A Moment When the World is Silent – Novel Excerpt

This is the first 3000 words of the novel I’m querying. It received a review here. It’s been edited, but needs more work. Your comments are appreciated.

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Wednesday

Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night.

I took my window seat. Twelve hours and thirty-two minutes since I was told, forty-five minutes since I’d had a cigarette, and barely fifteen seconds since I’d thought about it. When they passed out drinks it would be thirteen hours and seven minutes since I was told. When I asked the guy on the aisle if I could borrow his magazine, fourteen hours and nine minutes.

We were going to Virginia, the guy on the aisle and me, and there was nothing I could do to stop that now. But we weren’t in this thing together. He couldn’t even hear the mantra.

Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night.

Half of my life is in Virginia. Two parents. One ex-girlfriend. Four best friends who would do anything for me. Well, three now. Tony is dead.

It’s February and it’s too soon to be going back to Virginia. It’s the time of year they usually tell me they’re coming to me. If I asked they would be on a plane in minutes to be with me. At least that’s what they say. But none of them have ever been to San Francisco. We still call Virginia home. Say things like, “when will you be home again?” But the loft apartment on West Hartford is my home and I know that, even if they don’t.

Wednesday morning at 9:52 a.m. Pacific time, I asked the flight attendant for a beer. She scowled at me, made change from my ten-dollar bill and handed me a Heineken. But the beer only made me want to smoke.

Tony is dead.

I flipped through the aisle guy’s Sports Illustrated. I let my eyes blur and focus and blur again as I turned the pages. The words ran into black lines and then sharpened back into pin points. The images kaleidoscoped into globs of color and back to crisp pictures of tackles and goals and arenas and ball players. I gave up, handed the magazine back, and occupied myself thinking about my apartment. I went through the details, taking a mental inventory like I do sometimes while trying to fall asleep. Books. Boxes.

Something about Monday night.

Candles. Empty pint glasses. Ash trays. My home is a loft apartment with a large bay window through which the sun falls like a God around eleven a.m. There are boxes along one wall with picture frames and books in them. I unpacked the candles first and haven’t gotten around to all of the memorabilia.

Tony is dead.

I moved in two years ago.

Sometimes, when the moon replaces the sunlight through that window, I light a candle to chase it away. And sometimes I just watch it crawl across the floor until it finds the boxes and puts them in silver shadows. On those nights it feels like everything is blanketed in silver shadows.

Monday night. He killed himself Monday night.

But on Wednesday the sun coated the clouds outside my airtight window with such blinding gold that I had to look away. The hum of the airplane stilled the storm in my head. The Heineken was working on the hole in my heart. He killed himself.

My friends say I’m lucky and they’re right.

When I was seventeen, I was offered a world tour with a skateboard company. When I was eighteen I was offered seven swimming scholarships. I attended California State University on an academic scholarship. It has all been easy for me. I set the county record for the 200 IM. I made the finals in the X Games half-pipe qualifier. I took the prettiest girl to prom, a Senator’s daughter no less. Then I went to San Francisco with the intention of forgetting it all. I graduate this year and I am not moving home. I haven’t told my parents that.

I like California. It’s 1999 and the city of San Francisco seems to be recovering from a time when it was the Mecca of social change and trying to adjust to a time when social change just isn’t as easy. I read Moliere and Marlowe, stare at abstract paintings and wall murals, drink cappuccinos and listen to acoustic guitars like they’re the heartbeat of some exclusive, complex sub culture. I chose California because it was as far as I could get from Virginia without leaving the continent.

Tony came to stay in San Fran once. He showed up in August and hung around until November. We had a blast. He could talk to anyone, drink anything and smoke every dime of weed in the place.

“Brian?”

“I’m still here, dad.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah, dad.”

He took a breath, heavy white noise in the phone, and said “I’m sorry, son.”

“I know.”

“Your flight leaves at eight thirty. Do you want me to have Joel meet you?”

“No, I’ll take a cab.”

“I’ll call Joel.”

“Don’t do that. I’ll just catch a cab.” I pressed the heel of my hand into my eye.

“I just think you should—“

“Fine, dad, fine. Call Joel.”

“Brian…”

“Just forget it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

There was a long pause and I swore he was going to apologize again. But he didn’t. “Don’t forget your keys,” he said. Then he hung up. No goodbye. I laid the phone down and dropped my head into my hands.

Most of my friends went away to school like me. We return home for the summers and for Christmas. They’re the kind of friends you think you need to keep. The kind you blow others off for. The kind you pretend you still know even though it’s been three years and 3000 miles since high school.

When the plane finally made its approach to Dulles International Airport it would be four forty nine Eastern Standard Time. Exactly twenty hours and twenty-six minutes since my father had called me.

“I made arrangements on Northwest,” he had said.

“That’s fine.”

“Delta didn’t have a flight.”

“That’s fine.”

Silence for a minute. “Brian?”

“I’m still here, dad.”

They were passing out drinks. Thirteen hours and seven minutes. I asked the flight attendant for a beer. Then I paid her and took it. It may have been nine fifty two in the morning. I didn’t care. I wished desperately for a cigarette. I wondered if I lit one now how many drags I could get in before they told me to put it out. It may be worth it. They wouldn’t kick me off the plane. And even if they did, all the better, then I wouldn’t have to go back there.

I had last been home at New Year’s. Now it was February. I wasn’t supposed to be in Virginia. I should have been holed up in my flat in San Francisco procrastinating with cartoons and marijuana. It was snowing there, just like it had been at Christmas. But Christmas had long since come and gone and on Wednesday it felt like it had been one hundred years since Christmas. Even longer since New Year’s Day.

“So that’s it?” Tony demanded.

“That’s it,” I had replied.

“You just left her?”

“What was I supposed to do?”

“Work it out. Fix it. I don’t know. Give her a chance at least,” Tony said.

“Right,” I said.

“This isn’t like you, Brian.”

“Thank you, Tony, but I know what I’m doing.”

That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.

I should have been stretching in the sunlight falling through the bay window across my bed, not drinking a beer on an airplane reading Sports Illustrated. I never read Sports Illustrated. Tony always e-mailed me the interesting things. A while back I started skimming his emails for content. His tangents were funny but time consuming and I had things to do.

Tony is dead.

I stared out the window. Clouds. Clouds. More clouds. They looked so big and thick up here. I wondered about standing in them like angels do in cartoons. I thought about falling through them when the flight attendant kicked me off for lighting a cigarette.

He killed himself.

Airplanes aren’t as great as people insist they are. There’s that constant loud noise that everyone pretends they don’t hear. The droning sound: the culmination of speed, wind and force; the result of decades of engineering developments, the airborne proof of man’s superiority to animals. It’s all rather egotistical, flying.

I wouldn’t have been at all upset if this were my last flight. I could travel from San Francisco to Virginia in a covered wagon like they did back in the day. Sure, it might take months, but what’s time, right? Besides, Tony would be cold in the grave long before I ever had to face them all again. Or better yet, I could just stay in California, and let them forget about me.

I may have gone so far as to pray for a crash rather than land in Washington in February except that I don’t believe in God. Tony used to say I refused to believe in order to rid myself of the duties of religion, confession and prayer and the like. He may have been right. He usually was.

“Brian?”

“Yeah, Tony?”

“What does your heart tell you?”

I had regarded him with a shrug and deflated the point with “I feel a strange grumbling but I think it’s my stomach telling me I’m hungry.” I couldn’t help it. If my heart had a voice I had never heard it.

“How often do you hear your heart?” I had asked him.

“Every time there is an important decision to make.”

“Is this one of those?”

“You tell me.” He had been standing in the corner of my old bedroom, watching me move from dresser to bed, watching me shove items into a duffle bag. He still had his coat on, the zipper hanging open with a ski lift ticket on it, a buttoned-up flannel underneath, a t-shirt beneath that, still wrinkled as if he’d slept in it. Layered like a damn mail order catalog, a burgundy ball cap on his head with a yellow script R. The same Tony as every other day for our whole lives. I stopped moving. I looked at him.

“I don’t know what this is,” I said.

“Have you thought about what you’re doing?” he said, frustrated but not stepping any closer to me. Angry but not able to raise his voice. Hoarse with the thickness of hangover and too many cigarettes. Weak from no sleep. High.

“Since she told me.”

“Is that long enough?”

“Three hours? Sure.” I tugged the zipper around the edge of the suitcase.

“Time to leave?” he had asked. Still there, still the same.

“Seems like it’s always time to leave,” I said, and hoisted the bag onto my shoulder.

It was four forty five on Wednesday and we were descending into Dulles airport. I changed my watch from Pacific Time to Eastern Standard and watched the landscape grow bigger in the window.  The plane landed safely on the runway at Dulles and came to a slow pace to approach the gate. I brushed off my disappointment. Then we docked at the gate and everyone stood up.

I had my black suit for that weekend and so I’d been forced to check my bag. I had nothing to stow and had boarded on last call. I stood there, bent under the overhead compartment, waiting for everyone else to unload their stuff.

I don’t swim anymore. I quit going to practice when I was too drunk to close my eyes under water. I hardly ever write anymore either. Most stories I get around to telling are so full of bullshit that they sicken me. Meli likes the stuff I write. She doesn’t know anything about fiction but she’s beautiful when she’s lying naked in that silver moonlight that falls over my bed. Tony used to tell me I was the best writer he knew. He didn’t know anything either.

Kacie once told me I should write our story, a love story. She said I should call it “A Moment When the World is Silent” referring to those few seconds in the morning where we were both awake with our eyes closed, the Virginia sunlight dancing all through the room, tightly entangled limbs in limbs with the covers down around our waists, skin to skin. I don’t remember those mornings.

She was standing by a closed rental car counter when I descended into baggage claim. She had her hair pulled back into a cloth band and her skin was pale. Faint pink lipstick on and eyes greener than ever, she watched me move toward her. A good amount of people waited on the arriving Californians and they moved past me as I walked slowly toward where she stood. She had gained weight. Her cheeks were still red from the chill February air outside.

I thought about the cold of Washington, D.C. and how it seeps into your lungs and takes up permanent residence. I imagined she embodied that cold although her cheeks were flaming and fighting to restore warmth to her skin. I didn’t want to think about her skin or her body or her hair but it was there in front of me. Her fingers were wrapped around the stem of a white rose.

“Did Joel send you here?” I asked her.

“He thought it would help—“

“We are beyond help, Kacie. But I’ll take a ride. Save eight bucks.”

“Glad you didn’t offer to pay me,” she said.

“No, as I recall, you’re free.” Unprovoked. Unrepentant. Mean.

She followed me to the baggage carousel and stood patiently as we waited for the buzzer and the bags and the frenzy of people staring and grabbing and inspecting and muttering. Then I followed her out to the parking lot.

“The rose was a nice touch,” I said once we’d settled into the seats in her car. I lit a cigarette and rolled down the window. She did the same.

“A man gave it to me when I walked in.” She laid it on the dashboard. “It was supposed to remind me of soldiers in POW camps.”

“Did it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, a little ashamed, “it reminded me of Tony.”

I glared at her.

“Brian, I—“

“I don’t want to hear it.” She backed down. I knew she would. I knew everything she would do. It didn’t surprise me that she had come to get me. She had been picking me up from the airport since I left in 1995. Same Kacie.

“Been gettin’ high recently?” I asked.

“Excuse me?” Was that indignation I heard in her voice?

“Just making conversation,” I said.

She shook her head and exhaled a stream of smoke. I watched the scenery race by the window. Snow still blanketed much of the concrete landscape. Not enough for a good downhill run. Barely worth the effort. A few stretches of grass extended their blades through the white. They were dry and gnarly. Also barely worth the effort.

We were listening to some maudlin music from the alternative station. I finished my cigarette and threw the butt out the window.

“This isn’t exactly the time for a grand forgiveness,” I said, rolling the window back up.

“I think it’s the perfect time.”

“You could have called or something,” I said, “weeks ago.”

“I wanted to see you in person,” she answered.

“Then this event was pretty convenient for you, huh?”

We were silent for the length of another song. Long enough to get off the highway and on to a four lane road that led to my parents’ neighborhood.

Finally, with a deep breath I later recognized as all the courage she had left, she said: “It isn’t easy for me, Brian.”

I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy for me, either, not to share the same air with her much less to think about the last time I’d been here. The air then had been charged with anger when she first told me.

“You did what?” I had yelled.

“It was a mistake,” she had said, trembling.

“A mistake?” I pushed my hand through my hair and tried not to look at her. “When?”

“Over Thanksgiving.”

“Nice.”

“You weren’t here.”

“So you found a replacement.”

“That’s not fair, Brian.” She was crying. “It isn’t just that. Look at us!”

“Look at you! Get off the coke, Kacie, that would fix us.”

She wept softly, dropping her chin to her chest. “I didn’t mean to.”

“You fucked Jason,” I said, bringing the conversation back to the central issue.

“You got me to.”

“To fuck him?” I stood over her. She was kneeling on her sister’s bed.

“No, to get high. You got me high.” She shook her head. “I can’t do this. I don’t know what’s happening.” She put her hands over her face.

I remember thinking it wasn’t my fault. That none of it was my fault. I still believed that, less than a foot from her, riding home from the airport in February. It was too soon. The wounds still too raw. We rode the rest of the way to my house in silence. As she pulled into the drive, I reached for the release to my seatbelt. She laid her hand on mine. I jerked my hand away. “Brian, please, give me a chance,” she said.

“I’m not interested in chances.” I stepped out of the car and slammed the door.

Tony is dead, I reminded myself, wanting to shout it at her through the window of the car, like a storm. I wanted rain pounding every inch of my tortured flesh. I would welcome the punishment of it.

I had reached for her. I pushed my hand into her hair at the back of her head, tilted her face up to mine. I had leaned in and crushed her lips under mine.

“No,” she’d whined, eyes rolling, unable to focus.

“C’mon,” I had said. “You’re sorry, aren’t you?” Keeping a grip on her hair, my other hand had tugged on her shirt. I kissed her neck and whispered, “give in.” Took her lips hungrily into my own mouth.

She had twisted underneath me, then sat up and jerked away. I released her.

Her lips pouted, pursed, wet and still bruised with my kisses. “Dammit, Brian,” she choked out, “why do you always have to push too far?”

I should have let go years ago. Guilt flooded me on the steps of my parents’ house. I turned the key and pushed the door open, admitting myself and my bag.

Revision: Run or Bleed

Edited version using tips from the Renni Browne and Dave King book Self-Editing  for Fiction Writers. Browne and King suggest differentiating internal dialogue, understanding whose voice is being “heard” and limiting exposure to that voice so as to not confuse the reader. Below, the yellow highlighted text is “internal dialogue” from the point-of-view character, Amy.

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When her period started that morning Amy finally cried. She sat on the commode staring at the sticky crimson blotch on the cotton panties stretched between her knees. Her vision blurred and then the tears dripped, slowly, one after the next, over her lashes and down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. She just cussed at the evidence of her body’s betrayal, spitting the word out through wet lips.

Amy could count the number of times she had cried in the last three years. The anniversary of her grandmother’s death on Mother’s Day, watching an internet video of a soldier who surprised his daughter at school, and spanking Anna Belle for running away from her in a parking lot.

Now here she was. The fourth time she had cried in three years. Sobbing over a stain in her panties. The toilet shifted a little, tilting slightly under her weight. Damn thing had been wobbly since they bought the house five years ago. She cussed again and sobbed harder, her throat thickening with grief. A tide of tears filled her nostrils and throat and she choked and coughed. Elbows on her knees, face in her hands, she let the sobs come and the strangled gasps shake her frame.

Now she had to keep running. Now she had to keep dieting. Now she had to keep trying to lose weight. She took a deep breath, trying to force the sobs to ease.

Tuesday. A workout, then get Anna Belle ready for daycare and herself ready for work. Then commute to the other side of town, sipping coffee from a leaky travel mug. Get a hug goodbye. Anna Belle would run off to play and Amy would trudge back to the car and ride the quarter mile to her office. A cube, coworkers chatting about reality TV, fluorescent lights that wash out her complexion, Winning, Achievement, and Teamwork posters hanging framed on the walls, a ten-dollar lunch of fast Japanese food, a diet soda in the afternoon, data to be analyzed and reported.

Amy wanted to cry a little while longer.

Yesterday her running partner, Jamie, had announced she and Rick were expecting their second baby. “I’m sorry, Amy,” she’d said, rising up out of a hamstring stretch.

“What for?” Amy had forced a laugh, “babies are good things.”

“I have to quit running,” Jamie said. The reflective edges of her ball cap glinted in the streetlight. She tilted her head, met Amy’s eyes.

“Oh.”

“I mean, after today,” Jamie said. “I know we’d planned to run Paris Mountain. I just can’t. The distance.” She knelt and tightened her shoe laces. Stood and adjusted her reflective vest.

“It’s okay,” Amy said, pulling one arm across her chest. “I can still do the half. I’m happy for you, really.” She stretched the other shoulder, waited for Jamie to look her in the eye again. But she didn’t.

Amy pressed “play” on her iPod and they took a quick-paced three mile loop.

Today the conversation came back to her as she grieved under the bathroom light, straddling the wobbly toilet, trying to control her sobs. Amy snorted. Why had Jamie apologized for being pregnant? Oh, right, because I’m not. That had the desired effect: a new stream of tears coursed down her cheeks.

Amy cried until she felt silly and then she stretched some toilet paper across her lap, tore it from the roll, folded it and blew her nose.  Every month was like this one: the defeat repeatedly evidenced in her panties. Bad timing. Missed connections. Failure.

Wadding up the tissue, she dropped it into the trashcan at her side. Then she cleaned herself up, stood, and left the bathroom. The mantra was already playing: It wasn’t that they couldn’t get pregnant. She knew that. Anna Belle was proof they could. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t get pregnant. They just hadn’t.

She dressed: sports bra, running shorts, socks, running shoes, and a sweat-wicking top she’d purchased with a race entry. It read, “Dare to Commit.”

Michael slept heavily, snuggled deep in the blankets of their bed. The shape of his body beneath the blankets had grown bigger in the last year.

Amy pulled her reflective vest off the doorknob and slipped out of the bedroom. In the kitchen, she removed and trashed the old coffee filter, replaced it, poured a pot of water into the tank, and set the timer to begin brewing about the same time Michael would get out of the shower.

Darkness held on a little longer in the mornings this time of year and when she extinguished the kitchen light the entire house was black.

Her running shoes emitted prickled squeaks, leather shifting against itself and straining against the laces. Amy tip-toed down the hall, flipped the bright light on, and crept into Anna Belle’s room.

The little girl’s face turned from the light and relaxed in a deep state of unconsciousness. Her cheeks shone, oily from sleep and sweat. Some of her hair kinked and stuck, glued to her forehead where she’d pushed it from her eyes. Long, soft curls streamed out around her head. Tiny lips hung open, puffy and dry.

Amy leaned over the toddler bed to get a better look, replaced a stuffed bear Anna Belle had tossed aside, gently tucked the blankets a little closer to Anna Belle’s chin. Amy let her breath out slowly, pursing her lips to blow gently at Anna Belle. The girl’s face twitched in response, she turned her head away, squeezed her eyes tighter and licked her lips. Then she snuggled deeper into her pillow, and Amy smiled and snuck out of the room. She flipped the hallway light off as she left.

When Anna Belle was born, Amy had entertained fantasies of staying home. They could go to the zoo and have mommy and me play dates with homeschool moms. They could snuggle and read books and listen to classical music. They could take walks in the neighborhood and swim in the community pool while everyone else attended school and work.

“It just couldn’t happen,” Michael told her. They had agreed to certain financial goals and they were on pace to meet them. Their family required her income.

“Think of the things Anna Belle will have,” he said, “because you work.”

Amy remembered the phrases she’d used to describe daycare, “someone else raising my kid,” and “missing out on so much of her life,” as she begged Michael to help her find a way to make it work. He didn’t know what a powerful drug mommyhood could be. How that tiny person’s adoration could make you feel whole. And he’d refused her.

Amy gave up the fight and went back to work after maternity leave.

Their home matched the others on the street, a carefully planned subdivision of single story patio homes mostly suited for the very old or the very young. She would normally wait for Jamie, or find Jamie standing at the end of her driveway. But not today.

Amy pressed go on her GPS watch. She set out at a light jog toward the top of the neighborhood where she would follow a long route toward town. Before the McDonald’s she would double back, winding her way past the car dealerships and grocery store, before re-entering her small subdivision, running past her home, deep into the neighborhood, and finally back into her own driveway. Seven miles total. A good hour-and-a-quarter run before the sun really stretched its light over the sky.

Week two of official half marathon training. Solo.

Amy had earned her personal record, or PR, in the half marathon at Phoenix. She had mapped out routes, added mileage, soaked herself in ice baths and rubbed her thighs with E-Z glide. She had counted the days, hours, minutes to race day. She had run tempo runs, hill sprints, and easy jogs to condition herself. She had devoured every issue of Runner’s World magazine.

Two summers earlier she’d barely opened What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

The pace felt good and within a few minutes Amy was thinking about earlier with embarrassment. How silly she was to cry over her period. It had been coming for twenty five years without fail. Except for that brief eight months when she’d been pregnant with Anna Belle, she had never missed a month. They weren’t really trying, just not preventing. And anyway, pregnancy right now would mean a summer of being fat and uncomfortable.

The sadness ebbed while she ran, talking herself through the process with each step. Yesterday, day 29, she’d felt her breasts were sore. She’d had trouble concentrating and made herself late to work by taking too long plucking her eyebrows. At lunch she’d re-ordered her key ring so all the barcode tags faced the same direction and snapped at the waitress for failing to refill her water glass.

Not like last month. Last month she had been a week late. Dizzy, nauseous, swollen breasts tender to the touch, sensitive to the smell of the morning coffee. She’d gagged when she set the pot one morning. And then the crimson in her panties.

They’d had trouble getting pregnant with Anna Belle, too. So she had not been worried after two years. But this was stretching into three years and Amy was older now and she was starting to think something might be wrong.

Michael’s responsiveness had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.

Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

Admittedly, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys.

“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”

Amy would smile and agree. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.

“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.

“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

The streetlights glowed against the pre-dawn sky and Amy counted them as she ran. In the distance they appeared short, her height maybe, and then as she neared them they grew taller, reaching, arching over her. Evenly distributed through these first few miles into town, they emitted a low hum like a chorus of energy that Amy couldn’t hear because of her ear buds pumping music into her skull.

She reached up and ripped the ear buds out and let them drop and dangle against her chest. They caught the rhythm of her steps, though, and began to bounce. She grabbed the strands and started to tuck them into the strap of her sports bra. She could hear the music like static noise, barely make out the notes and words.

Only two miles in. You’ll need music to make the whole route. She stuck one bud back in, on the side opposite the traffic, and tucked the other strand into the bra. She checked the GPS. Two point four, eighteen minutes thirty three seconds. She was getting to the 20-minute mark, the first energy barrier.

For about 90 seconds the run felt too hard to continue. What are you doing? Just  walk. Amy just had to ignore the pain for 90 seconds and the energy barrier would be broken. Who does that? Who suffers on purpose? Soon she would be in aerobic work, and it would feel easier.

It hadn’t occurred to Amy to marry or have a family. Not until Michael shared his vision of their life together after they had courted just a few weeks. When Michael asked her about religion she had laughed a little nervously.

“You won’t expect me to be a Mormon will you?”

He had smiled, “no. I think our family is done with that.”

Amy nodded as if she knew what he meant and said, “then I guess I don’t really have any thoughts on the subject.”

“You don’t mind I’m not Catholic?” Michael asked.

Amy had not been very good at Catholicism. She couldn’t remember the order of mass and hadn’t had her fingers on a rosary in more than a decade. “No, I think I’m done with that,” she said.

Michael had been a very handsome young man, dark hair and eyes, thick lips that Amy had loved to kiss. She typically agreed to just about everything he said in the hope of earning a kiss. When talking about their future, his lips wore a wide, delicious grin. “Then we don’t need religion,” he said.

Amy tried not to think about licking that smile. She closed her eyes, shook her head, looked again. Those lips! Amy smiled back at him. “I guess not,” she said, and leaned in to accept his kiss.

There was a gap, though, she could feel it now. Since Anna Belle, since Nana died, there was a gap. There was life somewhere, she knew. Or is this it?

Fourth mile and the aerobic heart rate had settled down. The mantra Amy used at the eight minute mark, “settle in, you’re going to be here for a while,” came to her again at 20 minutes. She repeated it: “settle in. Settle in. Settle in.” Each foot strike took a syllable, left -right-left, set-tul-in.

Once in aerobic work, her stride felt effortless and the streetlamps came to her instead of her climbing toward them. Traffic had picked up and an eighteen-wheeler roared by her, she sucked her lips in and waited for the wind to pass before picking up the breath rhythm again.

At least it wasn’t wet. When the road was wet the 18-wheeler blew a spray of dirty water at her. This morning it was just air. Amy breathed out, breathed in, left-right-left.

There was a lot to be thankful for. Amy felt proud of being a senior manager, even if she had been senior manager for much longer than many other senior managers who had become directors. Michael’s job seemed less complicated than her own or maybe he just talked about it less.

Amy listed the items she would need to pack before she and Anna Belle left the house. Left-right-left. She had promised a stack of magazines to the training team. Mag-a-zine. One of the trainers had loaned her a book, too, so she reminded herself to take that back even though she hadn’t read it. Get-the-book.

McDonald’s glowed just ahead and Amy ran toward it. Cars lined up through the drive thru and the sign out front rotated messages. “Two-Mc-Muf-fins-two-bucks,” Amy read in pace. “Try-an-i-cy-lem-on-ade- coo-ler.” The messages scrolled as she approached, “Book your birthday party today, Thanks to Troop 6243, Now Accepting Applications.”

Anna Belle had come home in her spare outfit yesterday, hadn’t gotten to the potty on time. So Amy reminded herself to pack a new spare outfit. A-B-Pan-Ties. And it was the first Tuesday of the month so she needed to leave a check at school for the music program. Mu-sic-check.

Amy thought again about her tears this morning and, again, felt a rush of embarrassment. There was nothing and no one to blame, Amy said to herself, again, as she doubled back. McDonald’s lights cast her shadow in front of her but it shrunk and disappeared within a few steps. The darkness persisted though the edges of the eastern sky were paler than the west.

Why should it matter with all that she had if she did not have that much more? She should be more grateful. Someone or something had blessed her.

Amy began counting her blessings as she ran. Michael. Anna Belle. Her job. Her mother. Running. Running shoes. Running music. Her iPod. Her pink earphones that wedged into her ears and stayed put while she pounded the pavement. Her reflection vest that made her visible to cars. Her running pants that protected the delicate skin of her inner thighs from chafing. Her sports bra. The purple one.

Amy had never liked to run. She ran in college because it was a quick way to burn off a hangover and a good excuse to be alone. She found running again after Anna Belle because she needed to lose the baby weight.

She settled into her pace, a slower trot, admittedly, and not a pace serious runners would admit to. But it was comfortable and Amy felt strong. She may have been an excellent cushion embroiderer or furniture refinisher if either of those hobbies burned 600 calories an hour. She may have been an artist or an excellent Scrabble player. She wasn’t an elite athlete. She wasn’t even an age group champion.

A new month meant another round of trying. More warm, pleasant lovemaking and the secret words they shared during. More excitement in the possibility of intimacy each time they went to bed. More giggles and flirtations during dinner, on the couch watching TV, over the phone in the office. Amy warmed at the idea of a few dirty phrases Michael used and the embarrassed feeling returned, but different this time.

Mile six brought her back to the front of the neighborhood and now she needed to make a big loop to get the seventh. Her neighbors stirred with the lights and sounds of morning. The sun had chased the blackness to the far edges of the western sky on Amy’s right and stretched a golden glow across the eastern sky on her left.

Amy waved at a few people who came out in their robes to retrieve the newspapers from their driveways. She didn’t think she would ever do such a thing but she and Michael didn’t take the morning paper.

She could see the light in the bathroom glowing as she passed home and knew Michael was in the shower. She was behind schedule so she thought about cutting short and heading indoors. As soon as the thought entered her head it left, though, and she picked up the pace a bit for the last mile.

Anna Belle had opened Amy’s Runner’s World magazine and told herself stories about the pictures she saw there. Some Disney marathons were advertised with Mickey and the gang wearing running shoes and standing ready at the start/finish line.

Amy hadn’t run any races this year. She wished Michael ran, but knew they would train on opposite schedules since someone had to be in the house with Anna Belle.

So she hadn’t pushed him, just asked, and he had declined, saying, “it’s really your thing, ya know?”

Amy ran on, past the Philadelphia family’s house with the one-car garage and the bicycles in the yard. She ran past the old couple whose grandchildren visited every weekend to do their laundry for free. She ran past the single mom’s house that had been in foreclosure before the woman decided to question the bank’s ownership of the property on the advice of a lawyer she knew.

Amy could feel it had warmed up since she’d set out an hour ago and knew the rising sun had done that. She could see better now, too, and the sun had done that also. Amy remembered Anna Belle asking where daddy was that it was still light out when they chatted online.

“California is three hours behind us,” Amy said.

Looking puzzled, Anna Belle said, “three hours?”

“It is nine o’clock here, but it is only six o’clock there.”

Michael listened and smiled through the webcam image as his wife tried to explain time and distance to their daughter.

“When will it be nine o’clock there?” Anna Belle pointed to the screen.

“When you are sleeping,” Amy said.

Anna Belle looked at her dad and he said, “you’ll miss it.”

She nodded, knowingly. “You should DVR it.”

Amy laughed a little to herself recalling the conversation as she ran. She thought of the funny phrases Anna Belle used and the way her “th” was always “f” resulting in frow and teef. She thought about what it might feel like when Anna Belle could speak clearly, maybe give instructions, or tell coherent stories, maybe speak in front of people, a thousand people, who hung on every word.

Amy thought of her own sphere of influence. Her own small family. Her small company, her small town, her small world.

She ran past the German immigrants whose license plates were always expired and grass always needed cutting. Amy ran past the neighborhood pool and the playground next to it, past the cul-de-sacs and the side streets, past houses and cars and mailboxes and recycle bins. She ran home, into her driveway, and let herself into the house.

Michael stood at the counter, pouring coffee into a travel mug. He glanced at the clock on the stove.

“Long run?”

“Needed it.”

He grunted and stirred his coffee, the spoon clinking against the walls of the mug.

Amy pulled her ear buds out and stopped the music on the iPod. Then she wound the cord around the device and dropped it in her purse on the counter. She poured a glass of water from the tap and drank deeply.

Amy watched Michael over the rim of the glass. He secured the lid to the mug and dropped the spoon in the sink. Then he leaned toward her, caught her gaze, and stopped.

Amy lowered the glass. “Started my period today,” she said.

Michael didn’t blink. He leaned in, kissed her, and walked toward the door.

“Have a great day,” she said to his retreating back.

“Okay,” he said. Then the door closed and she was alone again.

For a moment she thought about going after him. Ripping the garage door open and yelling at him. Be sad or disappointed or angry. Something other than indifferent.

If she hadn’t run she may have needed him to respond, to engage. But she had run.

She put the glass away and stripped her shirt off, wadded it up, and threw it in the clothes basket on her way into the bedroom. In the bathroom she turned on the shower and looked at herself in the mirror. She turned to see her profile. She looked at how the spandex cut through the soft edges of her hips, how the skin bubbled up on either side of it.

She stripped the pants off and reached into the shower’s stream. Warm but not hot.

She looked back at the mirror, the pink cotton panties, shapeless and bunched, the tops of her thighs firm and glowing with the blood of recently-used muscles. She managed a smile for the taut thighs. Turned a little for a better look, noticed the unkept bikini area.

She pulled off the purple sports bra, peeling the sweat-soaked fabric from her skin and rolling it up over her head and arms. She tossed it to the floor on top of the pants. Her breasts were full and round in the mirror. Tender but not sore. The nipples hardened and shriveled from the sweat and chill air in the bathroom.

Amy turned to profile again and noticed how the bottom of her left breast arced up, how the curve of her bottom crested firmly at the top of her thigh. She straightened the panties and examined her reflection for a few more seconds. Strong, fit.

“Okay,” she said.

Then she stepped out of the pink panties, glanced at the stain, and threw them in the trash.

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What do you think?

Working Title: Run or Bleed

Revised and added to ….

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When her period started that morning Amy finally let the tears fall. She sat on the commode staring at the sticky crimson blotch on the pink cotton stretched between her knees. Her vision blurred and then the tears dripped, slowly, one after the next, over her lashes and down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. She just cussed at the evidence of her body’s betrayal, spitting the word out as her nostrils filled and she choked. A tide of tears spilled out. Elbows on her knees, face in her hands, she let the tears pour and the strangled gasps shake her frame.

Amy could count the number of times she had cried in the last three years. The anniversary of her grandmother’s death fell on Mother’s Day last year and she’d taken flowers to Nana’s grave. Another time she clicked on a must-see link in an email and watched a soldier return from war to surprise her daughter at school in a YouTube clip.

She had once spanked Anna Belle for running away from her in a parking lot then stood beside the car crying afterward. Some unexpected strength took up residence inside her the day Anna Belle was born. Amy became Mommy and crying only distracted from her primary job of caring for, comforting, and encouraging Anna Belle. Amy had quickly swallowed the parking lot tears and hadn’t spanked AB since.

Now here she was. The fourth time she had cried in three years. Sobbing over a smear in her panties. The toilet shifted a little, tilting slightly under her weight. Damn thing had been wobbly since they bought the house five years ago. She cussed again and sobbed harder, her throat thickening with grief. Now she had to keep running. Now she had to keep dieting. Now she had to keep trying to lose weight. She took a deep breath, trying to force the sobs to cease. Amy thought, “I’d just like to have one goddamned donut,” and let a small laugh escape.

Tuesdays are not the days for such complaints. Too many things queued up between her and where she needed to be to really feel sorry for herself. A run, then the morning rush to get Anna Belle ready for daycare and herself ready for work. Then a long commute to the other side of town, a hug goodbye, if she was lucky, then Anna Belle would run off to play and she would trudge back to the car and ride the quarter mile to her office. A cube, some coworkers chatting about reality TV, fluorescent lights that would wash out her complexion, pithy phrases on motivational posters hanging framed on the walls. Amy wanted to cry a little while longer just thinking about another joyless day.

Yesterday her running partner, Jamie, had announced she and Rick were expecting their second. “I’m sorry, Amy,” she’d said, rising up out of a hamstring stretch.

“What for?” Amy had forced a laugh, “babies are good things.”

“I have to quit running,” Jamie said.

“Oh.”

“I know we’d planned to run Paris Mountain,” Jamie said.

“It’s okay,” Amy said quickly, “I can still do the half. I’m happy for you, really.”

Today the conversation came back to her in the stillness of the predawn darkness and Amy snorted. Why had Jamie apologized for being pregnant? Oh, right, Amy thought, because I’m not. That had the desired effect: a new stream of tears coursed down her cheeks.

Amy cried until she felt silly and then she stretched some toilet paper across her lap, tore it from the roll, folded it and blew her nose.  Every month was like this one: the defeat repeatedly evidenced in her panties. Bad timing. Missed connections. Interrupted intentions. Failure.

Wadding up the tissue, she dropped it into the trashcan at her side. Then she cleaned herself up, stood, and left the bathroom. The mantra was already playing: It wasn’t that they couldn’t get pregnant. She knew that. Anna Belle was proof they could. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t get pregnant. They just hadn’t.

She dressed. Snug purple sports bra, slim black spandex pants, Lycra-cotton blend socks, running shoes, a sweat-wicking top she’d purchased with a race entry, her baseball cap.

Michael slept heavily, snuggled deep in the blankets of their bed. The shape of his body beneath the blankets had grown bigger in the last year. She hadn’t minded his extra weight. Hadn’t said anything to him about his portion sizes. Hadn’t asked him to stop drinking or try exercising once or twice a week.

She pulled her reflective vest off the doorknob and slipped out of the bedroom. Amy closed the door behind her and gently released the doorknob into the latch.

In the kitchen, she removed and trashed the old coffee filter, replaced it, poured a pot of water into the tank, and set the timer to begin brewing about the same time Michael would get out of the shower. Darkness held on a little longer in the mornings this time of year and when she extinguished the kitchen light the entire house was black.

Her running shoes emitted prickled squeaks, leather shifting against itself and straining against the laces. Amy tip-toed down the hall, flipped the bright light on, and crept into Anna Belle’s room.

The little girl’s face turned from the light and relaxed in a deep state of unconsciousness. Her cheeks shone, oily from sleep and sweat. Some of her soft hair glued to her forehead where she’d pushed it from her eyes. Long, soft curls streamed out around her head. Tiny lips hung open, puffy and dry.

Amy leaned over the toddler bed to get a better look, replaced a stuffed bear Anna Belle had tossed aside, gently tucked the soft blankets a little closer to Anna Belle’s chin. Amy let her breath out slowly, pursing her lips to blow gently at Anna Belle. The girl’s face twitched in response, she turned her head away, squeezed her eyes tighter and licked her lips. Then she snuggled deeper into her pillow, and Amy smiled and snuck out of the room. She flipped the hallway light off as she left.

When Anna Belle was born, Amy had entertained fantasies of staying home. They could go to the zoo and have mommy and me playdates with homeschool moms. They could snuggle and read books and listen to classical music. They could take walks in the neighborhood and swim in the community pool while everyone else attended school and work.

It just couldn’t happen, Michael told her. They had agreed to certain financial goals and they were on pace to meet them. Their family required her income. Think of the things Anna Belle would have, her friends told her, because you work.

Amy remembered the phrases she’d used, “someone else raising my kid,” and “missing out on so much of her life,” as she begged Michael to help her find a way to make it work. He’d refused. There was no way, he said.

How had her position so dramatically changed?

Their home matched the others on the street, a carefully planned subdivision of single story patio homes mostly suited for the very old or the very young. She would normally wait for Jamie, or find Jamie standing at the end of her driveway. But not today.

Amy pressed play on her iPod and go on her GPS watch. She set out at a light jog toward the top of the neighborhood where she would follow a long route toward town. Before the McDonald’s she would double back, winding her way past the car dealerships and grocery store, before re-entering her small subdivision, running past her home, deep into the neighborhood, and finally back into her own driveway. Seven miles total. A good hour-and-a-quarter run before the sun really stretched its light over the sky. Week two of official half marathon training. Solo.

Amy had worked hard for her PR in the ½ marathon at Phoenix. She had painstakingly mapped out routes, added mileage, soaked herself in ice baths and rubbed her thighs with E-Z glide. She had counted the days, hours, minutes to race day. She had run tempo runs, hill sprints, and easy jogs to condition herself. She had devoured every issue of Runner’s World magazine. Two summers earlier she’d barely opened What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

The pace felt good and within a few minutes Amy was thinking about earlier with embarrassment. How silly she was to cry over her period. It had been coming for twenty five years without fail. Except for that brief eight months when she’d been pregnant with Anna Belle, she had never missed a month. She should be used to it. And anyway, pregnancy right now would mean a summer of being fat and uncomfortable. Better to wait for the fall.

The sadness ebbed while she ran, talking herself through the moment with each step. Yesterday, day 29, she’d felt her breasts were full and sore. She’d had trouble concentrating and took too long on silly tasks like plucking her eyebrows and re-ordering her key ring so all the barcode tags faced the same direction. She knew when she got intent on something like that and lost track of time she was PMSing. The symptoms were there.

Not like last month. Last month she had been a week late. Dizzy, nauseous, swollen breasts tender to the touch, sensitive to the smell of the morning coffee. She’d gagged when she set the pot one morning. Last month she was convinced. And then. Then the crimson in her panties.

They’d had trouble getting pregnant with Anna Belle, too. So she had not been worried after two years. But this was stretching into three years and Amy was older now and she was starting to think something might be wrong.

Michael’s concern had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.

Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

Anna Belle couldn’t participate in the worry, either. She had friends with sisters and dolls with sisters but it never occurred to her to ask if she might ever have a sister, too. Amy sometimes thought Anna Belle better suited to only-child status. And despite the heartbreak of having to lose her parents eventually, which Amy assumed could be softened by her life mate whomever that turned out to be, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling.

“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”

Amy would smile and agree. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.

“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.

“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

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So what do you think? Do you care about Amy? Is it boring?