Once again, I found myself staring down the barrel of a NYCMidnight writing contest and wondering why the hell I do these things to myself. NYCMidnight does a multitude of contests throughout the year for writing and screenwriting. For the writing contests, they give the entrants a word count, a genre, a place, and an object, and you have to write within those guidelines.
In this particular contest, the Flash Fiction Challenge 2021, I had 48 hours to write a 1,000 word story. There are four rounds to this particular contest and everyone is guaranteed to participate in the first two rounds. You are given a score on each story and the total of you scores after the second round will determine if you go on to the third. My prompts were: Romance/Reading Room/Permanent Marker. So I had to write a romance story that included a reading room and a permanent marker. In 1,000 words.
I don’t do romance (just ask my husband). I read romance. I don’t write it very well. Yet, here I was.
I got the results of the first round earlier today. To my great surprise, I placed SECOND (I believe there were 35 people in my heat)! I’ve done several NYCMidnight contests before and I don’t think I’ve placed higher than fourth. I’m absolutely thrilled!
Judges’ feedback includes: “What a heartbreaking story!” “This was a bittersweet, emotional piece to read. Well done!” “It’s clear that the writer is talented at writing crowd scenes with a wide ensemble of characters.”
So, without further ado….
A Cold Day in December
The television flickered an uncertain light as everyone gathered around it. Libby had never seen the Reading Room of the Winston Student Hall this crowded. Not that students ever really read in the Reading Room. Lately, it seemed to be primarily a gathering place for students to hotly the debate the war, the war that suddenly was all too real that night.
The boys all crowded at the front, straining to hear the television over the muffled weeping coming from some of the girls in the back of the room. Rob Burke, always the tall, quiet one, stood next to the television, radiating tension. Libby wished she was able to be next to him, talk to him, try to take away the stress that was felt by every male student on campus that night. If he would even talk to her. It had been two weeks since their last date and it seems like he was going out of his way to avoid her.
A voice came from the television. The first draft lottery birthdate was announced as everyone in the room held their breath.
Rob turned to blank expanse of wall behind him, pulling something out his pocket. A quick movement that Libby couldn’t quite make out and then the harsh smell of a permanent marker wafted over the room as he wrote the date in big block letters on the wall. September 14.
“Rob!” A short, prissy girl hissed. “You can’t write on the wall like that.”
“Shut up, Susan. There are bigger things to worry about tonight.” Sam, Rob’s friend, rumpled and handsome, snarled while the rest of the boys craned their necks to see if anyone in the room had the lethal birthdate.
More talking from the TV. Another date on the wall. April 24.
Then the next and the next….until….
From the television: “October 18.”
The marker rasped against the wall as Rob started to inscribe the next birthday for young men destined to die in Vietnam, but his shaking hand stilled, his face pale. A jagged line slashed down the wall as the marker fell from his hand and he ran out of the room, not even glancing at Libby as he went.
Everyone looked around in shock. Whispers of “Is that his birthday?” rocketed around the room. Sam caught Libby’s eye, their concern for Rob passing between them. She hurried out of the reading room, trying to think of where Rob may have gone as Sam took up the marker and continued writing dates on the wall.
She found him behind the Science Building, up on the small hill that overlooked the lake. She smiled faintly; this is where they had spent their last date.
He heard her approach and looked over his shoulder. A brief smile faded quickly as he sighed and looked back to the lake.
Libby wrapped her arms around herself, her thin sweater and blouse no match for the frigid December air. “Rob?”
He held out his hand to her. “We came here after our last date.”
She didn’t know what to say, so she merely nodded.
“I’m so sorry I’ve been ignoring you. I just knew this day was coming. I really like you and….if I had to leave, I didn’t want to start something I wouldn’t be able to finish.”
Libby stammered in confusion. “But…. None of those dates were your birthday. And even if…..” She gulped down her fear. “Even if your birthday was called, if you were one of the low numbers, you’ve got your student deferment. They can’t draft you while you’re in school.”
“Tommy’s birthday is October 18.”
Shit. On their date, he’d spoken about Tommy, his older brother. How he wasn’t as smart as Rob, not as athletic or masculine, but quiet and innocent and good, and how their father made his feelings very clear, about the failings of his eldest son. Libby knew how fiercely protective Rob was of Tommy.
“Oh no. Rob, I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t let him go alone.”
She was stunned. “What?” She wrenched her hand away from his, unable to comprehend his words.
“I’m going to enlist. Where he goes, I go.”
“But, Rob, you don’t have to go. How could you just…. When you don’t have to?”
“I do have to. I’m not letting him go over there by himself. He’d be so damned scared.”
Rob broke down, sobbing quietly into the cold night while Libby held him close and tried to think of something to say.
A week later, amid a flurry of protests from friends and faculty alike, Rob left Beaufort College. Under a hard, cold winter sky, Libby stood in the back of the crowd that was clustered around Rob’s car and waited.
Finally, Sam and she were the only ones left. She fought back the tears as she watched them hug their final goodbye. As Sam walked away, he briefly patted Libby’s shoulder.
Rob’s eyes glimmered with exhausted tears. They’d spent every possible minute together, laughing, talking, touching, but no words of love were exchanged, no promises made. They both knew the reality Rob was about to face.
They clung to each other in the bitter air, postponing the moment when they’d have to say goodbye.
“I don’t want you to wait for me to come back.”
“I’m serious, Libby. I need to know that you’re getting on with your life while I’m over there. And if…if I make it through, well….Then we can see what happens.”
Libby nodded through her tears, falling into his arms for one final kiss.
Four silent, lonely months later, Libby found a crying Sam standing at her door, holding out a letter to her.
She didn’t have to read it to know what it said.
She turned away and shut the door.
Three years later, Libby and her husband, Sam Barton, announced the birth of their first child, a son named Robby.