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An Exquisite Exercise

The virus plaguing our world has affected everyone differently, and while staying indoors has been tough, especially after many of us have been furloughed or laid off in addition to handling daily anxieties our newsfeeds bring, it's also created an opportunity to expand creatively.


For me, that creative spark usually results in the desire to write: short stories, novels, blog posts... I've been writing my own pieces throughout the years, but decided to turn to others for a new writing project.


I reached out to friends, asking if anyone would be interested in doing an "indoor writing exercise" where we each post 200 to 500 words of a joint short story over days or weeks. My friends answered, and so we began our own kind of exquisite corpse. This is the result so far. TO BE CONTINUED. Enjoy....


CHAPTER ONE

The distant hum from the construction site across the street fills our quiet apartment as I gather my thoughts then take a breath and exhale. Aren’t they done yet? It’s almost 6:00…

Tensions are high and build with each passing moment of silence. I look at you from across the couch, but you are looking at the hardwood floor, standing there in your socks. Our eyes don’t meet.


“So, what do we do now?” you ask.


“I don’t know,” I mumble while shifting my eyes to my hands folded in my lap. “This isn’t easy for me, either, you know,” I say agitatedly.


“I know, but this is big,” you say. “We can’t just leave it here. Let’s talk.”


“Okay,” I say. “Give me a moment.”


An ambulance siren wails, eventually speeding past our apartment. The red lights flash and illuminate the room. This is big…


“You’re right,” I concede. “We have to get the red chair.”


You raise your eyebrow, the way you always do when you realize you’ve won. Your eyes sparkle like a fox catching its dinner.


“Really?”


I nod. “That’s the one you wanted, right?”


Now it’s your turn to bob your head. Your eyes keep smiling.


I hunch my shoulders, settling farther into the couch, imagining the velveteen obstruction that will soon dominate our main living space. It’s not that I don’t think it’ll look fine there. It’s just that chair seems like it’d be better suited for Buckingham Palace. The price tag is also more affordable for royalty.


When you found it online, you did a little dance with your feet and shouted like you’d won the lottery. “That’s it!”


I remember standing over your shoulder at the computer desk in our bedroom, laughing at you, then having the laugh die in my throat as the cursor centered on the amount.


“It looks good, but we could probably find something similar on one of the cheaper sites.”


You shook your head. “Are you kidding? This is vintage. They don’t make this anymore. Anywhere.”


I rolled my eyes.


“It could be our wedding present to each other,” you murmured, and I twinged a little with guilt. You had to go for the wedding card.


I looked at the image again. You were right. It was perfect. Just how you’d envisioned it for our little hovel-made-home: plush and deep and, well, old. You should know by now that I trust your instincts. I have learned over these years that your eye for design never fails. In fact, it’s why I love you, and why you’re so good at your job. Your knack for interior styling has made this place our home.


I told you that night we couldn’t get it, and the issue festered until we found yourselves in this moment, at this hour, our words struggling to be heard over the rumble of dump trucks and hammering from across the street. But now that I’ve given in, the dam has broken and you’ve never looked happier.


I bite my lip, wondering if now’s the time to draw on another issue we’ve been avoiding: the Daisy problem.


But as I contemplate Daisy, I soon realize that we have a larger problem—even larger than the coveted red chair and Daisy herself.


The police and ambulance sirens are getting louder. I soon realize that they are in front of our house. I look outside.


Mrs. Smith, our next-door neighbor, who always gives us an earful about our lawn, is lying facedown in her prized bed of roses.


“Oh my God,” I whisper, and you place a hand on my shoulder to steady me, watching the scene unfold.


I step closer toward the window overlooking Mrs. Smith’s place, and see the paramedic checking for a pulse. The windows are open, for once, so we can hear him clearly as he speaks to his partner.


“She’s dead,” he says quietly, and they both take a second to accept that they can’t save her this time.


I wonder how many times a day this happens to them, that they’re called upon but there’s nothing they can do for their patient. Just last week, you texted me to say you’d mowed the lawn after you finished the overnight shift because she came over and gave you grief about it. I knew you were exhausted, but I loved you for it, as much as I wished she would just cut us some slack and let you get some rest.


After what we, and you, went through last year, all the neighbors brought by casseroles and offered all the support we needed, but Mrs. Smith? She didn’t have a sympathetic bone in her body. I spent more than a year trying to piece you and everyone else back together. And the people around us? They understood that we were in hell, facing the impossible. All except her.


All she cared about was perfectly manicured lawns, a pristine cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood, and making sure every penny of the generous HOA fee we all paid was put to use. But still, seeing her just lying in the roses like that? It seems so wrong. So final.


Still looking outside, I notice that they don’t move her body. A cop has arrived and approaches the paramedics. “Any idea of the cause of death?” we hear the cop say.


The paramedic points to something on Mrs. Smith’s neck. “It looks like something stung her, or—” he stutters “—punctured her, but I’ve never seen anything like it before. I’m not sure if it was like an animal or a dart or needle?” He glances at the policeman hesitantly.


The policeman nods. “We’ll take it from here. Can you go talk to my partner Donahue over there and give her your statement?”


Just then, Alana comes out of her bedroom. “What’s going on?” Her hair looks unwashed again.


You try to stop her from looking outside, but it’s too late. She shrieks in surprise when she sees Mrs. Smith in the grass, so still. She’s old enough now to know that she’s not just sleeping and she’s not waking up.


You grab her into a bear hug. “I know it’s scary but it’s gonna be okay, honey,” you whisper, but she looks between the both of us, not so sure.


It’s not the first time we’ve said those words to our daughter, and last time we did, neither of us knew if we were telling the truth or lying.


Lying to your children comes with the territory. Figuring out what they are emotionally and mentally able to handle is a struggle as a parent. Alana has always been more mature in her acceptance of adult concepts.


At 9 years old she is already more responsible than her peers. Then again, she has always been like this. As a toddler, she knew Santa wasn’t real but played along to make us happy. When she would fall and scrape her knees we would tell her it will only hurt for a second, but she knew that was a lie. When she got sick she knew based on the looks on the doctors’ faces that she wasn’t going to be okay. But just like the Santa farce, she played along when we said it’s going to be all right. It wasn’t.


You fell deeper into your hole of despair after that. You wouldn’t engage with us at home, you refused to support your daughter through every treatment, every appointment, every scan, every test—everything.


Instead, you wanted to dig in the dirt—the cold, earthy soil around our house that never yielded anything beyond weeds and patches of grass. You could have cared less about our property, much to the dismay (and dare I say horror) of our neighbors.


But when Alana got sick you decided that’s where you wanted to be: Digging in the dirt.




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