Jamie is back to share a short story with us!
Thanks for another visit Jamie!
(Please note: Viral was originally published by Arcadia University’s creative writing magazine “Quiddity”).
Viral – By Jamie Stewart
When he popped the question, the diamond didn’t matter. The fancy champagne he’d tipped into her glass would be gone in a swig. Even Ned’s sappy proclamations were responded to with the appropriate sprinkle of tears and then quickly tucked away for safekeeping.
What mattered most to Ash Ree was the dance. Their first dance.
Videographers, photographers, Facebook uploads, wedding hashtags. Moments like these were immortal now, carved into synthetic stone on the microchips of every iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry in attendance. Whatever she and Ned decided to do for their first dance as husband and wife was sure to be documented forever. People had danced down the aisle to Bruno Mars, executed Baby’s fearless leap, and even staged flash mobs to celebrate their matrimony.
So whatever they did had to be brilliant. And it had to be perfect. Ned had a big family he liked showing off for. And she had a whole cast of fancy new coworkers to impress. As if the paperwork she was doing at the fashion magazine desk job wasn’t intimidating enough.
After Ned fell asleep that night, Ash rolled over to her bedside table. She swiped her thumb across the glass of her phone, eager to turn the brightness down. He had an early day tomorrow and she didn’t want to wake her darling fiancé. She let out a silent squeal as she thought that word. Fiancé. Then she adjusted the settings and admired her glistening rock in the fading light. She felt safe with the promise of forever wrapped around her finger. But it was just a piece of jewelry in the end. The real happiness, she realized, came from knowing the man she loved was equally devoted to her. It sounded sappy. Even thinking it made her blush, but for once Ash didn’t mind. Fiancés were allowed to be sappy.
In the bed beside her, he stirred, roused by the flash of light, but did not wake. Instead, his warm hand cupped the side of her skyward hip in a gesture of unconscious affection. Ash sighed and snuggled in. She was sure whatever they came up with would be great.
With headphones in, she toggled to her “When He Asks” playlist. “The Time Of My Life,” “Unchained Melody,” and a dozen other potentials trickled into her ears, crooning gracefully and delivering her to a dreamland filled with romantic choreography.
The voice was close, but Ash had to peek through the plumage of arrangements on her desk in order to see who was speaking. Zoe Burch’s already plump face swelled even more as she smiled at Ash from behind the pineapple palms of a congratulatory fruit bouquet. Today, Zoe’s bulbous lips wore a slimy layer of bubblegum scented lip-gloss, which was offset by her frosted blue eye shadow. Ash shook her head good heartedly.
“Someone’s gotten into mom’s makeup bag again, hasn’t she?”
The girl revealed her teeth and giggled. At first Zoe defied Ash’s expectations of what her boss’s thirteen-year-old daughter would be like. Ginger Burch was a no-nonsense, black pantsuit wearing, sleek bob cut kind of woman. She had started her career in the fashion industry as a lowly blogger and at the young age of twenty-nine was now the head of The Report, the biggest fashion magazine in the nation. Ginger was as slick and regimented a businesswoman as they come. Ash couldn’t have guessed she’d had the sex drive to reproduce, let alone squeeze out and raise this pigtailed puff of cotton candy.
“Can I watch?” Zoe asked, wrapping a strand of frizzy hair around her pinkie, cutting off circulation to the skin beneath a sparkly gold nail. Despite her unexpected cutie-pie charm, Zoe had quickly won Ash’s heart. She was truly happy with her one friend in the otherwise no-nonsense office. Even if that friend wore scented body glitter and wasn’t technically employed.
Ash rose from her chair. Squatting, she scanned the office for Ginger, her chin tilted high.
“Mom’s not here. She just left for the airport.”
Ash sat back in her chair, weighing the options. Usually, she didn’t mind letting Zoe pull up a few videos on YouTube at the end of the day. She knew Ginger’s dislike for pop music forced Zoe to put up with classical concertos day in and day out. And with Ginger constantly treating Ash like a plebian intern instead of the bona fide worker bee she actually was, Ash considered Zoe’s brief exposure to mind-numbing pop culture her much deserved payback. But now that she was engaged, Ash had wedding bills to think about. She had her job to think about.
“Who is it today?” she asked tentatively, cradling the mouse against her chest. She hadn’t agreed yet. “It’s not last night’s Miley performance, it is?”
Zoe shook her head. The pompoms in her hair elastics bobbled back and forth. “Ed Sheeran’s new music video. Thinking Out Loud.”
“And you’re not gonna tell Mom who let you watch it, right?”
Zoe shook her head again and the pompoms clattered. Ash caved, sliding the mouse over to the teenybopper who rolled up in an empty chair beside her.
While Zoe watched the screen, Ash collected the day’s scattered papers and slid them into the pockets of a plastic organizer. As she packed up to go home, she found herself humming along to the soothing electric guitar and the deep melody it produced. After everything was sorted, her eyes drifted up to the screen where a suited Ed Sheeran was spinning a beautiful dancer around like a seasoned pro. Ash stared, mesmerized by the beautiful way their bodies moved together, melting in and falling back.
From the other music videos Zoe had played, Ash was used to the singer baring nothing but a loop pedal and his alluring voice. But, sure enough, here he was prancing around like he’d been dancing his whole life. He caught every limb, aced every hold, nailed every lift. The entire dance was like one ubiquitous flow of movement. A perfect harmony. The song screamed romance. This was it.
This dance. These would be their first steps as husband and wife. As she watched the video, Ash let the idea marinate, feeling it cement in her mind. Yes. If they could master the ballroom number, Ned’s swing-dancing parents would finally approve of Ash. The other ladies in her office would finally stop giving her grief for her “erm, practical” flats. If a non-dancer like Ed Sheeran could look that elegant mid-twirl, surely an engineer, ex-wrestler who hiked on the weekends and a secretary/yoga instructor-in-training could pull it off. They just had to practice.
They started that night. Ash prepped, laying out sweat rags and water bottles on the kitchen table of their tiny apartment while Ned cued up the video in the living room. With the couch hanging halfway out of the hall bathroom and the rug rolled up in a corner, they had an open space of cooperative hardwood flooring to learn the routine, ignoring the pile of discarded Chinese food containers from dinner.
“Ready?” Ash asked him with a smile, wiping off the salty chicken residue and replacing it with a sheen of translucent lip-gloss. She was channeling Zoe. The look, the Sheeran, and even the secrecy. They had made a vow not to tell anyone about their surprise dance tribute.
“Sure, but after this we have to call the caterers. And the florists. Apparently petunias won’t be in season.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she consented, waving the to-dos away for the moment with a swipe of her hand. “But for the next half hour you’re my Suffolk Swayze. Let’s dance.”
She said the same thing three hours later after he’d finished the last egg roll and drained his third bottle of Gatorade. And a week later after a Sunday afternoon practice session. And the Wednesday night the following month.
“Hun, I gotta stop,” he replied then, gripping his knees, the tendons bursting out through the skin. “You know what it does to my knee.” She nodded and stepped back from the hold they’d been working on. He’d been benched in college after tearing his IT band in a championship match and these days even his hikes were getting shorter. The constant tension from dancing wasn’t helping either. She could feel his body tremble that night each time he’d tried to hoist her up. But they only had one more combination to master, the final lift where he would flip her over his shoulder. Just one more lift and the dance would be perfect.
“Are you sure? Come on, we almost have it.” She tightened her ponytail.
“No, I can’t. Not tonight. Not any night. I’m sorry,” he said, backing away from her and looping a towel across the back of his slippery neck.
“Alright, we’ll stop there for tonight. But you’ll get it, Ned. It’s only one more lift. We just have to put everything we have into it.” High on sweaty endorphins, she wanted to run the routine ten more times. She could feel his parent’s approval right there, just out of reach. She couldn’t stop now. If she did, it might disappear forever. She bent down, stretching her calves.
“Why don’t we just do it without the final lift?” he asked, a small trace of pain in his tired voice. His knee was still ablaze with angry, inflamed veins pulsating just beneath the skin. Ash could see how much pain he was in. Her heart sank. She’d never impress anyone without a perfect routine. But the grimace on his face wore her down. So she wouldn’t be perfect. So what?
She conceded, sighing a little and giving him a sideways head nod.
“Good.” He sounded relieved. On his way back from stuffing the greasy take out cartons in the trash, he approached and kissed her on the temple. “You coming to bed?”
“No, you go ahead. I’ll join you later. I’m gonna keep at it.”
“Alright,” he shrugged off down the hallway, lifting his strong knee over the sofa that blocked the path to their bedroom and guiding the other knee over slowly.
The wedding was in a month now. Every night they ran through the finalized, lift-less routine to keep the steps fresh in their minds. But as the weeks went on, Ash could feel Ned’s knee growing stronger. He executed the steps boldly, gripping her firmer as he guided her body through dips and twirls. Their dance wouldn’t echo in the chats of envious wedding circles, but it would be clean and polished. And Ash was happy.
On Ash’s last Friday at work before the ceremony, Zoe came up to her desk, chewing on a candy necklace and grinning with dubious excitement.
“Oh my god, Ash, guess what,” she stated, slapping her hands down on the work surface.
Ash checked off a trio of related emails and deleted them, moving through her to-do list.
“What’s that?” she asked absentmindedly.
“Mom just dumped her latest boyfriend. I overheard her on the phone. Apparently he was getting a little too friendly with her assistant, if you know what I mean.” Zoe crunched down on a pastel pearl and licked the chalky candy powder from her lips.
“You don’t say.” Ash continued scanning over the spread for next month’s issue of The Report, meticulously checking for spelling errors or uncredited photos.
Zoe stretched out the candy-covered bungee string, sizing up her next victim. She selected a baby blue flower charm and bit down.
“Yup. She said she’s gonna be at you wedding after all. She wants to start hunting for a new boy toy. And I haven’t even told you the best part yet. She said I could be her date!”
Ash looked up from the screen, staring blankly at Zoe.
“Your mom is coming to my wedding,” she said. “Your mom who suddenly needs a new assistant she can trust not to fool around with her male friends. Your mom who doesn’t let you listen to pop music.” She could feel the weight of her mistake sinking in. Being Ginger’s personal assistant would pave the way for her future. She could finally move beyond her desk job at the magazine. She could have a real foot in the fashion world.
But if Ash twirled around at her wedding to the song she’d rehearsed, she’d never have a shot at getting on her boss’s good side, if the woman even had one. Ginger was so specifically uptight that Ash didn’t even bother offering her pens anymore. She’d tried Paper Mate, Sharpie, and even a fancy ballpoint one from her college literary society. Nothing. But this could be even worse than an inadequate writing utensil offering. If Ginger found out about Ash’s clandestine musical arrangement with Zoe, she could get herself canned. Especially if the recently single Ginger was still on a rage-induced firing binge.
Zoe shook her head. “Mom actually likes Ed Sheeran. She’ll let me listen to in the car. I showed her his video and she was impressed by the dance. She liked the flippy-lift at the end.”
Ash felt like she was going to faint. Or throw up. Or both. She fell backwards heavily into her chair as Zoe skipped off, mentioning something about pilfering the leftover sushi from the conference room.
Ash still hadn’t managed to catch her breath by the next evening as her mother tightened the bust of her dress, just minutes before the big dance.
“Mom, I don’t know if I can go through with this,” Ash said, feeling the butterflies beating up against the inside of her ribcage.
All she could think about was her Ginger watching as she skirted the final combination. Watching her scrimp. Watching her chicken out. Who would want an assistant, let alone an employee, that gave her second best? Not a magazine icon like Ginger Burch, that’s for sure.
But what about Ned’s knee? They’d never nailed the routine with all the lifts. His knee was always too weak to hold her. If she tried it, she could really hurt him.
But if she didn’t go for the final lift, she could kiss her shot at a promotion goodbye. Then she’d be stuck at her desk and he’d be married to a quitter.
When she stepped out onto the dark dance floor, she couldn’t see the faces in the crowd. Then Ned came out from the shadows and took her hand as the music started and the lights clicked on. He twirled her around, showing off his bride to the crowd. Then he stopped her.
In the perfect position for her to notice the now illuminated face of Ginger. Smiling.
Ash watched Ginger shift a beaded clutch into the crook of her arm and add to the swell of applause. Then she glanced down and shared a smile with Zoe, who was standing by her side.
As Ned twirled her, Ash felt the future spiraling out in two different directions. They aced the synchronized hand movements. He caught her swaying body. She grazed his broad shoulder. A chorus of awed whispers emerged as the crowd recognized the choreography and realized what the happy couple was doing. Oh, how lovely! How hard they must have practiced! How well they’d managed to keep the dance a secret!
The steps took Ash closer to the edges of the dance floor and she was able to see more faces, all stretched into smiles of pure delight. This was it; they were doing it. They were making theirs a wedding everyone would remember.
But there was only one way to keep it up. They had to do the whole routine if she wanted to impress Ginger. She spun back to Ned’s ear and started to whisper.
“Babe, I want t-” A spin, three steps. Apart and then back together. “ooo do the li-” Ash had memorized the dance so well that she wasn’t even thinking about what her body was doing. Just her mind. And her mind was made up. They were doing the final lift.
But he hadn’t heard her over the roaring cheers that arose from the crowd. And now they were apart again. She couldn’t repeat her heads up. As she executed her steps, she tried desperately to catch his eye, but he was too busy playing to the crowd, milking every minute of his time in the spotlight, just as they’d practiced.
As the beat hit, she started for him.
She slid to the side, lining her body up with his. She placed her hands carefully on his chest. And then, putting it all on the line, she squatted and jolted herself up into the air.
Ash didn’t know what she was expecting to happen, if she thought the fall would be sudden and knock the wind out of her, or if she thought he would buckle under her unexpected weight and create a pile of limbs on the shiny floor. But neither scenario happened, because he lifted her. With firm and strong hands, like the ones he’d placed on her hip the night he proposed. He flipped her up and she sailed over his shoulder. Then she slid down, touched the floor, and together they twirled around the center of the room, fluid and harmonious as a well-oiled machine. And, as the song ended, Ned laid down next to her on the floor to end the dance.
“I never trusted you anyway,” he said, kneeing her with something cold and hard.
“Wha-” She drew back against the unexpected chill.
“It’s my dad’s old swing brace,” he smirked, whispering under the cover of wild applause. “I guess we both came out here with surprises, huh?” Then he kissed her and everything was perfect.
Until Ash stood to greet her grinning guests and found that two had gone missing.
“Zoe?” Ash called, holding up a finger to Ned who nodded and turned back to receive their adoring fans. Ash turned and cleared the reception hall before heading to check the bathroom. There, she found Ginger leading a very green-faced Zoe out of the third stall.
“Oh. Hi dear,” Ginger said, leading her daughter to the sink as Ash burst into the room.
“What happened?” Ash asked, flustered. “Did you guys miss the dance?”
Zoe nodded. “Bad sushi,” she said, wiping rogue chunks from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“Oh no, here honey. Use this.” Ginger pumped a towel from the dispenser and ran it under cold water. “Cornelia has some calls to make on Monday, that’s for sure,” she said bitterly.
“Cornelia?” Ash inquired meekly.
“My new assistant,” Ginger replied, traces of tension still lingering in her voice. “That’s the only good thing that’s came out of this horrendous ordeal.” Ginger gestured in a spiral with her hand, indicating the past few minutes. “She called from the temp agency just now while I was holding back Zoe’s hair. Looks like my kind of worker, too. Burning the oil on a Saturday night. This chick’s got drive.”
As her daughter finished up at the sink and tossed the damp paper into the trash, Ginger steered Zoe out of the bathroom through the swinging door. “See you on Monday, Amber,” Ash’s boss called from over her shoulder.
When they were gone, Ash just stared at the door, watching the wood grain slab thwap back and forth, congruent with the beats of disappointment that sounded in her heart. After a while, Ned poked his head into the ladies room to find her standing there. He neared, a loving smile on his face and the keys to their honeymoon getaway car in his upturned palm.
“Need a lift?” he asked.
Want more info about Jamie?
See her interview for A New Look On Books: https://anewlookonbooks.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/march-writers-feature/
Or visit her website at: xojamiestewart.wordpress.com
Or find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/xoJamieStewart