The third Tuesday in September had such an ordinary beginning. Sylvia’s husband, Omar, left for work before dawn. The Hartford Courant lay in the driveway, delivered as promised. The kitchen countertop was smudged with germy paw prints from the cat’s nocturnal shenanigans. And, according to the jokers on the radio, Hell had not yet frozen over.
As usual, Sylvia got up at five. She poured herself a gigantic mug of coffee, washed her face with a yawn, and brushed her pearly whites until they shone. Ho hum. She combed her long blonde hair into a ponytail and left the house clad in a blue tank top and ridiculously colorful leggings.
The seventeen minute drive to Jazzercise was uneventful. An enormous golden sun rose over the horizon, heralding another beautiful morning in Connecticut. Sylvia opened the car window to drink in the autumn scenery: scarlet cardinals flitting among the maples, honeybees abuzz in fields of fading daylilies, woodpeckers busily destroying historic homes, and gray squirrels darting like playful sea otters.
At the studio, Sylvia removed her sandals and changed into sneakers, chatting with her friends before class. The teacher that day was Clara, one of Sylvia’s favorites. Like a standup comedian, Clara would tell jokes during the hardest sets in order to distract her students from the “burn.” Jazzercise wasn’t easy, but it was a dynamite workout.
Class was about to start when the front door flew open and Rebecca burst in, all upset, tears streaming down her cheeks. She plopped down on the long bench and buried her face in her hands. Her friend, Marge, hurried to her side. “Becca! What’s the matter?”
“Oh, my God―I’m a monster,” Rebecca cried. “I―I―I just hit something with my Jeep on Canton Road. It happened just a couple of blocks away from here.” She let out a huge sob. “I th-th-think it was a red fox!”
Marge swallowed hard. “Is it dead?”
“I’m not sure,” answered Rebecca, closing her eyes as if to blot out the memory. “But it was still moving. I stopped the Jeep but I had no clue what to do, so I just drove off and left it there.” Sobs racked her shoulders.
Another student, Blanche, hollered, “Oh, don’t be a wimp, Rebecca. Get back out there and run it over again! Put the poor thing out of its misery.”
“Thanks for your heartfelt advice,” Marge frowned, turning her back to Blanche in an effort to shut her up. Then she handed Rebecca a box of tissues, saying, “Cheer up, Becca. The fox is probably dead by now. I know you feel guilty about it, but there’s really nothing you can do. Just take the class with the rest of us. Exercise will make you feel better.”
The music piped up and the dance floor filled. Instructor Clara took the stage and led the class through the opening stretch. Bodies moved in unison: arms ballet-strong, hamstrings elongated, abdominal muscles primed. But by the second song Sylvia noticed that something was wrong. Clara wasn’t herself. Her timing was off. She kept giving the wrong instructions, mixing up left and right. She even slurred her words. What was going on? Was she actually drunk at six o’clock in the morning? Or was she just upset about the red fox? Some women had a thing about wolves or dolphins or pandas. Maybe Clara was a clandestine fox fanatic who secretly wore fox socks, slept in fox-print sheets, and had fox art on every wall. But no, Clara was too cool for that. Besides, she was sweating profusely. Was it a hot flash? Could she be sick?
By the third song the entire class knew that Clara was having a problem, but no one knew how to broach it without embarrassing her. No one except for Blanche, that is. She was not one to mince words. Her shrill voice carried all the way up to the stage. “Clara, what’s with you today? You’d better not have the Simian flu!”