NYC Midnight Short Story entry
For the first time, I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. Entrants were assigned a genre, a character and a situation. Mine were: Ghost Story, Forensic Pathologist, and an infatuation. We had eight days to craft and submit a story of up to 2,500 words. My submission is below. It didn’t get me into the second round, but it was a fun exercise nonetheless, and I received some valuable feedback from the judges.
Not Long Enough
Thirty-seven years ago, Doctor Edward Raymond acquired his Lincoln Town Car, Burberry topcoat, his position as Medical Examiner, and a daughter. Now sixteen years a widower, he is skating close to the edge of reneging on a promise made to his late — and very possessive — wife, the consequences of which are exactly as they would be if she were still alive.
Not Long Enough
She could do it in her sleep. Over the years the routine had become so ingrained that she could let her mind wander while she went about her morning chores. Gather the mail, put on the coffee, take the messages from e-mail and the answering machine, sort the mail, update the appointment book. As the coffee machine sputtered to the end of its cycle, she heard the elevator door open and seconds later, Kim stuck her head in the door.
“Coffee smells good, girlfriend.”
“How’s your day look? Can we do lunch?”
“Sure. How about eleven-thirty? He’s got an early start today.”
Kim jumped at the sound of a booming voice behind her. “Young lady, if you don’t let me into my office I’ll have Security escort you out of the building.”
“Oh Doctor Raymond, you scared the heck out of me!” She stepped into the reception room to let him pass.
“I very much doubt that, Kimberly. Good morning, Hattie.”
“Good morning, Doctor.”
He walked toward the closet, shucking off his topcoat.
“Here, let me take that for you, Doctor Raymond,” said Kim.
“No thanks, Kim.”
“No, no, I insist.”
He made a half turn toward her, pointed his finger like a gun. There was absolutely no playfulness in the gesture. “I said no, Kim.” He turned back to the closet, extracted a wooden hangar and slipped the coat onto it. The topcoat was gunmetal blue; excellent quality, but obviously very old. He hung it in the closet and without another word went into his inner office and closed the door.
Kim was nonplussed. “What was that about?” she asked her friend.
She shrugged. “He’s fussy about his coat.”
“It’s just an old coat.
Hattie looked at the office door. “He’ll be out in a minute for his coffee. Listen, I’ll fill you in at lunch, okay? Now you get on out of here or you’re going to be late.” She shooed her out and closed the door behind her. As it clicked shut, the inner office door opened.
“What have we got on today, Hattie?”
“You are going to observe Doctor Anderson’s autopsy at nine o’clock — it’s his first solo. Then your daughter is picking you up for lunch from noon until two…”
“Two? I don’t take two hours for lunch, Hattie.”
“Yes, Doctor, she said that you would say that. She also told me, and I quote, ‘Don’t take any guff from him’. And you have the quarterly budget meeting at 2:15. That should take care of the rest of the afternoon.”
“Alright,” he responded. “Thanks, Hattie. I’ll have half a cup of your fine coffee and head down to the morgue.”
The food in the cafeteria was indifferent, as to be expected in an institution the size of St. Margaret’s, but the soup was always good. They each bought a bowl to go with their sandwiches from home. Kim settled in her chair. Took a napkin for herself and one for Hattie.
“So,” she said. “The thing with the coat.”
“So,” said Hattie, “there’s some history here. He was in high school when he decided that he wanted to be a Medical Examiner. That’s a four-year university degree plus five more years of specialized training. Then he was an assistant for five years after that. When he finally got the offer to work here, his wife bundled them off to Montreal to celebrate for a weekend. They wined and dined on Friday, then the next day she took him shopping. In the morning they made a down-payment on the Lincoln — the same one that’s in the parking lot every day — and in the afternoon she picked out that Burberry coat. At the time it cost them about a full month’s pay, but she insisted that if he was going to play the part, he should look the part.”
“Well, I guess that makes it pretty special alright.”
“And that’s not all. She also came home pregnant.”
“Oh my! That was some weekend.”
“I don’t really remember from before Emily died,” said Hattie, “but since then he has always hung that coat up himself; always on that wood hangar and always at the right-hand end of the closet.”
“So he’s had that since…”
“That’s right, Kim, thirty-seven years. No wonder it looks a little worn.”
“A little worn, huh! It wouldn’t hurt to put some duct tape on the elbows, they’re that thin.”
“Well,” said Hattie, “he’s the boss and he’s good at his job, so I guess he can get away with being a bit eccentric.”
“Well, Dad, what do you think?”
“It’s nice enough, Melody, but I’m happy with my Lincoln.”
“Dad, that car’s older than I am!”
“I’m aware of that, dear. I was there when both of you came into my life.”
“But Dad, the Buick would suit you so well.”
“Buick has always made good cars, Melody, but they didn’t make that one for me. The damn thing talked to me. If I wanted to be nagged when I’m driving, I’d get married again. And that’s not going to happen.”
“Really? Do you ever think about it?”
“It’s been sixteen years, Daddy.”
“Melody, I was married to the finest woman that God ever put on the earth and she can never be replaced. Besides which, your mother was very territorial. When we were getting ready for the wedding and it came to the vows — you know the part about to love, honour and cherish; to cleave unto each other until death do us part? She looked at me hard and she said, ‘That’s not long enough, Edward’. And so we changed it to forever. I think if I ever broke that promise, she’d come back to haunt me.”
“Surely you don’t believe in ghosts, Daddy.”
“No, not really.” He paused. “But I would never underestimate your mother. Now let’s get me back to work.”
Hattie was at their usual table staring vacantly out the window.
“Hey, Hattie. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. Just drifting, I guess.”
“You look a bit worried.”
Hattie gave a little shake to bring herself back to the present. ‘I suppose I am, Kim. I’m wondering if I’m losing my mind.”
“I don’t know if I’d notice the difference, girlfriend,” Kim laughed. The best Hattie could manage was a weak attempt at a smile.
“Hey, you really are upset, aren’t you. What’s going on, honey?”
Hattie hesitated, obviously tossing the coin to decide whether to open up or shut down. The latter was not easy with Kim.
“I’m worried about Doctor Raymond. He’s been as steady as a rock for all the years I’ve known him. Even when his wife died and he was hurting, he was still level-headed. But I think he’s flipped.”
“What’s he done?”
“Did you see that woman from the Alzheimer’s Society who came in a couple of weeks ago? Margaret-Ann her name is.”
“Yes. She saw Doctor Anderson and he gave her fifty bucks and she left. Why?
“Well, I don’t know what she did to Doctor Raymond, but he gave her five hundred dollars.”
“Yes, really. And then he took her to lunch in the cafeteria.”
“That doesn’t seem like a big deal, Hattie. After all . . .”
“. . . and then lunch again last week. Twice. And dinner reservations for tomorrow at Casa Domenico.”
“My, my! Sounds like he’s smitten. But still, he’s been single for a long time; what’s the harm?”
“If that’s all there was, Kim, I’d be cheering for him. You know that. But there’s been some really strange things happening since all this started. Like, not normal things.”
She was speaking faster. Things she had been turning over in her head for days came bursting out of her like runaway horses.
“He came back from that first lunch, okay? Everything normal, except he was gone for over an hour. He hangs his coat in the closet, goes into his office and closes the door. Two minutes later, there’s a little soft noise. I look over to the closet and his coat’s on the floor. Before I can get out of my chair, his door opens, he comes out, picks up the coat, puts it on the hangar and goes back into the office. He couldn’t have heard it, Kim. There’s no way. But he knew.”
“But . . .”
“And then the day after lunch number two, he came in like usual. My nose picks up something. So I go to the closet and his coat smells like it used to smell when he smoked a pipe. I always loved that Borkum Riff tobacco he smoked. So I asked him, ‘When did you start puffing again?’ And he looks at me like I’m crazy and says he hasn’t smoked in fifteen years.”
“Weird it is. And now he’s been gone for lunch for nearly two hours.”
“Double weird. Well, I gotta get back. See you later.”
A few minutes later she hears the elevator doors opening, recognizes Doctor Raymond’s step. When he opens the door, she is taken completely unawares. He is wearing a brand new charcoal grey wool coat, and he is beaming.
“Like it, Hattie?”
Hattie stands up, looks past him out the window.
“What?” he asks.
“I’m just looking to see if Hell has frozen over. Never thought I’d see the day. It’s a beautiful coat, doctor.”
“Thank you, Hattie. Margaret-Ann took me shopping. Now,” he said, reaching for a hangar, “what’s on this afternoon?”
“Doctor Anderson will be here in ten minutes for his review. Your three o’clock conference call with the regional department heads is cancelled because of the weather. You can be out of here in time to pick up some storm chips and get home before it hits.”
“Okay then. Why don’t you finish up whatever you have to do and go home. I’ll talk to Doctor Anderson and beat it out of here myself. Enjoy your weekend.”
The Anderson meeting wrapped up just before three o’clock. Doctor Raymond had one arm in the sleeve of his new coat when the phone rang. He paused only for a second; he had been a doctor too long to let a phone go unanswered. The caller was the Emergency Services dispatcher.
“Doctor Raymond, we have a house fire with a body out near Mariston Hill. Do you have anyone who could attend?”
“Unfortunately everyone has gone home ahead of the storm, so I guess it will have to be me.”
“Travel is not very good, sir. I can send someone to pick you up.”
“Not necessary. I have my car, and the only thing better in snow is a team of huskies. Give me the directions.”
Mariston Hill was a former hamlet about forty kilometres east of town. All that remained was one ramshackle house and the faded road sign.
Firefighters were coiling the last of the hoses onto their truck. Up by the house were an ambulance and a police cruiser, it’s light bar turning the heavy snowflakes red and blue. He parked behind it, took his bag from the back seat and made his way toward the house. An EMS paramedic met him part way.
“Dirty day, doctor. Thanks for coming out.”
“It’s the job, Mike. What do we have?”
“The body’s on the second floor, doc; a male. No signs of burns, but no vitals. I don’t know if the smoke got him or what. But that’s your job, right? The house is still pretty warm but it’ll likely cool down quick enough with this wind and snow.”
“Okay. Show me.”
The fire had gutted the interior of the house. Twisted metal legs were all that remained of an ancient Arborite kitchen table. The medic led the way up the narrow stairs. He opened a bedroom door, stood back for the doctor to enter.
“Good grief,” said the doctor, “it’s as hot as a sauna in here.” He shook out of his coat, hung it on a wall hook beside the door. He took a stethoscope and digital camera from his bag, put on a pair of surgical gloves and approached the body.
The examination took only two or three minutes, then another few minutes to take several still photographs and a panoramic video of the room.
“Okay, Mike, I pronounce him dead at . . . 4:26 p.m. You can take him to the morgue; we’ll autopsy him on Monday. Bag the hands and feet, please, just to be safe.”
While Mike and his partner did their job, Raymond took a department laptop from his bag and began typing the notes that would accompany the photos in the autopsy report. A few moments later the fire crew chief knocked on the door frame.
“Doctor, the EMS people have left with the body and the cop is ready to take off when he has your okay. As soon as you’re done I want to get my crew out of here. The storm’s picking up and the driving is going to be miserable.”
“Fine, chief. Just going to make a few notes and I’ll be away, too. You and your boys go on. And tell the patrolman he can leave. I won’t be five minutes behind you.”
In fact it is almost half an hour before he folds the laptop, repacks everything into his scene bag. The room has cooled considerably and the wind outside picks up, driving ice pellets against the house like hail. He shivers. Time to go.
When he reaches for his coat, the hook it was on is empty. Nor is it anywhere else in the room. He wonders if the firemen or paramedics have taken it by mistake. The keys to the Lincoln were in the pocket, same as always, and he has no spare. He takes out his cell to call for help, but he is far out in the country and the phone shows no bars. None.
His rate of shivering increases and he knows he is risking hypothermia. Starting toward town in the hope that someone will come by and pick him up would be suicidal. His only choice is to try and keep warm until he is missed and someone comes looking.
He burrows under the blankets in the bed where the dead man lay. He is warmer temporarily but soon the shivering starts again and can feel himself starting to fade.
Sometime later, inexplicably, finds himself warm, and then too warm. He pushes the blankets away. Looks to the door and Emily is there. She is saying something to him, but he can’t make it out. And then he can.
“. . . not long enough, Edward. Not long enough.”