Win a cash prize if you write the best finish to my story–December Contest

December Contest

This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less. See the prize here!

December Contest: All submissions are due by midnight December 15, 2020. 

Look here for contest rules.

A Present for Smittens

Smittens heard the front door open and she leapt down the stairs.  A stranger stood in the doorway and Smittens’s person let the stranger enter.

Smittens saw her chance and dove between the stranger’s legs towards the morning light and freedom.  Smittens’s person was not as fast as Smittens, not usually, but somehow Smittens found herself scooped up in her person’s arms.

“Mwooorrroowwrrr!” Smittens said, demanding to be put down.

The stranger and Smittens’s person coughed in that odd way that only persons cough.  “Hahahahaha,” they coughed.

Smittens squirmed and squirmed, making louder noises of complaint and finally freed herself to drop to the floor.  The persons were walking down the hallway towards the kitchen.  That’s where Smittens’s person kept all the food.  Feeling hopeful, Smittens raced down the hall and arrived first in the kitchen.  Her claws clicked on the hard floor.

Smittens heard the front door open. Photo by Mary Abreu.

“I see what you mean,” said the stranger, “she has a lot of personality!”

“Oh, yes,” Smittens’s person cooed.  She coughed some more.  A happy, throaty cough that usually meant Smittens could continue to do whatever she wanted to do.  “She’s a torty–a tortoiseshell cat–and they have a lot of personality.  They’re very smart and very determined.  They do whatever they want, and if they don’t like what’s happening, they’ll tell you.”

“She’s a torty–a tortoiseshell cat–and they have a lot of personality.”

The stranger coughed.  “Ha ha ha!  Well, at least you know where you stand.”

The stranger set a large box down on the floor.  Smittens gave it only a quick glance.  It looked like the box her person sometimes put her in when Smittens got carried out of the house.  But it did not smell like the box.

Her person was ignoring her, so Smittens wove her way between her person’s legs and began saying that she would like some food.  “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow!” Smittens insisted in a high-pitched voice.

“You see what I mean?  She’s asking for second breakfast.  No, Smittens, no more food.  I already fed you this morning!”

The stranger coughed.  “Trying to get fed again?  Every cat knows that trick.”

Both persons coughed.

Smittens’s person reached for Smittens to pick her up again, but Smittens dodged her easily.  Smittens decided to ask the stranger for food.  She rubbed up against the dark covering of the stranger’s leg.  She told him she was hungry and told him to bring some food.  The stranger kneeled down and Smittens ran away a few steps.  She looked at her person, who stood with hands on hips.  Her person did not seem alarmed, so Smittens waited.  The stranger held out his hand and became very still.

He made a tiny clicking noise that intrigued her.

She approached his hand carefully and gave it a courteous sniff.  “Hi, there, Smittens,” he said softly.  But he did not move.  She gave the hand an approving bump of her head and he coughed.

This box smelled like hard metals and sticky oils. She rubbed her face on the corners, marking it with her scent anyway.

“You have a way with cats,” said Smittens’s person.

“Well, we have a couple.  They’re my wife’s really, but I help feed them.  And I’ve gotten exposure to lots of cats since joining Virtual Ventures.  I’m an engineer and we designed the VAC–Virtual Adventure for Cats–especially for cats.  They’re working on a model for dogs, as well, but that’s still a year away from production at least.”

Smittens kept talking to the persons, raising her voice louder and louder.  But no one gave her any food.  She wove around their legs over and over, but they just stood there and made person-sounding meows at each other.  Smittens got bored and went to see the box.  She checked carefully over her shoulder to make sure neither person was going to scoop her up.

She sniffed at the box.  It did not smell like the box her person called a “crate.”  Whenever Smittens heard that word, she ran and hid under the bed.  She knew the “crate” meant being stuffed, clawing and hissing, into the box and leaving the house.

The “crate” smelled like Smittens.  It smelled like her nap places and there was a soft, frayed towel inside filled with old but strong smells of herself.  This box smelled like hard metals and sticky oils.  She rubbed her face on the corners, marking it with her scent anyway.

“And it’s perfectly safe?”

“…no, no electrodes are needed.  Nothing like that.  The VAC contains tens of thousands of sensors to read the cat’s temperature, respiration, pulse, everything.  Believe me, the VAC knows every second more data than your vet would ever collect in an entire visit.  We want to make sure Smittens is safe, comfortable, and engaged at all times.”

“And it’s perfectly safe?”

“Oh, of course!  We’ve built in tons of failsafes.  Everyone who worked on the VAC is a cat owner.  We all want what’s best for Smittens.  Believe me, we wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her.  That’s the point of the VAC, to keep her safe and entertained while you’re gone.”

“See how she’s curious about the VAC?  Now’s the best time to introduce her.  Do you mind?” the stranger asked.

“Do you want me to pick her up?” Smittens’s person said.

“Not to worry.  I’ve gotten pretty good at this,” said the stranger.

The stranger knelt down and it turned out he had food after all.  He dropped a couple of bits of dry but soft and savory bites on the floor and Smittens quickly crunched them up and swallowed them.  He had two more bites in his hand.  Smittens looked cautiously at the stranger and then up at her person.

The next thing Smittens knew, she was swooped up and plopped inside the box.  An opening in the front had appeared and the stranger had smoothly slid Smittens through it.  She cried out and spun but the opening was gone with a whirr and a click.

Yowling, Smittens turned around in the small space, looking for any opening.  Everything went completely dark and she froze.  She was frightened and called out to her person.  “Meoooowl!”

It grew from a pinpoint of light. Photo by Casey Horner.

There was another hum and she saw tiny blue lights flashing on the edges of her vision.  The floor began to vibrate and she tried to lift her paws.  They felt tingly and suddenly she couldn’t feel the floor!

She leaned drunkenly but did not fall over.  She was beginning to really panic when a light appeared directly ahead.  It grew from a pinpoint of light.  Smittens squinted her eyes.

Yellow sunlight poured through the hole, and a tiny yellow butterfly flitted across the opening.  It was a hole to the outside!

Smittens leaped at the opening.  Her takeoff was awkward and when she landed at the far side of the box, the floor felt squishy.

The hole grew larger and Smittens squeezed through.  She found herself blinking in bright sunlight.  She was surrounded by green grass.  Several butterflies flitted lazily above the grass tops.  One floated within reach.

Smittens pounced.  She landed softly but awkwardly in the grass.  The grass rustled when she landed, but it did not brush her fur the way it should.  Then the yellow butterfly flitted past the edge of her vision again and she turned and pounced.  She missed it again, but this time her landing was almost normal.

Image: Greenish-yellow butterfly on a yellow flower. Text:
Smittens chased butterflies for a long time. Photo by Tim Mossholder.

Smittens chased butterflies for a long time.  She finally caught one, but when she tried to close her teeth on it, it felt like empty air.  Just then, two more butterflies floated in front of her and she leapt at them.

Just as she was growing bored with butterflies, a fat, green grasshopper leapt up from the grass with a “thwap.”  She watched it land.  She lowered her head, so she could just peer over the grass.  Her tail twitched.  She shook her rear end, once, twice, and then leapt at the grasshopper clinging to a blade of grass.

She chased the grasshopper to the edge of a tree line.  She was tired.  She lay down in the grass and watched the grasshopper, sitting still on a blade of grass.  The sun was warm on her fur and Smittens fell asleep.

Sunlight shining down on a patch of grass beneath dark trees.
She chased the grasshopper to the edge of a tree line. Photo by Tim Mossholder.

When she woke, the grasshopper was gone.  Smittens stretched and began to clean herself.  The sun had moved, but it still shone warmly down on the meadow.  Yellow butterflies flitted by but Smittens only pawed at one if it came within reach.

She thought about eating.  Breakfast seemed a long time ago.  Smittens did not think butterflies or a grasshopper would fill her belly.

She heard a soft scratching sound and froze.  Only her ears twitched, turning towards the scritch-scratching sound.  She slowly rotated her head until she found the mouse.  It was moving along the edge of the treeline under the shade of a row of bushes or brambles.

The mouse moved with determination, following the line along the edge of the grass.  The undergrowth under the trees seemed too tight even for the mouse to enter.

Tortoiseshell cat standing on leaves before a green bush, turning to look behind it.
She heard a soft scratching sound and froze.  Only her ears twitched, turning towards the scritch-scratching sound. Photo by Mary Abreu.

Smittens paced the mouse for several feet, ignoring the yellow butterflies that floated by and even the two grasshoppers that suddenly sprang from almost underneath her feet.  The mouse turned, disappearing into a dark hole in the brush.  Smittens reached the hole just after.  It was just wide enough for her to fit.  She sucked in her sides and squeezed through, determined not to lose the mouse.

Gnarled roots covered the forest floor along with a smattering of dried leaves.  The mouse came in and out of view as it climbed over the hump of a root and then plunged down the other side.  Its tiny claws made little scritch-scratch sounds as it ran and slight rustlings as it ran over old, dried leaves. 

Smittens followed deep into the forest.  She ran almost silently on the pads of her feet, eyes glued to the mouse’s progress.  She chased it until it disappeared into a hole dug beneath the large knee of a tree root.  Smittens stuck her paw in the hole and batted it around, fishing with her claws.  But she could feel nothing but air.

Smittens settled down over her paws a few feet from the hole.  She waited a long time.  If the mouse came back out, it would be worth the wait.  Eventually, she decided to take a bath while she waited.  She grew bored and her tail twitched.  Just then, she heard the tell-tale scritch-scratch of mice claws behind her.  She turned and another mouse was climbing over the tree roots, busily making its way across the forest floor.  In a flash, Smittens followed with cat-quiet tread.

Tortoiseshell cat, standing in leaves before a tree trunk, turns its head to look behind it.
She turned and another mouse was climbing over the tree roots, busily making its way across the forest floor. Photo by Mary Abreu.

In this way, Smittens followed three mice, catching none of them.  After the third mouse went to ground, Smittens was tired and hungry.  She looked about the forest, paying attention to her surroundings for the first time.  It was dark and gloomy.  No sunlight made its way through the treetops.  Had night fallen?  She relied on her night-vision to see through the dim murk.

There was no undergrowth here, only thick, gnarled roots, bare dirt, and piles of dead leaves here and there.  The trees were tall, dark and thick and marched to the horizon.  Smittens suddenly realized she was alone and far from home.  She did not even know which way home was.  She was lost!

She wandered aimlessly.  Occasionally, she saw blue glints of light on the edges of her vision.  She could not tell if they were glowing bugs or glints of an unseen moon or just her imagination.

A dark shape glided silently overhead.  Smittens was afraid.


Submit your story ending

I can’t wait to see your story endings! Don’t forget to read the contest rules.

Please post your story endings below. And if you just want to leave a comment, that would be great, too!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Here are the prizes for the December Contest winner

This is astronaut Major A. Ward. She is the trophy for the December Contest. But there’s more!

For December, I’m presenting a host of prizes for the winner:

  • $25 cash (in the form of an Amazon gift certificate)
  • Trophy–The Maj. A. Ward amigurumi astronaut (I crocheted her myself. She’s about 5 inches tall.)
  • A Twitter banner–or use wherever you like–pronouncing you the winner of the December Contest.
  • Listing in the Circle of Champions on this website, including your social media contacts and website link, if you’d like to share them.
  • Lots and lots and lots of promotion on Twitter. (I go a little crazy.)
  • Other opportunities to mix and mingle with my other Champions and join them in special projects. (Check out my current special project exclusive to my Circle of Champions.)

Why not get started now?

The secret origins of Major A. Ward

Abby Sy designed this astronaut pattern and named it Roberta the Astronaut in honor of Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space. Abby is a crochet designer who lives in Toronto with her dog Ollie. Read more about Abby and Hollie.

The photos and the photographers of “Circle of Champions”

The photographers of Unsplash.com provided me with a great collection of photos for my pass-the-baton December story: “Circle of Champions

[Warning: This post contains spoilers. I recommend you read the story first and then enjoy the art below in its full glory.]

Let’s start with the main image for story. The only alterations I made to this photo were to crop it to fit and add the text. Here is the original, unaltered photo in all its glory.

Salem stares at her mech

Woman with goggles looking to orange window. Photo by Kyle Johnson (unsplash.com/@kylejeffreys).

Actually, this photo was untitled, so I gave it the above descriptive title.

Kyle Johnson hails from Seattle, where he shoots mostly on film with a Nikon F3, an Olympus Stylus, and a Sony A7iii. He enjoys shooting outdoor and urban subjects.

How I survived the first battle of the Circle of Champions

Ever had one of those 3 a.m. ideas?

What I mean is those epiphanies of genius that light up our brains. Ideas we fall in love with immediately. Ideas that won’t let go.

These ideas often come to us late at night or even in the early morning hours. That’s why I call them “3 a.m. ideas.” They may wake us in the middle of the night or they may come to our sleep-deprived brains when we’ve stayed up all night.

Jerry McGuire, in the film of the same title, lost his job because of a personal crisis of conscience and a 3 a.m. idea. He wrote, printed and distributed a manifesto on how sports agents should deal with their clients. It went against industry norms and he lost his job. And he was black-balled. Clearly, not all 3 a.m. ideas are good ideas.

Writers often have these 3 a.m. ideas. For Sci Fi writers, these ideas are for stories. If we latch onto these ideas, they can become our works-in-progress (WIPs). Sometimes the ideas are bad. Sometimes all we need is the cold light of day to realize how bad a 3 a.m. idea is. Sometimes we just need a good night of sleep. Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes 10,000 words or longer.

But sometimes these 3 a.m. ideas are good ideas. Sometimes they really are the brushes with genius they feel like they are. But it’s hard to know which is which.

The longer I write and the more I blog, the smoother the idea machine in my head seems to work. The gears keep whirring–warm and oiled–working smoothly in concert. And the 3 a.m. ideas seem to come to me at all times of the day now. I don’t know if they are any good, but the ideas keep flowing.

So it was this week, when I should have been working on the December Contest story beginning. And I still have to post that this Sunday for release on Monday, and there’s a good amount of work yet to be done. But instead, I was thinking about my three “Champions,” the winners of my monthly contests for September, October and November. I chat with all three now and follow them on Twitter.

If you have read any of my previous thoughts on writing, you know that I believe the best writing ideas are often born from the combination of two disparate, unrelated ideas. In this case, I was toying with two ideas:

The ideas came so quickly, I’m not sure the order. And there were some false starts and dead ends thrown in there. But I imagined a story written by my Champions and me in pass-the-baton fashion, each of us writing a segment. And that story would be named after them, my Champions.

And in the flow of ideas came the first image: a young woman in a mechanized battle suit floating inside a sphere. She looks up and sees a row of windows–like a luxury suite at a sports arena–where the ranks of champions watch her. And then the name came to me: “Circle of Champions.”

Should it have been “Sphere of Champions”? After all, the sphere I envisioned was clearly the arena for a futuristic gladiator match. But then I thought of the contestants themselves, all vying for the one seat among the professional gladiators, and I thought that the contestants themselves were the champions–elite champions selected from all over the globe. Or maybe the solar system? Or maybe the galaxy?

I’ll leave that detail up to the writers who follow me to decide. But when I thought of those combatants, it felt right that they should be the Circle of Champions. (Consider the Sweet Sixteen or the Final Four in NCAA basketball.)

And so it seemed fitting that I should also name the winners of my writing contests my Circle of Champions. And, to bring things full circle here, my first three contest winners–my Circle of Champions–should help me write this story “Circle of Champions.”

The Challenge

So, in Jerry McGuire fashion, I wrote the idea up and sent the challenge to my Champions. I did not wait. I did not sleep on it. I did not tend to my blogging duties and my December Contest.

This was Wednesday, November 25, the day before Thanksgiving. Here’s the challenge I sent them:

CHALLENGE!!!

I’ve come up with a fun December writing challenge. No prizes this time. Just one great story and a chance to turn the tables on me. I’ll write a story beginning of a story called, what else, “Circle of Champions.” I’ve set my limit at 250 words.

Frasier, if he accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to continue the story.

Jim, if he accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to pick up from Frasier.

Shanel, if she accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to pick up from Jim.

And then I must conclude the story in 250 words. Hoping and praying that you guys have not set me up to fail. 🙂

As I said, I already had the beginning image of a story in my head, so I wanted to write the first 250 words. But I thought it might be a fun twist on my writing contest–which I always start and contestants always finish–if I had to finish the story this time. I thought my Champions might also enjoy this turnabout. I’m hoping they will be kind and not write me into a corner. But I will accept the fate they assign me and finish the story as best I can.

And in quick fashion, each of my Champions accepted the challenge. Quickly and without hesitation.

The Rub

All three accepted! Wait, all three accepted? This was real. This was happening.

Next I had to set the calendar. Since all three Champions accepted, I needed five story segments. Remember, I wanted to write the first and last segments. And no Champion could start their segment until the previous one was written. But readers cannot wait forever for a 250-word installment. So it came to be that I scheduled each segment to be released on a Friday with the final segment–my ending–to be released on December 25.

Christmas Day? Truly a coincidence, but why not? Then our readers get a special gift on Christmas Day. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you can enjoy a completed Sci Fi story on December 25. But that meant I had to write my 250-word segment by today, November 27, only two days after I issued the challenge. And I wanted to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.

You see how these 3 a.m. ideas can lead you into folly?

The Battle of Words

So I took a walk.

When I need fresh ideas, I find a walk sometimes helps. I take my phone and open a dictation app and dictate what comes to me. It’s not Shakespeare, but I’m not Shakespeare on my best day, anyway. And the dictation needs tons of clean up. But I get a few words on the page, usually some good images fleshed out, and, if I’m lucky, a bit of action.

Well, I finished the walk with some gobbledygook, but I had 251 words. The exercise also let me know I had really wasted some words on starting the scene in a space taxi. No room for that when I only have 250 words to set the stage for my Champions.

So this morning, I rewrote the whole thing. But I kept the beginning line, “Welcome to the Circle of Champions!” And the reference to the Death Star and some other key pieces. I wanted to describe the arena in a lot more detail, but that eats up words fast. In flash fiction, it helps to use universal references that complete a picture in as few words as possible. For brevity, it’s hard to beat “Death Star.”

My rewrite, after a little clean up, was more than 350 words! I went back through it twice more. I had so many lovely details and I didn’t want to give any of them up. In despair, I considered cheating.

I rationalized to myself. “Only my Champions know the word limit I set. No harm done. I’ll just reset the challenge at 300 words per segment. It will be like giving my Champions a gift of 50 extra words. They’ll probably thank me.”

It didn’t feel right, but the clock was ticking. I read and reread my story. I tinkered here and there. I reworded, rephrased and cut, cut, cut. And lo and behold, I got it down to 275 words!

This, I thought, this is even better than the 350+ version! I still had to cut 25 words, and I knew a word parsed here and there would not do the job. I was going to have to cut a whole sentence, maybe two. Somehow I found a way and got it to 247 words. I put a few back and I was at 250!

I had done it! I had met the challenge!

Then I did my spell check. And it turns out “Death Star” is two words. Agony!

Wait, I had used “Death Star” only once! And by this time, I had rewritten a few spots over and over. I knew I could easily add or lose a word in those places. I took out an adjective and Boom-Boom, I was done!

I actually said “Boom-Boom” aloud.

Why? I don’t know. Why does Tiger Woods pump his fist? Why do running backs dance in the end zone? Because it feels good.

I had done it! I was done! I rock! Boom-Boom!

And then “Thunderdome” came up in the spell checker. But wait, if “Death Star” is two words, how many words is “Thunderdome”? I panicked. I had used Thunderdome a bunch of times. (I just checked. Only three times, it turns out.)

I did a quick Google search. Relief washed through me. Thunderdome was one word, just as I’d recalled.

250 words exactly. Boom-Boom!

And that’s how I survived my first Battle of the Thunderdome. Now, it’s Frasier Armitage’s turn in the hot seat. Good luck, Frasier!

Frasier’s Challenge

Here’s the challenge I gave Frasier. He has to seamlessly continue the story and add some “history.” I imagine that will be backstory for our intrepid hero, Salem. But that’s up to Frasier.

He must write it in 250 words or less. And he must use the word “orange.”

For added fun, I assigned each segment a color of the rainbow. (My daughter loves rainbows. Rainbow is her favorite color.) My first segment includes the word “red.” Frasier must use “orange.” Jim must use “yellow.” Shanel has “green.” And I’ll finish the last segment using the word “blue” somewhere.

That should not be too hard. And sometimes, for writers especially, limitations or requirements that seem binding at first can lead us to interesting new ideas.

That’s all for now. But I’ll post some more thoughts and comments here when Frasier shares his installment of “Circle of Champions” next Friday.

Feel free to share comments below. I love comments and I always respond.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Join the Circle of Champions, if you can survive

My Circle of Champions–my name for the winners of my monthly flash-fiction writing contest–have banded together to create a special holiday treat this December. Each Friday, I will post a new segment of this flash-fiction story. The next champion in line must write the next segment in 250 words or less. The final segment will be unwrapped on December 25th.

Learn more details on the challenge I posed to my Circle of Champions and read more about the photo artists. Or just enjoy the first segment I wrote for this week:

Circle of Champions

“Welcome to the Circle of Champions!”

The emcee’s booming voice filled the comms of the ten champions, who floated in the cold vacuum and Zero-G. The sound and their images streamed planetside, of course. Bookies slavered and took notes.

Salem shivered in spite of her red thermal suit. She would have a month to train in the Zero-G of the Thunderdome, a grotesque contraption in high orbit designed to look like the Death Star. The producers were such Sci Fi nerds! Inside, VIP boxes surrounded the vast void.

Death was not required, of course, and not inevitable. The twenty-foot mech suits were protected by the defense industry’s most advanced force shielding. But the suits were also loaded with the most advanced weapons. So deaths occurred.

Back home, Salem had survived countless battles. In her sixteen years, she had progressed from video games to waldo jockey to mech fighter due to her speed and flawless instincts. But the armor in her mech suit–modified for her small size–could withstand all the standard weaponry allowed in sanctioned ground battles.

Here, in the Thunderdome, she could die. And even if she won the Circle of Champions, that only assured her ten mandatory years of battle with the professionals each week here in the Thunderdome. She would have wealth beyond her wildest dreams for as long as she could stay alive. But few lived to retirement.

Spotlights rose and for a few breathless moments, she forgot it all when she saw her shiny, red mech.


Stay tuned for next week’s segment, written by the winner of my very first writing contest, Frasier Armitage. Frasier must continue the story in 250 words or less. And he must use the word orange.

In the meantime, enjoy this completed story by my newest champion, Shanel Wilson: