Four Minutes

This story was created as part of round two of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition 2018, having completed round one. The following details were received at 5am on Saturday 15th September and I was given 48 hours to research, write and upload before 5am Monday 17th September (midnight in NYC). 

Round two

  • Word limit: 1,000 words
  • Genre: Horror
  • Location: Lookout tower
  • Item: A bag of coins
  • 3,000 participants, competing in groups of 30 people. Top 15 in each group allocated points (eg 1st place 15, 2nd 14 and so on). Round one and two scores accumulated and top five in each group progress to round three.

Four Minutes

Kate and her Dad move from London to their new home in the Yorkshire countryside, but what starts out as the perfect summer ends in a terrifying storm of hidden family secrets and murderous bloodlines.

I’m not sure how long I have been sitting here in the dark. The torch burns a hole into the blackness and lights up the lookout tower. That’s what we’d called this tree house. I look down at the notebook. The tin box has kept it safe for five years. We had written our names on the front. My Kate Tempest was written in neat letters. Her Emily Jones was a looping flourish. She had the most beautiful handwriting and not just for a 10 year old. I trace the name with my fingers.

My mother left when I was a baby and it has always been just my dad and me. He was the most straightforward person you could meet. It was the scientist in him. He was a Professor researching genetically modified crops, but I called him a soil scientist. He’d joke that he made his money from muck. His Yorkshire roots could be traced back to 1066, but his great grandfather had snapped off our branch of the Tempest family tree and relocated it to London. We were connected only by name.

It was late June, nearly my 10th birthday, when Dad received a letter notifying him that, as the last of the male bloodline, he’d been left ‘Harewood Hall and all its treasure’. He laughed and said they still thought it was the glory days. Two weeks later we left London.

Harewood Hall looked like a faded version of the photograph we had seen. I couldn’t find any of the promised relics, the only thing remaining was the Tempest family coat of arms. Dad explained the panels of red and gold represented power and knowledge and the black dragon in the centre, it’s enormous wings spread wide, was riding a storm and defending the treasure. I was mesmerised.

It was the end of the summer term when I started school and met Emily. I couldn’t stop looking at her incredible hair, red like a ring of fire. Over the holiday we were inseparable, exploring the ramshackle grounds. Bracken and thorn bushes covered the estate and Dad said that until the land was cleared, he would create us a kingdom in the sky. When the tree house was finished he reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of gold coins. We pulled the foil wrappers off before the chocolate melted and he said not to throw them on the ground, as they took 200 years to decompose. 

We drew pictures of our adventures. I’d used a plain pencil to scribble my dull black hair, but Emily needed to use all the oranges, reds and yellows to capture hers. It was a perfect summer and I wanted it to never end. It was when the leaves started to fall that Emily went missing. As the winter frost arrived, there was still no sign of her. 

I could sense a change in Dad. Reading my science homework out loud one evening, I mentioned the human body took eight years to decompose. Dad stood up so furiously his chair smashed against the floor. How could anyone say how long the stages of decomposition take? What about the teeth and bones? Or the hair that remains long after the body has crumbled to dust? The only thing we could ever be sure of was decomposition begins four minutes after death. He’d grabbed my face, hissing these words. I could smell his breath; it was sour and made my stomach turn.

I feel sad thinking about all this, here in the dark, in the lookout tower. I put the notebook back in the tin. The torchlight catches a flash of gold. I look down and see the leftover coins. The chocolate is long gone, but the shards of shiny foil remain. It hasn’t been 200 years, but Dad was right, they haven’t decomposed.

I can’t remember running from the house. I just remember needing to get to the lookout tower. When Dad is in a dark mood he forgets to lock up the house and I was looking for the key. His jacket was hanging up and I reached into the pocket, but instead of metal I had felt something soft like fur. Flinching I pulled my hand out. Twisted around my finger was a strand of bright red hair. 

The sun is rising now. I look down. Something is moving below me. I lean forward to get a better look and suddenly I see everything. I drop the tin box, coins falling like rusting drops of rain, and it hits the floor with a crash. I look into the eyes of my father. A stranger looks back.

I duck down as the blood pounds in my ears. I look again. He has gone. Everything is different. The ground has been cleared, revealing a black dragon scorched into the earth. Each wing is made up of rows of buried bodies, hair exposed at the rotting scalp, the strands dancing chillingly on the breeze. Nearest to me the hair is vividly coloured, but as the graves get further away the hair dulls or disappears all together. This is hundreds of years of work.

The brightest red runs down the dragon’s tail and I can see that recent digging has exposed what’s underneath. Her hair is still the colour of our drawings and the gold foil coins have landed like a crown, glinting in the morning sun. There is a swirl of bone and soil where her face used to be. I follow the line of the dragon’s tail and it ends at a deep hole, a makeshift grave ready for another offering of treasure.

The wooden floor creaks behind me and I turn around. I see the silhouette of my father in the door, lit up by the rising dawn sunlight. There is no trace of the man who built the lookout tower; who laughed with me and loved me. He takes a step forward and strokes my hair.

This is the original work of the author Hannah May and copyright belongs to the author.

Thoughts and feedback

I don’t read horror and I was dreading writing it. The original version came in at way over the word count – 2,312 words! I then had to slash and burn it, while knackered, to meet the 1,000 words. Finally got there at 12.30am on the Monday and submitted it.

Again, I think the story was too big for the word count and in cutting out words it lost some detail that was important to the story. However, proving that writing and judging is unpredictable, I received 14 points for this story (a total of 22 points for both rounds) and I progressed to round three.

What the judges liked:

  • {1504}  The well-written prose enhances the story. I like the way the protagonist’s references to scientific details intensify the horror of the crimes. After all  the emphasis on hair, particularly the dead Emily’s,  when the protagonist’s father strokes his daughter’s hair, the horror is intensified.
  • {1739}  The setting is wonderful. The shift from London to such an estate is a nice visual and the atmosphere really changes within the story.
  • {1688}  This story was very well written with great characterization and beautiful description. The perspective of the child relaying this information was a great way to tell the story. It really pulled me into the life of the narrator. It had a unique way of exhibiting both story objects, the lookout and bag of coins, and these fit in well with the tone of the story. The narrative was engaging from start to finish and progressed well from a natural story of a childhood to a darker and more horrific place. The Dad’s emotional reaction to the decomposition of a human body was a great way to establish a dark undertone of his character. This story paid attention to detail and the narrator set a great mood by noticing things like Emily’s hair and the Dragon emblem, this created really good prose that pulls the reader into the details of the world.

What the judges felt needed work:

  • {1504}  The well-written prose enhances the story. I like the way the protagonist’s references to scientific details intensify the horror of the {1504}  Consider including additional vivid sensory elements to increase realism. I would suggest greater variety in sentence and paragraph lengths. Perhaps reveal more details about the great-grandfather’s snapping of their branch of the Tempest family tree.
  • {1739}  This story begs for a mythology, something that will lead us to her father’s madness. What are the stories here? What happened to the men before him? Did the main character ever notice her father treating Emily any kind of way?
  • {1688}  Although the prose was excellent, the Dragon grave was difficult to visualize. I wasn’t sure how to imagine it stretched out so far. The timeline was a little strange at the end, I wasn’t sure if Kate found the blonde hair in her father’s jacket and immediately ran to the lookout tower or if it was a flashback from another time, if she had just found it why wasn’t she in more of a panic when looking through the things in the tree house? It just seemed a little disjointed as a natural timeline but other than that this was a really great story.

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