Once again, I decided to take up the Short Story Challenge held by NYC Midnight. With this contest, you are given a genre, a character, and an object/situation/location and you have to write a story containing all those things. The entrants are divided up into heats and each heat has a different set of prompts. For this challenge, there were over 125 heats and my heat had 32 writers in it. We were tasked with writing a romance that involved a music teacher and something allergic. The maximum word count was 2,500 words and we were given a week to write it.
Now, I don’t do romance. I don’t read romance and I certainly don’t write it. I admire the hell out of the people who do, though, because I just can’t get my brain into that mindset. I’m too bitter and jaded, quite frankly. And I rarely write Happily Ever Afters (HEAs), which are a requirement for a romance story. And now I was supposed to write one? That’s just great. /s/
The results of the first round came out last night and to my great surprise, I placed 4th in my heat. The top 5 advance to the next round, which begins tonight and will require a 2,000 word story with new prompts in 3 days. There goes my weekend.
Anyway, here is the story that got me through Round One. One of the judges commented: “The writing is confident, sharp, and focused. The prose is polished and crafted with expertise. Your premise is engaging, intriguing, and fairly well-developed. The characters have dimension and the dialogue is plausible. You’re certainly a very gifted writer. Good work.”
I have gone through the story this morning and corrected a few errors the judges pointed out, so the word count is now above the maximum of 2,500. The ending is rather abrupt, but that’s a limitation of the word count. I’m sure you’ll forgive me, yeah?
A TWICE-PLAYED MELODY
I heard his music before I ever saw his face. Plaintive guitar chords floated out into the hallway, soft but soothing enough for me to hear over the usual noise of the hospital. Whispered conversations, shoes squeaking on the tile floor, the regular beeping of IV pumps and heart monitors, faded into the background as my ears reached for the melody from down the hall.
“That’s pretty music.” I flipped through the charts on the desk. Mesker, Mesker, where was….Oh, there it is.
“Hmph. It’s distracting.” The nurse next to me rolled her eyes. She was always rolling her eyes at something. Damn, Irene, loosen up. It’s just music.
“Who is it?”
Irene jerked her chin towards the end of the hall. “Down there. Sad, really. Nora Mesker. That’s the husband playing his guitar. Thinks it’s going to bring her back.”
Nora Mesker. The chart in my hands and the gossip at the nurses’ station had filled me in on the tragedy that had happened: a remote company retreat, a bee sting, no Epi-Pen, hypoxia. Deep breath, Meg. It’s always so hard to start on a new patient under these circumstances.
The door was cold as I pushed my way into the room. The sound of the guitar wrapped around me, tugging at something deep inside, like an old memory almost forgotten.
The figure on the bed was inert, surrounded by tubes and wires, only the rumpled blonde hair on her pillow seeming to be alive. Machines hissed rhythmically, a clumsy accompaniment to the song that filled the room.
He sat next to the bed, his back facing the door as if closing off the outside world, strumming his guitar and humming as I gently cleared my throat.
“Mr. Mesker?” I stepped to the end of the bed.
He blinked, finally looking at me, his brown eyes rimmed with red and shadows and sadness. “Yes?”
“I’m Megan Carley. I’m a physical therapist. I’ve come to do an assessment on Nora.”
“Why? She’s in a coma. She can’t move.” He turned back to the still form, his fingers plucking at the guitar in his lap.
“Not on her own, no. But—”
“Can you come back later? I—I just can’t deal with this right now.” His hand grasped hers and his voice hitched with emotion. “I don’t know how this happened. She never went anywhere without her Epi-Pen. Never.” He wasn’t even speaking to me anymore, but to himself or to her or maybe the universe at large. He crumpled against the side of the bed, pressing her hand into his face and sobbed. Pain radiated from him in waves and the air in the room was hot and stale.
The hallway felt cool, bright, normal as I clicked the door shut behind me, leaving him to his grief. I would try again the next day.
It was only then that I realized I, too, was crying.
It took three more visits before the husband would let me work on Nora, visits where I would stand there while he played his guitar, not knowing what to do with myself. How many similar patients had I worked on? Dozens, probably, each with their own grieving families and lovers, but none, and I mean none, had ever seemed so stricken as this man.
His name, I learned, was Will.
One week, then two, passed. He spoke while I worked, telling stories of how they met, how they loved. He pointed out the flowers that had come from the students at Stinson Middle School, where he was a music teacher. Doctors would come in and out, anxious conferences with Will as he stood clutching Nora’s hand, while I stretched her legs and arms to keep the muscles from atrophying.
Then the day came when they were gone, the room empty and waiting for another occupant. Nora had gone into cardiac arrest during the night.
And that was that. It happens. You get used to it, right?
Except when I tried to sleep that night, I could still hear his guitar.
ALMOST TWO YEARS LATER
The coffee shop bustled with the mid-day rush, full of business people and students with backpacks, their conversations and ring tones combining to make a familiar cacophony.
My thumb swiped quickly down my phone, checking the text again, and I lifted my gaze just long enough to sweep around the room. Yeah, I was in the right place, right time. But where was this guy Kristie had been raving about?
Fifteen minutes later. Seriously? Bad enough being set up on a blind date, but then to be stood up? I jabbed at my phone furiously, texting Kristie to let her know just what I thought of this supposedly great guy she met at work.
“Excuse me?” A man’s voice jolted me out of my anger. “Is this seat taken?”
I looked around. All of the other tables appeared to be full with a line of people at the counter. “No, no it’s not. Go ahead. I was just leaving anyway.” Screw this. And screw Kevin, too.
“You don’t have to rush on my account. Please stay and finish your drink.” The table wobbled as he sat down. “Really, sit down. I promise I don’t bite.”
“Your name isn’t Kevin by any chance is it?” No, I’d seen a picture of Kevin and this guy, tall and stocky, in jeans and an old Nirvana t-shirt, was no Kevin.
“No. Is it supposed to be?” His brown eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled and a wisp of a memory jolted through me. I knew him…. “I’m Will Mesker.” He held out his hand. His skin was warm, rough with calloused fingers.
Will Mesker? “I’m Meg Carley. Have we met before?”
“You know, I was just thinking that myself, but I can’t imagine where.” He looked puzzled. “Where do you work?”
“I work over at Langdon General. I’m a physical therapist. Could we have met there?” My voice trailed off as the color drained from his face.
“That must be it. You helped take care of my wife, Nora.” Just as the light in his eyes dimmed, the lightbulb went on in my own brain.
“Oh, yes. I never got the chance to tell you how sorry I was.” Should I hug him? Touch his arm? What was the right thing to do here? My hand lifted and lowered. Smooth, Meg.
“Thank you. It was…It was hard, you know?”
I nodded, desperate for anything else to say. “You’re a music teacher, right? I remember you playing your guitar.”
He laughed, the sadness leaving his face. “Yeah, that would be me.”
The crowd ebbed and flowed around us as we chatted over our drinks. Then his phone chimed and I was surprised to see an hour had passed. He grimaced at me. “Sorry.” The call ended quickly and he turned back to me. “That was terribly rude of me. I apologize.”
I waved off so minor an infraction. “No big deal. But it’s getting awfully late and I’m supposed to cover a shift at the hospital later.” My chair screeched as I pushed it back and he stood up with me.
“Thank you for sharing your table with me. I enjoyed meeting you… under better circumstances than our first encounter.” He took my hand and grinned. I couldn’t help but smile back.
“It was a lot of fun. Thank you.”
He hesitated. “I was thinking that maybe you’d like to get together again sometime.”
My heart tingled with warmth. “I’d like that. A lot, actually.” A quick exchange of phone numbers and he was walking me out to my car, his hand still holding mine. Another man ambled slowly towards us, holding up his phone and looking at me intently.
“Are you Megan? I’m sorry I’m so late. I’m Kevin.”
Will and I doubled over in laughter and left poor bewildered Kevin standing there alone.
We met for coffee again the next week. And the next. We talked a lot, and laughed more. He spoke of Nora, cautiously at first, about how her death had changed him. How he was still changing. And I told him how I had never forgotten his music that he had played for her, that I had somehow carried it with me all this time. On our third date, he took me for a picnic and brought his guitar. That was the moment I realized I was falling in love with him.
“What?” His eyes sparkled and I felt my heart do a slow roll.
I couldn’t speak, didn’t trust my words, so I leaned over and brushed my lips against his. He pulled back, ever so slightly, searching my eyes, his hands reaching up to brush the hair off my face.
“What is this?”
I kissed him again, longer this time, before breaking away. I felt like singing. “I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.”
He laughed and pulled me to him, rolling me onto the blanket, his mouth on mine.
It was like something out of a romance novel. I had never been so happy.
Eight Months Later
The evening started simply enough. Dinner and a movie at my place. I had to pee after dinner and when I came back out, Will was gone. I found him out on the front porch, smoking. He only ever smoked when he was upset, a habit he had picked up during the days after Nora died.
“Here you are.” I leaned against the railing next to him.
“Here I am.” Smoke veiled his face as he looked out into the night.
“What’s going on? You’ve been acting weird all night.”
Another drag on the cigarette was his answer.
“Yeah, okay, whatever. I’ll be inside.” My hand had just brushed the doorknob when his voice stopped me.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
My face went hot, my hands cold, and my stomach dropped to my feet. “What?”
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
There it was. “Okay.” My voice barely wavered. We might as well have been talking about the weather.
That got his attention. “Okay?”
“Sure. You want to go, then go.” Don’t you dare cry in front of him.
“Just like that?” He seemed confused, thrown off guard. Good.
“Just like that.”
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
“No, Will. You’re the one who didn’t want to talk about it. You just…just dropped this on me like it’s no big deal. I’m just agreeing with you.”
“But nothing. You want to leave, then leave.” If he was miserable enough to end things like this, then I didn’t want him to stay. All I wanted was for him to be happy and if I wasn’t enough for that, then it was better to let him go.
I wanted to pull my eyes away from his, to ignore those eyes that I knew so well. But to look away first would be to admit weakness. I could cry later, be weak later. Not now.
He shrugged and walked down the porch steps. I couldn’t bear to see him drive away, so I started back inside. Again, his voice stopped me, coming out of the darkness to stab me in my soul. “Meg, wait.”
I couldn’t turn around. But I did stop.
“I—I’m sorry it happened like this.” I could hear the tears in his voice.
“Good-bye, Will.” Inside, I shut the door behind me and slid to the floor, letting my despair wash over me.
THREE MONTHS LATER
The doorbell startled me. I ran lightly down the stairs, sliding to a stop when I saw Will on the other side of the screen door.
“Will.” What was he doing here? I haven’t heard from him since the night he ended things and he thinks he can just show up here?
We just stared at each other.
Finally, he spoke. “Can I come in?”
“No.” I went to close the main door.
“Please.” He wasn’t begging. A simple request. “I just want to talk.”
“So talk.” My heart hurt. The pain was back, just when I thought I was over him.
“I wanted to explain.”
My voice was a low hiss. “I don’t want your explanation. I don’t care what your reason was.”
“And why is that? You never even asked me why. You never let me explain.”
“Because this was your decision, not mine. You did this without even thinking to talk to me first. No ‘hey, I’m upset because of this’ or ‘I’m thinking about leaving because of that.’ Just BOOM! You were gone. If you thought so little of me that you could just walk off like that, why should I care about your precious reasons why?” Outside, I could see my neighbor on her porch, listening to my shouting.
Will took a step back, his face horrified.
My chest was heaving with so many emotions I don’t think I could have named them all. “Come in if you’re coming in or go away. I don’t care which.” I sat on my couch, trying very hard not to vomit when I heard the screen door close.
He sat across from me, elbows on his knees, head hanging low. When he finally looked up, I gasped. The sorrow on his face almost brought me to my knees. His voice shook and I had to strain to hear him. “Did you ever get scared?”
“While we were together?”
“You mean in our relationship?”
He nodded, eyes boring into mine.
“Of course I was scared. I was scared every damn day. That’s how you know you’re still alive.”
“What were you scared of?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“I can tell you what I was scared of. I was scared of losing you. Of something happening to you the way it happened to Nora. That I didn’t deserve this happiness, not twice in my life. It seemed easier to leave on my own terms than to have it ripped away again.”
“And you couldn’t have told me that? You don’t think we could have worked through that?”
He gave a joyless chuckle. “I didn’t think I could work through that. But I was wrong. I miss you, Meg.”
I couldn’t, wouldn’t, speak. What was there to say?
“What were you scared of? Please?” Now his voice was pleading.
I closed my eyes, taking some deep breaths. When I spoke, my words were low, steady, emotionless. “I was scared that you would leave without telling me why. Which is exactly what you did.”
He pressed his hands to his face, sobbing, and my heart broke all over again. Without thinking, I moved next to him on the couch, as we had sat so many times before. His arm trembled under my touch and I pressed my lips against his cheek. Every minute of sadness over the past months had been leading to this, to this moment. I didn’t need him in my life, but oh! How I wanted him there.
At the touch of my lips he took his hands off his face, turning to look at me, eyes red and swollen. “Meg…”
I kissed his face again, reaching for what I had lost. When our lips met, I knew. I just knew.