Today we are excited to publish the winner of our 2021 Flash Fiction contest. We received nearly 350 submissions and our judge, Dan Crawley, chose “Collapse” by Justine Gardner. She will receive a $500 cash award plus $25 (our regular submission acceptance rate).
Dan had this to say about Justine’s flash: “It is a brilliant metaphoric tale, revealing the menace of the elements and the struggles of life, and how the “we” characters attempt to protect themselves from disaster. I returned to this story numerous times over the weeks, marveling each time I read it, noticing new aspects of the story that enthrall me.” We will share more of Dan’s thoughts tomorrow in our Editors’ Note, as well as reveal the top two finalists. Congratulations to our winner, Justine, and many thanks to all the writers who submitted work to our contest.
by Justine Gardner
It was late afternoon, quiet and windless, when we heard it. A thump, like the closing of a hundred car doors at once. And then, the shrieks of birds rising from the direction of the zoo.
Some of us were huddled inside our homes at the time, listening to the weather reports, concerned over the rising costs of heating oil. Continued snow and cold. Some of us were sorting the laundry, scolding the children into silence, reheating meat loaf for an early dinner. Others were outside, spreading salt, shoveling the snow, counting the remaining pieces of firewood under the tarpaulin.
But we all heard it. Slippers were chucked for boots and we ran outdoors, looked up. Spots of red and blue and orange flickered through the snow-heavy sky. Incan gulls, mynas, bright macaws, tropical curassows, tiny pink-breasted lovebirds. All in a scattered swarm above our houses, and the park, and the remains of their snow-wrecked aviary. Upward, they forced themselves, pushing like unleashed balloons against the sudden, unexpected cold.
Of the thirty-three birds released that day, only two were recovered alive. Of that pair—a crested myna and a spot-billed pelican—the myna alone survived. And an estimated twenty-six additional birds had been trapped the instant the roof collapsed, caught in the tangled mess of their former cages. Some had died immediately — the rest succumbed before we understood the true state of their emergency.
Afterward, we all began to bundle up more carefully; we de-iced our driveways with a studied thoroughness. We swept the snow from our roofs, and checked their supports for structural soundness. We dragged in contractors for their opinions and estimates.
Still, despite these preventative measures, I knew we held on to our doubts and passed similar nights in our separate, insulated homes. Sleepless and edgy, too warm under the blankets, we would lie there, listening to the wind, the crackle of cars on salted roads. Our eyes would follow every shadow on the wall, each flicker of a passing headlight — seeing a red bird’s wing, a falling blue feather. And then, just as we would reach into the dark for sleep’s slipping hand, there would come a thump of snow dropping from tree branches to rooftop. We’d stiffen, breathless, and stare at the ceiling. And we would wonder, each time, about the sensation of total collapse.