Love Is a Battlefield (NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016: Round 1)

This marked my second year of NYC Midnight writing challenges, beginning 2016 with the Short Story Challenge. The field is more than 2100 this time, in 60 heats! Each writer is assigned to a group of 35 writers with specific genre, subject matter and character that must be central to the plot. For round 1, the stories were limited to 2500 words and due at 2359 (EST) on day 8 after the assignments were posted.

My assignment: Heat 32. Romantic Comedy, love letters, a school nurse.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy it! Here’s hoping I’m more successful with Rom-Com than my Short Story Challenge Round 2 effort last year! Happy trails!

 

Synopsis: For a veteran of Delta Force, the details of civilian life are never as they seem. Especially the love letters.

A mountain of mail had spilled over on my desk when I returned with coffee. ‘Tis the season for updated medical forms.

With a sigh, I sat and started sorting interoffice mail from the fat white envelopes given to parents to return the annual health paperwork. At the bottom of the stack was a thin, cream envelope.

I scanned the hall outside the clinic. Snatching the envelope, I hurried into the back treatment room and studied the penmanship. My first initial and last name, in loose cursive letters.

I closed my eyes, sniffing the envelope along the seal. Woodsy…like pine. My hands shook when I slid a finger under the edge and opened it.

Unfolding the paper, I frowned. I haven’t seen one of these in years. The paper’s different, but the formatting’s right …my eyes fell on the end.

Wishing to be yours,

J.

I stiffened. It has to be from Captain Davis. I read the letter again, committing it to memory before tearing it up. From my lunch I grabbed an apple, taking small bites of it with each mouthful of paper.

Why didn’t they tell me I was reactivated? Unless…maybe there’s a mole. Lots of military brats go to school here…

“Alex?”

I jumped up, finding myself face-to-chest with a polo that read Coach Mula. The last few paper bits fluttering towards the floor.

“Jason!” I stooped down to grab up the scraps. “Sorry, I was doing some filing.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Interesting system.”

“Oh. The old documents have to be destroyed. HIPAA and all. What’s up?”

He held out an Epi-Pen. “New pen for Jana. The old one’s expired. She’s never needed it. She’s only ever gotten hives and swelling at the sting spot, but I figure better safe than sorry. Blame the health teacher in me. I also keep one in my office, with some Benadryl melt-aways.”

“Those are good precautions.”

“Hopefully they’ll always be just that.” He smiled. “You coming to the game on Friday?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, if you do, let me know. Friends of the coach get reserved seating.”

“Thanks.”

“My number’s in the directory. Call or text.”

“Okay.”

When he left, I pulled out my purse, unlocked a hidden compartment and retrieved my secure phone. I fired off a text to Captain Davis, my former Delta Team leader. I locked the phone in my purse and returned to the waiting piles of envelopes.

 

After the lunchtime medication administration rush, I stood in the back room, straightening up. The door banged open when Jason hurried in, carrying his daughter. “She came to see me in during lunch, said she was feeling off-balance and then collapsed.”

“Bring her in here.”

He laid Jana on the cot in the treatment room. She closed her eyes and rested her hand on her forehead. “There was the weirdest flickering in my vision. Like a prism, with rainbows on the edges.”

Jason sat next to her head, his face tight, hands clasped. I attached a blood pressure cuff and did a quick history and exam.

“It sounds a lot like a migraine, but I’m not allowed to diagnose her.” I placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “I think she’ll be fine. Call her pediatrician. She can stay here for the rest of the afternoon. It’s only two hours.”

Jason’s face softened, the tension draining out of him. “Thanks, Alex.” He looked down at Jana. “You okay if I head back to class?”

She offered a small smile. “Sure, Dad.”

“Jason, I’ll meet you out front.”

He nodded and stood, kissing Jana on the forehead before he left.

I glanced down at Jana. “Any chance you’re pregnant?”

“What? Gross! No way!”

“I have to ask. Migraines are common in pregnancy, and you couldn’t take any ibuprofen. I’ll be right back.”

Jason stood by my desk, his arm crossed. He had physique of a runner, a strong jaw and thick blonde hair. He caught my stare and my cheeks flamed.

“Can we talk?”

My heart fluttered. “Of course.”

Jason glanced over my shoulder. “Maybe outside?”

“Sure.”

He held the door open to the empty hallway. My heart rate picked up when I passed and caught a hint of cologne: citrus, pine and leather.

Jason rubbed his neck, eyes downcast. “I really appreciate your help. Jana’s…well, I think she’s going through something. Her coach said she’s not running very well. She may be trying to get some attention.”

“How’s she been at home with you?”

“Pretty good. And this’s the first time her coach has ever said anything about her focus.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Why do you think she’s trying to get attention?”

He flushed. “I think it’s been tough for her lately…stuck with me for her teen years. There’s a lot I don’t know how to talk to her about.”

“I imagine that’s hard for both of you.”

“Very.”

“I can see if she’ll talk to me?”

Jason’s shoulders relaxed. “That’d be great.”

I laid my hand on his arm. “I’m sure you’re doing fine. I’ll offer, but don’t be surprised if she won’t open up to me. I’m still pretty new here, and I’ve only seen her a couple of times.”

Jason covered my hand with his. “Thanks. Even if she doesn’t say anything, at least she’ll know that she can come to you.” He squeezed my hand, a surge of electricity shooting from my fingers to my chest.

“I, uh, better get back in there. Oh, can she have a dose of ibuprofen?”

“Yea, sure.”

“Thanks. We’ll come to your office after school.”

“Great. Thanks again, Alex.” He hesitated a moment, trapping me with his emerald eyes. I shifted and flashed a small smile. He cleared his throat, smiled back and headed off down the hall.

 

That evening I sat at the dining room table, staring at an “Access Restricted” warning. It popped up when I tried to log in to the network used by my Delta Force team. Strange. Why wouldn’t my account have been reactivated?

On the secure phone, I sent another text to my team leader, then scooped up surveillance notes, organized them by possible targets in the main office with “J” names and stowed them in a floor safe. In the bedroom, I plugged in my unsecure personal phone then double checked the Glock 9mm in the wall safe.

The unsecure phone buzzed with a new text. I unlocked it and the message popped up.

Thx again for taking care of Jana. She’s been fine all evening. Seems much happier.

Glad she’s feeling better. She knows where to find me. Have a good night.

U 2.

I silenced the device. J? Maybe he’s the op target. Jana’s not trying to get his attention, Jason’s trying to get mine! I wonder who he’s with?

I readied for bed, running through the events of the day. I replayed my conversation with Jason again, remembering the tingle of excitement when I touched his arm, and again when he squeezed my hand. Stupid. I can’t believe I didn’t think of him right off the bat. Now I’ve acted like a schoolgirl with a crush and have to keep it up. Hm. Or maybe that’ll work to my advantage…

I drifted off, devising ways to get closer to Jason and gather more information for my team.

 

The next afternoon, I sat at my desk, making reminder calls to parents for medication refills.

“Alex, help!”

Jason hustled towards me, carrying a limp Jana in his arms.

“What happened?”

He laid Jana on the treatment bed with an Epi-Pen and package of Benadryl. “She was stung, here.” He held up her red, swollen hand.

I moved to Jana’s head and tapped her chest firmly. “Jana? Open your eyes!”

Jana moaned. Her eyes fluttered.

I sprang into action, checking vital signs and listening to Jana’s heart and lungs. “Did you use her Epi-Pen?”

“Yes. And she had two Benadryl melt-aways, about ten minutes ago. She’s never reacted this bad before. I called 9-1-1 and brought her down here when she started to get sleepy.”

“It might be the medicine. She’s not wheezing, no angioedema – sorry. Swelling in her mouth. She’ll probably need some steroids.” The blood pressure cuff beeped. “Good. BP’s normal. The Epi’s helping.”

Jason sat heavily on the foot of the bed. “I don’t know what she was thinking, swatting at a bee.”

“She probably wasn’t.”

He turned to face me and took my hand with his free one. My body responded, heart fluttering, conflicting with my instinct to pull away. I forced a smile. Act natural.

We jumped when the door banged open.

“Hello? EMS!”

A swarm of people filled the room. I gave my report while someone tended to Jana and another talked with Jason. Jana was transferred to the ambulance stretcher.

Jason stepped and engulfing me in a hug. “Thank you again.”

My stomach tightened. A flush spread across my cheeks at the stares of the emergency personnel. I offered him a small smile, butterflies filling my chest. Jason moved to the side and fell in line to follow the stretcher. When it rolled past, a hint of a smile played on Jana’s lips.

I narrowed my eyes, kicking myself for getting caught up in Jason’s show of affection. Could Jana be involved?

 

I signed my last chart from the day’s visits, closed the program and sat back. My purse rested on the desk, secure phone hidden inside. There’d been no response from Captain Davis, so I followed protocol and sent one to the commanding officer.

Checking the hallway first, I stepped into the treatment room and retrieved the phone. Finally! A response!

A shadow crossed over my shoulder. I spun around, slipping the phone into my waist band. “Jason! You startled me.”

He placed both hands on my arms, his grip tight. “I came back by to get my car and saw your light was on. Thanks so much for taking care of Jana. And me.”

I gave him a weak smile. “It was nothing. Just doing my job.”

“No, it was more than that.”

“I, uh-” My stomach flip-flopped, then remembered Jana, smiling as the she was wheeled out. I steeled myself. “Of course, Jason. Any time.”

His hands moved up, grazed the skin of my neck, and then cradled my face. He lowered his face and pressed his lips to mine. The pounding of my heart and tingling of my skin made fighting the urge to move my body closer impossible.

Jason deepened the kiss, his eyes closed. I moved my left hand up and around his neck, the other grabbing for an IV line lying nearby.

Our lips parted. He pressed his forehead to mine. “I’ve wanted to do that ever since I met you.”

“Mmm.” I slid my left hand down to his chest.

He started to pull back, lowering his hands. I snatched the other end of the IV tubing and wound it around his wrists.

“What the hell?”

“I could say the same to you,” I hissed. My right foot swept behind him, bringing him crashing to the floor. From the treatment desk, I grabbed the Benadryl melt-aways he’d left earlier and shoved several in his cheek. He tried to spit them out, fighting the IV line that restrained his hands.

“Hold still or I’ll knock you out!” I maneuvered him to his side and put one foot in his armpit.

“Jesus! All you had to do is say no when I tried to kiss you!”

“Oh, I’m on to you, Mula. You and your daughter.”

“Lieutenant Newman!”

I snapped to attention at voice my commanding officer, Major Finske. “Sir!”

“Lieutenant? I thought you were a nurse?” Jason looked from me to the major.

“What’s the meaning of all this, Lieutenant?”

“Sir?”

“Your messages. You’ve got all the teams at Fort Bragg in a tizzy. What’s going on?”

“Sir, I…uh…I was responding to my team activation letter.”

“You’re old team’s deployed. And nobody’s been reactivated.”

I cocked my head. “They’re deployed?”

“Yes, Lieutenant. Now, you better show me the letter you received.”

“Well, Sir, I, uh, I followed protocol and destroyed it.”

“How destroyed?”

“Very.”

He sighed. “I guess we’ll never know your source. It didn’t come from us.”

“What letter?” Jason’s speech slurred when he spoke.

I glared at him. “A love letter showed up in my mail on Monday. Same format we used to use to communicate when my Delta Force team was activated for an assignment. Before cell phones and texting were widely used.”

“Your Delta Force team? That’s badass!”

I crossed my arms. “Anyhow, the letter showed up, signed by a “J.” We used the first initial of our target or suspect in the signature. You and Jana kept crossing my radar. I figured you were the target.”

“What about my letter?”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, it’s right…here…” Jason struggled against the IV tubing for his back pocket. He pulled out a folded piece of paper, identical to the one I had eaten. His was signed “A.” I snatched it and started reading, the major moving to read it over my shoulder.

“What the devil,” I mused.

“That’s not from us,” Major Finske added. “There aren’t any operations here.”

“Jana.” Jason yawned. “I think she’s playing matchmaker.” His voice trailed off and he gazed up at me with a goofy grin. “You’re so pretty.”

I looked up. “Oh, shit. Sorry, Jason. It’s the Benadryl.” I moved to untie the IV tubing, then stood and faced Major Finske. “Sir, I’m very sorry for the mix-up.”

“I understand, Lieutenant. Know that if we reactivate you, you’ll get an official notice first. I’ll leave you to straighten things out here. I’m be available if there are any…administrative wrinkles.”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir” I held my salute while he moved towards the door.

Jason yawned loudly. “So, what now?”

I crossed the room and sat down next to him. “Now I apologize profusely and get you home. Is someone with Jana?”

“Yup. Her grandma.”

“And she’s okay?”

“Fiiiine. Seemed all better by the time we got to the ER.”

“Good. I’ll take you home in your car and get a cab back here to mine.”

“Mmm, sure. But what now?”

“I already answered that.”

“Nooo, what now, you and me? I liked kissing you.”

My face burned. “I liked it, too.”

“Can I do it again sometime?”

I bit my lip. “Yea, I think so.”

“Are you gonna tie me up again if I do?”

I grimaced. “Sorry about that.”

“No, really. Will you tie me up again? Cuz that was hot.”

“Um, we’ll see how you feel about it without a heavy dose of antihistamine. Maybe we should start fresh?”

He grinned and drew me close. “Nah, I think it makes for a good story.” I moved into him, smiling when our lips met.

 

Featured image: Courtesy of Justin Henry, CC 2.0 (copyright, 2007 11 19)

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