Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

Her feet pound on the treadmill. The rain comes down outside. She stares into the blurry window at the parking lot and keeps running, not getting anywhere.

Better the window blur than her eyes.

The music blares in her earbuds. Enimen talks about losing himself in the moment, in the music. Sarah tries to forget yesterday. The conversation with her mom. The uncertainty.  

But yesterday’s talk plays over in her head:

“I’m sorry you couldn’t reach me, dear. My phone died. Your aunt and I went out for lunch after the appointment, then had our hair and nails done. It was lovely. We bonded in a way we haven’t since high school.”

“I’m glad you had a good time, Mom, but you can’t ignore the fact of what they told you at the clinic.”

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

She puts the phone in her pocket and retrieves her cigarettes.  She stands and lights up, allowing the smoke to do its calming job.  She glances at the building, knowing Sarah isn’t there.  It’s her day off.  Mike went home hours ago.

Still, the phone sits in her pocket like a hot rock.  She is reminded of the game hot potato she played as a kid at friends’ birthday parties.  No one wanted to be stuck with the supposed potato.  She begins to walk toward the woods.  Her thoughts don’t make sense.  That phone is her connection to her friends, her tiny world.

But it’s also a leap of faith, her first tentative step in taking a chance at life again.  And that scares her.

Shelley’s legs shake as she ambles through the recovering grass toward the budding trees.  Everything is coming alive again around her.  The breeze is fresh breath on her face, the cacophony of birdsong a symphony of promise.  She enters the woods for the first time.  There is no marked path, yet she desires to be lost in her solitude for the moment.

Tall trees surround her.  She closes her eyes, tries to imagine skyscrapers.  The warmth of the sun kisses her face.  She feels Russ’s lips on hers.  She sits on the moist ground, reaches out, touches a mossy rock–the softness of skin on another human being.  Her eyes gently open.  The tears she held in break from their cages.  Unsure of the reason for them, Shelley lets them fall.  Maybe she can name every fragile stream that leaves its mark on her, every heartache, every memory, every person who has come and gone in her life.

She sits in seclusion for a while, the distant hum of the highway and the birdsong the only sounds.  Unaware of when she fell asleep or had even been so worn out and worn down, Shelley’s eyes snap open when the first raindrop hits the crown of her head.  She stands, pulls her hood over her head, and makes her way out of the woods.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

Mike’s parting words remain with Shelley long after he shuffles across the dining area toward the lobby.  …I’ll be around for a while…and I don’t just mean tonight.  His form is blurry now.  It’s not because of the physical distance.  Shelley’s eyes are one part of her that has always worked right.  Her tears obscure clarity.  Fifty feet away, sixty feet, seventy, Mike is a dark blue blob.  

Her eyes shift to the phone flipped open in her palm.  The downward movement of her eyes casts another tear out, banishing it from her churning insides.  The blackened screen hids Sarah’s number, Mike’s message: call if u need anything.

The phone snaps shut.  She sniffles, blows her nose on the only napkin left.  The other one is with Mike, a piece of her, a bit of trust.  An open door.

She lifts the cold coffee to her lips, sips.  It goes down like liquid gold, the caffeine another friend.  She sets the cup down and fingers her coat pocket–empty of cigarettes.  She smoked her last pack two days ago and swears, for the umpteeth time, that she’s quitting.  Yet she shakes, unsure if it’s withdrawal or frayed emotions.

Maybe both.

She finishes the coffee in a few long gulps, then stands and tosses the cup away.  She goes outside to her spot.  

The picnic table ought to have my name engraved on it after all these months, she thinks.  Now she is alone with her thoughts, yet she tries to force them out like the tears.  Emptiness is easier to hold than an overfilled vessel of heartache.  Heartache spills and leaves stains in its wake.  

Everywhere Shelley has driven, visited, these past several days has left a trail of heartache, like tire marks on the road from trying to speed away at the last minute.  Or the desperation to stop, just throw on the brakes.  Just make life halt.  Marks left.

She gazes out toward the turnpike.  The drone of traffic in the night is a drug.  She can almost hear tires squealing on the pavement, leaving more marks.  A vehicle crashing into the concrete barrier, repeatedly, a nightmare replayed, a life wasted.  Her life?  Whose life?

My life.

She reaches into her pocket again, wishing for the cigarettes.  She comes away with the cell phone, opens it.  A rueful smile creases her face that Mike cares.  Sarah.  Russ.

She’s already visited the cemetery, the church, the house, the workplace…driven through all the old haunts…stirring her memories.  Her vessel spilled months ago.  Now she’s just trying to clean up the mess.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

With nothing else to do but let his own thoughts drive him crazy, Mike leaves the kitchen for the living room.  He eyes up the recliner.  The cushions are molded to his body.  Next to the recliner rests a tray table with the remote and a pack of cigarettes.  Not long ago, empty beer cans and food wrappers littered the tray table and the surrounding area.  He picks up the pack of cigarettes, notices only two are left, and tosses them in the trash.  

Mike steps on the treadmill.  He scowls at the recliner.  It’s both an old friend and an old foe.  The temptation to step off the treadmill and dump his sorry ass into that recliner is strong.  He decides the recliner will be on the curb next week.

Five minutes into his exercise, Mike comes to his senses.  The sun is shining beyond the window.  He turns off the machine and opens the curtains.  The brightness is blinding.  He opens the front door and sticks his arm out.  It’s at least 60 degrees.

Mind made up, Mike puts on his shoes and a light coat.  He goes outside.  He walks the old neighborhood for the first time since he can’t remember and thinks how pathetic that fact is.  Little seems to have changed.  The maples lining his street have always been huge.  He gazes at the branches, sees little buds.  Birds flutter about, tweeting.  A light breeze rustles his collar.  His smile lines deepen.

As he makes his way down the uneven sidewalk, he thinks he notices small changes.  Maybe the neighbor five houses down painted their house a different color.  A little further, the house across the street appears to have a new roof.  People getting on with their lives.  People living.

Then Mike realizes he has plans to give his own humble abode a facelift.  When he reaches the dead end, he turns and heads back home.  He enters, takes off his coat and shoes.  He moves the laundry and runs the vacuum.

To some, the work may seem tedious, dull.  But Mike goes about the chores with a peace inside him the rest of the afternoon, amazed what a walk can do.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

After ten minutes of standing around looking like a guy with nothing better to do and receiving a few odd stares from passersby, Mike approaches the women’s room.  Hovering just outside the entrance, he asks, “Is anyone in there?”

“Hey, whaddya want?” comes a raspy voice, surely belonging to a lifelong smoker who’s at least Mike’s age.

“Uh, never mind.  Thought my wife might be in there.”  My wife?  What the hell’s the matter with me?  

“Ain’t nobody else in here, pal.  Now, unless you’s lookin’ for a nice-lookin’ lady like me, I suggest ya hit the road and go take a piss in the little boy’s room.”  Raucous laughter follows.

Mike’s eyes bulge.  He walks away as quickly at his arthritic knees will allow and goes to the dining area.  Shelley is nowhere to be seen.  With a heavy sigh, worn with worry and the physical exertion on his body, he lowers himself into a chair.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

The sun is rising when Mike finally pulls into his driveway, but as he gets out of his car, that doesn’t matter.  The clouds obscure most of the light.  Snow pelts his face as he pulls the collar of his coat higher, muttering how stupid he was to not bring a hat and gloves to work.  He fidgets with his key at the side door, the chill of the wind numbing his arthritic fingers.  When the lock clicks, he heaves his shoulder into the door, pushing it open with great effort.

He shrugs out of his coat and boots and leaves them on the mat by the door.  He goes for the fridge and pulls out a beer, opens it, and begins drinking it before he reaches his worn armchair in front of the TV.  Flopping into the familiar comfort, he flips on the TV to watch the latest weather update.

“Damn weather people,” he grumbles.  “Stupid blizzard.  Half the time you guys ain’t right, and when you are, it’s usually even worse than you told us it’d be.”

Several inches of snow have already piled up.  The drive home from work took nearly two hours.  Mike looks out the window, only to see snow sticking to the screen.

He changes the channel to some old western and keeps the volume low.  He finishes his beer and belches, then lights up a cigarette and considers his options.  The weather man said the snow wasn’t expected to stop until that evening.  Even then, the roads would likely be a mess until tomorrow.

Mike already told his boss he wouldn’t be in for the next two days, explaining the situation.  Marty gave his condolences, told him not to worry, and that was the end of the conversation.

He finishes the cigarette and puts it out in the tray on the foldable table next to the armchair.  As Mike gazes around the living room at the shabby, stained carpet littered with takeaway wrappers, the dust-laden furniture, and the grimy windows, he knows Barb would be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, with him.

“I’m gonna go to Cal, honey,” he murmurs, pushing himself to standing.  

He stops halfway across the room, glancing from the treadmill to the entrance to the kitchen.  He turns and heads for the bathroom instead.  After relieving several ounces of coffee, Mike stares at the scale and weighs himself.  Five more pounds than last time.  He shoves the thing aside and returns to the kitchen for another beer and a new bag of chips.  Breakfast of champs.

It’s back to the armchair.  Mike drinks, smokes, and eats away his sorrows until he falls asleep.  He dreams of Barb, but she isn’t smiling at him.  

When he wakes, the snow hasn’t let up.  Mike grumbles as he removes his glasses to wipe the sleep out of his eyes, surprised to find tears gathered there.  With a growl, he stands and tosses the glasses to the chair.

He goes to the bedroom.  The bed sits unused and dusty, nothing different from the day Barb died.  Her clothes still hang in the closet.  Her jewelry box and bottles of perfume rest undisturbed on the dresser.  This room is a memorial, a monument to his dear wife.

Mike drops to his knees next to the bed, as if he’s about to pray.  He cries out in pain, but it’s his knees that hurt–or so he tries to tell himself.  He gropes under the bed and pulls out a box.  He opens it.

The first thing he removes is his wedding album.  He touches the faded photo of them walking down the aisle after their vows, in sickness and in health…till death us do part.  Mike shakes his shaggy head and doesn’t try to stop the tears now.  His vision blurs as he sets the album down and takes out the next one.  Calvin as a newborn, crawling, walking, his first haircut, preschool, kindergarten, and all those birthdays, milestones, and school pictures that mark a child’s life growing up.  

It’s too much.  Mike closes the album with a snap and returns both to the box.  The box is hidden away again, and he stands.  He has disturbed the sanctuary of this room, and he hates himself for it.

He returns to the armchair, his safe haven, and falls asleep.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP)

If turning forty was supposed to make Russ feel age’s sudden grip on him, he is glad he still has his usual energy.  His schedule doesn’t allow for him to stop of the rest area by mile marker 139 in Ohio this week.  Just because the weather is bad, shipments still have to be made.  A day or two shifts when he’s running behind schedule, but every time he’s home, he isn’t really home.  That apartment has only ever been a place to lay down his head.

He pulls off at a truck station in the middle of Indiana.  It’s late, but not so late that other truckers aren’t hogging every chair and couch in the lounge.  He showers and grabs some food, then returns to find an open spot.

“This taken?” he asks the guy sitting next to it.

The grizzle-haired, scruffy man shrugs and shakes his head.

“Thanks.”  Russ sits and watches some national news program, finding himself zoning out.

“The stuff’s depressin’,” the guy next to him remarks.  “Same ol’ shit ev’ry day.”

Russ chuckles.  “Someone could change the station.  I’d much rather watch ESPN.”

“Good huntin’ show’d be nice.”  The guy sits up in his seat.  His accent is Appalachian.  “You a New Yorker?”

Russ laughs.  “What gave me away?”

“Way yeh talk.  You got somethin’ nice waitin’ for yeh back home?”

“Funny you’d call it home.  My truck’s more my home than anything.  How about you?”

“Nah, and yeah, know what yeh mean ‘bout the truck.  Been drivin’ for damn near forty years, friend.”

“Damn, man.  That’s a long time.”

“Keeps me outta trouble.”  The guy winks, and Russ chuckles.

“Yeah?”

“Yep.  No drinkin’ on the job.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely not allowed, my friend.”  Russ tries for levity, but seeing the state of the poor sucker next to him unsettles dinner in his stomach.

The older man chuckles, which turns into a series of coughs.  He stands with the aid of the chair and fingers something in his coat pocket.  “These here things’ll be the death of me, son.  Don’ be a fool like me, boy.  Don’ smoke, drink, or fall ‘n love.”

As the guy walks away, still hacking, Russ says in a low voice, “I’ll try to remember that.”

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