by Fred Swindells
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Fred Swindells, Jr.
Mud. Cold, damp, lingering mud. Mike knew that he would never be able to get that image out of his mind so he never really tried. How could he really? No one in their right mind would expect him to forget or “move on” after what happened that morning. The problem was that not only did Mike not try to forget but everyone and everything in his life seemed to conspire to keep reminding him of the defining moment of his life every time he left his house or ate oatmeal.
Maybe “ate” isn’t quite the right word since Mike had frozen with the first spoonful of steaming oatmeal just millimetres from his lips for so long that it had grown cold. Both the spoon and bowl now contained cold, damp, lingering mud –er– oatmeal. Mike dropped the spoon into the bowl with a clang so loud it seemed to disturb his clock on his living room wall. The clock was the only thing in his house making any sound. Even Mike himself wasn’t breathing...or at least not much. Some days there just didn’t seem to be much point.
Even the word “day” didn’t seem to have much meaning lately with the way the dark clouds hid the sun for the few hours that it limped above the horizon. It was always hard for Mike to find the motivation to get up before dawn and go to work on a winter day filled with the same drizzle that every other season brought. After that morning last February it became virtually impossible. The only thing that made it possible was the simple fact that if he didn’t go to work then he would eventually lose his job which would mean that he would run out of money which would mean that he couldn’t buy food any more so he would die.
For some almost forgotten reason Mike did not want to die. Maybe it was because dying would be too much of a change. Change was bad. Mike had spent the last year maintaining everything just the way it was before she left. That maintenance did nothing to bring her back, of course, but it was all that he could think of to do.
The clock violently derailed his train of thought and reminded him that he only had ten more minutes to get into his car and leave. After he grabbed the usual stuff he jumped out the door and shuffled through his keys. What was she thinking when she locked the door that day? They had never had anyone try to break into their place but both Mike and Sally always locked the door when they left the house out of habit.
Sally always said that Mike was a creature of habit. He always quipped back that she was habit forming. Somehow it never mattered how many times they had said the same things to each other: they still needed to be said. Some things didn’t need to be said which is why Mike never listened to the radio on his way to work. The silence was always too busy with his own thoughts anyway.
No matter how many red lights he got trapped by they never shortened his “To Do” list. Mike doubted that the guy who pulled up in the lane beside him had any more success organising his thoughts. How could he think with his radio so loud anyway? The really strange thing was that this guy wasn’t even listening to music: he was listening to some guy give a lecture.
Mike dropped his mental chores and they scattered all over the floor of his mind. Keeping an eye on the traffic light was relegated to the same level of automatic monitoring as his breathing was. There was something in what the man on the radio was saying that made you pay attention. It became clear with the next sentence that it wasn’t a lecture per se but rather a sermon. The kind of sermon that didn’t seem too preachy but just told it like it was. For the first time in a year Mike was completely and wholeheartedly distracted.
At least his foot was watching the flow of traffic and responded to the motion of the vehicles around him by applying pressure to the accelerator. His ear told his heart to accelerate because he was starting to lose contact with the speech that just seconds before didn’t even exist. Mike’s mind was somewhere else during all this hubbub and was simply along for the ride which probably explains why his hand forgot to turn on the signal indicator like it usually did. The driver behind him never noticed since the car never changed lanes anyway.
Maybe it was because Mike never went to church or maybe it was because of the anniversary but he had to know the completion of the speaker’s thought. The cool, damp air wafted in through his half-open window as it raced to keep up with its partner in the other car. Mike’s vestibular system recognised that his current speed was in excess of the posted city limit and tried to warn his lead foot but was instantly shushed by all his other components. His right eye caught a glimpse of a highway sign, figured that the car’s location on the freeway had something to do with its speed, and quietly let the vestibular system know.
Sally always tried to introduce Mike to new things. He used to like the way she extended his existence into realms of the unexplored. Of course, with Sally not around Mike didn’t explore even though his curiosity always wanted to...especially in regards to the events between her locking the door and the phone call forty seven minutes later. Oddly enough none of that mattered now and Mike’s curiosity was back on the podium orchestrating this morning’s symphony of activity. His curiosity didn’t even hold a grudge over being locked in its room for the past three hundred sixty five days.
What most people would consider a definition Mike now considered a problem: there are no traffic lights on freeways. The driver of the blue pick-up must have had enough of the now pelting drizzle and closed his windows. The voice of the man giving the sermon began to resemble that of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Mike’s right foot lost heart but his left eye noticed a billboard and then it hit him (the solution to his problem, not the billboard).
It turns out that this particular advertisement by the freeway was not trying to get people to throw away their hard-earned money on some product that itself would soon be thrown away; it simply wanted people to give up their hard-earned time to listen to a radio station (which unfortunately ran ads of its own that then asked people to do what the billboard would have in the first place if given the chance). Happily for Mike his problem-solving skills had not atrophied from a year of inactivity and responded quite readily to the challenge at hand. Thanks to the contribution from his memory of the virtually unnoticed jingle that preceded this out-of-character chase he figured out that he could hear the entirety of the intriguing speech by simply going to the website listed in the corner of the billboard that his left eye had so skilfully noticed.
Where exactly do people come up with phrases of speech such as “It’s just like riding a bicycle”? Mike wanted to know the answer to that question as much as he wanted to know how to turn on his own radio, no wait! Mike wants to remember how to get on the internet even if it is just like falling off a bicycle! No, that didn’t sound right. He just, just needs...MIKE NEEDS SALLY!!!
Somehow his hands managed to keep control of the wheel despite sweating profusely but no one was on the podium controlling the orchestra any more. Sally used to be there until her tires decided to explode after being prodded by the nails scattered on the freeway. This freeway. After keeping his life on pause for an entire year Mike now not only did not want to die he wanted to live. Yes, life is scary but life without Sally is just a bowl of fungus-covered oatmeal. Too much to think about at once...breathe...that’s it.
It’s amazing how great it feels to breathe! Breathing is even better when done in a car calmly parked at the side of the freeway. Well, it’s better than gasping for breath in between sobs as you listen to the police tell you that they’re sure that they have the correct vehicle description and that it isn’t some kind of horrible mistake. Sally’s breath was the most incredible thing that Mike’s neck had ever felt.
His neck turned. His eyes were now looking over the same field that they swore they never would look at after February 13. Why do flower shops gouge people so much at this time of year? It’s somewhat understandable that they wouldn’t want to exchange a dozen roses that had never been admired by their intended recipient over a dinner table for a dozen lilies to be draped on a coffin but the price for the second set of flowers almost hurt. Starting on February 14 last year nothing ever got close enough to Mike to hurt him ever again. He got out of the car.
The wind blew more gently than the air that was mindlessly pushed out of the way by the speeding cars. After a few crunches of gravel Mike’s feet found themselves making swishing sounds as they carried him through the tall grass. Why was he walking towards that spot? Why did fungus come in so many colours? He stopped at the place that somehow he knew he was supposed to be.
The grass protected this area from curious glances by speeding eyes and even from investigative scans by rescuing eyes. There were no more gouges from bumpers that were no longer supported by tires here. There were no shards of glass coated in blood and blonde hair here anymore. There was now only the same thing that Mike remembered most: mud. Cold, damp, lingering mud.
How do seagulls fly without flapping their wings? It’s amazing how they can just fly in place by simply stretching out their wings and letting the wind do all the work of supporting them. They just make small, necessary adjustments and basically keep doing the same amount of nothing for what seems like days. How long can a seagull go without food? At least they don’t get disturbed by radios. The seagulls had absolutely no idea what century it was.
Sally knew that Mike, like all guys, liked gadgets. Mike’s right hand reached into his pocket and pulled out an object that was pulled out of a glove compartment barely ten metres from here by, oddly enough, a hand wearing a latex glove. Even to this day in the attic there was a cardboard box containing “effects” in between “china” and “magazines”. Mike was going to go through all that stuff someday. Fingers and buttons began to work together with electrons spewing from a barely charged battery. Mike was surfing while standing on the beach.
It somehow seemed quite natural for the Wi-Fi to find its way to this spot at the edge of town. It was as natural as a guy figuring out how to use a device that he couldn’t bear to look at for nearly a year while at the same time carrying with him everywhere he went. Mike heard what he needed to hear. He bent down and reached out his hand. He touched the mud...and let go.
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