The following story is something of an introductory chapter to a novel a friend of mine and I have been working on. It's an ensemble cast and the first act is made up entirely of chapters like this based on the individual characters. Anywho, I value third party input from likeminded geeky people if any of you have a moment to read a few thousand words.


Click. "If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad! If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so..." Click. Yawn. I shouldn't have stayed out so late last night. Oh, well. Time to wake the hubby, wake the kids, feed the dog... Mary Foster ticks off each and every task in her head as she shakes off four hours of sleep. She gently touches the sleeping form in the dark beside her. "Joshua. Joshua? It's time to get up." She rubs his arm but only gets the groan of a bear shot up with too much tranquilizer by an overzealous game warden.
She's out of bed and in a pretty dressing gown. There are flowers on it. Stretches. She flicks on the light in the adjoining bathroom and washes up. There's a trace of jet black eyeliner from the night before but it's gone now. She smiles as she sings to herself. She calls out to the little ones as she walks past their rooms. Such angels. They grow up so fast.
She opens the fridge. It's spotless except for a crumb that's fallen to the shelf on the bottom. A quick wipe restores the fridge to perfection and she can continue with breakfast. Eggs, pancakes, sausages pile up to begin the day the only way it should be begun. "Children! Time to get uuuu-uup!" she sings. "Are you up yet, Joshua? You don't want to be late for work!" He is such a good husband, she thinks to herself. He works so hard. She sets the table. Makes their lunches. Serves. Pours orange juice and milk. The toast pops up and is covered in low sugar raspberry jam. She feeds Dude. Such a sweet dog.
She hears water running in her bathroom and an electric razor. Gabriel and Marie come bounding down the hall already dressed and pulling on backpacks. They swipe toast and swig orange juice. They ignore the lunch bags made for them. Her daughter is already discussing the latest gossip with a friend on the phone. Something about Tim Gundersen and Sara Benfield doing things behind the bleachers that they are entirely too young to be doing. She must remember to talk to their parents later. Gabriel waves at her as he heads out the door. Such a sweet boy. Marie juggles the toast and cell phone in her hands. "Bye, Mom!" She is so proud of her little girl.
Joshua rushes into the kitchen fumbling with his tie and a briefcase. He has a big day ahead of him. "Morning, Hun," she says but he doesn't hear her. She stands to help him with the tie but he pushes her off and grabs a bite of toast. "Can't talk. Running late. Why didn't you get me up? Look. Can you pick up the kids today? I'm gonna be working late again." He doesn't wait for an answer; he's already out the door. He is always so busy providing for the family.
Mrs. Robinson says she thinks that he's cheating with his secretary. She would need to catch up with Mrs. Robinson later.
Preferably, someplace flammable.

***

It's a beautiful day outside. She hears the birds talking to each other. The squeak of a bicycle wheel. She glances outside to see the mailman on the opposite side of the street as miserable as ever. She just doesn't understand some people.
The morning clean up is quick, efficiency born of routine and precision and enthusiasm. It's not long before she's ready to greet the world. Not a hair out of place. Her nails always polished within the lines. She has a lot to do today.
The white picket gate creaks still. She stops to examine it. Joshua forgot to oil it again. She could do it, but women don't do such things. She turns to leave but the gate remains open. An attempt to close it. It stands firm in its stance of remaining open. Irritated, she pulls hard. The gate acquiesces and slams shut taking a chip from her nail as payment. Stumbling. A flicker of flame across her eyes but she straightens. Smoothes her sun dress. She walks on to her sky blue minivan under a bright sun.
The drive to work is uneventful. The news would later report on the pickup that mysteriously erupted in a fireball after blocking traffic on the highway.
She loves her job. She is a secretary for the Trinity Publishing Co. Such a respectable publishing house. Not like some of those non-Christian publishers that put out such sinful and distasteful media. Everyone who works there is so nice. Even Mr. Liefeld who always sneaks peeks at her when he thinks she's not looking. The poor man had never remarried after his wife left him for the pool boy. The pool boy apparently left her for someone fresh out of high school. So said Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Robinson says a number of things. Mary had expected to see her at work today. Mrs. Robinson cannot stay sick with the flu forever.

***

Work runs late. One last check of the clock shows the big hand distressingly close to half past. Her children will be out in just ten minutes! She rushes out to her car but stops short when she sees her boss Mr. Culvert leaning against its driver side door. He's smoking a cigar. She shivers inwardly in disgust and not just because smoking is such a disgusting habit. He grins lecherously.
"Hey, Mary. You didn't say hi today." He swaggers towards her. A puff of smoke left behind. "What gives?"
"Mr. Culvert. I was busy."
"You look good today. That's a nice little dress ya got." His words and syllables are slow, like an old VCR running at three quarters speed. Spittle edges his mouth. There's a clamminess about him not at all connected to the weather. A putrid excuse for a man.
"Mr. Culvert, I am running late. I need to pick up my children." She attempts to step around him to the car door but he intercepts. She catches a whiff of him as he moves in too close. Stale sweat. Stale cigar smoke.
"What? I'm just tryin' ta be friendly. I'm your boss." He reaches for her. She hops around him and jumps into the van. Locks the door. The dusty heat trapped inside purifies her. She turns on the engine, winds the window down an inch. He glares for a second, denied, but tries to put on a smile. It reminds her of the iguana she saw at the zoo.
"Good day, Mr. Culvert." She doesn't wait for a response.
He smiles at the departing vehicle, mirthless. "I'll see ya tomorrow, then."

***

The drive to the school is easy but she arrives late anyway. She sees the principal standing beside Marie and Gabriel. She parks on the side of the road, gravel crunching under the tyres. The window comes down.
"Mrs. Foster, I would like to discuss Gabriel's behaviour with you. Perhaps you'd like to come inside?"

***

"Gabriel Foster! Just wait 'till your father gets home! I know very well that we did not teach you such behaviour!" The van comes to a short and sudden stop in the garage.
"Mom! It's not a deal! We were just--"
Mary cuts him off. "I'll not hear another word from you, young man. You should be ashamed of yourself. Go to your room this instant!"
"But--" She points to the door, positively stabbing the air. He sighs and heads inside. Hell hath no fury like a mother in a bad mood.
Marie pulls her bag from the van and shuts the door with a slam. "Mom, can I go hang out with--"
"Not now, hun. Go inside." She's already stepping back into the van and keying the ignition.
"Mom?"
"I'm going out. You're a big girl now. Your father should be home before late anyway." The van's in gear. There's a surprisingly respectable squeal of rubber.

***

She sits in the confessional, the smell of old dusty wood in her nose, its rough and slightly splintered surface beneath her fingers. It's dark but only comfortably so. The candles outside cast a warm flickering light over everything. She catches herself staring at one through the grate in the wall to her side. She can almost feel their reassuring heat from here. She closes her eyes.
She doesn't come here as often as she should. She used to attend every Sunday service. There is never enough time these days.
She hears the adjoining door open and close. The sigh of a cushion being knelt upon. The screen slides away from the grill. "Do you wish to confess, my child?" His is a soft voice, surprisingly young, but full of warmth and caring. She imagines she can hear him breathing, feel the heat of his chest. "Child?"
She shifts uncomfortably in her sun dress, wondering if she should even be allowed to set foot in this place.
"Are you alright? Please, I am here to help you and so is our Lord."
A stolen glimpse. Light skin, strong jaw, sharp haircut. Heart beats. The candles outside continue their dance. "I--I don't know, Father. I've done things. Things I shouldn't have."
"Child. It's alright. None of us are perfect. That's why we're here. It's why our Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins. To give us this chance.
"If you speak of your sins and are truly repentant, you will be saved by His love."
Mary hugs herself, head lowered. "I don't think I can." Her hand reaches in front of her of its volition. She can almost... "I don't think I should be here. I have to go. My family will be hungry."
"Child, maybe--" The slam of the sliding door interrupts him. A few seconds and Mary is already at the vaulted entrance. She glances back to see the priest stepping out of the box. Their eyes lock. She tears herself away.
There can be no help for her here.

***

She slams the door without thinking. Gabriel’s voice calls out. “Mom! Mom’s home!” She walks heavily but not because she comes bearing two full bags of Chinese food. Sets them on the table with a slight thud.
“Hey, hun.” In walks Joshua. “Gabriel told me what he did. I gave him a stern talking to.” She stands there for a moment and tries to put on a happy face. She can do that for her family. They rely on her to do that.
“I decided to take a break from cooking tonight,” she says with a well-practised smile. “When was the last time we had Chinese?” She looks at Joshua and Mrs. Robinson’s words come unbidden. “Let’s eat at the table tonight. Gabriel, go get your sister.”
“She’s out with Chris. She said she’d probably get some fast food.”
“Oh. Well, I guess it’s just the three of us tonight.” Jovial.
Her husband is already emptying the bags on the table. “Wow, hun. You bought a lot. Are you pregnant again?”
“Oh, Joshua!” She laughs. She can’t remember the last time they fooled around. It might have been when Gabriel was conceived.
As father and son begin picking their favourites, she catches a moment of the local news. “And also tonight, we have a report just in of a superhuman on fire threatening to burn down a…” Eyeglasses are adjusted for effect. “A Chinese fast food restaurant if they didn’t hand over—” Click. Mary had found the remote hiding between sofa cushions. She doesn’t need to hear about that on the news tonight.
“Aww. Moooom! A new episode of .38 Calibre is on tonight!” He looks at her, crestfallen, halfway into the living room already with a pile of food on a plate.
After attempting conversation with her assembled family members half a dozen times and receiving half a dozen noncommittal answers, they eat in silence.

***

Click. “And it looks to be another scorcher today, folks! But things out there--” She reaches over her husband to click the alarm off. Fumbles. It falls to the floor with a crash. Her husband wakes with a snort and pulls the clock from under the bed skirt. The alarm has stopped. So has the rest of the clock. “Geez, hun. I can turn the alarm off.”
She rubs at her eyes. She tossed and turned much of the night. Her husband didn’t so much as stir. “Sorry, Joshua.” She goes through her morning regimen. It’s all a blur. Joshua falls back asleep. Wakes up later than ever. She sees the kids out with a smile. Feeds Dude. Joshua doesn’t say hello as he rushes out the door.
She leaves for work half an hour early. She passes the Chinese restaurant from the previous night. Scorch marks encircle where the front door used to be. “Police—Do Not Cross” tape flaps in the hot wind. The trip to work is otherwise unremarkable.
Mrs. Robinson is still not at work, she notices. She hopes nothing untoward has happened to her.
The work day rolls through. She types. She answers phones. Her heart is not in it but no one else would know. She puts on a happy smile for them and discusses girly things with the other two secretaries. They laugh and they are all so happy to be working there for such a nice man and for a company so very much in service to the Lord. They count their blessings and pray to Him every night in thanks, they say. They ask her why she hasn’t shown up at church lately. They miss her.
“I just have so much to do in looking after the children and my husband,” she says with a pasted on smile. They laugh. “I make it when I can. I went to the church on E Street just last night.
“Oh? How is it?” One of them asks. “I’ve been meaning to look into it as it’s just so beautiful but it’s so out of the way. At my church, we’re…”
So the conversation goes throughout the day. Talk of churches and family life and local gossip. Another day. Same topics.
An in house call. MAIN OFFICE, the caller ID reads. Mr. Culvert, it means. The fingers holding the phone clench. Her voice remains chipper, as always. “Mr. Culvert. How may I help you?”
“Mary?” She wonders who else he would expect on her line. “Can I see you in my office?” The insipid drawl continues at a slow pace. “Now? It’s important.”
“Yes, Mr. Culvert. I’ll be there in a moment.” Her coworkers make the “You’re in troubllllllllle” jokes and she laughs with them as she gets up and heads down the hallway. Up one flight of stairs. Arrival at the office door of Mr. Culvert. The door jamb is painted red in stark contrast to the white alabaster walls. The blinds in the door window prevent any view of what lay inside.
She knows what's coming. It really can’t happen any other way.

***

She’s back to her desk in under twenty minutes. She surprised herself with how quickly it went. One of her coworkers perks up as Mary drops a mug into the waste bin under her desk. Wide eyes over cubicle walls and hushed tones. “Did you get fired?”
“What? No. Not me. I just feel like cleaning up my desk a little.” A photo of her husband. Bin. A plastic troll with pink hair she couldn’t remember buying. Bin.
Audible sniffing sounds. “Mary! When did you start smoking?”
“A long time ago. Just not often.” A red Swingline stapler that wasn’t hers. “Is this yours?” A wave of the thing.
“Nuh uh. Not mine. Might be Janiqua’s.”
Trash. She neatly sweeps half of the items on her desk into the bin. She looks up at the woman still peeking over the cubicle. What was her name? “Mr. Culvert said we can all clock out early today.”
The nameless coworker eyes her suspiciously. “How early?”
“Pretty much now. He had to leave to see some family.”
“I didn’t see him leave.”
“You weren’t hovering over the top of your cubicle. Can you see anything from in there?”
“I can see the cute UPS guy when he comes by.” She smirks.
“Well, I have to lock up.” She rattles the keys for effect.
The woman’s eyes widen again. Delight. “Okay! Got my purse!” She lifts the faux leather bag above her head as if to illustrate. “I’ll tell Janiqua and Wanda!” She waddles off.
Mary continues removing all the extraneous material from her desk. Stretch. There. Clean. Lights click off above. The others round the corner, ready to start their evenings an entire half hour early. Their grins would suggest impending Spring break in Spain. Mary shrugs. “Ready?” She doesn’t really expect an answer but they nod emphatically and dash out the front doors. She looks around one last time before flicking the final light switch.
The keys are casually dropped into the public trash can as she walks by. She has her own reasons for smiling.

***

The click of a remote and the soft buzz of an old cathode ray tube powering up. A muted, high pitched whine can be heard at the very edge of hearing by those with the ears for it. Gabriel is not one of those cursed few. His sister is.
Her aggravated yell can be heard from her bedroom down the hall. “Gabriel! What did Mom tell you about watching TV?”
Gabriel growls. She just doesn’t like the TV. She says it makes a high pitched noise. Sisters are so weird. “She said it’s okay if I’ve done my homework!”
More yelling. “Where is she?”
How should he know? He’s not a mind reader. That would be pretty cool, though. “How should I know?!” He flicks through the tv channels with practised ease. Flick flick. Cartoons are so lame. Flick flick. A rerun of .38 Calibre that he’s already seen, like, a gazillion times. Flick. News. Some super is blowing things up again. A church on E Street. Why can’t he have powers like that?
“Whoa. She’s hot!” And not because she’s on fire. More women should wear black and red spandex like that. The cameraman zooms in as she turns around. Something catches Gabriel’s eye about the face behind the domino mask. She points at the camera.
“Wait. Mom?!” Fire issues forth and the feed is cut.