Tonight I submitted my entry for a (very) short story contest at NPR.org. It's a contest they've run once before, and I truly enjoyed listening to the finalists read their stories on the air. In brief, the guidelines include a max word count of 600 words and each entry must begin with the same sentence: The nurse left work at five o'clock.
With the best of intentions, I began my contest entry last week. But, as is always the case, everything else more important kept me skirting the edges of creativity until, at last, the deadline loomed. Tonight, at 11:30, 29 minutes before the cut off, I crawled into bed and opened my laptop, determined to finish the damn thing or die.
I did finish it. And, with less than sixty seconds to change my mind, I filled out the form, copied and pasted the text, and hit SEND.
After sending, naturally, I saw several things which needed tweaking. Each more glaring than the last. Procession became setting. Peppermint became Pepsodent. The last line morphed thrice.
It was too late to make those changes for any judge to consider, but I still felt compelled to make the corrections. My piece needed pruning, and even though it was after midnight, I determined it was time to prune. After all, that's what a real writer would do, right? (Wouldn't she also make her writing a priority rather than neglecting it until the last second, gifting herself the possibility of edits and rewrites prior to the deadline? A novel idea to be sure, and one I'd rather deny entirely at the moment.)
Finally, it was done. It's far from perfect, far from poignant or insightful or memorable or anything else resembling good writing. But it's something very near to what I envisioned last week when I began this circuitous journey in the first place, and that's a mini-victory in and of itself. So, because this is better than what I just attached my name to and tossed out into the arena for judgment, I decided I should post it here. My 515-word short story entitled
The nurse left work at five o'clock. She walked the length of the corridor between rows of iron framed beds, each containing a soldier or sailor in his own state of disrepair. Hundreds of imploring eyes followed her departure, like sunflowers trailing the setting of the sun. The nurse kept her own eyes down, locked on the chaffed toes of her combat boots.
Like the rest, she'd been instructed to keep her orders secret, finish her shift, pack her kit, a tiny bag with barely enough room for a change of underwear and a hairbrush, and report to the dock.
But they knew. Every wounded soldier. Every beleaguered doctor. Every nurse unlucky enough not to be chosen for this final, desperate chance to escape. They all knew. And their knowing was tangible.
So, though her kit was small, the nurse was soon accepting trinkets of all kinds and shoving them into her bag. Watches, fountain pens, snapshots, and letters to wives, children, parents, and brothers. Anything that said, 'At this moment on this abandoned rock, I'm alive and I love you.'
After the flurry subsided, the nurse moved to pull the zipper shut over the bulging mass of mementos, but paused when she saw something she'd almost left behind. On the blanket of her bed, a small flat tube of toothpaste remained. She sat on the edge of her bunk, legs swinging, and raised the nearly empty tube to her nose. In the dark, under the thunder of bombs above ground, she unscrewed the cap and sniffed at the opening.
If she kept her eyes squeezed tight against the fear and the sweaty stench of the tunnel, she could imagine she was home, that it was autumn in Iowa and the harvest was drawing to a close.
Dear Moses Smithers, seventeen and sandy haired, illiterate as a stone, had a pair of perfect lips and always brushed his teeth before he came to call. His breath was so Pepsodent clean it actually stung her eyes when he whispered his devotion in the dark, aiming slightly high and landing his first kiss on her forehead.
The nurse knew it took extra effort to kiss well while sitting side by side with the boy on a split pine fence rail, boot heels locked one rung down for security. One September night she'd become expert. With the help of Moses Smithers, she had learned how to pivot her shoulders independent of the rest of her body, how to let her neck do all necessary fluid tilting.
That evening in September, it didn't matter that there were some places in the world where tanks were rolling across open countryside in the most sordid and primitive of conquests. It didn't matter that London was being obliterated by bombs. It didn't matter that Moses wouldn't be able to read his own name off the letter she would leave for him the next morning. None of it mattered to her that night because she was off to become a nurse and see the world. And she was dying to get away.