Short Story: The Exiled One

Anita Cooper had worked seven days a week for months, either tamping away at a calculator or drumming along a keyboard. They’d been longer days than most people’s; ten-to-twelve hours at least. The money was right though, if nothing else. She’d deduced over that time that telecommuting wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, costing as it did, a marriage and any hope for companionship.

Still she worked; day in, day out. Her lunch hour was the only break she took outside once-an-hour coffee refills. Those breaks were only physical anyhow. Mentally, she remained in the chair, staring at profits, losses, expenditures. A few times she tore herself from work to web-surf or pan-fry her brain with Net-TV, but it was as mentally stimulating as watching grass grow.

Her one-time friends had watched her descent with pity. In the beginning, they were sympathetic, believing the issue was an over-demanding employer that required more effort for telecommuting. In truth, Anita’s employers barely knew her name. As time passed, it was evident they cared only for output being on-par with her desk-bound colleagues. Her excess of their output only made them notice when it dropped.

Ellen Fritz was the last of Anita’s friends to stick around. She’d carried the title of “friend” since grade-school; through thick and thin, high and low. They’d managed to remain friends in spite of the years and their trials. Ellen was proud of that, in a way, being of a humble self-noble type often and easily mistaken for self-absorbed. Unfortunately, Ellen’s would-be nobility also lent itself to prying, even if rightfully.

The conversation that eventually ended that friendship, or wounded it enough to make it seem so, was had over wine. It was a rare nights when Anita contacted someone outside of work. She invited Ellen and a few other friends for wine and dinner. Only Ellen arrived. It definitely wasn’t a good sign to any onlookers. Anita didn’t notice, too caught-up in cooking.

The pair ate and joked over a bottle of Pinot Grigio and an expertly crafted Chicken Piccata. Ever an an excellent cook, Anita’s home overflowed with scents of freshly peeled garlic, minced lemon, and rich, spiced wine. Atop them, scentless candles added their warmth, dripped wax into their columnar holders. Anita and Ellen relaxed in their seats, full and warm.

The conversation turned from pleasant small-talk. In words alone at first, over another glass of wine. Then, with whole sentences, the talk became deeper, heavier. Ellen pulled at the shoulders of her silk blouse, resetting it over her breasts and leaning onto her elbows. She slid her interlocked fingers beneath her chin, and rested it atop them. Anita had seen it a million times, most recently, when told of the divorce. It was the physical manifestation of a mental preparedness; the posturing of one about to plunge into tumultuous waters.

“Nita,” Ellen said finally, her voice heavy as her head. “I’m worried about you.”

Anita played it off with a chuckle, “I am on cloud-nine! What could you worry about?”

Her brow furrowed. “Honey, you’re withdrawing. I just want to know; why? Is it ‘cause of Darryl, or something else.”

Anita’s wine-infused breaths stiffened. Her face went blank– the same type of posturing, but stubborn. “I’m fine, El. No-one else is worried about me.”

“No-one else is here, honey. How would you know?”

Anita’s face showed the brick-wall of reality that hit her. That was all Anita recalled outside the knowledge of catty, baited quips and Ellen’s eventual departure– and her shaking head. Anita fumed, downing a bottle of wine alone, and leaving the rest to history.

Life took a turn that day, and every day after, she found herself alone, and uncertain of why. Apart from find herself forced to trek out for groceries, she’d entirely avoided leaving the house. Whether clear or not, she’d become agoraphobic. Everyone else knew it. The isolation afflicted her, even if she refused to admit to it or the cause.

Anita had always been fit, adhering to a workout regiment that kept her slimmer than most. Now in her mid-30s, the weight she’d put on was merely the most egregious sign of her self-exile. Apart from the aforementioned grocery trips, her life was entirely downsized, planned to avoid people entirely. Her days now consisted of waking, coffee, working with coffee, and showering before bed, at which point she’d sleep, only to rise and repeat.

Her worsening state had seemed only mildly different, allowing for terrible habits to take root. Some days she smoked cigarettes, or popped magic mushrooms from the private myco-troughs she’d once used to grow truffles, shitake, or portobello mushrooms for cooking.

Despite its recreational effects, Psilocybin was the only way she’d found to cope with the inevitable cluster headaches that now descended each night before bed. Somewhere in her, she knew, staring at computer screens sixteen-or more hours a day were to blame. Her life of work and nothing more had taken its toll; was taking its toll. Most times, she slept off the high…

Tonight was different.

Anita sat at her table, once more imbibing an expertly crafted meal. For one. She’d taken her daily dose of mushrooms before starting to cook, popping the caps and munching away as if a vegetable appetizer. Midway through cooking, the high set in. The five or so knitting-needles jammed through various parts of her skull and gray matter withdrew. She doubled down on the meds for sanity’s sake, finished cooking.

The second dose began to hit while the first peaked. Colorful swirls flowed from the lit candles like incense smoke-trails. They formed geometric shapes that zigged or zagged about the table, appearing and disappearing in and out of space-time randomly. The wine in Anita’s glass bubbled and frothed like a science experiment gone awry, but tasted better somehow. She drank it down and poured more, watching it form a waterfall along more of the floating, geometric shapes.

Her biggest shock was yet to come.

Anita began a conversation with herself, playing two sides of a dialogue between her and the Chicken Penne on her plate. Though it remained inanimate, the food thanked her for being so carefully prepared and wonderful tasting. She gobbled it down, the two quipping about its taste, until a polite “goodbye” preceded her taking the last bite. She threw down her frothing wine, and broke into a giggle-fit the likes of which few have seen. Through tearful blinks and table-slapping hysteria, she settled back in her chair, more relaxed and at-peace than in years. She swallowed her amusement, laid her head back, and closed her eyes.

She righted herself and nearly fled, screaming. Instead, reality’s icy-grip rooted her via now-rubber limbs.

Before her sat a much younger, slimmer version of herself. To say she wasn’t a looker would’ve been an insult, and a flat-out lie. The former-gymnast body was long, lanky, muscled in all the right places and tantalizing in all others. The one-time flicker of aroused satisfaction at viewing herself in the mirror returned. It coursed through her loins with the recollection of long-lost, acrobatic sex.

A shameful sniffle shattered the cooling silence. Her head fell, taking in her body; age-related change was one thing. This was another. She’d never expected to go through life being the bombshell-gymnast, but hard work had paid off then. She’d hoped it would continue to, but then, she wasn’t putting in hard work now. Not that kind. All her years suddenly felt squandered.

“It’s okay, you know?” Her younger self said. Anita’s eyes bulged with uncertainty, blinked away fatigue. They met their youthful counterpart’s. “Nobody’s perfect. Least of all us. We had it hard growing up. Not as hard as some, but not easy. Dad left. Mom withdrew. But we promised ourselves we’d never do that.”

Anita grit her teeth. Heart stung by her apparition’s words. Her mother had withdrawn. She’d become as much a recluse as Anita was now. It was the reason she’d been driven to take such good care of herself; she never wanted to turn out that way, sad, alone, stagnating. Her distant argument with Ellen came back, as foggy as ever, but depositing shame in her gut.

Her younger self laid her hands on the table, in a sort of heart-shape arrangement. Anita had always done the same thing when being forced to confront another’s guilt or shame. It was a sign that everything to be said was harsh truth, but that pain was alright given its context.

“You know why I’m here, what brought me– not just the ‘shrooms,” she said sympathetically. “We never knew how to deal with life. We were never taught that. Mom didn’t deal. Dad didn’t. How were we supposed to?” A tear slipped from Anita’s downcast eyes. “No one blames you. But you have to do something. You’re only a victim so long before you’re the cause. You’re about to pass that point. Things with Darryl were bad. Work was important. You’ve sorted those things out now, but you need to keep moving forward. We never really knew what was supposed to come next, I know. We still don’t. Kids, maybe, but Darryl wasn’t right for that anyhow. We need something though.”

Anita nodded slightly. Sorrow etched her folded mouth with sadness.

Her apparition aged with pained shadows, “You know what you need to do.”

Anita found herself standing from the table, her apparition beside her. It escorted her toward the bed room, laid her down, and helped her to settle for sleep.

“When you wake up, you’ll do it. Because you know you need to. You won’t want to. But you will. You have to. We don’t deserve this, let alone from ourselves.” The apparition began to fade, “Good luck, sweetheart. I’m always here.”

It reached out, touched her forehead with a pair of fingers. As if time jumped, Anita suddenly awoke to daylight streaming in from the windows. She found herself more refreshed than she’d expected. The coma-like sleep had rejuvenated her, left the night as fresh as if it were yet to cease. She stood before the bathroom mirror to rinse her face; age-lines and hard years had strained it, but something youthful beneath had been found anew.

Anita swallowed hard, screwed up her face. She dressed in cool, casual clothes, and walked to her door. Steel tethers pulled taught in her chest.

Good luck, sweetheart. I’m always here.

She breathed, and walked out the door.

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