This story is by Joyce-Eliah Dean and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nia’s eyes examine her crypt. Its ghost white walls hover in the spaces where friends and family should stand, and an idle rocking chair beside the bed taunts without end. The withered bouquet and lone card moping in the corner look especially outcast today.
She digests the entirety of her legacy.
It started freshman year of college, the day she emptied the contents of her soda bottle inside an unattended backpack in the hallway. The owner of the backpack, a bigoted jackass with a fondness for guns, had unleashed on her a small-minded tirade in the middle of sociology several weeks prior.
That day, in class humiliated and seething, the gloss of the past five years cracked, exposing a lingering plague just beneath the surface. It demanded justice.
Nia spent the remainder of college doling out penalties to anyone who, under any circumstance, offended her—no one was safe. She was reckless with fallible friends and plotted against classmates like wartime enemies.
Every act fed the affliction, and her body widened to accommodate its growing presence. Kneading and wringing occupied her stomach daily. Still, she submitted to its presence.
By grad school, Nia’s circle had dwindled to one flimsy friendship. Prissy and ever-smiling, Chastity mostly annoyed Nia, but it was her harsh feedback of Nia’s presentation that riled Nia’s affliction.
“I think you need to flesh out your points a bit more bc that was disordered and confusing.” she’d written on the evaluation rubric. Nia recognized the handwriting.
By then, the plague had rotted through all the resilient parts of Nia. The words landed on her weeping, inflamed pride like salt pellets.
Then, not two months later, giddy and dancing, Chastity invited Nia to her wedding as if nothing happened.
A grim diagnosis that Chastity’s father had received the year prior, added a special significance to her wedding. But Nia’s affliction was uncompromising in its demands.
Ten minutes before the wedding, cowering behind an outhouse in an exquisite park, Nia dialed 911 from a burner phone. Then, in the same voice she’d practiced, assumed the role of a staff member taken hostage by gunmen. They were, Nia said, upset about a same-sex wedding on city property.
Pre-recorded gunshots played in the background for effect.
“And they have bombs!”
Nia looked around to ensure no one had spotted her and hung up. She joined the rest of the guests and waited for the chaos to unfold.
Minutes later, shock and confusion shattered the tender stillness. A flurry of men in padded black suits, carrying guns the size of toddlers overwhelmed the humble gathering.
Nia, hiding her smile, stood back near the pond where she’d tossed the phone. When she turned away to snicker, behind her, a frail, mottled man was holding Chastity, wiping tears from her distressed face. His own face equally distressed.
The loss on their faces gripped Nia’s chest and jabbed at her stomach. She could never look at Chastity again.
After the wedding, the kneading in her stomach turned to gnawing. Medicine proved useless and doctors found nothing. When exploratory surgery was Nia’s only remaining option, her doctor suggested that she consider causes “other than physical ones”.
Nia shrugged off the suggestion, because she hadn’t done anything wrong. Nothing was bothering her.
Aaron, a pompous dud with an unfortunate face, had one redeeming quality—an appreciation for modest, chubby women. He particularly liked Nia’s shape because she wasn’t what he called “sloppy fat”.
That had been enough for Nia.
Despite his flaws, Nia prided herself on being among the few women he considered respectable enough for his attention. Her affliction preferred the company of other suffering souls.
She grasped their relationship with the fullness of her strength. Even as the relationship collapsed under the weight of their confusion, Nia held on, withstanding his insults and dismissals.
The affliction left the relationship on its terms when Nia accepted a job in a neighboring city and kept the news from Aaron.
On their last night together, as Aaron lie sleeping, Nia snuck out of his apartment carrying with her his cherished keepsake box.
She changed her number and moved the next day.
The items in the box amounted to two hundred years of family history entrusted to Aaron, the eldest of five. Sitting in her new apartment, Nia sorted the items into three piles: sell, keep, burn.
Months later, she ran into an old colleague who said Aaron had come there looking for her.
“He seemed kind of panicked. You might want to reach out to him,” she said. Worry blanketed her face.
Nia smiled with her lips only and continued twiddling a necklace that belonged to Aaron’s grandmother.
When she learned of Aaron’s suicide months later, Nia assured herself that no one would kill themselves over an old box. Still, she joined a church and devoted herself to work so she could think about something else.
Nia’s energy and commitment to her job resulted in a swift promotion and the esteem of her colleagues and herself. But her affliction proved fragile under pressure.
A gust of change brought in an inadequate leadership team with mediocre ideas and difficult personalities. Nia took particular offense to Erica and Mariette.
Work became a warzone, the conditions of which deteriorated with each battle.
She died on a decidedly foolish hill.
The disagreement (took place) in a meeting. Once again, Erica and Mariette introduce a middling and inefficient idea, and once again, Nia spoke up.
By the battle’s end, Nia lie eviscerated at a crowded conference table.
“At this point, you’re hanging on to your employment by a thread.” Erica finished her rant, and Mariette challenged Nia with a stare.
Nia kept her head down in surrender, but the affliction thrashed, oozing shame and fresh ire.
Reckoning came by the name of Lord VX, a jack of all criminal trades she found while lurking on the Dark Web. His services started at $50,000.
Nia, prudent with the money she’d saved on social gatherings over the years, exhausted all her savings and handed over the only remaining fruit her life had yielded.
They attacked Mariette first. A search of her email uncovered a secret pill and gambling addiction draining her family’s finances.
“Addiction is a perfect motive for theft,” Lord VX explained.
With keystrokes, he orchestrated an embezzlement scheme that framed Mariette as its mastermind. Months later, an audit led authorities to Mariette’s door, and the investigation outed her struggles to the public.
Mariette maintained her innocence, but few people believed the pleas of an insolvent addict with seldom-scrutinized access to money.
The death of Erica’s mother plunged Erica into a searing conflict with her siblings over whether to sell their parents’ estate.
Erica referred to the sale of her parents’ home as a “life-changing opportunity” for a debt-free life. Her well-off siblings valued sentimentality over profit and refused to sell.
Erica shared the family’s turmoil daily at work, unknowingly setting the backdrop for a disastrous insurance fraud scheme.
“All I need is the address,” Lord VX responded when Nia updated him on the situation.
The weekend Erica visited her parents’ estate, Lord VX followed. He watched from a distance, waiting for her to leave so he could safely execute his plan.
That Friday, Nia drove four hours to cheer on the mammoth firestorm that engulfed the home. On Monday, she found out about Erica’s nine-year-old niece that was visiting her at the estate that weekend.
“She takes medication and just couldn’t wake up,” someone explained. “She didn’t make it out.”
Nia’s battered conscience bled every day. Meanwhile, her affliction curdled and thickened into a mass and burrowed in her gut.
“This thing is aggressive and rare. You’ll do better with support,” the doctor pleaded.
After the diagnosis, Nia’s nightmares about her parents’ murder worsened, as did her fury toward the fugitive gunman. Her body rapidly deteriorated under the affliction’s spread.
Back at work, wary donors withdrew their support following the deluge of negative press. The organization’s final contribution languished in the corner.
As she scans her dreary room, the weight of her parents’ words settle in her stomach.
You’re only the sum of the things you do, baby girl. She hadn’t fully understood until just now in the clarity of true powerlessness.
In the prolonged spaces between her rattled breath, she can make out the evening news.
“…community struggling to fill the need after the popular women’s organization closed last year amid a flurry of accusations and suspicions…”
As lightlessness encircles her vision, Nia finally accepts the miserable sum of all she will get to do.
Her eyes fall on a barren tree, stark and frightening against the fiery sunset.
The bed falls away from her gaunt body, and in a final act of deference to her affliction, she surrenders her place under the sun.