Whitewash -- A Short Story

in #writing4 years ago

The day Stella died, she hadn’t packed a travel bag. Didn’t think she’d need it, not today. Any other time, she would have brought makeup and a change of clothes. Now, when some poor sod found her sprawled on the floor with her hands still clutching her throat, she’d be wearing day-old underwear and a rumpled pantsuit, with melted makeup and legs covered in stubble. Nice. Just the way she’d always wanted to go out—dressed like a hairy bag lady with mascara smeared on her cheeks.

What a mess she’d gotten herself into. Seriously—who dies at forty-two? Car crash victims. Cancer patients. Elvis Presley. And her, obviously. Stella studied what was left of herself lying on the floor. Not much to see—middle-aged businesswoman with blue lips, sprawled with legs akimbo and eyes fixed on nothing. But too young to check out like this—who knew Chinese takeout could kill you?

Uncle Ted had died in his forties. Salacious bastard—finally drank himself to death. Turned the bottle up one day and bam, hit the ground. Didn’t even twitch, they said. Now there was a man worth more dead than alive, at least to his family. He’d scored big on the coal boom back in the seventies and hadn’t managed to invest it all in Jim Beam. Left his estate to his two girls, but not a dime to his boy. Guess he figured he owed them payment for all their services rendered while growing up.

But Stella wasn’t Uncle Ted. She’d been a hard woman, led a hard life. Overcame a backwoods education and family scandal to succeed in a man’s world. Not fair that this should happen. This should have been a quick round-trip to corporate headquarters in Atlanta, and she’d have been home in time for the last half of NCIS.

Then her return flight got cancelled. Delta offered a red-eye, but also had a direct leaving at nine a.m. A good night’s sleep sounded better than an aisle seat in coach. That decision, along with a half-chewed piece of General Tso’s chicken, led to this—and now…well, shit. At this point, her best hope was that somebody would notice her missing and trace her credit card activity before guests in the next room complained about the smell.

Might as well forget her shoes, her purse, her keys—not like she could pick them up anyway. Leave it all and just go, somewhere. But which direction? Up? Down? Stella glanced around the room. Maybe sideways. Through the door, just like she came in.

Or not. When she’d arrived at the hotel earlier, she’d slipped her card key in the lock, turned the handle when the green light blinked on, and pushed the door. Now she simply fell through it. Fell without landing, fell without hitting anything. Fell right into an outside world that looked much the same as the world she’d known her whole life, except now it seemed distant, like an overlay. As if she could look hard enough and see right through it.

“Hello, Stella. It’s been a long time.”

The voice nearly startled her right back through the door. But she stood her ground, trying to find its source. There—leaning against one of the support posts for the motel’s overhang—oh, dear Lord. No way this boded well for her. In fact, it might be the worst possible news about where she was headed next.

“Uncle Ted?”

“Just thought I’d check on you. This can be a tough adjustment.”

She scowled at him. “Why do you even care?”

He smiled, but it was tight-lipped and terse. “You never knew me as an adult, Stella. You were just a kid when I died.”

Wow. Just like that. No euphemisms or anything, just the word, matter of fact, no flinching. Maybe only the living felt squeamish about death.

In the darkness she studied him, half-hidden in the shadows of the overhang. He looked like she remembered, with buzz-cut hair growing in a ring underneath a bald, freckled pate. Small eyes, full cheeks. Blocky torso, with hairy arms and thick, work-roughened hands. Hard to imagine how his daughters felt, trapped underneath him, too small to fight back effectively, and too afraid of the consequence to fight back at all. “I knew enough.”

Something flickered in his eyes, twitched across his features. Almost like she’d poked him with a hot iron, but he was too damned stubborn to react. “You don’t know everything you think you know about that.”

“I know all I want to know about it.” She stepped around him, headed toward the parking lot. Then she stopped, both arms wrapped around herself to control the first shiver of anxiety. “I have nowhere to go.”

A rustle under the canopy told her he had moved, and a second later he appeared at her elbow. “Walk with me.”

She fell in step beside him, reluctant at first, but her relief at making human contact was stronger than her need to hate him. They moved silently across the parking lot, toward an open field where airport approach lights hulked on large steel frames.

“Rose and Angel never forgave me,” he said. “And I definitely failed them. But not the way you believe.”

Stella shot a quick glance sideways at him. He wasn’t looking at her. He kept his head down, watching where he walked. “Uncle Ted, everybody knows what you did to those girls. It’s why Social Services stepped in—it’s why Angel, Rose, and Devin went to foster care. All that’s a matter of public record.”

“Is it?” He met her stare, held it for a few beats, then dropped his gaze back to the ground. “Have you ever seen those records?”

Stella blinked. Actually, no. She hadn’t.

“People believe what they want to believe,” he said. “Give them a story with a few gaps, and they’ll fill them with the easy answers. It’s human nature. We all do it.”

“So what are you saying?”

He stopped walking. Stella took a few more steps, then retraced them so they stood face to face as the engines of a 747 screamed overhead.

“I’m saying the worst thing a father could ever have to do is choose between his children.” His small, pale eyes held a damp shine. “I loved them all, even Devin. I thought we could handle it as a family, without being destroyed in the process. I didn’t see the signs even after I started looking for them. And the girls wouldn’t come to me about it, because they knew the only thing I’d do is tell them to lock their doors at night.”

Devin. Stella’s chest felt tight, like it had right before she couldn’t feel it any more at all. She started to suck in a deep breath, but the urge passed. It wasn’t oxygen that she needed now.

“I was already in my forties by then.” Uncle Ted ran a hand over his bald head. “Devin had his whole life ahead of him. So I took the hit. I thought maybe—just maybe—he could salvage something of himself and make it right, even if he couldn’t make any of it up to his sisters. But I was wrong.”

Stella closed her eyes, remembering the day the grainy dash-cam video hit social media—Devin, two weeks out of his latest ten-year stretch in lockup, surrounded by state police officers with their guns drawn. He ignored everything they told him to do, including the order to keep his hands away from his coat. He reached for something underneath it and that was the end of Devin. Taxpayer-funded euthanasia—suicide by cop.

“I could have protected them,” Uncle Ted said. “I knew what he’d done, and what he’d probably do again. But he was my son, and I loved him.” He shook his head. “It’s too late for me. I made my choices. But it’s not too late for you. The only thing holding you here is all that anger you carry. I was just a small part of it. You let that go, and you’ll be on the next flight out.”

In the sky, landing lights beamed down on them as another heavy-bodied jet made its approach. Stella shielded her eyes, squinted in that direction for a moment, then looked back at Uncle Ted. “What about you?”

Half of his mouth twitched upward. “Why do you even care?”

“Because….” She let the sentence trail off. “Because I just do.”

The light was blinding her now, and she blinked hard, trying to stay focused on Uncle Ted. But the powerful beam had whitewashed him, and all she could see was an outline in negative where he’d stood only seconds before.

“Thank you, Uncle Ted,” she whispered to the empty field. Then she turned and stepped into the light.


Very nicely done. I enjoyed the pacing and descriptions. You are clearly very disciplined in terms how much info to fill in for the reader in terms of what happened to Ted and his kids. It's got an honest and organic feel that makes you trust the author. I would be willing to bet that you yourself have gone through something that parallels this.

I liked the length of the story too.

One thought, when he says that she just has to let go of her anger, I thought at first that if she did, that her throat might loosen and she'd spit the chicken out. I see that you left that in the air but I'm inclined to believe that he's stuck in purgatory or limbo and that she's gone on to heaven.

Either way, the thought was there. Very impressive.

Thank you! I hope you come back to the Workshop tomorrow. I have some things I want to run past you. :-) I think you'll like.

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I really enjoyed reading this. The idea that the first person you meet when you die is the black sheep of the family is an intriguing one. I could only imagine which of my Uncles would be waiting to greet me.

LOL! I know, right?

For a short story this packed a lot in for me. I love it.
You have a rare 100% Muxxy vote my sweet

I love Muxxybox. And I heart you, @GMuxx. :-)

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By all means, please share. :-) And thank you so much! I absolutely accept.

Loved this read @rhondak! I'll be looking to your stories to help my writing evolve. Remember, be yourself, because nobody else does it better -- Full #Steem ahead :)

Much ❤

Thank you!!! :-)

wow...nice shottt

Thank you!

Like I said on Discord, absolutely excellent! I would have commented and upvoted sooner, but work decided to intervene lol. You're an incredible writer, and I am honored to have you in my corner the way you are in all the rest of our corners. Thank you for all that you do @rhondak!

Thank you! I did get excellent help with this in the Workshop, which says a lot about the entire team, not just me. A team that YOU are part of and have helped create. :-)

Really good story Rhonda. Loved the imagery. The underlying idea was beautifully executed. This is the kind of writing I hope to be able do do one day.
Smiling. Heading to discord. Need to be near the teacher. Lol. (Can I bribe you with an apple?)

You already DO write like this. :-) You are so humble and sweet -- and freaking hilarious -- but you don't realize the depth of your own talent. Thank you for the kind words, Jhagi! And the support, and the friendship. . . .

Smiling. Always glad to bring the funnies. Thanks Rhonda. You really are a lovely soul. The friendship was instant, the support understood. We get through life helping one another. When I grow up, (if I ever do) I want to be like you.

Awww! You never fail to make me smile. So glad we found each other in this crazy Steemit/Discord world. :-)

Great narrative -- not easy to keep such a complete story line so tight, descriptive and engaging. Thanks for posting -- I hope it gets around.

Thank you!

This is a hard hitting story. I read it twice just to let it sink in. The inner conflict at the center of it is a powerful one and, if I may, distills one of the key traits of Greek tragedy. No matter what our intentions are, can we see the consequences of our actions? Are we sometimes forced into situations where there is no good answer and all roads lead to guilt, so we try to pick what seems to be the best path.... Only to find out we were horribly wrong? At the core there is the radical insecurity of the human condition, where there is no rule book and we're all just humming when we don't know the words. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we may break through by changing how we view life rather than inventing new ways to control and ultimately resent it.

Yes! Exactly. You nailed it, candidfolly. The other thing that struck me even as I was writing this story is that the inner conflict doesn't belong to the main character as much as it does to the antagonist. Yes, Stella has an arc, but it's Ted's journey we feel the deepest. :-)

Hey, the Workshop team edited this today! They did a super job.

I should bring something to workshop. I've been pouring most of my time into my serialized story, which might be hard to workshop because it isn't self contained. I've been thinking about resurrecting some old material that I think has good bones but is a real fixer upper.

As long as we start at Chapter 1, we're good. We have a lot of serialized stuff coming through there. :-)

Are you a fan of Walter Kaufmann by any chance? He wrote the definitive book on Greek and Shakespearian tragedy IMHO and it is actually useful for regular joe writing (calling myself the regular joe here, not your eminance :-) ).

I think the part of the story that sucked me in the most was the emotional roller coaster associated with how the reader originally feels about Uncle Ted. Hate, then forgiveness and finally appreciation.

Yeah, he had some surprises for us, didn't he? LOL

upvoted and resteemed

Thank you! :-)

Awesome. So well done...although I feel like offering praise to our resident mentor and fearless (mostly) leader is a little redundant, but still. :)

No, the (mostly) fearless leader produces solid work because of feedback from the same group she slaps with the Red Pen of Doom. LOLOL!

Oh wow. I don't even know where to start. The story within the story, the description of how she died, transitioning into her after death seamlesslym ending it with a natural way for her to step into the light.

This was damn good!

Coming from The Freak, that's some darn high praise. (and for those who don't know, he' s "The Freak" because no normal person wakes up one morning and randomly starts writing five-star material like he did, unless they're a genetically altered mutant or from another planet altogether.) Thank you, mk40!

As soon as I finished it I went to drop in my OCD nomination comment...and was kicking myself that gmuxx got to it first! This is a gold mine for the project!

LOL! Yep, GMuxx was there in the Workshop when I was getting feedback so he had a good running start.

Powerful story. The way you intertwine the before and after, or life and death elements around the notion of flight works so well. Really enjoyed this.

Thank you, naquoya! :-)

I loved this intriguing story! I also loved how you used the beam of light from the airplane in her transitioning. Nice!!

Thank you! :-)

I like the take on the title and the way it reminds us that whitewashing doesn't always mean making something sound good, but perhaps sound slightly less terrible.

Very true, that.

this is an epic story, great going!

Thank you soooo much, @jznsamuel. For everything. :-)

Wow. This was excellent.

Thank you!!! :-)

Excellent. Not only do you get me as your 300th follower, but you also scored a 100% Shanehug!

Doubly awesome! I heart Shanehug. :-)

There are so many things about this story that I love. I felt the disgust and anger that Stella felt for her uncle. Then I was shocked by the reveal that it was actually Devin (I immediately thought "oh that's why he didn't leave him anything"). And the way she changed how she felt about her uncle at the end. It wasn't forced. It felt right. And I was right there with her.
Thanks for sharing.

Thank you so much! I love hearing about the reactions readers have, so I very much appreciate you sharing your thoughts about the Devin reveal. :-) I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Uncle Ted already was a negative image before Stella was blinded by the light. So he was whitewashed in her sight -purified and cleansed, or seen aright? So much of what we see is out of focus, and so little time to set it right. GOOD WORK

Thank you! I appreciate that so much. YES. Perfect analysis there. :-)

Wow. You are extremely talented. I would honestly love to join the workshop sometime, if you guys would have me, and learn how to become a better storyteller - this moved me....I feel as if I can relate to this personally.

Definitely a well-deserved OCD nomination for this.

And I don't know if I pissed you guys off or left a sour taste in your mouth from before on Discord a few weeks back, but - I want to say that if I've offended or left a bad impression, that I apologize for that.

I'd really be humbled to learn how to improve my writing and I feel like you'd be the one to ask to critique and look to for pointers. I wish to start writing some short stories/fiction and move away from the dark dramatic shit from my past that I dwelled on initially.

Let me know. I am resteeming this too - it's that freaking good.

Thank you @fatpandadesign. You're welcome at the workshop any time. I tend to avoid drama so I'm pretty clueless about anything that may have happened a few weeks ago. So there's no weirdness here. Just pop in anytime. :-)

The master at work. Will study and learn a few tips.

Haaahaha. LOL! You're funny. I was kinda pleased with how this one turned out, though.

Thank you, @hopehuggs. Miss you in the Workshop. It's really hoppin' these days!

Yep I had a peep in there earlier after reading this. Will get back to writing my bus story, I might aim for 10 people rather than 30 to start, then come back and expand it at a later date if it needs it and I can (almost) perfect the show and tell.

Wow. Just wow. I could not stop reading it. Well done! Upvoting, resteeming and following!

Thank you, @Crystalize! Followed back. :-)