Howard’s Mission

Everything in Howard’s life was slow. His dial-up internet connection, his data entry job in an accountancy practice, his attempts at a love life. Even his dachshund Doris, with her lame leg and bad breath from a rotten tooth.

There was a feeling of torpor, as if he were slipping into a sinkhole of mud and debris. One night he was on Datemate, hoping one of the ten women he had messaged two weeks earlier would reply. His inbox was empty and he stared at the profile pics. Doris’ gaze was imploring as she sat at his feet, tongue lolling. Everything mocked him. The cracked leather couch in baby excrement brown, the Ikea rug with its psychedelic hurl of nauseating colour and the stack of empty stubbies he hadn’t managed to take to the bin.

What’s wrong with me? he wondered. But he knew, as he glanced down at the blubber of his stomach straining against the desk. He reached up and felt the islands of mousy fuzz on his scalp. A few clicks later he was scanning the profiles of other men, with their biceps, honeyed tans and whitened grins.

Howard started training. At first, he stood in the kitchen lifting cans of soup, then bought some hand weights. Outside his window the dusty paddocks beckoned. The open space was a lure, and he put on tight shorts and an old singlet. It was dusk, and the sky was a riot of tangerine and fuchsia. He circled the closest paddock three times, the ochre dirt flew behind as he jogged. He blew out his cheeks and patted his shrinking stomach. Rosellas ducked and weaved between the gums, their wings flashed scarlet.

By week four he was eight kilos lighter. He had found a home gym on Ebay, and pumped iron with the ferocity of an Olympian. Doris stood at the back door and whimpered to be let out, but he was not deterred. The road was next. He concocted a plan to jog into town and reward himself with a beer at the pub.

The road stretched into the deepening orange as he set forth. My muscles are rippling, he thought. I am my own trainer and my life is under my control. Those Louise Hay books were a cheery addition to his repertoire. Small stones crunched under his soles as he broke into a sprint. A family of kangaroos arced towards him from the shadows. They were unafraid and eyed him before leaping ahead, muscles undulating beneath their fur. The smallest one kept close to his mother, his ears pricked up and his limbs skinny. Howard no longer wheezed or doubled over, propelled forward by a force of will that seemed outside of him. The roos were his spirit guides, sent to aid him on his mission.

A rumbling preceded a vehicle and he kept his gaze ahead as the engine roared closer. A truck, he guessed, sniffing diesel fumes. The kangaroos flowed together as if they were one organism. Except the joey was young and not quite in sync. He jerked from right to left, his movements a jarring note in their acapella.

Howard watched as the baby roo lurched into the path of the oncoming truck. There was still time, he thought, as he changed his own course. The truck’s speed was faster than he anticipated, the driver in a parallel universe of amphetamines, caught up in a pumping beat both real and imagined. Howard was fast, but not fast enough. His last vision was the sunset reflected in the chrome of an immense bumper bar, his hand clasped on the leg of the baby kangaroo.

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