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EMERGENCY

 

July 21, 2015

JIM McCUTCHON

A SHORT STORY

He was sitting at his desk right after lunch talking with three other men. An important business meeting. He had left strict instructions. No calls. But there it was, the red light on his phone. Flashing. He ignored it. It kept flashing. He picked it up and listened. His secretary said there was a call from the Principal at Jenna’s school. He needed to get there right away.

 

            Oh God no! Not that. He had worried about that for a year. Ever since that truck went through a red light and T-boned his wife’s car. Darlene was on her way to school to pick up Jenna for a big ninth grade soccer game. Firemen had to use the Jaws-of-Life to get her out of the car, but there was no life left in Darlene. She was broken like a china doll that had been dropped from a high window. The red light had flashed then too. Emergency.

 

            He didn’t realize he had turned pale. The others did. They noticed his slumped shoulders too as he left without a word. The secretary was quiet when he passed her desk. She knew. In the elevator on the way down, he sobbed a little. Not much. He was strong. But it was the same elevator as last year with the same ad for the cafeteria in the basement. Same picture of the same food. Couldn’t they change the picture?

 

            He got in his Beamer in the garage, and the car drove itself to the school as if it remembered to turn left at the drugstore on the corner of Walnut and right at the gas station four blocks down. His mind was already at the school. He didn’t have to think about driving. He had been taking Jenna to school over that same route for a year. Ever since it happened. Picking her up too, but she didn’t go to soccer practice. She had quit soccer. Quit everything. Writing for the school paper, acting in the plays, cheerleading, even talking on the phone with other fifteen year olds. Mostly she stayed in her room with the shades drawn and the door closed. And she didn’t listen to music anymore. Jenna had been his sunshine girl, smiling only when she wasn’t laughing. Not now. Oh God.

 

            Darlene’s face had been smashed. He had chosen a closed coffin. Jenna wanted him to open it so she could say good-bye to her mother, her best friend. He didn’t want to do it, but he did. A mistake. Jenna hadn’t been the same since. She and Darlene had done everything together, shopped for brightly colored clothes, walked in the rain, danced to teeny bop tunes in the kitchen while they were cooking, baking or washing dishes. Everything was fun for them. No more. Jenna didn’t laugh any more. Her brightly colored clothes hung in the closet. Instead, she wore brown or, sometimes, black. She rarely talked. It had been a year. He had waited for her to get better. She got worse. Now this.

 

            He pulled into the parking lot at school and dragged himself out of the car. A security guard was there, looking sad and saying he would take him to the principal’s office. The guard knew too. He trudged in, hardly able to breathe. His chest was too tight. The outer door of the office was open, and he could see the secretary. She looked sad too – and scared. Why was she scared? She told him he was expected, that he could knock twice on the door and go in. He didn’t want to go in, but he knocked. The door was solid core, probably to keep secret the sounds of what happened in that room. The doorknob was imitation brass.

 

He forced himself to open the door. He stopped halfway into the room, unable to take another step. He had to hold onto the doorknob to keep from falling. He wondered if the walls and the floor were really gray or if it seemed that way because his vision was getting dim. The principal’s desk was gray too, cold institutional steel, and there were no chairs for visitors. Supplicants and penitents would have to stand while his eminence sat. A tinge of anger began replacing the despair that had been dragging him down. He straightened but went no farther. As he felt his anger grow, he tightened his hold on the knob.

 

The principal got up, came around the desk and adjusted his ridiculous tweed jacket with the leather patches at the elbow. Who did he think he was, an Oxford Don? He was a little man with a squeaky voice, and he was saying something like  …..terrible thing….never had this happen before in my school….so much mess to clean up after her….can’t have classes this afternoon….the students are out of control….no atmosphere for academic pursuits….was such a nice girl…a tragedy….and it’s all her fault.

 

He was really getting mad now. All the little man cared about was his damn school and his spotless record. He thought that, solid core or not, he just might tear the doorknob out and plant it in the principal’s skull. Then, he saw the Principal point with a trembling finger at something in the corner of the room hidden by the opened door. He was saying, “She started a food fight in the cafeteria.”

           

He looked behind the door. There was his sunshine girl. She was standing erect with her head held high and her arms folded on her chest. She had the light in her eyes that he loved and hadn’t seen for a year, and she was grinning with defiant delight.

 

“Jenna honey, I’m so proud of you.”

 

 

This very short, short story was written in 10 minutes in a workshop at the 2015 Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference in response to a challenge from the workshop leader to write a story that would fit with the last line which was all that we were given. I polished it later and read it in a 2016 workshop. Susan Gulbransen, the workshop leader, asked for a copy to submit for an award in the fiction category. It didn’t win. It didn’t get honorable mention. But I like it. So there!

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