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Standing Still

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What are you afraid of? What would you do to avoid it? A literary fiction examining life, fear, regret, and avoidance.

Other / Drama
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Untitled chapter

Ann found herself at a standstill, neither able to move forward or go back. Just one hour ago she was home, comfortably settled into her evening. But before Ann could switch on the TV her mother, who normally spent evenings nodding in her recliner, shuffled around the coffee table and brandished a handful of blue slips under Ann’s nose. The pallid little woman squared her shoulders and demanded all of her prescriptions be refilled immediately, even the multitude of sleeping agents she so rarely took. Always the diligent daughter Ann shrugged off the irregularity and was ready to leave twenty minutes later. After stopping at the hall table to confirm her purse contained everything necessary, she looked up to tell her mother goodbye only to find her once again nodding in her Lazy Boy. It had been nearly a year since her mother delivered the news of her terminal illness. Ann was still unclear whether it was a sense of responsibility or guilt that prompted her to take on caring for the woman. Although their relationship had always been a somewhat distant one, she honestly couldn’t think of a logical reason why she should feel either. But still here she was, her silver sedan pointed toward home and a pile of individually bagged prescriptions rattled around in her backseat. She had high hopes of making it in before the early news was over. These hopes were dashed as she rounded the first wide curve in the two lane just outside of town. She was stopped short by a twinkling string of brake lights marching around the next bend.

As she rolled to a stop, adding her brake lights to the display, Ann didn’t feel upset or impatient. She never did in these sorts of situations. She was convinced those big city traffic jams on television, the ones with blaring horns and screaming, fist shaking people, were a result of some artist’s overactive imagination. What would be the point in getting all worked up? She eased her head back until she felt the squish of the headrest and sat silently considering the possibilities for the hold up. She dreamed up a few possible scenarios; a slow moving piece of farm equipment, a stalled car, a mesmerized deer, or an Amish buggy, although the last, admittedly, was unlikely. Whatever the reason it would only be a small delay, no need to get antsy. Ann stared out the driver’s side window and thought for a time on the current goings on at home. She wasn’t concerned that her brief absence would cause difficulties. A dinner of pork chops and potatoes was resting in the oven, but she knew it would go untouched. Her husband, Dan, citing her lack of culinary skill ate out nearly every night. Her daughter had recently declared herself vegan. They had engaged in a rather heated argument a few nights ago over her daughter’s, as she perceived it, obligation to bring pictures of mutilated farm animals to the dinner table. It was a habit she had taken up lately to, “discourage their barbaric ways”. Ann’s mother no longer ate solid food. With a sigh that fogged the glass, Ann refocused on the low berm just visible in the falling light. It was an ugly thing, spanning 30 yards on either side of the road and bare of all plant life except the yellowing buzz cut of grass. She had vague memories of wild flower growing in the grassy expanse. She assumed the county took care of those now.

The garish red glare on Ann’s windshield dimmed as the driver ahead inched forward. She let off the break and allowed her car to roll with the slight incline of the road. Although originally calm and patient, Ann’s desire to have this night over with was making her less sedate than usual. The late model Lincoln directly ahead crept to a stop approximately ten feet from where it had started. Ann continued to roll the last few feet and lightly pressed the brake pedal. The moment she came to a complete stop the radio emitted a soft white noise. A glance in the rearview mirror showed nothing but a solid blare of white light. With no hope of easing back, she pushed a button on the console to put an end to the static and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “It’s just a little traffic jam. They will have it all sorted out soon. At least I am still in the warm car”, she thought. She had no idea who ‘they’ were, but surely some higher authority would be intervening soon. She dug the heels of her palms into her eyes and then let her arms fall limp at her sides. Her watering eyes took in the view beyond the windshield. She drove this route nearly every day but it had curtain strangeness when seen at a standstill. Overlooking the stickered bumper of the Lincoln, Ann tried again to make out the natural surroundings. Illuminated now only by the halogen glare of the closest cars, the landscape resembled a poorly rendered watercolor. The gloomy shapes ran together to form dark lumps on the horizon. Closer, just a few feet from the back tire of the parked Town Car, she could just make out the distinct shape of what was most likely road kill. It was hard to tell exactly what kind of animal it was, something small and round, or maybe just bloated. Ann stared at the small mound until her eyes began to sting. She was feverishly watching for the slightest movement from the dead thing while simultaneously terrified it would happen. Ann hated dead things and suffering, but she hated the idea of having to deal with them even more.

Anny the scaredy. The singsong voice of her childhood friend came back to her so suddenly it took a moment for her to retrieve the context. Becky and Ann grew up next door to each other, the only kids in a cul-de-sac full of retirees. They could not have been more than ten years old when Becky first christened her with that nickname. On her daily bike through the neighborhood, Becky discovered a dead squirrel in Mrs. Cahill’s yard. She stood under a well manicured Ash tree unceremoniously poking its limp body with a stick and teasing Ann for being too afraid to leave the sidewalk. It wasn’t fear of the dead thing that kept Ann rooted there in the blistering sun. It was the fear that it wasn’t a dead thing. What if it was laying there in pain, unable to move, barely breathing, while Becky inflicted it with further jabs? She wasn’t moved to help the poor creature though. It was simply that troublesome situations were much easier to ignore when they weren’t shoved under your nose. Even as a young girl, Ann knew that ignoring troublesome things was the simplest path to happiness.

She gave her head a slight shake as she refocused on her grown-up hands gripping the steering wheel. What a silly thing to be thinking about. The unsettling events of the evening were agitating her thoughts. She never lingered on the little things, although, in this case, she knew why Becky had so easily come to her mind. Her own daughter, Kara, was just a few weeks short of her tenth birthday and reminded her a great deal of Becky: bold, confident, and cruel. She was sure that, like Becky, who had only been Ann’s friend by default, Kara only spoke to her because she wanted an allowance. It was a somber thought and it did nothing to bolster her waning attitude, neither did the motionless Town Car dominating her line of sight.

Although it was less than ten feet away, Ann had avoided directly surveying the Lincoln until now. It was a beastly looking thing, all squares, straight lines, and sharp edges, the bumper protruding out like a bad underbite. It looked too much like a machine. Ann preferred a sleek look, smooth surfaces, rounded edges. The Lincoln’s appearance wasn’t improved by the variety of stickers covering the rear end. Ann lost herself for a while reading them. There was the usual fare; SAVE THE RAINFOREST, MEAN PEOPLE SUCK, Proud Parent of…, but scattered among them were various political stickers promoting a myriad of candidates and ideologies. She scanned the names and cleverly worded taglines highlighted against dramatic shades of blue, red, or green. She didn’t recognize any of them. Ann didn’t care much for politics or causes and such. Whenever those stories came up on the news her attention would wander until something more to her liking came along, like a human interest story involving pets or babies. Her husband said she just didn’t have the head for those kinds of things, but Ann knew better. When she was young, before she met him or had a child, she attended a mid-size university an hour from her hometown. Ann involved herself in various organizations and causes, some laden with political undertones, all of which she was able to appreciate. Those were different times though, a different life. Money became tight for her parents and she was forced to drop out after a year. It was the best thing for her really. She had a home now and important responsibilities; at least that is how she always rationalized that particular failure. For the first time in years and most likely aroused by the candid musings of this evening, Ann recalled the bitter disappointment of having to abandon her dreams. How had she ever forgotten that? Why didn’t she ever...

Movement. Movement directly ahead of Ann roused her from the troublesome pondering, though an impression of that lacking lingered. The Lincoln was a few car lengths away now and moving at a good clip. Ann let off the brake and pressed the gas. Her legs, not used to such quick movements after the long sit, felt heavy. This resulted in mashing rather than pressing of the gas pedal. She raced forward, headed straight for the long line of cars now making its way around the next bend. By the time she slowed and regained her place in the steadily moving line, she was quite shaken. Ahead she saw lights bouncing off the embankment and surrounding trees. They were not the blue/red alterations of emergency lights, though, more yellowish-orange. As Ann finally pulled around the bend, she located the source of the light show. Slowly making its way to the opposite side of the roadway was a large, white, and rather rusty tow truck.

The truck’s bank of turning lights diverted Ann’s attention so it was a few seconds before she fully took in the scene she was approaching. To her right and slightly below her was a red minivan. It had come to rest twenty yards from the road. The light gravel that marked the small strip between roadway and grass had been torn away and two distinct strips of mud made it possible to follow the vans assent into the ditch. The van itself looked mostly unscathed despite its odd parking situation until she pulled level and saw the missing nose. Smoke poured from the wheel wells and the hood partially obscured the broken windshield. The sliding door facing the road was open and the interior appeared mercifully empty.

The line of cars slowed to a crawl as drivers and passengers craned their necks to appraise the devastation. As she crept past the van wreckage, two other cars came into view. One, obviously the primary cause for the north-bound traffic jam, was dangling from the large hook of the tow truck now parked on the south side berm. It was a smallish foreign thing. The passenger side buckled from a heavy impact. A midsize sedan lay on its side across the southbound lane, blocking a line of cars in that direction. The nose of the sedan pointed towards Ann’s car. The lights of the motorcade did little to illuminate the area directly around the fallen car. Ann couldn’t tell if it was black or a dark shade of blue or green. She stared at the car for so long, and with such intensity, that she had to pound her brake pedal when she realized the Lincoln had again come to a complete stop. Her insides burned and her limbs shivered. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the wheel. Without opening her eyes, she gripped the cool leather of the gearshift and placed the car in neutral. The road held a steady decline from here for more than a mile. She could ride the slope past the accident scene and not have to worry about getting froggy and rear-ending the Lincoln. She no longer trusted her jerky limbs. Ann opened her eyes and turned her head back to the toppled car now directly across from her side window and no more than twenty feet away.

It was green, dark green. The headlights of the SUV behind her brightened a wider stretch of the roadway than most of the others. The car’s own headlights were extinguished. Ann concluded the engine must have failed in the accident because both lights and covers were still intact. The only visible damage was a flat front tire, although Ann was sure the driver’s side on which the car now rested must have been a mess. Amazingly, the windshield had survived the crash. She silently applauded the ingenuity of the carmaker and prayed her car was done as well. She narrowed her eyes to better admire the unbroken windshield. Not even a scratch, she thought. She looked beyond the windshield, into the interior of the car. What she saw terrified her. Ann stared. She stared with such force and concentration her head began to throb, but she couldn’t look away.

There was someone still tethered to the driver’s seat, a woman, her long hair spread over her face and just brushing the pavement that now filled the driver’s side window. The woman’s right arm hung limp across her chest. A red stain spread over her shoulder and collarbone down to her right breast. Ann searched the body desperately with her eyes, but there was no way to tell if the woman was alive. It was too dark to see the subtle signs of breathing. Where were the rescue vehicles, the police cars? Why had no one checked this car? She snapped her eyes to the tow truck still idling on the far shoulder. Through the dingy back glass of the cab she could just make out the mashed silhouette of a large group of people. She presumed these were the owners of the van and compact but hadn’t they realized no one had materialized from the other car. One of the cars ahead of her must have seen the trapped woman when they passed. Her eyes found the Lincoln just in time to see its brake lights diminish. The line was moving again. Ann squared her shoulders. What else can I do, she thought. She placed her hand on the gearshift.

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