Tuesday, January 29, 2019

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Lobster Bisque

For a number of years, I've participated in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. They give you three prompts and eight days to write a short story using these three prompts. The word count is capped at 2500. This year more than 4500 people from around the world participated.

My prompts were:

Genre: Romance
A Thing: A blank check
A character: A sea captain

My story takes place in prison, where all great romances begin.

Without further ado, I give you: Lobster Bisque.

Lobster Bisque


Chris Todd Miller

Portland Harbor, Casco Bay
Marion R Jensen Correctional facility
Rec Room

Free time in the rec-room at the Marion R Jensen Correctional facility in Portland, Maine resembled a playground, except there were no females, plenty of profanity, and in place of kickball, an old television clung to the wall. The corner of the screen was cracked, but the picture was clear. They even had a playground monitor, Correctional Officer Mendoza. A dozen inmates gathered around the idiot box.
Currently the Caucasians had the room, which today included a handful of skinheads. Access to the TV room rotated on a schedule between the Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, and the White Supremacists. Subcategories of those groups included everyone else: the mentally ill, the born-agains, the guys just trying to do their time, and any other hard ass that nobody wanted to mess with. As hard asses go, former Master Chief Petty Officer Curtis Oliver of the US Navy Seals was the baddest motherfucker on the block.
A dispute started over what to watch. Before things got heated they realized the channel was stuck on a local affiliate showing a Friends rerun. “Who the fuck was watching this?” asked Warchild, the skinhead leader.  
“Probably a schitzo,” replied another follicle-challenged brother.
Curtis smirked. It was rhetorical, you dumb hick.
Warchild left taking most of his cronies with him. Everyone else settled down to watch Friends, given it was their only option.
A new face pulled an orange plastic chair near Curtis and sat down. “Oh, this is the one where Phoebe tells Ross that Rachel is his lobster and she’s his.”
“Spoiler alert,” Curtis glared at the new guy. “Look, I don’t know who you are but I have two questions: one, what’re you talking about? And two: who the hell are you and why are you sitting next to me?”
“That was three questions.”
“You have exactly three seconds to get the fuck out of my face,” Curtis said.
The man put up his hands in a surrender gesture. “I’m Petty Officer 3rd Class, James Coleman, sir. You are Curtis Oliver and you’re a goddamn legend.”
Curtis looked at James for a long second. “That was a good answer. You can stay, for the moment.”
James slid his chair closer. His face shone like he was just asked to prom by the head cheerleader.
“You know my story?”
“Yes sir,” said James. “I don’t blame you one bit either. That son-of-bitch had it coming. He got off easy if you ask me.”
“Oh, I see. So you actually don’t know shit.”
“Just answer my other question,” Curtis said pointing at the television.
“Oh, yes sir.”
“And stop calling me sir. That’s not who I am anymore.”
“Yes si—um, okay. This is the episode where Ross is freaking out because he thinks he might lose Rachel and to calm him down Phoebe explains how lobsters mate for life and Ross and Rachel are lobsters to each other.”
“And this was a hit show?” Curtis asked. “It’s bullshit, by the way.”
“The show?”
“Yeah, but the lobsters, too. That’s not how they mate. Lobsters get it on with several mates.”
James scrunched his face. “Really, how do you know that?”
Curtis leaned forward and put his forearms on his knees. “Like I said, you don’t know shit about me. If you did, you’d know that before I ended up in here, my wife and I ran a lobster trawler. She still does, in fact.”
“You were the captain of a troller?”
Curtis shook his head. “Trawler.” He emphasized the AW. “And I never said I was the captain. That’s my woman. We own it, but I do whatever she says from emptying traps to eatin’ pussy.”
James nodded his head in deep contemplation. Curtis slapped James’ knee with the back of his hand. “You got a lady waiting on you?”
“Yeah, yeah I do.”
“Then you’d be wise to follow my advice. What’s her name?”
“Freyja. And she’s pregnant. Due in a few months.”
“No shit. When do you get out?”
“A lot longer than a trimester. This new administration is going to deport her and there’s not thing one I can do about it.”
“You married?”
“Engaged. Even if we were married, Trump’s ban would still kick her out.”
“Hashtag MAGA,” Curtis spat.


 Portland Harbor, Casco Bay
Marion R Jensen Correctional facility
The Prison Yard
Curtis and James met regularly in the yard. Curtis shared war stories and James, who never saw combat, shared Icelandic culture. James was convicted of forgery and immigration fraud trying to loophole the citizenship process for his fiancĂ©e. They met while James was stationed at the US Naval Base in Iceland at the Keflavik International Airport. When Curtis prodded him for details all James would say was “it’s complicated.”
On this day, the wind blew off the harbor and carried to the prison yard with a unique crispness. “It’s its own kind of punishment, you know?” Curtis said. “Putting us this close to the ocean and making it so far away.” They watched the trawlers come and go around the oil tankers, ferries, cargo and cruise ships, and the handful of yachts.
“Did you see that?” Curtis asked.
“See those trawlers to the north. Look for a flashing light. That’s my Jessie. She flashes that halogen light three times to let me know she’s close.”
“That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard,” said James. They stared at the harbor for a minute or maybe an eternity, Curtis wasn’t sure.
“Let’s think about something else,” James said. “What’s the first thing you’re going to eat when you get out?”
“That’s easy, lobster bisque. Jessie makes the best lobster bisque in New England.”
They walked alongside the chain link fence, razor wire circled the top. James picked up a rock and threw it over. “You’ve never told me her name before.”
“Yeah, well, I’m starting to not not like you.”
“Sea captain and she can cook. Doesn’t get much better than that.”
“No it doesn’t,” Curtis smiled and winked. They walked for a few more minutes.
“Can I ask you something else?”
“You can ask,” replied Curtis.
“What’s your real story? You said I don’t know shit about you. What don’t I know?”
Curtis squatted on his heels and sighed. “I never killed anyone. I mean, outside of a sanctioned maneuver. I know everyone here tells you they’re innocent, but I really am.” He stood and they continued to pace the perimeter. “Jessie’s dad died right after she was born. When she was sixteen, her mother remarried. Before long, her step-dad started touching her and it escalated from there. When she turned eighteen, she left. Got work as a deckhand. Worked her way up to first mate. Eventually, we met, bought a boat and went into business for ourselves.”
“You walked away from the SEALS to catch lobster?”
“I was in a dark place, Jimmy.” He looked out over the bay. “She silenced the demons. I think it’s because she’d beaten her own demons. There’s not much that salt water can’t cure.”
“What did you name your boat?”
“Blank Check. It was the key to our earning potential, a veritable boatload.” He laughed at his own joke. “It also symbolized what we were trying to do. A clean slate. A fresh start.”
“But then?”
“Step-dad knocked up Jessie’s mom. Ultrasound said girl. Jessie about lost it. There’s no way on God’s green Earth she would let what happened to her happen to her sister. She found her step-dad and shot him. There’s no way in hell I’d let my woman go to prison. I took the fall. I had a good lawyer. Got it knocked down to manslaughter. Now I’m here and she’s out there.”
“I can’t imagine doing that. I mean, I’d want to, I just don’t know that I could.”
“You could. For the woman who quiets the demons, you could do anything.”
They stopped near a corner of the yard. “You see this spot?”
“Here where we’re standing?”
“Yeah. Remember it.”
“It’s a dead spot. Come on, let’s head back. Hey, are you any good at forgery? I mean you’re here so maybe you suck at it.”
“I’m good. I’m real good. Like I said, it’s complicated.”
            As they approached the main area, Warchild stepped in front of Jimmy. “Where have you two lovebirds been?”
            Curtis motioned Jimmy behind him. “Leave it alone, Warchild.”
            “Leave what alone? Your boyfriend? I knew you two were fags. Come’re sweetheart, I’ll show you a real man.” Warchild reached for Jimmy. Curtis grabbed Warchild by the wrist, did a step-pivot-twist and Warchild was on the ground. Curtis put a foot on his throat and didn’t release the wrist hold. The skinhead circle moved in. “Back the fuck off,” Curtis said. He didn’t yell it. He didn’t need to. “Try something and he’ll be jerking off lefty for the rest of his life.” He applied more pressure to Warchild’s wrist. “Do we understand each other?”
            “Fuck you,” Warchild said.
            Curtis applied more pressure.
“Yes, goddammit,” he said through clenched teeth. “Everybody, back off.”
            “Say you understand.”
            “I understand. God, please. I understand.”
            Curtis released him. He motioned to Jimmy and they walked away.
“I can handle myself,” Jimmy said.
            “I know you think you can.”
            James scoffed. “Then why?”
            “Like I said, I’m not not liking you more and more, Jimmy.”

            The next morning Curtis and Jimmy sat across from each other at a table near the middle of the pod. Two trays sat between them consisting of oatmeal, eggs, toast, and sausage links.
            Curtis cut up his sausage and mixed it with the oatmeal.
Jimmy speared a link and put it in his mouth.
            “I wouldn’t do that,” Curtis said.
            Jimmy made a face as if he’d just licked the floor. Curtis put a hand over his mouth. “Swallow it. If the guards see you spit it out that’s all you’ll get for a week.”
            Jimmy choked it down.
            “The oatmeal makes it go down easier.” He removed his hand. “About your special skills. Let’s say I found a way out of this place.”
            “I’m listening.”
            “If I take you with me, can you make passports and other documents?”
            “Absofuckinglutely, but I’m not going anywhere without my Freyja.”
            Curtis sporked a mouthful of eggs into his mouth. “Jessie will pick her up and meet us at a designated time and place, then we make a run to Canada.”
            “The dead spot?”
            Curtis nodded. “The dead spot.”


Portland Harbor, Casco Bay
Marion R Jensen Correctional facility
The Dead Spot
A handful of stars fought a losing battle with the pre-dawn. Curtis and Jimmy slipped away from the work detail where they were supposed to report to laundry. Officer Rodriguez would make sure their absence went unnoticed until it was too late. They followed the fence until they reached the dead spot where Jessie would be waiting with bolt cutters and his beloved SIG Sauer P226, just in case.
They made it through the yard without incident. When they reached the dead spot, Jessie wasn’t there. Curtis scanned the area looking for her. “Jessie!” he whispered and yelled at the same time.
“Where is she?” Jimmy asked.
“She’ll be here.”
“We don’t have—”
“There,” Curtis pointed at dark figured, approaching north by north-east. “Come on, baby, daylight’s coming.”
There was no prescribed love scene like in the movies, they didn’t kiss between the chain-link or grasp hands. Jessie just went to work with the bolt cutters.
“You’re a minute late. What happened?”
“Ground patrol was late. Idiots. I nearly ambushed them. I’m surprised you haven’t broken out of this place on your own by now.” She worked the bolt cutter with an easy rhythm. She’d cut through about a dozen links when Curtis grabbed the fence with both hands and wrenched back the opening. Jimmy wriggled through then he held the opening for Curtis.
“Did you bring it?” Curtis asked.
Jessie gave him a WTF look and withdrew a Sig Sauer and shoulder holster from a nap sack.
“Come to me, baby.”
Jessie handed it to him and he cinched it up with a practiced movement. Jessie already wore hers.
“You both have one?” Jimmy asked.
“Jessie, this is Jimmy.”
Jessie cocked her head. “Where’d you find this guy?”
Curtis laughed. “Iceland, as it turns out.”
She looked at Jimmy. “Freyja’s on my trawler. She’s fine but we need to go.” She looked at Curtis. “And for you, a thermos of lobster bisque waits below deck.”
“Can’t wait.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?” Jimmy asked.
Alarms shattered the peaceful morning. Spotlights raced each other across the yard and stopped on the three fugitives.
“Shit, go,” Curtis yelled. The three of them took off down the hillside, Jessie in the lead. The terrain was largely kept clear to deter escapees, but the city also had an ordinance that basically said it needed to look pretty. Clumps of trees dotted the area partially obscuring the prison and still giving the locals their fall colors.
The three zig-zagged from clump to clump until they ran out of trees. Between them and the bay was a hundred yards of open ground. An ATV crested the rise to either side of them, their headlights blazed into the remnants of the night. Curtis put a hand on the back of Jimmy and Jessie, pushed them forward and yelled, “Go.”
The three sprinted for the dock. Curtis calculated the intercept point. They weren’t going to make it. He stopped and fired his Sig at one ATV then turned on the other. He aimed high, hoping the shots would slow them down. It worked. The pursuers came to a halt, only to pull out rifles and return fire.
Jessie and Jimmy stopped when they heard the shots.
Curtis went down.
Jimmy froze.
Jessie shrieked.
Jimmy did an awkward dance as he tried to flee and run back to Curtis at the same time. Jessie sprinted back to her Master Chief. “Come on,” she yelled. When she reached him, she turned and laid down cover fire in one direction while Curtis mirrored her. Curtis yelled at Jimmy, “Go, get to the boat!” Jimmy bee-lined it for the dock, but hesitated before boarding.
Curtis fired a shot over his head and waved him on. Jimmy would have sense enough to know that meant shove-off and don’t look back.
Jessie put his arm around her shoulder and the two of them humped it back to the nearest cluster of trees. Through the crimson and gold leaves, they watched their Blank Check merged into the harbor traffic and disappear.
She looked at his wound. “How much time do we have?”
“Two minutes, maybe less. Look, they don’t know about you. I can get you a head start.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
He blinked back tears. “If you stay, know this: I’m not going back to prison.”
She slapped a new magazine into her Sig, racked the slide, and kissed him. “I go where you go.”


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