This Show Case features seven pieces submitted in response to our first Writing Prompt: Atrophied. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt, which you can find on the Show Case home page.
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Atrophied: A Story of Love Going, Going . . .
by Carl E. Reed
I opened the door and walked into the kitchen of our one-bedroom condo. I’d just finished a twelve-hour shift at the retail electronics store stocking shelves, stickering product and answering PC-related customer questions. (What’s the difference between a single-sided 3 ½” floppy diskette and a dual-density, double-sided one? Which sound card gives me speech as well as sound effects and music? What’s a CD-ROM drive? An extended memory manager? A battery back-up system with surge protection? Can you explain the difference between CGA, EGA and VGA graphics? What do you need to know to work here?)
Cheryl was frying up a hamburger-onion-red-pepper mix in an iron skillet on the stove.
“Mmm, smells great!” I said and slipped my arms about her waist.
She stiffened and tossed her head.
I released her and stepped back.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“You can do the dishes later.”
“Fine,” I said. “Need anything right—”
“You can stay out of the way.”
I stood there for a moment, studying her rigid spine. Down-like blonde hairs on the back of her neck glistened with a light sheen of perspiration. I stifled the urge to blow softly on those hairs and plant a gentling kiss on her neck. I didn’t, of course—I was no fool. To everything there is a season . . .
I opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer. I wrenched the cap off, flipped it into the garbage can, took a long swig of wheaty Belgium ale and wiped my lips on the back of my wrist. “I’ll be on the computer,” I said.
To this banal and utterly unsurprising statement Cheryl made no reply.
I ambled into the 10’ x 10’ section of the dining room I’d walled off with floor-to-ceiling bookcases to make my man cave, set the bottle of beer down on a plywood hutch and fired up my full-tower PC. In moments I resumed the epic-length strategy game I’d been playing all week long, directing pixelated Mongolian hordes on their conquest of the three Asian kingdoms that would later amalgamate into the nation of China.
“We need to talk later,” Cheryl called from the kitchen.
“Okay,” I said, directing my cavalry around the flank of a cohort of enemy spearmen. “Anything important?”
A metal spatula scraped the frying pan; savory smells of frying meat and vegetables filled the condo.
On screen, spearmen repulsed my cavalry attack. Desktop speakers rattled tinnily with the thunder of hooves, the clash and clangor of swords off armor and the screams of dying men.
“Goddamn it!” I said.
Cheryl muttered from the kitchen.
One month later leather-booted moving men picked up a 60” wide-screen plasma TV and moved toward the open patio door. There was a fragrant scent of newly mown grass, early morning rain and freshly pruned rosebushes in the air.
“No, no,” I called, “that stays here. The TV stand goes on the truck.”
They looked at each other. The bearded man with the forearm tattoos remarked to his clean-shaven compadre with the silver ankh earring: “I see how this divorce went.”
The men set the television down and returned for the stand. Both threw me a look.
“What can I say?” I said and shrugged. “Our relationship . . . atrophied.”
“Like a withered limb?” inquired Tattooed Forearms.
“Exactly,” I said.
“Huh,” he said.
When they’d taken the television stand out the door I sat down on the couch. My legs were trembling. Odd—they wouldn’t support my weight.
Through the open patio doors came a light breeze, the shrieks and laughter of children at play, and a twitter of birdsong.
A Good Day
by Victor Acquista
Though the week had been unusually busy, filled with challenges and surprises, as I stare at Mom, I realize how little has changed. Holding to my Saturday routine of lunchtime visit offered just another slap-in-the-face reminder–she doesn’t recognize me.
A vacuous and vacant stare-at-nothing, stare-at-no one met my greeting.
I barely recognize her.
Withered muscles cover floppy, sagging flesh. I glance at the framed photo on the bedside table. Where is the cherubic face? Her once plump, now gaunt features, skin thin and almost translucent over an emaciated, skull-like facial visage, the adorable impish dimples in the photo, now seemingly lost at the bottom of cavernous cheek-depressions. If I sucked on a straw, clogged by some errant pulp in an expensive smoothie, until the straw collapsed in upon itself, that might begin to approximate the sucked-in-look on Mom’s face.
All life but the barest trickle somehow now sustains her. Her life-essence siphoned near dry by sarcopenia. That’s what the doctor called it. Progressive muscle wasting, a slow and relentless loss of vitality, strength. Slow death—that’s what I call it.
An aide comes in. She fluffs the pillow supporting Mom’s head, but that gets no response. I point to the untouched food tray, knowing the answer.
“Has she eaten today?”
“Nothing on my shift.” The aide motions to fresh flowers adjacent to the photo. “A former student stopped by.”
I smile, knowing that many still respect Mom, and still remember even if she doesn’t. The fact that they show they care means more to me than to her. A tear wells at the injustice of this reality. To so many she had given so much, and now so much had been taken away. Life’s cruel! But Mom doesn’t seem to mind, doesn’t seem to care. Lack of awareness has that effect.
“I’ll try. Maybe she’ll take a few bites for me.”
As she exits, the aide offers encouragement. “She’s having a good day.”
Really! I think to myself. What’s a good day in this place of non-being? This isn’t a place in between life and death. It’s a lame mule hobbling under its own weight trying to get to a place where it can finally rest, too stubborn to simply stop and drop dead.
I pull up the chair next to her, try to coax her to eat using all the tricks I’d come to learn as she declined over the last three years. Steady and relentless deterioration of mind and body.
Mixed dementia according to the doctor. Does giving it a name somehow make it more palatable? Is a named ailment less threatening or somehow better than an unnamed thief stealing the body, the mind, the life from Mom? In some technical sense she is still alive. Is still alive based on a technicality really still living? Or is this barely subsisting existence below the threshold of what actual life is?
As a spoonful of tepid tea sweetened with honey dribbles down the corner of her mouth, I try something different. Mom loves opera. I cue up “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte—The Magic Flute. It’s one of her favorites; she even played the Queen of the Night in college. I wasn’t born yet, but I’d listened to the recordings of her performance. She brought the house down with her soaring soprano voice. The majesty is now a distant memory and faded echo.
To my surprise, Mom begins to tap her fingers as though counting, waiting for the musical score that precedes her aria. And then she takes a deep breath and begins to sing. Her voice cracks and croaks, and the soaring high notes come out raspy and off key. I weep. It is not lost upon me that the aria is about a mother and daughter, and the mother’s entreaty that the daughter must kill someone. As the music subsides, Mom looks at me. I stand, applaud, and weep some more.
I offer her another spoonful of tea and she pushes my hand away with a stern look.
“No dear, the tea dries my mouth and is bad for my vocal cords.”
She hasn’t uttered a word in six months. The atrophied husk of the mother I knew has somehow reanimated, if just for a moment.
“I…I’m sorry, Mom.” Then I hug her. Sobbing, I add, “I love you!”
“I know. Of course, you do. I love you too.” I feel her comforting embrace.
Verlorne Sprache (‘Lost Language’)
by Scott D. Vander Ploeg
The river cruise boat had been tying up at this dock for many years, and thus it was odd that the dock and ramp did not match up. Perhaps the Rhine River level had dropped due to drought. In any case, I was looking down and just about to step onto the boat when one of the staff yelled “VORSICHT!”
I paused, looked up, and noted a metal ledge comprising the floor of the next level of the river cruise boat, the base of its top deck, just inches from my forehead. Because the water level was low, stepping onto the boat meant stepping down farther than usual. I could have knocked myself unconscious and possibly fallen in to meet the Lorelei and become ensorcelled forever, or more probably would have been drowned and crushed between the boat and the dock.
When that shouted German word—meaning roughly ‘Watch-out’—hit my eardrums, something surprising happened. I had been learning Deutsch haltingly, painstakingly, for more than three years. I was perhaps “conversant,” certainly far from fluent, and struggled to communicate more than the most basic traveler’s cheat book phrases. The picturesque German term describing my speech attempts is kauderwelche, cow-cud speech. I just checked and another translation is “gibberish.” But the shouted warning triggered some neural pathways and changed how I was using the language.
I was twenty years old, touring Europe with my parents, having nervously promised to be their translator. I’d taken two years of high school German classes, and two semesters of it in my freshman year of college. I did not plan on more of such classroom instruction, so I told the parents this was the best time to make the trip. The Rhine River cruise was mom’s idea, and a way to get from Switzerland back to Amsterdam, where our round-trip second leg would begin and end our adventure.
That night, rocking gently to the river’s motion, when I fell asleep I dreamed in German, or rather, I had begun to think in the language, and not only in my native English. To be able to think in the foreign language, howsoever limited, was a great accomplishment, and it meant that my foreign language acquisition was on track to grow and become much more robust. This boat ride up the Rhine, and the emergency warning, catalyzed my ability to learn.
I just needed to know more words in the language, and to become more at ease in tense permutations. I have since learned some French and Spanish, and a little Mandarin, and took a couple of classes in Latin, but as I’m fond of saying, Ich habe Deutsch lieber als die anderen Sprachen (‘I prefer German to the other languages’).
To illustrate my difficulty, here’s a true story: We had rented a small car and had just gotten on the Autobahn, when the car started shaking and stuttering. Road service showed up immediately and took us to a mechanic who told me Du hast dreck in diner Vergaser. I went to my dad and said in hushed tones: “Dad, I think the guy just said we’re full of shit.” We were at a loss and didn’t know what to do next. I pulled out a dictionary and looked up Vergaser, finding that it is their word for ‘carburetor.’ It dawned on me that he wasn’t anti-American, but that we had dirt in the carburetor—I hadn’t known the words for car parts, and I had assumed drek had a more negative association. I had much to learn.
Frau Gellert was an older German woman, a retired teacher. The boat was mostly full of Americans on tour, but she had promised herself this vacation, a kind of bucket-wish-list item. I had become quite bored on the passage north. After wowing over the third castle overlooking the river, the next score of them became yawners for me. I spent quite some time talking with Frau Gellert, who had befriended me and thought it good to make me memorize some German poetry. I still retain some parts of the lullaby, Der Mond ist Aufgegangen.
But the “Vorsicht” event was near the end of that voyage, and also near the end of my tour of Germany. I came back to Indiana and had no great opportunity to speak German. I could revel in the occasional Octoberfest, but I eventually lost the ability to think in another language. I recently had the opportunity to re-engage in speaking with a woman who had taught German in high school. Best I could come up with was, Ich mag deine Eigentumswohnung… ‘I like your condo.’ I had to look up ‘condominium.’
VORSICHT!: My German story proves the adage: “use it or lose it.”
Barely past his infancy but wise beyond his years, of inexhaustible good will toward all creatures, but especially the vulnerable, Sly contemplates a career as a motivational speaker focused on the attainment of ambitious but achievable goals.
by Mimi Speike
Raised on a hardscrabble farm in Cumbria, Northern England, Sly was a misfit, out of step with the simple souls he associated with. Below: a scene from his childhood.
“Do you believe this creep? Nose in a book, as usual. The family genius, ma’s pride ’n joy. Hey genius,” Bilbo snarled at his brother. “What-cha readin’ there?”
Sly sighed. “Let me be, eh?”
“C’mon, spill. I can use a laugh. Just had a meet-up with Ralphie-boy. That hound, he hates m’guts.”
“Everyone hates yer guts,” muttered Sly. “You’re a bully!”
Grinning, Blackie turned to his companions, unsavory sorts from down the road. “You punks know our Sylvester? No? My brother. One of many, naturally. Get this – he goes to school down the village, when he can sneak his butt past the schoolmaster.”
“So what?” hissed Sly. “It’s a harmless pleasure.”
“But for he’s always pushing eddy-cation on the barnyard. The clucks let the fool spout off. He’s said his piece, moved on, they cackle their heads off. He’s grand entertainment, is their view.”
“Life’s more ’n pecking at insects and hatching of eggs. I’m trying to broaden their horizons. We are on the cusp of a new age, granting freedoms undreamt of only a few decades ago.”
“There he goes again, showing off. What means cusp?”
(This conversation is carried on in cat-speak. Sly has employed a foreign term, as you and I might use a foreign phrase that expresses a thought more precisely than does English.)
“We are in the midst of a cultural revolution, are you aware of that? It wouldn’t hurt you to take more of an interest in current events. Me, I have expectations of doing big things with my life. Frankly, I feel it my destiny.”
(I’m giving you the gist of the exchange. These remarks are, obviously, not verbatim.)
“Yer destiny again. The rickyard’s sick ’n tired of hearing about yer destiny.”
“I’ll see London for sure. With luck, the Indies. Spanish America, I’ve picked up a bit o’ that lingo just in case. I’m not gonna stick here, murdering rodents, harassed by hooligans. I’ll be slipping away one sweet night, headed for the Caribee. If I manage to outfox the commander of a treasure-fleet tub, deliver it into English hands, the queen may knight me. She knighted Drake. Why not me?”
“You’re full of it,” spat Bilbo, “same as Unk Declan. Our loosey-goosey uncle,” he explained to his pals. “Dek was a loon before he had the run-in with that parrot down th’ Bird In Hand in Maryport. Meant t’ serve it up to his eating club, to impress former ship-cats, blowhards all, full o’ sea-yarns. Cutthroats, raising hell in distant ports? One, two, mebbee. The most o’ them bums, not a chance.”
“Who cares?” hissed Sly. “Being able to picture yourself in various far-fetched situations is the key to dreams come true. Look here, I had intended cusp to be my word of the day. Cusp: a point of transition between two states. A word a day, th’ slow-but-certain path to a wide vocabulary. More than enough time to roll th’ sound around in your mouth and get the feel of it.
“Language is my special delight. I love to talk about my struggle to grasp a complex concept– t’weren’t easy, believe me–and encourage others to discover ability they didn’t know they had. I’ve meant to give a series of lectures on my process to the assembled barnyard. I’ve lifted myself up. Others may well do the same. It requires but willpower and commitment.
“Get the benefit of my hard-won wisdom whilst ye may. I won’t be around forever. No way will I linger on this miserable patch, wishing I had the guts to break free and roam the world. I’d snap, like Unk did, tackle a maniac birdie, or worse. I put that inadvisable aggression down to this: he was sunk deep into bitter disappointment with himself.
“He was pecked half to death by a brilliant-hued savage from exotic regions but, to his way of thinking, it was worth it. It’s as close as he’s gonna get to the Malay peninsula. He can look his cronies in the eye with confidence. He’s also a veteran of a deadly engagement with a foreign foe.”
“You, Unk, two of a kind. Ye’ll end sniveling in yer ale like he does.”
“Better than losing my mind from lack of intellectual companionship. Anything’s better than that.”
“This here cozy–I calls it cozy, yes I does–farmstead oughta more ’n do for any right-minded cat.”
“Yeah? Any feeble-minded cat, say I. Me and Dek, two of a kind? You, Pa, also two of a kind. Ye’re worse than feeble-minded. Feeble-minded still think from time to time. Who knows what you do with whatever sits beneath your ears. Not so much thinking going on there, from what I can tell. Laddie, my today word is atrophy. Means loss of function from lack of employment.
“You and Pa cling to the old ways. Home and hearth. A roof over yer head, a full belly. Ye got no yen for foreign adventure. Fine. Not everyone does. But do ye never look up into the starry sky and wonder what’s doing there? Likely not. Philosophical rumination is not for you. That brain o’ yours is atrophied from disuse. I wouldn’t be in your skin for all the gold in Cartagena. Where I’m bound for one not-so-far-off day and no one’s gonna deter me from it.”
“Ye’re determined to break ma’s heart.”
Sly shrugged. “Can’t be helped. She’ll be proud of her scamp of a son when news trickles back he’s held in high esteem by our excellent queen.”
“A warm hayloft to snuggle into, a big pan o’ warm milk set down come milking time, th’ homely pleasures, I’ll take ’em over the best our excellent queen has to offer, and ye can tell ’er I said so.”
“To each is own, I suppose. But I pity you, I surely do.”
by Perry Palin
She moved at the front of the room. The red dot of her laser pointer traveled over the numbers and the images on the screen. Her voice carried but I didn’t hear the words. When she looked over the room of team leaders and managers, smiling, she never changed, never looked at me differently than the others. I was there. That’s all. That’s all I was to her now.
The first time was different. I first saw her working at the credentials table at a managers’ meeting. She smiled at each of the people who approached her, and she smiled at me, and her eyes seemed to widen. I know mine did. Trim and athletic, with a dancer’s body, she moved with a quiet strong grace. She had short dark hair and dark eyes. She wore a red knit dress with a flowered scarf. Her smile turned up at the corners.
She was assigned eventually to team on one of my projects. She was smart and funny and worked hard. When she asked me to mentor her in her work I was surprised. I agreed of course and then went to books to see what it was to be a mentor. I met with her when she asked, I listened, and I coached her on how to approach our work. She asked insightful questions. She said that in thanks for my mentoring she would teach me to like her music. She wore fine thin jewelry and stylish trim clothes. In the following weeks I found her standing close to me, always close to me, her scent was one of certain wildflowers, and intoxicating. I was working late, editing a long memo for my boss, and she was working nearby. When I put on my coat to leave, she put on her coat to leave. She tugged on my sleeve, and when I didn’t pull away, she leaned against my chest, her face turned left, and I put my arm around her and held on for a full minute.
Over weeks and months she brought me to her apartment many times. We loved one another for weeks and months together. She told me when she saw me, that first time, something inside her changed. My lips traced a line from her shoulder to the small of her naked back. I held her bare feet in my hands. I drove home to my quiet country house and made plans. We could not become an “item” in the company. But I made plans. She said not yet. I asked her to come to my house, to listen to the barred owls calling across the forest and to watch the wild turkeys and deer crossing the pasture, and to watch the flames in the fireplace. She said not yet, and then we loved one another on the pale blue carpet in the living room of her apartment.
I would call in the afternoons to ask to see her in her office. I was her mentor, and we had reason to meet. After hours she would let me in and pull me into her arms. She said not yet to my plans.
I called, and she said come on over, but she wasn’t alone. In her office I found Jack. His eyes were wide and he was flushed. I talked to her and to Jack for a few minutes, told her to call me about our work, and I left the building. I knew Jack. He had a loving wife and two young children. I drove slowly to my quiet country house.
She didn’t call. When I called she said she only had a minute, was on her way to a meeting. She hung up. When I reached her again she said she would come to my office, after the others had gone for the day. She came, with her dancer’s body and dark eyes and her intoxicating scent. She wouldn’t let me touch her. She stood in my office, with her arms crossed in front of her, with tears in her eyes. She said she had nothing more for me. Nothing more. We would see each other at work, inevitably, she said, but she had nothing left in her heart for me.
She moved across the front of the room, moving her laser pointer over numbers and images that made no sense to me. She wore a gray knit cotton dress with a bright scarf and a navy blazer. She smiled, not wanting, not sadly, she smiled at me as one of the team. That’s all. Nothing more. Sometime soon I’ll be gone.
Vow of Silence
by Mellow Curmudgeon (AKA Barry Rosen)
Martin Cavendish was already taciturn when his wife’s early-onset dementia left him widowed and childless. With each passing year, Martin had fewer reasons to speak. Neighbors moved away. Friends were in other time zones and communicated by e-mail. Flawed as they were, online customer service and tech support were still better than holding for “the next available representative” on a voice call. A pandemic lockdown in 2020 closed the restaurants he sometimes visited.
Martin did not pray at all, let alone out loud. In one respect, however, he was like some old-time Calvinists. Those Calvinists scrutinized their lives in this world for clues about what they were predestined to enjoy or suffer in the next. Martin watched for early symptoms of dementia. Exaggerated or frequent versions of common minor things could be early symptoms. Martin was a little alarmed when he forgot why he entered a room, when he drove past a lawn being mowed and did not smell the fresh-cut grass, and when he spoke to nobody. Without explicitly taking a vow of silence, Martin unthinkingly suppressed the occasional urge to talk to himself. Days without speaking stretched to weeks and then months.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The cardiac symptoms were strong and sudden. An angry cobra slithered inside Martin’s left arm, pausing often to bite. A python squeezed his heart. Martin chewed aspirin tablets while finding and starting his old flip phone. Kept more from habit than from felt need, the bare-bones combination of device and plan was good for making voice calls. No texting. No GPS.
When the 911 dispatcher asked what he was calling about, the sounds that came from Martin’s mouth were somewhere between coughs and grunts. Martin’s voice had atrophied.
The dispatcher was unfazed.
“You seem to be having a medical emergency. I will send help as soon as I locate you. Are you at home now?”
“Please press 1 if you are at home or 2 if you are not at home.”
Martin’s hands were trembling. He jabbed at a button, missed it, and dropped the phone. Whatever the dispatcher may have said about triangulation as a backup option was unheard, as Martin felt the cobra bite again while the python squeezed harder.
A new thought came to Martin before he blacked out. He smiled.
Dementia won’t be what gets me.
The Life and Death of Lydia Sterling
by S.T. Ranscht
Like most funerals, Lydia Sterling’s wasn’t fun. Although Vaughn knew his wife would have wanted it to be lively and colorful with music by John Williams and Hans Zimmer providing pageantry and uplifting emotions, he was so saddened by his loss, he craved a somber farewell that he could wallow in. After all, weren’t funerals for the survivors?
But the after party was all Lydia.
As the invitation specified, the party to follow the funeral would be a celebration of Lydia’s storied life of extraordinary accomplishments in competition. All of her awards and memorabilia would be on display throughout their spacious estate. Awkward stories were welcome. Laughter was expected.
The runner-up of the Cordon Bleu International Bake-Off brought Tarragon Oatmeal cookies made from Lydia’s first place recipe.
The artist who’d won the Caldecott Medal for illustrating Lydia’s Newbery Award winning inspirational children’s book, What Else Can You Do? read it out loud at dinner. Several guests cried.
Lydia’s Olympic Gold Medal fencing team arrived in full regalia to demonstrate the parry-feint-lunge-thrust-parry-parry-thrust-spin-thrust move Lydia had used to clinch the win for her team back in her college days.
“Isn’t that when you met her, Vaughn?” someone asked.
“Yes. I was a staff photographer for ESPN covering the college Olympic hopefuls. She was such a dynamic force, so fearless and magnificent, I couldn’t help falling in love. I’m just damn lucky she loved me back.”
“I remember your wedding,” someone else said. “Her roller derby team had won the National Championship the night before, and she and all her bridesmaids were banged up and bruised.”
“Oh, yeah,” Lydia’s sister laughed, “more than a few guests actually believed the bachelorette party had ended in a bar brawl.”
Another person asked, “Didn’t Lydia have a black eye?”
“Yes,” an elderly woman confirmed. “And she wouldn’t let the makeup artist cover it up.”
Vaughn chuckled. “And yet, she was the most beautiful I’d ever seen her.”
A distant cousin asked, “When did you start documenting her competitions in film?”
“The first time was her parkour phase, which took us from Nationals here to her International Championship in Europe. She was so deeply immersed in the competitions, she’d run the courses in her sleep. After she cracked one of my ribs, we slept in separate beds while we were on the road.”
The man who lived next door laughed. “Ouch. Twice.” He looked at his wife. “Don’t get any ideas, honey,” before going on. “Lydia’s big wave surfing wins inspired our daughter. Not to learn how to surf, mind you — she’s afraid of sharks — but just to realize she really can do anything she truly wants to do.”
“My son loves the work Lydia did with Red Bull’s Air Force,” a young mother from down the street said. “He asked for skydiving lessons for his twelfth birthday.”
Vaughn nodded. “Red Bull hired both of us, so I learned a lot of that extreme stuff, too. But I drew the line at base jumping. Operating a camera while plummeting off those razor thin Italian Alps in a Rocky the Flying Squirrel suit was not my idea of life-affirming. I used some drone overview shots, but the best investment we made was buying a whole bunch of GoPros.”
“You’ve won some awards yourself, haven’t you Vaughn?”
“Only because of Lydia. We premiered the free climbing series at Sundance and took a first. Man, spending the night 3,000 feet above the ground in a hammock hanging from an outcrop guarantees outstanding cinematography.”
Lydia’s sister said, “I was afraid that’s how she’d die. Just thinking about her losing her grip or her footing made my stomach turn. How did she do it?”
“She didn’t think about falling; she thought about her grip and her footing,” Vaughn answered. “But after she had an inexplicable fall on her last free climb before graduating to free soloing, she did start thinking about it. Suddenly, the ropes looked like string, and the thought of no ropes convinced her to compete on the ground. Iron Man, rodeos, the Gran Prix circuit. But her will had taken a hit with that fall, and the wins weren’t enough.”
“Her life must have felt diminished,” someone said.
“You’re right. She could see how small her world had become and it made her unhappy. So we decided to see just how big the world is. We bought seats on the next SpaceX tourist flight. In fact, we just completed astronaut training last week.”
Scattered groans left a what-a-shame vibe hovering over the gathering.
“So,” a woman standing in the back ventured, “we’ve all heard rumors or speculated about how she died, but no one seems to know for sure what happened. Was it Covid?”
A man Vaughn didn’t recognize said a little too eagerly, “I heard it was suicide.” The woman sitting next to him smacked him on the arm.
“No,” Vaughn said. “It wasn’t either of those — but thanks for asking. You’ve seen the awards and souvenirs on display here? Till now, Lydia insisted we keep them on shelves in our bedroom. She thought it was tacky to show them off in more public spaces. Last week, when that 7.1 earthquake hit, I was in the shower. Lydia was still sleeping. The shelving came loose and… well, I can only hope she never knew what hit her.”
“Oh my God!” rippled through the room.
“Yes,” Vaughn concluded, “After all these years, I finally have to admit Lydia was a-trophied wife.”
Silence spread from him to the walls. Deep in his soul, he could hear Lydia laughing at his silliness and it made his heart happy. A chortle built up in his lungs and forced its way through his throat and out his nose and mouth, where it snuck into his visitors’ ears, infecting their brains till the room was filled with a great wave of belly laughter.
Lydia’s final prize.