Unrequited Wings


Only Forward
Jul 14, 2008
I entered the current NYC Midnight writing challenge, but failed to progress past the first round. You recieve an assignment and have 24 hours, and 500 words, to come up with a short story that satisfies the 3 specied elements. Mine were:

Fairy tale or fantasy, floating, overcoat.

I'm posting my entry, plus the required 1 or 2 line synopsis, to see what you think ahead of the judges feedback.

Above Flanders fields a World War One pilot faces death, only to encounter an unexpected ally.

My Sopwith was dying. A funeral shroud streamed from its bullet-ridden engine, smoke and spray reducing my flying goggles to a smear. I was a good pilot, talented, but the port wing strut was one turn away from failure.

Time to go.

My squadron had not issued parachutes as – apparently - they encouraged pilots to abandon damaged but still viable aircraft. So much for parsimony. I unbuckled, heaved my body up, kicked away from the edge of the cockpit.

Tore off my useless goggles, gave myself to the sky.

For a moment my overcoat billowed, holding me up like a leaf on the wind. The surrounding battle returned – the whine of aero engines, chatter of machine guns – but it was no longer real, immediate. Cloud whipped around me, drawing a curtain on the world, and then…


No sense of falling, of air rushing past. My coat remained inflated, as stiff as starch. The cloud drew back such that I was left inside a milky-white shell. An illusion, but one I prayed would last as long as possible. Maybe all the way to the ground.

The bottom button on my overcoat burst free and hung there, tumbling end-over-end.

Music. Four notes, as from a glockenspiel but softer- a celesta. Repeated, followed by a woodwind growl.

“You silly ass!”

A girl’s voice; light, trilling. I turned towards the sound, in mid-air, as easily as standing on firm ground.

The second bottom button on my overcoat burst free and hung there, tumbling end-over-end.

There was a spark in the cloud wall facing me. It pulsed; a glow then fade, but returning stronger each time. The light spread in tendrils from a central point, defining a shape, a form…

A face.

Tinker Bell. As clear as day, straight from the illustrated Peter and Wendy I’d read to my children as a distraction, while their mother lay in hospital.

The next bottom button on my overcoat burst free and hung there, tumbling end-over-end. One left.

She smiled; a smile to gladden the heart, even mine. “Do you think Fate so cruel as to deny a child both their parents? Love and loss pay dividends, you know, in the long run. Now, all you have to do is close your eyes. I’ll make the wish for you.”

I closed my eyes, heard a button pop.

Straw. Prickling my exposed skin, the feel of it under my collar. Blue sky above me when I looked, crossed by duelling gnats.

“I say, are you quite all right up there?” A woman’s voice, light, with an underscore of amusement.

I turned towards the sound, rolled, tumbled from the haystack to land, kneeling, at her feet. A nurse, pretty, God, so pretty. Somehow familiar but...

She held out her hand. “Jane Wren, but my friends call me Jenny.”

I took her hand, kept holding it after she helped me to my feet. “Flight-Officer Hoban Chance. My friends call me, well, ‘Second’”.
I liked it a lot! I liked especially
  • The imagery of the shroud
  • marking time with buttons coming off
  • a bit of surrealism in the middle
  • backstory at a crucial moment
  • a nice cheesy ending, predictable but not the only kind of ending, so it kept me guessing until the end
100% agree with msstice. Keeping time with buttons was a great touch.

It does a lot in 500 words and I would absolutely read more of this.

Nitpicking to try and find things the judges may have not been keen on,
  1. Is Peter Pan a fairy tale? During WW1, Peter Pan/The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up would be about 14 years old?
  2. Did pilots wear overcoats (My brain goes to WW2 and bomber jackets, but I know that isn't relevant.)
  3. Goggles bit at the start --
    1. My goggles were a smear, followed by a visual indicator that would be hard to note if he couldn't see
They're nitpicky, but trying to offer something. Really liked it!
Very well written! And very enjoyable to read also.
Historically accurate in the Petter and Wendy (Book came out in 1911) and Sopwith Camel/WW1 arial dog fight (1917-1918) goggle and face sprayed with fuel and oil. And nice timing of the usage of the buttons on the long coat/overcoat too.

With all of this in mind, the story gave me the impression that his wife passed away a year earlier, as the memory of Petter and Wendy was still strong in his mind. His bailing out and seeing Tinker Bell I took as wishful thinking, a hopeful memory on the MC part until the hook. I was expecting it and was glade to read it.

Great job, and good luck!
I like your writing style. Just an FYI.
I enjoyed this. I felt a sense of wonder from the story and it feels larger than a 500 word effort. Some minor nits. I didn't really get the reason for the buttons popping off the jacket and I kept waiting for an explanation. I also felt that the story was a little choppy and this disrupted my engagement. It may be a formatting issue as there are repeated one and two line paragraphs. Perhaps some of those could be merged to allow more of mixture of long and short. The final pun felt a little forced and unnecessary; it could have been dropped without affecting the story at all. I liked the imagination shown in the story and it did a marvelous job of pulling me in and keeping me interested. Very good job in 500 words!
Well, if I were the judge and I would get into nit-picking mode (as you might expect the judges will), it would not be overly difficult to find some issues to prevent it from getting int the next round. I imagine the NYC Midnight challenge would not be as lenient towards theme and influenced by personal preferences as our Challenges tend to be. <cough>
1. the 3 elements
Was it fantasy, apart from Tinker Bell's appearance? Can you describe falling from the sky, even when restraint by parachute or overcoat, to be like floating? Isn't it a bit forced? I like the image, but would a jury? The life-saving function of the overcoat, as long as 4 buttons lasted, was a nice element.
2. unnecessary errors.
"My squadron had not issued parachutes as – apparently - they encouraged pilots to abandon damaged but still viable aircraft." Shouldn't that be discouraged? or 'not to abandon'?
Further - but I could be wrong here - have I doubts whether you would not feel the air rush by, certainly as it did strain the buttons of the overcoat. Also, once freed, would the button with less air resistance not fall faster than the pilot?
3. prose
There were some issues here, but I have no idea how a judge would see it.
"My Sopwith was dying. A funeral shroud streamed from its bullet-ridden engine, smoke and spray reducing my flying goggles to a smear. I was a good pilot, talented, but the port wing strut was one turn away from failure."
You love it or you hate it. Personally I found the this piece a bit forced. The bit about being a good, talented pilot was unneeded here and might work against you. Smoke and grey may reduce your goggles useless, not 'to a smear,' but covered by a smear.
4. the ending.
Well, thank you Tinker Bell! Not only saves she the pilot, she also puts him straight away into the attention of one Jane Wren. For me that was a bit too much. Some may like it, though. But I think that if his loss and being a single parent had played a part at an earlier point in the narrative it would have worked better.
As we always say about the Challenges, the competition is tough. Good might not be good enough. I imagine that won't be any different with the NYC Midnight Challenge.

An Amateur Judge
My thanks for the interest and comments, I'm a wee bit rushed at present so will reply properly later. I've now received the judge's feedback, which is posted below. I believe the numbers in brackets refer to their anonymous ID. One quick comment Jane (or Jenny) Wren was the 'actrress' credited with being Tinker Bell on a theatrical program - check the Wikipedia entry for more details.

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY - {1967} The premise of combining a fairy-tale with a historical setting is intriguing. Using more vivid and varied descriptions could enhance the immersion in the story and improve the reader's experience. {2151} The line about pilots not being issued parachutes because it would tempt them to bail out of damaged planes shows the protagonist’s character — including his ability to be droll even in the face of death — and grounds your fey story in the harshest of realities: bureaucratic power.

The popping buttons are an excellent touch. They’ll have readers wondering whether the pilot might slip out of his coat. It’s a nice way to play with readers’ tension.

Great ending — and the nickname is so very apt.

The whole piece has the air of a WWII film. One can almost see and hear it. Nicely done. {1963} Lovely prose and a nice simple story. I'm reminded of Porco Rosso and its blend of historical fiction with fantasy to create a singular texture. You temper the more fanciful descriptions with grounded conflict, such as the hard cut to "You silly ass!", and this contrast keeps the prose fresh and engaging.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK - {1967} Whilst promising, the story lacks in-depth character development and cohesive transition between genres. By integrating the fantasy element more naturally into the storyline and providing additional background on characters, the material could be significantly improved. {2151} The ending left me bemused.

The fairy says it would be cruel to deprive a child of both parents. This implies that the pilot is a father and a widow. With the mother gone, he’s the last half of both.

After he lands, though, the story reads as if the protagonist were a young man meeting his future bride.

If one reader is baffled, then some other readers will be, as well. For that reason, I’d recommend either revising the fairy’s comment to remove the father/widower implication, or revising the ending to clarify what’s going on between Jenny and Second… although he’s going to have to change that to Third.

I don’t know that you’d have to cut anything. With the strength of your writing, I lean towards the belief that you could fix this by rewording one or another line. {1963} Fate has had no problem doing away with both parents of many people in the past, so this claim rings a little false!

The final line also doesn't quite land for me. "Second" could be amusing, but it hasn't yet been set up. The poetic shape of the story means that you could easily end at the word "amusement" and the reader would still come away with the idea that Chance will end up with this woman.
OK, I’ve emptied the half-full coal bunker, taken some of the bags to a friend, and had my tea...

In terms of some of the points raised, and in no particular order...

I don’t know how to describe the manifestation of Tinker Bell as other than fantasy.
The damage to the wing, and its resulting structural instability, came before the oil spray.
In the days of open cockpits pilots had to dress against both the elements and low temperatures at altitude.
The overcoat inflating as an ersatz parachute, and causing the wearer to momentarily hang in the air, is taken from an account by a WW1 pilot or observer who witnessed it (can’t remember) the other pilot then plummeted to Earth.
The natural instinct (or ethos) of a pilot is to stay with his aircraft and get it down safely. I phrased the lack of parachutes that way so as to not infer any cowardice on the part of the narrator.
The pilot freezes in his fall, and remains floating in the air, encircled by cloud. The popping buttons hang in the air as well, to emphasise the supernatural situation he finds himself in.
The light, musical notes and ‘silly ass’ are taken from the early theatrical representation of Tinker Bell.
The inference I wanted is that the nurse is Tinker Bell made flesh.


As this was a 500 word ‘done deal’ I wasn’t planning on tweaking it further, but thanks for the feedback and suggestions.

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