As she did every year, Amanda Kramer opted to take the entire day off. At seven fifty-five, she entered the waiting room of her doctor's office. A television blared from one corner, tuned to The Today Show. On the opposite side of the room, there was a large tank of fish lazily swimming. Amanda approached the receptionist's desk and looked for the clipboard. The receptionist—a different one from last year, Amanda thought—slid open the glass door. Amanda smiled. “I'm trying to sign in. Is there a …?”
“We have a new system.” The receptionist gestured to a small device on the counter. It was about the size of a computer mouse. Its center glowed red. “Name?”
“Pardon?” Amanda said.
“Your index finger. Place it on there.”
Amanda was accustomed to doing what the medicine people told her to do. The button felt warm beneath her finger.
“That's right. Now do that three more times for me.”
Amanda pushed again. “What is this doing?” She pushed a third time.
“Taking your fingerprint. So you don't have to sign in next time.” The receptionist snapped her gum and gave a smile. “Saves a bit of time that way. One last push for me.”
Amanda's finger hovered over the button.
“Once more, please.”
“I don't know,” Amanda said. “This feels like invasion of privacy.”
The receptionist glared. “You want your exam done or not?”
From one of the waiting room chairs, a woman laughed. “That's not exactly a fair question.”
“Look, you don't give me your print, we're going to have to cancel your appointment.”
Amanda sighed and thought about the piles of paperwork on her desk. She pressed her finger against the button. She felt withered and dry and, well, she felt old this morning. She wondered about the permanence of her fingerprint. “Who will have access to this?”
“It's perfectly safe, Mrs. Kramer.”
Amanda doubted it. She pictured the print being shared or sold or stolen. They had taken a piece of her. She wanted to reclaim it.
“Fill out this form.” The receptionist handed Amanda a red pen. “Doctor will be with you shortly.”
Amanda found a seat near the woman. She flashed her a smile and began filling out the same form she'd filled out for the past fifteen years. Name. Date of birth. Social Security Number. Address. “You think they'd keep this information on file,” she whispered to the woman.
The woman looked up from the magazine in her lap and shrugged. “Maybe they think it gives us something to do while we're waiting.”
Amanda returned her attention to the form. Cups of coffee per day: Eight. Smoker? No. Number of pregnancies: Five. Number of children: Her pen hovered over the thin line. She bit her lip. Zero.
“What're you in for?”
“The usual,” Amanda replied, responding to the questions about exercise and stress and diet.
“Yeah.” The woman flipped a page of the magazine, studied a recipe for curried chicken. “Me, too.”
The door opened. A woman waddled in, rubbing her swollen stomach, a faraway look in her eyes. She approached the reception desk and pressed her index finger on the button before finding a seat near the television.
Amanda rose and followed the nurse to a room. Dutifully, she stepped onto the scale and watched the nurse slide the weight further along the beam; her esteem falling in an odd sort of inverse relationship with her weight. She presented her arm for the blood pressure cuff. “Normal,” the nurse said, removing the cuff and pressing a stethoscope against her chest. After the nurse left the room, Amanda changed into a paper gown and waited for the door to open.
When it was over, as she sat wrapped in white paper, the doctor handed her a slip. “Time for your mammogram,” he said, leaving her to fold herself back into her clothes again.
* * *
Nine o'clock and the day belonged to Amanda. She went to Starbucks. Bought herself a double latte before heading home. “Hey, Brutus!” she said, as she entered the house. “Want a walk?”
The dog barked once then spun in circles, butt wagging, surprised, perhaps at this sudden fortuitous change in his day.
The sky was ribboned with clouds. The sun was warm. Yet the wind bore an icy chill.Except for the window washers and the landscapers, the neighborhood was quiet and still. It had a deserted feel to it. Balls of fertilizer popped beneath her feet as she walked. Brutus chased a sweetgum fruit that had fallen from the tree. Amanda's cell phone rang. She dug it from her back pocket. Jack. “Hello?”
“How'd it go?”
She sighed and watched three squirrels circle around the nubby bark of an ash tree. They hung there, upside down, clinging. “I hate doctors.” In the garden, a fourth squirrel held itself distant, observing.
“I know,” he said. And the silence that filled the space between them felt impossibly large and unbreachable. “Shall I bring Chinese?” He voice was gentle.
She nodded through her tears. “That would be nice,” she said. “See you tonight.”
Someone had spray painted a series of messages upon the sidewalk, little optimistic sayings in white stenciled letters, each occupying its own square of concrete. Today's your day, she read, and laughed a little to herself. Follow your dreams. Well, she'd tried, anyway. She and Jack had certainly tried. Find your bliss and Spread the love.
She increased her pace, wanting to discard the optimism sprayed upon the sidewalk. Up ahead was a woman whose name she did not know. Every so often, they'd meet walking their dogs, pausing to speak of the weather or the neighborhood. The woman was raking leaves, her yellow jacket discarded and thrown to the ground. She shielded her eyes. “Hello.” She leaned against her rake.
“Good morning.” Amanda smiled.
The woman gestured to the bags lying on the grass, the black piece of plastic that had once bound them clipped. “I was going to rake until I ran out of bags, but...” She pushed her hair from her face. She looked exhausted and spent. “It never ends,” she said. “The cleaning. The cooking. The laundry. Sports...”
Amanda found herself agreeing, to bring the conversation to an end.
She walked on.
Three houses down, Amanda noticed that, before they'd withered and curled, giant oak leaves had pressed their bodies flat into the sidewalk, leaving tannin stains—ghost images—behind.
Her phone rang again. She studied the screen. Her secretary. “Hey.”
“Fred's looking for you,” Deanna said.
“Did you tell him I took a vacation day?”
“Did you tell him it was my first day in exactly one year?”
“Told him that too.”
“Did you tell him to screw himself?”
Deanna laughed. “No. Want me to?”
“Yes. No!” She rounded the corner. Frowned. “That's weird.”
“There's a brown stroller parked in the middle of the sidewalk.” She was surprised to see that the stroller had not been parked at the house, pulled up the black driveway cleanly dividing one property from the next; folded and dragged to the stoop, its wheels bumping one-two-three up the stairs.
“I guess I would've taken it to the door.” She laughed. “It's a bright orange door. Cheery.”
“Isn't orange against your community's bylaws?”
“Good for them.”
Amanda nodded. “Deanna, do you know how much power we hand over to people?”
There was silence on the other end.
“Doctors. Politicians. Neighborhood boards who are more concerned about the height of the grass and the color of the doors than the lonely people who live behind them.”
“Are you lonely, Amanda?” Deanna whispered.
She gazed at the orange door; a place through which one could choose whether or not to admit the person standing upon the stoop: a salesman, for example, hawking new windows or organic groceries; or the troops of religious people that emerged like flowers in springtime, earnest nectar words dripping Truth on concrete, trying to save your soul; or just a friend, balancing a fat baby upon her hip.
“We're all lonely, Deanna.” Amanda cleared her throat. “Listen. Tell Fred I'll call soon.” She disconnected and turned off her phone. The dog, perhaps sensing home, hurried her forward, toenails clicking upon the sidewalk. As she passed the stroller, she reached out her hand and took hold of the rubber handle. She gave it a squeeze and felt her heart constrict in response.
* * *
Amanda started a fire in the living room and put on George Winston's Autumn. She curled up in a wingback chair with a detective novel. Occasionally, she took a sip of tea. Occasionally, she turned the page.
The dog's ears perked up. Amanda heard the garage doors opening; heard the sound of Jack's Nissan idling. Brutus leapt to his feet and rushed to the back door.
Jack entered, carrying two brown paper bags. Enough food, Amanda figured, to feed them for the next week. He set them on the cocktail table and kissed her. “Why do you listen to this every fall?” He crossed to the CD player. “You get so depressed.”
“I like it.”
He switched to something fast-paced; something techno she didn't recognize. He smiled. “That's better.” They moved to the dining room and unloaded the contents of the bags: won ton soup and egg roll; plastic packets of soy sauce and mustard. “Up for a game?” Paul opened a styrofoam carton of beef and broccoli and nodded at the Scrabble box.
She nodded and unfolded the board. Their evenings were often spent sitting at the table, eating takeout, talking about their respective days.
Jack drew an A to Amanda's R. He studied his tiles for a moment before setting a word down with a flourish. “Able. Double word score. Twelve points.” He squeezed hot mustard onto the inside of a takeout container and dipped in an egg roll.
Amanda made a note of Jack's score. She examined her tiles, looking for a pattern:
A Y Q B E R L
She picked up the A, fingering its square edge. She positioned it beneath the B, adding below it the letters B and Y.
Jack stared at the word in silence. He set down his egg roll.
“Everywhere I go, people—even things—are leaving pieces of themselves behind,” she said.
“What do you mean?” He met her eyes.
“Seeds or children or messages pressed and painted into the sidewalk. What will we leave behind, Jack?” Her lower lip trembled.
He rose. Gathered her up in his arms. “I'm taking you to the beach,” he said, rubbing her back. “Tomorrow. Call Fred.” He handed her his cell.
“No, I need...”
“You need a break,” he insisted. “If you don't call, I will.”
She took the phone. Jack folded the Scrabble board and poured the tiles back into the bag.
* * *
Amanda looked out over the Atlantic, watching the waves break thirty yards from shore. “A wave is most beautiful the moment it breaks.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It's got everything under control. And then...” She snapped her fingers. “Boom! Everything explodes and falls apart in this flurry of white motion.” She smiled at her husband. “We're not in really control of anything, are we?”
“I'm afraid not.”
A runner barefooted it along the beach. An elderly couple walked, hand in hand. A toddler charged into the waves, fearless and unaware of the power of the ocean. Mothers dozed beneath beach umbrellas while children built complex castles of sand. A boy crawled on his hands and knees carving a message into the beach: Marry me, Ce...
Jack smiled. “Good luck.”
“Thank you.” The boy looked up for a moment before returning to his work.
The waves tossed offerings onto the beach then grabbed at them again, as if it could not bear to part with a piece of itself. Amanda walked up, felt the spray on her face. She pulled a bottle from her pocket and showed it to Jack.
He frowned. “Message in a bottle?”
“Making peace.” She threw it into the ocean, surrendering forever all hopes and dreams and prayers.
Jack took Amanda's hand and led her back to their beach chairs. He dug a deep hole; buried Amanda's feet, patting cold sand up around her calves. She felt the tide pulling and pulsing. “It's the earth's heartbeat,” she said, smiling. The tide brought in a handful of bean clams. They burrowed beneath the sand before the water could reclaim them.
The hours passed. The tide moved in, flooding the moats, rubbing out the words of the boy.
Amanda smiled at her husband. “Thank you for bringing me here, Jack.”
When the week was over, she was ready to return home.
* * *
In the middle of the night, she woke, eyes wide and staring into the dark. “Jack.” She nudged her husband.
“Someone's at the door.” She switched on her light and sat up.
Jack fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand; slipped them onto his face, as if they were necessary to his hearing the persistent knock at the door. The two of them held completely still, staring at each other.
Jack frowned. “My mother?”
She shrugged. “I'll come with you.” She belted her bathrobe around her waist and followed Jack to the front door, knowing it wasn't a salesman or a religious fanatic or a woman with a fat drooling baby upon her hip waiting on the other side.
Jack opened the door. Two police officers stood there, hands upon the guns at their waists. One of them, Amanda noticed, had a dark mole along his cheek. She wondered if he'd been to see a doctor to have that checked. “Is this the home of Amanda Kramer?”
“What's this about?” Jack said, crossing his arms.
Amanda stepped in front of her husband. “I'm Amanda.”
“Amanda Kramer we need to take you in for questioning.”
“Wait...I just.” She glanced at Jack. “We just...” She hadn't finished folding the laundry.
“What's going on, Officer?” Jack took Amanda's hand.
“A baby was kidnapped last week,” the officer with the mole explained. Just down the street from you. Taken right from his stroller while his mother ran back to the house for a bottle of milk.”
Amanda gasped. “A brown stroller?”
Jack stared at her. Gave her hand a squeeze. “Why would you suspect my wife?”
“Fingerprints. Found on the stroller.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. “Amanda's never been fingerprinted.”
The officer nodded. “She was. At her doctor's office just last week.” He looked at Amanda. “We got lucky.”
Amanda felt her knees buckle. She reached for the doorframe as she collapsed.
* * *
“What are you in for?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Amanda said.
“Yeah.” The woman's breath was dank and dark. And as the door to the cell swung into place, she smiled. “That's what they all say, honey.”
For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Lance gave me this prompt: Little hand says it's time to rock and roll.. I gave Talia this prompt: I keep looking backwards over my shoulder. I like what I see.