April 1, 2010

Lit by Chicks

The Departure

by Ash Krafton

Margaret Omah heard the flap on the mail slot bang shut. Tucking a graying stand of hair back into place, she turned off the kitchen television. The home show had been a re-run; after a lengthy career as a mother and homemaker, there wasn’t much left to learn, anyway. Turning on the television had simply become part of her daily routine.

She bent to retrieve the mail and shuffled through it. The big envelope had been on the bottom of the stack, saving its news for last.

YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE WON! It proclaimed its message in large stark letters that seemed to leap from the official-looking envelope.

"Didn’t expect that." She sat down in the formal parlor to read the letter. The room was meant for company and wasn’t furnished to be very comfortable. It was lovely, though; she always kept fresh flowers in a beautiful urn, forcing cheer into an otherwise cheerless room. She only came in here when she had to do so.

The letter didn’t reveal much. YOU MAY HAVE WON A MAJOR PRIZE. CALL OUR TOLL-FREE NUMBER FOR VERIFICATION. Now, why would they send a letter if they weren’t going to give details? Looking at the logo for the prize headquarters, she recognized the sender as a popular sweepstakes company. She’d never entered any of their contests and couldn’t understand what they’d want with her.

She dialed the number, and after hesitantly giving her name and making a vague reference to the letter, the low soothing voice of the operator took on a personal tone.

"Yes, yes, Mrs. Omah, of course. You need to make an appointment right away. Mr. Malachi will give you all the details then. No need to worry, this is big news indeed."

"Do--do you--any idea of what the prize is?" Mrs. Omah’s voice was a scant whisper. The pulse in her throat pounded, chopping her breath, fluttering her voice, scattering her concentration. This seemed to be the real deal. Her brain couldn’t catch up.

"I’m afraid I don’t have details, ma’am. I’m sure it will all be explained when you get here."

Mrs. Omah thanked her and hung up.

She spent the rest of the morning staring at the letter, too stunned for tears.

***

Mr. Omah came home for lunch, stepping through the kitchen door and pausing mid-whistle as he noticed the untouched cup of tea beside a letter on the table. The morning dishes still lay in the sink and if lunch was ready, it was hiding.

That’s odd, he thought; in the twenty-seven years he’s worked at the machine shop in town, she’s only once not had lunch ready. That was the day she’d broken her arm; she slipped from a ladder while painting the lattice on the back porch. Even then, it was only one day, as she was quite inventive in working around obstacles. A broken arm was a trifle.

She came out of the bathroom, her eyes tight with apprehension. "You’re home."

He took off his hat and jacket and hung them next to the door. "Sure I am. It’s eleven forty-five, same time I come home everyday. You all right, Madge?"

"I’m fine." Nothing in her voice gave anything away. Her expression was still and porcelain. "I guess I lost track of the time. Let me get your lunch. Sit."

She cleared away the letter and the neglected teacup, wiping the table as he sat down. With a clatter of efficiency, she organized a sandwich and salad, pouring fresh coffee and setting the cup down with the skill and ease of a professional waitress. He always admired the grace with which she moved, even when performing such an automatic task.

Wiping her hands several times on her spotless apron, she pulled out the chair across from him. He looked up in surprise; she didn’t usually sit down during lunch.

"This letter…it came today." She pulled it free of her apron pocket and smoothed it out on the table. "It says I might have won an award."

"Have you, now?" He raised his eyebrows, pushing creases of surprise onto his forehead. "I didn’t think you entered those kinds of lotteries."

"I don’t. I put my name in for the drawing at the grocery store and I’ve tried the big one at the shopping mall once or twice." She shrugged. "Maybe they forwarded my name."

"Could be. What did the letter say?"

"No details, just a phone number. I called already. I have an appointment on Monday."

Monday was an eternal three days away.

***

The sweepstakes offices, which were located in a large metropolis a two-hour drive away, were housed within a tremendous impersonal concrete building. It had a parking garage built right along side, and inside, a full food-court. It seemed to be a miniature world of its own.

Mr. and Mrs. Omah rode the elevator with a group of professional-looking people, who cut off their conversations as they boarded the car. The passengers held clipboards and handheld computers and paid little attention to the bewildered couple, who tried their best to remain apart from this strange world. They were just visiting and would not be staying long.

Once inside the office, a woman in a sanitary white suit whisked the Omahs back to a private room at the back of the suite. Mr. Malachi distributed warm sincere handshakes and expressed his heartfelt congratulations. "You’ve won a grand prize in our giveaway, Mrs. Omah, an extensive trip package for an all-inclusive woman’s getaway. I’m afraid it doesn’t get any better than this."

She stared up at him, mouth working but no sound emerging. "But…"

"I know," he answered for her. "You didn’t enter. Sometimes we get references. Many times it’s random, like picking names out of the phone book. There is no way to tell for sure. The important thing is that you’ve really won. It’s indisputable. We need to make your travel plans right away."

"Don’t I get time to think about it?" The bewilderment had worn off. Mrs. Omah twisted her hands upon her lap, kneading her knuckles, and her voice had developed a brittle edge.

Mr. Malachi smiled with sincere compassion and shook his head. She seemed to think that the prize was optional. They always thought they had options when, in fact, they didn’t. No matter what she chose, she’d be departing on schedule.

"Let’s discuss your itinerary." He flipped open a folder and kindly removed their disillusions.

The ride home was long and quiet.

"I can’t believe you’re taking a trip without me." Mr. Omah kept his eyes on the road. "Will we tell the kids?"

She shook her head, lips pressed into a firm, convinced line. "I’m not going anywhere. I still don’t believe it. There’s got to be a mistake. They’ll figure it out."

"That place seems like a pretty big outfit. Mr. Malachi didn’t seem like a snake oil salesman, giving away phony trips from the back of a carnival wagon. They seem very professional."

"People make mistakes." She reached over to pat his leg. "You’ll see."

***

Mr. Omah took the week off from work. His supervisor was an understanding man who considered Mr. Omah a dependable and good employee. He assured him his wages would continue to be paid under sick leave.

"But she’s not sick. We’re just thinking about getting her ready for a trip. I only wanted some free time."

"I said, don’t worry about it. Sick time is only a label we use in payroll. It doesn’t imply anything."

Mr. Omah still didn’t like the label but pay was pay. He provided their only income. It wouldn’t matter what they called it.

At home, Mrs. Omah seemed irritated about having her husband underfoot. She chased him from room to room as she cleaned furiously, taking cardboard boxes out of the closet and lining them up on the couch and chairs, making it impossible to sit comfortably. Over the course of the week, the kitchen counter became crowded with bottles. By the time supper was over, she was exhausted.

"I think we should shop for luggage," she said one day.

He made no reply. Did he have a choice?

***

After much correspondence with Mr. Malachi, it was forecast that her trip would most likely take place within the following six months. Three, perhaps, depending on the results of her physical exam.

"Three months!" She gasped. "Why, that’s hardly any time! I have to pack, I have to make sure my husband is prepared for my absence…I have--have…"

"I have people to assist you in all these things," Mr. Malachi said gently. "It’s what we do. My staff includes some of the best travel agents in the world. We are very detailed-oriented."

"But the paperwork. The passport, the travel insurance--I don’t know how to do any of this."

"I know."

"No, you don’t!" Her voice rose in anger. "How could you know? Did you ever win a trip like this? I’ve never gone anywhere by myself before."

"Mrs. Omah, you won’t be alone."

"Yes," she said. "When it comes time to leave, I will be all alone." She pushed up to her feet, her side cramping from sitting so long. Sitting in the car, sitting in the waiting room of the office, sitting in front of his desk. She seemed to always be sitting and the pain rarely left her now. "I’m not going."

Mr. Malachi watched her as she paced in front of his desk. "You said yourself you’re tired. You need to rest. This trip will give you rest."

"I don’t care if I’m tired. I’ve been tired before."

"Not like this."

No, not like this. Stubbornly, she insisted. "I can deal with the tiredness. I work a lot. I take care of my family. Who will do it if I don’t? I can’t go away now. My daughter is pregnant. I have to be here to help when the baby comes."

"Margaret, your daughter will be fine. Everyone will be fine. You need to conserve your strength, and prepare for the trip."

"Conserve my strength?" She barked a harsh laugh of derision. "Why? So I can rest?"

Nothing about this trip made any sense. Nothing made sense anymore.

***

The day of departure arrived unexpectedly. Her passage was booked and her travel packet arrived by normal post during the night. She’d expected a ticket but the envelope contained a shiny brass token instead. She couldn’t speak as she held it.

Mr. Omah stood uncomfortably in the parlor. Her new luggage, shiny and blue with a quilted interior, had been packed and waited for their ride. Mr. Omah tried to smile at his wife but she didn’t see it. She looked different, he thought; she'd lost some weight to prepare for the voyage and that shade of blush didn't suit her.

"I’ll see you to the ferry," he said. "You have your token, right? Everything is squared away. The kids are here to see you off. They’ll miss you. I’ll--" He took out his damp handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. "You’ll be home soon. I wish…I wish you never won this trip. But I’ll win one too, someday."

It was the last time she'd leave without him. Her departure was the easiest to execute and the most difficult to endure. In the end, despite all the preparation, she left without saying goodbye.

Pushcart Prize nominee Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in several journals, including Niteblade, 42 Magazine, and Silver Blade. Ms. Krafton resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region and is an active member of Pennwriters, a national writers group. She's co-editor of the Pennwriters Area 6 blog and also maintains her own blog, where you can find more of her writing.