This story is by Tim Grahl and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Mike’s hands fumbled. He dropped the change on the counter. He laughed nervously, quickly picked up the coins, and handed them to the barista. The young guy with the funky hair remained expressionless as he rang up the order.
Mike glanced at his watch for the third time and looked up at the door.
The place was pretty empty this late in the morning. There were a couple younger people in the back with their laptops and expensive headphones.
He had picked this place because it was in the hipster part of town. A place his friends would never visit.
“Mike,” the barista called out. “Pumpkin spice latte.”
He shuffled over to a table out of ear shot of the barista and sat down facing the front door. He wanted to make sure he saw her coming.
He reached into his blazer pocket and pulled out an old, worn paperback of Travels by Michael Crichton. Most people only knew about Jurassic Park or Congo, but Mike had always loved Crichton’s autobiography. It was full of stories of hiking in rain forests, scuba diving with sharks, and searching for spiritual truth. Mike had read it at least a dozen times.
He arranged the book flush with the edge of the table, and spun the mug so the handle was facing to his right. Then he began absentmindedly rubbing the spot on his ring finger. It had been a month since he had switched the ring from his finger to his pocket. Most people wouldn’t notice the slight shading, but he could see it.
This is not where he had thought his life would end up.
He had done it all. He’d kept the job with the desk and the boss. He’d paid for college. Twice. He’d never run around on Betty. But, come to find out, there was no prize at the end. Just more time on the couch staring at the TV.
He kept forcing himself to do all the things. He still showed up to the job. Still helped his friends move. Still served communion on Sundays. But now he seemed to be the only one that knew it was pointless. Did nobody else have dreams beyond this?
It hadn’t ended dramatically. In fact, it was just as boring and inevitable as everything else in his life. Betty had been getting ready for the monthly date night with Ronny and Ruth and had asked Mike what she should wear.
He had finished tying his shoe laces and stood from the bed. No jacket tonight. The August heat was still pretty bad. He glanced at the postcards she kept taped along the mirror above the dresser. They were from islands and coasts and exotic places all over the world. Betty always had her friends bring one home from their travels. Places Betty and him would never go.
There were always reasons and excuses not to go. It was the kids. And money. And money for the kids. And even though the kids were grown and gone and costing them nothing, he hadn’t bothered to bring it up again. What was the point?
He stepped around the corner into the walk-in closet. Everything was neat and orderly. Shoes lined along the floor. Skirts and shirts on the lower rungs. Dresses on the higher ones. Hats at the top. Belts were hung from hooks on the wall. Mike saw the small hole. He remembered a decade before when he’d accidentally drilled too many holes while hanging those hooks.
“I can’t decide between the purple or the black one,” Betty said holding up two different tops. “Black is probably too matchy since I have black pants on. But purple may be too loud. You know Ruth always comments when I wear a bit of color. I just don’t want to hear it tonight.”
She held them up for Mike.
“What do you think?”
“What about that?” Mike said gesturing to the back of the closet.
“What? Which one?”
Mike moved past her, pushed back the clothes that had been squished over, and pulled out a silky red dress.
“Oh come on,” Betty said rolling her eyes.
“What?” Mike said.
“You don’t want me to wear that.”
“Why not? You used to wear it all the time. With the heels and those earrings.”
“Yeah, maybe fifteen years ago. I’m too old for that now.”
“No way,” Mike said his eyes roaming up Betty’s body. “You could definitely still pull it off.”
“It’s too short. And too low cut. And too red. Are you trying to give Ruth something to gossip about on Sunday?”
Betty’s eyes went back to the two tops she was holding.
Mike didn’t say anything for a moment. He stared at the dress in his hands.
“I don’t think I’m going tonight,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
Mike hung up the dress and turned back towards Betty.
“I’m going out on my own.”
“Oh yeah? Where?” Betty said a small smile playing at her lips.
Mike stepped past Betty. He grabbed his keys, wallet, and phone from the counter and shoved them in his pockets.
Betty’s smile disappeared.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I’ll text you later.”
He hadn’t done anything crazy. No strip clubs or bars. Instead, he went to Barnes & Noble and browsed the Science Fiction section for awhile. Afterwards, he had driven over to the Radisson by the airport and checked in.
He had called Betty to let her know where he was so she wouldn’t worry. She kept asking him to come home, but he wasn’t ready. He just needed some time he had said. She asked what for, but he didn’t give an answer. He wasn’t even sure himself.
After a few nights at the Radisson, falling asleep watching TV alone, he had decided to stay with Bruce, a buddy from work. Well, enough of a buddy to let him sleep in his spare bed, but not enough of one where he knew anyone else in Mike’s life.
Last night, unable to sleep, Mike had been browsing the personal ads on Craigslist. He’d actually been doing this for years. He always got a laugh out of the crazy stuff people would post.
Last night was different. Instead of browsing, he clicked “post” at the top of the page. There wasn’t a lot of thought to it. In fact, if he had thought too much he wouldn’t have done it.
In the box marked “Title” he typed in “Ready to run away?”
In the body, he wrote “I don’t need romance or beauty or dreams. Only that tomorrow will be different from today. I’m tired of the treadmill. Are you? Let’s run away.”
He left all the stuff about body type and status and age empty, posted the ad, turned off his phone, and went to sleep.
As soon as his eyes had opened this morning dread flooded over him. He quickly pulled up Craigslist and deactivated the ad. Then he checked his email.
There was a single reply.
“I’m ready to run. When? Where?”
Mike’s mouth had gone dry. Was he really going to do this? And was it even real? It was probably just a fourteen year old kid getting off on screwing with people.
Once again, his fingers started moving without him thinking.
“Kaffeine on Central Ave. 10:30am. I’ll have my favorite book.”
Now, here he was. Waiting. He reached for the coffee then pulled his hand back to hide the shaking.
The door opened and he glanced up.
He couldn’t believe it. She was gorgeous. Her skin radiated and her hair fell down her back in long locks. And her legs.
Mike had always liked nice legs.
She scanned the small coffee shop and her eyes landed on him. Her mouth opened a bit, then she smiled. She glanced down at the book on the table then walked his way.
Mike hurried to his feet, knocking the table on his way up which sloshed some of his coffee. He didn’t notice. His eyes were locked on her.
She took the chair across from him. He sat back down.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Both of them smiling.
“Let’s go,” Mike finally said, standing.
“Go?” she said, her eyes wide. “Where?”
“We’re running away. Let’s go to the airport and buy the first two tickets that get us the furthest away.”
She stared at him hard. He held her gaze.
“But I haven’t packed anything,” she said.
“What you have on is perfect.”
Mike took her hand and helped her stand. He wrapped his hand around her waist and led her to the door. He opened it for her and they stepped out onto the sidewalk. The wind blew swirling orange and red leaves around their feet. She had to catch the short, red dress from revealing too much.
“I always have loved that dress,” he said.