By Emily Erickson
Emily closed her computer. Ideas bounced around her head like fuzzy ping pong balls, none quite formed enough to grasp. She had just been reading entries for the local paper’s fiction contest, the plots of two dozen-odd stories crafted by other writers branching into new stories and subplots and waterfalls of dialogue inside her mind.
She shook her head. There’d be time to think about stories later. Folding over to collect her computer’s power cord, she struggled to wiggle it free from the outlet — the motion knocking her glasses off her nose and sending them rattling out onto the coffee shop floor.
“There has to be a more graceful way to do that,” she thought.
Retrieving the glasses and shoving them back on her face, she recognized the man in the chair next to her. He was kindly pretending not to notice her quite-conspicuous attempt at exiting.
“Morning Jeremiah,” she chirped, wondering how long he had been sitting there.
“Mornin’,” he grizzled back, a lifetime of adventure twinkling behind his eyes.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she made her way to the door, more familiar faces snapping into focus as she passed them. Larry was on the couch, slipping measured bites of his half-piece of coffee cake between the smirk on his lips. Rich was mid-charcoal stroke, pages with his creatures splayed before him as bursting expressions of a fantastical mind. Cora was behind the counter, zinging quips at her customers between pulling espresso shots, like a lead in her own comedy. And Greg was in the corner, his tinctures lined in rows before him, as peaceful a sentry to the exit as they came.
The warmth of the coffee shop and the cast of characters within was replaced by a sharp chill as Emily pulled open the door, pushing her way into the wintery air. Getting to her car, she was pulled into the narrative of the fiction contest’s winner, “Winter Mask.” It was a story about the guard we let down when in the safety of our own vehicles. The writer described the experience of looking into the face of a stranger through their windshield, overcome with empathy for a person’s story he couldn’t know.
She started the engine and resolved to look at the faces of the people passing by on her way home.
“Will this actually be possible while going the speed limit?” she wondered, flicking on her blinker and merging onto the empty street.
Driving slowly and with purpose, she scanned the road preparing for her impending bout of empathy, eyes finally locking on a purple sedan. She gripped the wheel tighter, leaning forward with squinted eyes. As the vehicle approached, she began to make out a few details of its driver. Middle-aged man, blue puffy coat, an unintentional-looking beard, and… narrowed eyes?
“Yes, his eyes were definitely narrowed, and watery, perhaps?” thought Emily.
This sent her spiraling. “Was he an insurance broker who recently had a brush with a childhood friend, and the interaction reminded him of his long-ago passion for playing the cello? And at this very minute he was confronting his choice to be driven by safety and security (like his father) instead of following his dreams (like his mother)?”
“The cello montage is basically writing itself,” mused Emily, as she braked at the gleam of taillates before her.
Like waking from a reverie, she noticed the truck between her and the stop sign. It was a big, gun-metal gray thing, with lifted tires, oversized mudflaps and out-of-town plates. And proudly atop its bumper, as if jeering at her, was a “Bundy for Governor” sticker.
“What the actual hell,” she griped.
Which, of course, sent her spiraling.
“Was he (in her mind, the driver was a “he”) a modestly-known conspiracy theory talk show host, pulled to Idaho by misguided promises of population and value-system homogeneity? Was he house hunting at this very minute for his parents and friends and colleagues, thoughts of his empire dancing in his head?”
Recognizing the trees passing slowing by her window, she looked down at her speedometer. 12 miles per hour. “Isn’t it 35 here?” she thought aloud. “Well, that had better be enough for today.”
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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