It was darker than usual as they drove along the flat, winding road towards their home in Green Valley. The sky stretched high above the flat expanse of the Arizona desert, and a few wispy clouds obscured the thin curve of the moon. Patches of stars were visible here and there, but it wasn’t enough to cast any light on to the black plain. Their daughter was fast asleep in the back seat, her blonde curls hanging down over her face like a halo around her and her teddy bear, which was tucked up under her chin.
His wife was dozing too, but roused herself occasionally if one of her favourite songs came on the radio, and she would sing along happily with the lyrics she knew, and invent her own for the parts she didn’t.
They rounded the corner that usually brought the sprawling web of Green Valley in to view, but this time there was nothing to see except a few dim pinpricks of light scattered across the desert.
“Looks like the power’s out,” he said. His wife made a quiet mumble of agreement. There was a loud bang and the car swerved violently, lurching across the the road. He grabbed tightly to the steering wheel as the back end of the car skidded out from under them, and the smell of hot rubber filled the car as he dragged it back under his control.
“What was that?” his wife asked, whipping around to check her daughter whose green eyes had snapped open at the noise.
“I think we blew a tire,” he said, studying his rearview mirror to see what they might have hit. As the car slowed to a stop, he pulled it in to the side of the road.
“It’s okay, sweetie, it’s just some car trouble. Come on out and we’ll get it fixed.” His wife pulled a flashlight from under the seat and they stepped out of the car on to the road, their breath rising instantly in front of their faces, like ghostly apparitions in the bright torchlight. He guided his daughter to the edge of the road, one hand on her shoulder just in case a car should come around the blind corner, but the road was dark and silent.
His wife went around to the trunk of the car and pulled out the spare wheel and a car jack.
“What’s mommy doing?”
“She’s going to change the tire,” he said, picking up his daughter and placing her on to his shoulders.
“Why aren’t you doing it?” she asked, her little hands holding tightly to his head.
“Well first off you’ve got your hands over my eyes,” he said. She giggled and shuffled her fingers up to his forehead. “And secondly, your mom is much better at it than I am.”
His wife grinned at him, shining the flashlight in to his face. “You city boys don’t know how to do anything,” she said.
“That’s why I married you.”
As she set about removing the hub cap, he glanced up and down the black road. He thought he heard something, like something moving on the sandy ground, but a second later it was quiet again except for the insects chirping in the dry bushes, and the clatter of the hub cap hitting the ground.
“How’s it going, baby?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said. “You know, I could teach you how to do this.”
“I’ll pass,” he said, with a little chuckle, but it didn’t help dislodge the uneasy feeling in his chest, a feeling that there was something unseen lurking in the dark desert. He wished he hadn’t thought it, because his daughter sensed his anxiety and grew tense on his shoulders.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” she said.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” he said, holding her legs a little tighter as they hung over his shoulders. He dipped down and opened the rear driver’s side door, picking up her teddy bear and handing it to her. “We’re nearly home. In fact, if the power wasn’t out, I bet we could see our house from here.”
“I want to go home now,” she said. “It’s really dark.”
“I know,” he said, glancing along the road again, as though expecting something to emerge at any second. Reflexively he moved closer to his wife, and to the white glow of the flashlight, and felt suddenly hypocritical for all those times he had told his little girl that there was no need for her to be afraid of the dark.
He let out a long, tremulous sigh and slackened his white-knuckled grip on the wheel of his stationary car, hidden away at the side of the road. He saw the red of the brake lights, the orange of the blinker as the car pulled in to the side of the road, then the white of a flashlight as three shapes emerged from the vehicle.
He watched them move to the side of the road, the mother going to the trunk, the father picking up the daughter. He could barely see, but he could tell she was smiling atop her father’s shoulders, despite being stranded in the dark. She felt safe with her parents. An uninvited laugh rose in his throat but it was drowned swiftly by a surge of rage and his hands grew tight on the wheel once more.
He lay in wait as the mother jacked up the car. The father was growing uneasy. Good, he thought. He could just imagine the parents spewing platitudes and words of comfort at their daughter, as if they meant anything. They had no idea how easily they could be overpowered. No idea what danger lurked in the dark. They had each made it thirty-six years without anything terrible happening to them. They were growing cocky, smug that they had led such charmed lives, he could practically see the self-satisfaction pouring from their every smarmy, complacent, middle-class pore. But he would put an end to that soon enough.
The moon appeared from behind a thin cloud, throwing the scene on the roadside in to silver shadows. He knew that he was hidden from them, but the moonlight allowed him to see the trio much clearer now. The woman began loosening the first wheel nut, a few strands of brown hair falling over her eyes. She was wearing bootcut jeans and a sweater with a fox on it. This amused him - it was all so perfect - he almost wanted to stay and watch the monochrome scene unfold.
Now, he thought as the mother struggled with the third nut on the burst tire. It’s time. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine growled in to life, the wheels crunching across the ground, advancing on the family. His heart was thumping harder and harder with every meter and soon they were trapped in the glare of his headlights. They all turned to watch him approach. He parked the car, careful to avoid leaving tire-tracks in the soft dirt, and stepped out in to the dark. He slammed his car door, strode towards them, clenching his damp fists.
“Hi there,” he said, meeting the father’s curious gaze with a smile. “Car trouble?”