The car was parked along the side of the road. Jessie leaned forward, trying to see better through the windshield, and unconsciously eased off of the gas pedal to slow as he passed. The windows of the other car were so fogged up that it was impossible to see inside. But how could there really be anyone in there? It was 2:30 in the morning and, if someone was just hanging out, chances were good that whatever was going on in there, it was something that he probably didn’t want to walk in on.
In the rearview mirror, before the car dwindled into the horizon, he caught a flash from the corner of his eye as the dome light inside the car came on. He craned his neck around to see, sure that he must have caught a reflection off the moon. his second look verified what he had seen though, as the light was indeed on.
It wasn’t important. Just a car, nothing that he hadn’t seen before. Still, something tugged at the back of his mind, a need to make sure the person back there didn’t need help. How would he feel if the next day he turned on the news to find out that some guy had died from a heart attack there on the side of the road, watching cars pass him by until it was too late?
Jessie pulled over and turned around to go back.. He took it slowly, not remembering exactly where it had been but soon saw it up ahead, just before the bend. He pulled up behind it, gingerly stepping out, as if someone was about to jump out of the other car and reprimand him. His head filled with the sound of gravel crunching under his feet as he approached the vehicle.
The car was some kind of generic sedan, reminding him of the cars his grandparents would drive them around in when they were kids. The motor wasn’t running and there was no indication of movement inside. Save for the fogged windows, he saw no sign of life.
“Hello?” his call was quickly absorbed into the increasingly brittle wind and he received no answer. He stepped closer to the car, moving carefully towards the driver’s door. It was as if invisible fingers were reaching out from the darkness and brushing against his neck. His skin felt electric, as if his hands and feet were falling asleep.
“Hello?” he called out again, leaning in closer to the window and with one hand reaching out to rap a knuckle on the glass. The sound was dull to his ears, carrying no weight in the cold air and there was no answer from within.
Jessie reached out and placed a hand onto the door handle, fingers trembling against the cool, moist surface. His breath was starting to come in ragged hitches, fully expecting something to jump out at him, to burn his hand for the offense of intruding where he shouldn’t have been.
He yanked his hand free at the sound of an air horn blasting behind him. A semi blew past with a rush of air and sound that pushed him up against the car. He turned to glare, long enough to catch a glimpse in the darkness of a giant yellow smiley face on the backside of the rig. In the wake of the truck’s passing and in the newly found silence, he thought for a moment that he had heard someone moving around inside, an exhalation of breath followed by the car shifting slightly.
“Is anyone in there?”
Another sound, again almost too quick to hear but, even in that split second, he had an image of overnight parties as kids, shushing each other before the parents came in to shut down the fun.
"Don’t open the door!"
The voice was his own, spoken from the deepest bridge where the unconscious crossed over into conscious thought. He wanted to listen, to take heed, but it was the other part of his brain, the one that reminded him that it was important to put others before yourself, that voice was the one that ultimately won out and made it impossible to move away from the car.
"Don’t open the door!"
His hand made its way back down to the handle, was sliding on the moisture as it pulled up, hesitating at the resistance from the bolt inside the door, the scintilla of added applied force that would be needed to open the door.
The voice was pleading now, but also sounding resigned to whatever path he was determined to set himself onto. Another voice of responsibility was lecturing his now, on the importance of people’s privacy. You couldn’t just go around, letting yourself into whatever car you felt like.
He had to do this.
What if he was the one trapped inside the car, slowly bleeding to death, or worse? Maybe a broken leg, or having just had a stroke, the door just out of reach and unable to respond to the other person’s calls. If the situation were reversed, wouldn’t he be mentally admonishing the person for taking so long to just open the damn door?
This was stupid. Why had he pulled over in the first place if it wasn’t to try and help this person? If he happened to interrupt some random person in the middle of sticking it to the nanny, he would just have to live with that embarrassment. He had a momentary flash of possibility as it occurred to him to simply call the police and report it. But what would they say, really? What would happen if he filed a report on what ended up being a parked car?
"Don’t open the door."
He grabbed the handle and lifted, pulling the door open and peeking inside. The door made a wet, popping sound, as if it had been stuck. From the inside, the car began to chime softly, indicating that the keys were still in the ignition. No one was sitting in either of the front two seats. When he looked at the passenger seat, however, he could see the moisture left behind on the leather, as if someone had been sitting there for a long time and stood up.
“Hello?” he called out again, but nobody answered. From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement. He also heard breathing, labored as if whoever it was back there was in a great deal of pain. Jessie kept his hands braced against the roof of the car, ready to shove off and start sprinting towards his car if he had to, and stuck his head through the door. The backseat was also empty. He felt like smacking himself on the head for his idiocy. He didn’t understand why he allowed himself to get so worked up. Somebody had car trouble and had gone off for help, or had called a cab. Harmless. They must have just left the dome-light on by accident.
Something brushed past him from behind.
Jessie screamed so loudly that he actually startled himself. There was no one there, but he felt the distinct sensation of bodies brushing past him. He had heard footsteps. His panic spiked and in that moment, of needing to act, to be anywhere but here, he sat down in the driver’s seat, behind the wheel, and slammed the door behind him.
The inside of the car wasn’t merely quiet. What he felt was the complete absence of sound, a vacuum in which even his breathing was amplified several times louder than it should have been. It was a cold feeling that he associated with funeral homes, places where you caught glimpses into things that you weren’t supposed to see in this life.
This was like being in the presence of death.
Still, footsteps sounded outside, circling the car at a slow, shambling pace, the car occasionally shifting as if someone was bumping into it as they passed. He had to repress the urge to slap his hand against the door lock, knowing somehow that it would do no good.
His breathing was starting to echo in his head until he began to realize that it wasn’t just his breaths that he was hearing. They could be heard beside him and from behind. He could feel the sobbing already catching in his throat, crying out at himself for not choosing to simply drive on, screaming as he reached for the door release, to try and escape even though it was likely too late. He heard what sounded like metal scraping across a sharp edge.
Outside, a dark colored bird fluttered down out of the night sky and alighted on the roof of the parked car. It stood there for a moment, preening in the moonlight until a shrieking cry ripped out from the inside, startling it back into flight.
Inside the car, the dome light flipped back off into darkness.