By day, Katie Coppens is a mild-mannered resident of Freeport, parent of two and teacher of sixth-grade English and science at Falmouth Middle School. She has also written seven science and math books for children, including a series on the seasons in Acadia.

But she just may have a dark side. For her creepy short story, “Filicide: An Eight-Letter Word,” Coppens is the winner of the flash fiction contest “Two Minutes in Quarantine.” Sponsored by the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and now in its fourth year, the contest is always part of the lead up to the organization’s Maine Crime Wave conference  — this year re-titled Maine Crime Online. It asks Maine would-be mystery writers to complete a story from a set opening sentence in 500 words or fewer. This year, New York Times best-selling mystery writer Julia Spencer-Fleming (“In the Bleak Midwinter,” “All Mortal Flesh,” and many others) penned the requisite opening sentence:

“Despite the hints and then the conversation and then the planning, Kaitlyn didn’t think the group was really going to kill anyone until Alex closed their laptop, rubbed their face and said, ‘We’re in.'”

Spencer-Fleming, who lives in Buxton and also served as judge, selected Coppens’ story from among the roughly 50 submissions.

2020 Two Minutes in Quarantine flash fiction winner Katie Coppens Photo by Brendan Bullock

Coppens said this particular challenge – the gruesome subject matter and especially the tight word limit – was far outside her comfort zone. But that was part of its appeal. She believes that taking risks with writing, pushing oneself to explore the craft, is crucial. “Writing is writing,” she teaches her students. “Good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of genre.”

The winning story “formulated and came together in my mind as I was writing it,” Coppens said. “When I began it, I didn’t know it was going where it went.” At some point, though, she found herself thinking about a parent killing a child. She Googled the idea, and encountered a word that was new to her: “That word – filicide – that became the inspiration for the story.”

Coppens is a parent herself. “When I won this, my (7-year-old) daughter said, ‘Oh can you read me what you wrote?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. Maybe someday, but this one is more for adults.’ ”

Despite the grim subject matter, Coppens said she had fun writing the piece. And she hopes her story isn’t merely clear-cut crime fiction, but that it gets readers thinking about morality and family relationships. She was inspired by “Defending Jacob,” a 2013 novel in which an attorney defending his son, who is accused of murder, begins to wonder if the son is guilty after all and to consider how far he is willing to go to save the boy.

Ultimately, Coppens found the word limit “empowering. I think I would have been tempted to make it bigger and longer. I had to figure the challenge of giving it closure in such a short amount of words.”

Read on to see the surprising way she did just that.

Robert Kelley of Port Clyde took second place in the MWPA Two Minutes in Quarantine contest, and Mark Weston of Belfast came in third. On June 25, all the winning entrants were part of a Maine Crime Online virtual reading, along with a number of well-known Maine thriller writers.

“Filicide: An Eight-Letter Word”

By Katie Coppens

Despite the hints and then the conversation and then the planning, Kaitlyn didn’t think the group was really going to kill anyone until Alex closed their laptop, rubbed their face and said, “We’re in.”

“So it’s decided,” Jordan says, holding back a smile. “She dies tonight.”

“Tonight,” Kaitlyn whispers. She looks at her phone and sees 3:38 p.m. In a few hours, her daughter will be dead.

Alex reaches for Kaitlyn’s hand and kisses it. “Kait, we can do this.”

Kaitlyn looks at Alex’s fingers intertwined in her own and gently squeezes. It’s the same squeeze of support that she’s given for decades. Despite all the challenges they’ve faced, Kaitlyn never imagined she’d support murder. Yet, they both know that this is their only option.

“It’s called filicide if either of you do it,” Jordan offers. “It’s called sororicide if I do it.”

“What?” Kaitlyn asks sharply.

“You and your words,” Alex sighs.

“Filicide was an eight letter word in a crossword. It means to kill your own child. It got me curious so I looked it up. I knew fili means son in Latin and cide means killing. I thought it meant killing your son, but it doesn’t. It means killing your own child. Fil means thread, so maybe it’s like kids are threads of you that you kill and cut yourself free from?”

Kaitlyn squeezes Alex’s hand.

Jordan continues, “So will it be filicide or sororicide? Sorori means sister, like a sorority, that’s easy to remember. Killing your own sister. I looked up some facts and most of the times moms kill little, little kids like babies, not kids Sara’s age. So I think you should do it.”

Jordan nods at Kaitlyn.

Kaitlyn takes her hand from Alex’s and shifts in her seat.

“No offense, Mom, but you’re the crier in the family, which will help you. I’d come across as cold to the police, plus the whole sibling rivalry thing. I’ve been thinking about ways. Sara hates blood. Remember that time the puppy died when we were little and Sara threw up when she found him in her room. If it’s really bloody no one would suspect you. You’re a nurse; nurses aren’t violent. I guess there’s no right or wrong answer here.”

“No right or wrong answer here,” Kaitlyn snaps. “I’m sorry, Alex, but I have to change the plan.”

“Follow the plan, Kaitlyn,” Alex says reaching for her hand.

“I…I need to go,” Kaitlyn grabs her purse and moves toward the door.

Alex pleads, “Not yet.”

Kaitlyn turns back. She reaches in her purse, pulls out a syringe, and plunges it into Jordan’s neck.

Alex catches Jordan as she falls and carefully places her on the ground.

Kaitlyn kneels beside Jordan and holds her hand. She instinctively monitors her pulse as it slows down.

Jordan mumbles while holding back a smile, “I was wrong about filicide. I wasn’t a thread of you. You were a thread of me.”

Kaitlyn nods, “Yes, and now we’re free.”

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