To Mend a Mind
by Shane Fraser
He winced—silently, as always, now. He used to verbalize the pain, usually as an expletive: either a loud, elongated “fuck” or a “God Dammit”, but not anymore. The first few cuts molest the body in such a startling and unexpected way that the only mode of objection is to cry out one of such automated responses. But with time, after each new slice removes the memory of the previous, the effect lessens. The body adjusts and adapts, and painfulness becomes normalcy. The animalistic response still occurs—the wince or the shiver or the groan—but a callus forms to protect sentience. This allows us to continue to work and smile and live, in spite of the system shock. We are able to ignore it, forget it, as if it never happened.
So as blood splattered the floor and formed what looked like a Rorschach, he reached into his pant pocket and grabbed a Band-Aid and an airplane liquor bottle filled with Peroxide. He splashed the peroxide on his wrist, let it bubble from the cut like the mouth of a rabid dog, blew on it a couple times, pinched it, and slapped the Band-Aid on. The whole process took less than thirty seconds from impact to mummification, and Rick was back to work over the rusty engine, with wrench in hand, trying to remove the same bolt that caused this trouble.
After much groaning and gritting, Rick finally freed the bolt. He released the corroded carburetor and replaced it with a factory model. The new bolts torqued seamlessly and he ran the car once to affirm its condition and his own proficiency. After slamming the hood, he breathed a sigh of relief; he was done for the day. He was about to leave the bay when he remembered the blood blot on the floor, so he fetched antiseptic spray and a sponge. He scrubbed the patch until no evidence remained, then allowed himself to go and change.
Rick took off his baseball cap and ran his fingers through his wet hair. He placed the hat on the bench, unzipped his coveralls, pushed them to his ankles, and sat down in his underwear. He was still for about a minute, then removed his boots and slid the coveralls off his legs. This was all part of a daily yet subconscious routine. He joked with the guys, talked about last night’s game, and put on his cap, jeans, t-shirt, and shoes. He stuffed his work clothes and tattered Red Wings in his locker, bid the boys farewell, and left the shop.
Rick always enjoyed the drive home. As with anyone who works for a living, he liked the almost euphoric feeling of relief one experiences after finishing a shift, but besides the obvious, he liked the view. He liked the emerald hills that lined the freeway connecting the districts. He liked the familiarity of his neighborhood: of the office buildings, the shops, the restaurants, his favorite pizzeria, the store where he rented videos. More than anything else, though, he liked watching the sun set. In these fall months, the drive home coincided perfectly with the setting sun. Rick would relish in that beacon of warmth as it sat degreeless on the horizon; its force barely contained by his windshield.
Upon arriving home, he microwaved a prepackaged meal and grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge. He ate and drank on a tray in the living room, while catching the last innings of a ball game on TV. He finished dinner, threw his leavings in the trash, and, after the game ended, watched sitcoms till his eyelids started to flutter. That was his cue to go to bed, and he fell asleep as soon as he hit the pillow. For Rick, the evenings never strayed too far from this formula.
At the shop the next day, Rick was busy as always. He had a hand in mending five cars already and it wasn’t even noon. He’d just finished his sixth—a Mazda with a broken hairspring—and was examining the structural integrity of two new bandages. Satisfied with his applicative prowess, he decided it was about time to take a well-deserved lunch. He washed up, grabbed his wallet, and was walking across the bay towards the parking lot when he stopped and was unable to move. His head was turned towards the large window that separated the bay from the customer area. Through this window was the source of his petrification: a face so familiar that all else was forgotten amidst its radiance—most importantly the knowledge of mobility. He couldn’t help but stare; he was paralyzed from fear and dread and shock and bewilderment and grief and anger. The emotions rewired his consciousness, they were controlling the vessel, they were piloting a plane headed for disaster, and Rick could only watch in horror. He watched her smile, he watched her nod, he watched her lips bounce in understated harmony, he watched her attentive eyes search the face of his boss, and he watched her hand over her keys. This last action evoked the reality of his situation, and he grabbed the wheel and ducked under the window, just missing the mountain.
There he crouched, with darting eyes and heavy breath. He waited in the safety of the bay thicket for as long as intuition saw fit, and after nearly two minutes, peeked over the ledge. She was gone. He rose from the floor and scanned the bay interior. Nobody appeared to have noticed. He aborted the plan to get lunch and went back to the changeroom. Immediately after entering, he sat on the bench and stared ahead, helpless to the thoughts replacing his vision.
He stayed there until lunch break began for another worker. Though it lasted nearly forty-five minutes, time did not pass for Rick. He emerged a man with only one sense, which was used to find her ’81 Buick Century in terminal one. Feeling akin to a hangover, he walked through the shop in a haze, never once breaking eye contact with the car. It was on a lift and the boss and a senior employee were underneath its front end. They weren’t working but observing and conversing, which indicated that the problem was more than rudimentary. Fearing exposure, he looped back to his usual station where another vehicle was waiting, all while keeping one eye on her car.
He tried to focus on work but it was useless. There was no method of forgetting he did not try. An unrelated scene would be set in his mind, and she would burst through it like the paper-thin image it was. Trying not to think made it worse, and concentrating on anything else was impossible. He wielded his tools and did brainless tinkering, to create the illusion that it was important. Every few seconds he would glance at her car and oversee the work they were doing. Rick continued to watch and remember. Before long, it was six o’clock, and he had to be told that it was time to go home.
The drive home opened a catacomb of memories. Everything reminded him of her—looked like her. He thought of all the times they rode the freeway, of the times they walked through the neighborhood, of the times they ate at that pizzeria, of the times they rented from that video store. He saw the corner restaurant, which was the setting of many dates, one of which was the day she told him she wasn’t over her ex-husband. He thought of this and winced at the memory. Rick looked towards the sun; it had adopted her image, and she beamed upon the only world he ever cared for.
Rick arrived at his small one-bedroom bungalow and headed for his armchair. He didn’t turn on the TV or get supper; he just sat there, opening and closing his hands, as her film played to a soundtrack of cracking knuckles.
He never slept but wasn’t tired, so he left for work early to confirm that the previous day hadn’t been a dream. This was realized when he saw her blue Buick in the same terminal. Like yesterday, he monitored the progress on the car, so as to know when to flee. At around eleven o’clock, they lowered it off the lift and drove it out of the bay. Rick dropped his tools and hurriedly walked towards the back. He smiled and exhaled with relief as the walls of the hallway blocked his view of the lobby, and the prospect of a meeting disintegrated.
Someone called his name. Rick turned around and saw his boss loping in his direction. He stopped, steadied himself by grabbing Rick’s shoulder, and asked between breaths if Rick could watch the desk while he grabbed a coffee. Rick tried to reply but his boss just thanked him and walked past before he could give an answer. His psyche shattered, his heartbeat was audible, and his legs objected to movement. He tried to think of any way out but nothing would open. Alas, Rick labored towards the front, married to the notion that she would be late.
She was already there when he entered the room, but was turned away, absentmindedly wandering around the lobby. She fiddled with the displays and pondered the notices on the board, but performed these simple movements with a gaiety and elegance that was oh so astounding to him, but not to the prosaic world he now occupied. Frozen in the doorway, he was still just a spectator, but that would change once he walked towards her. He knew he had to, but he didn’t know how; he didn’t know where he could find the strength. He took one light step and found the confidence in his belief that, before his foot touched the ground, her presence would prove too much for the planet to handle: Everything around her would implode into reversed singularity, and the universe would occupy nothing more than one of the thousands of golden specks within her irises. Three steps later, he was still there. This both saddened and terrified him, for he had no plan B. He kept stepping, though, hoping that time dilation was a factor, and a moment later he was in her radius. She heard him coming, looked in his direction as he approached, smiled, glanced away again, and then quickly turned back with widened eyes and an open mouth, as surprise and recognition poured from her face.
“Rick! Hi! I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Hi Jessie. Yeah, for about a year now.”
“That’s great! So how’ve you been?”
“Good. How about you?”
“I’ve been good, too.”
Their eyes resisted separation, until she caught the glint of blood running freely down his hands.
He looked down.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Does it hurt?”
His eyes returned to hers.
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Shane Fraser has had fiction published in various publications and previously in The Flash Fiction Press.