Monday, December 19, 2016

WHICH WAY HOME: THE ENTIRE FIRST CHAPTER NOT ENTIRELY REVISED

Prologue

You've heard people say their lives changed overnight, right? They woke up and heard the lottery numbers and knew they were millionaires. They fell in love at first sight. 

More often, the change is bad because one day everything is fine, and the next? 

It is all fucked up. 

I read once that Marie Antoinette's hair turned white overnight in jail while she awaited the loss of her head. 

What people don't think about is that the overnight device is a saying. Nothing but a cliché. It hardly ever takes that long: eight hours, twelve hours, or however you define overnight, for a life to be transformed. Most of the time, it happens in one or two seconds.

I bet Marie's hair betrayed her during a few seconds of a nightmare when she saw the guillotine's blade slice through her own milky neck.

How many seconds does it take to purchase that lottery ticket or to decide to stop someplace for ice cream? These decisions may be part of a change that's a long time in the making, but when the hair whitening attacks, it happens in a flash. 

And the flash of the blade in the sunlight can be so bright it nearly blinds you. 

Chapter One

Clue

The yellow piece of paper on the windshield of Aggie's black minivan shone in the evening light as she left the urgent care center. She plodded along with a purse and diaper bag slung behind her right shoulder, Ruth Ann perched on her right hip, while a sobbing Elliot clung to her left hand..

She shook free of El's sweaty grasp so she could pull the paper out from under the wiper and unfold it. "ASSHOLE" it said, printed neatly in red letters on a scrap torn from a legal pad.

"Mom!" Elliot pawed at her, as Ruth Ann's head drooped onto Aggie's shoulder. Aggie stood rooted to the asphalt next to the car so she could check out the area. What had she done now?

White painted lines of parking spaces, empty now, spread out across the parking lot like whitecaps on the ocean. White, white, white, except around her car, where she now saw yellow lines. Two yellow lines on each side of the van and an arrow underneath it that marked the route to exit the lot. The only route between the parking spaces.

Drivers must have woven around her van for hours before the lot cleared out. Tire tracks in the mud provided evidence that they ran her blockade by driving off the asphalt and into the landscaped border along the sidewalk. Flowers and juvenile trees had been flattened.

Aggie pictured the line of vehicles and hated herself. The waiting cars stretched for miles. An imaginary driver, his face contorted in righteous indignation, jumped out of his expensive car with a legal pad in his left hand and a red pen in his right. Angry lawyer. Furious lawyer. Late for an appointment and it was her fault. He held the pen in the air, a sword that dripped bloody ink, chose the perfect word, wrote it, and jammed the note in place.

Then sedans, sports cars, and pickup trucks careened around the sidewalk as pedestrians dragged their children out of the way. Jam-packed cars held drivers and passengers drawn as cartoons. "ASSHOLE" filled every balloon above their mouths because they all knew what she was.

"I am an asshole."

The words played as though they were a stuck record in her mind and fixed themselves to the tune of a children's song about being a pizza.

IIIIIIIII am an assss-hoooole.

She wanted to laugh at her song, but she forgot her pleasure as soon as it struck because being an asshole wasn't funny at all. Then she wished she could bawl along with El, but someone had to be in charge, and that someone was Aggie. Aggie alone.

She had rushed to the urgent care center to have a cut on Elliot's chin seen to and parked in a hurry. She thought the yellow lines marked a parking spot. They sat in a dingy waiting room most of the afternoon and into suppertime before an arrogant doctor looked at El for two seconds and informed a nurse, who then told Aggie, that the cut didn't need stitches. A butterfly bandage would do. She could have put that on herself and never left home, but if she'd been wrong, there would have been hell to pay. She'd never hear the end of it from John.

When her husband did see the cut, he would probably complain that the doctor had been wrong, the cut needed stitches. Nobody, especially Aggie, did anything right in John's hallowed opinion. The sound of his voice criticizing her for going to the wrong doctor replaced the "asshole" song playing in her mind.

But then her own angry voice took over. Dr. High-and-Mighty was never around to take care of his own kids. He'd throw a fit if Aggie bothered him at work, so she had to go to the nearest urgent care center and wait for hours until somebody looked at this damn kid who fell off his bike every two seconds.

She guessed that had been her license plate announced over the loudspeaker. The whining voice had demanded over and over, "Vehicle number hrrm-hrrm-hrrm must be moved immediately."

She hadn't been able to hear anything over Elliot whining that his chin hurt and Ruth Ann begging to have a story read to her.

"Don't touch those books. They've covered in filth from sick people," she'd told Ruth Ann.

By the time Elliot gave up complaining and Ruth Ann fell asleep, the announcements had stopped. All the patients had been treated and gone home, the center was about to close, and it no longer mattered where her mini-van was parked.

Elliot grabbed Aggie's arm and pulled on it so she remembered she stood in a parking lot staring at an ugly word. She crumpled the yellow paper and flung it toward the arrow under her car.

"Mom, you're littering," Elliot accused her in a whine.

"Just get in the damn car," she barked back. "A storm's coming. We need to go home before it gets any darker. I don't know how I'll find my way as it is."

Thunder boomed as the children crawled into the mini-van. "Sop it! Sop it!" Ruth Ann screamed as Elliot (her toddlerese for "stop it") when he stuck his butt in her face as he slid past her on the seat.

At eight years old, Elliot already knew how to torture Ruth Ann––and Aggie. He sneered, satisfied with Ruth Ann's screams. Aggie wanted to lean over to smack him as she buckled Ruth Ann into her car seat, but she didn't dare. John didn't allow her to spank the children, or punish them in any other way, because he claimed it would destroy their spirits. Elliot's wonderfully free spirit was a punishment for Ruth Ann and for Aggie. She had no options for dealing with his obnoxious behavior.

And there would be hell to pay when Elliot told his dad that she'd said to get in the damn car. Cursing wasn't allowed, either.

She also knew Elliot moved as slowly as he could, the way he always did because it irritated her and she couldn't do anything about it, couldn't give him a time out or take away his TV privileges the way other moms did with their children.

She used the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her forehead and turned away so she could say what she pleased. "I hate this fucking town. Maryland is hotter than hell."

Here she was in a strange town after years in cool, green Seattle because John had a new job, Big Chief Medical Director, at a hospital in Western Maryland. The hospital was about forty miles from the Central Maryland suburb of Columbia where John had bought a house. He had a long commute, but he refused to lived in Haven with the "local yokels."

In fact, John rarely visited the home he had selected without consulting Aggie. Six weeks after their move, John already spent most nights at the hospital because he claimed he was overworked and too tired to drive home. Aggie wondered why the locals didn't bother him enough to make him come home at night. And funny, he never sounded tired when he called to say he wouldn't be home. Sometimes Aggie heard a woman laugh in the background. He claimed it was the nurses fooling around at their station, but the sound––the same laugh, one laugh from the same person, every time––frightened Aggie.

No time to think about it now. With Elliot seat belted in at last, Aggie started the car and headed for the street. At least I'm already in the exit lane, she thought wryly. She had called for directions before they left home and had found the center without too much trouble, but getting home would be another story. She could never retrace her steps. It infuriated John, but it just didn't work out in her mind.

Right or left out of the lot? With no one waiting behind her, she had time to stop and think. She decided it had to be right. She could see the traffic light where they had turned to get to the medical center.

But when she pulled into the left turn lane at the light, she didn't know if she was supposed to be there. Maybe she belonged in the right turn lane. Which way home?

Aggie felt the headache that had started on the way there spread from the top of her head to her forehead and face. Out of habit to try to ease the pain, she ran her hands through her short, curly gray hair, and pushed hard against her scalp.

A sign pointing left said it was the way to D.C. Aggie feared getting sucked out onto the beltway. She had been on it with John in the driver's seat and had closed her eyes to the traffic wooshing around them, too fast for her to bear.

She decided to turn right. Aggie put on the right-turn blinker and twisted the wheel, waiting to see if the driver of a small, dark car pulling up behind her would allow her to get in the right lane. It was getting dark and hard to see, difficult to judge what others in this strange territory might do.

This person surprised her by waiting while she moved into the right lane and then out onto the highway as the light turned green. At the same time, the storm began in earnest. Rain poured down in sheets as lightning lit the sky.

Nothing looked familiar. Aggie, terrified, could barely see, and other drivers zipped and zoomed around her. One truck pulled up behind her. The driver flashed his lights. She knew he meant "get the hell out of my way," but where would she go?

Then, the brightly lit sign of the Hilton invited her into its parking lot and offered a familiar escape. They had stayed in the hotel for a few days before their furniture arrived from Seattle in the moving van.

They could wait out the storm in the lot. Or maybe they could dash into the coffee shop and have supper. Aggie knew she looked horrible. She had been down on her knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when Elliot dashed in with blood dripping from his chin onto the white carpet John had selected ("Oh, Lord, I'll be up half the night cleaning up this mess," she said at the sight of him). The droopy sweat pants she wore made her large butt look extra large. But she was starving after their long afternoon, and the kids had to be hungry, too. The desire to eat and get out of the storm overcame her dread of displaying her derriere in public.

The decision gave Aggie some energy and spirit. No wonder the kids were whiny and fussy, after everything they had been through. When the rain stopped, it would be easier to find the way home.

"I know! Let's stop here and have supper and ice cream," Aggie told them.

El and Ruth Ann picked up on her pleasure and cheered.

She circled the parking lot, determined not to repeat her mistake. All the lines seemed to be white, but in between each set of lines was a car. No place to park in the front, so she headed toward the back of the hotel.

Finally! A parking place. Aggie flipped on her turn signal and headed for it. As she began to pull in, she realized the car next to hers seemed familiar. It was a bright red sports car, just like John's. It was even a bright red BMW, just like John's.

She didn't have the angle of her approach right, so she put the minivan in reverse and prepared to try again. Pulling back allowed her to see the license tag of the BMW. It was a vanity tag, just like John had: DRJOHN

How could someone else have gotten his vanity tag? He had paid extra for it.

Then the fog on her brain lifted enought to allow her to grasp that it in fact was John's car.

"That's Daddy's car," she told Elliot and Ruth Ann. "I wonder why he's here."

The children leaned forward in their seats, excited by the prospect of some time with their overindulgent father. "Maybe he knew we would be here and he wanted to have ice cream with us," Elliot said.

"He couldn't have known. I haven't talked to him since yesterday," she explained, exasperated with the child's stupid comment when she was trying to think.

Aggie stopped the car. She had to figure out what was going on. It didn't make sense.

Then she recognized the bright red Altima parked to the right of John's BMW. "Nasti's car," Aggie whispered.

Nasti, actually NANCI as her own vanity plate proclaimed, was John's favorite nurse. Aggie figured her name was spelled with a pretentious "I" instead of the usual "Y" because it matched her personality.

Aggie had spoken to the cold, unfriendly bitch only a few times although John had insisted the hospital bring her out here with him so she could be his assistant. He claimed she was the one nurse he could trust––his invaluable assistant.

Aggie had seen photos of her with John, taken the year before at a holiday party. She was a young blond with a trim butt and huge boobs that threatened to pop out of her tight, white uniform. She could have been the model for a "Nurse Barbie" doll. She wore white stiletto heels even though she worked the floor as a charge nurse at the time.

Aggie closed her eyes. She should have known what was going on, but isn't the wife always the last to know? Or was it that she didn't want to know? Her mind raced. Her breath came in sharp gasps. Aggie was amazed that she could breathe at all. Her life was over. Years of pretending that John just worked hard were over. Years of pretending that he was really a loving husband and father were over. She finally knew why he didn't come home so many nights and was so damn happy about it. He came home to Columbia, all right, but he didn't make it to their house. The Hilton and its charms beckoned to him from the road. And it was so like John to insist that their trysts take place there. Haven couldn't possibly have a good enough hotel to please John. "I've never been able to please him, either," Aggie said out loud to the children's puzzled stares.

She knew none of this made sense to them. None of it made sense to her, except that it all made sense––perfect sense. It made as much sense as Aggie putting the minivan into reverse and then pulling forward to slam into John's car, over and over and over over, while she and the children screamed.

24 comments:

  1. Way to go! Chapter One DOWN! How many more to go? The first chapter makes me want to read the next installment.

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  2. Oh, my goodness, Janie....what a great start to this story. Have a lovely Christmas Day with family.

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  3. As a writer, you have a strong and compelling voice.

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    1. I have an even stronger voice as a person because Willy Dunne Wooters can't hear very well.

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  4. Hey! I got your Christmas card! Thanks!! We don't know anyone in Grinnell... Sorry. I've been there a few times for a doctor visit for my MIL, but other than that, it's almost 2 hours away from me.
    I hope you have a Merry Christmas and I love your chapter! Intriguing...

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    1. Thank you! I don't know anyone in Grinnell . . . now.

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  5. Wow! This was really compelling, Janie! And beautifully written. It rang so true! I can look back to moments in my life that turned on a dime and changed all that came after utterly. thanks for sharing this!

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  6. Powerful ending! The whole chapter was gripping, Janie. Hoping for more in future. Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones.

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    1. Merry Christmas from my merry band of doggies.

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  7. Now you got me thinking about those flashes, and life's oh-so-many odd turns...

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    1. Wait till you hit menopause. Then you'll think about nothing but hot flashes.

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  8. "Plodded" <-YES! You got it, hon! Great word, much better than "waddled." The whole thing flows more smoothly now too. Keep on plodding!
    Love.

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    1. Thank you. I'm a plodder and a plotter.

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  9. Powerful ending! The whole chapter was gripping.Hoping for more in future. Happy Holidays.

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