Below is my submission for the NYC Short Story competition. The challenge is to write a short story in a week using the three provided prompts. Please comment and share your thoughts if you have time!
Prompt: Thriller, Searching for a Missing Person, a Tourist
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Alice Ronan is running, but she can’t remember why. On the way she finds her family, her past, and most importantly — herself.
Alice didn’t stop running until she reached a park. She paused by a bench and leaned against its back, grateful for a moment’s rest. Her breaths came in great, shuddering gulps. Nearby, a little boy stopped to look at her, entirely forgetting about the slide he was about to go down. She glared back at him, daring him to comment.
Behind her, the alarms screamed. With another desperate swallow of air, she took off again. She hurried down the street with her head bent low, trying not to draw attention. Even so, she knew she must be a sight. She was sweating in the cool spring air, and she could feel her hair beginning to cake to the back of her neck. With a shake of her head, she tried to unstick it from her damp skin.
A bar came into view that was teeming with people, many of which were college-aged. Most of the group was wearing jerseys, and at the moment she arrived, they cheered as one about a recent play on the televisions in the bar. It was the perfect place to disappear into a crowd.
Most people were too engrossed in the game to notice her weaving through their midst, but one young man paused to stare. He watched her with a strange grin on his face. Alice picked up her pace, uncomfortable with his attention. Once inside, Alice pulled a stool up to the bar. She sat with her shoulders hunched, trying to suppress the irresistible urge to glance over her shoulder. The bartender sidled up to her, and after a quick once-over of her disheveled appearance, cracked a sympathetic smile.
“Rough day?” he guessed.
“Nothing a drink can’t fix,” she said. “Scotch on the rocks.”
He cocked an eyebrow, and she scowled at him. She knew the type—they saw a petite, pretty woman and questioned whether she could handle anything more than a fruity umbrella drink. The bartender seemed to take the hint and slid a glass her way.
Alice picked it up and tried to ignore the way it trembled in her hand. She swirled the drink slowly, watching the amber liquid twist around inside.
She’d known to run. Somehow she’d known that the alarms meant danger and that she needed to get as far from them as possible. In that way, she supposed that she’d succeeded. Their piercing whine wasn’t perceptible in this dreary place, and at last it felt like her head was getting a rest. Still, the question lingered. What was she running from and why?
She took a deep breath to calm herself, trying to stay rational. She needed to find help. Her husband Jacob entered her mind, with his comforting smile and his levelheadedness. He’d know what to do. But where was he? How could she get to him?
With a single gulp Alice downed the glass and winced as it scorched her throat. It wasn’t one of her better performances, and the bartender noticed. Defiantly, she pushed the glass back toward him.
A commotion at the doorway drew her attention. Alice glanced toward it, surprised to see two police officers standing there. Their discussions with the bar patrons seemed terse, and they were scanning the crowded bar carefully for something.
With a triumphant shout, one of the men pointed at her. They both started forward, pushing through the crowd of drunken patrons.
Whatever the men wanted, Alice didn’t intend to stay and find out. She stood up and dug madly in her pocket for her wallet, ready to leave cash and run. It was only then that she realized she didn’t have her wallet and, odder still, the clothes that she was wearing were not her own.
The men were closing in, and a glance at the bartender told her that he was too busy to notice her departure. She took off from the bar and dodged into the crowd. Pushing her way through the people, she eventually found herself at the edge of the kitchen, and after glancing back to see both police officers still in hot pursuit, she walked briskly into the bustling prep area.
The key was to look like you belonged, Alice thought. She flashed her most winning smile at a young waiter, who grinned uncertainly back at her. When the cook reached for a plate she was quick to hand it to him, and he nodded his thanks without so much as a glance her way.
Soon she’d reached the back door of the kitchen and exited through it. Outside, she found a dumpster in an alley. As she debated which way to go, she heard the officers talking to the kitchen staff through the door, getting closer all the time. It was doubtful she could make it to the end of the alley before they emerged, so she did what she could and ducked behind the dumpster. It wasn’t an ideal hiding spot, but with luck, they would assume she’d run on without hesitating.
Her bet paid off. When the officers came out they ran down the alley together, shouting that she couldn’t have gotten far. The moment the coast was clear she took off in the opposite direction, eager to put as much distance as possible between her and her pursuers.
Too many questions arose as Alice darted down yet another unfamiliar street. She knew the answers would have to wait until she was somewhere more protected. Out here she was an easy target, a blemish on the otherwise deserted streets of… Where was she?
To her right, Alice saw a police officer. To her left stood a cluster of people, all of whom were carrying maps and snapping photos. They were without a doubt a tour group. Alice joined the group and quickly turned her back to the officer, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. She leaned over to look at one of the nearby maps, and she was surprised to see a familiar name: Topeka.
She’d been to Topeka once before when she and Jacob had first started dating. They’d come to visit the capitol building and the surrounding town.
Still, it didn’t explain how she had ended up here again.
“Can I borrow your map? I seem to have lost mine,” Alice said, looking at a family near her. The father handed over his map, and Alice nodded her thanks.
“While we wait for everyone to get back, I’d like to tell you all a few fun facts about Topeka,” said the tour guide, a young woman with a well-practiced smile. “For instance, did you know that the name ‘Topeka’ actually means ‘a good place to dig potatoes’?” The crowd chuckled and she continued. “Also, in 2010 the name was temporarily changed—”
Alice stopped listening. She vaguely remembered the fact from the last time she’d been here. Jacob had made her laugh when he asked a waiter if the potatoes were ‘locally dug.’ The waiter hadn’t been particularly amused, but the two of them had laughed as if it was the funniest joke in the world.
It was only then as she was thinking about Jacob that she remembered.
On their last visit they’d been all but inseparable, except for one instant. She’d been interested in touring the top of the capitol building, but Jacob hadn’t wanted to go. The tour had involved a trip up a daunting staircase that spiraled to the top, and Jacob was afraid of heights. They had agreed to part ways for an hour and to meet up later at the Westgate Bridge.
Alice checked her map, and then looked to the nearest intersection. She wasn’t far. Sure, it was a long shot that she would find Jacob there. It seemed unlikely that he was even in Topeka, given her current situation. Even so, it was the best plan she had.
As she walked she kept an eye out for the police. She still didn’t know why they were chasing her, but instinct told her enough that she didn’t want to be caught. All she wanted was to find Jacob before they found her.
The more she thought about it all, the more she wanted to panic. To keep herself calm, she went over the things she did know. Her name was Alice Ronan and she was from Hutchinson. She married Jacob right after she graduated college. They lived in a in a white house with their five-year-old son Chris and their Saint Bernard, Toby.
She kept reciting details until she reached the bridge, and by then the list had gotten fairly long. It was comforting in a way. Though she was no closer to answering her questions, she at least felt a little less lost.
The bridge was just as she remembered it—not particularly attractive, but an easy landmark to spot. Even from the edge she could see that Jacob wasn’t standing there waiting for her, but she started walking onto it anyway. It was possible he was merely late, and besides, she had nowhere else to go.
A call behind her made her turn, and as soon as she looked, she started to run. Three police officers had found her, and the moment she made eye contact with them, they began to chase. She tripped and nearly fell, catching herself just in time on the railing of the bridge. Alice’s breathing was labored as she forced herself onward. She listened as hard as she could over her own panting for the sound of running footsteps, trying to gauge how close they were.
“Stop! Alice, wait!”
“Leave me alone!” Alice shouted over her shoulder. She was nearly halfway across the bridge when she heard them close behind her, and she spun around to face them.
The officers approached her, hands outstretched, and she backed away. The back of her knees hit the concrete railing, and she glanced back at the river below.
“It’s okay, Alice. You’re not in trouble. But we need to come with us,” one of the men said. “We’re going to take you back now. Everything will be fine.”
“Get away from me,” she said.
They kept coming, one step at a time, and she pressed herself against the railing, leaning on it with both hands.
“Get away!” she bellowed.
To her amazement, they stopped. Looking down, she saw why. Somehow she’d gotten up on the railing, although she couldn’t remember when.
“I’m not going with you,” said Alice. “You can’t make me go.”
“Alice, you need to come down from there, it’s not safe,” a police officer said. “Please, just let us help you.”
“I want Jacob,” Alice said. “I need to talk to him. Please, someone find him.”
The police officers exchanged uneasy looks and said nothing.
“Find him!” she repeated.
“I’m sorry, Alice, but we can’t,” an officer said. “Jacob died several years ago.”
Alice wanted to shout at him, but a pain in her heart told her that the officer wasn’t lying. She raised a shaking hand to wipe away her tears, and for the first time that day she saw herself properly. Time had carved away at her skin, leaving crevices and cracks. Blue veins were mountains and rivers on the uneven surface. Her fingernails were brittle, and as she mopped her face, she could feel lines and folds there too.
A voice reached her from the end of the bridge. It was as panicked as her own, but there was nothing familiar or comforting about it.
The voice belonged to a young man in his thirties. He closed the distance between them in seconds, and it didn’t look like his first sprint of the evening. His hair was flying in every direction, and his shirt was only half tucked.
“Mom, get down from there,” he said. “Please, Mom, come on. Let’s go home.”
“Stop calling me that,” said Alice. “You’re not my son.”
“I am,” the man said, his voice catching. “Your name is Alice Ronan, and you’re seventy years old, and you’re my mother.”
“I know who I am,” Alice snapped. “What I don’t know is why you’re all chasing me.”
“I’m worried,” the man said. “Please Mom, I am your son. You have to remember. Just this once. It has to be now.”
“My son is a child,” Alice said. “Where is he? Where is Jacob?”
“Your son is right here!” the young man cried. “You used to stay home with me when I was sick. You’d make me sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and you always gave me cookie dough when Dad wasn’t looking. When Toby died you got us a cat, and you let me name her, and I named her Snowflake, and even though it was a stupid name, you said it was perfect.”
There were tears in the man’s eyes now as he took a step toward her.
“No closer,” Alice barked.
“This isn’t helping,” an officer whispered. “We need you to back off, Chris.”
“Chris?” Alice repeated.
She stared at the young man, with his puffy eyes and his round face. She could see herself in that face… Jacob too.
“It’s me, Mom,” Chris said. He reached out to her, and she leaned away, balancing herself just in time.
For a brief moment, Alice remembered. She remembered waking up in a building that she wasn’t allowed to leave. She remembered the good days, where she could carry on a conversation about the past, and where she hugged her son knowing who he was. She remembered the bad days too, where she barely wanted to get up, and she saw strangers in a sea of loved ones. Those were the days she cried for her family or, even worse, went entirely numb to the world around her.
“Come down, Mom,” Chris pleaded. He was wise enough to keep his distance, but his hands were still outstretched as if to welcome her home.
But it wasn’t home. It was prison.
It wasn’t the facility itself that she feared, but what would become of her there. She was not afraid of death, but she was afraid of losing something much more valuable than her life—herself. If she was going to die, and it was certain that she would soon, she wanted to still be Alice.
“I love you,” Alice said. She knew this was true, even though the details were already slipping away. Somewhere deep down, she knew that she would always love him… that she always had.
She took one last look at her son. Maybe someday he would understand.
One step back, and Alice was gone.