Here is the short story that I submitted to the NYC Midnight short story writing contest . The story had to include a mystery, a gas station attendant and a relationship break-up. It is called In the Blink of an Eye.Let me know your thoughts.
The headlights of the sleek, black Lexus sliced through the darkness, keeping Sara alert and focused as the constant stream of white lines slipped beneath the car into the darkness behind her. Reaching for the radio, Sara stopped and reconsidered, dropping her hand back to the leather-wrapped steering wheel, deciding the silence gave her comfort, compelling her to reflect upon the devastation of the last fifteen years. It was a painful, yet necessary piece of this yearly trek she suffered every May 15th, and today was no exception. The annual voyage had started as an optimistic journey of hope and investigation but eventually, it turned into one of somber melancholy. Fifteen years ago, it was just another day, much like any other. If only she had known it would be the absolute worst day of her life, perhaps she might have done something different—perhaps.
Sara clearly remembered the excitement she had shared with her son, Logan, as they’d packed the Explorer for their first official “family” vacation. The two had allowed her husband, Conrad, to enjoy an extra hour of sleep while they enthusiastically stuffed everything one might ever need for an adventure of such magnitude into the rear of the SUV. Fortunately, they had left just enough room to strap the little boy into the back seat, beside a pile of his favorite traveling toys. This would be a memorable adventure for the entire family; a trip which would forever alter the direction of their lives.
Logan had fallen into their lives as an unexpected blessing. Sara and Conrad, immersed in climbing separate yet similar corporate ladders, had not planned to begin building a family until their finances were solid and their careers secure. Although unanticipated, Sara welcomed the news because, in all honesty, she had begun to question the reality they might ever intentionally make room for a baby in their hectic lives. As the due date approached, Conrad became excited as well, and on the morning their tiny miracle slipped quietly into the world, with barely a cry, these three souls became one.
The proud parents watched in amazement as their child grew and developed into a remarkable combination of his parents. Logan had been blessed with Conrad’s steel-blue eyes and deep set dimples along with Sara’s thick mahogany-colored hair and exceptionally long eyelashes. He even bore the identical, tiny black birthmark on his earlobe his mother carried upon hers. Logan had brought a richness to their relationship that could never be replaced by power or money, so Sara settled into the comfortable role of mother and wife leaving the chaos of the corporate world far behind.
Eventually, the darkness of the night began to evaporate and Sara could see the sunrise on the horizon as it painted the sky the color of fire. This caused her to smile since daylight brought a sense of peace and temporary relief along with it. Darkness was the enemy. Anxious to reach her destination, she stepped abruptly on the gas pedal and the Lexus lurched forward. After a time, fatigue began to dull her senses and yet she drove on until, in the distance, she could see the sign: Lone Tree-Population 2587. The town had grown, she noted, and suddenly, it felt as though her heart had stopped beating and she found it difficult to breathe. That old familiar sensation of anxiety followed by dread and then panic took control of her exhausted body and she felt tears fill her eyes as she blew past the sign.
Rolling into town, the Lexus crept quietly past the post office, the IGA grocery store, and the filling station. The fancy, black automobile turned a few heads as it traveled by, looking very out of place in this isolated little country town filled with pickup trucks and rusted Chevys. The car slowed to a crawl as she pulled up in front a tiny city park. Sara slipped the car into park and sat there silently, listening to the car idle eventually, she turned the engine off and pushed open the heavy door, feeling a cool breeze brush across her face as she stepped out into the street. Taking a deep breath, she strode up over the curb and plodded through the wet grass as the dew proceeded to soak into the fabric of her expensive suede shoes.
Sara stood in front of the empty swing as a delicate breeze provoked it just enough to cause the rusted chains to squeak as it twisted in the wind. The sound sickened her and nearly brought her to her knees as chilling memories began to return. The world around her shifted into slow motion and her body began to sway as she grasped wildly for the chains, sinking abruptly into the refuge of the worn and weathered seat. Hanging her head in unreserved sadness, Sara kicked at the sand below and permitted the horrible memories of that day to invade her mind and seize complete control of her thoughts, hopeful it might bring eventual peace to her life. Closing her eyes, she sighed and resigned herself to living the nightmare, yet again.
After four hours of traveling deserted Iowa backroads, Sara had been delighted to spot a town in the distance. The beaten and battered sign read: Welcome to Lone Tree-Pop. 1087. Tired and hungry, Logan had become restless and crabby, so a pit-stop was essential if they were going to venture any farther. Conrad swung the Explorer into a dilapidated Texaco station with just two rusted, pumps out front, one of which sported a greasy Out of Order sign taped over the meter.
Five-year-old Logan began jumping up and down in the backseat, itching to escape his confining cubbyhole. Conrad and Sara had laughed at his excitement while waiting impatiently for an attendant to come outside. Anxious to fill up the gas tank and then fill their own empty bellies, Sara reached over and tapped on the horn a couple times.
The beat-up screen door opened and a portly fellow in baggy overalls and a filthy baseball cap, ambled onto the porch, calling out, “How do, folks?”
The man, who rather resembled Elmer Fudd, startled Sara, who leaned away from the window and then began laughing uncontrollably while Conrad, feeling quite embarrassed, pinched her thigh. Finally, unable to contain himself, he, too, began chuckling and then laughing hysterically. Mr. Fudd, unaware he was the butt of this private joke, began to chortle, too, as he stepped off the porch and pulled the hose and handle off of the only working pump.
“Nice day,” he pronounced as he waved through the window at Logan in the back seat.
The little boy smiled and flattened his hand against the glass as if attempting to touch the strange character just outside the door. They made faces at each other through the window while Elmer engaged in small talk with Sara, who finally asked for directions to the nearest restaurant. Before too long, they were coasting down the street looking for Jake’s Diner, home of the infamous Belly Buster.
As they approached the front door of the diner, the scent of greasy hamburgers and French fries filled their heads and as they stepped through the door, they could hear the pop and crackle of the legendary sliders being slapped onto the grill. A row of shiny, chrome stools with red vinyl seats greeted them as they walked into the place. Sara glanced around the restaurant looking for an empty booth and spotted one back in the corner next to an ancient Wurlitzer jukebox. It was playing an old Hank Williams tune that had been one of her father’s favorites more than twenty years ago. Behind the counter was a middle-aged man in a white t-shirt and dirty apron, singing along with Hank and tossing burgers into the air. That must be Jake, Sara had thought and just then, a waitress showed up and dropped three menus onto the table. She had badly dyed red hair, thick black-rimmed glasses, and ankles swollen to the size of grapefruits. The woman, whose nametag said ‘Betty,’ flipped the coffee cups over onto the table and filled them to the brim with steaming black java. She set a glass of water in front of Logan and proceeded to comment on the weather, their pretty car, and of course, adorable little Logan.
While Betty wrote down their orders, Sara glanced around the diner, noticing all eyes were upon her little family. Some watched inquisitively while others held a sinister stare upon them. One fellow in particular made Sara’s skin crawl, but she had shaken it off, turning her attention back to Logan and Conrad, who played Tic-Tac-Toe on the back of a placemat.
As they sat and enjoyed their greasy feast, they watched the town come alive. It was lunchtime, and the bell above the diner door jingled continuously with hungry townsfolk rushing in and out for their daily dish of burgers and gossip. Betty dashed around the café with a steaming plate in one hand and a pot of hot coffee in the other, earning every penny of her meager tips. Eventually, they walked out of the diner, stuffed and happy. They were, however, not ready to get back on the road. Suddenly, Logan squealed at the sight of a playground across the street and the three of them crossed the street to the tiny city park.
The park had an eerie stillness about it.
“Kids must be in school,” Conrad commented as he hoisted Logan up into the swing.
“Must be,” Sara agreed as she glanced around the empty playground.
Deciding to let her boys have some bonding time, Sara announced she was going to run down the street and grab a few essentials at the Rexall Drugstore. She kissed Conrad on the cheek and waved at Logan, who was flying high and giggling wildly on the swing. Sara smiled in peaceful gratitude for this simple, normal, yet perfectly wonderful life with which she had been blessed. Walking out of the park and onto Main Street, Sara turned the corner, and in the blink of an eye, she was gone, without even a single suspicion life would never, ever be normal again.
Hearing the blast of the noon whistle, Sara was jerked back to the reality of her life, this journey, and the sudden need to take a break from the depressing details of this dreadful trip down memory lane. Standing up, she tilted her face toward the sun and closed her eyes to enjoy the warmth on her cheeks. In the distance, she could hear a chain clanging on a flagpole while the flag wrestled with the wind. Somewhere, a train whistle blew, dogs barked, and children laughed. Sara realized she, too, longed for the love and laughter of her now lost and shattered family.
The past ten years had been so very lonely. Conrad, unable to cope with the loss and horror of 1997, had gone for a ride one evening, never to return. The divorce papers had arrived in the mail several months later, and Sara had signed them, uncontested. The next and only time she had seen Conrad after the night he’d left the house was in a courtroom, on what would be the final day of their marriage. She could not blame him for leaving. The love they had once shared—as strong as it had seemed—could never bear the loss of Logan.
Slipping into the front seat of her car, she sat and stared at the empty swing moving ever so slightly in the breeze, and braced herself to relive the final scene of this horror story.
She silently recalled coming down the street carrying the plastic Rexall bag and noticing Conrad stepping out of a phone booth near the corner. Squinting her eyes, she searched for little Logan but could not spot him anywhere. A sick feeling came over her and she began to jog down the sidewalk.
“Where’s Logan?” Sara yelled as she approached her husband.
“He’s still on the swing.” Conrad casually replied. “He’s having fun, so I figured I’d check in with work.” Smiling, he had wrapped his arms around her.
Sara broke free and ran around the corner, into the little park. The silence of the playground was as thick as cotton and Sara’s head felt as though it might explode. Staring at the swing where Logan had been, Sara’s heart began to hammer as she saw it swaying empty in the wind as a warm scream arose inside her.
“Where is he?!” she shrieked at Conrad, who stood motionless in the grass with a look of terror on his face.
The minutes, hours, and days all merged together from that moment on, and Lone Tree-Pop. 1087 became their new home base for the next four months as the entire state of Iowa searched for her baby boy. The State Police and the FBI were called in, to no avail. Logan was never found, and the foundation of their happy little family came crumbling down.
As she drove away from the park, Sara decided it was time to try to rebuild her life. Logan and Conrad were gone and never coming back. She had wasted far too many years and tears revisiting this town, this place, and these heartbreaking memories. As she pulled into the Texaco station, a single tear slid down her cheek and she decided this would be her final visit to Lone Tree. Looking at the brand new building and shiny pumps, she smiled for just a moment as she remembered Elmer Fudd walking through the front door of the old gas station. The attendant, who was definitely not Elmer, stepped outside and she yelled, “Fill it up please,” as she reached for her purse.
Fishing through her wallet for her MasterCard, she was impressed to see the young man grab a squeegee from the foamy water bucket and begin cleaning her windows.
“Howdy ma’am,” he said, leaning across the windshield.
She looked up and nodded to the smiling face with deep-set dimples that observed her through the soapy glass. The steel-blue eyes were piercing and as he ran the squeegee across the window, she noticed he was quite handsome. His mahogany-brown hair was thick and wavy and curiously resembled hers. Suddenly, her heart stopped beating and her wallet dropped to the floor. Their eyes locked, time stood still and as they stared at one another, she knew with certainty that when he turned his head away, there would be a tiny black birthmark on his ear—one that would undoubtedly match her own.