This is my first attempt at the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The story had to be less than 1,000 words with the following conditions:
- Genre – Romance
- Location – Aquarium
- Random Item – Jalapeno Pepper
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at quarter-past twelve, Archibald Monroe took a seat inside an auditorium at the aquarium next door to the bank where he worked as a loan officer. The Birds of the Rainforest show was his favorite exhibit and in the past seven weeks, he hadn’t missed a single performance. The show began promptly at 12:40 p.m. but arriving early gave him time to scarf down his lunch – a cardboard container of jalapeno poppers from a food truck parked outside the glass and steel structure.
Archibald preferred the exotic birds over the mysterious sea creatures within the multi-story building, but thought none of them compared to their handler, Deirdre Carlin. Her pouty lips, dark lashes, and mane of glossy, auburn hair captivated him, but he was most impressed with her well-toned physique. She looked the picture of health.
Unlike Vera. Vera also worked at the bank next door. Every day at lunchtime, she and Archibald shared a rickety table in the breakroom. He asked her out over its faded, laminate top. When Vera shared the news of her cancer diagnosis while sitting across from him at the same table, he half-heartedly promised to be there for her.
But that was before he drove her home from her first chemo treatment and she puked all over the inside of his Mercedes. The next day he sent her a dozen roses and a copy of the receipt for the auto detailing service responsible for cleaning the mess.
Archibald avoided the breakroom afterward, which was how he wound up visiting the bird show at the aquarium. He since went out of his way to avoid Vera at work and hadn’t returned to his former lunch venue. Not even when the bank manager mass-emailed the employees to congratulate Vera on the news of her cancer going into remission. He couldn’t risk getting emotionally close to someone that sick.
Right on time in the auditorium, the lights dimmed over the audience and spotlights illuminated the stage. Archibald devoured the last of the deep fried jalapenos, stuffed the container into the pocket of his jacket, and licked his fingers clean.
Twenty-five minutes later, after the meager midday crowd dispersed, Archibald practically bounced to the front of the stage. “Hi Deirdre! Are we still on for tonight?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t miss it.” Deirdre’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and her bottom lip quivered. “I look forward to something to make me smile after…well.” During the show she mentioned the passing of Bryan, her scarlet macaw.
“Yeah. Sorry to hear it. You think you’ll find a replacement soon?”
She glanced up and held his gaze. “Oh yes, quite soon. I have my eye on one which should work out nicely.”
“Great! Still want me to pick you up at your apartment?” Archibald’s smile broadened, dimpling his cheeks when she confirmed her address so he could plug it into his phone.
“Losing someone you love is hard.” Archibald covered Deirdre’s hand with his. They sat at the kitchen table in her apartment, empty plates all that remained of the dinner she prepared – steak, baked potatoes, and his favorites, jalapeno poppers.
She gave a deep sigh. “A macaw can live as long as a human. He should have lasted another forty years at least. Did you know they mate for life?”
“I had no idea.” Archibald leaned forward, enchanted by his hostess.
“They do.” She nodded, pulling her hand away. “And they aren’t likely to leave their mate for someone younger and sexier.”
“Did someone leave you?” When Deirdre didn’t answer, he pressed, “What common excuse for a human would leave you? I hope you don’t mind my saying, but you’re the prettiest woman I ever met. I’d certainly never leave you.”
A flush crept into Deirdre’s cheeks and she stood, clearing the dishes away from dinner. Archibald sat back and watched, his eyes taking in her form as she moved.
“So what’s your story?” She asked while stacking the dishwasher. “Surely you weren’t always single.”
“I was dating someone from work, but it didn’t work out.”
Archibald hesitated only slightly. “She needed time to focus on herself.”
“How very selfish! She must not have been the one.”
“No, no I don’t think she was. You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard, finding the right person to spend the rest of your life with.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” she agreed, turning on the dishwasher. Then she turned to her guest. “Would you join me in the living room? I have a new bottle of cognac waiting for a special occasion like tonight, if you’re up for a nightcap.” He readily agreed, her cologne luring him into the next room like a hummingbird to a fragrant flower.
A pounding headache woke Archibald from a deep sleep. He blinked his eyes open and looked around. What is this place? He thought. Jungle? Forest? Where am I?
Just then, Deirdre’s face came into focus. Archibald tried to speak, but his voice came out in a squawk. He looked down at the feathers covering his body and screamed.
“Shh, it’s okay precious Archie.” Her fingers delicately ran over his head and down his back, causing him to shiver. She carefully removed him from the enclosure. “You’re right. It’s difficult to find the one person to share the rest of your life. When you kept appearing in the audience, I knew you were the one for me.”
Archibald stared at his date from the previous night, too shocked to speak, much less squawk.
“And now you’ve replaced Bryan, so we can spend the rest of our lives together! I love you so much, Archie. We’re going to be so happy together.”
Deirdre stepped onto the stage and waved at her audience. “Welcome to Birds of the Rainforest! Today I’d like to introduce you all to Archie, a blue and gold macaw.”