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Douglas Campbell's fiction and poetry has appeared in a number of publications and won honors in numerous contests. Most recently, his flash fiction "Venus Mound" appeared in "See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming," an anthology of sex-themed fiction published by Better Non Sequitur Press. Douglas lives, runs, writes, and plays his guitar in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The previous Flash Fiction Contest winner, now in Vol. IX., 2009. (The current flash fiction judging is still ongoing as of 2/1/09)
Last week some idiot was carrying a bunch of two by fours loose in his pickup truck, and they flew out onto the road, a divided highway where people go pretty fast. A mother and three kids in an SUV were following, and I guess the woman panicked when she saw that wood bouncing toward her. She swerved hard and the SUV flipped, then slid on its side and smashed into a guard rail. I was coming from the other direction and saw it happen, heard the slamming and scraping and the breaking glass. I read in the paper the next day that one child was killed, one critical, the third child and the mother seriously injured.
I told my wife, Marla, about it, and she grimaced and exclaimed in all the right places, but she was being polite, not fully listening. She's been that way lately, distracted, withdrawn, secretive. Something's happening with her, something's changing her. I know I should ask her what it is, but I'm afraid to force the issue. I've hugged her a couple of times and asked, "Are you okay?" She smiles, hugs me back, and says yes, yes, she's fine. She still tells me she loves me. But she gives me words now, not warmth. She's not tender and spontaneous and immersed in the moment with me like she used to be. For now, though, I want to give her time, let her work through it, bring it to some resolution on her own. Sometimes people can do that.
I subscribe online to the local newspaper, and I've been intrigued lately by the editorial page, where topic number one for the columnists and letter writers has been the recent dramatic upsurge in car accidents on the streets of our town. We've had all kinds: single cars hitting trees, two-car collisions at intersections, a multi-car pile up one foggy morning, a shopper run over in a mall parking lot. Injuries and damage mostly, but a few have been fatal, like the one I saw. From the letters to the paper it seems everyone has a theory. One person claims the roads are too narrow, too curvy, too lacking in warning signs. Another says it's because of the bad weather this spring, so much rain and fog. I've read letters blaming older drivers, young drivers, drunk drivers, cell phone usage. Many of the letters are written with a startling vehemence, often including caustic denunciations of rival theories, betraying the writer's certainty that he or she has the one true answer. I find these letters extraordinary and poignant, a display of what seems to be a desperate human need, to wrench some sort of order out of the chaos that rules this whirling universe we live in.
I'd like to think I know better, but I'm doing the same thing with Marla. Was it something I said, something I did, and she's nursing the wound, the resentment? Maybe she's met someone fabulous and charming, and yearns for the plunging whitewater of new love. I heard her upstairs in her music room the other day, listening to a Haydn cello concerto, something she hasn't done in ages. Before she married me, Marla was married to music, a reclusive, obsessive cellist with serious professional ambitions. I promised her a music room, but she's rarely used it, partly, I know, because she's been drawn out into the world by loving me, into the thicket of plans and needs lovers create. The other night we went to a concert by the local symphony, and afterwards I watched Marla talking and laughing with the rather handsome first violinist, her face flushed, eyes full of happy light. Maybe she wants to unwind herself from the tangled vine we've become. Maybe she wants her music back.
Even at work we've talked about the car accidents. "It's a statistical anomaly," my boss Darrell said. "Everything evens out. Watch, there won't be another accident the rest of the year."
"People drive too goddamn fast," said Harold, our accountant, always entertaining with his gloomy, portentous declarations. "What's the fucking hurry? This whole culture's gone completely insane."
This morning Marla said she was going out to run some errands. I watched her go out the door, her back to me, moving away, which is how I almost always see her now. I followed her, wanting to call out to her, to stop her. But then I saw how fast she was walking toward her car, her rapid stride an unrecognizable alteration in the woman I thought I knew so thoroughly. I stood in the doorway, caught in the battle between my wounded, fearful heart, that wanted her to come back and wrap her warmth around me, and my wiser, generous heart, that wants her to find whatever it is she needs. Who am I to intrude on her dream, to keep her from her purpose?
After she drove away I went out and sat on the step in the morning sun. I leaned back against the door, closed my eyes, and imagined Marla driving. With all the craziness going on lately I worry about her when she's out on the roads. In my mind's eye I saw the streets full of traffic, the ceaseless rush and swirl of it, and I tried something: I imagined the traffic stopped, all the cars stopped dead still right where they were. And I tried to freeze that image, everything motionless and everybody safe, everyone still together and in love, no disappointments blooming into bitterness, no yearnings growing keener in hearts aching for escape and rebirth.
But I couldn't do it, even in my imagination. The cars started moving again, as swiftly as before, rushing toward whatever lay ahead.