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Was It Me? -- Flash Fiction for 11/7/2020

This week's flash fiction prompt gave me pause. Here it is:

Here is my heartfelt response. Note it may trigger feelings of grief.

Was It Me?

I love the park. I always have. I've run there every morning for years. The park was quiet that early, but not deserted. Every morning, I was greeted by an elderly couple who sat on the same park bench and waved their morning greetings to me. Charlie--I have no idea what his real name was--read the newspaper while Joanne--the name I gave her--knitted. For more than two years we silently greeted each other, as reliably as the weather allowed. Then the lockdowns started. I hid in my room for a month, as we all did. Finally, the weather broke and I couldn't stay inside anymore. So, mask on my face, I took to the park once again. I was delighted to see my buddies in their usual place, masked and content. I ran with a mask throughout the summer, though it was harder and my runs were shorter. I first noticed the change one morning in September. Charlie and Joanne sat where they always had, but maskless. That was the turning point for me. I had been visiting with friends over the previous couple of weeks, going to dinner and the occasional halpy hour. Tired of the mask and wanting to regain my stamina, I left the damn thing at home "by mistake." Throughout September I ran hard, but my times worsened and my recovery time climbed. Then I noticed something worrying one morning. Charlie was absent and Joanne sat staring off into space. Her red eyes and pale complexion broadcast her grief. She coughed and I heard her weezing gasp as I passed. For the last week, as the blood red leaves coated the ground and dusted their bench, standing as an empty, solitary testament to my wondering guilt.

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