writing prompt

Sometimes to get things moving I set myself a little goal. I took the prompt below and wrote for an hour, and this is what I came up with.

From The Writer’s Book of Matches:

Tell me what happened right before impact, ma’am.

In the blue-white light of the emergency room the woman looked as though she had been dipped in bleach. Colorless eyes, pale skin, lips the color of old liver. By the date on her driver’s license she fifty-six, but she looked older. Accidents could do that to people, even if they walked away without a scratch. As this one — Jim looked at his clipboard — as June B. Ambrose had.

She said: “Ninety-eight.”

Jim started out of his thoughts. “You were going ninety-eight miles an hour on I-5?”

“No. Certainly not. I don’t know exactly how fast I was going, but no faster than anyone else. You know how it is at rush hour, you fit in and flow along. Anything else is asking for trouble. A non-driver simply doesn’t understand these things. My sister certainly didn’t, she would insist on instructing me.”

She had a nervous little smile and a tic at the corner of her mouth. “That’s not what you wanted to know?”

“The doc checked you out, right? No concussion?”

“I’m not sure it was a doctor. It might have been one of those — what do you call them. PAs? Physician assistants. She was wearing a choker, the kind that were popular back in the seventies? Black velvet with a silver–”

The headache that had been hovering behind his eyes sparked and caught. Jim cleared his throat. “Ma’am. I realize you’ve had a great shock, but I do need to get this information down.”

Her hands rose and then fluttered back to her lap.

“Let’s start from the beginning. You were driving north on I-5 at about four o’clock, traveling in the HOV lane.”

She nodded.

“And you were going–?”

“To visit my mother in her nursing home.”

“You had a passenger by the name of…” he checked the paper on his clipboard. “Evie Daniels.”

Another short nod. “Evangeline Ambrose Daniels. Are you feeling quite all right? You are very flushed, if I may say so. And there’s sweat on your upper lip. Pardon me, I mean perspiration. My mother–” her breath hitched. “My mother is very particular about such things, and she drummed it into us.”

He couldn’t help himself. “About what?”

“Sweating. Or rather the word sweating. She doesn’t like it, far too crass. There are dozens of words we weren’t allowed to use as girls. Most usually mama prefers the Latinate to the Germanic when there is a choice. The cake is done, but you are finished. That is one of mama’s favorites. You couldn’t say you were done with something. I’m done with you and your complaining, you couldn’t say that or she’d raise a finger in the air and get that prissy look. The cake is done but you are finished. Precision in language is important.”

Another hiccup of breath, or maybe a laugh. Jim looked more closely at her pupils, but they seemed to be reacting normally.

She said, “You’re irritated with me. I seem to be irritating everybody today, I don’t know why. Evie looked as though she wanted to strangle me because I wasn’t driving sixty-five on the button. Right before.”

“So you were arguing with your sister when the accident happened?”

Janet blinked. “Arguing? With Evie? There is no such thing. Evie makes up her mind and that’s that. She walked out on her husband on the first of January, no warning at all. That’s when she came to live with me, six months ago exactly. You can’t turn your sister away when she’s in need, can you? Even if you wanted to. Even if you live in a tiny apartment, you have to put on a smile and welcome her, make room in the refrigerator for her wheatgrass and protein drinks.” She shook her head.

It had been a very long day, and this was his seventh interview. Jim closed his eyes and then opened them again.

“Let me ask you straight out,” he said. “You were involved in a four car collison, and the evidence indicates that the accident got started when you hit the brakes suddenly. Your sister was thrown from the car…”

“That’s an odd way to put it,” Miss Ambrose’s tone sharpened. “That passive construction. Who is the agent in that sentence, your sister was thrown from the car, may I ask? To figure that out, all you have to do is add a prepositional phrase that starts with by. Your sister was thrown from the car by…” She held out a hand, palm up, into which he was clearly meant to put an answer.

“By the force of the collison.” He looked around himself and was glad to see no one was close enough to have heard this exchange.

Miss Ambrose pursed her mouth. She said, “Evie was a very careful person, officer. She always wore her seat belt, she never swam right after eating. As aggravating as she was — and I found myself counting to a hundred many times these last few months — you could not accuse her of carelessness in word or deed. She said what she meant, no matter how hurtful, and she did what she set out to do. No matter how disruptive or inconvenient to others.”

Jim wondered if he should go ask about a psychiatric evaluation, but Miss Ambrose wasn’t finished yet.

“I simply can’t have you speaking about her like that. The dead are no trouble to us, we can at least treat them with a minimum of respect.”

“I apologize, I meant no disrespect,” Jim said. “But I am confused. If she was wearing her seatbelt –”

Miss Ambrose flickered another smile at him. “She was indeed wearing her seatbelt. But you know these days they are so easy to undo, a simple touch of the latch and you’re free. The door was a little harder, of course. Having to lean over to reach the pull. I suppose that’s when I swerved and hit the brake. There,” she said, smiling. “Is that what you wanted to know? How I came to hit the brake?”

Sweat — perspiration, Jim muttered to himself — was rolling down his temple. He cleared his throat. “Do I understand correctly that you released your sister’s seatbelt, opened the passenger side door, and–” he paused.

The colorless eyes blinked at him. “I hope you’re not about to use another passive construction, young man.”

“You pushed your sister out of the car in rush hour traffic.”

She smiled with pleasure. “You see? Precision in language, it requires only a minimum of effort.”

“Miss Ambrose –” he cleared his throat. “Before we go any further I have to read you your rights.”

“I think I’ve given you the information you require, and I hope you’ll understand I can’t spare you anymore time just now. I must call the funeral home and of course mama–.” Her smile flickered again. She held out her hand.

“Officer Michaels, thank you, but we are–” she gave him a fuller smile, one that showed all her teeth, strong and white. “Done here.”