A Portrait of Ellen

Written in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “Back to square one.”... view prompt


Contemporary Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

The same thing every Sunday. On a quest to get my ten thousand steps. Telling myself to breathe easy and let the sunshine in. Not a chance. Sun, the poor bastard is always hidden this time of year. He’s cowering behind the clouds. 

The sky tore open between two sad gray patches and spit a message down to me. Direct from Tarragona. The sender is new but the effect the same. A little scrap of paper singed on the sides and dipped in poison. The inky stuff staining my fingertips immediately.

   Hungover as usual, it took me a few moments to focus my eyes on the words to see the sprawling body. Familiar words with a different spin on phrasing. His handwriting was beautiful and curling, of course. There were a few things at the bottom in Catalan. I told myself I would not stoop to translate them. This time I would fold up the message, put it in a drawer. Wash my hands so the poison wouldn’t get to my bloodstream and start to circulate. 

Lying to yourself can be an act of kindness. 

Walking on and rubbing my fingers together. Only a few thousand steps in, and no new routes to take. Same little circles around the ugliest city in the world. It occurred to me that it was Sunday. And I had been promising myself for months that I was going to start church hopping again. Church hopping, a habit that never quite stuck to me as hard as my alcoholism. Visiting a different church every Sunday. Never the same one twice. A hint of spirituality without the issues of commitment. 

A large white tower was visible to me and I remembered the Methodist church on front street. Overhead, the clouds were getting more upset. It would start pouring within the hour. With fifteen minutes until ten, I decided to take a short cut to be on time for the service. My horrible aqua colored baseball hat shielded my eyes from the passing cars. I didn’t want to look at the drivers. In church I’d have to remove it. Reveal my untamed hideous frizz. 

The little sweet melodies from the note were on loop for me. Not even music at the loudest possible volume could drown his words out. 

I was so distracted I walked straight onto the railroad tracks. The warning signal flashed and the bar came down. A passing yellow Jeep ripped its horn as if I had cut them off in traffic. I obeyed and took five steps backwards. The heat from the passing train touched my forehead. I could feel how close I had gotten. It’s no Albertine’s horse, but still a poetic way to go. Oh well, I missed another chance. 

I was grateful to turn onto front street. The wind was picking up and I took out my headphones in anticipation of hearing the church bells. But there were no bells. It was too early or too late for them. The parking lot for the church was empty. And when I reached the steps a thick set of chains blocked them off. I had gone to the wrong entrance. There were lights on inside. I could see them through the stained glass windows. On the other side of the building, it was the same. Thick chains and a small sign which advised me not to loiter. A quick circle around the entire building proved it was impenetrable. But I knew there were people inside. 

At the side entrance door a woman was lying on the concrete stoop. She had been ill, and her torn up shoes covered in thick mud. She was not asleep but not moving either. She smelled of body fluids. A very common sight. Never not unnerving. And as she lie there I watched her lift up a stained hand and knock her knuckles against the bottom of the door. We both waited together. Although to be honest, I’m not sure she was ever aware of my presence. No one came, but I could hear the faint sounds of hymnal singing inside. The keys of an organ. 

The wind gusted and the woman’s hand came down and rested on the concrete next to her filthy hair. Above us, a power line wire swung in the wind back and forth. The downed woman wasn’t watching, what did she care? But I watched. If it broke and fell, I’d be standing under it. The wind slowed and the wire rested. Darn.

With the time being close to ten thirty and no other churches in sight, I gave up the idea. Back to my heathen Sunday. Less than three thousand steps to go. 

My mother used to call early Sunday mornings “heathen hour”. Whilst everyone else is in church, you have the streets and shops free to yourself. Something that delighted me in childhood and makes me all the more blue now. All I’ve ever wanted is to belong. 

Another few circles around the wrecked gardens, the same piles of humans with no houses. Yelling to each other in a language I recognize as English but can't really understand. The smell of them overpowers any blooms. 

Back to the spot the sky opened up. I can feel the rain becoming heavier and I know there is not much time. A paper and pen from my bag. A response to the note matching its sentiments and taking them a step further. Much talk of belonging. 

The sky takes it back up. The hole is bigger this time around. There is a flash in which I think it might swallow me along with the note. I close my eyes in anticipation. No, I was not taken.

 I know how the routine goes now. I won’t get a response beyond a few words. I’ve been poisoned. The game is over, but I’ll be suffering for weeks. Three hundred more steps to hit ten thousand. That's about the amount of steps it will take to get home. 

April 18, 2023 20:11

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Douglas W. Carr
14:17 Apr 19, 2023

Wow, this is profound and I took a liking to the statement, "Lying to yourself can be an act of kindness." Nice work.


Diamond Keener
17:06 Apr 19, 2023

Thank you so much, Douglas. Appreciate your reading.


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