Culture  Everything

A story by Sarah Mortimer

She was aware that death strode inches from her pedals, as she was aware of the fact that her eyes matched the colour of the light that now pulled her away from her thoughts and towards the next cement stretch. It was a hard-edged truth that death inevitably came, and riding so close to it each day, she hardly gave it more attention than the greens and reds that brought her on these days from one location to the next.

Yellow fading into grey. This was how it was and this was how it would remain until after the patterns had turned black in her mind and her body had been burned black into the asphalt.

She drew her head to her chest and tried to re-summon the wind into her lungs that had escaped with the yellow markers behind her. Sweat spilled from her forehead and vanished on her tires like snowflakes sinking into skin. Yellow faded into grey.

She had taken this route for years. She followed its curves with cautious devotion. She stayed within the lines and she stopped when she was told.

The stores and people that patterned the sidewalks were nameless. She knew them like she knew what France was like without ever having crossed the Canadian border. She knew them like a tourist knew anything. She was passing through. She was headed somewhere else.

Their narratives hung suspended, running parallel to hers and never merging. They became scenery to her and in these scenes, a tree was a tree, a man was a tree, a child was a tree, and yellow faded into grey.

She had taken this route for years to a desk where everything happened. She had taken it to a desk that was decorated with pictures of people who she knew slightly better than the men and the trees on her route.

Beside the pencil sharpener on her desk was a photo of her brother, Jeremy. Jeremy was a birch, or rather, he had become one after the miles she had travelled, all these days refigured into years.

She had once known Jeremy like she had known the cat that filled the frame next to him, before it ran away and got hit by one of the cars that raced beside her. The cat had slept at the end of her bed every night for three years until its death and now she did not remember its name.

Her mind was speeding and her memory was grey. She did not remember its name.

“Who’s that in the photo?” she imagined someone asking.

“The cat?”

“No, the man.”

“Oh…that’s my brother, Jeremy,” she would answer. “We used to be really close…”

She wanted to remember him. Fragments of Jeremy came back to her – his unruly hair, his dirty hands – a certain closeness that she now knew only in pieces. The pieces of a scattered puzzle, the pieces of her past.

The speed of her thoughts picked up. “When we were kids…when we were kids, we used to build forts and eat cheese and crackers under blankets…. We’d hide the crumbs under the cushions and my mom would complain because we were attracting mice.” She paused for a second before deciding, “But we liked mice.”

That conversation had never occurred outside of her own mind. In the place where everything was supposed to be happening, certain details remained always dormant.

Sirens cried, and Jane’s thoughts halted with her bicycle at a place where they had never stopped before.

The siren belonged to an ambulance that pulled up violently behind her. From its doors burst two men in blue scrubs hovering over a woman on a stretcher. She thought that the woman looked like a cloud being eclipsed by the sky. Her wheels locked, and her eyes locked on the scene before her.

“Breathe,” said one of the blue men. “Everything is going to be okay”.

The woman’s eyes were half open and she was wearing an oxygen mask. Her head hung at her chest, and she was struggling to catch the breath that had escaped with the years behind her. The men didn’t waste time carrying the woman to the hospital nearby. Jane guessed that you don’t waste time when everything might not be okay.

As the woman on the stretcher was drawn away, her eyes met with Jane’s in a stare that felt longer than all the bike rides Jane had taken in her lifetime. In her eyes, she saw the woman asking the only question Jane had ever wished to be asked. “Who is that man in your photo?”

The woman and the blue men got closer and closer to the hospital doors, and again began to look like trees. She turned around and saw a man, not a tree. She stopped wasting time.

“How much will you give me for this bike?” she asked him.

“I dunno,” he said, his eyes were focused on the ground.

She ignored it. “Give me $2.75.”

The man asked Jane if there was a bomb attached to her bike.

“No,” said Jane.

She gave the man the bike and put his money into the change slot of a bus that was headed to her office. She got off early at a department store where she bought a sheet from a clerk named Lucy. Then she strolled into her office where nothing actually happened, and draped the sheet across her cubicle – and Jeremy.

“What are you doing?” asked her editor.

“Eating cheese and crackers,” Jane replied.

“I see that,” her editor said, irritated, “But what’s with the sheet?”

She pointed to the picture. “Have you ever met my brother Jeremy?”