraterrestrials and UFOs.
LeRoy had heard rumors from an Air Force buddy about recent unexplained phenomena in the area and was arguing that a colonization by little green men was imminent. Max, being Max, ridiculed the idea and had a counter-point for every statement made. Their sentences were thick with the beer they had consumed, and punctuated with profanity and raucous laughter. God, how she hated their arguments.
Had there been anyone else on this godforsaken lake that night, her husband’s conversation with his brother would have had an audience. The portable radio they had brought with them, which would have otherwise provided some background noise, had abruptly stopped working earlier in the evening. As it was, they were the only ice fishermen brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to be on the lake on this Wednesday evening in late February. Temperatures had been unseasonably warm the previous week and the DNR had issued a warning about ice safety on area lakes just that day.
Of course, Max had scoffed and brushed her off when Layla brought up the ice safety warning and suggested they change their plans. Although he hadn’t come out and called her a coward, she had seen it in his eyes. And he was right; she was afraid of just about everything about this trip: she was afraid of falling through the ice, afraid of drowning in freezing water, and afraid of being bored out of her mind sitting in a portable shelter on an isolated lake with Max and LeRoy while they drank, fished and argued.
Max had spent hundreds of dollars they didn’t have to buy the portable shelter, a heater (a heater for ice fishing, for crying out loud!), a fancy fish-finder and other gear, even portable furniture for the shelter. They had left at dawn and had driven hours to get to this lake on the edge of nowhere, arriving just after lunch. After setting everything up on the lake, Max and LeRoy had only half-heartedly attempted to fish earlier in the day. Now, they had given up all pretense of actually ice-fishing and were trying to drink their way to the bottom of another 12-pack of cheap beer.
She supposed anyone looking in from the outside would wonder why she had agreed to come along on this trip. She definitely didn’t enjoy fishing, and Max and LeRoy didn’t seem to want her along except to use her as a “go-fer” to fetch more beer from the car when they ran out of the provisions inside the shelter. Max liked to control her, to know where she was at all times, so Layla supposed she hadn’t really had a choice about being there that night. Not really.
Yes, she was afraid of everything about this trip. But Layla had bigger fears too, fears she didn’t even want to admit to herself: she was afraid of her husband, afraid that she didn’t love him, afraid of the idea of being on her own, and she was afraid of what that meant for her future now that her hours at the gas station had just been cut. Again.
Her biggest source of fear was one with which she was still struggling to come to terms: the clinic had just confirmed she was pregnant. At three months along, she wasn’t showing yet but knew she soon would be. Where her heart should have been filled with joy, she felt only fear and dread at how Max would undoubtedly react to the news. He didn’t want children; he had been upfront about that from the very beginning.
Layla had cried when her fears were confirmed by a kindly nurse who reminded her that birth control was only 99% effective. That wouldn’t matter to Max; he would blame her and punish her somehow, she was sure of it.
So, she had come along on this farce of an ice-fishing trip. Hormones out of whack and desperate to escape the testosterone-filled shelter, she had mumbled something about needing to relieve herself in order to escape. She definitely didn’t want to cry in front of Max and LeRoy.
That’s how Layla found herself crying outside the shelter and wondering what was causing those strange lights in the distance. Ironically, given the subject of the argument occurring inside the ice shelter, she didn’t even consider UFOs or inter-planetary beings.
Uncharacteristically, she wasn’t afraid of the lights and the mystery they represented. Had she been afraid or had she ignored the lights entirely, things might have turned out very differently. But the lights provided the diversion she so desperately longed for at that moment.
Wiping the last of the tears away with gloved hands, Layla zipped up her parka. She felt a curious draw toward the lights and found herself moving in that direction, boots crunching on the light layer of snow that covered the ice.
With every step, she imagined that she heard the ice creaking and moaning underneath her feet. In her mind’s eye, she could see the frozen lake splitting under her feet and welcoming her into its icy depths. She imagined that the hungry lake would swallow the portable ice fishing shelter in one gulp, Max and LeRoy included.
A small part of her brain whispered that this might be the best way to quiet all of her fears, but she pushed that idea away as quickly as it had come and kept moving, inexplicably drawn in by the lights. Had she thought they were white? Shaking her head, she gazed in wonder at the multicolored streams of light that seemed to dance, weaving in and out of the trees, reflected and amplified by the layer of snow that blanketed the landscape.
The sound was the next thing Layla noticed, a low, harmonious hum that seemed to reverberate around her. Behind her, she could still hear the guys’ drunken voices, but the sound seemed distorted, as if coming from a great distance.
“Layla? Hey Layla sweetie, how ‘bout you go get us s’more beer? I’m beggin’ darlin’, pleeeeeaaase!”
Absently, she registered Max’s voice, followed by loud guffaws as he admired what he thought was his own wit for having woven song lyrics into his sentence, something he had done hundreds of times in the three years they had been together. Layla had come to hate that song. Once, in the early days of their marriage, she had told him she didn’t find it funny. He had reacted violently so she hadn’t made that mistake again.
Layla hadn’t always been afraid of Max. No, the fear had started shortly after their marriage when he had shown his true colors one night in a fit of jealousy. She knew she let him walk all over her, and knew that it was wrong. Rationally, she knew those things, but she was afraid of how he would punish her if she didn’t behave. So she always behaved. And she was always afraid.
“Where’s zat woman? She’d better be comin’ with beer if she knows whasss good fer her!”
Max’s speech was slurred, but his voice had an edge to it now that hadn’t been there moments before. As she continued moving toward the lights, Layla thought again about her pregnancy. How could she possibly bring a child into this toxic marriage? She had to find a way to escape, but the very prospect of leaving Max was, in and of itself, terrifying.
The humming noise grew louder and seemed to come from everywhere at once. The sound was comforting as it enveloped Layla. She guessed she was about 3/4 of the way from the shelter to where the lights were when she heard Max’s voice behind her again, closer this time.
“Laaaayyla… wait up. You’d better get yer pretty face back here. Where in sam hell are you going?” This was followed by indistinguishable conversation; apparently LeRoy was with Max.
Good. She thought to herself. At least he’s nicer to me when someone else is around.
The humming sound was even louder now, almost completely drowning out Max’s drunken ramblings from behind her. Wordlessly, it compelled her to keep moving toward the light. So she moved closer, the sound of her boots in the frozen snow muffled and dull.
As she reached the edge of the lakeshore, Layla noticed a third thing. The lights before her, now almost blinding in their brilliance, weren’t streams of light at all. What had appeared from a distance to be lines of iridescent lights were actually thousands of individual spheres, each moving independently but at the same time in coordination with the others, almost as if choreographed to do so.
Layla had no time to react when one of the spheres came speeding toward her. Just as suddenly as it moved toward her, it disappeared. But the moment it disappeared, everything was different. Her body tingled, her senses thrummed, and she had an odd feeling that she was no longer alone in her own mind.
She felt a nudging, a gentle prodding, and her mind was suddenly flooded with a rapid-fire replay of her memories and random thoughts. She observed idly that it was almost as if her mind was a file cabinet and someone (or something) was wading through the drawers picking out pages and entire folders at random.
Snippets from her childhood and adolescence were interspersed with more recent memories, including memories of Max’s explosive rage and the memory from just earlier that week of the moment she received the news about the baby. Unbidden, her mind conjured image after image of babies, as if she was watching a slideshow.
Oddly, far from feeling violated and frightened at this intrusion into her person, Layla felt a strange sense of comfort and peace. Indeed, she felt a profound sense of relief that she didn’t quite understand, but even the lack of understanding didn’t seem to matter. She sensed, rather than heard, a voice telling her not to be afraid.
Through her own eyes, but as if from a distance, she saw two sphere beings (and she knew now instinctively that they were beings) speeding toward two lurching forms still some distance away on the lake. In the same moment that she recognized the forms as Max and LeRoy, the balls of light seemed to disappear right into the men. Their bodies straightened and were still for a time before the spheres reemerged and sped back toward where she stood. As she watched, the brothers’ bodies collapsed limply to the ice. Layla observed all of this with a curious detachment.
Underneath the loud humming came a series of loud pops and crackling sounds from the lake, but Layla noted it disinterestedly, so her mind didn’t linger there.
She sensed the being inside her mind asking for permission. Permission for what, she wasn’t sure, but in her strange state of comfortable detachment, she acquiesced.
Absently, Layla registered that she was being moved away from the lake. It was the strangest feeling to be a bystander in her own body, she thought. Now, on this frozen lakeshore, on the edge of wilderness, in the dark of night, somehow nothing seemed to matter anymore. For the first time in her life, she wasn’t afraid. She realized she didn’t care about the stupid song lyrics, or about her work hours getting cut; she didn’t care about Max’s stupid, drunken arguments or about the way he treated her; she didn’t care about what was going to happen next. And she realized she liked the not caring.
Her body was propelled through the trees, deeper toward the concentration of the spheres. Branches scratched and poked her, but she felt no pain. She heard more popping noises from the lake, but found she didn’t care about what they meant. As she was moved deeper into the trees, the spheres parted on either side of her, forming a pathway.
The fourth thing Layla noticed was a giant shifting form at the center of the sphere beings, its form watery and transparent. No sooner had she made this observation than she again felt a question from the beings. Come, they seemed to ask. She agreed and felt her body lifted through the air toward the giant sphere.
She heard one last booming noise from the lake before she found herself in a brightly-lit room surrounded by more of the sphere beings. She understood the beings were communicating with each other and she sensed their’ excitement as, once again, images of babies flashed through her mind, unbidden.
One last time, she felt them asking her a question, this time a request to join them. We will care for you and your child, they seemed to say. She thought, fleetingly, of Max and realized she no longer needed to worry about how to leave him.
Having made her decision, Layla felt a deep sense of contentment. She sensed the sphere beings telling her to rest for a long journey, and she willingly closed her eyes and welcomed the darkness.
Lake Chikunga Weekly News, Lake Chikunga, Montana
February 22, 2016
Bodies of Ice Fishermen Recovered
Divers have recovered the bodies of two North Dakota brothers who apparently fell through the ice of Lake Chikunga while fishing late Wednesday or early Thursday of last week. The victims have been identified as Maxwell Petersen, 37, and LeRoy Petersen, 39, both of Dickinson, ND.
Maxwell Peterson’s wife, Layla Petersen, 33, was last seen traveling with the two on Wednesday morning, but her body was not recovered and is not believed to be in the lake.
A source close to the investigation reports that the damaged ice where the bodies were found was located more than a half mile from their ice shelter. The shelter and the brothers’ personal belongings were not damaged. Alcohol appears to have been a factor in the accident.
The source reported that, at this time, there is no evidence to believe this incident was related in any way to reports in the area of strange lights and noises on Wednesday night.
“Remember to check ice safety warnings before heading out for a fishing trip”, said Jack Koch, spokesperson for the Montana Department of Natural Resources.
Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Layla Petersen is asked to contact the Lake Chikunga police department.