A Flash of Red: Chapter 1

A Flash of Red Banner

Anna

Anna’s heart skipped a beat in a wave of involuntary fear. There were only two eggs in the refrigerator.

Anna had descended the stairs five minutes before, perfumed and fully dressed, ready to begin her day. She would make pancakes for her husband, who was still asleep in their bedroom. She would wash fresh raspberries to put on top. She would lay the table with care. All of this to set a pattern of comfortable predictability for Anna, ensuring the day would unfold in a way she could control. But now, everything was skewed by yet another ordinary situation somehow turned inexplicable in Anna’s life. Or at least she preferred to see these blips in her daily horizon as having no reasonable explanation, because the most reasonable explanation of all was unacceptable.

She’d checked last night before going to bed–everything she needed was there. A full carton of eggs, their twelve white orbs nestled neatly in the divots on the side of the refrigerator door. Anna always took them out of their cardboard container after returning from the grocery store and moved them lovingly to their designated place. So where had they gone?

And that’s when it rushed over her. Standing in front of the pristine refrigerator, its clean angles and cool air pouring over her chest and thighs through the thin satin and crepe of her dress, Anna thought again about the dark spot inside her head. The one we all share. The one where our brain oversteps the rules of generosity and creates reality for us. She learned this small biological fact with indifference in college. Now, when it shoved its way into her conscious thought, like it had just now, the sheer density of it warped her mind like a black hole, devouring everything around it. How else do our minds betray us? How will mine? Anna knew only part of the answer.

Anna blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear the blurry sights in front of her.  She could fix this. Everything could be put back in order. Ignoring the skittering thoughts inside her head, Anna amended her plans. She had two eggs. She would make them sunny-side up for Sean with two slices of her homemade bread and strawberry jam she canned herself last summer. The fresh raspberries she would put on the side for him in a bowl. She would eat cereal afterwards while Sean did his assigned chores.

Anna took a deep breath. And another one. Then she shut the door to the refrigerator and placed the eggs on the counter by the stove, careful not to crack their fragile shells. Putting her favorite cast iron pan onto heat with a bit of Portuguese olive oil drizzled inside, Anna wrapped her slim fingers around the first egg, feeling the tensile strength of the shell shift slightly under the pressure. In one swift and practiced movement, Anna split the shell against the edge of the skillet and poured the viscous contents out, the yolk centered perfectly within the white that emerged from the sizzling heat. Yes, that was better.

. . .

“I’m off. Have a good day!”  Sean stood in the hallway, draping his black coat over his broad back before putting his left arm inside and buttoning up the double-breasted flaps. He didn’t look over at her.

“Okay, honey.” Anna could feel the clip in her tone and urged herself to stop. Throwing out another spindle for him to grab, she called out from her seat at the kitchen table, “Hope you enjoyed breakfast.”

She could see Sean’s movement pause for a second. A blip of joy fluttered up inside her throat when he turned around and settled his gaze on her face. She smiled, anticipating his compliment.

“Sure,” Sean’s voice was thin, stretching itself down the hallway, “but I thought you were making pancakes.”

What could Anna say to that? She scrambled for an explanation that didn’t suggest a failure on her part. “When I woke up this morning I just thought you might like something a little lighter.” She added with a soft laugh, “And don’t worry, I’ll clean up the dishes.”

Sean’s face was unreadable. Spontaneously, he covered the expanse of the front hallway in three broad steps, bent down to kiss Anna on the cheek, and then was just as quickly out the door without another word. The smell of his shaving cream lingered on Anna’s cheek for a few seconds before diffusing into the kitchen’s sunlit air.

The first task of Anna’s day was done.

After clearing up the dishes and wiping the table of crumbs, Anna settled down to her second task. The notecards were embossed at the top with her initials, ALK, in silver lettering. She took seven from the stack in the kitchen drawer she’d designated for writing utensils and other note materials, one for each day of the upcoming week. Choosing a blue pen first, she began to write in her flowing script,

Hope your day is wonderful. I love you!

XOXO

–Anna

Anna placed the card upside down on the table, picked up the next card, and began to write. She was traveling to visit her parents tomorrow and only had a few more minutes to prepare for the week ahead before leaving for her office at Ambrose University. A busy day awaited her: morning meetings with colleagues, class at 1pm, and office hours later in the afternoon. No one, Anna thought with satisfaction, could call her inefficient.

. . .

Sprays of slush from the footfalls of passing undergraduates slapped Anna in the face, capturing her attention. Although she always loathed winter as a child, constantly searching for the hint of loamy earth on the breeze that would preface warmer days, Anna had come to love the colder seasons.  It seemed as if her bones and sinew had grown tougher over the years and now icy sleet and chilling wind fortified her tolerance for the injuries of daily life.  The dead monotony of grading. Her husband’s halo of ambient blue light. The gritty underbelly of potential.

As Anna traveled across the quad, she chose the diagonal pathway that had clearly been laid only recently as a result of repeated traipsing by undergraduates. Anna was always impressed, if a bit stunned, by the efficiency with which students could communicate their need for greater convenience, and yet the complete lack of creativity or ambition she often found in their supposed need to be educated.

Anna took in her surroundings and noted it was the point in winter where the peaceful snowfall that cocoons December in holiday-anticipation has long since given way to the post-celebratory regret of excess. Snow lay arrayed across the inlets of grass, path, and brown brick buildings in patches of hardened gray mounds, each adorned with the detritus of months of biting cold: cigarette butts, lone gloves, and the ubiquitous college accessory of empty Starbucks cups. It wasn’t until graduate school that the educated masses found it necessary to budget by carrying in caffeine from home.

Her grip on her heavy briefcase filled with exams and lecture notes began to loosen as she made her way across campus, and Anna paused a moment to readjust herself. As she paused, she caught sight of one of the few visual consolations of winter: A cardinal, crested head of red resplendent against the bleak midwinter backdrop, perched atop one of the many ancient oaks lining the pathway. She had loved these crimson ambassadors of good will ever since her mother taught her to identify them in childhood. As he called out his charming reverie over the desolate grounds, Anna’s second thought was how beauty benefits from the decline of those around it.

Her first thought was always the same.

Resuming her steady stride, Anna rolled the word ‘decline’ around in her mind. She worried it like a not-yet smooth piece of glass found at the beach, its jagged edges catching on the unsmooth surfaces inside of her. Anna avoided self-pity, but the facts of her life remained, austere and foreboding in their precision.

Anna gripped her case with renewed strength and cast her view across the quad to Klingersmith Hall, where her well-appointed and organized office awaited her, along with a busy day of lectures, office hours, and meetings. A cold wind was now blowing through the lawn and the cardinal had flown away during Anna’s brief respite, probably to find shelter in a nearby pine. Anna began her steady stride once more towards her destination, wishing she shared the same sensibility.

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