Congratulations to Jenni Meade on her victory in our April short story contest. Jenni’s story stood out among a truly fantastic pool of submissions.
Find the runner-up and honorable mention here. And don’t forget to enter May’s short story contest. We’re looking for short stories along the theme, “A Houses Divided.” All genres are welcome and you can interpret it as creatively as you wish. There is no cost to enter, and writers retain all rights to their work. Learn more about the May Writing Contest here.
Jenni’s story, “Stalled Out,” floored our judges.
When Jenni Meade isn’t writing, she’s either running a construction company, making pork dumplings, or chasing a feral child. When Jenni Meade is writing, she is the feral child. She can be found on Twitter @jmeadeski or online at www.jennimeade.com.
Presented unedited and unabridged, please enjoy the winning short story:
I am the beast, and he is my boy. A young, cruel boy with a smashed-glass smile. We are hunting tonight, because he is hungry.
There is a strip of asphalt outside the town; it is our hunting ground, straight as an arrow and black as night. We idle beneath the only light. It slips from red to green to yellow and back again. We wait, but not for long.
I can feel his heel pounding over and over again into my floor mat, thick soles landing heavy. My boy is made of metal inside, an undercarriage of iron like me. He fights even the music, each boot strike hitting off-beat. It is his rhythm that makes me live, not the guitars throwing themselves at my speakers. One-two-off-three– I am hungry now, too.
Finally, under the glare of yellow, we are found. The prey comes to us, a pair of green WRXs snaking their way out of town. They think they can break us. They slither up to the white line, hissing taunts. I growl at them. My boy leans on my frame, dagger of an elbow jutting into the night. He slides down his sunshades to lock eyes with our next meal. His boot shifts, pounding at my pedal instead, freeing my growl into a roar as fire licks the veins of my engine.
I am burning, and they are grinning.
He screams a laugh, a sharp warning like a bird of prey careening toward the ground. I feel his scream, rioting through his dry palms as they tighten sudden and swift around my steering wheel. Red light floods the darkness around us, red as blood, red as need, red as the flames caressing my pistons. Please, I growl.
The night shifts green. His foot bears down on me. My tires rip against the road–I feel him thrown back against my seat. They are behind us already, slanted muzzles nipping at my rear wheels. They cannot catch us, this boy and his beast. The road races away beneath us, only black scars and smoke left to tell the story of our passage. We are screaming together now.
There was only one time that I lost, and it was in the race against him.
One night we waited and no one came. His pounding crept upward from his foot to his fist and on until he was slamming the back of his head into my headrest. The lane beside us stayed empty.
My back tires scrabbled on the pavement when he hit my gas pedal and twisted the wheel, throwing us into a spin until we faced the city and not the night. He hit my steering wheel once; twice. We drove until the buildings thickened around us–their glass perfect, his reflection in them still shattered. I rumbled angrily at the way we crawled deeper, away from the freedom of empty roads to the edge of an alley too small for me to fit inside.
He left me. The keys jangled from the strike of his hip against them, still in the ignition. When he returned he held a bag. He lay a white stripe of powder on my dash. His hands pressed against me, working their way out as he leaned forward. I could feel his breath, a long, almost breathless exhale. Then the sharp noise of a sudden inhale and he was sitting back, his eyes closed. A moment passed; I watched him, waiting for my keys to turn.
His eyes opened. Wide black holes pierced their centers. His jaw twisted, forcing itself downward in silent scream. Then he slammed–the keys, the boot, the gear shaft–I obeyed, filling the silence of his scream with the sound of my tires clawing at the city’s street.
We drove through their streets like we were racing on ours. I watched him and I knew that it wasn’t me he needed; it was the scream.
I would roar with this memory if I could.
But the memory is just an echo now. I decay slowly in these still and silent woods. My headlights dull behind pollen-glazed plastic; my axles stiffen with rust. Vines creep around my mirrors, all three reflecting green leaves and red bugs instead of desperately hungry eyes. I am the beast, not the prey. But now something eats away the foam of my backseat, nestling writhing newborns into the holes it carves.
From that night, losing him was a slow thing–but his leaving was all-at-once. It was one more night of slow loss. He had found others, or they had found him. Blood-drained faces with eyes as wide and blank as a sedan’s plastic grill surrounded him, filing down his sharp edges with their powders and pills.
That night he lay broken, staring at the black sky. We had driven into the woods, following the siren song of a girl with another small plastic bag tucked between her fingertips. My sharp lines were smeared with mud; a tree scraped it’s sharp branch down my length. Only the glare of his phone screen broke the darkness, the screen’s light baring just his hand. His fingers lay limp, his thumb twitching in toward his palm. The greens and reds of starting lines were miles away. I was filled with need, but was forced to watch and wait for my boy to stand–or die.
Not that I believed he was capable of dying. But someone did: someone round and soft, her lines curving like a thick Porsche. She ran into the clearing bringing the sound of misery with her, a high, loose broken belt sound tearing her up inside. Her phone glowed as she fell beside him in the grass. It cast harsh voices out into the night, sending the other lost ones running for the darkness.
He did not run. He did not move.
Only she moved; hands like the leaves my tires had churned up in my exhaust, trembly and unable to land, filling the air above his body. “Please, Abba,” she whispered over and over, an engine struggling to ignite.
Then the woods lit with lights—reds and blues I knew from the chase. Heavy feet stomped, snapping branches and pressing around him, pressing her away, snagging him up into white and light and leaving.
We were left together, the soft woman and I, but she thought she was alone. She shuddered, then her ignition caught and she was running, following the men and their feet. I was left with the ashes.
A car is just metal and plastic without its boy.
Please, I say, in a slow drip of oil, a rodent bite on my wires, a snap of a dry belt in the wind. I say them as I watch the bare ground where he had lain grow green with weeds. The land forgot his weight as night follows day follows night, but I cannot.
I ask the wind, the sun, the gentle drops of dew gathering on my hood. Their only answer is eating away at my edges. Rust begins to creep through me. I am not made for waiting.
Please, I say to the shadow on the clearing’s edge. It is slender and dark like my boy, but where he was a shard of broken glass, this shadow is softer. It stands at peace with the world. At peace with waiting.
The forest shadows shift as the sun climbs across the sky. The slender shadow does not move. I watch it; a mouse scurries across my dashboard. Then the sun has pity, and its rays paint back into the heat of color my boy.
My boy walks slowly at first. A second shadow shifts into the light as the soft woman joins him. Her hand rests on his shoulder. He touches her back, skin on skin, but his eyes are on me. They are blue again.
I whisper stalled hopes into the sunlight, wanting to race to him, but I cannot even rouse a flash of signals. His steps start to trickle-slip over one another like he’d missed the shift from first to second. Then he is running–and she is laughing, a sound as round and gentle as her form–and then his hands, steel inside warm outside, are things of memory no more but life, tracing furrows in the forest’s dust on my hood. He is in me, a swift sliding motion of body and seat joining and we are one.
He barely moves. The only mark of his presence is his weight in my seat and his fingers tracing the wild horse on my steering wheel, buffing it back to shine.
“Forgive me,” he whispers. I cannot answer; the gasoline in me has long since lost its desire to ignite. But his tears are hot with life, so different from forest’s cold rain. I must answer him. He turns the keys–I tremble beneath his touch. His fingers clench; the mouse nesting in my backseat scrambles away. The vines writhe; I roar.
His laugh is wracked with a sob instead of a scream but my boy is back. He throws open the passenger door with a shout, waving for the woman to join us. She slips in, bringing the sound of bubbling laughter with her. Her fingers run over my dash and into his hair, marking me with her hope and him with my dust.
“Let’s go home,” she says.
He nods; I leap forward at his command, and as grass and flower turns to asphalt beneath me I scream again. But it is not a sound of war. It is the sound of joy.
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