May 22, 2018

Proper Burial: FREE Sample Reading

Out of the goodness of my heart (and because I like to sell books), here's a sample of my new book, Proper Burial. I hope this whets your appetite for more mystery and madness.
(The doodles aren't in the book. They're just here on the website, for flavor.)
The story you are about to read I cannot personally verify through my own resources or faculties. It was told to me by another, altogether reliable party who swears to its authenticity as though he experienced it firsthand, although I must admit that I do not understand how he came to have such a detailed account given that he is wholly absent from the narrative himself. Nonetheless, I have written it down from a rather lengthy interview with him in which he provided almost all the particulars of a nearly omniscience quality.

These particulars were impressive enough that I assumed that he either was relating the intimate points of an actual event he was somehow privy to or that he was quite insane, but still weaving a thread that was fantastic enough that I dare not neglect recording it. There was an unusual mood about him though, almost as if the story held some personal interest for him, yet he always remained as emotionally detached as someone who was dictating a performance on a distant theater stage.

In the vein of theatrics, while I have painstakingly recorded every word that fell from his lips, there are obviously some details that were missing from his account—some of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, sights and sounds of the environment, and the like. These details I have attempted to augment into the story myself in order to give the reader even a small taste of the presentation as it was related to me in its full dramatic breadth. As the translator of a foreign manuscript may paraphrase idiom and insert grammatical features as are necessary to interpret the original author’s intentions, so too I have embellished these minor features in order to tell relate the spirit of the story as accurately as possible. A sensibly inquisitive reader is likely wondering at this point who this original storyteller was. For my part, I can hardly give more account of him than he likely could of me. We did not know anything of each other before our first meeting and he seemed altogether uninterested in the topic until our parting of ways at the conclusion of the meeting.

I received a call one Saturday morning from my father, who had read a classified ad in a local newspaper that he thought might interest me. I myself never read the paper and never would have heard of the ad if he had not told me. The listing was a request for a personal biographer to record the memoirs of a person by the name of Randolph Midian. The details were scant—only an address, phone number, and the compensation simply listed as “to be determined, commensurate with experience.” My father, of course, knew that I was still trying to break into the field of writing and journalism, and that I had already experienced more than a few failed attempts at publication. So, at his advice to start smaller and scrape up some experience, I skeptically took down the information from the ad and decided to look into it.

That same afternoon, I called the number and a young woman answered with a kind and overly accommodating manner. As soon as I mentioned the name from the ad, she immediately told me that he was anxious to get started on the project, that I was the first to respond, and that I should get started right away. When I asked what the pay was, the woman said she was only helping him with his appointments and did not know the details, but promised that he would address the matter as soon as I arrived.

For a time after I hung up the phone, I seriously considered calling the whole thing off. It felt strange and I really did not have the time to waste on more dead-end opportunities. But, ultimately, I needed any opportunity I could get, even if it was a long shot.

The next afternoon I headed out of town. The address was no short distance away—about two hour’s drive at best. When I arrived at the address, I felt sure I must have made a mistake when I drove up to a retirement home nestled in the wooded recess of a country highway. Not entirely remote, as there were a few houses and stores in the area, it was nonetheless a discouraging site in terms of my hopes of cashing in to some notable agency or even an influential independent benefactor.

After parking and apprehensively strolling into the front office, I gave my name at the desk. The orderly gave me a strange look, as if I had fallen prey to some practical joke that I should have realized already. A moment later, a woman rushed up to the desk and gently grabbed me by the arm, telling me that “Randy” was waiting for me and could not wait to get started. Before I knew what happened, I had been hastily dragged down a desolate hall and led into a small, dingy room that smelled thickly of medicated ointments, stale air, and other unpleasant clinical odors.

There was an ancient man sitting in an old armchair by the window that jumped up to greet me with an unusually spry vitality to his old, creaking limbs. He was a blotchy, shriveled old Caucasian, nearly hairless and thinned framed, presumably well into his eighties by my estimation. He smiled widely with thin lips and grasped my right hand with surprisingly firm grip.

Without so much as an introduction, the old man only asked me if I was ready to get started. I stammered for a moment and said that I needed to discuss the details of the job first. Releasing my hand, he turned back to his chair with a wave and told me that I could name my price after he dictated to me for a while and that he had to get started right away. “Every moment counts, after all,” he said breezily.

I was taken aback, to say the least, by the whole odd meeting. However, assuming that he might be stricken by a bout of dementia, senility, or some other ailment of his advanced years, I sat down at a small table nearby and pulled out my notepad in what seemed to me at the time an act of courtesy in light of the possibility of offending a confused old man. At the very least, I figured I would get a notion of how bad off the situation was after I heard him talk for a little while. If the old fellow was feebleminded, I at least knew I could get off the hook by naming too high a price, assuming he did not ramble on too long.

From this point on, I must confess that my usual practicality eluded me almost entirely. The old man, despite his decrepit appearance, spoke fluidly and coherently, spilling out his narrative faster than I could write it even in my swift, sloppy style of personal shorthand. I could scarcely pay attention to what he said at first for trying to write down as much as I could, but it was not long before the story seemed to make itself clear in my mind, almost like watching a film.

What he told me was no memoir, as his ad had claimed. Rather, it was some kind of narrative. I do not know if he intended it as fiction, if he thought it was a true story, or even if, though my own good sense prevents me from believing it, the story was actually true.

At this point, there is little purpose in retelling more details of my encounter, strange as it was. What I will say is that after a length of time which I would have scarcely believed had passed, not only had I forgotten the issue of payment, but somehow felt as though what I was writing down was the most important thing in the whole world at that very moment.

Without further delay, I present the story to my reader as it was presented to me, with only superficial embellishments of style and negligible additions of ambient details. I myself hope that it is truly a work of fiction, though I cannot say for sure one way or the other. What I leave you with now, in addition to this narrative, is what the old man left me with at the conclusion of his dictation. This is one of many stories. Why he chose this particular one to tell me first, I cannot venture to say. But, he has urged me to a future return visit for him to dictate another such work, although he would not so much as hint at its nature or contents.

W.T. Branton

Untold centuries ago, a lone figure crouched down with bare feet on the naked dirt floor of a small underground room. It was a cellar, well hidden beneath a humble and unassuming mudbrick house above. There were crude beeswax candles all around the perimeter of the room, lining the walls and illuminating it with a dim, yellow glow. He was busying his hands with some redundant, yet meticulous task that he executed with the utmost focus and precision. Every few moments, he paused to pull up the sleeves of his dingy linen shirt, making it even dingier from his fingers which were covered in rich, red clay.

Mutterings of rhythmic verses poured from his cracked, flaking lips, pausing only to allow an occasional deep and methodical inhale. The man’s curly black hair began to slump, weighed down with hours’ worth of saturated sweat. He had been at his curious task for hours already, though his concentration was stoic and resolute, almost totally beyond distractions and nearly unyielding to physical or psychological fatigue.

As his fingers worked a clay object at his feet, they cautiously dared not slide too large a quantity of material in any direction too quickly. Rather, he gradually and methodically slid his hands over the curvatures of the thing little by little, moving only the thinnest layers of moist clay slowly into carefully premeditated contours.

The man had scraped this particular lump of clay from the nearby river with his own hands. As he worked, it seemed to become more and more ruddy in color. While the unabated mutterings continued, he paused his handwork for a brief moment to wipe the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. A smattering of dark, crimson drops trickled onto the dry dirt floor from his fingertips, all of which were carefully sliced open under the nails, seeping blood into the clay as he worked it.

There was a sound from above and he looked away quickly for a reflexive glance at the roughly hewn staircase behind him. But, there were no beams of light slashing through the shadow from the cellar door above being disturbed. The distant noise had only been a bird calling out from a tree above ground. The man shook his head in annoyance, but quickly refocused his gaze to his ongoing task and continued murmuring to himself.

He dipped his hand in a shallow water dish at his side, leaving behind a fresh cloud of blood that bloomed throughout it as he sloshed some over the side. Flicking his hand, he then spattered some pink droplets onto the clay piece to keep it moist and continued working. As the crimson cloud spread throughout the water, far above ground dark clouds began to slowly creep across the afternoon sky like blots of ink.

Several esoteric items and ornate tools lay carefully placed about on a nearby table. They were set aside for the next task at hand though, which would take place later at a very specific and meticulously calculated hour of the night. The man had been planning this particular undertaking in secret for a very long time—all necessary components were finally in place and the celestial bodies were finally in their proper alignments.

Only about one month earlier, the man sat under a thatched awning that reached out over a rough dirt street a few feet from the roof behind him. He was in town for a brief interlude as most of his time was spent in his home workspace, which was more quiet and secluded. As he watched people walk by, busy with the mundane goings on of day to day life, a kind of unusual infection festered inside him. He lamented that fact, but for now simply tried to watch the scene ahead.

Two men across the street rattled on debating the purchase price of some paltry object. One man claimed the price was too high out of a combination of his impoverished need of it and a slant of genuine greed. His petty greed was made all the worse by the addition of that contemptible and insurmountable poverty.

The other man claimed the price to be fair out of a combination of his ever-gnawing anxiety for paying the wages of his workmen and a slant of genuine pride for the craftsmanship of his business. His selfish pride was made all the worse by the addition of that contemptible and unceasing anxiety.

The man watching them knew all too well that the conversation would end the way most such conversations ended, with one or both men conceding defeat under the superficial title of “compromise,” all the while taking with them yet more contempt for both of their respective plights. It was an endless cycle of affliction begetting enmity and enmity begetting more affliction.

“Disgusting,” the man grumbled to himself with a disapproving frown. Sitting on the ground against the wall, his arms were wrapped around his bent knees which he peered over through his low hung eyebrows. He did not actually despise the two men personally (or even know them for that matter), nor did he even despise their behaviors. Instead, he pondered deeply and philosophically into the nearly endless well of causality that led them to the heated dispute and brought them to the abhorrent and useless existences they now squandered their scarce living moments on.

He thought about the impoverished buyer and his struggle to support his family, as well as his father’s struggle before him. He also thought about the business owner and his struggle to make the fortune his father could never accumulate in the family business and how he too would pass into obscurity just as forebears, forgotten and unaccomplished. They were both after money, but not really the money itself. They were after the money that would hopefully somehow buy them more time.

Time, he thought, was the most precious commodity in the whole of the cosmos, and it was also the one thing that was so easily stolen, lost, and clumsily squandered in the mindless scramble to attain more of it. What do we really have if not time?

A door creaked open a few buildings down the road and a young woman staggered out, her clothing disheveled and hanging off one shoulder while she struggled to piece the articles together. She sniffed as if holding back tears and as she looked around to see if anyone was watching, a fresh bruise was spreading out underneath one of her eyes.

From behind the woman, a man emerged in the doorway, doughy and glistening with sweat, throwing on his filthy shirt. He had a disgustingly proud smirk pulled across his flabby lips. The young woman looked back at him as he held out a small cloth bag and tossed it on the ground. She sighed and bent over to pick it up. The fat man slapped her backside and laughed proudly to himself, then turned back inside and slammed the door.

The man across the street watched her collect herself and scamper off as he finally broke his calm expression and snarled silently, lowering his head further to avoid arousing attention to his smoldering distain. He could hardly bare to watch anymore of the mundane late afternoon spectacle unfolding before him. However, his churning disgust for the inane buzzing of the passersby receded for a moment when he spied two other of his unfortunate inmates in the prison of physical temporality.

A woman was walking in his direction, casually commuting to some unknown and equally unimportant destination as the one she currently occupied. At her side, with his tiny hand in hers, was a young boy of no more than four years old, toddling along at his best pace to keep up with his mother. For a moment, the man remembered his own mother. Her long, dark hair used to feel like silk when it brushed against his tender cheek as she embraced him. It was the last time he felt the genuine and unadulterated care of another human being.

The man furrowed his brow as they walked by. “Just an animal instinct,” he thought, diminishing the tender memory into a withered and meaningless vestige in the deep recesses of his malignant mind. She was gone now, dead for many years. Now he believed the truth, that no love was truly unconditional, no care was without hidden cause, no kindness without selfish agenda, and no friendship without material profit. Life had taught him such things the hard way and humanity never failed to remind him of the frigid details of its machinations.

To this man, humanity was diseases and mortality was the cruel infection that festered inside him as well as every other person that walked the earth. Even a supple moment of kindness would never fail to be followed by tenfold moments of torment. There was a way out though, he thought.

He had discovered a way to cure this disease. Through methods long forgotten, long suppressed, and even punishable by death if his primitive and narrow minded fellows ever knew he even possessed the knowledge of it. Even his teacher had been too arrogant and consumed by the praise of glory to attain its secrets.

The man had heard of his former mentor’s recent demise in Terracina, though he did not mourn him. He saw his teacher as just another casualty of human vanity and, consequently, cultivated in himself a more philosophical perspective on the event: “It was only a matter of time. His pursuits were that of the common animal, like most men, and he squandered his precious time on those pursuits. The coin of temporal existence fell from his purse and went to the ravenous masses of men that remained. His personal glory and elaborate faith betrayed him just the same as did his delicate mortality.”

The clouds that had gathered in the afternoon had cleared away since his painstaking task was completed. Underneath a bright full moon with every star alight in the night sky above, the man washed his hands clean in the water trough outside the house above his subterranean workspace. All of his preparations were made and the hour was drawing near. He wrapped his fingers with cloth, bandaging the wounds he had inflicted on them earlier in the afternoon.

His hands trembled as he went about his task. Not having eaten in days, he fought the trembling bodily weakness by force of will alone. The fast was crucial to the work and he had tried to condition himself for it for months. With hands bandaged and his will fortified by determination, the man threw open the wooden door to the cellar and walked down the stairs with a resolute march.

There was a long period of meditation, sitting alone in the dark stillness of the basement. When he had reached a state of mental clarity and calm, the man lit dingy oil lamps and candles all around the room and proceeded about his obscure work.

He was miles away from any other houses or buildings as it was necessary that the work be done in solitude and total secrecy with no delaying intrusions or bothersome questioning. Hours passed as the man toiled away in the basement at his strange labors. Sounds of his voice would murmur rhythmically from the doorway and were occasionally interrupted by loud commands in an antiquated dialect that most had long forgotten.

Wisps of smoke curled out from between the boards of the cellar door, the smells of exotic resins and rare, burning herbs saturating the air even to the exterior of the house. Unbeknownst to the man working below, a large swarm of verminous creatures was collecting around the perimeter of the building—rats, beetles, spiders, and all things that crept and crawled from the ground heard the silent calls of the unnatural disturbance that brewed in the cellar. The man could even feel the worms that erupted one by one from the exposed earth beneath him as they crawled up and writhed over his bare feet.

In the dark and early hours of the morning, he finally completed his work. Sweating and exhausted, drained of almost all his energy, and struggling to stand, he mustered the last of his physical resolve to bolster himself. It was the time for strength, not weakness.

Before him, in the dim candlelight of the cellar, amidst a tangle of strange geometric lines and symbols scratched into to bare ground, there was something squirming in the dirt. It was not of this world, but the man had somehow called it up from the raw salts of creation by his sheer determination and the skills of forbidden and long forgotten arts. The thing he had conjured, now manifested in the flesh, was poised beneath him vaguely like a coiled serpent, awaiting his supplication.

The man peered down at it in awe. Though he had accomplished many strange and perverse marvels under the tutelage of his former mentor, none could compare to what he had called up from the unknown, chaotic void, which was now before him at his mercy. His vision fluttered on all sides, as if the walls around him were vibrating and just slightly out of focus.

Looking at the thing seemed to make the visual anomalies worse. But, when he looked away, the thing itself started to almost blur into a nebulous shadow. So, he fought all natural instincts and kept his gaze fixed on it for fear of it vanishing altogether. The humble room that he occupied now forcibly merged in a tense struggle between the material world he had known and the dark places normally beyond human reach and comprehension. He composed himself, still trembling from weakness and exhaustion, and kept his ultimate goal at the forefront of his mind.

The man knelt down and spoke to the otherworldly thing in the circle. It tilted a misshapen, eyeless protuberance as he spoke, like an animal twisting its head as if trying to process the sounds he issued to it. When he had finished, the thing gave an ambiguous nod-like gesture of understanding and compliance.

Then, it reached out with a single, gnarled appendage as if to hold him and demand his attention. He leaned in to it as it gurgled a series of alien noises that vaguely resembled distorted human speech, but would be unrecognizable to any normal human ears as it seemed to echo from all directions in the air. Somehow though, the man comprehended what the thing was communicating to him.

He furrowed his sweat covered brow and made a smug frown of sullen acceptance, then nodded his head once, as if approving of some harsh and altogether dire condition the thing had proposed to him. Then, he leaned down to a tall, lidded clay jar that stood near his feet. The man knocked the lid off to the ground and pulled out a rolled-up parchment on which he had scrawled a long series of strange words and arcane symbols in a dark red ink.

He spread the page out flat on the ground between himself and the thing, which watched his every move curiously and twitched with every slightest draft of air that blew across it, its newly materialized flesh painfully adjusting to the physical elements like an exposed wound. The man unwrapped the bandage from his right index finger to reveal the freshly scabbed over wound underneath. Fresh blood seeped out as he purposefully dug at the wound with his nail. Bending down to the writings, he swiped his finger across the page, smearing a crimson wet streak over it.

The thing crouching in front of him convulsed and twisted as if suddenly stimulated by the man’s grotesque actions. He stood up with blood trickling down from his hand and whispered softly in a long-abandoned dialect and with a mournful resonance, “Thirty-three.”

Chapter 1: The Letter
On an uncharacteristically warm day, December 16th, 1998, an inexplicably unsatisfied woman sat at her desk during the slow drag of a midafternoon work day in West Haven, Connecticut.

She rubbed her temples rhythmically and stared downward, idly fixated on a tiny, dark brown, congealed speck of unknown origin that had been adhered to the “T” key of her keyboard since before she could remember. Pondering over whether it was a drop of over-sugared coffee or splattering of soda and the physics of how it could still be there after months of typing over it, she realized that her mind needed something, anything to think about other than work, which she presumed to be the cause of the lingering headache she had been desperately attempting in vain to ignore all day.

Glancing back up at her monitor in the hopes of seeing a time that at least had a three in front of it, all the taskbar clock had to offer her was a disappointing 2:04 pm. A sigh of defeat crawled out from between her lips and she slid back into her chair. She thought to herself, “This damn chair probably costs more than a month of my rent.”

It was not that she particularly disliked her job. The pay was good enough and the hours and vacation time were nothing to complain about, but she still wondered what exactly she was doing with her life and thought that there had to be something better the world had to offer. All the while though, she also knew that she had painful little uniqueness about her to offer the world in return and accepted her station with a begrudging resignation.

A whining, nasally, female voice, dripping with the brothy pretense of cubical-bred office chattery, crept around the corner, “You doin’ alright there, Ash?”

“Ash” fought with all her internal reserves to hold back a visible shudder, secretly clenching her teeth. She mostly wondered silently after three years of walking past a nameplate on the door with “Ashley” boldly emblazoned on it in bright white inset letters and politely being corrected about name preference on several occasions, not to mention the fact that not a single other individual in the office presumed to shorten her name in such a presumptuously playful way, why Gretchen still managed to persevere in annoying her with an attempt at forcing an awkwardly imposed sense of comradery.

Few things in Ashley’s professional career at Formian Insurance plagued her like the bubbly terror that was Gretchen Swift. Quite pleasant at first glance, this coffee and vending machine snack fueled menace was a rather simple character—the type who still cherished her high school yearbooks, presumed an inappropriate depth of friendship after the simplest of introductions, and never failed in her mission to edge her way into any conversation that went on within earshot, so long as it was not work related.

Everyone with the slightest bit of insight could assume that she was masking some degree of deeply repressed insecurity and loneliness. Most, however, lacked the level of divine tolerance needed to look past her miraculous talents for making embarrassing comments and singing dull birthday songs to ignore their evolutionary urgings to cull her from the herd of humanity. With superficially positive intentions and deplorably awkward interactions, her life was preserved solely by the simple fact that the unspoken code of office politics and 1990’s American workplace sensibilities demanded civil treatment of coworkers, and generally frowned upon an informally imposed death penalty.

Regaining the bare minimum of her office banter etiquette, Ashley slid back up in her chair, conscious of the small favor of her shoulder-length, blond hair that tactfully concealed the twisting jaw muscles that would otherwise betray her stewing frustration. She looked over her right shoulder, just enough to be polite, and replied, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just trying to shake off a headache.”

The plump woman who leaned in Ashley’s office doorway, not to be so quickly deterred from any and every attempt at time-wasting social engagement, uncomfortably pressed the issue with a playful slant and mischievous smile, “Must have been a late night with Eric, huh?”

Further annoyed at the presumption into her personal affairs and wanting more than anything she could possibly ever remember for the perpetually blushed face with tightly drawn back, frizzy brown hair to just miraculously vanish forever from the face of the planet, Ashley rolled her eyes back over to her monitor to act as though she was being interrupted from something important. “No... just a headache,” she replied with a less than concealed, patronizing edge, “and me and Eric broke up six months ago.” She hoped dearly that the mild amount of nuisanced tone she risked would deter any further conversation. But, there was no such luck.

“Oh, that’s right. You’re with Glen now. I totally forgot. He’s the one that met you here for lunch a couple of times...” Gretchen began to yammer, but the lingering pain in Ashley’s head suddenly became the pounding of a jackhammer to the front of her skull that seemed to dutifully respond to the babbling sound slinking through the doorway. The encounter had to end.

Ashley finally sliced into Gretchen with a genuine scowl that wrestled with a painfully forced smile in response, “Yep! I’ve got to finish reading this underwriter update real quick, though. So, I’ll see you in a little while.”

Gretchen, totally oblivious to her own unwelcomed trespasses, shot back cheerfully, “No problem. Feel better, girl!” and bounced off down the hallway towards her next hapless, cubicled victim.

In the privacy of her own dismal space once again, Ashley shuddered, more visibly this time, and leaned forward again to rest her head in her hands. She only hoped to garner a few more minutes of genuinely oblivious reprieve before actually having to work again. The mere idea of looking at the droning text of an actual underwriter update turned her stomach sour and the possibility of focusing her complete attention to such a task was well beyond the realm of likelihood at the moment.

The pounding subsided to its previous lingering state and made way for the name that Gretchen had carelessly tossed back into the musty closet of her memory. “Eric.” The name rolled around her head for a few moments as Ashley's thoughts wandered.

They had been together for a little over two years and the breakup was fairly messy. She had mostly blamed him for the relationship not working out, because of his distance and lack of sensitivity. Lurking behind the forefront of her immediate accusations though, was always a still-festering sore of some unquantified regret and a certain residue of guilt over a fault she could not consciously identify.

Did she really blame him? Did she really not pay enough attention to him, like he said on that last day when emotions had cooled to a slow simmer and all the filthy truths and hidden opinions untethered by affection came leaking out in begrudging murmurs from both sides? She did always have trouble actually getting close to him, kind of like Luke before him, kind of like most men she had been with for the past several years.

As her mind fell deeper down the hole of grating questions and needling uncertainty, she came to herself again and shook her head, as if trying to physically shake off the memories. Her headache kicked back at her at once like an angry mule, throbbing harder than before. “Damn it,” she thought, “maybe there’ll be something distracting in the messages. Feels like this day won’t ever end.”

Discreetly tugging her feet out of her shoes underneath her desk, taking extra care to keep her head level so as not to further agitate the pounding beast trapped inside her skull, Ashley reached across her desk and grabbed the stack of papers and envelopes out of the wire mesh bin. She flicked through a few yellow phone message papers and some plastic-windowed white envelopes she knew to be nothing of unusual interest. Just as she had thumbed past the last bit of paper in the stack with certainty that there would be no savior to be found in her hand to rescue her from the monotony, she saw an unusual envelope.

It was not the same old, cheap stock, white paper addressed to “Formian Insurance.” It was an off-white envelope with a preprinted return address, “Law Office of Mitchell Middleton” from Hartford, Connecticut. It was handwritten addressed in blue pen to “Ashley Stonewall.” Though not all that alarming, it was strange to receive anything that had the appearance of being personally addressed to her at the office. Eager for anything to break the flow of the day, being otherwise just like every other Wednesday, she opened it. The letterhead matched the envelope, very official looking but in traditional typewriter print, as evidenced by the slightly offset line spacing and font:

December 11th, 1998
Ms. Ashley Susan Stonewall:
Following the death of your mother, Irene Elizabeth Gates-Stonewall, on December 2nd, 1998, and in the absence of a last will and testament on record I am writing to inform you of the distribution of estate hearing…

It was signed by hand in the same blue pen as the envelope, “Mitchell Middleton, Attorney at Law.” Ashley read through the letter with all its complex formalities and cold legal language, but processed almost nothing of it after the first sentence as her mind began to wander into a cold and empty space, almost emotionless, but also confused and mechanical. She had no idea that her mother had died.

Ashley felt almost nothing. In fact, she suddenly felt so little that the previous emotions that had recently been stirred over her breakup with Eric seemed to have fallen away completely and everything was inexplicably numb. She thought for a moment that she should feel something, but still there was nothing there. Still holding up the letter but not actually looking at it, Ashley, her thoughts swimming in an ocean of fragmented memories from early childhood, suddenly realized her gaze had wandered and was unconsciously frozen on the “T” key of her keyboard once again.

The weight of the emptiness pressed down on her and the only thing she really felt was lightheaded and a little dizzy. The narrow window to her left that usually afforded her some meager reprieve from the tiresome dullness of the office now only bombarded her with blinding sunlight that seemed to agitate her headache even further.

Ashley wrestled in her head over inane practicalities, almost blindly ignoring the obvious weight of the news she had just read. Would her current project be affected? Would anyone passing in the hallway notice her not working for a length of time? Could she afford to take time off? Did she have enough vacation time built up to take time off?

She pressed her palm against her forehead and sighed audibly, realizing herself and the reality of the situation. It was time to go home for the day.

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