NPR periodically holds a contest for writers called “Three-Minute Fiction.” They provide a prompt and limit you to 600 words. A well-known author judges the entries. I entered once. I did not win. No surprise there. Then when I read some of the work others submitted I was blown away. Anyway, this is something, two things actually, I wrote based on one of their prompts, which was that it had to begin with the words “The nurse left work at five o’clock.” There are two versions because after I read what I wrote (first one, below) aloud to my daughter Julia, I had to write another (second one, below) based on her idea, which was far superior to mine. Her reaction, when I read her what I wrote based on her idea, was that I’d ruined it.
My original version:
The nurse left work at five o’clock. She needed to get there by six o’clock or he’d be gone. Although his tone could have been genuine, it just as easily could have been sarcastic. She wasn’t sure. Yet she was about to hurtle through a raging snowstorm while trying to decipher her hand-written directions to his house – a stranger’s house. She swallowed hard, the fur of her rabbit foot key chain stuck to her sweaty palm.
Though an intelligent and compassionate nurse, she had certain insecurities and character flaws that made this trip improbable. The youngest of four children, largely left to entertain themselves, her siblings noted frequently that she was an imp, a boring companion and an inadequate pretender. They made her the fetcher of needed items, dubbed her the cause when things went awry, and subjected her to tyranny when boredom overtook them.
As a child she knew the world was a dangerous place and that no one could be trusted. Neighborhood children gathered to play in the cool basement, seeking shelter on searing summer afternoons. They followed the lead of her sister, reaching recklessly into a dented metal bin where old blankets were kept. Running outside hugging the blankets, they were oblivious to spiders that she was certain lived in the bin, the ants that were sure to invade the tent they would build. Suddenly left behind, alone inside the dimly lit dampness, she unwittingly caught a glimpse of the stacked boxes. For an instant her eyes locked on the one marked Halloween, panic overtook her, and she ran out into the sunlight after the others, hoping they’d send her to get them lemonade. She’d decided at age 11 that all those around her were collaborators in a perilous game, the goal of which was to test her reaction to situations, to see what she would do. Everyone was a player. They were not to be trusted.
Eventually the days of sitting stock-still in her closet, as a refuge against those who would test her, waned. Her childhood fears morphed into controlling superstitions as she matured. She ate an apple every day to keep the doctor at bay, even in March when they were pithy and dry. She knocked wood, crossed fingers, threw salt. A heads-up penny prompted contest entry.
He had tracked her down to tell her that her sweepstakes entry had lodged in the envelope containing his phone bill. She could either pick it up or he would throw it away. She had until six o’clock that night.
Who was this man? What was his motive in opening the form, tracking her down, calling her at work? If she went to his house something bad could happen. She could plow into a snow drift or spin out on ice. He could be a mad man who would rape and kill her. Or worse, he could be a young, good-looking wise-guy who answers his door in his stocking feet with his tongue in his cheek, the twinkle in his eyes mocking her long, snowy trek for a stupid contest. But if she didn’t go she was certain to foil her inevitable win. A lifetime opportunity would be missed. Her pot of gold obscured by a rainbow of snow and a freak postal accident.
Her palms began to itch. Superstition conquered fear. She would get there before six in spite of the snow.
The nurse left work at five o’clock, and pulled up to his house just as he pulled away at five fifty-five.
Julia’s input, which was, “Of course she’s not really a nurse,” inspired this re-write:
The nurse left work at five o’clock. She breezed past the preoccupied security guard, into the dirty elevator, then out into the parking deck. That had been amazingly easy.
But where would she go now with no car to get into, no money for bus or taxi fare, and no clothes other than this “borrowed” nurse’s uniform? Resigned to hoofing if, she made her way out onto the street, wishing she had an umbrella and actual nurse’s shoes instead of orange patient flip-flops. She looked over her shoulder as the Grayson Psychiatric Hospital faded into the misty fog of the Thursday afternoon. Free at last.
Seeing her chance, she swiped the plastic bin from the Veterans of Foreign Wars table in the foyer of Neighbor’s Grocery so fast that she was down the block before the old man sucked in enough air to yell “hey!” after her. She’d have been faster but for the wet flip-flops and uneven sidewalk. Inside the bin she found mostly quarters, but also six ones and a fiver. Time to go shoe shopping!
Dime City had shoes that complemented her ensemble, white plastic sneakers, so she bought them for $6.99, along with a $3 umbrella. A large first aid kit called to her as the perfect accessory, but it was beyond her budget.
As she stepped well prepared out into the rain, with thoughts of the socks she longed for, a woman passing by suddenly fell to the ground in front of her. Blood spilled from her unconscious yet well coiffed head where her brow had made contact with the pavement. The child that was with her began to wail, startling the nurse into action. While other passers-by looked on dumb-founded the nurse high-tailed it back into Dime City, returning with the first aid kit. She tended her patient, who was now conscious, while those who looked on gradually lost interest and moved away. A few Dime City employees, faces pressed against the glass, showed their indifference not only to the injured woman but also to the swiped first aid kit.
For her efforts the nurse got a ride, a meal, a reward, and a pair of socks. After a few hours of playing with the well-coiffed woman’s child, the nurse was offered a job as a nanny, which she promptly accepted. After the terms were settled the nurse was anxious to get back to the child to continue their game of hospital.