Set Your Cap

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Little Boxes (Romance, Writing Award 2023)
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
Lucia’s boyfriend died while they were having sex. Afterward she gave up romance, relationship and sex. Yet, three years later, she finds herself, begrudgingly, standing in front of 21 men on a famous reality dating show, hoping she can play the game and go home, alone, without killing anyone else.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

I have killed ten percent of my sexual partners. I’m not a murderer but I am cursed. Men come near me and end up injured – broken toes, stitches, bruised shins, a torn ACL - although none as devastating as Ed. We’d been dating about three months, still in the honeymoon phase, and we spent most nights together at either his place or mine. I preferred mine and, of course, that’s where he died.

No one could’ve predicted this tragedy. At thirty-seven, Ed, ten years older than I, was healthy. He ate right, exercised. People, even his own mother, remind me it wasn’t my fault and that he died doing something, someone, he loved. Is that crude? It’s factual but I suppose facts can be crude.

We’d had a lovely, relaxing brunch, a hike at Sugarloaf Mountain, stopped at a winery. Ed wanted to grill steaks for dinner so we did a grocery run. Just a normal Sunday.

It was my fault. I’d become too comfortable. Three months in and Ed remained injury-free, a record for me. I’ve had relationships last longer than three months, much longer, but this was the first adult relationship that went more than ninety days with no mishaps. Ed knew all the stories, telling them had become one of the things I wanted men to know before we even went on a first date.

Ed’s favorite was about the guy who took me to a Nationals game and got hit in the head by a ball. There’s a 1:840 chance of catching a foul ball, unless you’re with Lucia Barnes. Then it’s a 1:3 chance, all resulting in a bruise. Yes, I’ve had three dates at baseball games and each ended when my date went for a foul ball and failed.

Ed and I had a little celebration on our three month anniversary. Ed even gave me a small gift. A “this relationship is 90 days injury free” sign. As an airplane mechanic he was familiar with those types of workplace signs and cracked himself up when he gave it to me. We made it ninety-seven days without even so much as a papercut. Until that night.

After the hospital, the funeral, and the grief, I swore off dating. Not just dating, any romantic or sexual entanglements. I have plenty of friends, human and electronic, to meet my needs. And yet, in my hands was a large express-mail envelope addressed to me from a popular reality dating show.

I’ve called my mother, my best friend, and both of my grandmothers to see if any of them know about this. No one has called me back. Maybe it’s just some promotional item? It was one of the more clever dating shows and I’m a fan but I’d never admit that. Did I order something?

The envelope was more like a package. Heavy, too heavy for a shirt but soft like clothing. Maybe it’s a sweatshirt? I knew one of those nosy broads had something to do with this and I refused to open Pandora’s Box until one of them fessed up.

“Fine!” I shouted into the void as I pulled open the rip tab too quickly and banged my knuckles on the cookie jar.

Inside was a stack of paper and a hoodie. I dumped the contents on my kitchen counter and picked up the shirt. It’s cute with the Set Your Cap logo, the right size, too. I hung it over the chair next to me and picked up one of the papers that fell on the floor.

“Congratulations, Lucia! We’re excited to have you as our next single!”

I tossed the letter across the counter. “I’m going to kill someone!”

My front door squeaked open, “Like that’s something new for you.”

“Not funny, Ron.”

Chapter 2

Ron and I have been neighbors for several years. Ron and his wife Penny raised their kids here and were among the first families to buy when the building went condo. Penny passed away only a short time after she retired from her Pentagon job, I wished I’d known her. Ron was a grandpa and instead of taking the metro to his job on K Street every day, he took his Vespa to grandkids’ soccer, football and tennis games. I loved him but he’s a pain in the ass.

I handed him a beer as we retreated to the balcony. “You’re a jerk.”

“Also not something new. Who are you going to kill this time?”

We shared a peculiar bond. I never imagined having a friend, a male friend, nearly the same age as one of my grandfathers. Ron probably doesn’t consider me a friend, I’m more like another person or thing for him to look after – like his dogs, his plants, and his art. Either way, it worked. He’s a good sounding board and I advised him how to not piss off his kids.

Ron and I sorted through the papers in the Set Your Cap package. As a retired attorney he’s helpful with the small print on some of these contracts. Lots and lots of forms, too.

I finally sipped my pinot grigio. “We don’t need to look at all of this. I’m contacting them tomorrow and letting them know this is a mistake.”

Ron pointed to one of the contracts. “You might not want to do that until you find out who applied for you. They have a very strict fraud clause. Even if you don’t sign this contract, if they find out someone fraudulently applied for you, they’ll sue. Do you really want to do that to your mom or grandmothers?”

“I don’t even know if it was them. I still haven’t heard from any of the suspects.”

After a swig from his beer, Ron turned to me and took my hand.

“Ron, you’re touching me. Do you know you’re touching me?”

“Yes, to get your attention. Note this in your diary as I may never touch you again. But tell me honestly, would this really be the most awful thing to do? To go on this show?”

Probably, yes. Or maybe not. I don’t know. It’s too fresh to make a decision. Even if my decision was going to be no.

I took my hand back. “I’ve never seen you this serious.”

“Except on that night.”

That night. The night Ed died. Ron had been a great help. Sure, he teased me about it now, but with class. Ron has never mentioned my skimpy t-shirt or Ed’s nudity. Ron, an eminent gentleman, used his first aid training without a single comment. He shouted orders at me as he checked Ed for vitals and started CPR. “Get blankets, go to the lobby to bring the EMTs up, grab all his personal items for the hospital.” Thanks to Ron, Ed didn’t die in my apartment, I don’t think I’d still live here if he did.

“Lu, it’s been three years, maybe it’s time to try something different?”

“I can’t. I won’t risk another person’s life. Besides, if I was going to even think of meeting someone, I wouldn’t do it on some dumb dating show.”

Ron finished his beer and stood up. “You mean the dumb dating show you watch every week without fail? You know the boys like to walk slowly by your place because sometimes you leave treats. We hear that dumb show loud and clear every Wednesday night. Maybe you need your hearing checked?”

“Go home, Ron.”

Chapter 3

I didn’t want to be home with those papers after Ron left. With still plenty of daylight, I decided to run, they always brought me clarity. I looked at my phone before changing, still no responses from Mom or anyone. Good thing I wasn’t having an emergency.

I pulled on a sport skirt and my best bra. I braided my hair because that has always been the easiest way to keep it out of my face on a long run, and this was definitely going to be a long run.

A trek to Old Town had not been on my plan for midweek, it was about eight miles roundtrip, but I enjoyed dodging between the after work crowd as they searched for happy hour or dinner. I loved the part of the route along the water, especially the return north, watching the planes land at Reagan National. The whole thing would take me a little over an hour.

Ed hadn’t been in my thoughts in a long while. I guess that’s a good thing. I know it wasn’t my fault but it’s impossible to think otherwise. I was only twenty-seven when it happened, too young to decide to give up on love and sex, but I didn’t see any other choice. Years of therapy had finally brought me to a place where I’m at peace with my choices – choices even my therapist didn’t agree with. And now this package.

As sweat seeped into my wicking shirt I knew I reached the point in my workout when I could weigh my options.

What if this was all a joke? A sick joke given everyone I love knew my resolution. I have some prankster friends who worked at law firms. Maybe they thought it’d be funny to send a fake package of legal docs. Ron looked at them though, he’d have picked up on a joke.

What if it was my mother? I know she’s desperate for grandchildren. I promised her I’d look into adoption soon. Besides, my brother already had two kids, isn’t that enough? Mom worried I’d spend my life alone but that’s not a concern for me. Would I do it just to please her? Shouldn’t I be past that point in my life by now?

What if it was my grandmothers? Abuela Rose and Nanne. We called her Nanne because she tried to be Nana Anne but her grandkids smashed the two together. Neither of my sweet, busy body, grandmothers was capable of this. Or were they? Abuela is still working in the Fairfax County Public Library, she’s knew more about social media than I did. She could definitely pull together my information for an application. I bet they worked on it together. I knew they worried, just like mom did, but I don’t need a mate to complete my life.

Dusk settled over the Memorial Bridge as I made the turn toward the Crystal City Metro. I’m fortunate to have grown up in this beautiful city. Washington, D.C. was more than just cantankerous politics.

My best friend worked on the Hill. She wouldn’t do this to me, would she? Olivia was a historian in the office of the Architect of the Capitol. She knew every column, lintel, and balustrade in the building. While she’s unwavering in her work toward historical preservation, she’s a big softie toward romance. Olivia and Jim married recently and she wanted the same for me.

I knew if it was Olivia, Mom, Abuela, or Nanne it was done out of love and concern. These women are my foundation, they’d never be malicious. But what about the men in my life? Could my brother have done such a thing?

Calvin was so preoccupied with his family and career he hardly remembered I lived ten minutes away. I’d love to spend more time with my niece and nephew, sweet four year old twins. I should make more of an effort to reach out. I could organize a babysitting schedule and give my brother and sister-in-law a date night. I crossed Calvin off my list of suspects.

I walked the last few blocks to my building as a cool down. I smiled at a silly black lab pulling a baby in a wagon. I wanted to fill my home with dogs but I’m short on time and travel too much, especially for work.

Maybe it was someone in my office? Highly unlikely but with a mystery like this I had to consider all of the options. Everyone in the office was married, some have children. I was the only happily single person. We’re a small crew of attorneys and paralegals fighting the ever-growing problem of banning books. I certainly didn’t earn as much as my friends at prestigious firms but I had a work/life balance that’s priceless. Two paralegals in the office were the only people, besides Ron, who knew I’m a fan of Set Your Cap. They chatted about it one morning and I couldn’t contain my opinion on the episode from the night before. We’ve developed a routine the morning after an episode. We three arrived early at work, grab coffee, and close ourselves in my office to rehash high and lows of the night before. But would they go so far as to fraudulently apply to the show as me?

Mom, Abuela Rose, and Nanne are still my main suspects. I concluded my cool down the same way I started my run – irritated and with no answers.

Chapter 4

Mom called while I was in the shower. I could finally get some answers and called her back while I poured myself a bowl of cereal for dinner.

She picked up on the first ring. “Are you ok? Your voicemail was cryptic. What would I know about some dating show?”

I crunched the bite in my mouth then answered. “I’m fine. Upset at whoever did this but fine.”

“Upset at whoever did what? Are you eating cereal for dinner again? What have I told you about that? You’re not a college kid anymore.”

And there it was. My mother had a unique skill of making me feel like a teenager with just a couple of sentences.

“Ma, focus. Who cares what I’m eating for dinner?”

“Obviously, I do. Someone has to, you certainly don’t care enough about yourself to make better choices.”

I put an oversized spoonful in my mouth and made awful slurping and gurgling sounds. After a couple of minutes of the dramatic finish to my dinner, I wiped my mouth and pushed the bowl away.

“Now that you’ve given me the usual mom-treatment about my choices would you like to hear why I’m upset?”

“Of course, sweetie.”

I rehashed the last few hours starting with the package and ending with my suspicions. “So, Mother,” she hated when we called her Mother, “Is there something you’d like to confess? Did you use all of your knowledge of me to successful get me chosen for this dating show?”

“Lucia, I’m a lot of things but a conniving trickster is not one of them. Why in the world would you think I’d do something like this?”

I pushed away from the kitchen table and took a spot on my sectional. I needed get comfortable for the long conversation ahead. Mom and I had been round and round on my decision to stop dating. She didn’t support it and that’s why I think she’d do something like this.

I told her as much which lead to an argument, tears (hers), apologies (mine), and still no confession.

“Ok, Mom, if it wasn’t you who do you think it could be? I’m leaning toward Abuela. Or Abuela and Nanne together.”

“Why does it matter how this happened. Just go on the show and have some fun. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

“I’ve got nothing to lose, except another boyfriend.”

“Lu, enough with this curse already.”

I stood up, ready to have this call over and climb into bed. “It matters because I thought all of the people in my life supported me. This proves otherwise. I’ve gotta go, Ma. Goodnight.”