by: T.E. Cowell ((Header art by the incredibly talented Erik Johansson.))
Two offerings of flash fiction that illustrate that even the quietest of streets have the capacity to arouse deep-seated anxieties…
The detour took Sally past her ex-husband’s house. The house was on a quiet street that Sally hadn’t driven down in years, a street that she’d intentionally avoided but that now, because of the detour, was the only way for her to get to the main road that’d ultimately take her home. Sally hadn’t known if Ben still lived in the neighborhood until she noticed his old blue pickup in the driveway. The pickup was parked alongside a newer car, a flashy black Chevy Camaro, which Sally figured was his go-to car these days. She was both surprised and not, that he still lived in the same house he’d moved into after the divorce.
As she drove home that day, Sally tried to do the math. She figured around twelve years had passed since she’d seen Ben last. She’d never been inside his house, a modest shingled A-frame and the kind of house you’d pass a hundred times without noticing.
A few days later, the detour still intact, on a whim, on a kind of dare to herself, Sally turned off the road and pulled into her ex’s driveway, stopping behind his Camaro. She turned off the engine and stepped out of her Nissan. As she walked up to Ben’s front door, her heart was beating in a way it hadn’t in a long, long time. There was fear in her, but there was also an excitement bubbling within her. She was curious, is what she told herself. Her curiosity, she felt, was her alibi for going through with this.
Before knocking on the front door Sally tried to convince herself that what had once been between them was no more, that it couldn’t be, that twelve years was a long time, enough time for there to be no more hard feelings between them. She felt that she’d forgiven him as much as she ever would for his infidelity when they’d been married, and thought that he in turn must’ve forgiven her for having lost her temper and given him a slight concussion via a well-thrown dinner plate.
Sally knocked on the front door, and while she waited, moved her weight from foot to foot, feeling nervous, battling thoughts of retreating back to her car and speeding away to the familiar safety and comfort of her home. She waited a few more seconds, feeling a sense of relief when when the door didn’t open. Maybe he wasn’t home, she thought. But along with the relief there was a sense of disappointment. She really wanted to see him, now that she’d come this far. She wanted to see how Ben was, what he looked like, how he’d changed. If he was still as handsome as she remembered him being. If he still had that smugness that in the beginning Sally had loved, but later had despised.
She was about to turn around and walk back to her car when the door finally opened. Sally was taken aback by what she saw: not her ex, but a woman, young, maybe in her late twenties if Sally had to guess, and ostentatiously pretty. The woman stood in the doorway, leaving the door open little more than a crack. She was wearing only a t-shirt and athletic shorts. Her lustrous brown hair dangled in waves past her cheekbones and shoulders. Her sensual mouth was partially open, and her eyes gazed at Sally without the slightest hint of warmth or respect or curiosity even, but with a youthful condescension or perhaps nothing more than indifference. She looked to Sally a little like the young woman Ben had cheated on her with. Young attractive women have more similarities than they do differences.
Sally mumbled an apology before the young woman standing before her could say anything in the form of a greeting. “Sorry, I, uh, I must have the wrong house.” Before she turned and rushed back to her car, she heard Ben’s voice, his low self-assured voice shout from inside the house, “Who is it, honey?”
Sally slipped in her car and sped off. Her hands shook and continued to shake for the entirety of the drive home. Along with her shaking hands, she kept shaking her head. A handful of times she spat “Unbelievable!”
She couldn’t believe she’d ever married such a man. That she hadn’t been able to see through him right from the start.
You drink your last beer and then decide you’ll drive to the store to get more. You decide you’ll get a few other things at the store too, like maybe a pizza and more milk since you’re starting to run low. What else do you need? Bananas? Another bag of tortilla chips? Salsa? Beans? You don’t make a list, as you hate lists. You think making lists is a sure sign of laziness, of cognitive absence. Once you start making shopping lists it all goes downhill from there, you think. If you forget something while you’re in the store you’ll get it next time. It’s not the end of the world if you forget something. You’ll live.
You leave your apartment and get in your car. You turn it on, then back out of your space. You turn onto the side road and then onto the main road. You’re driving along, and then you notice a cop car behind you and start to panic. You think: all right, stay cool. You think: I’ve only had one beer, so I’m not drunk, I’m only barely tipsy. You think: okay, to be honest, yes, I’m tipsy, but not so tipsy that it’s illegal for me to drive, right? You’re not sure about this, as you’ve never been pulled over before for anything. What’s the legal limit of alcohol you can have in your system while driving, .08%? It doesn’t seem like a big number to you, in fact seems like a very small number. You wonder if you are over the limit. The beer you’d recently drunk was a fairly strong stout. You have a thing for strong stouts.
You start to drive very carefully, afraid that any second now the cop’s going to flash his lights and that then you’ll have to pull over. Whenever you see a cop pulling someone over you always feel sympathetic towards the person being pulled over, no matter what they may have done to get pulled over. You think: If I got a DUI I could lose my job. You think: that would be a gift and a curse, but more of a curse than a gift, as then I’d be forced to move back in with my parents, most likely, until I found another job. You think: please god, or whoever’s up there, or whatever, if you just let this cop not pull me over I’ll quit drinking anything alcoholic before I drive, I promise. I’ll only drive sober from now until I die.
You stop at a four-way stop sign and wait for a car that’d gotten there before you to make its turn, and then you go straight. You look in your rearview and see that the cop has also gone straight, and you now think that he must be following you on purpose, that he must be onto you. You think: I might be driving too cautiously. You think: I need to relax, to drive completely at ease and without a trace of guilt. You throw your arm around the passenger seat’s headrest. I got this, you think. I’d like to see him pull me over. You glance in the rearview. Just try it, you think. Go ahead and give it your best shot.
At the next four-way the cop turns while you continue going straight. That’s what I thought, you think to yourself, at once relieved but, also, strangely enough, disappointed that nothing ever happens, at least not to you.
T.E. Cowell is a native Washingtonian. When not working, you can find him reading, writing, taking walks, riding his bike, or playing some intense ping-pong with his girlfriend. You can find more of his short stories at his author’s page.