NYC Midnight Short Story Competition, Round 1: Advanced Chemistry

This is my first year entering the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. I had literally never heard of such a thing until Friday, January 18th, about twelve hours before registration closed. I gave it a whole ten minutes of thought and entered, because I’m addicted to the natural high of low odds and instant regret.

That evening, after remaining sick with worry, all day, I got my randomly-assigned prompts in the email. Over the weekend, in between PodCon, I wrote my first draft, then opened the week with a second draft. On Tuesday afternoon, I was feeling good about the story, which I’d ironed down to a neat 2,490 words. On Tuesday, evening, I was in tears and ready to burn the whole draft down.

So I did. I never doubted that rom-com would be difficult! My previous story felt too fluffy and dishonest. I started from scratch on Tuesday night and had something presentable, if a little darker and weirder, in the next twenty-four hours. I had it beta-read by Thursday, and submitted by Friday, and at least comfortably under the 2,500 word count. The thing about this story contest, though, is that each round shortens the time to write and cuts the word count by five hundred. Even if I don’t make it to the next stages of the contest, I effectively round-two’d myself prematurely. Nice.

Warning: the story is a tad NSFW. Please enjoy! 


Prompts for Heat 24

Genre: Romantic comedy

Thing: Gossip

Character: a scholar


Summary

Mara, an ambitious undergraduate student, is casually dating her chemistry professor and longs to take things to the next level. After overhearing a conversation with a former lover and student of his, Mara discovers the prerequisites for remaining a permanent fixture in his life.


Advanced Chemistry

Introduction and Purpose. 

“Nice try, but he’s aged out of grad students now.”

“How d’you know?”

“How d’you think?”

Mara remained at eye level with the meniscus in the pipette. It took everything she had to keep focused, both on her titration lab and the two chatty TA’s who thought they were having a private conversation at the front lab table. The slightest move or distraction could skew her results by factors of ten.

“So, what? Other faculty only now, or…?”

Snickering. “Other direction.”

“You’re shitting me. Undergrad—?”

“Yee-up.”

Mara could feel their judging eyes rake across the classroom.

“God, it could be anyone, huh?”

“Oh, yeah. Wish I knew so I could warn her of the weird shit he’s into.”

“Like what?” Silence. “Come on!” Mara strained to hear what came next, which sounded like, “…feet?”

Snort. “I wish it was that simple.”

“You have to tell me.”

“Weird things, like… I told you that weekend we drove to the Chalet after finals, right? And I was driving and hit a curb with his car…”

More whispering. Mara’s lab partner, who was knocking a glass stirrer around the beaker of phenolphthalein solution, glanced up at her. “You’re counting, right?”

“Thirty-seven,” she replied. “Thirty-eight, thirty-nine…”

She said the words mechanically, straining to listen once more: “…accidentally broke his iPhone X? No lie—best sex we ever had.”

“Mara.”

Forty, forty-one…

“…Ruining his personal items?”

“Mara!”

Forty-four, forty-five…

“…The more expensive, the better.”

“Mara,” said Professor Keegan. She stopped the pipette. The phenolphthalein flushed vivid magenta, as did Mara.

“You kept going a little too long,” Professor Keegan said, not unkindly. “Right? You’ve got to measure exactly so you can determine the mystery variables. Carelessness is gonna mess up your calculations and skew the results.”

Mara nodded. “Sorry,” she said. “I just—got distracted.”

David—Professor Keegan—nodded stiffly. “Well, you know my office hours,” he said. “Come see me if you’re still stuck.” He turned back with that little self-deprecating smile that she liked so much. “I mean it. Nobody ever comes to my office hours.”

Mara made it to office hours. She made it to dinner, which was a thirty-minute drive from campus so they could have some privacy together. And unlike the nights that had come before, she made it to David’s house, long past dark. On her way inside, she purposely dropped her keys so she could see the faint scratches that had been all but covered up on the bumper of his nice Mercedes.

She wasn’t going to become some bitter TA, sniping Professor David Keegan from just out of earshot to hide her bitter heartbreak six months from now. This wasn’t for fun, this wasn’t work or experience. This was endgame. This was Mara’s track to tenure.

 

Materials and Procedure. 

She surreptitiously knocked over her glass of wine on David’s living room rug. He didn’t even bother with a lecture—he just put down a clumsy swath of stain remover and dragged her to the bedroom while it set. It was their first time together, fevered and inevitable. It was how the night was supposed to end. Mara had just found a way to it quicker than most had before.

The TA had been right. Mara soon found that her control variable, conventional methods of seduction, just didn’t bring the heat that a “broken” one did. She cooked for him as much as possible: nothing was easier to accidentally ruin than a meal for two. And when she wanted to eat, it was spaghetti, curry, sloppy joes—the messier, the better. She’d ruin a blouse, knock over a glass, break a dish here and there. The greater the wreckage, the better the attention, the more satisfying the lay. Even abstractions worked: the night she checked her grade in his class and found out that she’d failed his chemistry final, he made love to her for hours and decided he wanted to take her on vacation somewhere.

Mara discovered that David had to be there for the fall, or at least the immediate aftermath. Her cracked phone screen, which she showed him after a nasty drop on the granite steps of Howard Hall, elicited no response besides sympathy. Her broken glasses, taped back together, gave her nothing more than an air of juvenile cuteness.

David, for his part, seemed to have no self-awareness of his strange quirk whatsoever. Mara prodded him to discuss his fantasies, which all ran in varying shades of vanilla. She was sure he was hiding from her scrutiny.

“What if you pushed me up against the door hard enough that it broke?”

He scowled. “I’d be worried about hurting you.”

“Pretend I come into your office wearing nothing but stilettos and that little pink thing you bought me. I sweep everything off your desk, including your computer, and it breaks. But I’m laying on your desk like this.” She demonstrated, cocking her hip and thrusting her chest forward. “What would you do?”

He thought about it. “Is this during office hours, or no?”

“What if we were at the Morton Gallery and I knocked over a candle and set all the oil paintings on fire?”

But he’d fallen asleep next to her.

In a true accident, Mara once tossed David’s only days-old smart watch into the washing machine with a load of dirty clothes. They found it hours later, water-logged and irreparably broken. It was the first time he told her that he loved her, breathless as he fucked her in time with the spin cycle, clutching the dead gadget like a magical talisman. Mara once shattered half a case of fine champagne intended for New Year’s Eve, and they hadn’t even swept up the glass before David asked her to move in with him.

There were obvious downsides to his little quirk, too. Finals week was a recurring nightmare of insecurity for Mara. Her mental inventory was a running overtime, tallying things she could afford to break, cross-referenced with things she could believably end up breaking to distract David from the newest, hottest undergrad spectacularly failing his class. He was once rear-ended in his car by an attractive older woman, and Mara found David sending flirtatious texts to her long after they’d exchanged insurance information. She wouldn’t go to any restaurant where she’d heard or read a review where a waiter spilled something on someone else. Despite everything, accidents happened. Broken things were replaced with sturdier, less breakable things. David grew distant, burying himself in the solitude of his work and focusing more on publishing, grading, his grad students—the unshakable foundations of academia. The only fragile thing left in the house, Mara realized, was the two of them.

She considered her options. The university still had no inkling that David was seeing a student, which left Mara the tantalizing possibility of letting slip the nature of their relationship to someone important while he was around. But she was certain he’d lose his job—and then what? No more bank holiday trips to the mountains, where she’d “accidentally” snap the mirror off their rental car and receive the princess treatment the entire weekend. Besides, David loved his job. She couldn’t take that from him. Despite past habits of serially dating his students, Mara knew he was a good teacher. But after so many years of ruining so much, she was lost for how to fix any of it.

 

Data and Results.

Candles? Yeah, candles. Better candles now than to have to fiddle with the lighter later on. Their anniversary dinner was filet mignon, blackened and well done, served with mealy mashed potatoes and over-cooked garlic green beans.

“How’s dinner?”

“Great! Thanks, baby.”

Mara set down her fork. “Great?”

“Mm.” David nodded and took a swig of the sweet, bright Riesling she’d poured to pair with dinner. Mara watched his expression: not even a wince. To add insult to injury, he craned his neck and looked interestedly around for the bottle. “What is this? It’s nice.”

Nice? Was he deliberately trying to hurt her?

Mara stared at him across the table, which was marble-topped and supported by sturdy legs the circumference of her own—an upgrade from the pressboard Ikea set he’d bought years ago and she’d only thought to ruin last month. How had it all come to this? She’d surrendered the best fragile years of her youth to him. There was no warranty for that. She was not like his grad students, or last year’s Kindle Fire, easily breakable and cheap enough to replace without too much fuss. She wouldn’t quietly sweep herself into the dustpan and be set out on the curb of David’s life.

David found the bottle and was topping off his Riesling. The glass was suddenly in Mara’s hand, the wine glugging onto the tabletop. Wine sprayed through the air as she pitched the glass overhand against the wall. It exploded in a satisfying mist.

David had no time to look aghast as Mara threw herself at him, wrestling her way across his lap, mouth frantic against his. He let out a moan, a little out of surprise, but there was as much heat behind his reciprocation as there was pink in the filet mignon. Mara dragged him to the bedroom and he followed, half-laughing as she clicked him in the novelty fuzzy handcuffs to the headboard. She stood over him, lit from below by a flickering forest of white votives.

David frowned, sensing danger. “Mara, baby—what’s going on?”

At her feet was a crate of nice wine glasses they’d ordered from Pottery Barn—they went through roughly one broken wine glass a week. She picked one up by the stem and smashed down on the footboard, sending shards flying. David flinched.

“Oops,” she demurred. “That do anything for you, hon?”

“Something,” David conceded. His chest rose and fell, perhaps more for fear than arousal. Mara put another under her stiletto heel and crushed the bulb, watching him. His interest was lukewarm at best—unconvincing.

“I used to know how to make you happy,” she said, her voice cracking. She pulled one of his favorite vinyl records from the shelf—Velvet Underground, VU—and snapped it in half with her bare hands. David gasped like she’d slapped him. “This used to make you happy,” she said, picking another at random and shattering it over her knee.

“It makes you happy!” David insisted. “You—you always like breaking things, and I love you, and I thought—”

“You don’t know what this means to me,” she said, teetering on the verge between laughing and crying. It was absurd how much she wanted him, even now, walking in heels through bits of broken glass and vinyl. “Don’t you try and turn this around on me. Don’t you dare. I’ve given you everything I have! I deserve you. I cracked the code. I made it further than anyone else.” She dropped the snapped pieces and crawled over him, shedding her clothes as she went, and she could see a glimmer of desire in his eyes. “I’m not crazy, babe. I’m not. What is it? What’s missing?”

“I don’t know!” He shook his head, helpless. “I don’t know.”

She reached behind him, under the pillow where she’d hidden his anniversary present—a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s, the rarest and most expensive bourbon she’d been able to find. David had tried it once and spoke of it often. He recognized it immediately. It was aged twenty years, the same as Mara when she’d first met David. Mara twisted off the cap and waved the mouth before him, barely letting him catch the virgin, barrel-aged fumes.

“Tell me,” she said.

“I can’t explain it,” he said. “It’s just how I’ve always been. I lost my virginity when my high school girlfriend totaled my first car. In the totaled car.”

“And it’s just… any time someone ruins something valuable to you?”

He wobbled his head. “My mom gave me a bowl cut every other month growing up until I was fifteen, and I never wanted to fuck her. It’s only with women I’m attracted to.”

“And you never told anybody?”

He shook his head, mystified. “I’ve never had to.”

She sat back. “I don’t know how to keep you.” She took a clumsy swig of bourbon and let it burn all the way down as David watched her, hungrily. “I thought about telling the dean about us. Ruining your career.”

“It wouldn’t work, Mara,” he said sadly.

She kissed him one last time, letting him taste her final gift to him on her lips. She yanked away.

“It wouldn’t work because it has to be—”

No more. Mara heaved the five-thousand-dollar bottle of whiskey overhead and let it smash where it wanted to.

“—an accident. Oh god—Mara!” A wave of heat washed over them as flames from the votive candles caught and leapt high on the bed skirt, fueled by the spilled bourbon. Mara, straddling David, felt the familiar stir of him beneath her, now of all times.

An accident. It had to look like an accident.

 

Conclusion.

The flames chewed and picked over their home. Firefighters arrived, then neighbors. Mara and David were identified and questioned and pushed to the wayside while the real work happened. Wrapped in shock blankets, huddled together as their life went up in flames, David held Mara close and asked her if she’d marry him.

All these things they had bought together—they’d be reduced to ashes or splinters before dawn. When the lines between his and hers blurred, nobody wanted to indulge in the sensuality of destruction anymore. That was why nobody else had made it this far.

Mara looked up at David, who was focused on hiding his painful arousal for her, especially pertinent given the arrival of reporters. They’d be in the news—and maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, judgement at work would come for David. Caught in bed with an undergrad? It’d be the scandal of the year.

Let them think what they wanted to think, Mara decided. Nothing was his or hers when they had each other—when everything around them burned down to keep them warm. All of it, all that kept them held together, was little more than a happy accident.

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