Are you one of those calm, reassuring, overly confident Ted Talk presenters? If so, please come to my house and light an aromatherapy candle and hold my hand and stroke my hair and speak mumbo jumbo into my ear until I CALM THE F#(K DOWN.
If you aren't a Ted Talk presenter, you may still come to my house as long as you bring cupcakes and/or menthol Virginia Slims.
I need to calm down because I've been running on adrenaline and very little sleep since Friday, July 13. That's the day the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition began. Okay, technically it started Saturday, July 14 at midnight but my time zone is an hour behind eastern time OH MY GOD that doesn't even matter what is wrong with me I can't stop writing too much and it's a problem A REALLY REAL PROBLEM.
Deep breath. Slowly let it out. Do it again. Keep doing it.
The contest was fun and a fantastic challenge. I had to write a short story in the romance (ugh) genre that takes place in a catacomb and prominently features a credit card. I had 48 hours to accomplish this task and a word limit of 1,000. The contest organizers urged each contestant to write something unique and interesting which is kind of dumb since that's what writers are supposed to do anyway.
Why am I still so wired days after the deadline? I have no idea but I am still wired. It may have something to do with all the Mt. Dew I drank in an effort not to fall asleep. MISSION DAMNED ACCOMPLISHED, I'd say.
Here come the excuses. You probably will want to skip this part and just go straight to the actual short story below.
Why didn't you just go straight to the short story? You must like excuses. Here they are: don't expect much because I've never done this sort of challenge before; I'm a newbie. It was hard to concentrate because I'll be going on vacation soon and I had that on my mind. The dog that lives three doors down barked its ass off the entire time I was trying to write. Also, the Moon was in the Seventh House and Jupiter was aligned with Mars.
Results of the first round of judging will be revealed in September. I'll let you know how I do unless, of course, I do so crappy that I'm just too embarrassed to ever mention it again in which case I'll just never mention it again.
Please excuse the crappy title (entirely my fault). I've never been good at titles or math or cooking or cleaning or not cussing.
The Couples in the Catacomb
Studying the phallus, Marci Eubanks wiped sweat off her forehead using the sleeve of her shirt. With her right hand, she held her phone to her ear. After navigating an irritating voicemail maze, she waited on hold to talk to a Citibank representative about her missing credit card. Admiring the muted colors in the fresco featuring the engorged male organ, she took deep breaths to ease her frustration. Buried beneath twenty feet of volcanic ash, the impressive symbol of masculinity painted on the ancient limestone wall survived the 79 AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
The couple in the makeshift catacomb under where Marci stood hadn’t been so fortunate.
An instrumental tune played in her ear. She stretched her aching calf muscles and tried to remember the title of the song. Abruptly, the music stopped.
“Hello. I’m Kyle Reber with the Citibank Security Center. How may I help you?”
“Hello . . . goodbye,” she said.
“I just figured out the name of the song I’ve been forced to listen to for fifteen minutes.”
“I’m sorry for the delay,” Kyle said.
“Never mind. My credit card is missing. I’m afraid it’s been stolen.”
“I’ll need your Social Security number to confirm your identity, and your phone number in case we lose the connection.”
Marci sighed and recited her phone number. “I don’t know my Social Security number off the top of my head. Let me get my card. I’ll be right back.”
Walking past the fresco, she entered the passageway to the burial chamber that originally served as a storage cellar for the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. She set the phone on the top step, before continuing down the steep stairs. The neon yellow backpack, containing her wallet, looked out of place on the dirt floor surrounded by amphorae used to store wine and olive oil in centuries past.
Ascending the stairs with her backpack, she wondered if the deceased couple she’d spent the morning photographing had any idea they would never climb the stairs again when they entered the cellar to escape the heat, ash, and smoke from Vesuvius. Was that why they’d wrapped themselves around each other? She hoped they’d taken comfort from the contact.
Retrieving her phone, she settled herself on the top step. From experience, she knew venturing below that step would mean losing the cell signal. Digging in the backpack, she found her wallet and located her Social Security card. After reading the number to Kyle, she looked down. Straining her neck to the right, she could see the man’s arms around the woman’s waist. The chamber was silent, so was the phone.
“Are you there, Kyle?”
“I’m here. Please give me a minute. I need to look at your account activity. Would you like to listen to the Beatles again?”
“So, you figured it out.”
“Yes, you were listening to “Hello, Goodbye” from the Magical Mystery Tour.”
“Yep. You must be a Beatles fan.”
“I have all their albums on vinyl,” he said.
“You should be.”
She chuckled and said, “I’ve heard that song enough for today. I’ll enjoy some quiet time.”
“Okay. This won’t take long.”
Marci hadn’t had much quiet time working in cramped quarters with five colleagues. Archaeology involved long hours of hard labor often in extreme physical conditions. If she hadn’t fully realized that at the beginning of her career, she certainly did a decade later. Archaeology had been her life since her senior year of high school. She’d been assigned to write a report about Pompeii. Research led to the journal of Giuseppe Fiorelli who discovered, in 1863, an inexplicable void while excavating the ash. He thought to fill the space with plaster and watched in wonder as the void began to form a human shape. It was a man huddled into himself with his legs pulled close to his chest in the moment of death.
She found a picture of it on the internet. The expression of terror on the victim’s face forever frozen in time filled Marci with horror, revulsion, and obsession. She wanted to look away but couldn’t. The photo reminded her of The Scream by Edvard Munch hanging in the art classroom at school. Her future career was no longer in doubt. She was determined to become an archaeologist and work in Italy. It hadn’t been easy. Her career path was filled with ups and downs; however, she had accomplished her goal. It was satisfying, but for the past couple of years she’d grown restless and less happy with life outside work. She needed more life in her life. That’s why she was taking a much-needed vacation, hoping a month of downtime would recharge her batteries.
“Did you use your card last night at Trattoria Don Vincenzo in Pompeii, Italy?
“Looks like it’s my turn to be jealous,” Kyle said.
“You should be.”
He chuckled and said, “There’ve been no charges since then. I’ll cancel the card and send you a new one.”
“I’m going on vacation tomorrow. Please send it to my VRBO at 385 Lexington number 18 in New York City.”
Marci thanked Kyle and ended the call. Packing the equipment, she placed her Nikon in its storage case. That’s when she discovered the missing card at the bottom of the main compartment. She’d been in a hurry after eating and stuck the card in the case instead of putting it away in her wallet. She felt foolish for wanting to tell Kyle the missing card wasn’t really missing.
Headed home to prepare for her trip, she received a text message from an unknown number. It’s Kyle. Forgive my boldness. I’d love to hear about your Pompeii adventures. How about drinks and dinner with Paul, John, George, Ringo, and me? Eight Saturday night at Charlie’s corner of Lexington and 42nd. I’ll be wearing my Beatles Abbey Road t-shirt. No worries if you don’t show.
She couldn’t wait for Saturday.
Click here if you want to hear the song. You know you do.