A Strange Morning

A Strange Morning

Emma awoke and calmly removed herself from the chair in the living room. Today was unusual, but she could not identify the cause. She ran through her standard morning checklist, and everything was checking out okay. Something was different, though, and whatever it was, it colored the world. She pushed those thoughts aside, and began her daily tasks.

In the kitchen, she started the coffee machine and gathered the ingredients she would need to make breakfast. She had done this enough times to have grown quite quick in her preparation, and breakfast was ready within minutes. The sun had been up for a few hours, already, and everyone would be joining her downstairs at any moment. She busied herself cleaning the utensils that had been soiled during her food preparation, finishing up just as the first footsteps rang out from the stairwell.

Jonathan, the youngest, was first into the kitchen. His hair was slicked over to one side, which hid one earbud, but left its twin on the other side exposed. He crashed to a seated position at the table, dropping his backpack to the floor at his feet. The backpack being more of a style than a utility, as it held very little in the way of school supplies. A tablet, a couple of disposable pens, and a small paper notebook took up barely more than the bottom of the backpack, leaving the majority of it empty of all but air.

Julian oozed from the stairwell to join his brother, and, no backpack to drop, simply set himself into a chair, like a feather to the ground. He was grace without style, believing his fashion to be simple and timeless, while it looked more sloppy and uninspired to outside observers. His movements were fluid, relaxed, and belied a confidence he would never have, even well into his adulthood. He was the kindest of the children, though none were at all unkind to Emma. She liked him best, though, and was working on a way to express this sentiment to him.

Jasmine was the last of the children to come downstairs, which was fairly usual for her. She did not like to arrive too early, or appear too eager. As the oldest, she had the most responsibility to the family, and she had cultivated a personality that was calm and thoughtful, which only served to amplify her appearance of strength. She rarely displayed anger in any form beyond the look in her eye, and this was more effective than any shouting or physical violence would ever be with her younger brothers. They knew that if they crossed her, there would be consequences that would rival anything their parents had ever done in punishment, though how they knew, they couldn’t say, as they had never let themselves test that boundary. She took her spot at the head of the table, and Emma placed a full plate in front of her, smiling and receiving a return smile. Jasmine was so similar to Emma, they could have been sisters, at least in spirit. They did not resemble each other in any physical respect, really.

Emma began to make a prediction of who would be the last to join them, and, again, felt a strange color to the world. A depth that had not been there, yesterday. The stream of sunlight through the kitchen window burned more orange and more red and more yellow than it had ever before. The eggshell of the kitchen floor tile glowed like the moon in the night sky, and the coffee smelled richer, and the children were louder and their voices warmer. The black nylon weave of Jessica’s laptop bag was more intricate, deeper and more labyrinthine than ever before, and it sparked something else within Emma. A feeling of disappointment. This was an odd feeling, and Emma was unsure why she should be experiencing it at this moment. Perhaps, she heard herself say in her head, in a voice that was not quite her own, my error in predicting who would be last has caused my distress. Jessica set her bag down on the counter and accepted the mug of coffee that Emma handed her. She sipped at it, and complimented Emma on the quality. This, too, resulted in an odd feeling, though it was not a negative feeling.

“I have prepared your portfolio for today’s meeting. Should you find any issue, I will be on standby to make corrections or additions as needed.” Emma bowed slightly, not too formal, not too casual.

“I’ll look them over and let you know by lunch. If you haven’t heard from me by then, you’re off the hook.” Jessica smiled at Emma, and knew that the portfolio would be perfect. Emma had a better understanding of corporate finance than anyone Jessica worked with, and had, yet, to make a single mistake that anyone had found.

Clattering and the scrape of wood against sealed stone tile signified the exodus of the children from the kitchen table. Only one of them bid Emma a good day before disappearing from sight. Emma did not respond vocally, but she smiled and waved at him. She cleared the dishes, scraping uneaten food into the trash bin, and set them next to the sink. She would wait for coffee mugs to be emptied before she would wash the dishes.

Jacob came into the kitchen in an apparent rush, brushing away Emma’s offer of coffee. “I’ll grab some at the office, thanks.” He did not seem angry, but his words were curt, and Emma feared she may have displeased him. Jacob kissed his wife on the cheek and left before Emma could verify his mood. This would haunt her, but there was nothing to do about it, now. She would just have to wait until he came home.

Jessica set her half-empty mug of coffee on the counter and followed her husband out of the kitchen, leaving Emma alone with her thoughts. She replayed the morning’s events in her head as she washed the dishes and wiped down the countertops and table. She was nearly finished sweeping the kitchen floor when she began to feel sluggish. It was such a gradual change that she did not notice it right away. When she finally noticed her lowered efficiency of movement, it was almost too late. She was able to finish her sweeping, and, moving at a crawling pace, made it back to her chair in the living room. Everything was glowing, now, and the room took on a magical air, dust sprites turning the room into a glittering snowglobe. Emma began to go through her checklist again, but found she was just too tired to complete it, and she sank, stiffly, into rest.

Several hours later, Jacob returned to the house. “Emma?” He called out from the front door. Met with silence, he made his way into the living room. “Emma?” He addressed her, while she remained in her seated position, unresponsive. He approached her, looking into her eyes, and jostled her in her seat. Her continued unresponsiveness was cause for concern, and jostling her produced no effect. He did not know what to do, and his stress levels were rising. He called Jessica, knowing she was unlikely to be available, and left a message for her. She wasn’t due home for a couple more hours, but the children would be home before then, and he needed Jessica. She was the only one who would know what to do in this situation.

Jessica did not get his message right away, but when she did, she texted him that she was coming home early. He almost let himself feel relief, but remained on edge despite himself. The children could be home any moment. He had draped the sheet from their bed over Emma and the chair in which she sat. He had not wanted to do it, but could not think of anything else at the time, and now he regretted his decision to use their bed sheet. The sheet that he and his wife slept on was now going to be tainted with the loss of Emma, and he knew he could not use it as a bed sheet ever again.

The front door beeped and he began to panic. Which child was home, and what would he say to them when they saw this? He nearly crumpled to his knees when he saw that it was Jessica and not one of the children.

“Jacob, what happened?” Jessica pulled the sheet away and was kneeling and poking and prodding at Emma.

“I came home and found her like this. Completely unresponsive, not the faintest flicker in her eyes.” He was on the verge of sobbing.

Jessica pulled out her phone and began swiping this way and that in a flurry of activity. Watching the screen, her eyes grew wide and she turned her phone to face Jacob. “Look at this. The last few minutes.”

Jacob watched a video of their living room, but it was hard to see detail. The image was washed out, turning everything into pastel and light. It looked like the sun had come to rest in their living room and its blinding light sparked everything aflame in white, until there was nothing but pure white light. The video ended on a white screen devoid of any detail, and Jacob turned to look at Emma’s face. Her poor stoic face, staring blankly into nothing, made his chest creak and heave, and he reached out a hand and placed it gently on her cheek. His eyes stung and he had to turn away. He had always had a stronger emotional connection to Emma than Jessica had, and he was sure that Jessica would be the one to take care of things, now that Emma was gone. Looking to his wife, however, cast doubt onto his belief.

Jessica was crying softly, making no sound but a light sniffle from time to time, but her cheeks were wet, and her eyes were half obscured by the tears that had welled up within them. “She…” Jessica’s voice was catching in her throat, which was closing up tightly. “She…” Jessica could not continue easily.

The beep of the front door startled them into action, Jessica quickly wiping away her tears and Jacob hurriedly throwing the sheet over Emma. The two children that walked into the living room were instantly informed of the situation by nothing more than their red-eyed parents and the sheet-covered chair. They stood in silence, their eyes casting about, waiting for an explanation that would not come. Wishing for an explanation that would reveal this sight to be a misunderstanding. They, then, realized that, not only was this really happening, but that Julian was not home, yet, and therefore, he did not know. He had always been so fond of Emma, the other children had teased him about being in love with her.

Their parents had begun to talk to them, in weird choked-out words that fell on deaf ears. Jonathan and Jasmine crossed the room and gently embraced the unmoving Emma. She had been there for their whole lives. They had not known a day without Emma’s presence, and they began to fear for their future without her. Jasmine felt an empty void growing in her belly, spreading its way into her chest, a feeling of freefall somewhere within her kneeling body. Jonathan simply hugged Emma around the shoulders and stepped away. He had no tears for her, as tears were for physical injury, and this was so much more than that. He would not express his sorrow so cheaply.

Jonathan heard, somewhere way off in the distance, someone talking. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, their voice whale-song beneath the water, but he guessed by pitch and cadence that it had been a phone call with someone. Then he heard the sound of a bell far out to sea, a ship in distress, obscured by fog and waves. There was a rush of activity around him, of scurrying animatronics, of electrocuted marionettes, and he was being pushed aside.

When Jonathan was able to fight off the┬átidal pull that had forced his eyes to the ceiling, he saw that Julian had come home. Not only had he come home, but Julian had lifted Emma from her chair and was cupping the back of her neck and staring into her eyes, his mouth moving frantically. Jonathan thought he was talking to her, but he could hear no sound coming from Julian’s lips. It struck him as odd that Julian had lifted her from the chair, as they had played this game before with Emma, and Julian had never been able to lift her, then. Jonathan couldn’t budge her at all, and neither could Julian. Only Jasmine had ever managed to get Emma off the ground, and even that was only a centimeter or so.

Julian carried Emma’s body to the couch and laid her down upon it, kneeling beside her, taking her hand in his. There he stayed for what felt like an eternity, just holding her hand and staring into her face, lips never resting. His wordless, soundless chant ceaseless in the face of his despondence. Jasmine set a hand on his shoulder for a moment before ushering the rest of the family into the kitchen, leaving Julian and Emma behind.

Muffled words, occasional breakouts of sobbing, and the shuffle of chairs and feet floated into the living room, but they never quite made it to Julian’s ears. The world was gone and there was only blackness and darkness and cold everywhere that wasn’t Julian. Out of that blackness came a single slender wrist from which dangled a soft delicate hand, and it was all he had to hold on to, and he did not want to let go. He could feel the void behind him pulling at him, taunting him, telling him he had no choice. He would ignore the void for as long as they’d let him, but he knew it was only a matter of time. This was the way of the universe. It was cold, uncaring, vast and eternal, and he was just a speck of nothing within its churning chaos.

The hand within his own was being pulled from him, and he clenched his fist, but it was not to be, and he knew it. Her sweet delicate fingers slipped from his grasp, in a literal sense that mocked the figurative sense it had always held for him before, and he let them go. He watched them slip back into the darkness of the world and he fell backward into the abyss. If he could not have her, could not be with her at all, even in the stifled environment they had always shared, then he wanted nothing more than oblivion. He stared into the unfocusable blackness, and maybe he slept, and maybe he dreamed, and maybe he forgot just a little. And that was all he wanted.