In this week's story, Life is Good, an angry interaction at a grocery store shows how an idea can comfort one person and offend another.
Suggestions for writing prompts are always welcome! Today's prompt came from more of a random thought about how people can find different meanings in the same statement.
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 36 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Life is Good
As a reminder, here’s how this podcast works: I use a word or phrase as a prompt to write a story—with no planning and very little editing—and then share that story with you.
As a second reminder, I’m happy to get suggestions for writing prompts, so please let me know when you have ideas! Today’s prompt was more of a random thought that came up while considering how some expressions can be inspirational to some people and offensive to others.
Let’s see how that idea played out in a story:
Life Is Good
The store was quiet for a Wednesday morning. Bernie stopped her cart beside an apple bin and readjusted her mask. It was a freshly washed mask from the new pack she’d ordered online, and she hadn’t gotten the ear loops and nose wire positioned just right yet.
Once she’d gotten the loop to stop tugging on her left ear, Bernie looked over the apples and moved on to the green grapes. The selection was slightly better than last week, but still picked over. The remaining bags were okay, but quickly passing into over-ripe territory.
It was fitting, Bernie thought, as nothing had been going right that morning. And, while there were more important things in the world than fresh grapes, they were the one thing she’d been looking forward to buying.
She sifted through the grapes for the best bag and placed it in her empty cart. As she did, Bernie noticed a thin woman in a blue sweater staring at her from across the produce section. The woman’s eyes were narrowed, and her mask twitched as if she were talking to herself.
Bernie shrugged it off and pushed her cart out of the produce section, slowing to avoid knocking over a cookie display as she passed. She was halfway through the bakery when she heard feet running behind her and a sharp voice calling, “Excuse me!”
Seeing no one else around, Bernie stopped her cart and turned to see the woman in the blue sweater closing in on her. The woman’s face was flushed, and her eyes flashed.
She stepped past her stopped cart and pointed a thin finger toward Bernie’s chest.
“What is that supposed to mean?” She accused with a tremble in her voice.
“Um, what?” Bernie glanced around for witnesses, wondering if the woman was dangerous.
“That!” The woman emphasized, still pointing at Bernie accusingly. “What do you mean by that?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Bernie told her.
“Your shirt!” The woman spit, and Bernie was glad she was wearing a mask.
“My shirt?” Bernie glanced down, not remembering which t-shirt she’d thrown on for this quick trip to the grocery store. She hadn’t remembered a jacket either and had been shivering since she’d left the house.
When she saw the shirt in question, Bernie inwardly sighed. It was a shirt she’d gotten the last time they’d gone to the beach. In the center, it had a cartoon drawing of a tropical umbrella drink in a pineapple. Around the drink, cheery lettering said, “Life is good, then you die.”
“Yes, your shirt,” the woman clarified with growing anger. “What is your shirt supposed to mean?”
Bernie checked her watch, seeing she didn’t have much time to finish shopping and make it home for her online staff meeting.
“Is it supposed to be funny?” The woman snapped, crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you think it’s cool to mock death?”
“What?” Bernie rolled her eyes at the woman’s condescending use of the word cool. “It doesn’t mock death.”
“It does.” The woman insisted coldly. “Some of us have lost loved ones and do not think it’s funny to make light of people dying.”
Bernie clenched her fists around her thumbs and forced herself to relax her jaw.
“I do not owe this woman my life story,” she thought to herself while taking a deep breath.
“The shirt means we should enjoy life, that’s all,” Bernie explained with restraint. “Excuse me, I have shopping to finish.”
She turned back to her cart and quickly moved toward the next aisle. Two shoppers came around the corner, and Bernie swerved around them with a polite nod. She could hear the blue-sweatered woman hurrying behind her.
“It’s a very inappropriate shirt!”
An employee stocking soup turned from the shelves to watch the scene play out as Bernie stopped walking and again faced the angry woman.
“You don’t have to like my shirt,” she said as calmly as possible. “That doesn’t give you the right to harass me.”
“I feel sorry for you,” the woman practically growled in contempt. “To think that this life is all we have—or what we should care about the most—when we should be focused on our eternal afterlife.”
Behind her mask, Bernie bit her lower lip hard enough to reopen its fragile surface. She tasted blood as she closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. When she opened her eyes, another employee and two more shoppers were now watching their exchange from the end of the aisle.
Time slowed and a high-pitched whine thread through the moment. Bernie looked at the lone bag of grapes sitting in her otherwise empty cart and felt hot tears sting the corners of her eyes. Blinking them back, she turned to the nearest employee and offered a weak smile that was hidden behind her mask.
“I need to get home for a meeting,” she told him kindly. “Could you please return my cart and these grapes for me?”
Then she spun away and walked rapidly toward the front of the store, blocking out the conversation that followed in her wake. The other employee, the older one from the end of the aisle, called after her, but Bernie only walked faster. She didn’t want his intervention. She had to reach her car before the tears began.
At home, Bernie set her purse and keys on a console table filled with wilting flowers. She washed her hands, poured a glass of water, and fetched a sweater to pull on over her t-shirt.
By the time she settled in front of her computer, her hair was neatly combed, and make-up covered the tracks of tears that had run down her cheeks. It was her second week back at work and, as always, she braced herself to not see the sympathy in her coworkers’ eyes.
When she called into the meeting, a message popped up to say it would begin shortly. She liked to be early, giving herself time to prepare her emotions.
As she waited, Bernie turned to look out the window and caught sight of herself in an adjacent mirror. The sweater she’d grabbed to cover her questionable t-shirt was one of Tom’s. It hadn’t been washed and faintly held his scent.
She imagined what Tom would have said if he’d been in the grocery store with her. She could see him laughing openly at the blue-sweatered woman. Not taking any of it too seriously. She imagined him pleasantly saying to the angry woman, “What do you know about an afterlife? I’m the one who’s dead!”
And she laughed for reasons she couldn’t explain, knowing Tom would be laughing with her if he could. She remembered then, one of the last conversations she’d had with Tom. The one where he’d told her life would still be good without him, sometimes.
“Be sad when I’m gone,” he’d told her. “But not so sad that you stop finding reasons to be happy, too. That’s life, right? It’s good and bad and everything in between. I wish I’d had more time to enjoy the good with you, but don’t stop finding it just because I’m gone.”
Hastily pulling off her sweater, Bernie checked that her t-shirt was visible in the meeting’s preview window. Life is good, she told herself, and then you die… because we all die and that’s part of life. She looked at the framed picture of Tom on her desk. He was laughing in it. Not a polite laugh for the camera, but a full belly laugh that happened to be caught in time.
“Think they’ll like the shirt?” she smirked at Tom’s laughing face and waited for the meeting to begin.
Thanks for joining me today. I never know where these stories will go. Hopefully, that’s as interesting for you as it is for me.
Beyond the podcast, you can also learn more about me and my books on my website, SusanQuilty.com. You can connect with me on social media, or offer your support through Patreon.com/SusanQuilty.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]