I caught a WordPress blog about writing a story in 24 hours, and they referred to a short story contest as an opportunity to test out their suggested course of brainstorming and writing. “Sure, why not,” I thought. And so I paid my $5 entry fee, got the rules, and awaited the start of the contest, wondering what the writing prompt might be. Here’s what we received:
Holding the sleeping infant on her shoulder, she
gazed peacefully at her surroundings. Tourists
wandered in and out of stores, an old man was
setting up his easel by the lakeshore, and a
child’s balloon escaped into the breeze. A
moment later, she looked up as shouts startled
her and the baby. Everybody was running in
her direction… – and the max word count: 950 words.
With that in mind… here’s my entry.
THE DAY SHE SAW THE PRESIDENT
Two figures stepped through the war-torn radioactive Midwest ash fields, their helmet lamps bright in the haze. Dust hung in the air behind them near the cracked edge of a dry lakebed, the only significant change in scenery for miles.
Dane peered into the chronoscope and surveyed Chicago from twenty three years earlier. The viewfinder centered on a woman holding a baby near Millenium Park. Dane handed the scope to his companion. His comm crackled, “You sure this is the moment, Z?”
She checked the device. “That’s the day. That’s her.”
Z doffed her pack and drew out three silver cylinders. She planted their bases in the ground. A triangle of blue light glowed between them. “You sure these will work?”
Dane adjusted controls on his pad. “It’s like jumping out of a plane into a tornado with a bow and arrow, trying to hit a paper target on a board at a hundred yards… with a thousand other boards whipping around in there too.”
“So… no, I’m not sure.” He stretched out his hand. “You coming?”
“Yeah. Let’s fix this mess.” She took hold and they vanished.
Holding the sleeping infant, Melanie McCullough gazed at her surroundings to pass the time. Tourists wandered in and out of stores, an old man set up his easel by the lakeshore, and a child’s balloon escaped into the breeze.
Melanie patted her baby’s back and listened to her soft snoring. “You’re missing out, Lins.” A sterling silver bracelet on the baby’s arm clinked in rhythm. A soldier’s face looked out from the photo in the bracelet. Her husband Gavin had been gone four months, killed in Afghanistan. It felt like decades.
“Your daddy would’ve loved to be here,” Melanie whispered with a sniff. “This was where he asked me to be Mrs. McCullough.”
Shouts startled her and the baby. Everybody was running in her direction. “What’s happening?” she called out over the child’s cries.
“He came early,” an elderly man replied. “The speech is about to start.”
Melanie joined the stream flowing toward the stage. “Come on, sweetie, today you get to see the President.”
Dressed in thrift store clothes, Z and Dane crossed Monroe Drive to join the audience. Z checked her gear; Dane scanned the crowd.
“President’s on in two minutes,” he said. “Care to identify my target?”
“Woman in a red blouse holding a baby, on the bridge.” Z reached into her neckline and drew out dog tags with jewelry on a chain. “She yelled last time I came here, made me miss my shot.”
“Lovely.” Dane searched for the woman as they approached. “All we need is another Kennedy incident.”
“You’re going to stop her,” Z said. “So that won’t happen.” She paused, then held out her tags and chain. “Give her these.”
“Will do.” Dane fiddled with the jewelry on the chain. “Art Institute, Sharp Building. Twenty-eighth floor.”
“I’ve got this.”
Melanie squirmed between clusters of people for a better angle, but the crowd pushed her back. Viewers waited all morning to keep good spots on the lawn and would not budge.
“We need to get closer, Lins,” Melanie said. “I can’t see a thing.” The baby cooed, unconcerned.
Secret Service agents stood at the stage corners. Others lined up before the audience. “Hail to the Chief” blared from the speakers. Applause and cheers swelled in anticipation.
Melanie backtracked to the serpentine pedestrian bridge over Columbus Drive. People packed the railing, but Melanie found a view between those in front of her. She sighed. “Better than nothing.”
The President strode to the lectern and waved. “It’s the President, Lins,” Melanie said, clapping with affected joy. The baby clapped too.
A woman on one knee at the east edge of the amphitheater’s lawn caught Melanie’s eye. The stranger ignored the speech, but watched the nearest Secret Service agents intently. Dirty brown hair and baggy clothes masked the woman’s appearance. She thrust her hand into her backpack as if rummaging for a missing belonging.
After two quick glances, the stranger checked her watch and stood. Gunmetal shone. She raised a bulky pistol and took aim through its scope.
Melanie opened her mouth to scream when a hand clamped over her face.
Dane wrapped one hand over the woman’s mouth, cradling the baby with his arm. Almost too late, he thought. He pulled them from the bridge’s railing. The woman kicked and struggled against him as he shushed her in vain. Bystanders turned to see what was happening.
“It’s okay,” Dane said to the woman as much as to the others. He pressed Z’s chain into the woman’s hand as he released her. “She said to give you this.”
Down below, Z pulled the pistol’s trigger. The silent laser light was invisible in the sun. Someone shrieked. Agents responded. Two shots rang out and Z crumpled to the ground bleeding. Then everyone screamed.
The sniper rifle that once took the President’s life never fired, because Z hit her mark first.
World War Three never happened.
Dane moved to the rail to see Z as she faded out of existence. The woman gasped behind him. Then Dane faded too.
Two women sat on a blanket in the grass across from Lake Michigan. The amber sunset reflected off the shimmering water. Melanie smiled and took her daughter’s hand. “Oh, your father would’ve loved to be here, Lins.”
Then she pulled out the beaded chain with a tarnished silver baby bracelet and its duplicate, next to dog tags from a war that never was, marked Lindsey McCullough. “Let me tell you about the day you saw the President…”