Qi by Marie Anderson

The door was locked. Irene prepared to knock, but then, from behind the door, she heard waves crash, whistles whistle, and fireworks explode. She rolled her eyes. Her husband must have just laid a seven-letter word in Scrabble, (against a robot!) and the computer was “celebrating” his bingo. 

“Quinn!” she yelled. “Where’s the damn remote?” She had more to say, but the nausea she’d been suffering on and off all day surged up. She took three deep breaths to quiet it. Damn sausage Quinn had boiled for lunch. Underboiled more like it.

The door creaked open. Quinn slouched before her, blinking watery blue eyes and pushing a liver-spotted hand through the sparse gray hairs on his scalp. His belly poked through a ratty brown bathrobe. She peered over his shoulder.  Bed unmade. Almost 6:30 pm, almost time for Wheel of Fortune, and he still hadn’t made his bed.

“The remote, Quinn? It’s not in the basket on the coffee table where it belongs. And you were the last one watching TV.”

Quinn shrugged. “It’s no doubt wherever I last put it.”

“Well then, buddy, you can just stand next to the TV and push the buttons when I want them pushed!”

“Sure thing, buddy, but I just gotta finish my game first.” He twisted his thinning lips (thin as thread!), and muttered, “I’m behind by only 22 points, but I’m stuck with the Q without a U.”

He shut the door in her face. Irene heard the lock click.

She muttered “jerk,” marched back to the parlor, and sank onto the sofa. She’d give him three minutes, then take a hammer to the damn door. Stupid Scrabble. A boring game. Accomplished nothing. And he played robots, not real people. Real people, he said, were too slow. And they cheated, used dictionaries. What a chowderhead.

Her gaze drifted from the dark TV to the shadow box hanging on the wall. Their son’s baseball trophies filled its shelves, surrounding, like a cheering section, The Photo. Framed in tarnished silver. (She’d polish it tomorrow, maybe.) From The Photo, Ronnie gazed at her. Her boy. Her beacon of light in a dull gray marriage. His smile carved dimples (inherited from Quinn) below his high cheekbones (inherited from her). His curly brown hair (like hers once was) tumbled down his forehead and stopped just short of bright blue eyes (Quinn’s).

A dull pain pushed down her shoulder. She groaned, hauled herself up and stumbled to the TV. But her hand moved past the TV’s power button and up to the shadow box. She watched her fingers close around the photo, lift it, and carry it down.

“Ronnie.” She pressed the photo to her chest. “I’m so sorry.” A blush warmed her face. Now where had that come from? She hadn’t let herself talk to Ronnie in so long. And had she never apologized? Had she never said sorry? But whose ears would have accepted her apology? A jumble of words dizzied through her head. Shame twisted her guts. What was happening? Why now, these muddled thoughts, these sick, shameful feelings? A sudden whiff of body odor made her gasp in surprise, but it was not unpleasant, the odor,  just painful, the smell of a young boy’s sweat after six innings under a hot sun.

Twelve years old. Playing second base in the District Quarter Finals for the 12-year-old All-Star Western Conference Little League. As athletic as his mother. Fluid and swift like she’d been until pregnancy added glacier-sized weight that never completely melted, and motherhood triggered a chronic tension which only food and fury could loosen. 

He’d bobbled an easy ground ball, letting the winning run in for the opposing team.

On the car ride home, Quinn driving, Irene had lectured their son sitting in the backseat, looking at her with dry eyes.

“You let your team down, Ronnie, with your careless error. A whole season of wins wiped out by you bobbling that ball. How the hell did that happen, buddy?”

Ronnie just blinked and snaked his lips into a crooked smile.

“Wipe that moronic smile off your face! That’s just how your dad looks when he’s done something dumb and careless!”

“Honey,” Quinn muttered. “It’s just a game.”

“Whatever you do, Ronnie,” Irene sputtered, “don’t turn into a chowderhead like that one. Everything’s just a game to him, because it excuses him from doing the hard, focused work that leads to accomplishment, and that’s why he’s been passed over at work, and that’s why he didn’t—”

She never finished the sentence. Ronnie pushed open the car door and tumbled out onto the busy freeway.

Quinn never spoke blame. He wouldn’t dare. If he’d been tougher with their son, not always hijacking the good cop role, forcing the discipline tasks on her . . .

Afterwards, he’d taken up, of all things, cross stitching. What a thing for a man to do! He cross-stitched samplers. Irene refused to let them infest their walls, so he started giving them away until he ran out of people to give them to.

The last one he ever made, she’d found on Ronnie’s grave, the words stitched in blue: the mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.

“Damn it, Quinn,” she’d said, though he wasn’t there. She only went to the grave alone. “What does that even mean?” She’d grabbed it and thrown it in the garbage can outside the cemetery’s office.

*

The tightness was back, squeezing her chest. She stumbled to Quinn’s room, banged the photo frame into the door with such force that the frame splintered another inch into the crack already on the door.

The door creaked open. “You again?” Quinn sighed. “What is it now? Oh! Wait! Here it is!” From the pocket of his robe, he lifted the remote and held it out to her. His eyes fell on Ronnie’s photo still clutched in her hand.

“That’s what you used on my door this time? Oh, Irene.” He shook his head.

His voice sounded far away. A sharp pain sizzled her chest, shot up her arms. She stepped back, back, away from Quinn, away from his room that he always kept locked, away from his outstretched hand holding the remote.

The photo fell to the floor, and she fell next to it.

*

Quinn gazed at his wife, lying on her back, her eyes open but not blinking. Her freckled nose (the cutest nose, how he’d once loved kissing it) not flaring like it often flared when she looked at him. Thirty-five years married. Five years dating. So she’d been in his life for most of his existence. She’d taught him to dance the polka before their wedding, and he’d taught her to drive stick shift. “You’re a good teacher,” Irene had praised, their baby still tucked safely in her womb. “You’ll teach our child to drive stick, when the time comes.”

“Oh Ronnie,” he murmured now, staring at the framed photo next to his silent Irene. “You never had the chance to learn.” 

He frowned at the motionless corpse (corpse?) of his wife. “You,” he muttered. “Your fault. Buddy.” 

If she was breathing, he couldn’t see it. If his knees and hips weren’t so grumpy, he’d kneel and check for breath, a pulse. He was pushing 70, but his eyes were still sharp. She wasn’t breathing. He was pretty sure.

He shuffled to the kitchen, dialed 9-1-1, and said what needed to be said. They would be there in 10, maybe 15 minutes.

He sighed. He could finish the game. He had an I and was on the verge of playing Qi for a triple score when Irene had banged on the door. Victory was close. Qi. A vital life force. A good word. A great Scrabble word. One of the few Q-without-U words.

He hurried back to his room and, out of habit, closed and locked the door.

No!

Wait!

He huffed a deep breath and re-opened his door. He wouldn’t need to lock it anymore. Or even close it.

Marie Anderson is a Chicago area married mother of three millennials. Her stories have appeared in about 50 publications, including Woman’s World, Guilty Crime Magazine, After Dinner Conversation, and Sunlight Press. She is the founder and facilitator of her public library’s writing critique group, going strong since 2009. She finds first drafts difficult, but loves to rewrite. She believes rewriting is where the magic happens.