In my last post I shared that I had taken part in a short fiction writing contest called NYCMidnight. The contest started with over 4700 writers from around the world and after the first round we were widdled down to 750.
In the second round we were given three days to write a story based on a prompt. The story could be no longer than 2000 words.
This was hard. The prompts feel like random words pulled out of a hat (they likely are) and three days to develop a complex plot and characters that produce an emotional connection is difficult – but not impossible.
There were 30 heats in this last round, and from each heat the top three stories were selected to go onto the final round – 24 hours to write a 1500 word story based on a prompt. In addition to the top three stories, the judges provided the next five stories from the heat that deserved honorable mention. This is the place that I landed. There is a sense of relief in this placement. This is the first time that I’ve ever done anything like this and to be placed just shy of moving to the final round still feels like a significant win.
Let’s do the math because I’m a banker by trade and numbers can tell a compelling story. We started with 4700 writers at the beginning and the competition has now been widdled down to 90 remaining writers. Knowing I made it to the honorable mention category would place me in the top 150 writers in the competition. That would put me in the top 3% of writers that entered the competition. Or in the 97th percentile if I were a doctor outlining the growth of a baby on a chart. The numbers don’t really matter, as the point of this exercise was to stretch myself as a writer, but they do feel good.
So with all that I would like to present to you my submission to round 2 of NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge 2019.
Character: A plumber
The Better Place
I waited until Mom left the kitchen, grabbed the newspaper from the table, rolled it and pocketed it in my cargo shorts. She would know that I took it, but by then I will have what I need.
My brother Danny is off playing baseball with his friends, and Mom is busy keeping baby Suzy alive, at least that’s what she says to me when I try to interrupt, “Jacob, I’m busy keeping Suzy alive, go entertain yourself.” There isn’t a lot to do in Aberdeen to keep busy. I can’t play baseball with Danny on account of him always wanting to beat me up, and I can’t help keep Suzy alive because I don’t know anything about babies and I’m not interested in her poopy diapers.
I head to the backyard, sit on the swing and pull out the newspaper. It doesn’t take me long before I find what I’m looking for.
Suspicious Death of Local Plumber Prompts Investigation reads the headline on the front page. A mystery. I read through the article and find out the plumber who died is Mr. Becket. I know Mr. Becket, he was at our house two weeks ago fixing the sink. Someone – and I’m not saying who, Danny – dumped a bunch of grease down the drain and clogged the sink. Mom called Mr. Becket to take care of it.
When he was here, with his head under the sink, I sat and talked to him. He told me about his cat Peach, and I played with his tools.
“Do you have a pet?” He asked.
“No, I wanted to get a dog, but Danny is allergic. I’m working on Mom to let me have a lizard.” I liked talking to Mr. Becket. He coughed a lot though. I offered to get him some water, but then remembered he was working on the sink. “Do you have a pet?” I asked.
“I have a cat. Her name is Peach, and she is as sweet as a peach that girl. She’s orange, and fluffy, and likes it when I scratch her behind the ears. You keep working on your Mom; having a pet is a great way to learn responsibility and to have a companion to talk to.” I liked Mr. Becket, I’m going to miss talking to him. I need to solve the mystery of how he died.
The article says Mr. Becket died from an overdose of Propofol, a general anaesthetic. I don’t know what any of that means. I need to go to the library and look up some of these words.
I rip the article from the front page, put it in my pocket, next to the G.I. Joe I stuffed there earlier before Mom could see. She doesn’t like G.I. Joe, they remind her too much of Dad, that’s why I like them.
Mom wouldn’t like me investigating Mr. Becket’s death. But Mom doesn’t notice much of what I do anymore. If Dad were around he would probably help me, and Mom would probably be happier, and Danny would probably be nicer. But Dad isn’t around anymore.
When I get to the library, I head to the research section and find the encyclopedia with the letter A on the spine. I flip the pages until I find anaesthesia. I pull the newspaper article from my pocket and read through it again.
According to the article and what I am gathering from the encyclopedia, anaesthetic is a drug that makes you go to sleep. So, if Mr. Becket died from an overdose, it means he went to sleep and never woke up. That’s scary. Sometimes I have nightmares that I wonder if I’m going to be able to wake from. Danny usually shakes me awake when I’m screaming. Maybe if someone had been there to shake Mr. Becket awake, he would have been okay. I wonder if Peach tried to wake him.
When I was talking to Mr. Becket, I told him how I couldn’t wait to grow up and live alone. Danny is always picking on me, and Suzy is always crying. I just want some peace and quiet. That’s what my Dad used to say when he’d come home from the army, “I just need peace and quiet.” That usually meant us kids needed to go somewhere else.
Mr. Becket told me “living alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, kid. I live alone now, after being married for 40 years to my sweet Charlotte. There’s not much I wouldn’t do to be with her again. But she went on to a better place, and I’m left here with sweet Peach. She’s a good girl, but she ain’t no Charlotte.”
I wonder about the better place that Charlotte went. I never asked Mr. Becket about it, but I got the impression that it was the same place as my Dad. That was what everyone told me when I asked where he went. “To a better place,” they would say. And I would wonder why we can’t go to the better place. If there is a better place than here, and Dad has decided it is good, shouldn’t we all go to be together? Mom didn’t like it when I would talk like that. I’ve figured out that once you arrive at the better place, you aren’t allowed to leave. I wonder if Mr. Becket went to meet Charlotte there. I wonder if he sees my Dad.
I return my focus to the encyclopedia and find out veterinarians, dentists and doctors are the only ones that have access to anaesthetics and that narrows my search down immediately.
Aberdeen is a small town; we only have one doctor and one vet. You have to travel to the city to get a dentist. So, if only doctors, vets and dentists can get this drug that means that either Dr. Smalls, my doctor who helped set my arm when I fell off my bike last year, or Dr. Gooding, the vet gave Mr. Becket the drug.
Dr. Smalls’ office is next door to the library, so I make it my first stop.
When I walk through the door, I see Miss Genaro sitting at the desk. She is really nice. She always lets me pick a candy and a toy from the treasure chest when I come in.
“Hi Jacob, what brings you here?”
“Can I ask Dr. Smalls a couple questions?” I ask. I’m nervous, I shove my hands into my pockets and wrap my fingers around the G.I. Joe.
“He’s busy right now, is it an emergency? Maybe I can help you,” Miss Genaro offers.
I think about it, maybe I’ll be able to pull a treat out of the treasure chest. “Yeah, ok, maybe you could answer for me. If that would be okay?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Can you tell me if Dr. Smalls has ana… anis… hmmmm…. anethesha?”
“Yeah. It’s a hard word.”
“That’s an interesting question, Jacob. No, generally Dr. Smalls doesn’t keep anaesthesia on hand. It’s something that he would use at the hospital if necessary, but not here in his office. Why do you ask?”\
The hospital. There is no people hospital in Aberdeen. Dr. Smalls would have to go to the city to get the anaesthesia. “I’m just doing some research. Thanks, Miss Genaro. So Dr. Smalls doesn’t keep that stuff here?”
“No dear. Was there anything else?”
I shake my head, “No, thanks. That will be all for now.”
“Would you like a treat?”
I’m never one to shy away from a treat.
After leaving Dr. Smalls’ office, I head the three blocks to Dr. Gooding’s Animal Hospital. If Dr. Smalls has to go to the hospital to use anaesthesia and Dr. Gooding’s office is a hospital, then it makes sense that she would have the drug in her office. I feel like this case is cracking wide open.
What I can’t figure out is why Dr. Gooding would kill Mr. Becket. Last year at the Aberdeen Community Fair she rode a horse in the parade and gave all the kids candy. Mom said it was okay to take the candy from her since she isn’t a stranger. That doesn’t sound like someone who would kill Mr. Becket.
When I get to Dr. Gooding’s office, she is standing at the front counter with a fluffy orange cat in her arms. “Hi, Jacob. This is Peach.”
I’m stunned. “Peach? Isn’t that Mr. Becket’s cat?”
“It was, yes. Sadly with Mr. Becket’s passing Peach needs a new home. We are taking care of her until we find one. Do you want to pet her? She likes to be scratched behind the ears,” Dr. Gooding says bending down so I can reach Peach.
I give her a little scratch, “Dr. Gooding, I was wondering if you have anaesthesia in your office?”
“We do. Why do you ask?”
I’m suddenly nervous. Dr. Gooding seems like a good person. She has doctor and good in her name, that has to mean something. Peach looks happy with her. If Dr. Gooding killed Mr. Becket, wouldn’t Peach be more upset?
“I’m wondering what you use it for? I’m doing research for a project.”
“Well, when an animal is sick and needs surgery we use it to help that animal sleep through the surgery so they don’t feel anything.”
“Can it kill the animal?”
“We are very careful and are trained to use it properly. But yes, if we give too much, or if we don’t understand all of the conditions then it is possible the animal could die. But like I said we are very careful.”
“Would you ever give it to a person?” I ask.
Dr. Gooding stands up, “What kind of project did you say this was for?”
I give my G.I. Joe a squeeze and pull the article from my pocket, “I’m investigating Mr. Becket’s death.”
Dr. Gooding sighs, “I see. Jacob, sometimes things are easier to understand when we talk about animals. When a dog or cat is really sick, and there is nothing we can do to make them better, and they are in a lot of pain, we help them by putting them to sleep. Only this type of sleep they don’t wake up from.”
“They go to the better place?”
“Exactly, they go to the better place. In the better place, they are no longer in any pain, they aren’t sick anymore, and they get to eat as many treats as they want.”
My Dad went to the better place. Charlotte went to the better place. And now Mr. Becket went to the better place. I think about what Dr. Gooding has said, “was Mr. Becket really sick?”
“He was. He had cancer, and he was in a lot of pain.”
I know what happened to Mr. Becket. “Are you allowed to put a person to sleep forever?”
“I believe that is up to the person going to sleep. But legally… no.”
I think about what Dr. Gooding has said. Mr. Becket was in a lot of pain, and he just wanted to see Charlotte.
I head back home and find my Mom sitting at the kitchen table, “What did you do today, Jacob?”
I pull the tattered newspaper article from my pocket, “I investigated Mr. Becket’s death.”
“Mom, was Dad in a lot of pain? Dr. Gooding said that Mr. Becket was in a lot of pain and that is why he went to the better place.”
Mom sighs heavily, “It was a different kind of pain. But it was his pain, and I wish I could have found a way to help him.”
I pull the G.I. Joe out of my pocket and hold it tight in my hand, “I hope Dad sees Mr. Becket in the better place, I think they would like each other.”