“The Engagement” (NYC Midnight Round 1, 2020)

This year, I participated in NYC Midnight’s Short Story Competition for the first time. Each writer is assigned a genre, character, and subject that should appear in the story; then, they have 8 days to write a short story that’s under 2500 words. Everybody gets feedback; the top five writers in each heat move on to the next round, which is shorter and has a shorter word limit.

Hopefully I’ll be participating in subsequent rounds as well – but for the first round in January, I was assigned to write a comedy featuring customer service and a wedding planner, and if you’d like to read it, here it is. 🙂

The Engagement

Madi plays along with a fake engagement to help out a friend, but isn’t expecting the real connection she finds.

“No, ma’am, absolutely not,” Ben said into his headset. “I assure you, it’s true. I would never lie to a customer.”

Madi rolled her eyes and asked her own caller, “Have you tried turning it off and then turning it back on again?” 

“It’s because I’m completely hideous,” Ben said, earnestly. “I can barely look at myself. Facial disfigurement. That’s why I work in this call center.” 

That was a lie. Ben’s face was perfectly normal. He worked in this call center, Madi knew, because the stakes were extremely low and he could therefore put in little to no effort. And turnover was constant, so when a manager eventually fired him for being wildly off-script, he’d find another customer service gig right away (and they would probably be too desperate to check his references). “And it’s way easier than waiting tables,” he had told her. 

Madi wasn’t judging him (about that, anyway). After all, she worked here too. And it was easier than waiting tables. She made her way through the script, wrapping up her call under the time limit and without getting cussed out (a victory!). Ben, meanwhile, seemed to be trying to fend off a wedding proposal from his caller. 

“It just wouldn’t be fair to our children,” he was saying. “What if it turned out my messed-up face was a heritable trait?”

Ben had taken a genetics class with Madi last year, “just to check it out.” He was still undeclared (they were juniors). Madi had been a doctor for Halloween every year from age four until she aged out of Trick-or-Treating, and after that she’d been a (regular, not “sexy”) doctor at a couple of Halloween parties on campus, too. 

Ben had been whatever his older brother had been five years previously for Halloween, although he’d hit his growth spurt earlier, so he’d been a serial killer (“they look just like ordinary people!”) after that. People like Madi’s roommate thought he was cute, so they pretended it was charming.

Madi had a sneaking suspicion that Ben’s helicopter mom was trying to bully him into med school. It would be an epic battle: Mrs. Vantner’s control issues and obsession with social status, vs. Ben’s disinterest in anything involving effort, like the MCATs and pre-med coursework (Genetics 101 had not been kind to his GPA). 

Madi picked up another call and worked the script, playing with the opal ring (formerly her grandmother’s, slightly too big) on her right ring finger. She started spinning it with her thumb while she explained to the customer that, no, it probably wasn’t a problem with the cable service, since the power was out in the entire house. And no, she wouldn’t be able to prorate the cable bill this month due to the power outage. 

Light swearing before the caller hung up, but Madi wasn’t sure if it was directed at her, the company, or the electrical grid itself, so she called it half a point and hoped the power came back on before the customer’s cell phone died. 

Ben was spinning in slow circles in his desk chair while he worked; Madi could hear the squeak each time he completed a lap. After their shift (two hours, seven minutes, and thirty-seven seconds from now, but who was counting?), they were going to the run-down diner across the street at Ben’s insistence (“I need your help with a really weird favor, Mads. Hear me out, please?”). Since her roommate couldn’t pick her up for another hour and a half and taking the bus took an hour (and because she was curious, okay, fine), she had agreed. 

She spent the rest of their shift trying to guess what Ben’s weird favor was. It probably wasn’t as weird as Ben thought; she’d met lots of weird people in life, and Ben was actually kind of basic, because the most remarkable thing about him was how much effort he put into not putting any effort into anything. So it probably wasn’t LARPing or tabletop game design or training a ferret to do tricks for his YouTube channel (Ben obviously couldn’t be bothered to run a YouTube channel, with or without a ferret that did tricks). 

When the interminable shift finally terminated, Madi and Ben clocked out and trudged across the street, Ben with his hands stuffed into the kangaroo pocket on his hoodie, the hood pulled up over his (slightly-too-long) hair, Madi pulling her gloves on even though it wasn’t far. She wanted to ask him what the favor was right away, but it had occurred to her that it might be interesting to see how long it would take for Ben to take the initiative to start a conversation (downside: if her plan backfired, it could take days). They crossed the street in silence.  

Madi chose the booth closest to the door, powder-blue leatherette creaking as they slid in. Ben let Madi order first, then just said “Same as hers” to the waitress. 

Those three little words aside, Ben made it through three-fourths of his burger without speaking. Madi grew increasingly impressed with his aversion to conversation. It was fairly unusual behavior; he didn’t like to actually do anything, but he was usually pretty talkative. 

Finally, cracking under the pressure to stay quiet (and perhaps a growing fear that the ‘weird favor’ was going to turn out to be something horrible, like “drive me to chemo” or “I need to hide a body from the cops”), Madi asked, “Okay, Ben, what’s the weird favor?”

“Oh,” he said. “Listen, I’m really sorry, but you know my mom’s totally crazy, right, and–”

Benjamin!” a voice trilled joyfully from the doorway, cutting him off. 

Mrs. Ventner stood just inside the entrance of the diner, haloed by the sunset behind her, looking like a Real Housewife who’d been airlifted into their college town for the pilot episode of some kind of fish-out-of-water spinoff. Her highlights (blonde), tanned skin (golden), jewelry (also golden, very large, diamond-encrusted), sweater (leopard-print, yet tasteful), blouse (satin), and handbag (Birkin) seemed to make the restaurant around her look dingier, somehow (possibly some kind of light refraction issue, given her nails, sunglasses, and shoes). 

“Hi, Mom,” he said, unusually meek. 

She put a hand to her chest (either to express horror at her surroundings or draw attention to her cleavage– or maybe both) and huffed. “Is that any way to greet your mother? Stand up and give me a hug, Benjamin!”

Madi had met Mrs. Ventner once, during move-in week. She’d been micromanaging Ben and his brother as they moved Ben’s stuff into the dorm. Madi had held the door long enough to be amazed at Mrs. Ventner’s existence outside of a reality TV set, and then fled. 

“And you must be Madi,” Mrs. Ventner said, her voice honey-sweet as she turned away from Ben and tugged Madi up out of the booth for a hug (she smelled floral and expensive). “Congratulations! I couldn’t believe it when Ben said he’d finally managed to propose to the love of his life!”

Madi looked over Mrs. Ventner’s head at Ben, not sure if she was projecting murder (her intention) or abject confusion (more likely). 

Ben looked panicked as he mouthed, Be cool! Please? at her.

“Oh! Let me see the ring!” Mrs. Ventner pulled away from Madi and grabbed for her hands; confused, she poked Madi’s grandmother’s opal. “Honey, it’s on the wrong hand!”

Madi mouthed What the heck? at Ben. 

I’m sorry, he mouthed back. 

Mrs. Ventner, meanwhile, was sliding Madi’s grandmother’s ring off her right hand and onto her left. “You kids these days! Benjamin, why on earth did you give her such a little ring? And you didn’t even get the band sized yet!”

“It was my grandmother’s,” Madi said, awkwardly.

Mrs. Ventner cooed, “Oh, that’s adorable! We can make sure the wedding band is more in line with– is more modern.” She smiled. “Or maybe Ben could design a new setting? Flank it with some diamonds!”

“Oh, wow, Ben,” Madi said, trying to sound like she wasn’t about to strangle him. “Yeah, get me some diamonds! That sounds perfect!”

“Yes, perfect!” Mrs. Ventner said. She hugged Ben, then hugged Madi again; Madi was very confused, and sort of wanted to murder Ben, but she honestly didn’t mind all the hugging. “Now, you aren’t planning on a long engagement, are you?”

“Well, we’d want to wait till after graduation–” Ben attempted, but his mother cut him off almost immediately. 

“No, no, Benjamin, it would be one thing if this was it, but you’ve got three more years if you do law and God knows how much longer if it’s med school!” She laughed, and Madi found her laugh strangely charming (at this point, Madi had decided to pretend the fake engagement was actually just a hallucination, or maybe that they were on some kind of prank show). “Listen, I have to run, but here, Madi, sweetheart,” she said, shoving a business card into Madi’s hands. “Here’s the wedding planner I booked. She’ll help you get everything straightened out. Wouldn’t a June wedding be just perfect?”

Madi sputtered incoherently. It was February 20th. 

“Well, if we can’t get a good venue on that timetable, October’s nice, too,” Mrs. Ventner said, patting Madi’s arm in a manner that was probably supposed to be comforting. “It’s gala season, but I’m sure we could squeeze something in!”

Mrs. Ventner hugged each of them again and left, still chattering off-handedly about floral arrangements and the mood board she was going to have her assistant start; the door swinging shut in her wake left them in silence. 

The waitress brought over a semi-melted slice of what passed for French silk pie. “Congratulations,” she said, flatly.

Madi sat back down and ate it. 

“So… yeah,” Ben said, eventually.

Madi licked her fork (and did not stab Ben with it). “Why does your mom think we’re engaged, Ben?”

Ben explained. Well, Ben summed up, and it was more or less: 

–Why Can’t You Be More Like Your Brother

–He Already Has An MBA, Benjamin

–He’s Been Getting Serious With Rosalie

–What Do You Contribute To This Family

–Oh! You’re Dating Someone? 

–She’s Pre-Med?

–Valentine’s Day Is Coming Up, You Know

–It’s VERY Romantic to Propose on Valentine’s Day, Benjamin

“And I swear, Mads, maybe I was… possessed? Or something? Dad’s been mixing the Bloody Marys pretty strong, and…”

“So you said we were engaged?” Madi demanded. “Ben, that’s… like, that’s…” 

Ben had dated Madi’s roommate for about fifteen seconds freshman year and that was as close as Ben and Madi had ever come to having chemistry (not counting the Genetics class they’d both taken).  

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll– I’ll come up with something. I’ll tell them it was, like, a misunderstanding.”

But Madi realized (with a slight feeling of approaching hysteria) that Ben, who had just stood by while his mother talked about who would cater their engagement dinner, would probably just take the path of least resistance all the way down the aisle if nobody stepped in to take care of it for him (because explaining his nonsensical lie would take effort, of which he was clearly incapable) and she was going to have to take care of it herself.

The next day, Madi woke up in her dorm room and mentally checked her to-do list: 

–Research paper for Anthro

–Pay credit card bill

–Laundry, especially stinky gym clothes

–Break off fake engagement to Ben 

She stared at the discolored ceiling, wondering how to take care of that last one. She didn’t know how to contact Ben’s parents; she could probably beat it out of Ben if she had to (he might even deserve it), but did she still have that wedding planner’s number? 

She called while she was doing her laundry, Anthro binder and laptop beside her on the bench beside the washer. After a brief, slightly confusing conversation with the wedding planner’s assistant (the washer was loud, cell reception was fuzzy, the situation was… difficult to explain) Madi agreed to go to the wedding planner’s office in person to discuss (cancel) the wedding planning. 

One dryer cycle and one rideshare later, she was whisked into a striking, open-plan office (lots of white, Danish modern decor, a wall of windows on one side); a few people were milling about, but her eyes settled on a woman seated at a desk across the room (all in black, sleek dark bob, blood-red lips). 

Madi’s mouth felt strangely dry. 

As she got closer, the woman looked up and smiled warmly (Madi’s heart might have stopped beating, just for a second). She rose and said, “You must be Madi. Mrs. Ventner called yesterday and said you might be by soon.” 

Madi shook her hand, feeling slightly dazed (based on yesterday and today, Madi’s stress reaction was obviously ‘startled compliance;’ how annoying). 

“I’m Morgan,” the woman said (her lips were truly an incredible, impossibly vibrant red). “I promised Mrs. Ventner I’d handle your arrangements personally.” 

Morgan’s sweater had a boat-neck and the edges of her collarbones were showing. Madi felt a strange and feral urge to bite them. “I’m Madi,” she said, realizing a split second later that Morgan had just said you must be Madi when she’d come in. 

“Congratulations on your engagement!” Morgan said, politely ignoring Madi’s (awkward) statement, motioning for Madi to take a seat across the desk from her (Madi complied). 

“It’s fake,” Madi said, still feeling dazzled by the shape and shade of Morgan’s mouth, her collarbones, the curve of her neck, the fall of her dark hair–

“Fake?”

“Ben made it up to get his mom off his back,” Madi said. 

Morgan’s eyebrows knitted together (they, too, were striking– how had Madi not noticed them immediately?). “I’m sorry?”

“We work together in a customer-service call center,” Madi said. “And we live in the same dorm. He made up the engagement thing to– I don’t know, compete with his brother, or something? It didn’t make much sense, honestly.” 

“So… you’re not engaged?” Morgan sounded bemused. 

“Nope,” Madi said. “Sorry for wasting your time.” 

Morgan’s brows relaxed. “Ah. So you’re not actually going to be a client after all.”

“No,” Madi said. “But I can play along for a while, if you bill by the hour.” Chipping away at Ben’s inheritance that way was a very indirect revenge, but Madi would settle for it. 

“I would really prefer that you not be a client, actually,” Morgan said. 

“Oh,” Madi said, stung, although she wasn’t sure why. She didn’t need a wedding planner. 

“Because I don’t date clients,” Morgan said, her red lips curling into a coy smile. 

An answering warmth washed over Madi. “I see,” she said, feeling herself start to grin. 

“But if you’re free this evening… Maybe we could meet up for dinner?” Morgan asked. “You could tell me more about your fake engagement. If you want to.” 

“I do,” Madi said.

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