by Leah Browning
He found himself in a paralytic state. This was the state of Ohio. On a billboard outside—well, if you’ve been there, you know. Along the highway on his way home from the new job, he had to pass it. He turned up the radio, looked in another direction. Sometimes, though, he was distracted and forgot, and he accidentally looked out the window and saw it dead on.
He’s a grown man now, with a wife and two young children at home. This was another lifetime, with another girl, someone—he thinks now—that he barely knew. They were college sophomores when they found out. They’d been staying up for days at a time, and her father had money, so they were buying expensive stuff. Best-case scenario, the baby would have been born an addict. Worst case, well. You know. They decided not to roll those dice.
The first time he looked up and saw the billboard, he’d been on a high from his first sale at the new place. A fat commission, a pat on the back, the works. He’d been flying down the highway with the windows open and the radio cranked up, and when he saw the sign, he felt like he’d been punched in the gut. He hadn’t thought about that in years. Even his wife doesn’t know.
Now, seeing it, he feels sick all over again. You just want the bad feeling to go away, you know? He’s been sober for years now, and still, he’s tempted to stop at a bar. As he gets off the highway, he pulls into a nearby parking lot and into an empty space as if he’s in a trance.
It’s been a long day. Relief is right there. He can feel it in every square inch of his body.
The neon sign in the window is on. It’s orange, and the connection is loose, so it’s blinking. On, on, on. Every muscle in his body is tense, he’s ready to spring out of the car, but then he doesn’t take the key out of the ignition. He can’t go back to that time.
Instead, he just sits in the car, idling, watching people walk to and from the strip mall, until his hands stop shaking, and then he throws the car back into reverse and follows his headlights toward home.
Signs flicker past the windows and in the rearview mirror. He’s already ten over in a fifty-mile zone, but he knows that no matter how hard he accelerates, he’ll still be trapped in the body of the car, unable to reach whatever he’s chasing, or outrun whatever it is that’s chasing him.
Leah Browning’s stories have appeared in Mojave River Review, Four Way Review, Forge Literary Magazine, The Threepenny Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Her second chapbook of short fiction, Orchard City, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017.