Flatline

“Grandma, Grandma? When are we going to bake those chocolate chip cookies?” five-year-old Jessica says.

“Come on, Grandma!” the little girl shouts. “You’ve slept enough!” with that she reaches over to shake nana’s arm. Instinctively, she pulls away with a sudden snap of her hand as if she’s touched a hot stove. But, it’s the opposite of that. Instead it’s as if Jesse, as her grandmother liked to call her, has placed her hand on ice that cuts.

“Grandma?” Jessica whispers.

***

“What the hell, man? Just cut me off like that!” Brian’s hand makes a fist at the driver now ahead of him.

Shaking his head, he says, “Jesus. People are driving like we’re in the middle of a heat wave here! Look at the roads people: that’s black ice on the road, mixed in with a whole lotta snow!”

Brian’s eyes flick up to his rear view mirror. He’s not certain the reason at first. But then he catches sight of the Nissan Pathfinder that’s barreling down behind him as it pushes snow off the road and onto the sidewalk. The driver still isn’t slowing down.

There’s nothing he can do. There’s a crunching sound as the SUV hits the breaks. The truck’s wheels lock on the brown, salted, icy, snow-covered road as it begins to slide slowly at first, and then swings around and charges into the driver’s side of Brian’s car.

The SUV doesn’t stop. Medal twists. Glass smashes.

***

 “Hey, you!” Carmen shouts at the red coat-wearing woman she hasn’t spoken to in almost six months. It’s not because the ladies had a fight. The reason is a simple and a common explanation: lack of time because of too many other obligations; and because at the end of the week they’re too damn knackered.

“Hey! Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in ages! How’s everything?” Dana enquires.

“Good, good. Jobs great. Kids, are getting big. Oh, Brent and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary on Saturday!”

“Has it been that long?”

“Yup,” Carmen says with her chin raised proudly.

“Geez, that’s fantastic! Congratulations. Are you guys doing anything special?”

“Yeah, we’re having a party with friends and family. You should come!”

“When is it again?”

“This Saturday.”

“Are you guys still living at 185 Wimbledon Lane?”

“Yeah, still there,” Carmen says chuckling. “Now, you have no excuse NOT to come! Okay, well, I’ve got to dash as I need to pick the kids up from their music lessons. Shit. Didn’t even ask though, how are things with you?”

“Good, good,” Dana says. “We’ll catch up on Saturday. Go!”

“You’ll come then?”

“Absolutely!”

“Great. See you on Saturday!” Carmen says as she turns and continues to jog in the direction of her car.

(Later that day)

“We admitted her into the hospital today. She was complaining of indigestion: felt some nausea coupled with chest pain. We gave her some aspirin as a precautionary measure. She was in her mid-40’s and on observation, was well within her normal weight range. Unfortunately….”

Ms. Kangaroo Pouch

“Are you going to wear that?” Bailey’s eyes skim over me once, and then pass over me a second time. Her eyes are focussed on my stomach as she waits for me to answer.

“Errr,” I eloquently answer. Bailey’s one of my closest friends. I’ve known her since kindergarten when we would tell each other secrets and then, pinky swear we’d never tell anyone else.

Bailey appeared to be in a particularly foul mood today when she arrived at my house. She threw her purse on the couch and flopped down beside it. I know it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but if you knew Bailey, you’d know she’s never like that. She’s poised and gentle and always in control of every situation. It’s one of the reasons I admire her so much.

I don’t really understand the reason why she’s so upset. After all, it’s a let’s-have-lunch-and-then-shop-day versus a 9-to-5-why-is-the-copier-jamming-AGAIN?-day.

“Yes,” I finally say after locating my verbal skills. “Why?”

Bailey peers at me with an “inspector’s look” as if I were a cow that was about to be sold at market. She says, “I wouldn’t if I were you. You’ve got a kangaroo’s momma’s pouch going on there!” she points at my belly and tosses her head back in laughter.

I place a protective hand over my swollen tummy. Okay, maybe granola for breakfast was a bad idea. Or, maybe I just eat too much. I shift uncomfortably and keep my hand on my stomach, trying to block her view of it.

Bailey gives me a half smile. Silence hangs heavily in the air between us. A few seconds later she says, “We have time. You could change.”

“Okay,” I answer as I blink back tears that sting my eyes.  I take the stairs two at a time while taking a deep breath in.

Bailey’s never like that. I must look really terrible if she felt like she needed to say something. When I arrive in my bedroom I stare at myself. In horror, I realize she’s right: Oh god! I look like I’m pregnant – with twins!

I’ve been upstairs for nearly ten minutes. Pulling on a pink dress, control top pantyhose, and matching Gucci shoes, I take a peek at myself in the mirror. I don’t want Bailey to see me if I don’t look perfect. Turning sideways, it’s still there.

Why don’t I own any loose fitting dresses?

I yank the shoes off, slide out of the pantyhose, and wiggle the dress off over my head.  There’s a mountain of clothes that I’ve thrown across my bed. I stare at the heap and pull one of my bulky grey winter sweaters out of the pile with a baggy pair of jeans. It’s a little warm for it, but not by much. The forecast is ten degrees, not twenty-five degrees. I won’t look like I’m hiding something. It’s springtime, I argue with myself. You can still wear sweaters in the spring.

“Hey, Mackenzie, are you almost ready?” Bailey bellows from downstairs. We need to leave now, if we’re going to make our reservation!” her voice booms from the family room.

I emerge from my bedroom still pulling the sweater over my head. But it’s just me and Bailey here, so there’s no chance someone else will see my pink flabby skin. Charging down the stairs, I race down the steps with too much speed. I misjudge with the last two stairs where one step starts, and the other ends, and my heel slips and I skid to the bottom of the foyer.  The only thing that saved me was that for the first time in my life, I had my hand on the railing.

Bailey’s seated on the couch and is flipping through my National Geographic Traveller magazines.

I mumble, “Sorry,” as I enter the room. She tosses the magazine aside when she sees me, stands up and says, “That’s better,” as she nods her head with approval.

Then she raises a finger to my eye and brushes it while saying, “You just have a smudge of eyeliner there. It kind of makes you look like a racoon,” she says with a snort.

I scrunch my face at her as heat rises in me.  “Maybe we should go to the farm,” I retort with bitterness that seeps through me.

“Sorry,” Bailey says while taking her hands off my face and backing up.

“Maybe, we should go to the farm. After all, you’ve already called me a kangaroo and a racoon.”

“Listen,” she says. “I’m just trying to help you. Would you really want to go out looking like you did?”

I shrug my shoulders at her. No. But I don’t say that. As a matter of fact, I got nothing. So I stand there stupidly. And everyone knows the problem with silence, is that if you can’t come up with a snappy come-back, it automatically implies the other person’s right, and you’re wrong.

“And seriously, your eyeliner was all smudged. You could make more of an effort!”

I rub my eye. “It probably smudged when I was trying on clothes,” I say grabbing my purse. “Are you ready to go?” I ask turning around to face her.

“Yeah,” Bailey huffs as her heels hit the floor and she clip-clops towards the front entrance.

As I stick my key in the door and begin to pull it closed, Mrs. Chrystenson walks up the front path.

“Dearie,” she says carrying a plant up my walkway.  “Here’s one of the ferns from my garden. I just pulled it out right away after we talked this morning. So, I wouldn’t forget. Oh…” her voice trails off, “what happened to the lovely blue dress you were wearing this morning?”

“Oh,” I glance at Bailey and answer, “it was a little tight.”

“Where?” Mrs. Chrystenson asks. Her face is the lovely smoothness of calm that woman of a certain age get when they’ve seen it all. She genuinely looks like she has no idea. It’s not that “look” people give you when they know, and they’re just being nice; or they’re secretly trying to get you to say how terrible you looked, so that way they can quietly snicker at you.

Bailey hangs onto her purse and leans against the stone wall of my house. Breathing out, she announces, “in the tummy.”

Embarrassed, my cheeks turn pink, and I drop my head. I wish I were somewhere else.

“Oh,” Mrs. Chrystenson says. I raise my eyes and notice my neighbour’s lips purse together at Bailey. “Did you tell her that?” she asks Bailey.

Bailey stands up straight as her shoulders square off towards Mrs. Chrystenson. “Yes,” Bailey answers, “I’m trying to live more honestly. So, I’m going to say what I think from now on.”

“Huh, well… I’ve always found that there are versions of honesty. Depending on who’s giving the version of the truth, it’s peppered by things that have happened in their own lives.”

I blink at Bailey and watch her jaw tighten and tears fill her eyes. She’s a good friend. I need to defend her. “No, she was right. The dress made me look like I was at the end of my first trimester with twins. I didn’t notice it at first, until she pointed it out.”

“Oh yes, well…” she says as she continues walking up the path and places the fern down on my front porch.

She glances over at Bailey and me, and nods.

“Well, you have a very astute friend. Good of her to look out for you. Have a nice day,” she says as she walks down the pathway.

“You too,” I say. I glance down at the fern and add, “And, thank you for the plant.”

“Quite welcome, my dear,” she says turning to me as she pulls her flowered gardening gloves off. “You know, it’s interesting what people see.  My son had a motorcycle accident years ago.  Terrible things. They should ban them!” she says shaking her head. “Anyways, he broke his helmet and he had a three inch scar down the side of his face. He was lucky to be alive. After the accident, he didn’t want to date. Thought that he looked too hideous. But I would make him go to the grocery store and get my groceries after my husband died. He met a beautiful young woman there who happened to be the whole package as well.” She turns and begins to walk down the pathway.

I hate it when old people do that. Don’t finish a story. Just leaving you hanging… It’s like they feel like you should know. But we want to know, for certain, how the darn thing ends.

I’ve been baited, and I know it. Reluctantly, I sigh and say, “And?”

Laughing she says, “She never saw the scar until he pointed it out. It had faded with time. But for him, it was as big as the day it was when the Doctor stitched it up. They’re happily married now. Baby number two is on the way. It will be my fourth grandchild.”

“Congratulations,” I beam at Mrs. Chrystenson.

“Thank you,” she says. For a second she pauses, and then says, “in the name of honesty, I didn’t notice. I thought the dress looked lovely on you.” With a shrug of her shoulders, a gentle smile, she then turns, and walks away.

The Thief

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I’m standing in the middle of a winter storm with northerly winds that kick icy flakes into my face scratching my cheeks and stinging my eyes.  Twirling snow dances across the pavement. In the air, the snowflakes link hands together creating white-out conditions. It’s terrifying – because when I’m brave enough to raise my eyes and face the assault of icy air again, I can’t see a thing in front of me. The road has disappeared. There’s nothing in front of me, or behind me. The world has vanished.

I’m waiting for it to stop: that moment when the sun will slide through a cloud and like a flashlight illuminate the faint outlines of buildings and reveal snow covered draped trees to me again. Even for the briefest of moments, would make all the difference in the world: it would be a reassurance that this storm will end.

I’ve been asked what I would do when this happened to me: the moment when writer’s block sets in, and like a thief that’s tip-toed through my home when I wasn’t there stole my dictionary, thesaurus, and in a final assault on my creativity – walked off with my computer in the middle of the night. The bandit has stolen everything I could use to put words together, whether it is on paper, or in a blog post.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the answer I gave to this problem. But I suspect knowing me, I would have used my running experience and said something such as, “I would write over it. Keep writing, no matter what! And then hope, that someday the words would come easier again.”

The experience of running has taught me that sometimes, I need to push on and over, the most difficult days. Not every training day will offer sunny skies, seventy degree Celsius temperatures, and tank top and short-wearing weather.  Some days will be minus thirty-five degree Celsius temperatures, layered clothing, steamed glasses, and ice buildup on my eyebrows, hair and lashes. But those are the days I know I need to get out the door and do the best I can, with the conditions I’m given.

But I don’t always keep running in a race. Sometimes I’ll slow down, walk it out, and wait for the pain in my calf to subside (ditto for nausea). I know this to be true: sometimes I need a little break so that I can return to my 10 KM run, half-marathon, or marathon race stronger than I was a few moments ago. Ultimately, for me at least, what matters most is crossing the finish line.

Writer’s block haunts me. It slithers in the shadows and reappears in the most terrifying and most unexpected times.  It waits for me. Sometimes when I’m at my strongest mentally; and sometimes when I’m at my weakest. It’s stalked me so many times: inching it’s way closer when I wasn’t watching, forcing me to keep my eyes open longer resulting in too many late nights and scrambled thoughts. Then before I even knew what was happening, my ideas and ability to weave stories together had vanished.

In this community I won’t lie to you, there are times I’m scared I may never be able to write another story again. (To those on the outside, I’ll say something different.) Those are the moments I reach for the switch in a room and attempt to illuminate the darkness. When my fingertips hit the light switch and I hear the “click” I’m slightly relieved – relieved, until nothing happens. Because now I know, I’m in the middle of a power outage.

After scrambling around trying to find the one lighter I own in my house, I light a candle and watch the glow because nothing else works. I can’t make toast or coffee, there’s no TV or radio, and if the power outage lasts long enough, I’ll run out of hot water.   Now I know there are some things I should do during a power outage: buy bottled water, batteries, and flashlights; and keep the fridge door closed to prevent food from spoiling. Other than that, I need to wait.

I’ve faced writer’s block before: sleep-deprivation, viruses, injuries, and personal life upheaval have been some of my enemies. With all these factors, when my mind struggles to take care of day-to-day tasks it saps my creativity. My brain busy building to-do lists, for to-do lists, has no room to build heroes and plotlines.

But I continue to move forward as much as I can through it. In those moments when I find I can’t create something new, I’ll work on something old, revise my manuscript, or work on marketing material. Above all else, I keep working, no matter what. My fear is this: If I stop working too long, the ever-present negative naysayer in me will grow louder and my writing adventure might be over.

Eventually, I know the winter storm will stop and I’ll hear the hum of the fridge starting again. With this sign, I’ll flick the switch and the darkness will end with light. Normally when the power returns, the thief shows up on my front step with my dictionary and thesaurus, and good guy that he is, he’ll even help me set my computer up again.  With my coffee pot percolating, and my toaster toasting, I watch as new and old characters walk through my door and my world-building begins once more.