Michael Midkiff was, by all accounts, a normal man. He worked 5 eight-hour days a week, put in 80 hours towards a paycheck, sometimes he made some overtime. At the end of the day, he came home to his wife and their daughter, now age 3. It was not the perfect life, but sometimes Michael thought it might be as close as you could get in this day and age. Life moved on a sweet, and mostly predictable keel, rhythms and patterns that no one could really have difficulty following. Predictability, Michael felt, was a cornerstone of happiness. Much could be said for spontaneity and “spur of the moment” plans, but these he felt paled to a life whose course could be plotted and came with no real setbacks and surprises. Michael occasionally injected some randomness into his life, and the life of his family, but it was planned randomness, if such a thing could be. His paycheck was dependable, his job was stable and secure, and he felt his family life was also alright. He sometimes asked his wife of six years, Susan, if she were happy and invariably the answer was a rosy “yes.” Michael sometimes doubted the truth of her word, in his secret heart, but often he accepted it for what it was; doubt and misgivings aside. Today, a balmy and sticky day in late July, was much the same as the next, aside from a cook-out Michael had spontaneously decided was going to happen when work was done. Not that Susan had already bought the charcoal and Michael himself selected some choice steaks and hamburger buns and meat, yet nothing had been said or hinted at. It was predictable, but it felt like randomness, and that was really the point of the exercise. Now, at 10 till 5:00pm, Michael propped his feet up on his mahogany desk and smiled, thinking of the smell of roasting beef and the scent of a freshly-cut lawn. He was snapped out of his reverie by Tyler, the mail clerk, dropping a plain manila envelope on his desk.
“What’s this?” Michael asked, more to himself than to Tyler.
“I dunno… something that fell out of the sorter. It’s addressed to you.” Tyler said flatly, his voice hinting at both boredom and fatigue.
“Thanks.” Michael said, dismissing him.
The envelope laid there, its neat surface nearly unmarred by creases or random folds. Spiky backhand writing spelled out his name, Michael Midkiff, and his present Somerset address. The return address was there, but the name was scrawled to the point of illegibility, and Michael knew for a fact that 35604 was an invalid ZIP code for Raleigh, VA. He had no doubt the street address was also fictitious, but none of this set him at edge more than the unseen weight the envelope seemed to bear. A harbinger, his father would have said had the old man not caught double-pneumonia at the tail-end of the 80’s. A harbinger, yes; but not truly of ill tidings, not so directly, not something that pointed itself out. Michael knew the latter had brought change to him, no matter how innocuous it might be. Change, the elusive element he had denied… perhaps avoided… all his adult life, had finally found him. With a hand that trembled only slightly, he picked up the letter and opened his desk drawer. The letter was light, probably with only a small scrap of paper in it, if anything. Absurdly, Michael found himself hoping that it was the latter. He opened the letter with a deft strike of his letter-opener, pulling its contents out gently. It was only one piece of paper, probably printer-paper by the look of it, white and unlined. Made with a dark blue fountain pen, Michael read it just once.
It wasn’t easy to find you, at all. The letters have gone out, and hopefully this one has found you. He says its time. You know the place. Move as quickly as possible, I know you have a little vacation time left. 2-3 days will be sufficient. Tell no one where or why. And be careful.
Michael threw both the letter and the envelope in the trash, knowing Tyler or Doug would be around in the morning to empty them all. He stayed at his desk until the clock read 5:20pm, 20 minutes past his time to leave, absorbed in thought. Normalcy and predictability were gone, and Michael had been thrust back into the seas of chaos, of random event. Yet he knew it was meant to be so, he had known it for awhile. The words of the letter knocked the illusion aside, revealing the shallowness of preconception. He says its time and Michael knew it was time. The time, the place, the circumstances… all of it came back to him with the urgency of an oncoming freight train. He picked up his desk-phone and quickly stabbed in an extension.
“Yes Michael, what is it?” his voice was a trifle hectic, pedantic and stuffy.
“I… I need to request 2 days of vacation time. Sorry for not giving you a warning first.”
There was an exasperated sigh from the other end of the receiver.
“This is our busiest season, Mr. Midkiff.”
“I know, I know… and I’m truly sorry… but something… personal has come up…”
DeLorimer’s voice softened, if only just a little.
“Nothing too bad, I hope?”
“No… just… an illness in the family,” he devised quickly, “their not sure if he’ll pull through.”
“I understand. Take 2 days, Mike, I’ll see about getting Terry or Andy to fill in for you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Hurry back; you’re who I trust the most in your position, Mr. Midkiff… Mike. Give my condolences to your family.”
“Will do. You have a good evening, sir.” He closed as he sat the phone back onto its cradle.
That had been mercifully easy to do, Mike didn’t think DeLorimer would try to check up on his story, but if something stuck in DeLorimer’s mind he would hound it unto the ends of the very earth. DeLorimer might phone home and ask Susan how this mysterious relative was, and of course Susan would tell him that it was no one, as Mike didn’t have any relatives left. He would have to chance it. Should he tell Susan the truth, then? The message said to tell no one, but he doubted Susan would follow, or ask many questions, if she believed him. That was a big “if” Mike thought as he opened the door to his Corolla. Perhaps he should just go now, get a train ticket, and leave everything in the air until Friday. Susan would be worried sick, and Michael thought that might leave an indelible stain on their relationship. He could also lie to her, if he needed to, or maybe just tell her it was something personal. These thoughts and more blew around in the halls of his mind as he drove from work to his home, at a speed most of his friends and companions would have thought him incapable of. Michael Midkiff was a fastidious man, following the rules society had so assiduously set for him. He wore his seatbelt and followed the rules of the road, usually. Such things were the furthest on his mind now. He pulled into his neatly manicured bordered driveway and came to a quick halt. Susan was not home; her pink Tracker was missing from the spot it usually occupied beside his sensible Corolla. Maybe he could leave a note for her, some brief and terse explanation as to why he would be gone for the next two days. He didn’t personally like the idea, it smacked of what other, more inconsiderate, husbands might do. He loved Susan, with all his soul and heart, but he knew that if he told her why he had to go, she would want to know the whole story. He couldn’t tell her, not if he wanted to keep her. Better to leave a note than nothing then. Better to have tried and failed than to have no tried at all.
He grabbed a “while you were out” paper from the pad by the Frigidaire and wrote quickly with the business pen he kept in his shirt pocket. For a moment the gears of his mind labored on just what to write, then they clicked on something reasonable but maddeningly vague. He had little time to dally.
I am so very sorry. I wish there was more I could say. I love you, with all my heart. Urgent business has come up, and I had to leave town for two days. Please trust in me as you always have. Please. I wish I had more time… to tell you everything, but I don’t. Will be back soon. Stay warm for me.
She deserved more than that, but it was all he could afford. Mike stuck the note to the cool, white surface of the refrigerator and ran into the master bedroom. His battered suitcase was still under his and Susan’s bed, he pulled it out, mildly surprised to find it was already full of summer clothes from their last vacation. It had been at the tail-end of summer, so he had probably put it under the bed and forgotten it, changing over to his autumn wardrobe seamlessly. He stuffed a few extra pairs of socks and underwear into it at random and ran back into the den. He was distantly aware he was crying, but he had no clear idea why. He opened the entertainment center and pulled out a small box from behind the stereo unit, it looked like a child’s safe. Susan and Mike kept a small amount of cash in the thin, aluminum safe, no more than $400 at most. It was a supply of petty cash, for errands or pizzas or anything else that might pop-up here or there. He shoved the money, approximately $312 dollars, into his pants pocket and grabbed his beaten, brown leather coat from the shoe-closet rack. He had no idea why he had gotten the coat, as the weather had been unseasonably hot of late, but the impulse was there and he neither wondered at it nor questioned it. He looked at the den once last time, the image of both his and Susan’s success in a world that moved faster than the speed of hope. An oasis and island of stability in an unstable world… and it was more than all of that, it was home. Tears stung his cheeks as he walked back to his car. He had the dreadful, tight, panicky feeling that this was the last time he would see his home, his wife, or anything connected to his old life again. He opened the door to his car and got in, thumbing the radio off instantly. The train station was in Pelham, about a fifteen minute drive, and he would need to take route 70 to avoid running into Susan as she came back from time, no doubt bearing chips, sodas, and perhaps a bottle of champagne to share after dark. He saw this all clearly, for perhaps the first time realizing the depth that lay between himself and his wife, as if they were disconnected on so many levels. He had no time to question or view the realization with wonder. He drove off quickly, leaving a small skid-mark on the driveway’s pristine, concrete surface… bound for places as yet unknown.