This blog post is really two parts: the contest and my submission. Click here to skip ahead and read Quinceañera.
I hadn’t heard of NYC Midnight until a friend posted about it on Facebook. He had advanced to the final round of one of their writing contests, and when I looked it up, the idea sounded super fun — and scary. So I decided to sign up!
There are four contests, and I signed up for the short story challenge. I signed up even though I’d only written one other short story since college, and it was last summer, also for a contest. I finished the story. But I also missed the deadline. There seems to be a pattern. (It’s me.) Anyway…
How Does the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge work?
The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge is an international writing competition where participants have to write a short story in a specified number of days. Every writer is put into a heat (group), and the top writers from each heat advance to the next round.
This year there were over 4,500 participants in 150 heats. There were 31 people in my heat, and the top five advanced to the second round.
Everyone in their heat has the same assignment: a genre, subject, and character. Here’s a snippet from the assignment email that goes into more detail:
Genre, Subject, and Character Assignments
Feel free to interpret your genre, subject, and character assignment in uniquely creative ways…we’re looking for interesting and inventive stories. But also know that we won’t be able to accept submissions that are completely off the assignments you are given.
For example; if your assigned genre is drama, a story that reads as an outright comedy will most likely be disqualified. You may add in elements from other genres, but make sure the predominant elements of your story are without a doubt from your assigned genre. To view a list of genre definitions, go to http://www.nycmidnight.com/genres.htm. Please keep in mind these are just suggested guidelines and are not explicit instructions on how to write your story or what elements to include.
The assigned subject must be integral to the plot of your story. If the assigned subject barely makes an appearance and isn’t relevant to the story, then it will most likely be disqualified.
The assigned character must be a relevant character in the story, but does not have to be the main character. If the character is mentioned in passing and/or has no relevance to the story at all, you will run the risk of being disqualified.
This year’s short story challenge kicked off on Friday, January 18 at 11:59 pm EST. We had eight days to turn in our first round assignments. This was my assignment:
Subject: A blood feud
Character: A bartender
My immediate reaction was, Oh fuck. This also happened to be one of my busiest weeks in a very long time.
Still, I did it!
It was due on Saturday, January 26 at 11:59 pm EST, and we had to wait until April 2 at 11:59 pm EST to find out! Ugh, it was torture. I was a dork and added it to the calendar so that I would be ready when the results came out.
So, How Did round 1 go?
I advanced to the next round!
I’m sure the execution wasn’t the best (you can judge for yourself below), but the point of this challenge, at least for me, was to finish something. I wanted to write something that I wouldn’t have written otherwise.
I’m not as interested in the results or the prizes. The assignments are random. You could end up with a terrible combination that is uninspiring. And you never know what kind of judge will be reading your writing.
Round 1 week was so busy with rehearsals, freelance work, and performances, so I was forced to work quickly and didn’t get to take my time over the 8-day period. It was very stressful. I’m sure I cried at least once. I hated myself that entire week and judged my own life choices.
But it all paid off because I placed fourth in my heat and advanced to the second round! 🎉
Below is a screenshot of the results of everyone in my heat. It’s interesting to read what everyone else came up with too. We are all so different, like little beautiful snowflakes.
Two days after the results were announced, the judges’ feedback was emailed. I was honestly very impressed with the feedback. And the turnaround was so quick! I submit to a lot of screenwriting contests and fellowships, and there is rarely any feedback at all.
I liked what my judges said and agree with their feedback, so one day when I figure out what I would like to do with this short, I can go ahead and revise.
(I keep calling it a short. That’s a film thing. Do people call short stories shorts? I’m too lazy to Google.)
onward to the second round!
I turned in my second round assignment on the night of Sunday, April 7. I had three days to turn in my story. I won’t share any details yet. I don’t know what’s allowed to be shared since the judging is going on through May 15, and it’s all supposed to be anonymous.
But I really don’t feel confident about this one at all. 😬 It’s very dark, which I like, but I don’t think I executed it well. I struggled. I’m still very proud of myself for writing and submitting something. I really wanted to give up, but I didn’t. I’m so glad I didn’t.
My NYC Midnight Short Story
Here is my short story for the first round of the 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.
Subject: A blood feud
Character: A bartender
2,500 words max.
The more time she waited, the more Gabriela’s elbows dug into the armrest. She never was a morning person. In fact, none of the Cruz women were. But quinceañeras are about appearances.
“Beauty takes work,” her mother always said, her excuse for being late to events that require even the smallest amount of primping. Apparently, her mother Anastasia felt that Gabriela needed six hours of beauty work, hence the 8 a.m. appointment.
Gabriela yawned and slumped lower into the chair, staring into the mirror in front of her as her stylist, a guy named Stefan, began working on her limp hair. She didn’t know what to do with her hands. She’d never been in a real hair salon before. Her older cousin Lourdes has been cutting her hair in her kitchen for as long as Gabriela could remember. But, Anastasia had scheduled hair and makeup appointments for herself and Gabriela on this very special occasion. Lourdes wasn’t pleased.
The Quinceañera was just tradition, a formality. The pomp and circumstance were for her family and friends, not Gabriela. Her real coming of age would be at the stroke of midnight, the moment of her actual 15th birthday when she’d finally join the Cruz family coven. She’d be a bruja of age and an equal among her family of witches. Her true powers would reveal themselves after the clock struck twelve.
The front door opened and Anastasia walked in holding two hot drinks. She handed Gabriela one and took the seat closest to her daughter.
“You nervous?” asked Anastasia.
“A little. I don’t want to trip on my dress in front of everyone.”
Anastasia raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s all?”
Gabriela moved her eyes to Stefan, but he was too busy working his own magic on Gabriela’s flat mane to even notice that Anastasia had joined them. It was safe to talk.
“What if they show up to crash the party? Dad said they would.”
Anastasia paused, then let out a sigh. “Your abuela has already placed a banishing spell all around the property. No one in the Garcia family will be allowed to even step on the sidewalk on the other side of the parking lot. Don’t you worry. Today is going to be perfect.”
But Gabriela was worried. When she was nine and her cousin Lourdes was 15, Celestina Garcia, the matriarch of the Garcia coven, showed up at their doorstep. She was furious. Lourdes was the same age as Celestina’s daughter Maria and attended the same high school. Apparently, Lourdes was popular — and why wouldn’t she be? Lourdes was absolutely stunning with her beautiful bronze curls that went down her back. She was always good at doing hair and applying makeup. And she seemed to always know when she would expect to see someone and always looked refreshed and ready. But Lourdes was also a bully, and Celestina’s daughter Maria was a frequent target.
Celestina Garcia banged on the front door harder and harder until Gabriela’s father, Sebastian, opened the door. He had just come home from a double shift at the bar and was exhausted and irritated. He still smelled like Jack Daniels and cigarette smoke, his signature scent.
“May I help you, Celestina?” He was stern and uninviting. Being a bartender his entire adult life, he knew how to deal with difficult people.
“I need to speak to Lourdes.”
Anastasia, Gabriela, and Lourdes had been in the kitchen bickering. Lourdes was fixing Gabriela’s hair. She had decided to cut her own bangs but learned that she didn’t have the same skill as her cousin and immediately regretted the mistake. Lourdes was going to have to chop a lot of it to fix it.
Upon hearing her name, Lourdes went to the front door to stand behind her Uncle Sebastian, comb and scissors still in her hands. Sebastian raised his hand to stop her from stepping any closer to the door.
At the sight of Lourdes, Celestina became angrier. “You. You think you’re so clever with your brujería. You humiliated Maria in front of the entire school. She doesn’t want to return.”
Anastasia pulled Gabriela away and up the stairs. At the top, she grabbed Gabriela’s shoulders and looked her straight in the eyes. “Go to your room and lock your door. Don’t come out no matter what you hear. Got it?” Gabriela nodded. Anastasia ran back down the stairs and to the front door to stand by her husband.
Gabriela didn’t go into her room. Instead, she hid under a table on the second floor and pressed her face against the railing overlooking the entire first floor of the home, including the front door. She had a perfect view.
Celestina turned to face Sebastian and Anastasia. “My Maria mysteriously slipped and fell in the cafeteria. They say the tray floated in the air before falling on Maria’s head and spilling her lunch all over her. And somehow her skirt got pulled up and revealed her underwear.”
Lourdes laughed. “It’s not my fault. I can’t always control it. Sometimes my subconscious acts on my behalf.” She wasn’t lying. She didn’t ask for these talents, just like her own mother and her aunt Anastasia. Gabriela still showed no signs of these talents, other than the occasional accidental mind reading that got her answers to tests at school. And that one time a frog came back to life just as she was about to dissect it in her biology class. The teacher deemed it a miracle and didn’t return the following year.
Lourdes stepped forward and doubled down, “Maybe if Maria were a little more gifted she wouldn’t have to worry about getting dumped on all the time. Literally.”
At this, Celestina lunged behind Sebastian and got hold of Lourdes’s throat with her right hand. Lourdes tried to make a sound as she gasped for air.
Sebastian reached to push her away, but Celestina slapped his face with her other hand. As her palm made contact against the side of Sebastian’s face, it made a sizzling sound. Steam rose and Sebastian let out a yelp of pain. Celestina’s hand was burning Sebastian’s face. Paralyzed by pain, he fell to his knees then forward. He was out cold.
Anastasia raised her hands to the air and cried out, “Saint Christopher, intercede for us!” and at that, the scissors in Lourdes’s hand flew into the air and directly into Celestina’s eye socket. Celestina fell backward to the ground, hands over her eye as she cried out in pain. Blood gushed from between her fingers.
With the little bit of strength left she whispered, “Santa Muerte, avenge my family.” The sky became dark and began to rumble. A last breath escaped Celestina’s lips. Her blood-stained hands fell to her sides. She was dead.
Anastasia was on her knees next to her husband face down on the floor. He convulsed for a few seconds then was still, motionless. Tears running down her face, she begged him to wake up. “Sebastian, por favor. Wake up, my love. Please. Wake up!” She motioned to Lourdes, who was on the floor holding her neck, red marks from where each of Celestina’s fingers had a firm grip. Lourdes couldn’t stop looking at Celestina’s lifeless body. “I didn’t mean to… I was just trying to help.”
“It wasn’t you. Help me bring him inside. Now. Shut the door behind you.” The two women used all of their strength to flip Sebastian over and pull him inside. On his back in the middle of the living room, it was clear. Sebastian was dead.
Gabriela, still looking down at the scene below, paralyzed by fear, looked down at her father. The dark sky cracked and hail began to fall.
Sebastian and Celestina were buried on the same day at the same cemetery so the Cruzes and Garcias were in close proximity. But a burial was not the time for revenge.
Anastasia, Gabriela, and Lourdes dabbed their eyes as they watched Sebastian’s casket be lowered into his grave and the workers began shoveling the earth until the grave was one large mound of dirt.
At the parking lot, Maria was about to drive off when she noticed them returning from the gravesite. She did a hard U-turn in the direction of the Cruzes. Her brakes screeched as she stopped just inches away from them. Anastasia stood her ground.
“Not today, not tomorrow, but one day my family will settle this once and for all.” Maria put her convertible in reverse and sped away from the cemetery.
Surprisingly, the quinceañera festivities went on without a hitch. Gabriela, who really had been worried about her clumsy self tripping and falling in front of everyone, actually handled each of the events smoothly, maybe even a little gracefully. The Quinceañera mass went as planned. She remembered all of her prayers in Spanish and didn’t flub any of it. To her surprise, almost all of the 250 guests invited showed up. Her introduction to friends and family at the reception was flawless, and her first dance with her uncle Salvador, her dad’s brother, went a lot better than she anticipated. He only stepped on her once with his pointed-toe cowboy boots and didn’t ruin her pedicure. The night before during the rehearsal he somehow managed to kick her in her shin. She even ate her plate of carne guisada and didn’t spill a drop of food on her beautiful handmade gown. The day had been perfect.
It was six minutes until midnight. As each minute passed, she became a little more nervous.
Six minutes: Abuela is the best bruja in the family. Her protection and banishing spells will keep us safe tonight.
Five: Maria isn’t even good at magic. If she does decide to make an appearance tonight she’ll be outnumbered.
Four: The Cruzes are Catholics. There are so many of us with abilities of all kinds. There are enough of us to fight them off as needed.
Three: Dad came to me in my dream and said he’d be here in spirit to protect us. Why would he say that? Does he know something we don’t?
Two: Why is mom fidgeting? Is she worried too?
One: Where’s Lourdes? I really hope she’s wearing the rosary Abuela gave her.
Gabriela gripped her own rosary hanging around her neck. The priest had just blessed it a few hours ago.
The church bells in the distance chimed. It was midnight. Gabriela was now officially a bruja in the Cruz coven. Please don’t come here, Maria. Not tonight. Please.
The ballroom erupted into cheers and applause as a mariachi marched in blaring “Las Mañanitas,” and Gabriela was pulled into the center of the ballroom by Anastasia. The mariachi finished the traditional celebratory song, then the ballroom in unison began singing, “Feliz cumpleaños a ti…”
Anastasia embraced her daughter. “You’re a woman now.” She winked. “Your father would be so proud.”
Boom! Boom! Boom! The loud banging on the door echoed through the ballroom. Murmurs could be heard all around Gabriela. The banging on the door grew louder. Sweat began dripping down Gabriela’s face. Her heart was racing.
Salvador and her uncles went to the door, hands just a quick draw away from their gun holsters. The Cruz men, magic-less by nature, were always packing.
The door swung open and there they were: the Garcia coven, led by Maria. There were at least twenty of them.
“Everyone here who isn’t a member of the Cruz family should leave immediately!” Maria’s voice bellowed through the ballroom. No one moved.
One of Gabriela’s uncles reached for his gun, but the elder Garcia brujas were powerful and one of them knocked him back to the ground with a simple flick a finger. He seemed glued to the floor and was unable to move. The other uncles reached down to help him but it was as if he was stuck on fly paper.
“One last time. Everyone here who isn’t a member of the Cruz family should leave. Now!”
Chairs overturned and tables collided as the crowd of non-relatives scrambled to get out of harm’s way. Then they were gone. It was just the Cruzes and Garcias now. Lourdes had moved close to Gabriela and Anastasia. They held hands.
Gabriela looked at the Garcias in front of them. They outnumbered the remaining Cruzes. It’s true that the Cruz women did have more talents and abilities than them, but she wasn’t so sure that would be enough this time. The two families stared down each other in a game of chicken. Who would make the first move?
She felt a chill. Then goosebumps on her arms. She looked at her mother and cousin. They didn’t seem to notice anything. Behind her she heard a soft whisper, but when she looked back and no one was there. There was a faint smell of Jack Daniels and cigarettes. The whisper became louder, then finally, she heard it. It was her father’s voice. “It’s time.”
“Time for what?” asked Gabriela. Anastasia and Lourdes looked at each other. No one had said anything. There, standing next to Maria Garcia, was the deceased Sebastian Cruz in spirit form. Gabriela gasped and put her hands over her mouth. Anastasia whispered, “Gabriela, what’s wrong?” “It’s Papá,” she whispered. “He’s here.”
Sebastian pointed directly to his heart. Gabriela looked down. Her rosary. The cross was just over her heart. She held it on her hands. He nodded. Gabriela felt a surge of energy flow through her veins. For a moment, she felt as though she might pass out from nausea and dizziness. She closed her eyes for stability. When she opened her eyes again, all around her were new faces except… they weren’t new. She looked around at what seemed like at least a hundred more people. She recognized a few faces.
“Mom, can you see them too?”
“No. Dad, Abuelo, Aunt Emilia. But I don’t recognize them all.”
Her mother gently gripped Gabriela’s hand. “The gift of necromancy. What a rare and special talent. You’re amongst family, my love. They’re here to protect you.”
Gabriela looked back at the Garcia family, surrounded by generations of Cruzes. No one else in the entire ballroom seemed to notice the ghosts all around them. They seemed to be awaiting instruction. She grabbed the cross of her rosary and gripped it tightly in her hand. “Saint Christopher, intercede for us,” she whispered.
The deceased Cruzes lunged forward, and a great beam of green light overwhelmed the room, blinding everyone in it.
It was time. The battle had just begun.