Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Fun with Dick and Jane (Exercise from On Writing)

While I have been enjoying reading Stephen King's On Writing, it has, in parts, left me with a bit of insecurity as to whether I have what it takes to be a writer. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I've always thought that one day I would create some body of work that would be note-worthy and appreciated by the masses. This hope sometimes reminds me of my childhood idealism that told me I could be anything I chose to be, even if my dream was to be a famous singer despite the fact that God overlooked me in the vocal department.

In his section On Writing, King outlines a history and set up for a story scenario. He then suggests we twist the characters and take the story to see where it goes. Don't plot it out, let the characters dictate the direction of the story. Since I've been having a bit of writer's block, I thought this might be a good exercise to try. Here goes nothing...

Dick took the steps two at a time as he climbed the cement stairway to the front door of the red-bricked brownstone apartment. His 4 o’clock meeting at the ad agency had run long and he had to sprint the four blocks in order to make it to the daycare before 5pm. Mrs. Gunnery had a strict policy of charging an extra fee for late pick-ups and, though he had been able to bring in some extra money with his latest campaign, every dollar counted when it came to raising a child on his own.
Nell was sitting cross-legged on the floral carpet when Dick peeked his head into the playroom. She was busy building a tower of alphabet blocks that wavered precariously with each new addition. A boy Dick knew was named Benjamin hopped carelessly towards Nell, stopping just short of the leaning tower. The force of his steps was enough to jostle the floorboards, though, and it sent the blocks toppling down. Nell looked up at Benjamin, her face reflecting a mixture of confusion, disappointment and anger. Dick watched helplessly from the doorway as she leveled a fist and punched the boy square in the gut.
“Nell!” Dick and Mrs. Gunnery yelled simultaneously as poor Benjamin doubled over onto the floor in shock and pain. Dick darted into the room and grabbed Nell’s arm before she could reposition herself for a second blow.
“Mr. Olafson, I cannot tolerate this type of behavior in my daycare! You need to teach Nell to control herself. We do NOT touch our friends in unkind ways!” Mrs. Gunnery was as red in the face as the child still attempting to regain his breath on the floor below.
“Of...of course, Mrs. Gunnery. Please forgive us. Nell was just upset about her blocks is all.” Dick explained as he wrestled the little girl into his lap. “Now, Nella,” he said, turning to his daughter, “You owe Benjamin an apology. It was an accident. He didn’t mean to knock them down.”
Nell looked up into her father’s face. The anger that had flashed across it so fiercely moments earlier was gone and the realization that she was in trouble was settling in. Nell stared at Benjamin, who was busily being comforted by a slightly frantic Mrs. Gunnery. Standing from Dick’s lap, Nell walked over to the crying child and hugged him from behind. Dick knew Nell was sorry. He was sure that she hadn’t meant to hurt the boy. Nell’s short temper was an inherited trait from her mother. The tantrums had eased in the months since his ex-wife Jane had been away, but violent outbursts occasionally reared their ugly heads now and again.  
After apologizing profusely and making sure Benjamin was alright, Dick took Nell by the hand and they walked out into the late afternoon sun. The weather had begun to warm up, making the short walk home especially pleasant. Nell skipped a few steps ahead and pointed out the different flowers that had begun to bloom in recent weeks. Dick loved to watch the way his daughter discovered the world around her. The first couple years of her life had been rocky to say the least. Jane had suffered from severe post-partum depression and Dick would often return home from work to find his daughter in front of the tv in an hours-old soiled diaper, his wife either asleep in the darkened bedroom or sitting in the base of the shower with cold water pouring over her pruning body.
When Dick would finally snap her out of her near comatose state, Jane would cry and insist that she had only just fallen asleep or had only been in the shower for a few minutes. After several weeks, Dick finally called the doctor and, with the aid of prescription medication, Jane seemed to be improving. About six months later, things seemed so good in fact that Dick and Jane decided she no longer needed the medication and she promptly stopped taking it.
It didn’t take long, however, for things to go south. Just before Nell’s first birthday, Dick was promoted to head of advertising in his department, a career jump that provided a significant raise in pay but also required longer hours working closely with his female boss. At first, Jane seemed supportive, but after a month or two of late evenings, she began to get needy, calling his cell incessantly until he answered, showing up disheveled at his office with Nell dragged behind her like a doll. Jane’s irritated franticness would quickly turn to relief and adoration as Dick assured her he’d be home as soon as possible, but he was rapidly growing concerned with the behavior of his wife.
One night, after a dinner meeting he had hosted with his boss for a prospective client, Dick returned home to find Jane standing in the kitchen with a large butcher knife. She had piled all of his work shirts in a lump on the table and was repeatedly stabbing into it, stopping just long enough to unstick the blade from the wood underneath. When she noticed Dick in the doorway, she lunged at him, screaming accusations of his infidelity and other nonsensical paranoia. Thankfully, a neighbor had overheard the commotion and Dick was able to subdue her just as the police barged through the door.
The weeks Jane spent hospitalized following the incident left her with a new diagnosis: paranoid schizophrenia. Jane was resistant to the medication, claiming it made her feel numb, so the next nine months were spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals. The more inconsistent her treatment was, the worse her paranoia and psychotic episodes became, until finally Dick had decided enough was enough.
The day after Dick filed for divorce, Jane had shown up at his work while he was out at lunch. Refusing to believe Amanda the receptionist when she stated he was out of the office, Jane attacked, savagely beating her until several of Dick’s coworkers were able to pull her off the now unconscious Amanda. Jane was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Her attorney negotiated a lengthy stay at Edgecomb State Hospital. Dick quit his job at the agency and began freelancing while caring for Nell full time. It had been a rough few years, but things were finally starting to look up.
“Daddy,” Nell squealed, catching her father around the legs and smiling up at him, “I picked you a red one!” and she handed him the petals of a freshly plucked begonia.
“Awe! Thank you baby!” Dick reached down and scooped Nell into his arms. “Why don’t we save these to give to Leah at her birthday party? We’ll stop there before we head home.” Nell squealed with excitement and wriggled out of her father’s arms. Very little else excited a four year old than the idea of a birthday party.
When they arrived at Leah’s house, Nell was instantly overtaken by the excitement of the balloons and colored sugar. Dick barely had time to get in the door before she was swept up in the mix of tiny humans running amuck.
“Hey, Dick!” Leah’s mom greeted him. “How are you doing?” Ashley was a long-time friend. She and Jane had met in a prenatal yoga class and she remained one of the few friends that hadn’t found excuses to remove Jane’s particular brand of crazy from their lives.
“Great, thanks! I secured a new project today so that should keep me honest for a while.”
“That’s good news.” Ashley replied, shuffling three icing-covered munchkins racing by with an eager dog at their heels. “Hey, you’re welcome to stay but if you need a little time for yourself, we have plenty of adults here and I’ll make sure Nell is well taken care of.”
Dick thought for a minute. A free moment to a single parent was a rare luxury indeed. Images of a quiet cup of coffee and watching a non-cartoon tv show flooded his mind, and before he knew it, Dick had said his goodbyes to Nell and was walking the half a block to his own house alone.
The key slid easily in the lock, and Dick was struck by the silence inside the house. Nell didn’t seem to know how to exist without making noise and Dick was unaccustomed to the sudden stillness in his ears. He suddenly felt a bit unsettled, almost as if there was something familiar about this moment, though Dick hadn’t been alone in this house since Jane went away and he had become Nell’s full-time caregiver. He ran his hand through his hair and down the back of his neck, brushing the imaginary tingles in his spine away. Tossing his keys and phone on the sideboard, Dick headed into the kitchen.
Taking the coffee out of the cupboard to the right of the stove, he scooped several teaspoons into his stovetop espresso pot, filled the resevoir with water and set it over the flame. Walking into the living room, Dick kicked aside the toys that had been hurriedly left out in the morning in rush to get Nell to daycare before work and plopped down on the sofa.
“Ouch!” Dick cried out as something sharp stab him in his lower back. He reached behind him and felt blindly in the cushions for what had impaled him. His fingers grasped cold metal and he pulled out a pair of red-handled scissors. Nell knew she was only supposed to use the safety scissors when she did her crafts, but she often forgot. Dick tossed them onto the coffee table and lifted up the back of his shirt to assess the damage. An angry red welt was rapidly rising but no blood had breached the surface. He settled back into the couch and clicked on the tv.
“...And now we turn to Leslie with the latest on what is being referred to as the Incident at Edgecombe.” The news anchor on the screen caught Dick’s attention as the shot panned to a blonde reporter stationed outside the fenced lawn of the hospital where he had last seen Jane.
“That’s right, John,” she said, “No official word on exactly what happened or how the three women managed to escape the facility late last night, but an employee I spoke to who asked not to be identified said a guard had been killed by the suspects the during the breakout. Again, three women who were serving sentences for violent crimes related to their mental health issues here at Edgecomb State Hospital broke out of the heavily guarded facility. Two of those inmates were captured about a mile away in the woods that surround the hospital but the third has yet to be located. Police are asking the public to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity immediately. The third woman is described as...”
The hair on Dick’s neck immediately pricked up and he shuddered under his sudden realization. He did not need to hear the reporter’s description. He knew that the third woman was Jane and that the uneasy feeling he had when he walked through the door wasn’t because he was alone in the house. It was because he wasn’t alone. Dick sprang up off the sofa and turned instinctively towards the entryway.
There Jane stood, dressed in a t-shirt, her hair disheveled. Her bare feet were muddied and Dick knew from the wildness in her gaze that she had been off her medication for quite some time.
“Hello, husband.” she said and took a step in his direction. “Where is our daughter? Have you done away with her the way you did away with me?”
Dick surveyed the room, his heart pounding frantically in his chest and his mind racing. “Jane, what are you doing here? How...how did you even get here?’
“Aren’t you happy to see me? I’ve missed you so much. I was willing to do anything to come back to you. The least you can do is come over and say hello.” Jane smiled, as she took another step forward.
“What did you do? You are not allowed to be here. I’m going to call the police.”
Jane laughed, and for a brief moment Dick heard the sound that had first drawn him to her. She had always had a great laugh, but now it’s sound struck fear inside of him. It was no longer the laugh of a woman in love. It was the cackle of a woman unhinged.
“Don’t be silly, darling. How can you possibly call the police when I have your phone?” She lifted her hand to display the phone before smashing it violently to the ground. Dick watched in slow motion as bits of plastic and glass shattered across the wood floor.
Raising his arms defensively in front of him, Dick began to circle around the opposite side of the couch as Jane rounded one corner. “Jane, Jane listen…” he pleaded, “what do you want?”
Her eyes hardened at his question and she glared at him. “What do I want? What do I want? I want my fucking life back! I want a husband who isn’t fucking every whore that he meets. I want to see my baby! She’s MY baby you know!” Jane was screaming now and Dick wasn’t sure what his next move was.
“Sweetheart,” he said, trying to placate her, “I never slept with anyone but you. I’ve always loved you. It wasn’t me who put you in that place. And remember, Nella and I came and visited you, just this past Christmas. Don’t you remember? We sat in front of the tree and you held Nella and sang her a song.”
Jane seemed to soften at the mention of their daughter’s name and the tension in the room eased ever so slightly. “Here,” Dick said, motioning to the couch, “why don’t you just sit down for a minute. We can figure this out. I’m...I’m happy you’re here.” He smiled at her as convincingly as he could, and though she appeared puzzled, she sank down into the cushion wearily.
“See, isn’t that nice? I’m making some coffee. Let me get you a cup and we can talk this through.” Dick offered, beginning to feel like he was regaining some control again.
Jane stared up at him. She hesitated, “I would like some decent coffee. They only have the Folgers instant stuff in the hospital. It’s total shit.”
Dick chuckled, feeling more and more at ease. “I’ll just go check to see if it’s ready. It should be boiling by now.” Dick turned to head into the kitchen. His tablet sat on the counter where he’d left it this morning and he quickly powered it up. The pot was beginning to scream under the pressure of the boiling water, so Dick quickly shut of the burner while he searched for the messaging app.
He quickly poured a steaming cup into a mug and sent a hurried message to Ashley. “Help. Jane home. Call police. NOW!” He waited until he saw the delivered receipt and then brought the coffee back into the living room. He breathed a silent sigh. He only needed to keep her calm until the police came. Everything would be fine.
Jane was still seated when he returned, watching the weather report on the tv. Dick handed her the mug and took the spot next to her on the couch. “Here you go...one non-shitty cup of coffee.” He smiled and Jane returned it with a smile of her own.
They sat quietly for a moment, the sound of the forecast filling the space for them.
“I know I can’t stay.” Jane finally stated, and she turned to meet his gaze. “It’s just that I never got to say good-bye you know? They took me away and I never got to finish what I started.”
Dick looked at Jane. For a moment, the woman he knew before all this, the one that he had madly and passionately loved, reappeared in the face in front of him. A tear was trickling down her cheek and she looked so helpless.
“Can we just...can you just hug me for a minute? I only need a minute.”
“Of course, love.” Dick said and he moved closer to her on the sofa. He placed his arms around her and felt her return the embrace. For a moment, they sat there, just breathing and hanging on to each other.
Jane shifted slightly and Dick began to pull away but he was stopped by a sudden and violent pain in his back. It was followed by another and then another. Stunned, he looked at Jane to see her holding the now-bloodied pair of red scissors he had carelessly tossed on the coffee table earlier. He could feel three streams of warm blood trickling down his back and watched as the wildness returned to her eyes.
Dick fell back on the couch, startled, and Jane lunged at him one more time, plunging the blade directly into his chest. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. His eyes flashed with red, red, red and then, it was black.

“Goodbye.” He heard Jane say as he faded into the darkness.

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