The Surprise

by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

He told her not to follow, and so she stayed on the couch and listened to his footsteps move across the ceiling. The house was short and boxy, like him, and she could visualize each corner, all the places dust and crumbs gathered, and could think of nowhere he could hide. She’d never liked surprises, although in their long life together he had given her a few that had been worth the discomfort. A beaded brooch shaped like a peacock, which went perfectly with her winter dress coat. A silk blouse in deep burgundy that she had coveted in the shop window, too expensive to justify. And the diamond ring, of course, although she’d been embarrassed by how he’d dropped to one knee in the middle of the restaurant, a cliché after their tiramisu. She would have preferred a more intimate arrangement, a dark surprise she wouldn’t have known she wanted until just that moment, an unspooling of her self that only he could do. Happily she would have curled around him in their tangled heap, belly up, but instead she had clasped her hands in front of her throat and grinned until her cheeks ached and he hadn’t known the difference.

He was taking his time. What did he have up there? Back and forth, back and forth, and soon the footsteps began to jolt her. She felt the thump in her chest and wondered if he’d ever stop. Perhaps this was his torture, payback for her lackluster response when he’d said stay here, don’t follow, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth. They had argued after dinner, both prickling for a fight since morning, and then sat sullenly together watching the evening news. She couldn’t pinpoint what had triggered him to get up, blushing, and issue his sheepish command. On the television screen people were dying, but they had been dying for the last twenty minutes and would keep dying for the remaining ten. She’d turned the television off when he left, but she could still sense all the bodies piling up. She stared at her reflection in the screen, a ghostly outline where the newscaster had peered grimly out at the camera, and watched herself uncross her legs and tuck one beneath her so that her heel dug in between. She used to sit like this at school while watching the second hand jerk, the hard bone of her ankle pressing into her painfully, pleasingly, distracting from one building pressure with another. Out the front window the streetlights sizzled, and she could make out the silhouette of the bushes peeking into the room. She imagined herself out there, looking in, and let her features go slack. His footsteps came halfway down the stairs, stopped, and she rearranged her face, checking the ghost in the television, turning her eyes toward the imaginary audience on the front lawn. She slipped her foot out from under her, clasped her hands, pressed them to the base of her throat, and readied herself for the exclamation.

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk is author of the novels Spark and Orion’s Daughters. Her work has appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Five Chapters, among other venues. She is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse and teaches at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Juilliard. More information can be found at www.courtneymauk.com.

What was the surprise for you in writing this piece?

    I began “The Surprise” during a creative dry spell. I’d just finished writing a novel, and after a few aimless weeks, in order to regain some sort of routine, I told myself that I had to write 500 words a day. It didn’t matter what those words were, I just had to sit down and get something out. On my second day of doing this, I was making breakfast when the first line of “The Surprise” came to me. I immediately began writing with no idea who the characters were or where the story was going. I figured it would fizzle out quickly, since I hadn’t been feeling too inspired lately, but the words kept coming and the characters took shape. What I thought would just be a writing exercise transformed into a story, and I’m still a little stunned by this woman and how she emerged from the ether. “The Surprise” gave me my writing mojo back.
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