Our April Flash Contest was based on Prompt #198 (provided by intern Sim Ling Thee), which challenged participants to write a story in which the protagonist failed at everything and ultimately didn't succeed in the end. Unsurprisingly, this subverting prompt led to some the most inspired writing we've seen yet! Submissions ranged from a violin recital from the perspective of a snooty child to an unreliable narrator's laundry list of past failures to an old woman's battle with growing tomatoes. In one story, the unlikeable protagonist even smeared butter on their nemesis' lawn! As always, thank you to all who submitted, and please submit again next month!
In particular, we congratulate our Winners and our Honorable Mentions, whose work you can appreciate below.
"Curses!" by Lui Lung, 12 (Danville, CA)
"Beatrice" by Olivia Owens, 13 (Jacksonville, FL)
"A Failing Success" by Emily Tang, 13 (Winterville, NC)
"Cypress Woman" by Ellis Yang, 12 (Los Altos, CA)
"You Win Some, You Lose Some" by Savarna Yang, 13 (Outram, New Zealand)
"Dangly Necklaces" by Victoria Gong, 10 (Scarsdale, NY)
"Learning to Fly" by Marin Hamory, 10 (Wellesley, MA)
"The Last Leaf" by Kimberly Hu, 9 (Lake Oswego, OR)
"The Performance" by Elizabeth Sabaev, 11 (Forest Hills, NY)
"Gray" by Alex Zigoneanu, 11 (Portland, OR)
Lui Lung, 12
“'When people heard his name, breathed reverently in hushed tones, it was fear that swiftly rooted in their veins.' Curses! That doesn’t make sense. No, how about… 'It was fear that blasted through their minds in a paralyzing rush!'”
In the shadowed city that had long since fallen asleep, in a small apartment building tucked on the very outskirts, all but a single light remained aglow.
Seemingly the only soul awake at such late hours gave an approving nod at his own writing, fingers gliding rapidly across the keyboard without a noticeable sign of halting.
“'Their hearts stampeded in a cacophonous rhythm, their thoughts stumbling over one another like dominoes sent tumbling with a mere flick of his finger. This city was a ticking time bomb, and I'—or he, sorry—'would be the one to detonate it into a booming eruption.' Here comes the big ending, Murphy, the crescendo to the grand conclusion of the symphony! 'And within the thundering outburst and from the rubble that remains, I am'—no, he is—'the last one standing!'”
The villain pumped his fists high into the air, a triumphant man high off a victory. He glanced at his trusty sidekick, Murphy, who languidly stretched on the tabletop. “Well, my friend? What do you think? Does that strike fear in your heart?”
The heavyset, orange tabby simply yawned, his little pink mouth falling wide open.
“Oh, no, you definitely need to cut down on the tuna,” sputtered the villain, fanning the air before him at the ghastliness of the cat’s breath.
As if he understood, Murphy lunged forward and clamped his jaw down firmly upon his owner’s forearm.
The villain frantically shook his arm to free himself from his companion’s vengeful grip. “Ow! Curse you, feline demon! I will—”
“So, this is what the great terror of the city does in his free time,” a voice mused coolly.
The villain would have known who that voice was without having to turn around, but he decided that slowly spinning around in his chair would provide the dramatic effect he needed to hide the shock. Unfortunately, he leaned too far in one direction while attempting to spin and the chair promptly tilted over, leaving him in an uncoordinated heap on the floor. “Curses! My back!”
The sound of Murphy hissing his discontent and then slowly lumbering off followed. Why, that traitorous ingrate!
He straightened at once, lifting his chin with as much dignity he had left to muster from where he sprawled below. “Hah! This is all part of my plan, you buffoon!” It was not.
The hero smiled indulgently, like she was only playing along to soothe his wounded pride. “Right. I’m sure getting exposed and captured was all part of your plan.”
“You silly heroes these days. There is no prison I cannot escape,” said the villain pompously, although the sweat trickling down the back of his neck suggested otherwise. “Well, how did you find me? I wanted you to find me, though. Obviously!”
“Obviously,” the hero agreed, her gaze flickering to the computer screen where he’d been starting a rough draft of his next magnificent work. “Just as obvious as you were when you were trying to hide. Really, who else would write and publish pages and pages of nonsense praising this city’s most notorious villain that no one reads?”
The villain’s face flushed in indignation. “Nonsense? Nay, my blog oozes evil brilliance! And I’m a super-villain, for your information.” He paused, thinking of a clever, new strategy to fool his heroic rival. “I mean, forget that. It’s actually not my blog, because I’m not the man you’re looking for!”
The hero looked entirely unconvinced, which was peculiar. The villain knew he was a spectacular liar!
In desperation, he called for the assistance of his fearsome cat. “Murphy, my honorable companion! I’m sorry I said you had bad breath, just help me now!”
A disdainful meow sounded from somewhere in the mess of old pizza boxes and unwashed laundry.
“I will have my revenge on you,” vowed the villain darkly. “And you, too, you weak hero! Evil will always prevail over good!”
The hero’s expression was now one of pity more than anything, and she gave his arm a gentle pat before securing the handcuffs in place on his wrists. “Alright, buddy, I’m sure the police will love to hear all about your plans for vengeance.”
“Ah, yes, my plans! You’ll never know the plans I have for this city! Take me alive or take me dead, that brilliant secret will—”
“You mean the top-secret plans that you posted on your blog?”
Olivia Owens, 13
The little old lady awoke in her little cottage on her little street with a big idea. With a kick to her step, she plopped her hat on her head and dashed out the door in a hurry to make it to the farmers market. When Beatrice arrived at the market the vendors were already packing up. They were sweeping the streets and chopping up the sad, soft fruits that were left behind to throw at the occasional bird. Beatrice practically screamed with frustration; farmers markets were a rarity in her small town and would be unlikely to occur again any time soon. Somehow a kind seller noticed her.
“Something wrong, ma’am?” he asked, chewing on a sunflower seed.
“Well, yes, there is. I wanted to buy some tomato seeds, but the trouble is I arrived too late!” Beatrice cried.
The man spat a sunflower seed out, scratched his stubble, and motioned for Beatrice to follow him. Puzzled but hopeful, she followed. They stopped outside his tent, and he grabbed a tiny bag and looked inside.
“Now, I was about to leave, but I think these,” he said, shaking the bag, “are tomato seeds. Take ‘em and plant ‘em deep in that soil, that’s the trick.”
Beatrice beamed, “Thank you very much! I sure will!” She looked down to her side and reached for her purse, but to her horror, it was not there. Beatrice’s stomach turned and her eyes welled up. “I am sorry, sir. I do not have my purse, but thank you.”
“Don’t be silly, you take these. No charge if you plant ‘em deep.” He smiled.
Beatrice grinned. “Yes sir I will!” Satisfied, she walked home.
She flipped the mat over at her door and walked into her dark and empty cottage. Normally, Beatrice would be saddened by this reoccurrence. That daily realization that she was going to have to endure another day of loneliness was sometimes overwhelming, but today was different. Today she had her tomato seeds. She flipped the lights on and rummaged around the kitchen for her gardening tools and after finding all that she needed, Beatrice walked out to her garden.
The May air was ideal for tomato growing; there was a balance of warmth and coolness. Beatrice was proud of her flower and vegetable garden. Nothing gave her more joy than looking out her small window and finding her chrysanthemums in full bloom, her purple radishes sticking out of the dark soil like little heads, and the optimistic leaves of her potatoes. Her tomatoes would fit right in.
Beatrice positioned her tomatoes beside her carrots and got right to work. She spent hours perfecting her garden, every part of her body covered in damp soil, but she did not care. As the man had said Beatrice planted the seeds deep and watered them well.
Day after day Beatrice worked, watering and supplementing. The tomatoes were unlike her other flowers and vegetables. She remembered eating them as a little girl. She remembered them as components of long-lost family recipes. They were special. And now she, Beatrice, was bringing them back. Her family would have been proud.
Finally, in the middle of June, green sprouts appeared in the box. Beatrice nearly wept from happiness. Later that week the sprouts took off, and she stuck sticks in the ground so the vines could grow. They got so very tall and the night that red first appeared on the bulbs of the vines she went to bed happier than she had been in a long time. Beatrice dreamt and reminisced of her days with family and friends. Suddenly, a loud crash issued from the garden. She sat straight up. Running as fast as her small legs could carry her, Beatrice rushed to her garden. She squinted, and in the dim light of the moon she saw fat raccoons staring back at her. Her chrysanthemums were ripped. Her radishes were gone completely and her potatoes at the raccoons’ feet. The tomato plants were torn from the soil. She sped through the cottage in search of her broom. But when she made it back outside with her broom held tightly in hand, they were scurrying over the fence, trails of ruined vegetables at their wake.
The next morning Beatrice drove all the way to London in search of some place she could find tomato seeds. All that mattered now were the tomatoes; she would regrow the other plants and vegetables later. In London, the winds were picking up, storms brewing on the horizon. The market had no walls, and the wind stirred the dirt on the floors up into the shoppers’ eyes. Beatrice rubbed her eyes raw and sighed. It seemed that she would never get her tomatoes. She could hardly see, but she recognized a familiar red on the packaging of a seed bag and grabbed two (the extra just in case raccoons paid her another unwelcome visit).
“Ooh, these are a bit spicy now. Watch out!” The cashier laughed as she handed Beatrice her change.
What an odd remark, thought Beatrice, tomatoes are not spicy. But Beatrice ignored this peculiar interaction and with her eyes still stinging, she got in her car. She immediately began planting at her home and after immense cleaning and digging she was done.
Months passed and her tomatoes failed again and again. In October crows ate them. In December they froze over. In March it was too chilly to even step foot outdoors. She could not keep them alive. Finally, in late July she had some success. She had surrounded the tomato plants with barbed wire and different contraptions to attempt to keep them safe. It was a chaotic mess in her garden, but it was alright. She saw buds one day. Some red appeared next. And then, when it was too late in the year to try to plant them again, something very, very odd happened.
Her tomatoes were starting to curve into the shape of a crescent moon, a banana, or a smile. Beatrice thought this was extremely strange, but she had never grown tomatoes before so perhaps this was perfectly normal. Later that day, Beatrice got word that her aunt had fallen ill in Le Havre. She had not left her house in a long while, let alone been to France recently. Le Havre was a train ride away and Beatrice solemnly left the next morning after setting all sorts of wild things up beside her tomatoes to keep them safe.
Beatrice got back to England a week later. She was so very excited; her tomatoes would surely be ripe and plump! Whatever should she make? Some tomato salad? Perhaps even a pizza? Beatrice was bursting with delight as she dropped all her luggage on the floor, not even caring what happened as she just wanted to see her tomatoes. How proud her family would be!
She flung the back doors open and beamed as she ran outside. When she approached the plants, her smile faded. There, growing on the thick vines, were the largest red peppers she had ever seen.
A Failing Success
Emily Tang, 13
Heroes and their fatal flaws.
I used to have one, a fatal flaw. I’d rather call it failure.
I failed at everything I ever did. Some called it a curse, others a misfortune. I called it fate.
I remember those days when I went on false adventures, brandishing that shiny sword, the tip glinting a sharp silver in the sun.
Then I’d blind myself with the light and accidentally get hurt.
When I’d tried to cook, I’d end up burning the food and filling the room with the scent of smoke. My parents would cough and fan the air and glare at me, their eyes full of daggers.
I got sent on a quest, probably out of pity. I could see the sympathy in their eyes as they handed me a sword, shield, and bucket.
I was supposed to travel northwest to the mountains and bring back river water. It was most likely the easiest quest ever assigned. That’s what hurt me most.
The northwest mountains were the most mild region of the country. It was obvious why they sent me there.
My ragged boots scratched the dust brown path as I approached the expansive landscape above me.
A griffin attacked me and leaped on me, and I prodded at it with my sword to push it off. It had left a gash down my arm. I held up my shield, desperate for any protection. Its claws scraped the wood of the shield, effectively reducing it to wood scraps fit for a fire.
I took off running. The griffin screeched loudly, but made no attempt to run after me.
And my arm really hurt.
I trekked up the ascending slope of the mountain, my vision full of a bright lively green. It was beautiful, but I only focused on the pain in my arm.
I walked uphill, occasionally taking a bite of bread from the satchel I had brought along. It was filled with food and water.
I did reach the top, but I’m sure my face was bright red. I was overexerted; I had never spent so much energy.
I stumbled around through the dense leaves of trees, an occasional branch hitting me on the head. I saw a glimmer of blue and stumbled towards it.
It wasn’t a river. Just a blue bird that squawked at me curiously before taking flight. I sighed and forged on.
I heard the rumble of a waterfall, and I gravitated towards the sound. I found a stream overgrown with plants and wildlife. There was a beetle crawling on a stone and a toad hopping amongst the shrubs growing alongside the water.
Light shone in a small circle around a few fallen trees. There was a bush growing a bright red fruit that looked rather poisonous.
I was in a small clearing. I had found the river I needed; all I needed was water.
I took out the bucket and leaned over the stream.
My face stared impassively back at me, looking unimpressed.
Once I gathered the water, I had done it. I had succeeded in my quest.
The wind whistled lullabies, blowing up fallen leaves, threading through my hair.
I stared at my reflection, the area around my eyes blurred. My face looked blurry.
Was this who I wanted to be? Getting pitied to success?
No, I didn’t want this. Not one bit. If I had to win over success this way, I’d rather fail.
I stood up and threw that wretched bucket into the stream. I watched the wooden barrel get tossed among the waves, bobbing on the surface. I swallowed and turned around.
When I went back empty handed, I knew that I had decided on one thing.
I saw the faces on my parents as I showed them my arm. They just nodded and took gauze out of their pockets, like they had expected this to happen. I saw the acceptance in their eyes. The disappointment. The expectancy.
I would fail at everything I do.
I wouldn’t call it a curse or a misfortune. I would call it a gift.
But if I fail to fail, would that be considered success?
Ellis Yang, 12
She is atop the too-green hills in which gravestones stand, where cypress trees encircle the area, where there is an air of solitude among these structures, laid out in an ugly symmetry.
Here walks Marie, now thirty-one, daughter to a father who passed, and now as if through destiny, daughter to a dead mother. And yes, she had truly loved her father—yes. But somewhat paradoxically, being the last person in Marie’s life made her mother’s death ever-more significant. As if they were all connected through threads of destiny, grasping onto each other. And poor Marie, she could grab onto nothing no more.
She is a young widow, melded with the land of cypress trees, that is, the cemetery. She feels the cemetery bonds her with her mother. She is a lone woman: alone, independent, unfettered.
Marie wraps her hand tight around the stem of the bouquet. Flowers tied graciously together with a delicate bow, like her last gift to her mother. With an air of certainty, but still tentative, Marie picks her way among the tombstones towards her mother’s grave.
Here lies Sue Monroe. Beloved mother, friend, wife.
Poor Sue, Marie had pitied her. I suppose she’s free from whatever hurt is out there. Perhaps that’s what I’m supposed to feel—to be glad that she’s free of her pain.
But now that Sue had been “cleansed” of her pain, what of Marie? She had taken her sickened mother into her house, pushed her wheelchair around and around until her arms and legs were sore. She had comforted her through her bereavements, and they had cried together when Marie’s father passed. She had returned all the favors her mother had given her, of care and nurture. Plus more. She had been too good of a daughter.
Now that her mother has passed, a part of Marie feels grossly liberated. Another part of her is coming to terms with how alone she is in this world.
Her fingers uncurl and let the bouquet fall. Thud. The moment it reaches the ground is a brief one, but resounding nonetheless.
It’s a shame that the white flowers must touch the muddied ground. There they shall rot and decay, the white of the petals melding with the grime. Shame that they wait there, a lone beauty in a world of hurt, until it is beautiful no more.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
Savarna Yang, 13
My long, wavy blonde hair shines in the sunlight as Mum pins it back into an elegant bun. My hot pink cocktail dress is a dream, and the new shoes I bought specially for the occasion are just spot on. All in all a perfect outfit for a girl who’s about to win the regional music competition for the fifth time in a row. Of course, I’m not boasting, but it’s totally common knowledge that Adelaide Simpson is the best musician around town and the hot favourite for first prize.
I mean, how could the judges not choose me, especially when you think about who I’m competing against: a couple of complete amateurs who don’t know the first thing about music. To be honest, as soon as I turn up and the other so-called “competitors” see me, they’ll probably just admit defeat before the competition has even begun. That’d be the sensible thing to do anyway. Because I doubt they want to be totally annihilated when I claim the number one spot for the fifth year in the row.
I’m just glad I didn’t waste too much energy practising this time around – after I spent last year working myself to the dust to win the prize and ended up completely walking over everyone else, I realised it’s not worth it. Why practice when you’re going to win anyway?
Suddenly I’m jolted out of my thoughts by a sharp yank of my hair. ‘Mum!’ I shriek. ‘Watch it!’
‘Sorry, Addy. This part is a bit hard to pin back.’
‘Well try harder, then!’ I scowl at Mum in the mirror. She is so useless. I told her I wanted this style. She should have practised if she was going to find it so difficult.
‘And don’t call me Addy!’ I remember to warn her. ‘Nicknames are so babyish. Adelaide is my proper name.’
‘Yes, darling,’ Mum sighs.
I roll my eyes. She always makes such a fuss over tiny things. ‘Have you tuned my violin yet?’ I ask.
Mum nods. ‘It’s ready to go. I’ve put it in the car.’
I spin around, shocked. ‘MUM! How stupid can you be? The change of temperature is going to put it straight out of tune again!’
Mum groans. ‘Oh Addy. Now you’ve made me drop all the hair pins!’
I stomp my foot. ‘So?! You’ve probably completely ruined my violin’s sound!’
Mum shakes her head frantically. ‘Calm down, Addy! Dad has the air-con on – it’ll be fine!’
I huff. ‘Well, hurry up and finish my hair, then. Otherwise we’re going to be late for the competition. And for the last time, my name is Adelaide!
Mum sighs again. ‘Yes, darling.’
45 minutes later, Dad is parking our Mercedes outside the music centre. I peer through the car’s tinted windows and spot both Tyrone Price and Maria Chi arriving. Trust them to try and spoil my entrance. Well, stuff them! They don’t stand a chance.
I quickly smooth my hair, then push the car door open and glide out. I swan up the steps to the wide, glass front doors, making sure to swish my pink skirts as I pass Tyrone and Maria. They stare at me open-mouthed.
The doors slide open automatically and I continue my promenade into the foyer. I’m met with more wide-eyed stares and open mouths. I smile, triumphant. I notice that everyone is wearing very drab clothes – all boring blacks and whites. Eurgh. I sail over to Celine Beaufort, unable to resist the chance to gloat a little, as even she is wearing black. And to think she calls herself a fashion expert!
‘Hello Celine.’ I smile superiorly. ‘What an interesting colour you’ve got on today.’
She raises her eyebrows. ‘Oh it’s you, Adelaide. I almost didn’t recognise you – you look so pink.’
Talk about rude! I stare down my nose at her. ‘Why, what on earth do you mean, Celine?! I think bright colours are completely fitting for a winner – although of course, maybe it’s for the best that you’re looking so dark today, I can’t see you making even the top ten!’
She glares coldly back. ‘And I suppose that as you’re Little Miss Importance you decided not to read the rules for this year.’
She smirks knowingly as confusion flashes across my face. ‘Thought not.’ She turns away and goes back to chatting to Sherry and Lucia Gordon and – Imogen Arbour?! What is she doing here? She’s totally sloppy and incompetent – she can hardly pull her bow over her four violin strings! She doesn’t deserve to be the only violinist I’ll be competing against. Everyone else is playing cellos or flutes or trumpets or piano – even drums. It’s strange when the violin is such a common instrument. But I guess it’s really quite fitting to have the only other violinist, a terrible screecher, and me, the four-time competition winner, soon to be five-time.
I toss my head and turn away. Those girls won’t have the honour of being in my presence any longer. And what a liar Celine is! As if I wouldn’t have noticed a change in the rules. I notice Dad and Mum coming towards me with my violin and music bag. I tap my foot impatiently.
‘You took your time,’ I say, when they reach me at last.
‘We couldn’t find you.’ Dad looks annoyed. ‘Shouldn’t you be in the auditorium, warming up?’
I sneer. ‘I don’t need to “warm up”.’
Dad frowns. ‘Well come into the auditorium anyway. We need to get seats, and you can at least take your violin out of its case.’
I roll my eyes. Dad is so domineering. Nevertheless, I follow him and Mum. Sometimes you’ve got to pamper parents a bit. We find seats and I obediently take my violin out. Then I rifle through Mum’s bag looking for something to do. She won’t let me use her phone and stupidly she forgot mine at home. I find the competition programme and shuffle through the pages. At the front is the list of rules.
I grin. Now I can prove that Celine was just faking. I scan the lines and there’s nothing. Until, right at the very end: DRESS CODE. What? There’s never been a dress code. I read the rule properly. All contestants must wear black and white. I drop the programme on the ground. No, no, NO!
But then I reassure myself. The judges won’t throw me out just because I have the wrong colour on. I’m the four-time competition winner! So what if everyone else is wearing black and white. I’m still the best musician.
Slowly the auditorium begins to fill up. The judges walk in and sit down at the table that’s been set up for them in front of the stage. They shuffle around some papers and then the lady judge speaks into her mic.
‘Welcome, everyone, to the seventh Annual Music Competition!’ There is some polite applause. ‘Thank you for joining us today for what I know is going to be a fantastic display of the musical talent of our local youth.’ I smile. She so obviously means me.
‘If all the competitors could please come down to the front row with their instruments, we’ll set you up, and then the competition can get under way!’
I grab my violin and bow, then sashay down to the line of seats that have been especially reserved for the contestants.
The lady gives my dress an amazed look, and seems to be about to say something, but then changes her mind. Evidently she likes my style, even if she’s not allowed to say so.
She points me to a seat at the end of the row, which means I’ll probably be one of the last competitors to play. I don’t mind. The end performances are always the ones people remember the most.
So I’m happy until Imogen Arbour comes and sits down next to me. On my left too, which means she is going to play last. I edge as far away from her as I can.
The competition has started and Maria Chi is trilling out a song on her flute. I do my best to block the sound out. Next, there’s a pianist, and then someone who sounds like they’re murdering a cat, and then Tyrone on the drums.
At last it’s my turn. I plaster on a big smile and step onto the stage. I shove my violin under my chin and begin my piece. My music teacher always says that you should listen to yourself as you play, but I’m not going to. I think it’s just a distraction. Anyway, what would my teacher know? I bet I’m already a better player than her.
I finish the final line of my piece and take an exaggerated curtsy. The audience is frozen in wonder. I beam and sink into another deep curtsy. I see Celine with her face screwed up. She’s obviously totally jealous. I prance back down to my seat. There’s only Imogen left to play now.
I shut my eyes. I don’t want to listen to her or watch her. I zone out and I’m only brought back to the present by the crash of the audience as Imogen finishes her performance. Wow, the audience is being so loud. They must be booing. Well, I always said she was a terrible player.
The judges compare notes for a few minutes as they figure out who gets the prizes. All around me there are tense and nervous faces, but I’m serene. I have no doubt who the judges are choosing as the winner.
The lady judge stands up to do the talking again. ‘Thank you for waiting. After some serious discussion, my fellow judges and I have managed to decide on the placings. It was a hard choice, as all of you played very well, but we got there in the end!’ I raise my eyebrows. The choice can’t have been that hard.
‘In third place we have… Maria Chi!’
I sniff. I’m sure the judges only chose her because one of them is a flautist too.
‘Second place…Max Buchanan!’
Whoa, he was awful.
‘And finally, first place! This musician stood out to us with their passionate playing, and obvious enjoyment of their chosen piece…’
I stand, ready to run on stage.
Jennifer Rose says
I used Emily Tang’s story to teach my students how to use setting details to amplify characters’ internal worlds. Pro moves, Ms. Tang. Thank you for making this wonderful story available, Stone Soup.