Story-A-Day May #25: Flown the Coop

Today begins the final week of the challenge! Here’s the latest official prompt from storyaday.org: Someone finds two dates listed on a piece of paper. The dates are in their own handwriting, but they do not know what the dates mean. They have to find out what the dates signify.

My story features a character who takes a lot of things for granted, until those cryptic dates make her re-examine herself.

***

Flown the Coop

Tina was elbow deep in a bowl of popcorn, and a Saturday afternoon double-feature of superhero movies, when she heard the mailslot creak. Unwilling to pause at the good part — and they were all good parts — she whistled. “Eddie, go get the mail! Go get it, boy!”

Paws scrabbled excitedly over the hardwood floors. A moment later, slightly drool-covered letters were gently deposited in her lap.

The labrador wagged his tail, mouth hanging open, while she rubbed his jowls. “Good boy.”

She absentmindedly ripped open an envelope, her eyes fixed to the television. A chiseled superhero had just suffered a strategically placed slash across his suit, which bared his rock hard abs. That was, like, a twelve-pack. At least. If only superheroes were real, she’d find some excuse to be rescued.

Pulling up the hem of her shirt, Tina patted her own modest tummy. She barely had a six-pack, thanks to all that popcorn. “One of these days, Eddie, I’ve got to start working out. You and me, building muscle, what do you say?”

He huffed from the floor where he had curled up.

With buttery fingers, she unfolded a letter. This is an official notice of an unpaid, blah blah blah. Junk. She moved on to the next. Congratulations! You may have already won… Junk. She was about to toss it, when she noticed a peculiar modification to the header. It bore the company name, return address, all the usual crap. But the mailing date had been crossed out with a pen. In its place, not one but two additional dates had been scribbled: Tomorrow, and ten days from now. Since when did human hands ever touch this mass printed junk? And why would they bother?

Staring closer at the chicken-scratch dates, Tina became utterly convinced that was her chicken-scratch. Come to think of it, she did recall receiving a similar letter to this one. Though all junk mail blurred together in memory. But she certainly didn’t remember writing any dates, and couldn’t imagine why she would have done so. Besides, how did it wind up back in her mail?

The letter contained no other clues or oddities. She wasn’t about to break out the lemon juice and search for invisible writing, that was way too much work for a Saturday, but she did hold the paper up to the light. Nothing.

Juggling her popcorn and the letter, Tina flipped the envelope over. Nothing weird about it. Her address, a return address, an Elvis postage stamp, just like the ones she owned… Wait. Using her fingernail, she pried off the stamp.

Just like she thought, it had that pre-sorted mail marking printed right on the envelope. Mass-produced junk mail didn’t use stamps. Someone… she?… had added the stamp in order to mail it to herself again. Not much of a time capsule, to scribble a couple of dates. And what kind of cheapskate reused junk mail?

Tina wasn’t that cheap — even if she did have to pinch pennies to afford Eddie’s premium dog food —  which only convinced her this wasn’t a case of amnesia. Even if the writing looked a lot like her chicken-scratch. And it was definitely the same Elvis stamp.

Tossing it all aside, she groaned and flailed for the remote on the nearby table. Now she really had missed all the good parts. As she hit reverse, she muttered, “Guess we’ll see if it’s a bad omen tomorrow, Eddie. You think the world might end?”

Even if he did, he wasn’t going to let it interrupt his nap.

The next day, Tina couldn’t avoid a heightened awareness of every little thing that happened. Was the date meant to be a warning that her breakfast would turn out simultaneously soggy and burnt? Unfortunately, the list of dates on which that happened — and was likely to happen again — would have been much, much longer.

She thoroughly scanned the newspaper, but it was full of good news like usual. No crime, no wars. A few celebrity feuds, but she expected the world would survive them.

Around midday, someone knocked on her door. Feeling suspicious, she peeked out a window before opening, but it was just the milkman. Nothing strange about that.

Her usual milkman stood on the stoop, wearing a bright smile as always.

“Hi, Jerry. Did I place an order?” Tina pulled out her cellphone and double-checked, but the app had no record of it.

“Nope, but I was in the neighborhood and I figured it must be about that time.” He hefted a basket of bottles.

“It is.” She remembered using up the last of the milk just yesterday. Funny, it completely slipped her mind. Accepting the bottles, she added, “Thank you, Jerry, that was thoughtful of you.”

“You bet. Healthy bones are a team effort. You just do your part.” He winked and tipped his white cap as he walked away.

That evening, Tina enjoyed a glass of cold milk with her freshly baked cookies. Another superhero movie was on, full of phony drama and peril. Somehow, these movies were so artificial — no matter how realistic the CGI — they made the idea of superheroes seem less plausible. Just the way she liked them.

“Well, Eddie, we survived the day. Guess those dates added up to a big nothing.” She munched a cookie and took a long sip of milk.

Eight days later, she’d completely forgotten about the letter and the dates. It had been a terrible day at work, and all she wanted to do was kick off her shoes and make another bowl of popcorn. At least Eddie was there to cheer her up.

She was just getting cozy, when someone knocked on the door. “Really?” She waited, hoping they’d go away.

They knocked again.

With a sigh, she set her popcorn down and trudged to the door, without even checking from the window.

It opened to reveal the milkman. His exuberance was a bit too much today. “Howdy there, Tina! Fine evening, isn’t it?”

“Hi Jerry. A little late for milkmen to be out, isn’t it? Don’t you turn into a pumpkin at dusk?” Tina checked the time on her cellphone, and then frowned. The date prickled her memory.

“I’m a little behind schedule today,” said Jerry. “Then I realized, hey, you forgot to order milk again, and I was-”

“In the neighborhood. Yeah.” She weakly smiled. “What a lucky coincidence.” Tina took the bottles he offered. “Thanks, Jerry.”

Once the door was shut, she chewed her lip. It was the craziest, silliest feeling. After all, Jerry had come around plenty of times before. That’s what milkmen did, and she was forgetful. How could anyone predict what day he’d show up, if it wasn’t on a regular schedule? Last week it was Sunday. Today, it was Tuesday.

She couldn’t bring herself to throw the milk away. But she decided to abstain for a few days. Not long enough to let it spoil. Just long enough to get over her superstitious ideas about those meaningless dates.

That weekend, she settled in for more movies. But this time, she found herself growing impatient with the superheroes. They did everything wrong. It just wasn’t realistic. She had to turn the movie off halfway through.

For some reason, she wandered into her bedroom and looked at herself in the mirror, Eddie tagging along, excited by any break in routine.

Tina saw herself differently, though she couldn’t put a finger on the exact change. Sure, they might not be movie-star-perfect, but her six-pack abs were actually kind of impressive. Her arms, too. Almost inexplicably so, for someone who hardly ever worked out. But instead of thinking “I should really do that someday” or asking Eddie’s opinion, she immediately went to her walk-in closet to change into exercise clothes.

“Do I even own any?” she asked Eddie, rifling through her belongings. She found herself judging her wardrobe by new standards, by how easily they would allow her to move. None of it quite felt right to her, but she wouldn’t let that be an excuse. She pulled on some old sweats, and a beat up pair of sneakers, grabbed Eddie’s leash, and went for a late-night run.

She didn’t know what was a reasonable pace for a beginner, so she began by sprinting a few miles to work up a sweat. Eddie seemed to be having fun, at least.

Making an impulsive decision, it also hadn’t occurred to her it might not be safe. Or that she should at least take precautions, pepper spray, something. Not until a car pulled up alongside her.

A passenger hung out the window and called, “Hey honey, where you going in such a hurry?”

“Get lost,” she yelled, not slowing down.

The car swerved and screeched to a stop in front of her.

She shoved it aside without breaking stride and shook her head. “Assholes.” Eddie barked his agreement.

Tina ran another ten miles to cool down before heading home. A little winded, she returned to her bedroom to change. She felt like wearing something different the rest of the night. In the deepest recesses of her closet, a particular forgotten dress caught her eye. But it was stuck on the hangar, and the hangar was stuck on the rail. She gave it a hard yank and twist.

The closet wall slid open.

In a small hidden compartment, she found a new outfit. A shiny silver one-piece with an elaborate ice-blue cape. It felt very familiar. And it was just what she was looking for. Something powerful stirred on the edges of her memory. Something she’d been made to forget.

That wasn’t all. On a lower shelf, she found a smaller blue cape and a pair of doggles. “Eddie?!”

His tail wagged.

Tina couldn’t help recalling how aggressively the people at the store pushed those premium dog food deliveries on her. “Starting today, I introduce a new resolution: We eat nothing but store-bought junk.”

Eddie barked.

Far away, a man sat atop an angular, black-steel throne.

Countless video monitors and indicator lights filled the chamber, wrapped around the man like a cocoon. A single tiny, insignificant bulb turned red.

The man’s eyebrow twitched.

A moment later, his intercom squawked. “Sir, we have-”

“I see it. Name?”

“Uh, Subject Bitterice…. And dog. They’re fliers.”

Her file appeared on one of his monitors. The dog’s, too. “Do we have them on radar?”

“Negative, sir. Should I summon the night-soldiers?”

His lips curled to expose needle-like teeth. “No. I’ll handle this myself.”

“Y-Yes, sir. I’ll prepare your transport. Right away.” The intercom went silent.

The man glared hatefully at the single red bulb. Soon order would be restored. Perfect order.

***

Thanks for reading!

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