Recently I've done a bit of writing of flash fiction -- pieces of under 800 words (sometimes a lot shorter) that still tell, or at least imply, a complete story. It's an interesting exercise to see if you can convey a whole setting and plot in such a constrained length, but the challenge is a lot of fun. I'll leave you to decide if I succeeded -- below are five pieces of flash fiction I wrote, along with the prompt (or instructions) that initiated them.
#1. Prompt: We are not alone; length limit = 200 words
Skee (short for Pesky, a nickname she’d been given by her brother when she was three) sat on the front lawn, looking up at the stars. She’d only recently been allowed to do this by her parents, but now, with her mom and dad splitting up, her dad moving to Tucson, she doubted they’d have noticed her absence in any case.
I’m all alone, she thought, without any particular feeling of anger or sadness over it. It simply was. Alone. Everyone else has their stuff to do, and I could fall off the world and no one would notice.
The cool, humid night air brushed her face, and she lay back, and stuck her feet in the air. The stars glittered between her toes. She thought: If I fell upward, I’d fall forever. And it would just be me and the stars, falling together, nothing to stop us.
Together with the stars; so not alone. A mosquito whined by her ear, and she slapped it away, and thought: I may be alone here, but I’ll always have the stars. Nothing can change that.
And she got up, and walked back toward her house, smiling for the first time in weeks.
#2. Prompt: a death scene; length limit = 800 words
“So, there’s nothing that can be done?”
“No, Paul. An hour. Maybe less. Whenever they decide.”
“And you’re sure that Catherine got over the border?”
“Yes. Safely away.”
The guard nodded. “I can’t talk longer. They’ll suspect. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry.”
“You did all you could.”
The door closed, and Paul heard the snick of a lock turning.
He closed his eyes. Catherine was away, along with the two rebel fighters that had been assigned to her. It only remained to him to face what was left. Only an hour more; maybe less.
It was less. A dirty-faced guard was the one who came for him; he grabbed Paul’s arm, as if he couldn’t have walked unassisted, and dragged him from the cell and into the courtyard.
He knew what he’d see, but it still was a shock. He thought: this is it. Mortality. I knew I’d die someday, but today is it. You never think of it that way, that some day will be your day to die, as certain as the Earth spinning around the sun. And now, here it is, like an old enemy you thought you’d never see again.
In this case, in the form of a wooden block, and a hooded man with an axe.
I will not faint, he thought, willing his knees not to buckle. I will be steadfast. Catherine would want me… Catherine would want… He swallowed, forcing the tears back, listening to a disembodied voice say, “For the crime of high treason, for aiding and abetting the rebels against the realm, Paul de Lyons is hereby sentenced to death. Does the condemned have any last words?”
He shook his head, trying to look defiant. Two guards came to him, pulled his shirt roughly over his head, forced him to the block. He felt hands on his bare shoulders pressing him downward until his cheek touched the rough, splintered surface.
And he thought: I am just one man, facing death, as countless others have before me. This death is neither more, nor less, than what any other has endured. I will not fear.
And to his astonishment, he found that his fear had evaporated. He thought: not an old enemy; an old friend! And he smiled, as the moment stretched out, and like the breaking of a string, fell forward into eternity.
#3. Prompt: True love's first kiss; length limit = 500 words
Cam reached up, and felt his cheek. All he could think was: that didn’t hurt as much as I thought it was going to. He’d watched the boy’s fist moving toward his face with a kind of disbelief, a thought of: I’m about to get punched. This is really gonna hurt. And then it was over, and he was sitting on his ass on the ground, and the boy was stalking off, chuckling under his breath and massaging his knuckles.
Cam got up, brushed the dirt and grass clippings off his shorts, and stood there, thinking with dazed astonishment: Jesus. I just got punched in the face. And that was when he noticed that Annie was still standing there, watching him. That she hadn’t run away as soon as the bully’s back was turned was weird enough; but then, she dashed the tears from her cheek with the back of one hand, and came up to Cam. He felt her lips against his, the warmth of the kiss sending a rush down to the tips of his toes. Then she stepped back, and said, “Thanks. You were awesome.” Her white teeth flashed out at him, and she started to walk away, but then turned, and held out a hand. “Aren’t you coming with me?”
#4. Prompt: must include the words capitulate, flame, tool, torrent, web, kiss, passive, river, receptive, frigid, action, surge; length limit = 800 words
Eric lay with his bare belly pressed against the warm rock, letting his hand dangle downward into the frigid rush of water tumbling by. In the two weeks he’d been up here in the High Cascades, the sun had colored his back and arms a golden brown, and there were white sun-streaks bleached into his hair; an unusual run of luck in a place where the weather could turn to chill drizzle even in August.
He thought: Water is the earth’s blood, and the rivers its arteries and veins. They connect in a web across the whole planet. Action and reaction; if the floods surge in Vietnam, it affects the creeks in Oregon.
Carrie was gone, off into the Peace Corps. She was probably in Hanoi or Ho Chih Minh City right now, being trained before heading off to the village where she’d spend the next two years. A flame of resentment rose in Eric, and he forced it down. There’d been nothing he could have done; he’d had to capitulate, let her go. Their relationship had begun in passion, in camping trips where they made love under the stars and swam naked in little lakes, the waters receptive and clear. It ended with a passive acceptance, without even a kiss goodbye, and now Eric lay, looking into the foaming torrent, trying to create an understanding of what had happened and without the tool to craft it.
His hand caressed the surface of the water, as it had once caressed her skin, and he found himself crying, the tears dropping into the river and being carried away, down to the ocean. He thought: to Vietnam. When she steps into a stream there, my tears will be part of it. Our connection hasn’t broken, only become invisible, inaudible. He could grieve the fact that it wasn’t the same, but nothing on earth could break the bond, as long as rivers coursed and blood flowed, and tears fell.
#5. Prompt: playing with time; length limit = 500 words
“So, how did you know to pull me back to the present just before the spear hit me?” Darren asked.
“We didn’t,” Fischer said. “We let the computer handle that.”
“And the computer always gets you out just in time?”
“Absolutely. Lightning-fast processor. Cutting-edge technology.”
“Well, there was Petrillo,” Maggie said.
“Oh, yeah,” Fischer said. “I’d forgotten about Petrillo.”
“Petrillo?” Darren said. “Who is Petrillo? What happened to Petrillo?”
“Well…” Fischer said, seeming a little reluctant to discuss the topic. “Petrillo was a guy who worked on our staff. He was a bit of a thrill-seeker.”
“Morbid type, if you ask me,” Maggie interjected, her round face radiating disapproval.
“He wanted to take a vacation back to the 18th century, and experience the French Revolution first-hand.” Fischer paused. “He got his wish, I guess.”
“He died?” Darren said. “I thought you said your computer always kept track of where you were, and could pull you back to the present if there was any danger!”
“Oh, he came back to the present,” Maggie said. “Just in two separate chunks, as it were.”
“Took forever to get the stain out of the carpet,” Fischer said.