He leaned back in the driver’s seat, stretching one arm forward to let his wrist hang over the steering wheel, pushing in the cigarette lighter on the dash with his free hand.
He’d been driving for seven hours and fatigue was starting to set in. Ordinarily he enjoyed driving when he didn’t have any particular destination, enabling him to wander aimlessly down forgotten roads in the countryside with no place to be and no reason to check the time.
Tonight was different, though. Tonight he was due in Memphis for a book reading—something he loathed doing but considered to be a necessary evil. His agent had tried to put an enthusiastic spin over the phone, reminding him of his large fan base in Tennessee, and how happy they would all be to meet him and take home his autograph inside their well-worn and beloved copies of his books. And while it was nice to meet the people who read his work, he honestly preferred to be alone most of the time, finding it difficult to concentrate in a room full of people who all wanted a piece of him, whether that meant his autograph or his temporary attention. The stilted conversations gave him a headache, and at functions such as this one in the past, he’d often found himself wishing for nothing more than a quiet room, his guitar, and a cigarette. He would crave those things, fearing he might go mad if he didn’t have them, but when he’d get home it was almost always the same thing: the energy from the night would still be buzzing in his veins and he would find it next to impossible to sit down and focus long enough to play more than a few meandering chords on the guitar. He would chain-smoke and feel guilty, self-involved, a typical Writer. Sometimes he would give in to the little voice that told him it was okay, that all Writers worth their salt drank, and he would get up and pour himself a shot. Or two. Or three. Once or twice he had gone on drives to clear his head afterward. There was something liberating about warming your veins with whiskey and then manning a Mustang, a loud, powerful car that hugged the road. It made him feel alive. He paid no mind to the little voice on those drives.
It was easy to talk himself into things sometimes. When the nights were long and cold and lonely. When he rolled over into her spot in bed only to find it empty and without her warmth or smell.
The cigarette lighter popped out with a snap and he fished a smoke out of the box on the passenger seat, putting it to his lips with a hand that shook only slightly. It took a measured effort to put her from his mind, but he did it anyway. Thinking about Anna--wondering where she was now and who she was with--wouldn’t improve his mood, which was already dark to begin with.
But the cigarette helped. Nicotine flooded his system and he puffed in relief, feeling an odd sort of serenity fall over him. There was no music to keep him company because the radio was busted, but at the moment he didn’t mind. The sound of the tires on wet pavement was soothing, like the ocean. He rolled down his window a little and reveled in the feel of cold air and rain on his face. The scent of rain-soaked grass came to him, and honeysuckle and jasmine. He was starting to enjoy the drive for the first time since he’d left home, and for that he was grateful. His Writer’s mind began to see things differently. The musician in him was, too.
The roads were curvy, sinuous, and empty save for his own car, glistening like the back of a snake, surrounded by a dark night edged with pines and shadows creating jagged lines. A sky like velvet and stars like ice. Headlights breaking through, pointing the way on a path of white, broken lines.
And something else, illuminated by the headlights: a body, lying prone and splayed in the road.
He slammed a boot-clad foot down on the brake and spun the wheel hard to the left, leaving his own lane briefly before the tires skidded and he was jerked rudely into the driver’s side door. The back of the Mustang fishtailed and he saw the barest flash of shadowy pines, a blur in the misty night.
And, just like that, the world was still again.
He let out a breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding and looked around, taking in everything with fresh eyes. His cigarette lay smoldering on the floorboard next to his boot. He crushed it out before palming the sweat from his eyes with shaky hands.
It took him a moment to remember what had caused him to spin out of control. When he did, he spun around to examine the road behind him, hoping there would be nothing there—that it was just his tired mind playing tricks.
But that would be worse, the little voice in his head whispered. Seeing things? Dead bodies? That’s not a good sign, man.
But there it was, just visible within the sheet of rain falling behind his car. A body. A woman’s body, illuminated by the crimson glow from his taillights. He could see that her eyes were open but unblinking. She was on her back, her left arm pointed towards his car. Her hand was palm-up, open. Pleading.
“Fuck,” he whispered, turning around to face the windshield. He wrapped his hands around the steering wheel and gripped it, something solid and sane in a moment of tumult. The road lie ahead of him. He could just keep going. Pretend it never happened. No one was around to say otherwise. He was in the middle of the boonies, surrounded by pines and darkness.
And that brought up another point; if he involved himself in this and the police were called, who was to say he hadn’t caused her death? He was all alone in a strange town, and now there were skidmarks on the road that matched his tires.
And that hand. That open, pleading hand.
“Maybe she’s not dead,” he said softly. “Maybe. And you’re responsible for her now.”
That decided it. He turned the ignition and the car rumbled to life, twin glasspack mufflers chortling and grumbling in seeming protest. After a moment, he had the car maneuvered onto the soft, sandy strip of gravel that began where the blacktop ended. With emergency lights flashing, he grabbed his coat and a flashlight from the glove box.
* * *
She was dead.
Her eyes were glassy and full of rain, staring into the pines on the other side of the road as though searching for something. He looked around, suddenly aware of how exposed he was. Whoever was responsible for this might still be around, waiting. Watching. More than that, if another car came around the curve he might not have time to move out of the way.
He looked down at her again, marveling at how pale her skin was in the harsh glow of his flashlight. A long curtain of dark hair framed her face, lying on the road in wet tendrils. How long had she been laying there, exposed to the elements? He reluctantly moved the beam of light down along her body, examining. Her right leg was broken. A bit of white bone protruded through the knee of her jeans, surrounded by a dark spot he assumed was blood. It was hard to tell what was blood and what was just rain. There had been blood beneath her head, now mostly washed away. Her right arm was folded beneath her at an odd angle.
It appeared she had been struck by a car, which may have caused internal injuries he couldn’t assess. She was young enough to be a student. The university was only three miles or so from where they were; perhaps she’d been hitchhiking home for the holiday weekend.
But even in his relative shock, and in the near darkness, he recognized how strange and implausible the entire scene was. She was wearing a tee-shirt, for one thing, with no sweater or coat. Tennessee in November wasn’t exactly tee-shirt weather. She also had no belongings that he could see, no backpack or suitcase or purse. Unless someone had come along and hit her, then jumped out to grab her things, it didn’t make much sense.
Frowning, he moved the flashlight back up to her face, still listening for an oncoming car. So far, the night was silent other than the patter of rain on the blacktop.
She was crying.
Yelping, he fell back onto his ass in the road, scooting backwards as he did. The flashlight he’d dropped rolled across the pavement, sending a strobe of discordant light across the trees.
“Dumbass,” he chastised himself, when the beam came to rest shining on her face. It had only been rain water. He had forgotten her eyes were full of it, so full that it ran down her face in rivulets, creating the illusion of tears. He got up and grabbed his flashlight before hunkering down over her once more.
“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly. He stripped off his coat and laid it over her, shielding her face from the rain. “I don’t know what happened to you, but I’m sorry it did.”
Her left arm stuck out from under his coat, stretched past the point of being covered. He considered moving it but didn’t want to touch her. The palm, so pale and almost free of lines, was filling up with rain water just as her eyes had. There was a small dot of blood inside the cup it formed, not quite as big as a penny. Something about it seemed familiar to him. It lurked just beyond his memory, teasing.
He shook his head as if to clear it and stood quickly, anxious to get away from her. His head felt swimmy, as though he had been drinking. But he hadn’t touched a drop in…
How long had it been, anyway? He couldn’t quite remember. A long time. Suddenly he wanted a shot--a double shot--and a cigarette.
He quickly walked back to his car and fumbled for his cell phone beneath the seat, where it had fallen when he’d lost control. He would call the police and tell them to come get her, and then he would leave. Simple as that. No matter if another car came along in the meantime and ran off the road to avoid her, or worse, actually ran over her. He had done more than was expected of a stranger, and besides, he might have already contaminated a crime scene. If they wanted to question him later, they could call his lawyer. He wouldn’t be—
Movement from the corner of his eye, in the rearview mirror.
He stared at her, this dead girl in the road, and felt his eyes grow wide to the point of pain. It couldn’t be helped. He couldn’t reconcile what he was seeing with what he knew he should be seeing.
His coat was upside-down on the side of the road in the grass, not as if the wind had taken it from her, but rather as though she had flung it from her body. Her position hadn’t changed, however. Her arm, her hand, still pointed at the car. At him.
He dropped the phone and turned around in his seat, focusing his vision on her. Something about the night—the mist, or the rain, or the events—wouldn’t let him see things clearly. She was a blur. And he remembered this, goddammit. He had been here before, hadn’t he? For a different book reading, maybe? The trees all looked familiar. The road looked the same as another he had been on.
His wrists burned, a circular rope of fire. He glanced down and saw twin rings of red around both of them, scars that were slowly opening up. He didn’t remember how he’d gotten them, or why they should be hurting again. Suddenly and without provocation, he thought of Anna again. He wished she were here to tell him everything would be okay.
His stomach ached, rolling with nausea. He closed his eyes and faced forward again, wishing that this didn’t feel so familiar. But it did. He’d been here before and he’d felt sick then, too. He remembered the feeling of fire in his veins, only then it had come from whiskey.
And still, that feeling that he was responsible for the girl.
He glanced at the rearview once more and wasn’t very surprised to find she was gone. The road was empty behind him and ahead of him.
He ignored the tears burning his eyes and started the car, determined to finish the trip he had started so long ago.
But a part of him was aware that he would never finish it.