Exemplary!

There was a dead body. The dead body was a woman ninety years. The body died in its sleep. Its Exemplar watched the body, which was in bed on top of the covers. The Exemplar did not tuck it in.

“I can hear them in the train,” said Ruth’s Exemplar. “They see you on the tracks. One of them is begging you to move beneath his breath. Another one is putting on the brakes, though he knows the train won’t stop in time. Another one is saying how it’s been a while.”

“A while since what?” said Ruth.

“Since anyone used a train this way. That is, to die.”

“It’s the only thing in town I’m sure can kill me.”

Meanwhile a woman on a distant road, a highway, watched the tail end of a truck swerve. Call her the driver. It was one of those two-level trucks that carry new cars, the carried cars held fast on what must be ramps by means totally invisible to other drivers, the carried cars being exposed as much as possible to open air, possibly for reasons of advertisement or possibly (the woman felt) because it kept them strong and young, all that air and sun. The swerve of the truck’s tail made its taillights blur. When the tail was at full swing the red ribbony trail of its taillights would grow long, which blurring made the truck seem to move very quickly; when the tail reached the extreme of its sway and prepared to reverse direction, the red trails of light shortened and then disappeared, which both made the truck seem to slow and to become suddenly much closer to the driver behind it, such that she kept pumping the breaks in short, nervous, ineffectual bursts and then leaning on the gas to make up the difference. The driver had been certain since her childhood that she would one day see the cars on such a truck slide backwards down their ramps and out onto the road, and that this would happen at the precise moment when she let her guard down, when she ceased to believe it would happen. These intuitions are common but usually wrong.

Her belief made it incumbent on her, for the sake of her safety, to imagine this was on the verge of happening whenever she was within sight of such a truck. And the cars did shiver on the truck. They hummed. As a piano string with the hammer held down by some finger past the point of tone. She was so busy imagining how this hum could become a rolling that when the first car slipped free and rolled down to meet her, geared to neutral, rolling slightly forward as its fourth wheel hit the highway but rolling very slowly, coasting purely on the residue of momentum left by the truck that birthed it – when the first car came loose, she didn’t believe it, and so continued at the same speed. It was only the second car (a white sedan, four doors, tapering at every angle, not unlike a child’s coffin she had seen on display, though empty, when she was a child also) she understood enough to swerve.

The cars on the bottom tier all poured out then, like some stupid eager brood, and pouring jostled one another, crunching head- and tail-lights, bending fenders, but basically harmless to one another because of the way their backwards rolling had sapped their inertia. That is until the second tier began to fall, which cracked the road and impaled one car (a baby-blue hatchback) on another (a new variation on the station wagon concept, sultry red, which fell through the former). The driver was seeing all this, though she didn’t know it yet, from fifty feet above the ground, and rising. Her Exemplar, who had been flying several hundred yards up so as to allow her the semblance of peaceful solitude, had lifted the car. It was possible he could have left her on the ground and punched the loose, driverless cars to pieces or hurled them into space, however this was simpler. The woman driver pumped her brakes and shrieked because her car would not stop or even slow. She pulled the wheel hard right, and moaned: nothing. She would figure it out or he would explain it – why the car would not turn – just as soon as he could set her down safely. The cars that had rolled or fallen out of the truck were about as destroyed as they were going to get. Mostly they looked like a herd of very shiny cows on the road, gazing with dull bewilderment around themselves in all directions.

The other Exemplar, the one who served the man who drove the truck that lost its cars, was busy reflecting on the errors, sloppiness, and inexemplary behavior that had brought them all to this point. He could have saved the cars.

Meanwhile there was a husband shouting at his wife. They’d been trying to make love when her Exemplar suggested a different position – one that might better account for her needs and sensitivities. The husband knew that was his wife’s language. He shouted that the wife could tell him directly if she wanted something different. He told her he didn’t get everything he wanted either and you didn’t see him going to his Exemplar about it. His Exemplar was, at this moment, watching television, which was, the Exemplars had found, the only thing they could do to make people feel they weren’t being listened in on. In the popular imagination, TV trumped super-hearing. The husband asked his wife why she let her Exemplar watch them. He asked her if her Exemplar knew so much about making love why didn’t she just fuck him already. And so left the house, slamming the door behind him, trailed by his caped man, who turned the television off in passing.

The wife considered her Exemplar. He was standing rigid at the foot of the bed, eyes averted from her body. She was down to her panties and her nipples were hard. She reached to stroke his jaw.

There was a small man in a hotel. His name was Michael. He was seated on one bed, his Exemplar on the other. They looked into each other’s face. The Exemplar’s face was like an open tub of margarine. Smooth, simple, pale. Michael was Ruth’s youngest son. It was years since they’d spoken. If asked she would say this had nothing to do with her urgent need to be hit by a train.

There was a big man alone in an orchard. His name was Bart; he was also Ruth’s son. He could reach most of the oranges without a ladder. In the night the oranges were a vivid glowing gray. When he’d eaten the low-hanging fruit he would shake the trees. His Exemplar, if he had one, wasn’t watching.

The train’s approach was deafening. Ruth had finished one of the three remaining cans of Natural Light and was now shotgunning the second through a hole she’d gouged with her car key. The foam ran down her jowls and neck, tracing the troubled furrows of her stretch marks. It smelled faintly of bananas. The last can, the one still in the case, would not be drunk. Ruth experienced immense regret over the fact she would never drink her last beer. That beer was hers.

Ruth’s Exemplar left the car. Otherwise the train would break on his body. He left her inside. Given he was hers, much as the can was hers, it was unclear what he’d do in her absence. (The can would burst.)

To be clear:

The train hit the car.

*

Ruth’s Exemplar floated up into the clouds, and through them, and past all the air, and outside the atmosphere, until he no longer felt the Earth’s pull. For the Exemplar escape velocity was any speed: he did not need to move quickly, but only to continue rising. He looked at the Earth from this distance, which was not so far that he could see the whole thing. It was a blue horizon toward which everything seemed, even in its stillness, to fall; the sun loomed over its shoulder like a father. The Exemplar’s cape floated behind him like an indecisive jellyfish, revealing geometries impossible on Earth. It was still bright red. He did not breathe and did not miss breathing. There were other figures here, looking down at Earth – other Exemplars, their red capes floating shapelessly behind them. They did not speak to each other, though as the planet turned beneath them, and as some came and went, others might drift, like leaves on a water, in such a way that they seemed very close to one another – close, but not touching. And they might glance at one another, might meet each other’s eyes, might in this moment seem to exchange some small thought or insight, in the brightly burning shadow of the Earth’s yellow sun.

Mike Meginnis has published stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, Hobart, The Collagist, The Lifted Brow, The Nashville Review, elimae, and many others. He plays collaborative text adventures with many writers at exitsare.com. He also serves as prose editor for Noemi Press, and co-edits Uncanny Valley with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling.