The rules were simple—write a complete story about the photograph below, using exactly 200 words. Not 201 or 199. Precisely 200 words.
Writers from around the world accepted this challenging assignment, sending us a mountain of entries. Then our team of screeners/pre-judges whittled those short stories down to a list of twelve well-told tales.
The top dozen stories were then sent to our renowned contest judge, NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 50 Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense novels, Brenda Novak.
Brenda then read each of the stories and subsequently selected a winner and runners up.
Congratulations to everyone for jobs well done!
Here are the top twelve entries, starting with the contest winner, Frank Cook!
Remember, the focus of each story was based on the photo below.
So, without further ado …
The Last Look Back
“I show it to all my clients,” Karen told the woman standing in her office. “In the background you see a dead and decaying forest, then this old rickety bridge leading across to this side. I call it, ‘The Last Look Back.’”
The woman shrugged. “I don’t get it.”
“My clients come to me with, how should I put it? ‘Disappointing marriages.’ I make things better. I point to this photo. It represents what they had. A once young and caring relationship that has grown old and dry. And this old bridge,” Karen confided. “It represents their fear of crossing into the future. Can they trust their emotions? Their own decisions? Will they be ok?”
Karen smiled. “It is my job to bring them out of that forest and across that dangerous bridge. This photo is the last time they ever need look back on their past.”
The woman nodded and felt for something in her jacket pocket. “On the other side of that bridge,” she pointed. “And a little bit into that forest. We found six decomposed bodies there this morning.” She pulled a badge from her pocket. “Including your husband you reported missing.”
* * *
Bridge to Nowhere
I am an old footbridge, and in my time I have experienced some things. When I was young, many traveled over me. Sometimes, children tossed pebbles to watch them fall. Once in awhile, young lovers hugged, gazing at the rocks and rushing river below. Those were good times.
Lately, most people use the highway bridge downriver, and it has been lonely. Six daytimes ago, I had visitors, a man and a woman, but they were arguing, and I was glad they hurried across. They came back two nights past, and this time they were quiet. The man was carrying the woman, which at first I thought was considerate. But he laid her down, in the middle of my span, and then something terrible happened. The man dropped her body into the rushing torrent below and ran away. I felt anger at my powerlessness then, and wondered what could be done.
Tonight he is back, running from pursuers, and I am ready. He is almost half way across – there, I snapped my rusted support cables, right in the middle. It will also be my end, but after all, I am old and the man will not be missed.
* * *
The Open Road
That voice. His voice. Echoed throughout the valley. Time was running out.
I was thumbing a ride when a pickup truck blew past me and stopped. The driver rolled down the window and smiled. “Didn’t yer mama ever tell you not to hitchhike?”
She had. I got in anyway.
“The open road ain’t safe for a pretty, young thing like you.”
“I’m not scared.” I shivered.
“You should be.” He laughed.
When the truck stopped, I ran. Brambles cut my legs. Branches slapped my face.
I hid. Had I been here before? If only I could remember…
“ONE! COME OUT, COME OUT, WHEREVER YOU ARE!”
The game was on.
I ran. My lungs burned as the old bridge appeared. Just a few more steps…
A shot rang out. I halted.
The bridge swayed and creaked as he approached.
When he lunged, I ducked. A scream pierced the valley.
I looked down the hole at his twisted body and laughed. “Didn’t yer mama ever tell you not to pick up hitchhikers?”
My work here was done. The open road beckoned, and I was itching to hitch another ride.
And, rounding out the top twelve, in no particular order, were …
Entry #30-Vinnie Hansen
Bridging the Gaps
The bridge swayed. Mark’s stomach lurched. White knuckles gripped the cable. “I never thought you’d come back here.” He shouted over the noisy river rush.
“What about you?” Erin’s face turned up, gorgeous green eyes searching his. “Samantha was your friend, too.”
Friend. Erin’s tone made Mark avert his eyes toward the trees. “But you were actually here, Erin. How awful.”
Erin sidled closer and wrapped an arm around him. “The scene of the crime.”
“Crime?” Sammi had acted impulsively the newspaper said, standing on the rail, leaning far out, blonde hair whipping, breathing in the ozone. Alive. “It was a horrible accident.”
His heart pounded. Erin had been the newspaper’s source. What was she telling him?
Hardness in Erin’s jacket pressed Mark’s side.
In the distance, the bridge dumped into a dark hole in the forest. Sammi’s spirit had exerted a force, drawing Mark from Erin. His wife. A rock below had crushed Sammi’s skull. “Sammi was a mistake.”
“Yes,” Erin murmured.
He pivoted toward her. “You knew?”
He gulped. “But it was an accident?”
“A terrible accident.”
Erin backed away and pulled out a hammer.
The truth hit home with a thud.
Over the River and Through the Woods
“Team Building” day consisted of hiking Black Bear Mountain and promised scenic views from a rustic footbridge. And possibly bears.
Before we’d gone ten yards, I became a mosquito magnet. Moreover, my boss and “teammate” insisted I carry his backpack due to his bad back.
We brought up the rear of six pairs, stopping frequently so John could check for landmarks, and I could gasp for air.
“The footbridge should be just ahead. Give me my roast beef.”
I pulled a sandwich from his pack and handed it to him. The smell wafted heavily on the humid air. “Aren’t you afraid of bears?”
He waved me off.
Out of sight, I called up an app on my phone. Once we resumed hiking, I hit play and John sprinted ahead at the sound of a growling grizzly.
I laughed until I cried, when a text came in.
AVOID FOOT BRIDGE. BEARS IN AREA.
“John! Wait!” The backpacks slowed me down. I arrived as John encountered a bear on the other side of the footbridge.
I hated to admit it, but the Black Bear Mountain brochure was right. The view really was spectacular.
* * *
It was not the same bridge. Totally different construction. My brain registered that fact, but the fear that lay deep in my bones and muscles rose unbridled by reality.
Home lay across that bridge. Home, peace, and Grandma’s peach cobbler. Downstream the pond waited for me, cool and refreshing. Ready for me to jump in naked, washing away the pain and soothing the scars.
My brain knew that. Knew that beyond that bridge I’d soon be enveloped in the love of my children and my husband. I knew how sturdy that bridge was, how it could support all of us and all the food we could tote. I smiled, remembering how we pondered each purchase, determining if it was worth the haul across the bridge and up the hill beyond.
That other bridge had been longer, stronger, built from concrete, built to last. Until an IED had destroyed it and most of my squad. Since that day I had been unable to cross bridges.
A cold, wet nose pressed against my fist and a soft, warm body leaned into my side.
“I can do this.” I stepped onto the wooden planks, my dog beside me.
* * *
“Yes, little one.”
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
“No one is going to hurt you.” My large hand gripped her small one tightly as we moved on the swaying bridge. Her palm was soft. Her bones delicate.
Looking down, I gave her my best toothy smile. “I promise.”
The planks groaned under our footfalls.
Glancing back over my shoulder, I could barely make out the three filled sleeping bags at the edge of the trees in the dying embers of the camp fire. The fourth bag was empty.
My feet picked up speed, urging us both forward.
“They will come for me,” she hissed defiantly. “They’ll take me back.”
I didn’t answer her.
The cold river rushing below masked the pounding of my heart.
In the moonlight, I watched her free hand dance across the rough hewn railing. Her manicured nails were painted a fierce pink.
“They were a nice family,” my sister said.
My free hand hung down at my side. I still clutched the sharp knife. As we walked, I imagined I could hear every time a droplet of coppery blood fell from my blade and spattered the bridge.
* * *
Tillie bolted across the rickety footbridge, a drawstring bag of gold slung across her back.
“Do you think we lost him?” Sue called to her sister, not slowing to look back.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. Keep running!” Tillie replied.
Halfway across the bridge, Tillie’s foot caught on a rotten plank, and she fell hard. Sue caught up with her, gasping for breath. Cannonball Churchill clomped after them, his black boots shaking the bridge with each step. The pirate wanted his gold back and wasn’t going to let a couple of girls outsmart him.
“Sorry we stole from you, sir,” Tillie shouted as she tied the sack to the bridge’s railing. The girls took off for the safety of the forest.
Cannonball stopped to untie the bag, his large hands struggling with the knots. The rotten planks creaked beneath the pirate’s feet and splintered. As his legs broke through the boards, he grasped at the wood crumbling around him. Plunging into the churning river below, he was whisked down to the sea.
Avoiding the bridge’s hole, Tillie tiptoed to the sack, untied it, and ran. Girls are much lighter—and much trickier—than pirates.
* * *
Walking on the wooden suspension bridge over Benson Creek in the pre-dawn chill, Thomas counted each plank. Stopping at seventy-five, he turned toward his colleague, Hidalgo.
“Here,” Thomas said, “put ‘em here. Set ‘em at eight hundred.”
Hidalgo placed three homemade contact-mines on the decking. “Why eight hundred? Pack mules weigh a lot more, especially loaded with gold.”
“Not taking chances.” Thomas paused. “This job means I can move my family to town. They deserve the best.” He smiled. “My boys are working on their Orienteering Merit Badges today.”
“But what if someone—”
“Been watching. Company goons will arrive in about an hour to search for wires and dynamite. This early, there shouldn’t be any foot traffic. Besides, it would take a large group walking together to detonate these beauties.”
The duo camouflaged the devices and hid to await their prey. Shortly, just as the guards arrived, a group of young men dressed in khaki and green started onto the span marching in double-column, like an infantry platoon. Scouts.
Thomas jumped up and screamed. “Stop!” His face went numb.
As the explosions echoed through the valley, Thomas slumped to the ground and wept.
* * *
The world looks different when you’re hanging upside down by your ankles.
If Carl hadn’t been so obsessed with authenticity, he wouldn’t be in this situation. He was building the wine list for his farm-to-table restaurant and heard rumors that a whiskey called Lone Bridge was the smoothest. So Carl headed into the sticks of Georgia to look for the distillery’s secret location. He didn’t know the liquor business was just a front for the owner’s gun running operation. When Carl got halfway across the bridge, he was met by a group of men carrying rifles.
“I think we caught us a spy. Who you working for, boy?”
“No one. I’m a chef.” That drew laughter and earned him a few punches.
“Don’t that sound fancy.”
They held him and searched his belongings. Carl spotted a flask in the leader’s pocket and fear gave way to curiosity. “Can I have a sip of that?”
“Why not?” He tipped the flask to Carl’s mouth. “Good, ain’t it?”
Carl nodded as the men lifted him over the side of the bridge. Smoky with hint of spice. It really would have been perfect.
* * *
The Drako moons rose high as Coolidge dangled by his legs beneath the rickety suspension bridge. Sweat stung his eyes, and his abdominal muscles burned as he swung up and caught a guidewire with his left hand.
In his right, the remote activated blasting caps.
“Easy,” Holden called out from below.
“Shut it,” Coolidge said, too focused on the job to slap any heat behind it.
“Remember what happened last time?”
Why wouldn’t Holden let it go? “Nothing happened.”
“Exactly. Get this right, or we’re all dead.”
Coolidge attached the caps to the explosives. He panted through the strain on his core, completing the connections, and syncing his quantum controller. “It’s right.”
The ground shook as the platoon of Dragoons broke through the trees and stormed toward the bridge.
“Let’s go!” Holden panicked and squeezed off three rounds from his CytoBlaster. A Dragoon vaporized. Then another.
Coolidge fast-roped down under a barrage of return fire. They scrambled over the muddy bank, ducking behind cover. Coolidge energized his wrist-mounted detonator. He hesitated.
Blood pounded behind Coolidge’s eardrums. His throat went disaster-dry. “I can’t remember the passcode.”
* * *
She stared at the end of the bridge. Home lay at the end. The little cabin behind the trees. Her husband waited there for her. He was angry with her again. This time it was dinner. Too hot or too cold or too spicy. Too something, for sure. He had yelled at her, beat her and then got drunk. And then he fell asleep. And she had walked down the bridge.
He had woken up a few minutes ago. She could hear him calling her as she stood on the bridge. The bridge that would lead her home or to freedom. He never allowed her to be on the bridge. She was excited and scared. The bridge meant freedom. Or home. But, freedom… He would take her to bed and punish her. The last time he did that, she lost the baby.
He called her again and she turned around. And took one step. Off the edge of that broken bridge, many hundreds of feet above the ground. And, as she took that step, she wondered if they would think he had pushed her off the bridge and would punish him. And then she didn’t care anymore.