This year, I decided to jump out of my comfort zone and enter the NYC Midnight Challenges. Here you’ll find my submissions, or links to my submissions, and (once they’ve been judged) how they placed (or didn’t.) If I’m feeling really brave, I might even post the feedback. 😂

Dark TanGles

December 2020
Genre: Drama
Action: Haircut
Word: Charge
Time Constraint: 24 hours
Length: 250 words

Pulling a brush absently through her waterfall of midnight hair, Lyla’s deadened eyes stared at the sharp steel blades resting next to the bathroom’s cloudy mirror. With every brushstroke, another memory peeked through the shower’s lingering fog.

There was Josh, tall and handsome, curling a lock around a loving finger. Another sweep of the bristles, and he folded her into his warm arms, pressing his lips to the pale line parting the sable curtains of her waves.

Lyla pulled harder, breaking through the wet, crackling snarls, and a different mirror reflected back at her, spotless and bright, as she braided an ebony plait to cover the purpling bruise on her temple.

She yanked again, and Josh’s strong fingers clawed into her scalp to drag her across the kitchen, stray black strands sticking to the scarlet gushing from her nose.

Dragging the brush through the knots one last time, she replayed herself winding her curls under a stained beanie and boarding the musty greyhound bus in her desperate charge cross-country to finally collapse at her sister’s doorstep with matted, greasy hair still tucked under the dirty cap and the bruises yellowing around her eyes.

Sobs now choking her breath, Lyla threw the brush down in a jarring clatter. With a scream, she grabbed the waiting kitchen shears and hacked through the dark tangles of hair and memories, the heavy locks pooling at her feet.

Chest heaving and cropped hair jagged, she glared back at the mirror, eyes still swollen—but furiously alive.


This one came in 3rd place in my group, and I got to advance to the next round. The feedback is below!

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{1774}  This built with such compelling intensity. The imagery with Lyla’s black hair through the stages of her relationship with Josh worked powerfully to convey the escalating abuse and deteriorating bond. The violent haircut felt like the shedding of much more than hair. Well done!

{2024)  I enjoyed how the author incorporated the topic of domestic abuse into what could be a simple story about a haircut. I thought the transitions to the flashbacks through the strokes of brushing Lyla’s hair felt surprisingly natural and very cinematic. I appreciated that we could feel the build in tension from the absent pulling of the brush all the way to the hacking through the dark tangles at the end. I also appreciated the variety in the author’s descriptions / metaphors.

{1953}  I love how the author artfully used the mirror as a kind of time capsule (a very effective narrative-condensing strategy in such a short story)!

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{1774}  Lyla’s hair must have represented something Josh loved and used to his advantage. Share if he insisted on her wearing it long, exhibiting another area of control. That would make her hair liberation all the more sweet. To preserve word count, you might cut the “…matted, greasy hair still tucked under the dirty cap …” line, as you already describe her hair as she put the cap on before boarding the bus.

{2024)  My only confusion (super irrelevant to the plot) was about the texture of Lyla’s hair. It’s described as a “waterfall of midnight hair” and “sable curtains of her waves”. Then later as “wet, cracking snarls” and “curls”. It’s inconsequential to the story, and I appreciated the variance in descriptions, but the stray thought gave me pause while reading.

{1953}  I recommend that the author reserve elevated descriptive words for the most emotionally charged details. Lines like “the pale line parting the sable curtains of her waves” compete (in a less-than productive way) with the emotional impact of her “matted, greasy hair still tucked under the dirty cap.” While I understand that the author is trying to develop a contrast, it might be a more effective contrast if some descriptive language was trimmed back in the earlier lines about Lyla’s hair (ex: “the pale line parting the sable curtains of her waves”  could be pared down to “the pale line parting her waves”).

Memories of liles

February 2021
Genre: Drama
Action: Opening a laptop
Word: Show
Time Constraint: 1 day
Length: 250 words

Thanks so much to the Academy of the Heart and Mind for publishing this one! You can find it here. This was my 2nd round entry and did not place, but the feedback is below.

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{2008}  This is a very well done story. It holds reader interest. It develops and unfolds effectively, and the reader does feel for the characters. The social comment is superior. 

{2007}  I love the details in this piece–the lilies from mom sparking the Google search, the suit he would’ve hated, his homely cat, and then the final moment where the narrator decides to send lilies to his grave. All of these things add up to a vivid world for this story to have happened in, and they make the piece more believable through their specificity. 

{2022}  The ideas behind this story are very poignant to read right now, for obvious reasons. I liked how you first depict the internet as a life-line connecting your protagonist to memories of past intimacy, and then as a vessel bringing a fresh sense of loss. That duality was powerful. 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{2008}  It would be helpful to have more background information, especially in the first paragraph? And while it does not exactly matter, why do lilies remind ‘her’ of ‘him’? 

{2007}  Something you might add in revision, if you decide to revise, is some kind of interaction between the narrator and the ex through flashbacks. It’s hard to feel emotionally attached to someone we only see through a Google search, and it’s hard to feel sad about the death of someone we have no emotional attachment to as a reader–but a tender moment, or a heartfelt memory, will help to spark an emotional reaction in the reader. 

{2022}  Maybe this is just me, but I think there would be more narrative coherence in this story if your protagonist’s ex had died of covid–or if the irony of him dying in any other way during the pandemic were incorporated somehow. I think this would add an interesting coat of commentary.

Secrets in the seams

January 2021
Prompt: Historical Fiction
Theme: Vengeance
Character: Seamstress
Time Constraint: 8 days
Length: 2500 words

Once, they had gathered in the square for bustling markets and merry festivals, but now that food was scarce and joy scarcer, they gathered for an execution. The Germans hadn’t said that’s why they’d been summoned, but they’d all heard the rumors bleeding from the other villages. Secrets were hard to keep in their town, so it had only been a matter of time really. The only question now was who.

But Yvette already knew. Squeezing her mother’s hand, Yvette’s stomach twisted into strangling knots. The nauseating guilt clawed at her with sharp, rusty claws as she recalled how just last week Guillaume had rapped on her window after curfew. How he had whispered of cutting phone lines and slashing tires, cheeks flushed with the thrill.

Guillaume had glowed with the hopeful euphoria of purpose that they had so badly been missing, and Yvette had only looked on with wondering admiration. Even as the rumors of messages sewn into shirt collars and murderous retribution fluttered through the town like dead leaves. Even as Yvette had witnessed informants passing their poisonous letters to the Germans—turning in their countryman for no better reason than petty spite.

Why hadn’t she asked Guillaume to stop? Demanded it of him. Begged him. 

They couldn’t afford to be angry when survival already cost too much. For them, the war was already over… they had lost.

But it wasn’t Guillaume they dragged into the square. Though his purpled face was almost too bruised to identify, Yvette could tell it wasn’t her dearest friend, and she nearly collapsed with relief. 

“It’s Maurice Laurent,” someone murmured.

Maurice’s mother screamed out from the crowd, fighting against the Germans in their gray uniforms as they restrained her. And a mix of shame and sorrow heated Yvette’s cheeks. Because of course, she knew the Laurents too. In a town so small, how could she not?

The Germans dragged Maurice to the church’s brick wall, allowing him to collapse to his knees, blood dripping from his swollen lips and his bludgeoned eyes too swollen to see.

“This terrorist was caught vandalizing official Reich materials,” the dark-haired Captain Richter announced. Brandishing his pistol, he stalked in front of the crowd like a wolf terrorizing sheep. “A crime punishable by death.” 

Tearing down ridiculous propaganda. Yvette swallowed the clod of injustice that threatened to choke her. The highest of penalties for the smallest of rebellions—the price they paid for anger.

“During questioning,” Captain Richter continued, teeth flashing. “He informed us of an accomplice.”

They dragged another boy from the courthouse, and Yvette’s blood froze. 

Guillaume Bertrand hung between the towering Germans, his blackened eyes wide with fear above his bloodied nose. 

“No!” Guillaume’s older sister, Marie, shrieked from the crowd, but her father held her fast, even as pain carved his grizzled face.

Yvette’s mother’s hand tightened on her elbow. “Stay quiet, we barely know him,” she whispered. The same mother that had kissed Guillaume’s cheeks and invited him into their home countless times. “If we bring attention to ourselves, they will take us as well.”

“When accused, he insulted the Wehrmacht and refused to show remorse for his actions,” Captain Richter said, his cold dark eyes glinting with some sort of reptilian satisfaction.

Yvette could scarcely breathe now, her eyes wide and her lungs paralyzed with shock. Guillaume had done nothing wrong. And he was but seventeen—a year younger than her. And he was sweet and kind and full of hope. 

Now, there he sat, beaten and shivering in the brisk fall air. His last moments soaked in terror and sorrow and injustice. Blackness edged Yvette’s vision as Marie’s cries mixed with Madame Laurent’s, punctuating the lifeless silence of the crowd. 

“As such, he will serve as an example to those that resist the Reich.”

Her head spinning, Yvette pulled against her mother’s grasp, longing to do something, to call out for Guillaume, to at least let him know she was there. To scream for someone, please God, do something. But her mother pulled Yvette against her instead, hiding her face in her chest.

And the gunshots shattered the square.

***

Captain Richter and his men walked up to the tailor shop as if nothing happened the day before. Outside the door, they smiled and joked to one another in their harsh mother tongue, their gray uniforms crisp and imposing.

Yvette prayed that they would pass by. That they were only looking in the window. But, as usual, God was silent, and Captain Richter opened the door with a bundle of cloth in his arms.

She could feel his gaze finding her in her corner, but she didn’t look up. She couldn’t. If she met his cold, glassy eyes, she would shatter into a million shards that her mother would have to sweep up.

Yvette stared at the garment in her hands instead, thrusting the needle into the dress again and again. But her mother was more practical of course. The rhythmic clacking of her sewing machine hushed, and she stood to greet the German.

“Captain Richter, how may I help you?”

“I came across these fabrics and thought to make them a gift for my wife. Do you think you could turn them into something fashionable?” 

He held them out. Though the style was a little dated, the fabrics were beautiful—one a solid emerald green, the other a light floral pattern with pearl buttons, and the third a jazzy striped design. Yvette couldn’t help but wonder where he had plundered them from. Was the owner of these dresses currently on a northbound train to one of the camps? Or was she already dead?

“I don’t have her exact measurements,” Richter’s dark eyes skated over to Yvette, “but her figure is much like your daughter’s.”

Yvette had to force her hands to keep moving as hatred and fear snarled into frazzled tangles in her stomach.

Flattening a frown, her mother nodded. “Come Yvette, see what you think.”

Yvette rose as her mother demanded. She lifted her chin in time to see Captain Richter’s steely eyes running up and down her body. Her grip tightened on her needle.

“My daughter is a brilliant seamstress. Do you like the style of her dress? It’s quite the trend these days. The fabric is faded now, but she made it herself.”

“Indeed,” Capt Richter answered, stepping toward Yvette. “It is actually her very style that drew me to your shop in the first place. Her dresses always seem to stand out in the crowd.”

Yvette lowered her eyes, trying not to visibly stiffen as he ran a hand along the sleeve of her dress. Her gaze caught on the rust-colored bloodstain that marred his cuff. Guillaume’s blood. Maurice’s blood. The blood that paid for these dresses. It could have been one of them, or all of them, or so many more.

A hateful chill tingled along Yvette’s spine. She imagined herself ripping her arm away, raising her needle, and burying it deep into one of those granite eyes. But she only mumbled, “You should get your jacket laundered.”

He withdrew his hand, examining the stain. “Ah, so you are right, Mademoiselle.”

“We’ll have the dresses in two weeks,” her mother interjected, hands wringing.

“Thank you, Madame,” he replied, reluctantly turning toward the door. “Till tomorrow then.” With the twist of an ugly smile, he left the shop and continued down the street with his men.

Yvette let out a shaky breath as her mother dropped the fabrics onto the table in front of her. “It wouldn’t kill you to smile, Yvette.”

“Ah, so is that what you want of me?” she snapped, her boiling fury finally overflowing. “It is not enough to mend their clothes, to make them dresses from the clothing of our dead, to let him put his hand on me…” Bile burned Yvette’s throat. “…But you want me to hang on his arm as well, perhaps even follow him back to his—”

“Enough,” her mother sighed. “You know I didn’t mean that. This town is full of letters stained with others’ secrets. A smile can go a long way to allaying suspicion.”

“I’ve done nothing,” Yvette hissed, stabbing her needle back into the dress.

“Neither did Guillaume,” her mother whispered.

Yvette’s needle paused, her fingers shaking.

“I know you are angry and sad,” her mother continued. “But you must put away these feelings. It is the only way to survive this.” Her lower lip trembled. “With your father already gone, I cannot lose you too.”

Yvette let her mother wrap her in her arms, the bitter, unwanted tears flowing between the two of them. But even as she wept in her mother’s anchoring embrace, she knew what her mother did not.

Yvette was already lost.

***

Yvette made sure the street was vacant before she knocked on the door. Marie Bertrand opened it, her red-rimmed eyes turning hard as took in the basket in Yvette’s hands.

“We don’t accept food bought with German money,” she sneered, turning to close the door.

“Who is it?” her father, Monsieur Bertrand, said, limping to the door. “Oh goodness, Yvette, does your mother know you’re here?”

Yvette shook her head, and he glanced down the street. “Well hurry in girl, you can’t let them see you here.”

Yvette ducked in the doorway under Marie’s upturned nose and walked into the small familiar kitchen. “These weren’t bought,” she murmured as she unloaded the vegetables onto the table. “We grew them in our garden.” And after Guillaume’s death, their already meager rations were sure to be cut.

Monsieur Bertrand rested his calloused hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, my dear, we appreciate your kindness.”

Her basket empty, Yvette clasped her hands together. “I… also wanted to apologize,” she said thickly. “I knew about Guillaume’s… activities. I should’ve stopped him.”

The Bertrands stiffened. Yvette had just implicated herself. If they were to tell the Wehrmacht, they would take her away with no questions asked. She would disappear just like so many others.

Yvette swallowed. “But couldn’t the resistance have done something to stop them?”

“Hush girl, even to speak such things is dangerous,” Monsieur Bertrand said.

Marie crossed her arms. “You see what they did for a mere insult. Retaliation would cost more lives.”

“Then why risk so much for so little?” Yvette asked softly. “Isn’t it better to survive?”

“To survive in this misery is only to perpetuate this hell.” Marie slammed her fist against the wood. “How we survive is just as important as how long.”

Bertrand reached out for his daughter’s hand. “This is not the world I fought for.” He shifted his stance, his fake wooden leg clunking against the floor. “So we will continue to fight in any way we can. No matter how small. No matter the price. To do otherwise would be to let the sacrifices of so many go in vain. We fight on for Guillaume.”

Yvette nodded, Monsieur Bertrand’s words speaking to a truth that perhaps she had known once but had been forgotten in a coat of dust. Swept away and locked up with the others that would’ve spoken the same. Silenced with bullets and soldiers and trains to nowhere.

“I will fight too.” Yvette squeezed the basket’s rough handle. “For Guillaume.”

Marie snorted. “You? You’re but a girl sewing patches on Nazi uniforms and taking their money with a smile.”

No, never with a smile. 

Bertrand squeezed Yvette’s arm. “I’m afraid Marie might be right. I’ve seen how Capt Richter looks at you. If you’ve already caught his attention… it’ll be too risky.”

“It’s my risk to take.”

“Until you talk,” Marie snapped. “Then we’re all at risk.”

“I wouldn’t,” Yvette protested.

“Oh my girl,” Bertrand said, pity creasing his face. “They would have you confessing to things you didn’t even do.”

Yvette thought of the bloodstain on Richter’s cuff, thought of his hand on her arm—and her doubts calcified into resolve. “I can take care of Richter. All I need is a chance.”

Bertrand and Marie shared a look.

“She’s not a safe bet,” Marie whispered.

“If it was safe, it wouldn’t be a bet.” Bertrand shrugged his large shoulders. “What do you need, girl?”

“A secret.”

***

Yvette’s plan was simple. She’d turned it over in her mind again and again, searching for the snags and fraying edges, but it held firm all the same, if only just barely. As she went through the motions, so small were they, she could even pretend they weren’t dangerous. She was only taking Captain Richter’s dresses to be laundered. She was only sewing another stitch. She was only writing another letter.

But still, when the Wehrmacht issued another summons to the square, that same wave of suffocating nausea threatened to unravel her. She had failed somehow. Perhaps they had been following her. They knew. How could they not? She was just a girl after all.

With her mother’s arm through hers, and the crowd bunching tightly together, Yvette could barely lift her eyes to the line of Germans facing the village square. Marie found her gaze first, her eyes tight and worried. But where was Monsieur Bertrand? Panic rising, her breaths wheezed out in strangled gasps.

“Keep yourself together, girl,” her mother whispered. “Or they will take you for just looking guilty.”

Her mother’s fingers tightened around her hand, and Yvette sucked in deep lungfuls of air. Even if she didn’t survive this, she had to be brave. Like Guillaume had been.

At last, her courage mustered beneath her, Yvette searched for Captain Richter’s predatory smirk in the overcast afternoon.

But he wasn’t there. An unfamiliar Major glared at the crowd instead and waved a letter. Yvette didn’t have to look closer to know it disclosed the rumor of a German spy, the warning written with her own left hand.

“Have faith, Frenchmen,” he shouted. “The Reich will root out weakness wherever it shall be found. From without,” he turned to his soldiers, “or within.”

And then the Germans were dragging Captain Richter into the square, buttons missing, uniform ripped from where someone had ripped out the code roughly sewn into the collar with uneven stitches—the mark of an amateur. Certainly not a professional tailor. Blood dripped from his face to stain his battered uniform once again. But not Maurice’s blood this time, not Guillaume’s blood—it was his own blood.

Yvette found Marie’s eyes again, and this time they glinted with approval as her father limped to her side. Still, Yvette did not smile as they shoved Richter against the wall, did not feel an ounce of joy as the Major lifted his Luger. But nor did she look away as the shot rang through the air.

This small vengeance hadn’t rescued Guillaume, or Maurice, or the owner of the beautiful dresses. But it had saved Yvette. She was no longer just surviving. The war had just begun.

And she was fighting.


Thanks for reading! This short story didn’t place, but the judges’ feedback is below!

 WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{2107}  The tension of the first scene is nicely echoed in the events of the last scene, the mirroring of the first execution and the second is a clever touch. The fear and frustration felt by the French under occupation is also evoked well, and clearly explicated in the character and dialogue of Yvette’s mother and Marie Bertrand.

{2071}  A very tightly written, succinct story that packed a moral punch too. Indeed the moral quandaries of Yvette, and other minor characters, are well teased out in such a short piece. I feel the author reakises that we are in familiar ground – WW2, Nazi occupied France, to resist or not – and so the combination of showing the moral choices to be made and then a very original final twist lifted this story significantly above the usual terrain.

{2022}  The scene in which Captain Richter enters the shop is terrific and chilling. So much menace is held in the way he looks at Yvette.  

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{2107}  Yvette’s act of revenge is left largely unclear and how Richter is implicated is not sufficiently explained – the moment of justice therefore lacks the thrill of success as it’s not clear what has been succeed in.Consider also giving a little more contextual detail, such as where in France the action takes place and what the village looks like – historical fiction benefits from these kinds of details.

{2071}  Though Yvette is a good character we are perhaps left a little short on her actual emotions. Indeed the whole piece could benefit from more emotion, more if the raw and conflicting emotions noted that informs ultimate decisions to act or not.

{2022}  It’s clear that Guillaume and his family are part of the resistance, but it isn’t clear what he was doing when he was caught by the Germans. This initially puzzled me and somewhat distracted me from the scene of his execution.


Thanks again for reading! I hope you enjoyed the stories and found the feedback helpful. If you have any feedback of your own, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 😊