The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicked off its tenth year on January 22, attracting over 2100 writers from around the globe. For Round One, we were separated into 60 groups of 35 writers each and given genre, subject, and character prompts. We had eight days to create a two-sentence synopsis and a 2500-word story.
Below are my prompts and the resulting story.
Bearnard Bear awoke one spring and found a few things had changed in the neighborhood. A migration of hares upon the valley below had the local inhabitants up in arms – all in an election year for King of the Mountain.
The Bear Went Over the Mountain
Bearnard lumbered from his cave and gave a mighty stretch, then bellowed out a yawn that shook half the mountain and set the quail aquiver. Spring had arrived right on time. Blossoms of lupine and butterfly weed burst in the April sun, filling the air with their intoxicating brew and nearly lulling him back to sleep on the soft, crimson clover.
He turned and called to the cave. “Bearnice, you still in there?” He hadn’t seen her when he awoke, but his eyes never fully focused until after his first pawful of honey.
No growl came from the den; no shapely silhouette appeared at its entrance.
Plopping down in the clover, he wondered if he should wait or go foraging alone. It wouldn’t be long before his stomach rumbled louder than his yawn. As if on cue, Bearnice appeared at the tree line with a salmon in her mouth, sauntered across the meadow, and dropped the nosh in front of him. “I wondered if you’d be up,” she said.
“How long have you been out of hibernation?” Bearnard said, poking and sniffing the fish before scarfing it down.
“A couple of days now. I thought I’d let you sleep in. You’re as grouchy as a grizzly if you don’t get your full six months.”
“Yeah.” He burped and rubbed his belly. The salmon hit the spot, but he needed a good jolt of morning nectar. “You know, I could have swung by the brook and picked up breakfast on my way to the hive.”
“I know, but….” A blue butterfly caught her attention. She swatted and missed.
“Oh…it’s nothing.” Bearnice was preoccupied with the butterfly and kept snatching pawfuls of air.
“God, I hate when you do that.”
“Do what? Play with butterflies?
“C’mon…you know what I mean.
“Okay. Don’t get mad, but…the brook isn’t there anymore.” Bearnice covered her head with her paws, expecting Bearnard to blow his top. Nothing. She peeked through her claws. “As a matter of fact, I had to go down to the main river for your meal.”
He seemed more confused than upset. He blinked twice, furrowed his brow, then closed one eye and tilted his head. “I don’t understand. It isn’t there anymore? How could a brook just up and disappear? It’s been there since…since forever.”
Bearnice swung into full gossip columnist. “Well, the otters didn’t have all the details…you know how flakey they are…but supposedly, the mountain developer, D.J. Fox, hired a colony of beavers and they’re damming up the river. Our tributary was the first to dry up. Can you believe it? That’s all I caught before they floated down the rapids, but I’m sure the bees can tell us more when we get the honey. The hive is always buzzing with the latest news.”
“Yeah, buzzing from their wings to your ears!” His wife’s fondness for local dirt amused him just enough to keep his mood from souring. “All I know is I need me some honey, now. Come here. Give me a kiss.” She swooned and leaned into him and they tumbled down the slope in a playful tussle.
“Oh, you dirty bear, you.”
When they arrived at the hive that afternoon, only the Queen and a handful of drones were there. “Bearnice! I was hoping you’d show. I’ve been sitting on some dish that’s tastier than Royal Jelly. Grab a honeycomb and sit a spell.” Her Highness turned to Bearnard. “Bearnard…always a pleasure to see you. There are a few combs of that vintage you liked in the hollow over there. Make yourself at home.” That’s all Bearnard needed to hear. He made a beeline to the tree and buried his head in the trunk.
“Mmm…honey,” he said, practically drooling the words.
Bearnice grabbed a comb and sat on a nearby log. “Where’s the rest of the swarm? Collecting nectar?”
“That’s the dish I had for you,” said the Queen, excitedly. “Most of them are at a meeting in the clearing. Something about a new migration problem.” Bearnice munched on the wax and listened, wide-eyed. “It seems as though a massive husk of hares is invading the valley and D.J. Fox has all the local herbivores in a panic – some omnivores, too. He and two others have thrown their hats in the ring for King of the Mountain. It’s an election year, you know.”
Bearnard’s head came out with a pop. “What’s the matter with a few more vegans on the mountain? There’s plenty of food to go around if we all share.” He licked his muzzle so as not to waste a drop.
“I believe they prefer to be called herbivores, dear.” Bearnice quickly corrected her husband. She didn’t want to appear uncouth in front of the Queen.
“Vegans, vegetarians, herbivores…heck, it changes so often, I don’t know what’s PC anymore.”
“Well, this year, it’s herbivores, sweetums.” Bearnice shot him a cold stare.
“That’s not the worst part,” the Queen continued, “Fox is building a wall around the mountain to keep them out, which will dam the river in the process. I believe he already has the beavers working on it. Hasn’t it affected your tributary?”
Bearnice nodded and rolled off the log, stunned. “A wall? Did you hear that, Bearnard?” He sat there, stupefied. He heard. She swallowed the last of her honeycomb and began wrapping up their visit with the Queen. “We’ve got to do something. What time is the meeting? Maybe we should hit the trail.”
“If you leave now, you should get there just as it starts. There’s usually a little wiggle room at the beginning of these things, what with fitting all those egos into such a small clearing. Now, shoo! Or you’ll miss the drama.”
“Thank you for the honey and hospitality. Both were exceptionally sweet, today.” Bearnice curtsied and backed away, then turned and huffed at her husband. “Come along, Bearnard.” He shuffled a few steps behind, avoiding the earful he was sure to get.
They heard the hubbub long before they reached the clearing, which wasn’t clear at all. Almost every animal from the mountain was there. A fiery, sarcastic voice pierced the din.
“Look back there, owl heads are spinning, mantis heads are spinning. This is going to be so much fun.”
Bearnard recognized that cow grunt. It belonged to Yukon Lucy, that crazy moose from the Northwest Territory.
“We rock ‘n’ rollers and holy rollers, we are mad and we’ve been had, but they tell us to chill, baby, chill…”
Damn if she wasn’t rapping her speeches again. “What’s she doing here?” he whispered. “I hope to hell she’s not running.”
“Shh! I can’t hear. Let’s move a little closer.” They meandered through the crowd much like Lucy’s words meandered to her point.
“…he builds things, big things that touch the sky, big infrastructure that puts other animals to work. It’s an honor to lend my support to the next King of the Mountain, Mr. D.J. Fox! Can I get a ‘Hallelujah!’?”
The crowd roared. At least, the mountain lions did. The other animals cheered in their respective woofs and chirps and croaks and whatnot. By the sheer volume, it was evident to Bearnard that Fox was the frontrunner.
“And we’re gonna give ‘em hell,” Fox said, as he replaced Lucy at the poplar stump. “I just want to thank Yukon Lucy, an amazing moose that I said, from day one, ‘If I’m ever going to do this, I want her support.’” He stopped and blew her a kiss. “Vixens love me, no matter what their species.”
Blitzer Wolf, the debate moderator, quieted the crowd with a howl. “It appears our other two candidates are late, so we’ll use this opportunity to hear from Mr. Fox, the candidate for the Greenbacks.” Blitzer lapped some water, then addressed the big-wig. “Mr. Fox, as you know, the mass migration of desert hares into our valley has the community worried about the food supply. What are your plans if you become King?”
“I’ve already begun implementing my plan as an expansion of my gated community, Fox Mountain Dens. Plain and simple – I’m building a wall around the mountain – and no one builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’m building it inexpensively because I’m not paying the beavers a living wage.”
The beavers, in all their ignorant bliss, rallied.
“Because they know – after I made it up and told them – that when the arid desert drives away its hares, it’s not driving away its best. It’s driving away starving vegetarians that have big appetites and they’re bringing those appetites. They’re bringing their vegan offspring; they’re bringing their vegan friends. They’re ravenous! And some, I assume, are good rabbits with small stomachs, but I speak to voters and they’re telling me they want a wall. Together, we’ll ‘Make This Mountain Quake Again!’”
The animals went wild, then hushed at once, their gazes shifting higher. The famous neurotoxisurgeon, Dr. Spindoctor, representing the Arachnids, slowly dropped from his web to his own poplar stump, his six eyes staring vacantly at the crowd. With his gifted legs, he quickly knitted a spiral-shaped web and spun it in circles before the animals. Thousands of his followers crawled out of the woodwork and chanted.
It mesmerized the crowd. Little by little, they joined in, even Bearnice.
Blitzer Wolf wasn’t as easily swayed, and interceded. “Ahem! Come to order! Order, I say!”
Dr. Spindoctor quit spinning and the chanting subsided.
“Welcome, Dr. Spindoctor. We’re still waiting on the Reverend de Montagne, but we’d like to hear your views on the herbivore situation – and I’d like to remind everybody that the hares consider the term, vegan, derogatory this year.”
Dr. Spindoctor took a deep breath and spoke in a voice that was more the drone of a hypnotist than the boom of a powerful orator. “We don’t have the current ability to properly vet these hares, but I’ve developed a way to curb their appetites with a simple surgical procedure – that is, until Mr. Fox finishes his wall.”
“Surgery? Isn’t that a little drastic? What are the risks?”
“It’s relatively painless, I assure you. I’ve concocted a special serum that I, or one of my many children, will bite…er…inject into their jugulars. The transfusion should only take about thirty minutes and will require a few stitches, but has a wonderful survival rate of 50-60%, depending on our hunger level. Then we’ll put them in their own gated community until the crisis is over.”
“This guy’s a quack,” Bearnard said. “He actually believes the Pyramidal Mountains were silos for food, even after the discovery of mummified animals in the caves.”
“Honey,” Bearnice said, “to him, those mummies were food.”
Their giggles were interrupted by the leader of the Ridges Right, Reverend Chèvre de Montagne, who trotted down the hillside, proclaiming, “May the Great Cloud in the Sky – the one that sends its Mist to float among us – forever reign! I have been to the Mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land! And, according to my vision, that land only includes the Mistian herbivores.”
By this time, Bearnard had listened to all he could take. He stood up on his hind legs and growled, “That’s ENOUGH! Animals, animals…look at yourselves. You’re behaving like a bunch of carnivores.” He turned to Blitzer. “No offense.”
Bearnard continued with his appeal. “If we’re truly going to be a mountain that welcomes the tired, poor, and huddled masses, we have to lead with love – not hate and fear, not with vitriolic words. We have to embrace every animal – not just the ones like us, or the ones we deem worthy. We each play a part on this flat, green earth.” He looked at Fox. “Mr. Fox, have you considered the ecological ramifications a wall and dam would have on the mountain? Already my stream has dried up, and a lake is forming in the eastern gorge. What happens when that fills?”
Mr. Fox shot back. “I’ve already accounted for that. After it reaches capacity, we’ll release water to the valley, keeping it slightly green for the migrants. Don’t you see? It’s a trickle-down method that benefits all.”
That varmint had an answer for everything, and not a one was good.
Bearnard turned to the surgeon. “Dr. Spindoctor, not only is your solution unnecessarily risky, but isn’t that a form of registration? And isn’t your ‘gated community’ really a concentration camp? It sounds like the same thing the Shrews endured in the Old Country. Haven’t we learned anything from our foresires’ mistakes?”
Dr. Spindoctor twirled his spiral web at Bearnard and chanted softly, “Spindoctor, Spindoctor—”
“STOP IT!” Bearnard diverted his gaze and addressed the Reverend. “And you! You should embrace all animals, not merely those who believe in your Cloud. You and your entire flock should be ashamed of yourselves. And weren’t you born on a mountain in the Great White North? Can you even be King?”
The whole clearing was deathly quiet. Bearnard took a deep breath and sighed. “I guess that’s all I wanted to say.”
Fox was the first to respond. “Thank you for your concerns, Mr. Bear. We’ll rectify that, immediately.” A sly grin crept across his face. He eyed the crowd and shouted, “Get him!”
Bernard turned tail. “Run, Bearnice – RUN!”
The animals chased them off the mountain until they disappeared among the migrants below, with Bearnard only suffering a few nips in the behind. He and Bearnice led the hares to a nearby valley where the vegetation was lush, then found their own cozy cave on a new mountaintop. A sparkling stream flowed ten short steps from their door. It was perfect.
The bees kept the two abreast of all the shenanigans on the old mountain. Fox won the election by a landslide and chose Dr. Spindoctor as his second-in-command.
He built his wall and Spindoctor performed his surgeries, and soon, they forced all herbivores – migrant and mountain-born, alike – and anybody else who didn’t agree with them – to undergo the procedure. By autumn, the community had become nothing more than slaves, with one percent of the rich owning most of the mountain.
One day, just before settling in for his winter’s nap, Bearnard felt a jiggle. At first, he thought Bearnice had shaken him, but she was fishing in the stream. He shrugged it off until he heard a rumble from the direction of their old place. Puffs of smoke churned from the mountaintop and all the birds took flight at once.
“Bearnice, are you seeing this?” She nodded in disbelief.
In a single cataclysmic moment, the snowcap blew, and lava filled every Fox Mountain Den. An instant afterward, the dam burst, flooding the parts the lava hadn’t destroyed. The wall that was built to keep strangers out trapped the strangest animals in. Nobody survived the localized apocalypse.
“Well, I guess he really did make the mountain quake again,” Bearnard said, then headed off to bed.
M.L. Swift is a lover of words who squanders away his afternoons arranging them into sentences which, when combined, resemble fiction. He has written articles for Writer Unboxed and The Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and as a caregiver for ten years, plans a novel on his experience. He lives in the Florida panhandle with his two dogs, Rameses and Buster, and spends his nights fighting a losing battle to reclaim his side of the bed.