This past weekend I did my first ever microfiction competition. I've done a couple 1000 word competitions, but trying to tell a story in 250 words was a completely different experience. It's half a page, give or take. You've got to introduce at least two characters, set a scene, and resolve a challenge. All in a handful of sentences.
My prompt was thankfully excellent.
Action: Looking in a rearview mirror
I've been reading some Junjie Ito lately so I was very much in a body horror kind of mood. I've also recently been in a very anti-materialistic and specifically anti-cars mentality after being radicalized by urban planners. It all came together in this idea of melting into a car. I think the feeling of sticky leatherette seats is incredibly unpleasant and I ran with that. Also, because it felt right I decided to go for a second person, present tense story.
First I got all excited with my atmospheric story telling, but before I had even gotten the story out I was at 300 words.
The sun is baking you alive. Sweat plasters a t-shirt to your body like a second skin. Your mouth is tacky, and you have no water. You’re walking home, up a long gentle hill. In the ripples of heat off the asphalt you see a used car lot. You know you’ve seen it before. You recognize a steel blue pickup at the back of the lot. Otherwise it’s… standard. The kind of place you’d walk past a hundred times without really looking at. But you’re thirsty. --------------------- You see a small office with a scrap wood façade. “Hello? Anybody there?” You walk up to a glass push bar door. The office is dark, and you can barely make out the inside. "I'm just looking for a glass of water." You reach out to try the door. "Hello!" A dulcet voice rings out. A soft hand snaps down to cover yours, stopping you from opening the door. "Hello, hello. Apologies. I was helping another customer." You turn and see a salesman with spotless champagne skin. He's wearing a white suit that shimmers in the sun. He has a square cut jaw and bright yellow eyes. "Oh… I'm not a customer. I was just looking for some water?" The salesman frowns. "How about this? You let me show you one car, and I'll get you an ice cold bottle of water from the office." You roll your eyes, annoyed at the pushy salesman. You try to lick your cracked lips, but your saliva is thick as paste. "Fine. Your choice" “They’ve all got personality. Histories that can’t be buffed away.” Your skin pulls away from your finger like strings of taffy. Where you expect blood and gristle you see leather and foam. You clunk and the engine coughs. Coolant runs down your back and sweats into your engine block.
Rough. What was I thinking going for a timeskip in a 250 word story? Who cares why you're there?
That's something that I truly love about these competitions. They force you to ask the "why" of your story. Force you to cut and twist and boil the story till you're left with just the bare essentials. So I gave it another go:
The sun is hot and you are pricked with sweat. “Just got this one in. It runs great.” A used car salesman with champagne skin stands behind you. “Air conditioning?” You ask, staring at a steel blue pick up truck. “Of course,” he smiles. “This car is top of the line.” The door clicks open, and you slide in. The leatherette driver’s seat hugs your moist back. “It’s not cheap,” you mutter as the salesman gets into the passenger seat. You reach up to the rearview mirror, twisting it until you can see yourself. “But you know it’s a great deal,” he smirks. You grip the steering wheel with wet hands. You stare at your reflection. You look great in this car. “What’s wrong with it? There’s something wrong with all these cars. ” The salesman frowns. “Nothing is wrong with my cars. They have personality. Histories that can’t be buffed away. Scars that can’t be made on an assembly line.” You scoff, “So what’s the personality of this one? Dead battery?” “This one is fresh. No personality.” His lips peel back, teeth shining in metallic white. You try to lean forward, but you’re stuck to the seat. “Not yet at least. I bought it this morning” Your eyes go wide. You pull your hands from the steering wheel. Skin tears from your fingers like strings of melting taffy. Cloth stretches over your mouth and your heartbeat is the hum of the engine. “A little rude, but nothing I can't sell.”
Finally I've trimmed to 250 words. I've focused on the key parts of the story, and I've cut out so much. The words here all feel like they have purpose. I especially liked the starkness of the opening line: "The sun is hot and you are pricked with sweat." Ten words to make you uncomfortable. Vaguely coiled in anticipation and disoriented by a strange point of view.
Not without its own issues though. The ending felt lack-luster. The salesman was not quite where I wanted him. Also, the engine wasn't running so the heartbeat line didn't really gel for me.
So I worked it with Steph for a few minutes and eventually this is what I submitted:
Deal of a Lifetime
The sun is hot and you are pricked with sweat. “Just got this one in. It runs great.” A used car salesman with champagne skin stands behind you. “Air conditioning?” You ask, staring at a steel blue pickup truck. “Of course,” he smiles. “This car is pristine.” The door clicks open, and you slide in. The leather driver’s seat sticks to your thighs. “It’s not cheap,” you mutter. The salesman gets into the passenger seat. You reach up to the rearview mirror, twisting it to see yourself. “But you know it’s a great deal,” he smirks. You grip the steering wheel and stare at your reflection. You look great in this car. “What’s wrong with it? There’s something wrong with all these cars.” The salesman frowns. “Nothing is wrong with my cars. They have personality. Histories that can’t be buffed away. Scars that can’t be made on an assembly line.” You scoff, “So what’s the personality of this one? Dead battery?” He sighs. “This one is... empty. No personality.” You squirm, but your legs are stuck to the seat. “Not yet at least. I bought it this morning.” Your eyes go wide. You pull your hands from the steering wheel and watch skin tear from your fingers like strings of melting taffy. Leather stretches over your chest. The tang of gasoline fills your mouth. “A little rude, but nothing I can’t sell.” The salesman chuckles as you sputter. The last thing you see is his grin – white and metallic.
This was my final submission and I think you'll agree that it was quite a lot better than where I started. It's a real, creepy story told in 250 words that I could tell around a fireplace.
Also, I loved being able to address to many themes in such a short work. For me this is a tale of consumerism, acceptance of self, and recasting our relationship with vehicles. In the time of lifestyle brands corporate dogma, and the services economy, where is the line between the customer, the product, and the seller?
I don't think I can do 100 words, but I would do another 250 competition. Hopefully this one places well.