Donna observed the squalor from the middle of the living room floor. Duplo blocks, two undressed dolls with patchy yarn hair, an upturned red chair, and plastic dishes lay strewn over the brown braided rug that had been a Christmas gift from her mother. She knew the kitchen was worse. Heather had upset her bowl, splattering yogurt and strawberries over the tiled floor and the wallpaper.
She hadn’t cleaned up yet. Sitting with her back straight at this moment took all the strength she could muster.
The doorbell rang an electronic version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” This was her way of being festive this year. Half-way through December and Donna hadn’t the mental resources to consider purchasing a Christmas tree. Not to mention decorating one.
She heaved herself up and padded to the front door. The noise irritated her, especially when Heather was sleeping. She should put tape over the button during naptime with a sign, telling people to knock instead. Put that on the to-do list, she thought. But even the thought of a to-do list made her weary.
Donna cracked open the door. Alison stood outside, her knit hat puffing plump and lumpy from the top of her head and her scarf bunched over her mouth.
“Farry,” she said as she whipped off her gloves. “If fif ifn’t a food fime I fan—”
Alison yanked the scarf from her mouth. “Sorry, hon, is this a good time?” She lumbered in without waiting for a reply, large in her Timberland coat and snow-encrusted boots. “Because if it’s not I can come back later. I probably should’ve called.”
“Oh, fine,” Donna said. What else could she say? No, leave me alone? I’m in the middle of a pity party? “Heather’s sleeping. Courtney’s at school.”
“Your moment of quiet.” Alison grinned. “I was just hiking the grade. Thought I’d drop in on my way down, find out if you heard anything.”
Donna went limp, rag doll arms flopping to her sides. “Yeah.” She shuddered out a sigh. “Harvey just called.”
“When? You mean, he just called? From China? Like, just just?” Alison unwound her scarf and stared saucer-eyed into Donna’s face. “Wow, how’s that for timing?”
Donna shut the door.
“Well?” Alison said. “Did he get it?”
Donna didn’t trust her voice. She nodded.
“Oh, hon!” Alison wrapped two well-padded arms around Donna and pulled her close. She smelled of damp earth. Her cheeks radiated the chill. “Oh, don’t take it so hard! It’s not the end of the world, you know.”
Donna nodded into the slick outer shell of Alison’s coat. “I know.”
“I mean, you’ll see a new part of the planet with the man you love. You’ll probably have a great time.”
Donna pulled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Crying in front of Alison was a stupid thing to do. “I guess.”
“Don’t just guess!” Alison said, unzipping her coat. “Believe it! This is China we’re talking about. Just think about how exciting this is. You’ll learn Chinese.”
Donna sniffed. “I’ve never been good with languages. Not like Harvey.”
“And I have all this packing to do.” Donna gestured with one floppy arm.
“Oh, I’ll help you. I’ll get my girls to come, too. We’ll all help.” Alison yanked off her hat. “And you’ll send me a postcard, right? How long did Harvey say his contract was for?”
Donna shuddered. “Three years.”
“That’s part of the problem.” Donna’s voice came out in a sob. “What if I don’t like it? I’m stuck there for three years! And here I’ve never been to any place except Canada before!”
“Oh, hon!” Alison discarded her coat, draping it over the railing. “You’ve been to Tijuana, right? Didn’t you tell me that story of the guy with that huge—”
“That was my sister.”
“Oh. Well, look at it this way. China can’t be so different from Canada … or here. We’re all human beings, right? We all have the same needs and desires in life. We’re all—”
“You’re starting to sound like a Hallmark card.”
Alison squeezed Donna’s shoulders with her big hands. “I’m just trying to tell you not to flip out. It’ll be better than you think. Now, when do you leave?”
“Two months,” Donna said. “We have to wait for them to be done with Chinese New Year. I guess it’s a big deal over there. No point getting over there in the middle of it, because the whole country shuts down.”
“Two whole months.” Alison pushed her face close so that their noses almost touched. “Piece of cake. You’ll get used to the idea, hon. See if you don’t. And Harvey wants this, right?”
“More than anything in the world,” Donna said, taking a step back, out of range of Alison’s spearmint breath. “If I say no—” She swallowed. “I’d rip his heart out.”
“No,” Alison said quickly. “No is out of the question. You’ve got to go. This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
A lifetime. Three years could feel like a lifetime, Donna thought. And her mother. How would she ever break the news to her mother? Since her sister had moved back east to get married, her mother had lived alone. Donna was the only one close by to take care of her. What if something happened—?
“Three years isn’t that long,” Alison said. “It’ll pass in a blink.”
A blink. The words echoed in Donna’s skull, but she couldn’t quite believe them.
“And then you’ll be home again,” Alison went on, “so much richer for the experience.”
“He’ll get a good salary,” Donna admitted. “And he says we’ll get to travel.”
“See?” Alison clapped Donna’s shoulder. “You’re already looking at the bright side. That’s what you have to do, hon. Keep your chin up.”
Instinctively, Donna lifted her chin. But all that ran through her head was the Monty Python theme: always look on the bright side of life…. Then that unbearable whistling, almost as bad as her Christmas doorbell.
Donna’s chin dropped.
Alison glanced around the living room, her eyes two flames of worry. Her hand stayed clamped to Donna’s shoulder. “Need any help cleaning up, hon? I’m pretty good with a vacuum.”
This short story was inspired by my friend Alison Stedman Coslow's three words: squalor, naptime and yogurt. Thank you, Alison! (For the record, Alison is nothing like the "Alison" in this story. She is not pushy and she is very petite.)
I'm a pretty rusty short story writer, probably because it's been a month or two since I've written one. Mass edits of the Work In Progress (WiP) got in the way. I decided to depart from the norm this time and write a story with a character from my WiP. This story takes place twelve years before my novel starts, when my protagonist Heather is four. I wanted to explore her mother's character more - find out how she reacted to the news that they were moving to China.
For the writers out there: Have you ever tried this technique (writing down supporting stories that won't actually appear in the novel) when exploring your characters' personalities? Did you find that it helped give your characters dimension?