This story is by Robert Burns and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I sat comfortably in Mr. Johnson’s office at the blue-chip law firm Salinger, Johnson & White. My interview for the open associate position had gone well to that point, and I felt good about my performance.
Mr. Johnson swiveled slowly in his chair, transfixed by my resume. “We have one final question, Mr. Hawthorne,” he said, looking over the rim of his glasses and setting the pen and resume down on the desk. Leaning forward on his elbows, his eyes pierced mine.
“Mr. Hawthorne, you’re driving your sports car through a hurricane, the worst storm on record. Lightning bolts flash, followed moments after by timpani of thunder.”
My brow crinkled at the melodramatic language.
“You come upon a bus stop and see three people, strangers to you and to each other, huddling to stay out of the storm, waiting for the bus.”
“I don’t think I’d be driving a sports car through a hurricane.”
“A normal rainstorm then,” he said blankly, rolling his eyes. “The three people are an elderly woman on the verge of death, a man you recognize as someone who once saved your life…”
“That’s quite a coincidence.”
“…and a woman you sense instantly is your soulmate, the girl of your dreams.”
“I don’t believe in love at first sight. Is this some kind of ‘happily ever after’ scenario?”
Mr. Johnson’s eyes narrowed. “Are you interested in this job, Mr. Hawthorne?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
“So, the question is: knowing your car is a two-seater, whom would you drive to safety, and why?”
“Yes, really. It’s a standard question. We need to know how you would make these types of tricky, moral decisions that require immediate attention.”
“Well, is the elderly lady really sick? Or is she, maybe, some sort of hypochondriac?”
Mr. Johnson grimaced. “Very sick. If she doesn’t reach a hospital soon, she will surely die.”
“And the guy. Did he really save my life? Or was it one of those ‘right place at the right time’ sort of things?”
“He leapt in front of you during a bank robbery and took a bullet in the shoulder for his trouble,” the interviewer ad-libbed.
“I don’t suppose my soulmate would be waiting for me by the time I returned from the hospital?”
“No, Mr. Hawthorne, she would be gone forever,” he said, searching the ceiling for relief. “You’re not very quick on your feet, are you?”
Mr. Johnson stood abruptly and held out the resume, not waiting for my answer.
“Thank you, Mr. Hawthorne. We’ll be in touch.”
I stormed out of the building and caught my breath in the parking lot. The interview had devolved into a joke, and I couldn’t believe Johnson had ended it so suddenly.
Shredding the resume into a million pieces, I flung it into the air and stomped across the parking lot to my Austin-Healey. Yanking open the door, I collapsed into the bucket seat.
My fists pounded the steering wheel. Damn it. Damn it. DAMN IT!
Searching my face in the rear-view mirror, I debated. Well, that was the worst job interview ever. What went wrong? It was going okay until that last question! And how did he know I drive a sports car?
I cranked the window down and lit a Marlboro. My neck relaxed as the nicotine took effect, and I studied the purple plume of cigarette smoke as it wafted into the blue sky.
What kind of question was that, anyway?
In my anger, I ignored the thunderheads gathering on the distant skyline. The engine burbled to life, and I popped the clutch and floored it. With an exasperated squeal of rubber, I screamed out of the parking lot.
By the time I reached Dunellen Avenue, the once crystalline blue sky had taken on a decidedly stormy, clay-colored, cast, and, as I turned onto Route 22, the storm was upon me. The wipers worked double-time to shed the continuous sheets of rain that pelted the windshield. The howling wind, accompanied by the lightning’s staccato rhythm, bent the roadside maples seemingly in half. Great claps of thunder pounded my brain with a ferocious resonance as I strained to see through the wall of water. I slowed to a crawl.
The storm abated somewhat, and I switched the wipers to normal speed as they started to outpace the raindrops. Breathing a little easier because I could actually see beyond the hood of my car, I clicked on the radio.
…worst storm in nearly a decade, pounding the tri-state area. Expect widespread flooding and high winds, with a chance of tornados. Residents are encouraged to shelter in place…
Through the lull in the storm, I saw the lights of a bus shelter up ahead. Three people huddled under umbrellas beneath the leaky canopy. A stout man attended to an elderly, gray-faced woman lying back against the bench. A younger woman battled her inside out umbrella in the gusty wind.
That last interview question came roaring back to me. You’ve got to be kidding me.
I pulled the sports car to the curb and stared. Half-sprawled on the bench, the old woman struggled for breath. Wait. Is that Chuck, an acquaintance of mine from years ago, mopping her brow with a soaked handkerchief? And the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on watched over the two of them, as her umbrella escaped and flew down the street. Not even the anguish in her face could mask her beauty. I grabbed my umbrella and sprang from the car, as the storm began to strengthen again.
Dashing to the shelter, I extended the umbrella over the young woman’s head. Her perfect smile was not lost on me as she refocused on the drama playing out before us.
“Chuck?” I said, “Is that you? What are you doing here?!”
“Nate? Jesus, you’ve gone gray. How’s that kidney doing?”
“Still doing its thing. What’s going on?”
“Agnes here is having some sort of attack. We were all waiting for the No. 11 bus, when suddenly, the rain started blowing in sideways, and she just collapsed. I can’t rouse her! The storm must have knocked out cell service, so we’re stuck. She needs to get to a hospital.”
The beautiful girl looked up at me through the eyelashes of her enchanting, forest green eyes. Placing her delicate hand on my arm, she said, “I’m Phoebe. Can’t you help us, Nate?”
Something about her made my heart skip. It was as if she looked into my soul. I could feel her way down inside me, a warm, fuzzy glow. I knew right then what “love at first sight” really meant. I had found the girl of my dreams.
I was torn and considered: do I drive Agnes to the hospital? I would probably never see Phoebe again.
Should I give Chuck a ride? I mean, how do you repay someone for the donation of an organ? That wouldn’t solve anything in this moment, though.
And if I offered Phoebe a ride, she would probably think I was just a selfish jerk and refuse. Besides, that wasn’t really me. I’ve always tried to do the right thing.
Like a lightning strike, the brilliance of Mr. Johnson’s final question in that terrible interview flashed into my brain with newfound clarity. It occurred to me the last interview question wasn’t really so tricky after all.
I handed my keys to Chuck. “Can you drive a stick? You need to get this lady to a hospital.”
“Sure, but what will you do?”
“Wait here for the No. 11 bus, with Phoebe.”
I helped Chuck wrangle Agnes into the car, then watched it skid out onto the wet road and race toward St. Mary’s Hospital.
I returned to the shelter to wait out the storm with Phoebe. The adulation in her eyes as I approached convinced me of the wisdom of my decision. We sat together on that hard bench and watched the rain, exploring the soft parts of each other’s soul. Phoebe and I talked for what seemed like hours, as if we were old friends, and, by the time the headlights of the No. 11 Midtown bus came into view, we were.
I looked into Phoebe’s eyes, excited by the promise of the future they reflected. I knew this was surely the start of the rest of our life together. We were soulmates.
The sun poked its head through the parting gray clouds just as it touched the horizon. I checked my cell and saw that service was restored. The job interview was no longer the most important thing in my life, but I had one more task to complete. I hit redial.
“Mr. Johnson? This is Nate Hawthorne. I have the answer to that final question…”