The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge is an amazing competition (and community) with a fantastic peer crit forum. In round one, 4500 entrants were put in 150 random heats with an assigned genre, character and prompt, and eight days to write a 2500 word story. The top five in each group go on for another round with new assignments, fewer words and less time.
I wound up with Romantic Comedy, an X-ray Technician, and Comfort Food.
CRASH was judged first place in my heat.
An accident prone soup cook collides with an X-ray technician in a messy meet-cute.
Contains saucy tomato, lethal lentil and hot chili.
Time didn’t just stand still as Mina’s car slowly slid across the ice in the hospital parking lot. The seconds crystalized, hung in the air and shattered between the chimes of the left hand turn signal.
The Honda impaled itself on the bumper of a Jeep sporting a Boston Marathon sticker with a gentle crunch. The Thermos on the dash slid with the impact, knocked against the steering wheel and spewed hot liquid down the front of the coat Mina bought yesterday.
She sighed, swore, and turned the blinker off.
The door of the Jeep swung open, and the driver, in scrubs and a navy wool jacket, stepped around the vehicle. She had silver studs down her ears and an up-fade haircut, brown floppy bangs over her brow. Disappointment crossed her features as she peered at her bumper.
Mina rolled her window down. “I have insurance,” she said, cringing at the thought of how much her premium would go up.
“You didn’t even scratch me, but you’ll need a new headlight—oh, shit.” The color drained from the woman’s face and her eyes grew wide—ebony black eyes, and horrified. She grabbed the door handle and wrenched it open. “Are you alright?”
Mina looked down at herself and the steaming red stain covering her clothes. A waft of tomato basil rose from her lap.
“It’s just soup.” She squirmed out of her car, knees together, hoping to keep the liquid off the upholstery. “My lunch.”
The woman stared at her, long eyelashes and messy eyebrows. “You hit your head.”
Mina touched the bruise near her temple. “That’s from yesterday.” The glass oregano jar on the top shelf had fared much worse. She examined her broken light. Maybe she wouldn’t have to call her insurance agent after all, unless— “Do you want my number?”
The woman’s lips twitched, a smile quickly quelled.
“In case there’s something wrong with your car,” Mina said, heat rising from her face. A chunk of tomato slid from her coat to the ground, melting the ice with a hiss.
“It’s a Jeep. It’s fine.” Purple flashed at her collar, RADIOLOGY woven into the lanyard around her neck. She glanced at Mina’s head again, black eyes stealing the sparkle from the snow, from the sun. “You should get that checked.”
“I’m fine.” Mina took her coat off, folding the stain to the inside in a practiced motion, and got back into the car. She steered into the next empty spot without incident.
The parking lot was slushy in the sunlight and icy in the shade. Mina dodged puddles, clutching her apron and visor as she ran to the building entrance, shivering the whole way. An arm, sleeved in dark blue wool, kept the automatic door from closing.
“Thanks,” she said. “So you’re a radiologist?”
“X-ray tech,” the woman said, shaking her head. A man in blue scrubs careened into Mina as he backed through the door, shouting at someone down the corridor. The woman steadied her, palm flat between Mina’s shoulder blades.
“Shit,” the man said, pausing mid-stride. “Sorry, Rob.”
“That’s a radiologist,” the technician said, her voice wry with a smirk. She turned down the hall he had come, and disappeared around a corner.
Mina made her way to the tiny café in the tiny bookstore of the tiny Vermont hospital, and turned on the burners in the shiny new vending cart. She pulled her crocks from the refrigerator underneath, set them to simmer, then chopped fresh parsley and rosemary, and grated a block of cheddar.
At ten-thirty she grabbed a brown paper bag and called across the empty store, “I need to run an errand.”
“You’re not making deliveries, are you?” her boss asked. They were only allowed to sell food in the lobby, so as not to compete with the hospital cafeteria. Most of the staff didn’t even know The Cauldron existed yet, but visitors bought enough bowls to cover the organic ingredients and Mina’s hours. Usually.
“It’s a freebie,” she said.
The purple stripe on the wall led through three sets of doors and three hallways built in three different centuries, ending at an office shining with fluorescent lights.
A boy behind a partition clutched an armload of files, a phone receiver and a plastic sheet with a silhouette of a ribcage. A nurse waited nearby, drumming her fingernails on a tablet. Another phone rang as Mina approached. The youth looked at it in terror, then at Mina. “Can I help you?” he asked, helplessly.
“I’m looking for—” Roberta? Robin? “—Rob.”
“Robby!” he shrieked over his shoulder.
The Jeep owner appeared, and picked up the ringing phone. “Please hold,” she said, taking the files slipping from his grasp. She leaned toward the other receiver in the boy’s hand and said, “Three minutes, Doc,” while scanning a UPC label. She gave a folder to the nurse, then handed the others to someone behind her.
As stillness settled over the room, her eyes fell on Mina. One eyebrow quirked up, and a smile flickered at the corner of her mouth.
“I brought you some soup.” Mina held up the bag.
Rob disappeared, then a side door opened. She cocked her head, motioning Mina to come through, peering inside the offered bag.
“Chicken with Stars? Isn’t that for little kids?”
Mina shook her head. “Soup has no age limits, no political affiliations and no gender preference.”
“You serve soup at the café, and you brought more soup for lunch?”
“I like soup.” She shrugged. “It’s comfort food.”
“Smells good.” Robby set the bag on a desk, next to a picture of women in a kayak, laughing through a spray of water. Another frame held an aerial shot, parachutes dotting the scenery like rectangular flowers. “Thanks.”
She opened another door and ushered Mina inside a dim room—all four walls flanked with equipment—and patted a gurney. “Hop up.”
“I’m really fine,” Mina protested, but she lay on the bed poised at the opening of a machine shaped like a giant donut. Her heart pounded at the intimacy of the dark room and the dark bangs that shifted whenever Robby moved her head, begging for touch. Or maybe her fingers were the ones begging, desperate to know how soft the locks were.
“Any possibility you’re pregnant?” Robby lay a lead blanket over her torso, the weight both comfortable and alarming, like hands molding to Mina’s ribs, her breasts, her collarbone. When Mina shook her head, Robby flicked a switch on the wall, and a green light turned on somewhere, casting emerald sparks into her dark eyes. “Take a deep breath and hold it.”
“I know the drill.” She inhaled, and the inner ring of the chrome donut spun around her head. When it stopped, she exhaled, and the gurney rolled out of the machine.
Robby moved to the computer behind a glass wall, and after a few mouse clicks, she let out a low whistle. “Daaamn. How many times have you cracked your skull?”
“Six, I think. The first time was when I was four. Frontal bone. Thought a bread bowl would make a cool chef’s hat. Chipped my zygomatic bone when I was eight—walnuts in the blender wasn’t the wisest way to shell them, those suckers fly out of there fast as bullets. When I was fifteen, I broke my jaw in two places discovering that long hair and pasta machines don’t go well together.”
“All cooking related injuries?” She lifted the protective cover from Mina’s chest.
Mina shivered at the loss, as if she’d been stripped of her clothes. “No, my last girlfriend broke my nose with a bat.”
The x-ray tech’s eyes grew even darker, if that were possible.
“The bat had to have its wing splinted for two months. The petting zoo wasn’t my best date idea. Has anyone ever told you your eyes look like black holes?”
“What?” A mouse pen slipped from Robby’s fingers as she stilled. “Um. No.”
The strange compliment was also an accident, the words spilling unchecked from her lips, but Mina kept going. “They steal all the light from the room. In a good way. Like if they absorb enough stars they’ll explode.”
Robby blinked. “That sounds disgusting.”
“No, they’ll become new baby stars. That’s why I brought you the soup.”
The woman laughed, broad smile and shaking shoulders.
“Rob, I need you.” The young receptionist stepped into the room, his shoe landing on the pen.
Time passed in slow motion, holding its breath while the machines watched the boy’s foot roll out from under him. He lurched forward, staggering, but Robby grabbed his arm and hauled him upright.
“See? I’m a vortex of chaos.” Mina hopped off the gurney. “My mother calls me her happiest accident. My father calls me a banana peel.”
“You’re more like a butterfly,” Robby said, holding the door.
Mina shook her head as she followed the young man out. She wasn’t graceful or delicate—she was a June-bug, bumbling into porch lights and bashing screen doors.
“The one that flaps its wings and causes a tornado,” Robby called after her.
Mina walked back to the café, both stung and pleased by the teasing, her face hot and her heart beating too hard—as if her soul had been scanned to the bone by the woman with x-ray eyes.
She pushed her cart to the edge of the bookstore’s allotted frontage, and stirred the chili after setting the wheel locks. The lunch rush passed slowly, one bowl at a time with fresh herbs on top, and yes, the crackers are homemade.
At three o’clock she covered her crocks. As she put the cheese into the fridge compartment underneath, a familiar voice grew close—the radiologist, walking backward as he spoke, gesturing with his hands.
Mina called a warning, too late.
Time didn’t just halt as the man stumbled over the tiny portable kitchen, it stopped to take pictures, the moments clicking past frame by frame as he flailed, grabbing the three gallon pot of lentil soup. The tureen upended onto his feet and sailed down the hall on a river of vegan broth—celery and smoked cashew—the lid clanging the floor like a fallen cymbal. The doctor’s balance gave way and he fell to his knees, arms whirling as he slid on the floor, following the pot.
He scrambled on the polished floor, grabbing at the wall, and slipped onto his back, spinning, an overturned turtle. Reaching blind, he pulled himself up by a handhold on the wall. The red lever in his grip gave way as he skidded again, and the fire alarm blared through the building.
The scent of coriander filled the lobby as people flowed out of the corridors. When the crowd ebbed, Mina looked up to find Robby staring back from the hall with the purple stripe, shaking her head in disbelief.
Mina’s face flushed with embarrassment. The x-ray technician was the calm in the eye of the hurricane, helping nurses usher their patients, guiding the traffic leaving the building.
Mina turned away, heading for the utility closet housing the mop bucket. A security guard stopped her on the way back. “We’ll take care of it, Miss. You need to move your kiosk.”
She wheeled her cart outside to the parking lot, where people shuffled around snow plow icebergs, muttering to each other and texting. A cold wind had people rubbing their arms over their chests. Mina shivered and warmed her hands on the chili pot.
“I’d take some of that,” a nurse said, reaching for his wallet.
She ladled a bowl and retrieved the cheese. “On the house.”
Soon her cart was crowded. People in every color of scrubs imaginable, a few patients in gowns and blankets, family with get-well-soon bouquets and it’s-a-boy balloons all wanted a dish to warm their hands and their stomachs.
She was down to four paper bowls and completely out of cheese when a large woman in a chef’s coat—double buttons like a policeman’s uniform—lifted the lid and sniffed the last of the chili. “Turmeric?”
Mina nodded. The cook plucked a plastic spoon and scraped at the bottom of the pot.
She tasted it, and her eyes narrowed. “How much do you charge?”
“Four a cup, seven a bowl. But only in designated vending areas, of course.”
“And for the recipe?” The chef smiled.
Before Mina could respond, a cheer ran through the crowd. The lobby doors opened, and the firemen waved them inside.
“Come see me tomorrow morning.” The cook dug another spoonful with a fresh spoon and walked inside. “I want this on my menu.”
Yellow mop signs dotted the lobby like crime scene markers, but the janitors wouldn’t let her help clean the mess. After her crocks were clean, she took stock of ingredients and made a shopping list. She’d have to start from scratch tomorrow.
She’d lost a huge profit in the spill and the subsequent giveaway, but the entire staff of the hospital knew The Cauldron existed now. Her boss was pleased. Mina waved to the murmured thanks from almost everyone she passed as she left the building.
“Hey, Butterfly. Wait up.” The x-ray tech jogged through the doors, stopping on the edge of the sidewalk.
“You sure?” Mina spun a finger in the air. “I’ve been making tornadoes all day long.”
The dark bangs fell forward, tangling in the long lashes as Robby looked at the ground. “Nothing happens to me. I see all these patients day in and day out—arms broken by lacrosse sticks, concussions by the ambulance load, stomachs with pennies, wedding rings, forks. You don’t even want to know what people will shove up their ass.” She grimaced, and looked over the parking lot. “But I’ve never even broken my toe. I’ve jumped out of airplanes and skied every trail on Killington, Stowe and Sugarbush, and never hit my head once. Or sprained a wrist. The only time I’ve come close to a car wreck was this morning. Today was my first fire alarm.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“I’m not.” She looked up, catching Mina’s gaze. “I don’t want it to stop.”
Elation curled down Mina’s spine and pooled in her belly. “I could make you dinner.”
“Of course!” She grinned so hard her face hurt. She reached up to kiss the woman’s cheek, giddy and flirtatious—and Robby turned her head.
The moment hung in the air between heartbeats as Mina’s kiss landed square on Robby’s mouth. She gasped at the heat of the woman’s lips, and the softness.
Behind them, anti-lock brakes protested, and metal crashed into glass.