Fiction Friday: On Fire
Friday, August 15, 2008 | Author: Mad Typist
So, I'm an amateur writer, and I've got a lot of stories just sort of sitting around on my computer. I've decided to try a new feature where I post some of my material hopefully every Friday or every other Friday. Hence: Fiction Friday.

I'd really like feedback from any regular readers out there, since I take my writing pretty seriously, but I can't improve as a writer unless I put my stuff out there to take the hits.

Here's the first piece, which is technically "published" (but since most of you won't have a copy of Hawaii Pacific University's magazine available, it's pretty much out of print). Hope you enjoy it. Again, positive or negative feedback are welcome.

On Fire

The tiles are brown and yellow, perfect little squares laid out in endless rows and columns. Julie studies them carefully, trying to find a pattern somewhere. It looks like some sort of maze but are you supposed to follow the yellow tiles, or will the brown ones reveal the secret path? It doesn’t matter which color she chooses, though, for try as she might, Julie can’t trace a continuous path. It’s a dead end every time.

She sighs and pulls her eyes away from the restroom floor. She glances at her watch. She’s been gone for almost seven minutes now. Three more minutes before her mother will hit her limit and come barging in, semi-frantic. Even though she hasn’t even used it, she stands and flushes the toilet, purely out of habit. She is a creature of habit and routine these days. Morning wake up, school, homework, free time – it’s all managed down to the minute. She doesn’t mind being on a schedule. It means that she is making optimum use of her time, plus it keeps her from forgetting important things, like her six-times-a-day doses of pills.

Julie washes her hands, despite the fact that they are perfectly clean – another habit – and makes her way out of the restroom. Another quick watch check reveals just over a minute left. She counts down the seconds in her head as she walks down the hallway. She has fifty seconds left when she rounds the corner by the radiology department. In the distance she sees her mother perched on the waiting area bench, pretending to read a magazine, but secretly staring at her watch.

Her mother looks up in what she probably imagines is a casual fashion. “You were in the bathroom awhile,” she begins.

Before she can continue, Julie reaches into her jacket pocket and whips out a Snickers. “I stopped at the vending machine and got you a candy bar, Mom,” she says, by way of explanation. Her mother nods, placated for the moment, and accepts it while commenting how thoughtful Julie is for remembering her favorite candy bar.

Julie mentally celebrates her small victory. Chocolate saves the day once again, she thinks. She always carries a Snickers in her pocket just in case her mother looks like she’s on the verge of a lecture. In fact, Julie keeps an entire case stashed under her bed, which she refers to as her secret cache of “Mom tranquilizers”. It is so much easier to ply her with chocolate than to do the endless “No, I feel fine. No really, I wasn’t getting sick. No, I’m not reacting to my meds…” song and dance. Her mother wouldn’t understand why Julie would rather sit in the bathroom for ten minutes than in the waiting area with her.

Today her mother has chosen to wear what Julie has dubbed the “Super Duper Sunburst,” a yellow skirt with matching blazer and a patterned blouse underneath. Other favored hospital outfits include “Perky Polka Dots” and “Chipper Creamsicle”. Her mother is a firm believer in the “Happy on the outside means happy on the inside” principle. Her outfits are almost aggressively cheerful, as if to say to the world, “I’m not depressed. If I were depressed, do you think I’d wear fuchsia, for God’s sake?”

Julie thinks the whole notion is ridiculous, although she is disappointed “Fire Engine” didn’t make an appearance today. She enjoys cracking “Hey, Janet, where’s the fire at?” even though her mother never laughs at it. Her mother doesn’t laugh at a lot of things she says, which is sad, because Julie is quite a witty girl. She has a great collection of “I had my mid-life crisis at age 11” quips that always gets a good response with everyone else. The first and only time she had told one to her mother, her mother had burst into tears and left the room.

Julie shifts uncomfortably at the thought. She takes a notepad out of her pocket and writes a memo to herself. Later tonight she will go over her notes and add them to her list of things to apologize for. This is another routine of hers, the daily cataloguing of regrets. She has another list dedicated to daily triumphs, and another for things she wishes she could’ve done someday. She knows her mother, herself obsessed with lists, will appreciate this when Julie is finally gone. She still needs to come up with today’s entry for the “Reasons why I’m not scared” list. It’s been harder this last year coming up with new ones for that list. Still, she fidgets with her pen and attempts to come up with something worthwhile.

* * * * *

Janet looks at her daughter and suppresses the urge to snatch her pen away just to stop her from tapping it incessantly on the bench. Julie, always writing it seemed, would just resent the action. Janet tries to guess what she’s scrawling this time. Maybe it’s a love letter to some boy. She experiences a secret thrill at that thought. Would that be so unreasonable to hope for? Janet thinks Julie is the most beautiful girl in the world, so it stands to reason that a teenage boy might see that as well. In fact, it’s almost cruel how healthy and full of life she looks. Sometimes even Janet forgets the truth of the situation.

She reaches into her purse and pulls out her day planner. Its contents are meticulously organized via a system of tabs and different color inks. Under today’s date “doctor appointment” is printed neatly in blue ink. Below that “parents group” is listed in red ink.

Janet grimaces to herself. She hates going to group therapy. All those parents sitting in a little circle, struggling to give voice to their fears – it’s so pointless. Still, the doctors think the group is a good idea and Julie seems to want her to go. So she goes, and feels selfish for not wanting to share her pain, not wanting to share her daughter’s final days with anyone else. In the pit of her stomach, Janet’s grief is a red-hot coal.

She wonders if someone in group will bring up religion again today. Janet has nothing to say on the subject. It’s a conversation she has already had. Dear God, when you take my daughter, you’ll be taking the best part of me.

She looks at Julie out of the corner of her eye. It’s like looking in a mirror. She sometimes thinks that her daughter dresses like a street punk just to have some sort of visual distinction between them. Janet doesn’t mind, especially on days like this. If jeans and a leather jacket make Julie feel stronger, make it easier to get through the day, then so be it. Janet understands the power of clothing.

The doctor comes out and calls them in. Janet places her hand lightly on Julie’s lower back and guides her into the office, which earns her a look and an annoyed sigh from Julie.

“I know where it is, Mom,” Julie says.

Janet guiltily removes her hand and lets it drop to her side. The remark stings, but she forces herself to smile and reply, “Of course you do, dear.”

They take their usual positions, Julie in the chair on the right, Janet in the chair on the left, the doctor standing in front of them with his collection of charts and test results. Janet carefully dictates the doctor’s every word, even if she doesn’t quite know what all the terms mean. She will look them up later when she gets home.

“Maybe as long as 21,” she writes, carefully underlining the phrase two times. Again, she looks at her daughter and forces a smile that she does not feel inside.

If you had told her ten years ago that Julie might die when she was 21, Janet would’ve been ecstatic, overjoyed at the prospect of an additional 6 years. Now, she finds little comfort in that fact. It’s not enough. She feels greedy just thinking that. She thinks about the other parents whose children slip away even sooner than they expect. She is lucky to have this time.

Janet finishes writing and thanks the doctor. He hands her a list of new dietary recommendations and a prescription renewing Julie’s medicines. He smiles at her and she feigns gratefulness that he has delivered such good news to her. She hurries Julie out of the office.

They drive to Janet’s group meeting in silence. Julie fiddles with the radio non-stop the entire time. Janet is too busy planning tomorrow’s schedule in her head to argue with her about it right now.

Julie practically bolts out of the car before it’s even come to a stop. “See you in a couple of hours, Mom,” she calls over her shoulder. Janet sighs and watches the retreating back of her daughter. It’s like this a lot lately. There’s always somewhere Julie wants to be, and that somewhere seems to be anywhere Janet is not. Julie is so busy living in the moment that she’s almost reckless. It’s times like this that Janet remembers just how young her daughter is, too young to truly understand the value of time.

Janet knows that time comes with a price and that price is constant vigilance. So while her daughter runs towards the future with such abandon, Janet will watch like a hawk. She will monitor Julie’s vital signs and she will plan the schedule for next week. She will carefully place aside the proper doses of pills for each day. She will write out a menu and then she will plan her grocery shopping around it. She will do all these things and more, so that Julie never has to.

Janet’s love is a thunderstorm in her chest.

* * * * *

Julie checks her watch and quickens her step. She carefully estimates how long it will take her to stop at the store before she heads over to the library. It’s time to replenish the Snickers supply under her bed again.

She reflects about what the doctor said today. 21 is a good number to strive for, she thinks. It’s more than she thought was possible. She has reached the bonus round of life and she is grateful for that much.

She seriously contemplates the idea of college for the first time. Her mother won’t like that idea. Julie thinks that college will be good for both of them. She considers living in-residence at a local university. It will help her ease slowly out of her mother’s day-to-day life. Her mother needs to get used to Julie not being there. It will be better that way. But that will be a fight for another night.

Tonight is group night, and Julie knows her mother will be cranky enough without adding any more stress to the situation. Julie is glad her mother goes to her meetings, albeit reluctantly. Even though her mother doesn’t know it now, she will need that group someday. Julie knows, because she has already been to that place in her life. She is just waiting for her mother to catch up. She hopes it happens before she is gone.

She walks into the supermarket and heads to the candy aisle. She buys a box of Snickers, small enough so that it will fit in her backpack without causing her mother to be suspicious. The last time she had been too overt about her candy purchasing, and her subsequent evasive behavior had inadvertently spawned a full room search, for what her mother probably imagined were drugs. Julie had barely had time to hide the candy stash. Still, that round had gone to her, which still amuses her to no end. It are these small moments of subversion that give her the most pleasure in life.

She pauses at the magazine rack and scans the covers. She settles on the latest Seventeen magazine. On the front of the magazine is some rock idol with spiky purple hair. Julie takes a moment and considers taking that look for herself. She imagines what the fireworks would be like at home when her mother sees her for the first time and weighs that against how awesome she’s sure that she’ll look. She decides that since her hair might fall out anyway if things get worse, that it might not be an issue for long. She takes out her notepad and writes “Manic Panic shocking purple dye” in neat letters, underlining it carefully. She pays for the magazine and the candy and heads off to her next destination.

Julie allows herself a small smile. She is 16 and she is still alive. It is enough for now. Tomorrow she will deal with a new round of anxieties and fears. But today, for this one moment at least, she has all the time in the world.

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