Damn it. This was no good. He simply couldn't find focus. As he so often did lately, Michael reflected on his life and wondered what was wrong with him. He considered his accomplishments and achievements. He had once been proud of them. Now they seemed paltry and meaningless.
His parents had pulled him out of public school when he was twelve, ostensibly to give him a better education at home. What that ultimately amounted to was him living in solitary confinement for six years. His mother had made a half-hearted attempt to teach him the first year, but soon gave up and left him to his own devices. Everything from then on, he had taught himself.
Six years, he reflected bitterly. Six years with only his immediate family for companionship. No wonder he was so fucked up. That must be what was at the root of it. When he was in school, he was just like anyone else, but six years of solitude will change a person. When he had gotten free and gotten his first job, he was completely socially maladjusted. He was the odd, quiet guy. He finally had freedom, but had no idea of what to do with it.
A month before he turned nineteen he enlisted in the army. As his academic credentials were non-existent, he had had to earn a GED. He learned from his score that he was well above the typical high school graduate level. This was confirmed when he took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery of exams. So, he wasn't unintelligent then. That was something at least.
As he suspected, the army was a culture shock. It was, he reflected, just what he needed. The camaraderie of military life helped ease the loneliness that had been consuming him. The constant interaction with others gradually wore away his introversion. He eventually even made friends, but no girlfriends. Men, he learned to talk to and even command, but women remained a complete enigma. He still lacked the social graces needed to connect with a woman. In four years he had only managed to kiss a woman. He had burned with shame with the constant reminder that at twenty two, he was still a virgin.
It was during his tour in Iraq that he decided to get out of the army. We wasn't realizing his potential as a grunt. Most of his friends and even his commander asked him why he was in the army. He was smart, and he was a talented artist. Why was he wasting his life in the military when he could be making money as a civilian artist?
Michael was always faintly offended at the comments. They implied that the military was only for people who could find no vocation elsewhere. To him, it was one of the most selfless and honorable professions a person could have. At the same time he ,was flattered that they thought so highly of him. It was the hair raising experience of combat that convinced him that he needed to go out and experience life.
After he left the army, he applied to several colleges and was accepted to most. He eventually decided to attend the state university. It had a reputation as having the most female coeds. It also had an excellent art department, but he privately admitted that was a secondary concern. When he saw the campus, he was amazed. After army life, it was like setting a feast before a starving man. Never before had he seen so many beautiful women. They were everywhere, all shapes, all sizes. He never wanted to leave. Somewhere here, there must be someone for me, he thought.
He had not been a success. Oh, his grades were good, but his social skills were still atrophied-at least as far as women went. The confidence had had built evaporated in the presence of a woman. The man who had commanded soldiers in war was reduced to a stuttering, mumbling mess when he tied. He wondered if he lacked some essential quality needed to connect with a women. Perhaps he was defective in some way, perhaps lacking the gene that gave men their instincts when pursuing a woman. He eventually managed to ask a few out on dates. Those that didn't reject him outright never saw him again.
Then the dreams had begun. Well, begun again, he had been having them since he was thirteen, but they had receded for years. Now they were stronger, more intense. All he remembered were half formed images of a woman. The same woman every time, he was sure of it though her features were always obscured. Only the vaguest impression of her. She was calling to him, but her voice seemed always to come from a distance.
For more than a year the dreams and images had plagued him, increasing in frequency until he thought he would go mad. That brought him to the present, twenty-seven and still less than a man. Alone in an empty apartment day after day with only phantoms for companionship.
He abruptly stood up from the half-finished sketch he was working on and stalked to his bedroom mirror. Frustrated, he ran his hand through his short blond hair. "What is wrong with you?", he asked his reflection bitterly. He examined the man before him with a critical artist's eye. Not a model, but not hideous either. Deep set dark green eyes peered out from straight brows set in a square jawed face. People said he resembled a young Keifer Sutherland. He was short but powerfully built. He had continued to exercise over the years, and he was in better shape now than he had been at nineteen. His shoulders were wide and heavily muscled, his chest was broad and lightly covered with fine blond hair that led down to a flat, defined stomach.
He glared at himself. He wanted to lash out and destroy the mirror in frustration. The loneliness and desolation he felt were growing worse. Lately, he hadn't been able to sleep as thoughts of failure and worthlessness plagued him. He had sometimes entertained the idea of visiting a prostitute, jut to see what it would feel like. He always quickly dismissed the notion with revulsion; he had no intention of being with someone who didn't want to be with him. He smiled humorlessly into the mirror, his image smiled back. That didn't look like it was going to happen anytime soon.
He needed to get his mind off of it. He needed a distraction. If he stayed here he felt he would go mad. He rubbed a hand over his chin feeling two day's worth of stubble. The numbers on the bedside clock radio glowed blue. Four thirty in the morning. He was sweating slightly, he felt feverish. He had to get out. Fuck it, he decided. He pulled on a loose red shirt and gray sweatpants. Maybe a run would clear is head. He grabbed his helmet and pulled on a leather jacket as he headed out the door.
The cool early morning air soothed his hot skin as he walked toward his bike. It gleamed black under the pallid street lamps. It seemed to crouch like a hunting cat in the shadows awaiting a chance to spring toward hapless prey at his command. Michael depressed the starter and the machine instantly awakened with a throaty growl. With practiced ease, he swung a leg over and eased out of the lot.
Out on the road, the machine became a part of him, instantly responding to his commands as if it were hardwired to his brain. The growl of the exhaust became a banshee's wail as he raced along the deserted streets, the cold wind became a biting caress as he urged the machine beneath him to greater speeds. This was when he had his greatest moments of clarity, with nothing but the wind and road. His body and mind relaxed as sped through the darkness.
He reached his destination on the outskirts of town. He had run this route before but never in the darkness. The lonely road ran a serpentine course through the deserted area. There used to be a few homes and businesses here but the buildings were now dark and empty. Michael felt a vague prickling, as if someone else were near. Ridiculous of course, but he nevertheless peered into the inky shadows along the road. Nothing. As he began his run, the sensation passed. Now he felt totally alone. It was a feeling he was accustomed to.
He hated running, but it served as a distraction. He limbs pumped as he doggedly ran along the desolate road. The cold air burned his lungs and his breath came in ragged gasps, his legs felt like burning lead weights, but he continued on until exhaustion caused him to slow and finally stagger to a stop. Despite the cold air, he dripped sweat as he fought to catch his breath. He had been running for almost an hour. As he walked back to his bike to cool down, he again felt a presence nearby, as if someone were walking beside him. He had learned to trust his instincts, but there was simply nothing there.
A gust of wind gently pushed against him ,and brought with it a faint aroma. It was pleasant, but he couldn't place it. Fragrant and slightly spicy it was decidedly feminine. He inhaled deeply, trying to identify it, but it faded and was gone. Something about it tickled the back of his mind, as if he should recognize it. He tried to dismiss it, but it clung stubbornly to his mind.
Tired in body, but refreshed in mind, he climbed back on his bike and started home. As he tore through the darkness, he realized he felt something he hadn't felt in a long time. What was it? He tried to pin down the unfamiliar emotion. Inspiration. That was it. Inspiration and building excitement. He felt an overwhelming urge to draw again, to create.
The quick shower invigorated him, but the urge to draw grew greater. Hurriedly toweling himself dry, he threw on some clean cloths and threw himself into his work with an intensity he had never felt before. From the first few strokes, he already knew that this would be a masterpiece. His pencil glided over the pace in swift, sure strokes. He had no concrete idea of what the final product was going to be, just a nebulous image that slowly grew clearer as he worked. He was acting purely in instinct. There was nothing else in the world that mattered besides the image forming on the sheet of paper before him.
His excitement grew as the image in his mind sharpened in concert with the drawing at his fingertips. It was the portrait of a woman. His hands were shaking. He took a deep breath to calm himself before continuing. Hours passed, but he took no notice, the portrait before him was all consuming. The features took shape and were finalized. Careful shading was applied, and blended until the pencil strokes were invisible. Finally satisfied, he stepped back and studied the completed picture.
He knew he was talented, but the image before him was a quantum leap forward in terms of quality. It was a portrait of a woman. A beautiful woman. An achingly beautiful woman. Dark hair fell in perfect shimmering waves past her shoulders. The picture was in graphite, but he knew that if she were real it would be a deep, rich chestnut kissed with highlights from the sun. His fingers itched to trace the line of her jaw. Her large eyes were dark and alluring, framed by long, thick lashes beneath flawlessly arched brows. The gaze was smoky, yet demure. He nose was small and delicate, almost sculptured in it's perfection. Her lips were lush and full, and incredibly tantalizing. They were parted slightly as if inviting a passionate kiss, yet curled in the slightest of smiles.
He was sure he had never seen her before-anyone looking like that would definitely be remembered. Yet, she did seem familiar, as if she were from a forgotten memory. Perhaps she's from a past life, he mused. Having her in a past life would account for his celibacy in this one, what with karma and all.
After staring for an interminable period of time, he realized he was exhausted. With a start, he realized that sunlight was streaming through the window. How long had he been working? He looked at the clock and swore aloud. Ten hours? How was that possible. Ah well, he mused as his gaze was dragged back to the portrait. It was worth it. Time well spent. Overcome by weariness, he stumbled to bed. As he pulled the sheets over himself, he wondered where the image had come from-he had used no references, and he didn't know anyone who resembled the gorgeous creature in the picture. I would certainly like to meet her though, he thought wearily; and with her image in his mind, he drifted to sleep.
Michael awoke feeling reinvigorated. That was the best sleep he'd had in ages. He grunted softly as he stretched on the bed. As he breathed deeply, he caught a scent. He stiffened. It was the same scent from the night before. It was stronger now, the aroma more complex and subtle. It almost smelled like perfume, but better than any perfume he had smelled before. He instinctively inhaled deeply, but again the mysterious fragrance was gone as if it had never been.
He sat on the bed for a few moments, trying to recapture the elusive scent it until he could almost convince himself that he had imagined it. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he swung his feet from the bed and walked to the portrait. He smiled at the picture. He had almost thought the whole experience was a dream, but the portrait sat on the easel, very solid and very real.
If anything, the woman looked even better. She looked entrancing. He tentatively reached out to touch the image, but just before his fingers made contact, he pulled back. This is ridiculous, he thought wryly, You really have cracked, getting infatuated with an imaginary woman. Besides, he didn't have any fixative, and he didn't want to smudge the graphite. Chuckling at his foolishness, he dressed and prepared for the day.
Or night, rather. The sun was already low on the horizon, and it was that magical time of day when the shadows lengthen and nature prepared to transition from day to night. Nice time for a ride, he mused. Well, why not? The day's wasted anyway. With that, it was decided.
He pulled on a white, long sleeve t-shirt with a screen print on it he had designed. As he pulled on a ragged pair of jeans with tears and paint splatters on the legs he remembered that a female friend had complemented him on them. She thought they were expensive designer jeans due to the paint and tears , but they were really a cheap pair he bought years ago and abused. He smiled again at his reflection, he felt good.
As he rode through town toward the countryside, he felt at relaxed for the first time in months. This really was a beautiful day, the sunset was magnificent as the sky was painted with shades of red and pink and violet. He sighed in contentment as he cruised along the country roads. He could almost imagine his mystery woman was sitting behind him, her arms wrapped around his waist as her body pressed to his. He smiled behind his face shield at the thought. He deftly maneuvered the bike trough twists and turns as he sped toward the countryside.
He rode long after the sky turned dark and the moon rose in the sky to cast it's silvery light on the deserted landscape, creating an otherworldly simulacrum of the peaceful country. He hadn't thought anything about the time until he saw the gas light blink on, glowing like a hot coal. He began to worry. He had been riding for a while and he honestly had no idea where he was. He realized he's never make it if he turned back toward the highway. All he could do was continue on and hope for some sign of civilization.
He almost missed the small road that intersected the larger country road he was on. Michael pulled to the side and considered it. If he kept on the same road, he might eventually run into a town, but there had been no markers or signs to indicate any such possibility. On the other hand, there was a small, wooden sign nailed to a post on the smaller road. It was nearly invisible among the shrubs and low branches of the trees, but it was a sign nonetheless. The faded paint simply read "Mike's Bar" with an arrow pointing down the dark path. Mike's Bar huh? Sound's like an omen. He decided to chance it.
He was beginning to think he had made a mistake in choosing this route. The road barely qualified as paved, he had to slow to a crawl to avoid potholes. The overhanging branches of the trees created a wooded arch over the road and cast it into deeper darkness. Great, all I need now is for a damn deer to jump out in front of me. He was considering backtracking when he saw a faint light up ahead. At first he worried it might just be the moonlight breaking through the trees, but his spirits lifted when he saw a single street lamp illuminating a ramshackle wooden building. Ah, civilization. Sure enough, the flickering neon sign read "Mike's". He tentatively pulled into the gravel lot and parked under the light. Moths fluttered overhead, drawn to the light.
As he killed the engine and pulled off his helmet he could hear the sputtering and buzzing of the neon sign over the faint country tune that emanated from within. The sounds seemed welcoming. Maybe someone inside could tell him where the nearest gas station was, or at least let him use the phone.
The wooden door creaked faintly as he pulled it open. Within the dimly lit interior he was immediately assaulted by the smell. Cigarette smoke hung in the air like a noxious cloud, mixed the scent of spilled beer and stale sweat. A battered jukebox in the corner was the only feeble attempt to create a welcoming atmosphere. This was clearly an establishment that was content with it's current clientele, and didn't overly concern itself with attracting new patrons. A group of weary looking blue collar workers were gathered around the single pool table. Their malaise was palpable as they glanced at Michael and dismissed him before returning to their halfhearted game.
Michael walked over to the bar and sat. The bartender, a portly middle aged man with an enormous mustache continued restocking the small cooler beneath the bar before ambling up to Michael.
"What'll it be?" the man rumbled in a voice roughened by smoke and cheap alcohol.
"Is there a gas station somewhere around here?" Michael inquired.
"About ten miles down the main road." He looked at the logo-emblazoned clock on the wall. "They're closed now though. Won't be open 'til nine tomorrow," The bartender responded as he glowered at the newcomer with bloodshot gray eyes.
"Well, can I use your phone then?"
"Phone's fer payin' customers," , the bartender snapped irritably.
"Fine. A beer then. Any kind."
"There's a five dollar minimum," the big man replied, as if determined to drive Michael away so he could glower in peace.
Michael fished a five dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to the guy. "Here, keep the change. Now how about that phone?" he inquired with growing frustration.
Almost reluctantly, The bartender took the proffered bill, and went to retrieve the beer. When he returned he almost slammed the phone and beer down.
Damn, what a miserable asshole, Michael thought as he pulled the phone to him. It phone was an old rotary model and cracked in places. He dialed his friend Rob, only to be greeted by a cool voice informing him that his call could not be completed. He tried another number with the same result. "Nothing's going through," he muttered.
The bartender grunted. "Line's probably down. Happens a lot with the trees here."
Michael nursed his beer as he considered his options. There weren't many. Maybe one of the guys here could give him a ride. He dismissed the idea immediately-they didn't seem like the friendliest bunch. Well, all that he could do was wait until morning. Being in the army had taught him to sleep pretty much anywhere. He threw the beer away unfinished. He really didn't feel like drinking, and he was considering trying to make it to the gas station to wait there, and it would be stupid to drink and ride-especially on these roads, even if it was just one beer. He grabbed a mint from a bowl on the bar and thanked the bartender, who gave a surly grunt in response.