This is the opening to my first fiction novel, Hard Truth. Available now from Amazon (.com or .ca), Barnes & Noble, Indigo, Walmart, iTunes, and Google Play.
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Monday, July 10, 11:30 a.m.
Thomas held his sleeping mother’s hand as she lay motionless in her fancy medical bed. Her face wore an expression of pain and discomfort. Even with the oxygen mask, she had difficulty.
The nurse was singing a song and folding laundry. Sandra was putting a perfectly folded fitted sheet onto a pile of flat sheets and pillowcases forming on top of the dresser.
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” Thomas offered.
“That’s very generous of you, sir, but it’s not necessary. Go to the office or go buy your wife something pretty, I’m sure she’ll appreciate that,” Sandra suggested.
“Yes, I’m sure she would, but I want to spend some time with my mother during the day for a change. How’s she doing today, anyway?”
“Not great, but you know she’s been having ups and downs for a while now.”
“I should have expected a downturn. She had a couple good days in a row and it was probably too much for her to put together one more. Go home.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“Yeah, I’ll be staying here for the remainder of the day and at least until Mrs. Van Steen or Brittany get back.”
“As you wish. I’ll just finish with this laundry and then be on my way.”
“Sounds good. I’m just going to hop in the shower. If I’m not out by the time you’re done, just let yourself out and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
He retreated to his washroom to clean up and throw on some casual clothes. It wasn’t often he got to wear jeans on a Tuesday. When he came out of his bedroom dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of well-worn Levi’s 501s, the nurse was gone. There was a basket of perfectly folded laundry on the coffee table with a note that read, “She didn’t eat much breakfast so she might be hungry. There’s soup in the fridge. Thank you! Sandra.”
Thomas took the note and threw it in the garbage and checked the fridge. There was a bowl of soup with a plastic lid and another note on top that read, “For Mother.”
Thomas checked his watch and saw that it was just about time for lunch so he pulled the soup out of the fridge and microwaved it for a few minutes, which turned out to be entirely too long, as the bowl was too hot to the touch when it was done being nuked. He grabbed a dish towel from the handle of the oven door and wrapped his hands around the bowl before shuffling back the way he came with extreme caution. He didn’t spill a drop.
He walked like a tightrope performer around the corner and into the room, nudging the door open with his knee. She didn’t budge as he fumbled his way to her side, ensuring he took a wide berth around her bed to avoid a hot soup disaster. Setting the bowl down on the nightstand and pulling up the rocking chair, he sat down, closed his eyes, and rocked himself for a few seconds. The quiet was nice.
The cell phone in his pocket rang with the chorus to Sweet Caroline blasting through the faded denim. He jumped up to silence the phone and his knee caught the edge of the nightstand and knocked a glop of soup onto the hardcover copy of Dickens as well as the alarm clock. He pressed the answer button on his phone as he reached to the floor where he dropped the dishtowel after delivering the soup.
“What?” he whispered.
“Thomas? It’s Roger from Doodlepants Toys and Collectibles. I have some news about your costs.”
“Yeah, it’s me. Just dealing with a, uh, situation here.” Thomas wiped the soup off the book. “Lay it on me, how bad is it?”
“It’s bad. After your up-front capital costs for basic materials and transportation…”
Thomas flinched and bumped the bowl of soup as he was trying to clean up his mess and sent more spilling onto the alarm clock, table, and floor.
“God damn it. Go on, but hurry it up. My situation got worse.”
“Want me to call you back?”
“No, I need to know now.”
“Well, after the up-front capital costs for basic materials and transportation it’s going to cost at least three times what you budgeted for the manufacturing and distribution.”
“What? Did you say three times?”
“Jesus Christ. What the hell happened?”
“An earthquake. It damaged the manufacturing plant. No casualties, but no production for a while either.”
“Son of a—”
“Listen, if there’s any way to get out of that contract I’d find it. You’ll be lucky to make a third of what you were hoping.”
He ended the call, slumped down in the antique rocker, put his head in his hands, and rubbed his forehead. The flashing blue light on his phone caught his attention and the little envelope icon indicated he had a voicemail. He dialed and wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder to listen to the message. As he leaned forward to mop up the soup, his hand pressed a button on the alarm clock and the radio started blasting.
“For the love of—” He scrambled to unplug the alarm clock as he listened.
“Thomas, it’s Stephen. I’m still waiting for the contract. I thought Jenny was supposed to make copies and fax them over before she left the office. Get me back with the status ASAP. I’ll be in class so send a text or leave a message.”
He looked down at his sleeping mother with a big grin on his face. “She hasn’t faxed it.” His hand found a cord behind the night side table. He gave it a yank and his mother’s ventilator started beeping loudly. “For fuck’s sake.” She stirred in the bed and he reached down and yanked the plug out of the wall for the clock and fished around for the cord to her machine. Soup was everywhere. His fingers found his target and he felt his way down the wall until they touched a wall plate. After two tries the machine’s quiet hum and her labored breathing were the only sounds in the room. He checked his watch and calculated twenty minutes to get to the office—if traffic cooperated. He kissed his mother on the forehead and bolted out the door.
He waited only a minute for the elevator to arrive and in that time he left a voice mail for Jenny to not fax the contract. The elevator doors opened as he cursed Jenny for not being in the office or answering her cell phone. He stepped in and pushed the button for the lobby, the last floor for his elevator, and cursed the design of the building for having a separate elevator to take you to the parking level
He hammered on the door close button in false belief that this would result in the doors taking less time to shut. The automated voiced announced he was passing the ninth floor, the lights turned off and the elevator came to an abrupt stop. There was a moment of total darkness before the emergency light came on. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.” He slammed an open hand against the elevator wall. “Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckity fuck fucking fuck!” He pushed the emergency call button and nothing happened. There was no beep or buzz or ringing or any indication at all that it was working.
He turned on the security monitors in the elevator and cycled through the floors until the image on the black and white monitor showed the lobby. It was a wide shot of the foyer with the security desk in the corner and Mitch out around the other side gyrating and twitching like he was having a seizure.
“Answer the call button, you worthless idiot.”
He pressed the audio button and the blues-driven sounds of Keith Richards’s guitar penetrated the steel box. The sound had a distinct echo, as if it were broadcasting out of a giant tin can, or say a small metal box eight-and-a-half floors above ground.
“Screw you, Mitch. You’re a terrible Mick Jagger.”
Mitch ran to the other side of the desk and picked up the security phone, and Thomas, watching and listening to the conversation, tried something different.
Thomas took out his cell phone and checked for a signal and was immediately disappointed. There was no cell coverage and he was out of Wi-Fi range for his unit or anyone else’s. On top of that, his battery was sitting at less than ten percent.
He closed his eyes and fought to remember if he plugged mother’s machine back into the proper socket—the one hooked up to the backup power. He was so angry and flustered that he couldn’t visualize where his hand was on the wall. Normally the alarm clock plugged into the regular socket so it would have been easy to tell, but with the phone call and the soup debacle, both were unplugged. He furrowed his brow, squeezed his eyes closed more tightly, and rubbed his temples. Even plugged into the wrong socket the battery backup would last about half an hour.
He started to hyperventilate and his chest became tight. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and he pulled at the collar of his shirt. He checked his watch and his hand shook as he looked at the time. It was 12:02.
Mother had twenty-eight minutes to live.