Round Two of The 2022 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge Group 72: Spy — an underwater cave — a passport.
Bait and Switch
Contains mohair, reluctant intrigue, and tropical fish.
Gate 87 B of international departures smelled like cinnamon buns, mild panic and hand sanitizer.
Max took a seat on the row of chairs facing the entrance to the pedway that ran under the airport aquarium. Blue light trickled through the water, eddies shifting with shadows of tiger sharks at the other end.
“Are you going somewhere, or coming home?” The woman sitting next to him had fluffy gray hair and a fluffy sixty-ish body. She knitted fluffy yarn with pink metallic needles.
“It’s a work thing,” he said, still irritated he’d been volunteered. He was supposed to be the guy in the basement, tailoring clever tactical gear to missions, not the guy on the mission. And it was an hour and a half past his lunchtime.
“How nice that your work takes you places.” She smoothed the pastel rainbow work-in-progress on her knee. “I’m going to see my grand…kid.”
He scanned the gate area, looking for the agent they promised would be his backup. A businessman with a cheap phone and an expensive watch had the stance of some years in the service, and the flight attendant at the podium held herself like she could stop a military coup one handed, but no one made eye contact beyond the brief half glance of travelers going in the same direction.
The knitter leaned closer with a conspiratorial grin. “They’re a they, now. Imagine growing up in a time when you could wear anything you want, be anyone you want.”
Max wished he was wearing his lab coat. The tinted mousse itched his scalp and the two-inch lifts in his shoes hurt his back. He checked the clock above the arrivals screen.
“Passengers on Delta flight 2756 to Helsinki, you are now departing from gate 12 C,” the announcement crackled over the loudspeaker, right on time. The college kid with the duffel too big for the overhead compartments groaned and swore, drawing too much attention to himself to be Max’s unknown partner.
A man in a red ball cap stepped onto the pedway, pulling a carry-on. Max stood, forcing himself to wait, to recheck his boarding pass, to not gawk at the wideset eyes under straight brows, jowls a little soft for his chin. Max and Ivanov could indeed have passed for twins, enough to foil facial recognition software.
Two men with elbows used to curving around a holster kept pace twenty strides behind.
Max slid onto the pedway, cutting them off before they could step onto the moving walkway, dragging his rolling suitcase behind. He strode quickly, the way his trainer had drilled him the day before, running him through a course marked out in the agency gym with crime tape at handrail height.
He stepped up to Ivanov as they eased through the underwater tunnel, catching the Russian’s carry-on with the wheel of his own. They both spun with a quiet apology, bending to their luggage, a perfect dance with a handoff of ballcap for passport, in the half light of the cave of anemones and coral. Max stood, adjusting the hat brim as Ivanov sped forward, their positions switched. The asylum seeker had been trained in the same move in reverse, Ginger Rogers to Max’s Fred Astaire—though Max was the one in heels.
He leaned on the handrail, his heart pounding. He glanced over his shoulder, at a school of angelfish. The two men, weaving around kids watching a manta ray, grew closer. They were big, with big forearms and big matching neck tattoos.
Max hadn’t been trained in goon combat. He was a tech, not a spy. Where the hell was his contact?
As he stepped off the pedway, rough hands grabbed his elbows on both sides, a flood of Slavic commands hissed into his ear. They didn’t see their true quarry disappearing around a tank of jellyfish.
They hauled Max into a service elevator etched with fish. An aquarium keeper in a jumpsuit sat on the floor, bound with tape and fury. One of the goons swiped her ID and pressed the up arrow.
They pushed Max out, a gun to his ribs. The air smelled of saltwater and sad fish. The floor was a steel grid over the tank, clanging under their heavy feet. Heavy curses accompanied each prod of the pistol, nudging him to the railing over the water.
“I’m not Ivanov.” Max’s voice squeaked with cowardice as he gave up his cover. “I’m just a decoy.”
The Russian swearing didn’t change. He inhaled, waiting for the shove that would send him swimming, but it never came.
His right elbow was released with a muffled grunt. Max pivoted on his heel, slapping the wrist holding the gun downward. The pistol sailed across the floor to rest by a bucket of chum.
The goon flailed, his face and fists bound up in a stretch of rainbow knit scarf. Goon Two lounged in peaceful recline, a pink knitting needle bisecting his neck.
“Good work, Agent Maxwell.” Granny Fluff patted his cheek. “The asset is safely in our custody.”
Max caught his breath as she secured the scarf decommissioning Goon One. “That is quite effective,” he said. “Can one knit Kevlar?”
The tiger sharks circled as blood dripped into the water, turning it orange.
She disassembled the pistol with quick hand movements and dropped the pieces into the tank. “You’d make a good field agent, you know.”
“I think I prefer the basement,” Max said. “Can we stop for lunch on the way out? Concourse A had a seafood place that looked good.”
Round One of The 2022 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge Group 72: Horror — a night court — a mosquito.
Warning: Willie Shakes was a misogynist and antisemitic AF.
The Bard’s Court
Contains tragedy, fairies, and an ass.
The doors open at half past sundown. The sky is mauve and smells of summer.
Mosquito points to her name on the list and is ushered inside with a reminder to turn off her phone.
The gallery is filled, the murmur of gossiping royalty as loud as any hive. She spots two queens in high crowns, four princess tiaras, and an array of dukes—coronets foreshadowing character—from Theseus in shining laurels to Buckingham’s tarnished circlet. As she passes, the Danish prince whispers, “Buzz, buzz.” He’s a brat, but at least he acknowledges her presence.
She waves to Mustard Seed, fluttering in the flower section, but sits on the left, between Cobweb and Moth. Wasp touches antennae in greeting. The night fairies stick together, their ebon iridescence no less jewels than the mortals’ gemstones. They are also born of a queen. Who hasn’t shown up yet.
“Where is Titania?” Mercutio voices her thought as he takes the seat behind them. He nudges Wasp, and winks at Mosquito, making her blush. The Veronese prince is their favorite, with his songs that make the dark fliers dreamy and beautiful.
Cobweb sighs, hearts in all her eight eyes. “I doubt she’ll be here.” Mercutio raises an eyebrow, but she says no more. The Book only allows her five words. Wasp and Mosquito have none, though Wasp, at least, is mentioned by name.
“Mom is on a date.” Moth has the most lines of any fairy, even Puck and Ariel. “He’s a complete ass.” Moth also has the most sass.
Unease knots in Mosquito’s abdomen as their prince’s grin falters. “She should be here,” Mercutio mutters.
“Why are you here?” Moth asks him.
“Tybalt has accused me of consorting with Romeo.” The smirk returns. “Jealous bitch, isn’t he?”
Mosquito is a bit jealous, too. She kisses his cheek, and he doesn’t swat her away. He tastes of sugar and rhymes.
The lights dim, and the masses shift, falling into silent rows at their seats. They stand as the judge enters and sit again when he announces that the moon has risen, and court is in session.
The first cases are quick. The Prince of Naples is sentenced with hard labor as a lumberjack—a trumped up charge, but he’s too love-dumb to care. A few marriages and the Spanish queen’s fast-tracked divorce from her cheating English husband.
Hermia’s case is announced, and the fairies all share a glance–they know her. She lives near their woods. “Her father is really willing to have her executed, rather than letting her marry the boy she loves?” Moth asks, appalled. The Duke of Athens intervenes, and the Book is consulted. The gold letters F-O-L-I-O flash under the spotlight as the cover is opened. “The Bard does give you the option of joining a convent,” the judge says, a finger on the text.
“Chastity or death?” Mercutio’s whisper is a horrified rasp. “They’re the same, are they not?”
“Our honorable judge has a penchant for nuns,” Moth says, proboscis quivering in disgust. “His Honor offered to give Sister Isabella’s brother a stay of execution for her virginity.”
Hermia sobs at the verdict and runs from the room. Only her boyfriend follows to offer her comfort. Mosquito gestures at Moth and Cobweb, and they slide out after the couple, vowing to ask their king to intervene.
Wasp shifts seats, moving closer. They both tuck their wings tight to their bodies, suddenly cold.
The ruling is no fairer for Shylock. Faced with the death penalty, he settles, allowed to renounce his faith instead. His banker’s license is revoked. The gallery sits silent as he signs away his wealth. His wide brimmed hat is yanked from his head, and his curling sidelocks are shorn off.
He leaves, head bowed, stripped of his identity.
Mosquito hates them all, the mortals who say nothing—they have words, and don’t use them. She wipes her tears away, trying to be brave for Wasp.
But the judge’s sympathy has chilled, and her sister is damned by A Winter’s Tale, blamed for a king’s jealous misogyny. Wasp has no lines of defense.
Petruchio objects to the capital punishment. He likes wasps, often calls his wife one. Instead of her head, he suggests cutting off only her tongue, reasoning that was where the worst stings originated.
His expertise of anatomy is lauded, and the judge agrees to the leniency.
Wasp submits. The Book allows her no words for her tongue anyway.
She writhes as the ichor foams from her jaws, pale yellow and glittering with fairy dust. Her wings thrash and scrape the floor.
Pease Blossom faints. Mercutio holds Mosquito back, swearing eloquently, all the curses she cannot: at the judge, the apathetic royalty in their fancy jury box, her missing mother who might have stopped this madness. He falls silent when the judge raps the gavel.
Buckingham stands, pinning Mosquito with a glare. “I seek restitution for damages and loss due to the shivering ague.”
Mosquito hisses. The duke is an ugly man, and his blood had tasted of horseflesh and guile. Behind her, Mercutio lunges for her phone, swiping through the contacts for her mother’s number.
“She gave the moon-calf a case of it too,” a voice calls from the back—Stephano, deep in his cups. “Made him shake all over.”
They were liars both—Mosquito stayed clean. She’d never once tested positive for malaria, Zika or West Nile.
Her phone is shoved into her hands, ringing on the other end. Titania answers, voice full of laughter and flowers. “Darling, hello! Hello?”
Mosquito grips the device, crying.
“All I hear is buzzing—” the Fairy Queen says to someone.
“I’ll Bottom-dial you all night long.” A man brays with laughter.
The phone is wrenched away. She is hauled before the judge, but the Bard has given her no verses, and all anyone hears is her whine.
The car careens around Gooseberry and Third, spattering gravel on my skirt. I spit my grandmother’s curses at the receding taillights–I’d spent days embroidering that hem.
“And what will you give me, for ‘taking the car and that hellish music too’?” A man stands in the intersection, smirking. He’s fiendishly handsome, in hoof-heeled boots, tattered red leather duster, and hair slicked up into horns.
Babula had chastised me for summoning chorts–my first husband was a devil, and my second, too—they always stole a piece of my soul but never stayed.
I eye his clothing. “I can mend your coat.”
“Done.” He licks his palm and extends it. I kiss my fingertips and shake his hand, sealing the bargain. He doesn’t let go. “The ‘always flavorless pierogi’ might cost you more.”
I laugh, my heart spinning a polka in my chest.
He leans closer, his whisper on my neck rough and warm as smoking coal. “I’ll take that skirt.”
I take him home. He takes my clothes, and the rest of me, in the most sinful ways. I darn his coattails while nude, needle flicking stitches under his hot gaze. He’s hypnotized by the flashing silver as the parzenica patterns close the ripped hide with chain-stitched hearts. When I prick my skin, he sucks my fingertip, and other places too.
The next day he’s gone, to make good on our deal, but I’ve sewn my name into his coat in blood, and this time the devil will return.
The man had insisted on the carwash, half-off. “It’s my family business. Drop it off tonight, pick it up in the morning.”
I accepted, though it was my careless elbow that knocked his coffee cup onto my new car.
Now I stood in the empty lot of what used to be Chort’s Suds—the building boarded up and the signs taken down overnight—blinking in shock.
They hadn’t waxed and polished my car—they’d waxed and Polished it.
The sleek Nuova 500 had been transformed into a hideous Polski Fiat, elegant curves pounded square, pillars connecting roof and quarter panels at the hard angles of the Communist regime.
“We’ll get her in shape,” the man had said. I’d nodded and signed the discounted estimate. The pen’s red ink stank of gear oil.
I snatched the copy from the wiper on the front windshield, scanning each capital letter, wincing at my initials ticking the box marked Interior Detailing.
“My wife does that,” he’d said proudly. “She’ll take care of you.”
Embroidered felt covered my car seats, folk-art roses and roosters handstitched on black wool. I’d seen those same designs yesterday morning, on the skirt of the woman who shook her fist when I clipped the corner too fast on Gooseberry Street. My stereo drowned out her curses with rock lyrics.
I slid behind the wheel. A spiced babka air freshener swung from the rearview.
The radio blared as the engine turned. I frantically pressed the buttons, but every station played a Chopin mazurka.
Check out MYTHandSTICH on Etsy–they do gorgeous custom embroidered patches.
Clara sank deeper into the shadows of her neighbor’s garden.
The plague-searcher skulked past, blackened fingertips clutching the white stick she used to prod the dead. The vulture took her pay from the magistrate, though Mother had only succumbed to consumption.
Clara hadn’t coin enough for the truth. Now a red cross barred her door.
She pushed rhubarb leaves apart, peering up the street. Body collectors would soon come calling for corpses, shovels brandished like devils’ pitchforks.
Clara crept back to her open window. She’d share her stolen turnips with the guard posted on her stoop. He kept everyone out.
My short for NYCMidnight’s MicroFiction contest took first place this round! 100 words in 24 hours.I was assigned Historical Fiction, Closing a Window, and the word “buckle.”
Greymalkin hissed from his perch on the sill. Clara shushed him.
The chirurgeon passed below, pushing his cart of medical supplies. His black beak mask and long buckled coat made him a carrion crow. He smelled as foul.
A Latin phrase rang across the street, chastising Clara for the devil’s familiar in her window. The new priest was an avenging angel in white–the fathers washed their robes in piss to keep them clean and holy.
Clara shooed Greymalkin inside, and closed the sash. The doctor said homes with cats didn’t get the Plague, and she’d outlived five priests.
Contains old wounds, an oak tree, and upholstery fabric.
Celia followed her new client down the paved path, clutching her rucksack of swatch books. She’d stitched the bag from scraps of previous upholstering jobs, handy examples of piping, braid, flat-felled seams. One outside pocket held scissors, the other held pepper spray.
“You’re not scared of heights, are you?” Walt called.
“No.” She wasn’t afraid of him either—his wheelchair increased personal space, and gave her a height advantage—though he was handsome, and the interest lurking in his glances made her nervous. She forced herself to make conversation. “I loved climbing trees when I was little.”
His house perched in an enormous oak, twelve feet above the ground. Cedar shingles and mismatched windows met bark at organic angles, as if the tiny cabin had sprouted there.
Walt pivoted at a knobby root, below a disabled parking sign nailed to the trunk. He reached into the branches, piked at the waist and swung his legs up over the next limb in a smooth athletic arc. His body twisted up a higher bough in another fluid movement, then he turned back. “Can I take your backpack?”
She stepped away from the open hand too near her face, swallowing her gasp. His forearms were muscular, intimidating with their masculinity, their power.
Walt’s expression flickered with concern, then understanding. “I can wait down below, if you’d prefer.”
Celia took a deep breath, recovering a piece of herself that had once enjoyed men with strong arms and gentle smiles, and handed him her bag.
My second round attempt at the NYC Midnight 2019 Short Story Challenge won an Honorable Mention in its heat! (Crash, my first place winner last round, is over here.)
The randomly assigned genre was Thriller, the character a Dog Walker, and the prompt was a Bucket List. We had three days to write 2000 words.
The Someday Dog
A dog-walker takes on a St. Bernard sized bit of intrigue. Contains witness tampering, frozen cocktails and Milk-Bones.
The dog park nearest the state capitol has more security than the governor’s mansion. I swipe my clearance card at the gate house, and the guard pokes through my knapsack with latex gloved fingers.
I’m carrying the usual: wet wipes, plastic bags, beef sticks, three tennis balls and a veterinarian’s first aid kit. I sign in on the digital clipboard.
Dolly, the Saint Bernard at my side, thumps her tail. The last un-adopted puppy from her rogue litter tumbles over his own paws. I call him Three. He’s got his mother’s huge head and appetite, but not her brindle coloring. I’d found homes for One and Two last week.
Another guard lets us through the second interior fence. He has a tranquilizer gun on his hip. Here, the lethal weapon is the Speaker of the House’s Great Dane.
A Pharaoh hound—wearing an Armani coat and collar combo that costs more than a semester of law school—does his business in the grass, while the Lieutenant Governor’s wife chats on the phone about her villa in Aruba.
I’ve never been to the Caribbean. Every time I catch up on my student loans I dream about sandy beaches and rum drinks with fruit. Maybe someday.
My phone buzzes with the latest news alert on the latest hearing on the latest scandal. Sen. Caleb denies meeting with Saudi prince in March.
The Riyadh royal is a hot media item—his Wetterhoun took Best Rare Breed last year at Westminster, amid some controversy—only a special kind of jerk keeps a Frisian Water Dog in the middle of the desert.
After a good game of fetch, I get another text: On my way.
I gather up the slobber covered tennis balls, and call Dolly. We have plenty of time to visit the old veteran who hangs out near the entrance. He keeps a box of Milk-Bones in his wheelchair. Three loves him.
A black SUV with tinted windows pulls up to the curb, more stealth-tank than Escalade. The Secret Service driver opens the side door, and the Honorable Senator John Caleb steps from the vehicle with heavy authority.
Dolly woofs a greeting and bounds toward him, but stops at his feet and sits, ears forward. The politician, whose rivals fade into obscurity, or are found at the bottom of lakes, looks almost human as he grins at his dog and rubs her head, the aura of power dissolving into doggy-talk murmurs of “Who’s a good girl?”
He feeds her a biscuit while Three spins in circles and pees on the sidewalk. The senator frowns at him. He still hasn’t forgiven Dolly for getting knocked up by an anonymous suitor. Normally, her pedigreed progeny collect ten thousand a pup, or union favors.
“I’ve found someone for the last one,” he says, nodding to the puppy.
Damn. I’m out of time.
“A girl lost her dog in a fire,” he says. In a neighborhood where he’s campaigning, I’m guessing. “We’re going to make a media moment of it. Can you be there?”
“What time, sir?” I won’t be in any of the photos, with my muddy paw wipes and poo baggies.
“Tomorrow, at four. Shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. We’ll pick you up here.” He ushers Dolly into the van. I place the puppy in next to her, and the driver slides the door closed. The SUV rolls away, tinted windows hiding the world’s secrets.
“I’ve always wanted a big dog like that,” the veteran says. “Maybe someday.” The senator never once looked his direction. He’s got cool tattoos, a sleeve of coyotes howling at a watercolor sunset up his arm.
“I’ve always wanted ink like that,” I say, putting a five dollar bill in his cup, for the Milk-Bones. “Maybe someday.”
Ferdy meets me at the door, puppy barks and nippy teeth and sniffy nose. He’s a bundle of energy, mottled red and white patches, curly fur and curly tail, and huge feet. He doesn’t look like a rescue, abandoned by his mother at a week old. I’d bottle-fed him back to health.
He wrestles with my shoes and brings me his sock monkey for a game of tug of war. When he flops in exhaustion, I call every pet shop in town, until I find a male eight-week-old Saint Bernard Labrador cross, with Landseer markings. Close enough.
I pay a deposit to keep him until the morning, but I don’t sleep that night.
I’ve never been inside the Darth Vader van before. The driver rolls the side door open, and I get in. Three jumps all over me. My heart pounds a million beats a second, and I’m surprised the puppy doesn’t feel my tension. Dolly would have.
The senator is in the front seat, examining his teeth in the vanity mirror. “All set?”
It’s go time. “Yes, sir,” I say, then, as the driver eases from the curb, I squawk. “Oops! Wait, no, he’s going!”
I grab Three around his middle and hold him away from my body while I fumble for the door. He fights me, kicking at my hands and his collar. “Wait, Three! Please, not in the car!”
I hop out of the van and run to the grass, adrenaline surging through my muscles. Three escapes, barreling toward his friend with the Milk-Bones. The veteran nods once at me, then spins his chair so his back is to the SUV. After a quick glance around, he scoops Three up, and says, “Go.”
I lift the blanket on his knees and take the Saint Ber-Lab puppy body double. Unlike his wiggly twin, he obediently lets me clip on the leash. I stand and tell the man, “Thank you.”
“Thank you. I love this little guy.” He hides Three under the cover, and rolls away with a casual salute.
I climb back in the van. The driver is looking at the GPS screen. The senator is digging something out of his molars.
“Sorry about that, sir.”
“Better now than when the cameras are rolling,” he says as the SUV eases off the curb again. He doesn’t notice that Three 2.0 has gained four pounds in the last thirty seconds and smells slightly fishy with the squid ink I’d used to match up their markings.
I inhale, long and slow, forcing my breathing back to normal when no one asks any questions.
The little girl is delighted. The senator beams in the photos, securing another slew of votes.
A black Escalade slides up to my duplex, blocking the driveway. The warm evening goes silent, as if the neighborhood senses a threat.
My guts twist as the driver gets out, scans up and down the street, then rolls the side door open. Ferdy whines.
My door and windows are open to screens, and my lights are on. I’m obviously home. The backdoor only leads out to the front again. I step outside, onto the porch.
Dolly gives a low woof in greeting. She’s told firmly to Stay.
The driver ignores me, but I’m very aware of the pistol holster under his sport coat. Can Secret Service agents be forced to testify? The senator walks toward my house. Beneath my fear, I’m curious if he’s ever been to this end of town.
He halts at the bottom step and looks up at me. “Do we need to have a conversation?”
I fight the reflex to glance back inside my house. “About what, Senator?”
“I found this in the van last night.” He holds up Three’s purple collar. “But in our pictures, that girl is holding a puppy with a collar exactly like this one. I don’t like mysteries, especially in my personal life.”
“I switched them,” I say, hoping to deflect him with partial truths and feigned guilt. “Three isn’t quite housebroken yet, and I’d look bad too, if he had an accident at your photo op, and I knew someone perfect so—”
His gaze skewers me. “Did you sell them?”
“No, sir.” I swallow, hoping I don’t puke on his shoes.
His eyes flick over my shoddy little house, and land back on me, now with pity. “They aren’t worth anything, without breeding documents from the sire. And we don’t know who that is.”
Dolly sniffs at the air from the open door of the SUV.
“You do. You know who fathered them.” Senator Caleb lifts his head, the way a dog scents a trail. “I wondered if it happened on your watch. You were so eager to get rid of the litter for me. Don’t tell me it’s that weird skinny Egyptian hound—“
Astonishment washes over me. He doesn’t know.
My relief lasts two heartbeats, then I’m betrayed by Dolly’s questioning bark.
A joyful answering yip erupts from my house, and Ferdy cannonballs through my screen door. Dolly jumps out of the van, and meets him in the middle of the yard. She sniffs him from tail to ears. He nips her chin and rolls while she noses his belly, her maternal instinct kicking back in, even though she hasn’t seen him for six weeks.
“That’s the runt,” John Caleb says. “I thought she rejected it.”
“She did. I took him.”
“But why all the secrecy? I’d have just given him to you.” He bends to stroke the puppy’s coat, curlier and lighter than his litter twins. Dolly nudges the man’s shoulder as he gently draws Ferdy’s tail out straight and releases it. With a wag, it curls back over the puppy’s spine. “Cute little thing,” he says. “Reminds me of—“
The senator lurches to his feet, staring from Dolly to me to Ferdy. The Secret Service agent snaps to attention as the politician takes a horrified step away from his beloved pet.
“Their sire was a Wetterhoun.” I confirm his suspicions, keeping my voice soft. “How many Frisian Water Dogs has Dolly come in contact with, sir?”
We both know the answer. Only one, and he belongs to a certain Saudi prince the Honorable Senator has sworn under oath he hasn’t met.
He’s eerily calm for a man whose credibility and career are being threatened. “Where are the other pups?”
“They’re in good homes, with people who don’t know their lineage. And that’ll stay that way while we’re safe and sound.” I pick up Ferdy, and snuggle him to my chest, more for my comfort than his. He squirms a bit, then settles in and licks my chin. He has no idea that he’s DNA evidence of collusion, conspiracy, perjury and a whole lot of other things that would land the senator in jail.
He stares at me, brows drawn together. “But why?”
“Consider it witness protection.”
“I wouldn’t hurt a dog!” He’s genuinely offended. He’d send soldiers to war, and refuse to take care of them when they came home wounded or broken, but he’d never hurt a pet.
“I also meant me.”
“Ah.” He sighs, now a man not elevated by power, but bearing the weight of it. “Dammit, Dolly.”
She moves to sit in front of him, her ears pricked forward. Like an automaton, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a kibble treat. She wolfs it down, and he rubs her head. “So what do you want?”
“Well, sir, I have a list.”
Barbados is beautiful at the holidays. I throw a driftwood stick into the waves. Ferdy barks, then jumps into the surf.
The bartender calls from the cantina, and holds up my piña colada. I wave a thanks. The bandages on my arm itch, inked outlines peeking through, waiting their turn for color.
My phone buzzes with a news alert. In a surprise deviation from party stance, Sen. John Caleb approves millions in funding for the Service Dogs for Veterans program.
Ferdy comes back with a completely different stick. I ruffle his fur and throw again. I wonder if he’d like a pal to play fetch with, a Newfoundland, or an Irish Water Spaniel. Maybe someday.
This one was for the NYC Midnight (an amazing writing competition and community with a fantastic peer crit forum) 2019 Short Story Challenge. CRASH was judged first place in the first heat.
CRASH 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.