THE UNDOING (an excerpt)
by Kelly Coody
Edited by Daniel Rumanos
Friends stopped coming; it was as though they would become infected by the tension and discord in the air upon stepping foot across our threshold. They could see the pictures of the three of us. They could feel her in the air. And just like us, the feeling became too much to bear and they would make up an excuse to leave before dinner.
Lily…Lily of the valley…Lily pad…Lilac…That name that he’d whisper to my swollen belly at night when she was awake, kicking and squirming inside me, thrusting an errant elbow out, making an uneven triangle sticking out from my basketball tummy…that name was now like poison on our tongues. It mocked us even from the letters hanging on her walls, both of us too stubborn to take them down, fearful that the move would make it real.
I never knew the death that would happen inside both of us. I never knew the resentment we would suddenly harbor. Not a day passed that I didn’t see her dead, angelic, perfect face in that unnaturally tiny casket.
I’d wake at midnight in a cold sweat after hearing her cry out. But she wasn’t there. I’d sit at her crib sobbing for the rest of the morning, cursing the universe for taking her. Matthew would finally amble by and find me there, narrowing his eyes, unable to say a word.
Replaying the happy times made it harder. Picturing her in her knit hat, laughing for the first time…giggling in videos. I could actually see the little faith that Matthew ever had leaving him in droves.
I just sat and stared into space and wished for death.This was my reality.
This was my reality.
Panama City Beach…home of the lewd spring-breakers, the monotonous hour-drive to and from home, and not worth all the bullshit tourists and obnoxious college boys. But it had been the only place hiring aside from Tallahassee—as annoying as PC was, it would at least die down during the off-season, whereas Tallahassee would always remain bustling with activity. It would always be a nightmare.
From my window I could see the rain letting up just enough to let a slim ray of sun illuminate the arc of a half-rainbow, a temporary sparkle that would soon be covered in more clouds and heavy downpours. Hurricane season was just upon us.
I shivered in my office, my bones aching beneath my light blue silk blouse layered under my black blazer. I stood there staring out at the dark skies, my eyes stuck there, before I heard a light rapping on my door.
“Yes?” I asked casually, not bothering to turn around to even see who it was.
“Hey, JD!” rang a springy, enthusiastic male voice.
Ah, yes, it was Tevin. He was unrelentingly cheerful as the rest of us watched in amazement and attempted to drink ourselves into oblivion in the process. Or at least into a pleasant vegetative state.
“Hey, Tevin,” I said, finally turning around slowly to meet his gaze.
“How’s it goin’, big JD?” he asked, smiling a wide grin.
The wide grin disappeared when his eyes wandered over to the flower arrangement on my desk.
“Everything okay?” he asked. I knew he was being polite, but come on.
“Not really,” I began, sighing in a way that showed sheer exasperation. “My sister just died,” I said, turning back around to where I was facing the window again, my heart as black as the storm cloud I was trying to burn a hole through with my eyes.
God, just go away, Tevin.
“Hey, JD, I’m real sorry, man. The higher-ups,” he used air quotes around the term, “want to have a word with you real quick. They said to just drop by either of their offices on your way out. Have a blessed day, friend,” he said. I waited until I heard his footsteps well on their way down the hall before turning around again.
JD is the affectionate nickname given to me by my friends and colleagues; it started in elementary school and just kind of stuck. My name is Jenna Dean.
They’d better be calling me in there to tell me how dedicated I am, being at work the day my sister died.
I kept my head straight up as I walked to the other side of our floor, straight to talk to Gloria Nguyen and Mike Rodriguez, Branch Manager and Assistant Branch Manager, respectively. They were the types of bosses who you would swear sprinkled cocaine on their cereal every morning before work. Maddening, those two. And so full of company jargon and “safe words” that by the time you walked out of a meeting, you weren’t sure if you’d just been fire or promoted. Such is the workplace though.
As I approached the conference room door, I saw through the glass that the two of them were already sitting down and waiting for me.
“Come in, Jenna. Close the door behind you,” Mike said. He looked even worse today than usual; he always smelled of mildew, that was just a given, but today he wore a ketchup stain on his tie like a bull’s-eye and a large grease spot decorated his oddly pinstriped shirt, right where his gut hung over his belt.
“Hey, guys, what’s going on?” I asked casually, setting the pink vase of lilies down on the floor at my feet as I plopped into the uncomfortable leather chair.
“Wanted to talk to you about the days you requested off next week, Jenna. You know it’s policy to give at least a month’s notice for any vacation days, so I’m afraid we’re going to have to respectfully decline the request.” It was as though he’d memorized a script from a teleprompter and was now visualizing it in his mind to read from, verbatim. He cleared his throat and shifted his excess weight around before raising his eyebrows at me.
“Mike, Gloria,” I began, making the pointed effort of looking them both in the eye, “My sister died today. Those aren’t vacation days.” I kept stoic, repeating the phrase, Don’t get emotional, over and over again in my head, hoping it would stick.
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry!” Gloria fake-lamented before getting up to wrap her arms around me in a weak, limp noodle of a hug. Unnecessary. And strange. “We are sorry for your loss, Jenna, we want you to know that,” she finished as she quickly sat back down, removing her hands from me as though I had suddenly become a burning coal.
Mike picked up where she’d trailed off, “But you’re out of bereavement days. So you’d have to use vacation time.”
“Yes. That’s right, Mike, Gloria,” I said, nodding to each of them separately, “I can’t figure out if you’re purposely trying to make me relive the most horrible year of my life or if I’m about to be fired,” I said, feeling the tops of my cheeks fill with blood, making my face uncomfortably hot. And bright pink.
“We aren’t, Jenna, I promise. You used up all of your sick and vacation days in conjunction with…”
“With the disability time I took when my daughter was born. Anything else you’d like to add?” I prodded, dared them, by scooting forward in my chair and resting my chin in my hands.
He shook his head for a minute before motioning back to Gloria, who took the reins. This was such a poorly timed shit show of a poorly rehearsed managerial song and dance.
“And then after your maternity leave you used up your bereavement days after getting an extension on your disability,” she said quickly, running the words together, taking my dare.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
This time my temper was flaring well above my boiling point. I stood up. “My baby girl, my infant, died in her sleep!” I shouted through tears. “Have either of you ever experienced anything like this in your own lives? Have you no compassion? Why would you feel the need to remind me that I’ve already used my bereavement days as though I’ve forgotten?”
They sat silent and shook their heads no in unison.
“So, by PC Community Bank standards, if you have more than one death in a year, then you’re fucked? Let’s modify that last sentence, actually: If you have more than one catastrophic, life-changing loss in a year, then you’re fucked?” I realized I was now shouting wildly through free-falling tears.
“Jenna, I will say it again, we are so sorry. If you don’t come in those days next week, we will be forced to take corrective action,” said Gloria. Persistent little lady. So confident sitting there in her patent leather heels, David Yurman bracelets and Gucci belt.
Jesus Christ. Inhumane, heartless bastards.
I was 35 with a college degree, standing there fighting to salvage a bullshit job that paid me a paltry 30,000 a year. The CEO of PC Community Bank pissed that money on a daily basis. He probably handed it out as a door prize during his annual Christmas party. Or was it Hanukkah for him? I could never remember…
“You won’t have to take any corrective action; it won’t be necessary,” I began, keeping my gaze focused on Gloria, who began to nod and smile. “I quit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a funeral to plan.”
I walked out of that office and never looked b ack. Oh, and I made sure I held my flowers high above my head as I bounded out of that godforsaken building. My feet, though, were suddenly light as air.
On the way home I stopped by my usual diner, my go-to, The Donut Hole, located in the ever-changing landscape of my once-beloved Fort Walton Beach. What used to be uninterrupted backdrop of pure ocean and white sands peppered with solely mom-and-pop businesses was now littered with the high-rises that were to be our capitalistic destiny.
I still wasn’t home yet; Bluewater was the final destination, but I desperately needed some time to sit and digest the day.
I sat at the rustic, dark-stained end of the newly glossy wood counter at the bar, ordering the darkest beer they had on tap and began drinking it like water before ordering my usual bagel sandwich. I knew the owner. She always threw in some donuts for me.
Matthew and I’s marriage was strained past the point of repair. We went through our grieving all wrong, refusing therapy, and instead choosing to lash out at one another incessantly, our fights going in circles that were unending.
And now it was my baby sister—she had been Lily’s godmother for Christ’s sake. She wasn’t like me, full of anger and resentment with a failing marriage lying at her feet. She’d had her whole life ahead of her; she’d just received a promotion at her PR firm. And when I describe her as beautiful, of course I’m biased, but it was looking into those soulful eyes, hearing that beautiful laugh that always sang to me that things would end up working out in the end, no matter how bad they seemed. And now she was gone.
I’d gotten the tearful phone call from my father this morning around five—he was crying and cursing and practically unintelligible. She was in a head-on collision with a fucking 18-wheeler. A mac truck. Died on impact. The hole that existed in my heart ached thinking of her and Lily. I couldn’t punch any more walls. I think I used up all the blank wall space in my house as a punching bag already. Matthew was tired of buying the wall-patching kits at K-Mart every weekend.
“Darlin’, Jenna, you want another refill, baby?” asked the pleasantly plump, gray-haired gem of a woman who owned The Donut Hole—Abigail McHugh. This had become a sort of informal routine for us since Lily’s death. I called it, “Beer and therapy with Abigail.”
I nodded as she filled the already-massive mug full to the brim with the dark beer, bubbling foam settling at the top.
“What happened today, sugar?” she asked in a mothering tone of voice, letting her chin rest in her hand.
“Abigail…my sister died today…”
“Damn it!” she screamed, vocalizing all of my pent-up anger and hers too, I guess. “Goddamn it!” she yelled again, stamping her foot against the edge of the counter. Hard. In a change of tone, she turned to me with severity painting her face. “Everything tonight is on me—no protests. I understand the drinkin’, honey, I do, but I’ll have to drive ya home, you skinny little thing,” she said, trying to tease me to relax the tension in the air, poking me in the side before her face settled back into an uncomfortable grimace.
“Abigail, I got fired for asking for time off for my sister’s funeral.” I more spat the sentence out; I was no longer talking with her, but at her, running my words together as though that would somehow make it all untrue. It was just spilling out of my mouth. I hadn’t even thought to be aware of other restaurant patrons or if she was even a pair of willing ears. It just wasn’t a sentence I ever thought I’d be saying aloud.
“Those sons of bitches. I don’t trust a goddamn one of them in Panama City. Buncha touristy bullshit,” she said scathingly, looking at the ground.
“Abigail….I think once Matthew finds out about me getting fired, that—”
“Oh, sweet Jenna. There’s not really a job open here at the moment, but I’ll make you one, how about that? You can start after the funeral, of course, after you take all the time you need,” she said, cutting me off. “I can’t and won’t let you be jobless.” Her mothering words wrapped around me like a left-behind warm sweater over my bare arms in a cold rain.
She began to drink beer with me. We talked and drank until One A.M., until it was time for her to close down the place.
“Y’know what? I live across the damn street from you. I’ll drive you home in your car so Matthew won’t have his period,” she said, to which we both laughed. “Dan will just have to let me borrow the truck tomorrow night. I’ll be over at your house bugging you all with food, you know that, right, Jenna? You won’t be alone.”
I held her hand in mine and gave it a good squeeze. “I’m looking forward to that,” I said, shooting her a grin. She smiled back and patted me on the knee gently.
After we locked the place up, I stumbled to my car as she guided me to the passenger seat.
As we rolled up to the house about a half-hour later, the front door was side open, random glass shards littering the entryway, spilling out onto the front lawn. Profanities had been spray-painted all over both garage doors. Between how highly intoxicated I was mixing with the numbness I’d been feeling back since Lily’s death, I somehow remained silent gazing upon the scene that just this morning had been my home. With Riley’s death piled on top of it all, I think I began to feel like giving up.
Matthew’s car was gone.
Spray-painted across the garage was: Bitch, Baby Killer, Fuck You.
What? What in the holy hell? This would be the one time in my life I ever wished I was the fainting type—because after this day, I was in desperate need of a pause button in the form of a good blackout.
Abigail kept close by but disturbingly silent as we peeked into the house. It was completely empty. He’d taken it all. There was what appeared to be a 24-page handwritten note to me. Fuck you, Matthew. Right next to the very well-thought-out, neatly penned letter sat a signed and notarized Divorce Decree.
“Abigail!” I called, my rage now not only boiling, but inhabiting every cell in my body.
But she was looking around and gasping at the newly empty house. I was rushing to her with the note and Divorce Decree clutched in my hand. In my panicked state, I’d completely forgotten about the three uneven steps down you had to take to leave or enter the kitchen. I went flying forward, cracking my skull on the corner of the granite counter top, knocking me unconscious.
* Kelly Coody (nee Fitzharris) is a fiction novelist and freelance writer. She grew up all over the world, the daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot, notably living in Aschaffenburg, Germany, fortunate enough to be there to see the Berlin wall come down, and later in life bouncing back and forth between Niceville, Florida and Texas. Obtaining her Bachelor of Science in Public Relations with a minor in French from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006, she has gone on to fail miserably in the corporate sector, finding her way back to her lifelong passion: writing. Though her writing is dark and suspenseful, she’s surprisingly upbeat and bubbly in person, with an unexplainable weakness for Taco Bell and online shopping. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas, with her husband Michael Coody and their two children, Nikki and Jackson. Twitter: @kellycoody Email: Kelly.firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook: Kelly (Fitzharris) Coody *