Flash Fiction by SJ Griffin
Muriel, Stop Worrying
It was 3:41 in the afternoon, so Tony had just reached Pine Street on his walk home from school. 3:46, he would walk down the cross walk and wave genially at Alice, the portly woman in orange who held the stop sign. 3:50, he would pass the Gleesons’ fenced-in house, where his best friend Roger had once lived. 3:53, he would tap piano notes absent-mindedly against his thigh as he looked at Mrs. Hanson’s Music Studio, feeling slightly guilty for not practicing as much as he should that week. 3:58, he would see his home in view and stare at the door, waiting for his mother to come out and bombard him with questions about his day.
Tony hated the pressure his mother placed on him to be her baby. After all, he was now twelve years old, and that must warrant some liberties. However, Tony’s mother apparently had not received the message because she still kissed him and pinched his cheeks as if he were a baby. At the start of this year, she wouldn’t even let him go anywhere without her because she worried too much.
“Muriel, stop worrying,” Tony’s father would always say. “Just let the boy go have fun sometimes. He’s got to, for him to grow up to be an independent, productive member of society.”
Tony felt his pockets growing heavier, dragging him down. Because of this, he made less time than he usually did, which would disrupt his mother’s schedule. She had walked with him so many times in the past few months that she now had the schedule of his return home timed to the second. The only reason she no longer walked with him now was because her husband put his foot down and told her to give the kid a break.
Muriel’s over-protectiveness of Tony put a strain on her marriage that, along with their other marital issues and personal differences, finally forced enough pressure on the delicate string that held them together to make it snap. Tony’s parents were cussing and yelling their problems loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear and gossip about, but they were speaking of divorce proceedings in such hushed tones that the mice couldn’t even make out the words. Tony thought it would never end, but that day he would have found his father standing with Muriel at the door, waiting to speak with him about living arrangements and visitations.
Muriel glanced at the oven clock: 400. She began to worry, but then she remembered she had the pot roast with baby carrots and miniature potatoes in the oven, so it was set to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. She asked her husband to check his watch.
He flicked his wrist. “3:41.”
Pine Street, she thought.
He stared at her creased brow.
“Relax, Muriel,” he said.
Her forehead did not relent, and his temper got the better of him.
“Goddamn it!” he snapped. “Would you stop worrying so much? He is old enough now to be responsible for himself.”
“You promised you would be civil today, Jerry,” Muriel seethed. “The least you could do is help me provide a unified front for this one last time that we’re together.”
He looked like he would protest, but she shut him down.
“For our son, Jerry,” she said. “The divorce is going to make enough changes for him, not to mention everything he’s gone through since January, so we need to be supportive. Together.”
She gave him a pointed look.
He wiped his right palm down the length of his face, dragging down loose skin, lips, nose, and eyes, and nodded silently with closed eyelids, like he was nodding to something he had only said to himself in his mind. He only liked to give his wife recognition when in anger or irritation and hated to ever do so with any sign of civility, but he would let it go today, for Tony.
They settled in their seats at the kitchen table, Jerry at one end near the living room and Muriel at the other end closest to the door, the place where she waited every day around this time. Jerry leaned forward and put his elbows to his knees, head in his hands, to avoid looking at or being forced into conversation with his soon-to-be-ex-wife.
Five minutes passed. Now 3:46, Alice, Muriel thought, picturing the attractively plump middle-aged woman who had such a great attitude and was so good with the kids. Muriel envied Alice her good nature, knowing she could never be so carefree and openly happy, the way Alice lived her life. After the past few months, Muriel felt her family would never be able to achieve that lifestyle.
These thoughts distracted Muriel from the 3:50 check-in.
When next she looked up, she saw the time on the phone said 3:53, Mrs. Hanson’s Music Studio. Mrs. Hanson had always raved about Tony’s talent, which is why Muriel had forced him to continue taking lessons for the three years he had been begging to quit. The only control he held was in the choice to not practice, which made him feel guilty because he was wasting Mrs. Hanson’s time and his mother’s money. Muriel thought he would regret it later in life if he gave up on piano so soon, especially since he was so “gifted.”
3:56, Jerry looked up from his hands and took a peek at his watch, only to settle back down again. Muriel looked over expectantly, like her husband would share the time with her as well, because he wouldn’t have known that she could see the time on the phone from where she sat, but he didn’t tell her. She crossed her arms in annoyance and scooched down in her chair.
3:56, being very late that day, Tony was just passing Roger’s old house. He shuffled along and didn’t think he would actually do it, but, when the entrance to the gate of the house was to his right, he turned in the driveway and climbed over the fence. He sneaked through the yard, stooping behind bushes along the driveway, and swiped the house key from the ceramic toad’s mouth in the flower bed. He walked into the empty house, up the stairs, and picked the lock to Roger’s old bedroom. He cried as soon as he opened the door, and fell to his knees in the center of the room where a giant red stain lived on the carpet.
3:58, Muriel stood by the door with Jerry still sitting at the table behind her, darting her eyes around the trees that obscured the sidewalk from the view from their house. Tony would be emerging through the cracks between branches any second.
3:58, Tony turned out his pockets. He held the gun above his head at arm’s length to examine it, then checked to make sure it was loaded, and slowly but surely lowered it to his temple.
4:00, Muriel ran to the sidewalk to check for Tony. Then she sprinted across the street to see further down his path, and the asphalt burned jagged patterns into her bare feet. When she didn’t see Tony, she ran back inside to grab her phone. 4:05, she called four times before giving up and flying through the house to throw on a bra and shoes. 4:11, she grabbed her car keys from the counter and rushed toward the door.
Jerry snatched Muriel’s arm before she could turn the doorknob. They froze and glared at each other for a while; Muriel fought to catch her breath and masked it as fuming anger.
“Muriel, get a hold of yourself!” Jerry finally snapped.
She jerked her arm out of his grip and realized she hated him.
“Something is wrong!” she screamed, seething. “I can feel it. Either come with me or get the hell out of my way.”
This unprecedented show of force caught Jerry off guard and dulled his anger.
“Goddamn it, Muriel,” he groaned. “It’s been ten fucking minutes. Stop worrying all the—”
Muriel didn’t hear the rest because she slammed the door in his face as she left. She didn’t have time to wait for him to realize Tony was in trouble. It was already 4:16.
She hopped in the car and saw Jerry standing at the door laughing at her. It made her pause for a minute, to wonder if she was crazy, but she knew this feeling of danger. She realized she’d felt it once before, when Tony found Roger’s body back in January.
As soon as that thought popped into her head, Muriel gunned it out of the driveway, nearly hitting a pit bull in the street. It was 4:19. Tony’s entire walk home only took twenty-three minutes, so driving would take about five minutes. 4:20, she strangled the steering wheel like a vice and worried that she’d lost too much time. 4:21, she saw the lights from emergency vehicles parked in front of the Gleesons’ house, she knew deep down that time had run out.
Muriel pulled over, across the street from the Gleesons’ house, and bolted for the house. The yellow tape was already stretched across the open gate, and Muriel would have torn right through it if two cops hadn’t grabbed her.
“I think my son is in there!” she cried as she flailed in the officers’ hold. “Please just let me go!”
“Ma’am, calm down or we will have to cuff you!” one officer yelled, grunting the words as he tried to restrain her.
When she didn’t relent, the other cop said, “You don’t want to go in there.”
That turned Muriel’s body limp and ice-cold, and she fell to the ground because the officers didn’t expect to support her dead weight. They guided her body into a sitting position and left her there on the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry, but he didn’t make it,” one officer said before turning away.
Muriel pressed her hands into her temples to halt the spiraling thoughts, but they flooded relentlessly. She should have told Tony she knew and supported him. Should have told him she would never treat him the way the Gleesons treated Roger, and she would never try to change him. Should have fought harder against Jerry to get Tony into therapy after Roger’s suicide. Should have focused less on her own problems with Jerry. Should have given Tony more freedom. Should have worried less.
No. Every worry was warranted, not crazy. She was right to worry. She could have even worried more. Then maybe things wouldn’t have ended like this.
From that moment on, Muriel decided that no one could tell her to ‘stop worrying’ ever again, not even herself.
SJ Griffin (they/them) is queer, trans, feminist writer and advocate based in North Carolina. They have a BA in psychology, a BFA in creative writing, and a certificate in publishing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. You can find more of their work in Motherwell, Crab Fat Magazine, Semicolon Literary Journal, Mookychick, and more. You can find them on Twitter: @born2blossom.