by: T.E. Cowell1
Three pieces of flash-fiction that expose the ways in which worry and self-doubt can cripple ambition…
How It Starts
I haven’t been outside once today. I’ve looked outside the windows plenty of times, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. Now it’s getting dark out. Dark and cold. No way am I going outside now. If I was going to go outside today, I would’ve done it already. I’ve missed my chance, so to speak.
This is the first day of my life, I’m fairly certain, that I haven’t gone outside. Every day before this, I’ve been outside, if only for a minute. When I was younger I was always outside, and then as I got older, though I was outside a little less I still made a habit of being outside for at least part of the day. I’ve done a lot of walking outside – bike rides, too – but mostly walking. Walking’s been my go-to outside activity for years now. I could’ve taken a walk today, but I didn’t. Why? I just didn’t feel like it. I was tired. More so than usual. So tired that I felt like staying inside. So I did just that. I did laundry. Cooked. Read. Thought. Worried. One thing I worried about was the fact that I hadn’t been outside yet today. This was around four or four thirty in the afternoon, when the sun was already well into its descent. I could’ve gone out for a short walk around this time, but I didn’t. Now, as I’ve said, it’s getting dark out. Dark and cold. I look out the windows at the steadily darkening darkness and think: so this is how it starts.
Sick And Tired
During the day he comes down with a cold and that night he can’t sleep. What next? he thinks, lying in bed in the middle of the night with a stuffed-up nose and an upset stomach. Outside he can hear the bamboo stalks scratching against his bedroom window from the wind, as they’ve been doing for some time now, but nothing more. He hears no more cars going by on the nearby street, which is a fairly busy one during reasonable hours. He hasn’t heard any cars for quite some time now and knows it isn’t a good sign. He’s curious of the time but equally afraid to check it. He thinks it has to be at least two, maybe later.
He sits up in bed for the dozen or maybe two-dozenth time—he has no idea really—since he’d gotten in bed around nine or nine-thirty, which is when he typically goes to bed. He reaches for the box of tissues on the nightstand and this time his hand knocks his glass of water over and the sound of the glass hitting the hardwood floor sets his nerves in motion. “Goddammit!” he cries out. “God-fucking-dammit!” He can feel his heart beating now and, with it, the flesh on his chest and under his armpits warms.
He locates the box of tissues on the nightstand and pulls one forcefully from the pack. He blows his nose, folds the tissue and blows his nose again. He tosses the tissue to the floor in the general vicinity where he thinks the wastebasket is, then lies down on his back and shuts his eyes. He can breathe out of his nose again now and figures he’ll be able to for a little while longer but not long enough to fall asleep.
He’s afraid he won’t get any sleep tonight. With each new minute that passes, he becomes more afraid. He dreads the approaching day. He hopes it’ll be a cloudy one, as he knows from past experience that the sun would hurt his sleep-deprived eyes. If it’s cloudy he might also be able to catch up on sleep during the day. He feels certain he won’t be able to go to work in the morning, that he’ll have to call in sick. Well, that’s okay; that’s fine by him. He doesn’t like his job much. And it’s not like he’ll miss a day without pay or even a few days depending on how long this bug sticks with him. He’s not that financially destitute, thankfully.
On his back in bed with his eyes closed, he thinks he’ll go to the store tomorrow after calling in sick at work and stock up on whatever medicine looks good to him as well as more Kleenex, as this box he’s got by his bed is his only box and it’s already running out. Yes, he thinks; that’s what I’ll do. Tomorrow I’ll go to the store and stock up on medicine. Okay, he thinks, I can get through this. I’ve been sick before; this, like everything that’s come before it, will pass. By tomorrow night, he tells himself, I’ll have things under control and I’ll sleep like a baby. I’m too sick and tired, he thinks, for it to be any other way.
He feels anxious. Should he read? Try to write? Go for a walk? Eat something? What should he do? He feels time passing him by like a gust of wind sweeping across his face. There is only so much time and, like everyone else, he wants to make the most of it. But when he tries to make the most of it, it seems that he never can. A catch-22 if there ever was one.
He puts in a load of laundry for something to do. His movements are rash as he throws his clothes into the wash and though he recognizes them as rash, he feels powerless to slow down. He starts the wash and, for a moment, looks out the window. The sun’s starting to come out from between the clouds, making him think maybe he’ll go for a walk after all. But as soon as he thinks of going for a walk, he thinks that if he were to go for a walk he’d be forfeiting his time to read or try to write something. The weekends are his prime reading and writing time after all, and they’re never long enough. Five days of work to two days off has never seemed like a fair exchange to him, and the older he gets, the more unfair the exchange seems. He hasn’t read a whole lot lately or written anything he feels particularly proud of, and the fact of this bothers him. He loves when he’s into a good book or making good progress on a story he feels good about, in part, he thinks, because during such times he doesn’t feel much in the way of anxiety.
He leaves the laundry room and goes into the kitchen. Instead of making something to eat, he starts making chamomile tea. The word “calming” is right there on the box, and has a lot to do with why he drinks the stuff. He isn’t sure if the tea does actually have calming effects for him or not, doesn’t really think so, but something about the possibility of it doing battle with his anxiety reassures him enough to want to drink it.
Waiting for the tea kettle to start hissing, he thinks about going into town and people-watching—that sometimes seems to quell his anxiety. But again, like a walk, people-watching in town would take away from his reading and writing time. He could try to read or write and see what happens, sure, but from past experience he’s found that when his anxiety is as bad as it is right now, he can’t read a page, let alone write one.
His tea kettle starts to hiss. He takes the kettle off the burner, pours the water into a mug, drops a teabag into the mug, then waits to be able to take a sip. He doesn’t wait long enough though and burns his tongue. He curses. He takes a quick swallow of water from the tap, then waits for his tea to cool enough to drink. He takes another sip, finds it still too hot but not as bad as before.
He takes his tea over to the couch and sits down. In between sips he tries to relax, to take deep breaths. His chest rises and falls, rises and falls. He looks out the window and waits for something to happen.
- Header art by Kyle Thompson. [↩]