The effort of going home exhausted him. The effort of being home. Charlie had spent weeks in his new nightmare life, and all his things waited for him, unchanged. It was like walking into his room in his parents’ house and finding all his things from high school still where he’d left them. The artifacts of a previous life.
Adam had stacked the mail neatly on the dining table. Charlie sat there, his new aluminum cane against his leg, and went through them, envelope by envelope. Dickens capered and danced and brought his old fetch toy, a ragged penguin. Charlie only had the energy to toss it half-heartedly across the apartment a few times, and Dickens seemed to recognize his lack of enthusiasm. The little dog hopped up on the couch with a sigh, and rested his head on his forepaws for the rest of the evening.
In the morning, Charlie took Dickens on a quick walk around the block, then fed the dog, fixed himself a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, and called a taxi to carry him to work. The indulgence wouldn’t work as an everyday occurrence, but for his first day back to the office, he didn’t wan’t to push. And, secretly, it meant one more day before he had to walk down past the strip mall, past the parking lot. Better to spend a few dollars and treat himself gently. There would be plenty of time to face unpleasant memories later, when he had more strength.
As soon as he sat down at his desk and turned on his computer, guilt pressed against him. Eight hundred unread emails tracking back to that day. Messages from people he’d worked with for months or years with subject lines like THIRD ATTEMPT and I’M RUNNING OUT OF TIME HERE. His morning wove itself out of apologies and lists of deadlines that had already passed.
The physical therapist had given him exercises to do throughout his day, gentle stretches that would help to keep the scars from adhering where they shouldn’t, would get him back as much range of motion as possible. It wouldn’t be all it had been, but most. Probably. Enough. He had his toes on a thick hardback book to gently stretch the reattached tendon when Michael from bookkeeping popped his head in the office door. Charlie felt a flush of embarrassment that bordered on shame.
“Charlie. You got a minute?”
“Sure,” he said, pushing the book under his desk with a toe. “What’s up?”
“Little thing,” he said, and ducked back out. Charlie took up his cane and followed.
It could have been worse. It could have been the whole staff. Instead, there were just four of them: Michael, Robin from HR, Mr. Garner, and Adam. They didn’t half fill the breakroom, and the little tray of cupcakes with one frosted letter on each, spelling out WELCOME BACK. Everyone smiled. The sweetness of the cakes went past mere sugar into something artificial and cloying, and Charlie got a cup of the bitter work coffee to make it bearable. Mr. Garner joked about how badly things had fallen behind without him. Robin said it was all just awful without ever quite saying which it she was referring to. Adam stayed politely quiet, a sympathetic look in his eyes saying I warned you they were going to do something. Charlie sat on the metal folding chair, nodding and smiling and trying to be touched and grateful. When it was over, he went back to his office, leaning on the cane more than he had before. He could feel the sugar crash coming and the coffee left him jittery. Probably the coffee.
He tried to catch up on the email, but it was too much. In the end, he composed a little canned response that he could copy into the page whenever he needed to. I’m very sorry for my late reply, but I have been out of the office for a medical situation and have only just returned. Please rest assured that my full efforts and attention are on this issue, and I will be back on track shortly. It wasn’t even a lie, quite. The bland, conventional business-speak would have annoyed him before. He’d hated the insincerity and falseness of etiquette that everyone knew was just etiquette. Now, it felt safe and familiar. Something happened, but it was over now. He was moving on. He was putting it in the past. Everything that had happened could be put in a the box marked “medical situation” and the lid nailed shut.
I actually went a little past this when I first wrote it, and put in “Sorry about that,” Adam said. which is probably the first line of the next scene.
So here’s another bit of questionable advice: ”Show, don’t tell.” Sometimes summary narrative’s a fine thing, and I’ve chosen to use a bunch of it here. We’re watching Charlie feel disconnected from his life, and one way to do that is to pull back. We’ve just had two scenes that were really rich in sensory detail, and now I’m pulling back a couple degrees. I expect the next one — Talking with Adam — will be easing back into immediacy, but by using summary, I can cover a lot of territory in a little time, and most of it’s stuff we don’t need to know. I still can’t tell what Charlie’s job is, and I’m pretty sure I don’t care.
My Darling Wife used to work for this fella — nice guy — who always said whatever he was talking about was the top priority. Her point was that if everything’s a priority, nothing is. I think that holds true here too. If I covered all the aspects of Charlie’s life in the same level of detail — even if the detail is striking and immediate — it dulls the edge of the parts that I want sharpest.
This is also the first scene we’ve had that doesn’t end on a conclusive note, but just oozes into the next one (part of why I sort of started the next scene first time out).
It may also be of interest that I haven’t had enough sleep and my kid’s home sick from school, and — I think as a direct result — I’m feeling dispirited about this story in particular and my writing career in general. I’m not fishing for reassurance and I’m not reading comments, so don’t feel obligated to tell me I don’t suck. I’ll get some lunch and a good night’s sleep and think I’m the bee’s knees. I just thought I’d point up how little my feelings about writing are about, y’know, writing…