A short story by Tina Konstant
Miles Willaby stared at the standard issue, dual, 22 inch monitors the company had given him after he’d given them almost half of his life, and blinked once. The image didn’t change. The screens were still filled with numbers, graphs, rules, restrictions, barbs and wires.
If he’d known…
He sipped his tea. Hot and strong. His choice. This he could choose. The cup though; paper, biodegradable, plastic lid with a small hole in the top to satisfy Health and Safety he couldn’t toss the contents all over himself or anyone else… Not his choice.
If he’d known at the beginning of his life that he’d be at a desk eight hours a day staring at a screen full of shit that no one cared about, he’d have made different choices. He’d have tossed a different coin. He’d have gone left instead of right.
He’d always turned right. That was how he was raised. “Miles,” his father had said at the end of his final year at school. “You need a backup plan. Music is great, really, but get a degree first, then, if the music doesn’t work out, you’ll have something to fall back on. Makes sense?”
Miles was seventeen when that conversation happened. “Right, Dad. Sure. I can still play in Uni bands.”
“Course you can, son. Of course you can.”
So Miles packed his guitar and went to university and studied engineering. But not all the time. He also met a girl. Miles smiled. Millie Wickers. They’d thought it hysterical that they had the same initials. Thought they were fated.
Miles blinked again. This time, for just a moment, Millie’s face filled the screens on his desk. Both screens. Millie Wickers didn’t do a damn thing by halves. When she traveled, she traveled to China. When she smoked, she smoked pot. When she danced, she took her clothes off. When she laughed, she filled his ears, his mind and his heart.
“Let’s go,” Millie had said at the start of their third year. “Let’s sod off to India and be travel writers and photographers. Let’s do this thing!”
Miles blinked again and Millie’s face fell from his screens. That was the year he’d been offered a summer placement at an engineering firm. Paid. He could clear some of his student loans. The CEO himself had offered him the job. “It’ll be great for your CV, Miles. Incredible. Almost guarantee you a job after you graduate. Anywhere you like.”
“Right,” Miles had said. Then asked Millie if she’d rather go to India over Christmas. Millie had laughed and said she was going for the summer but she’d wait for him. Even if she had to wait until Christmas!
They’d hugged and kissed and made promises at the airport. “See you in December,” Miles had said. He meant it.
Millie had smiled and kissed him again. “See you in December.” Millie didn’t do things by halves. When she cried, it splintered Miles’ heart. But Christmas wasn’t so far away. No need to be upset.
His monitors flickered and the company screen-saver bounced the corporate logo around his desktop. Miles nudged the mouse to clear it. The machine asked for a password. He squeezed the arms to the seat he’d been sitting on for the last six hours. He hated that he used this password more than he used his home phone number.
No surprise really. That autumn after Millie left for India, Miles had phoned his parents. “I’m going to India to meet Millie,” he’d said to his mother. He’d worked all summer and had the money. “Oh,” his mother’s voice cracked, she paused. Jesus, she knew how to play him. “Your grandparents are coming for Christmas. They’re almost 90. Are you sure you want to go this year? I mean, why not Easter? This will be the last Christmas they’ll make it up. It’s family. Your bothers and sister will be here too. For the first time in years we’ll all be together. Please, Miles, darling, it would be so good to have you here too. Please reconsider.”
“Right,” Miles had said. “Sure Mum. I guess that’ll be fine. I didn’t know the Grands were going to be there.” Millie would understand.
Miles closed his eyes and rolled his head back on his shoulders. His knees ached from being so goddamned immobile. Not for six hours, but for 26 years. He’d gone home that Christmas and hated it. Fought with his brother in a way that meant they’d never really made up because they each thought they were right, right, always right. Miles tried to stretch his jaw but his back teeth felt welded together. Cemented, locked, permanently shut.
Of course he didn’t go to India in April. Of course he worked the summer of his fourth year. Of course he got a job when he graduated. Of course he met a woman at his local gym. Of course he had two kids. Of course he bought a bastard house he hates. Of course he bought a brand new, gas-greedy, city-living 4×4. Of course his kids go to private school. Of course his wife runs a piss-artist interior design business.
Right, right, always right.
Right kids, let’s go to clarinet lessons. Right darling, let do that extension for your studio. Right boss, let me bend over and drop them.
Where was Millie? Jesus. Where is Millie? Miles cleared his screensaver again and punched his password in then opened Google. Millie Wickers, he typed and clicked search.
4,398,276 search results. Millie in India. Millie in China. Millie writing for the National Geographic. Millie writing for the Lonely Planet. Millie’s photos everywhere. The same Millie. Dear god, she still does everything in full colour. Pages everywhere. Smiling, laughing, explaining, writing, discovering, turning left. Everywhere. That was Millie’s thing. If the world told her to turn right, she’d turn left no matter what.
“What about your degree?” Miles had asked her when she first said she was going to India.
“I’ll finish it through Open Uni or some-such,” she’d said.
Miles shook his head. Millie Wickers, PhD. Damn. She’d done a PhD on the impact of tourism on near extinct African wildlife. She’d lived in Africa. She’d always wanted to go there.
Miles scrolled to the top of his search and clicked on Millie’s website. Christ. She had a “Contact Me” page. He clicked then held his breath. Millie’s face filled the left screen on his desk and even though his wasn’t looking, Miles knew his life was filling the right – his family, his job, his wife, all his ‘right’ decisions. Dear God, he wanted to turn left. Just once.
“Hey Millie,” he typed in the Contact Me form. “Not sure you remember me. Just found you online. Thought I’d say hi.” He signed it Miles Willaby in case she needed help remembering who he was.
Miles took another sip of tea. It tasted different. He smiled, sat upright, cleared his monitors of all things Millie and went back to making sense of the irrelevance he was paid to make sense of. Then his personal phone vibrated. A small buzz in his pocket. An email. Really? Can’t be her. He pulled the phone out and navigated to his emails.
“Miles!!!!!! You silly sod, where are you?!! I’m in India NOW. Can you believe it? I’m here now. Come and see me. It’s never too late. I’m sitting here crying! I can’t believe you got in touch. Send me your phone number so we can talk. What are you up to these days? I can’t find you online. Talk to me, lovely man. I’ve missed you for too long. Millie.”
Before he could bury it, a sob lurched into Miles Willaby’s chest, flooding his lungs and exploding out his mouth. His heart. Unbelievable. He pressed his hand to his chest. One beat. Then another. Whole heartbeats. Like the Big Bang had just happened in his chest and kick-started life itself.
Without saying anything, he stood up, phone in his hand and walked out the building typing his number into the message he was sending to Millie. Outside the building, he turned left. Five seconds later his phone rang. “Miles?”
“Oh God, Millie. I’m sorry!” Miles bent double to stop himself falling over.
“It’s okay, babe. I said I’d wait. I meant it. I’m here now. Just talk to me.”
Miles got to the end of the block and turned left again. And he talked. They talked about everything they’d missed. At the next junction, Miles turned left again. His car was close. No one was home. He could go to the house, pick up his passport and be on the next flight.
Millie laughed. Not by halves. The sound filled his ears and filled his brain and filled his soul and his body. He turned left again.
The police report read like an accident. White male stepped into the road in front of a moving vehicle. He was on the phone at the time.