“Is that your real name?”
I didn’t know until hearing that question that I could get more tense. My day started with the crispy, dried up husk of a dead spider in my bed and progressed right on to a torn shirt, a car that refused to start until the very minute I was supposed to be at work, spilt coffee, and a computer crash at work. It seemed like things were starting to look up when I learned that some people in my department got raises, until I learned that every man in my department had gotten a raise, leaving the three women behind. Again. After that there was a check engine light, dropped keys, collections calls and a resulting broken cell phone when I threw it against a wall. Then there was the information that my cell phone insurance had expired and I would have to pay full price to replace it. After that, naturally, I needed gas.
It wasn’t the kind of bad day where you want to curl up with a tub of ice cream and watch TV. It was the kind of bad day where you want to crash your car into the gas pump and might even take up smoking for the occasion if it increases the risk of explosion.
If the spotty, doe-eyed cashier wasn’t holding my change and driver’s license hostage behind a sheet of Plexiglas I might have snatched it out of his hand and walked away. The stupid question made me rethink the cashier’s life.
As in, whether he really needed it.
“Come on,” someone said from behind me to the cashier. “There’s a line back here, quit flirting and give the lady her change!”
Convinced that I wasn’t going to answer his stupid question, the cashier handed my change and driver’s license over and on the way out I saw the man who had come to my rescue. He was tall, dark and handsome, of course. The stranger flashed a smile at me after he had accomplished what my silent glaring couldn’t. He was a sparkly shirt and handful of hair gel away from being a strip club announcer.
I returned his smile with an especially nasty look before letting myself out onto the wet black pavement. The crystal clear stars against the black velvet sky did nothing to soothe me. I was having the worst day ever and the universe couldn’t even be so kind as to grant me a little bad weather to match.
When I reached my car I threw the bag with the six pack of beer I just bought into the trunk and pulled a bottle of soda out to drink on the ride home. When I took the handle of the driver side door in my left hand, the soda bottle in my right hand erupted. Cursing, I threw it wildly which sent it bouncing off of the hood of my car. A fresh spray of dark, sticky liquid coated my windshield and the pearl paint of the hood. When the initial gush stopped, the bottle sat on the asphalt leaking quietly. I carried it to the trash can cursing it and its defective cap. I cursed its mother, and, its children, and its stupid sheep face, and its stupid “ran out of sick days, so I’m calling in dead” sign on his stupid cubicle.
That last one wasn’t the soda bottle. That was Bob, who should have gotten a pink slip instead of a raise. He spent more time decorating his desk than doing actual work, yet somehow he managed to get a raise above me, and-
“Do you need a towel?” The handsome stranger asked, interrupting my curses and casually holding a blue and white striped towel draped over his open palm.
I glared my response.
“My name’s Simon,” he continued amiably. “I’ve seen what happens when people ask your name, so I’ll leave that alone.”
He was mocking me. I glared some more and went back to my car.
“I’m serious about the towel,” he said, raising it slightly, as if I couldn’t see it unless it was moving. “You don’t want to ruin your seats.”
I turned to face him, one hand firmly planted in a splatter of sticky soda that somehow landed on my driver’s door window during the explosion. I took a long breath before answering.
“Thank you, Simon,” I said levelly. “But no, I would not like a towel. In fact, I would very much like to get soda all over my seats. After that I think I’d like to pour gasoline all over my car. And then, more than anything else in the world, I would love to light the damned thing on fire just to watch it burn.” I released the door handle and was moving closer to him, propelled by all of the minor annoyances that fueled my mood. “But wouldn’t you know it, gas is just so damned expensive and I need this last thirty two dollars to make the insurance payment on this failure of a hybrid. So I think I’ll stick with the soda pants. Good night, Simon.”
He smiled at me, revealing straight white teeth and dimples.
Dimples are girly, I thought, still scowling, turning the key in the ignition. It clicked uselessly. I wonder how much he paid for all that dental work.
He seemed determined to watch me drive away. My car was determined not to go anywhere. I got out and slammed the door.
“Scratch that,” I called. “I need this thirty two dollars for a cab!”
I reached into my pocked for my cell phone before remembering that I didn’t have it. I opened the door to fish for change for the pay phone.
“Come with me instead,” Simon said, still grinning. He was only a few paces away by then, standing near his battered maroon sedan, leaning against the inside of the open door.
I blinked in mute confusion. I opened my mouth to respond, closed it, opened it again. “What?” I finally managed.
“I’ll give you a ride,” he shrugged. “I don’t care about my car seats. It’s crappy and old anyway. Maybe you can even light it on fire.” He smiled again, one dimple sinking in deeper than the other.
I realized I was smiling back and immediately stopped. I eyed him suspiciously. He was probably a con artist with his less attractive friends lurking in the shadows nearby, waiting to steal my car.
Let them have it, I thought. The stupid car sucks anyway. I’m always out of gas.
Maybe his intentions were even worse and he and the friends I had imagined for him intended for me to be on the news the next morning, “found slain” in the hills, half eaten by coyotes.
Let them try, I thought.
“Forget it,” I said. I slumped against my car seat for a moment, just wanting something to go right. I’d done everything right, like I always did, and what did I ever gain from it? Maybe, just maybe, given the circumstances, getting into a car with a stranger was the right thing to do.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten, I reasoned, unsure of where I’d heard it before. Stupid quotes were always jumping into my head like that. Probably because they were always jumping out of my supervisor’s mouth at work. I scowled. Work was even ruining my moment of spontaneity.
He didn’t seem at all surprised that I agreed. He just kept smiling as he walked around his car and opened the passenger door for me. I heard him chuckle softly as I climbed in, dripping jeans and all, before he closed the door.
As I watched my car and the gas station fade out of sight, I realized that I was probably making a mistake.
“So,” he said, stopped at the light just before the freeway onramps. “Do you want to go home? Which way?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “No, I don’t really want to go home.”
I didn’t want to wade through my drunk neighbors just to find out which bill was overdue and which utility I might be living without this week. We passed a few exits before I spoke again.
“So what now?” I asked. “Where are we going?”
“If you are really asking if I’m going to leave you for dead in a ditch somewhere, the answer is no. I won’t hurt you like that.”
Like that. I nodded and rolled the window down.
The inferno of my temper started to cool as the warm night air combed through my hair and swept away the old car smell coming out of the air conditioner vents. Watching the city lights pass below, I realized how much I liked living after all, but I wasn’t afraid. Every tree was a tall black sentry, promising me protection in the darkness outside. A coyote’s yip was a message that tonight I would not be fighting for my life. I shifted my gaze to Simon and examined him from the corner of my eyes.
Shadows played tag with lights across the stubbly surface of his cheeks. His watchful brown eyes flicked across the road between long dark lashes. The grey t-shirt he wore did little to disguise his lean, muscular frame and when he turned the steering wheel I could see the faint hint of bicep rippling under the surface of his skin. I was starting to think that he was too perfect to be real when I noticed a fat scar the length of my finger that started at the corner of his jaw and stretched just under his ear into his hairline where it interrupted the thick field of dark brown hair. His dimples started to sink in and I knew he could tell I was staring.
By the time I looked out the window again, I was smiling too.
“Here we are,” he said, pulling over to the side of the freeway almost at the crest of a hill.
“We aren’t anywhere.” Before I could object further, he hopped out and opened my door.
Here it is, I thought. He’s just going to throw me off a mountain.
The thought had come without feeling though, and a chorus of crickets reassured me that everything would be okay. The faint smell of warm wet earth agreed.
In the light of the bright stars I followed him under a huge old oak tree with thick, acorn laden branches and over a trickle of water so small it could barely be called a stream.
When we emerged from the darkness under the tree, it was onto an open field that ended in a cliff.
“You can see the whole city from here,” he said, with a hint of something like pride in his voice.
Colored lights sparkled up at me from below.
Naturally, I tried to find my apartment building.
“If you look the other way you can see the valley where that creek goes, but it’s not as impressive at night. Or in the summer. And if you look up-” he said, turning his face to the sky.
I looked up.
“It feels like you can see the whole sky.”
It felt exactly like that. Inky blackness surrounded me on all sides, studded with diamonds. If I knew any constellations I would have been able to find them all in the generous sprinkling of stars overhead. I felt myself rising up, dizzy with elation, afraid to look down out of a sudden feeling that the ground wouldn’t be there and I would float away in space.
Simon’s voice called me back. “Here, have a seat.”
I sat on one end of the towel that he had laid out and he sat on the opposite end.
“So what were you so upset about?” he asked. “I’m sure it wasn’t just the kid asking your name. You don’t seem quite that unreasonable.”
I let out a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh. “You’ve known me all of two minutes,” I said.
“And yet, you got into my car and followed me out into the hills.” His deep warm voice, softened by the gentle breeze that swept around us relaxed me the way candles and bubble baths never could. I leaned back on my hands and the wind pushed my hair around so that it tickled my wrists. I shook my head and leaned back slightly until I knew that my hair was touching the ground, something I hadn’t done since I was a little kid and everyone called me Pocahontas.
Looking out at the sparkling city and the sparkling sky with the rustle of leaves and a handsome new friend for company, I couldn’t remember what had upset me. It was all so small and silly compared to everything around me, but I couldn’t leave his question just hanging in the air. “Just… life I guess. It was just one of those days where nothing goes right, you know?”
A gusty little breath of wind ruffled the hairs on my arms.
“Well, I hope that bringing you here made it a little better. It always makes me feel better.”
I looked over my shoulder at him to see him smiling at me. His dimples weren’t so girly after all. They were a comforting feature of the landscape, like the little stream with its quiet trickle. Unlike the stream, it gave my heart a little flutter to realize that the dimples were there just for me. I smiled back and, not knowing what else to do, I looked up again at the sky.
Within a few silent moments we were both on our backs, shoulder to shoulder, with our feet hanging off of opposite ends of the towel. It felt like I could almost hear his heartbeat, even though we weren’t touching.
“Why did you bring me here?” I asked.
I could feel him smile. It was like the warmth on that side of me got just a little bit warmer.
“I had to,” he said. “I saw a beautiful woman in distress and it was my duty to whisk her away to a beautiful place.”
“I’m not beautiful,” I said. I wished instantly that I could have taken it back. It felt wrong to say it. It was the product of all the years of nonsense that happened in the blink of an eye compared to the immortality of the mountain that supported me under the blanket of stars.
He didn’t acknowledge the comment. I searched for something else to say, but found nothing. A lizard splashed through the stream and I fell into a comfortable silence, feeling as though I’d known Simon all my life.
Silence woke me.
I didn’t even realized that I’d fallen asleep. There were no yips from coyotes or squeaking night birds. The crickets were silent. Nothing moved. All around, even the trees and the tall dry grass were silent and still.
For one confused moment I wondered if this was death.
A loud crash broke the silence. The old oak shook violently, sending sprays of leaves and a hail of acorns raining down. Its disturbed occupants scrambled and skittered noisily to get away. I was on my feet without being aware of my own movement. Simon’s car keys were in my hand but Simon himself was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, a strange man stood between me and the path to the car.
“My sweet prize,” he said. His breath was foul and sections of long blonde hair stuck to his face.
I opened my mouth to scream, but before I could utter a sound, a huge shape shot itself at the stranger and knocked him over. I couldn’t see them as they rolled down the embankment alongside the little creek.
I ran. My slow clumsy feet hardly carried me four steps before he caught my hair and my head jerked back. I let out a tiny cry of pain and almost fell when my feet moved out from under me, but a solid arm caught me like a metal pole across my midsection. My ribs ached and all of the air in my body left in a rush. Hot blood trickled down my scalp to my neck while I fought my own diaphragm to expand so I could breathe. My body reeled with pain but the steely grip in my hair kept me upright. Finally I coughed and inhaled.
Before I sucked in enough air to scream, a hand clamped over my mouth. Blurred lights sparkled in my vision as tears welled up and fell down my panicked face. He leaned close, inhaling deeply and I couldn’t help but smell him in return. The stench gagged me. I didn’t want to die. I’d only been tired and hungry and angry when I thought that I wouldn’t care if I did. Simon’s keys bit into my palm when I tried to ball up my hands into determined fists.
I wriggled, fighting, trying to survive but the stranger threw me forward so that I spun around to face him, and the claws that tipped his fingers opened gashes in my sweater and my skin.
“Shh, sweet prize,” he said in a voice more reptile than human. “No more protector. You’re mine now.”
I followed the direction of his turned head to see a massive shape lying crumpled on the field. An arm, too long and thick to be entirely human lay limp in the grass. I opened my eyes wide to try to get a better look, to see what the thing was, but the reeking stranger got my attention with a rough shake.
“Mine,” the stranger repeated in his loud whispery voice. I couldn’t see him very well in the darkness. Clouds had moved in and even my friends the stars were hidden from me. I was completely alone.
He let out a quiet chuckle and dropped me. He stood still, poised, ready to attack again, playing with me. He wanted me to run so that he could chase me down. I froze in place, but he would wait until I broke. I heard a sob escape my throat.
In a flash, the crumpled beast- it was a beast- slammed the stranger onto his back. Massive claws rose up high and then they were tearing at the stranger, too quick to see. Smoke rose from the reeking blonde man’s body. The creature rose on two legs and threw the stranger like a rag doll with all the stuffing torn out, over the edge of the cliff.
The shadow of the blurry dark thing turn its muzzled face toward me with smoke rising from the long fingers at the end of its long, not quite human arms before it followed the body off the cliff. The acrid stench of burning meat and hair assaulted my nostrils and my airways and pushed me toward the road.
I splashed clumsily through the little stream, barely as wide as my foot was long, and scrambled not to slip while I raced through the blanket of fallen leaves that clung to my muddy jeans.
After what felt like a nightmare hour of running in slow motion I reached the car and threw myself inside. The keys threatened to fall into blackness when I fumbled with them for an instant before I jammed the car key into the ignition and turned it. The headlights uselessly spilled dim yellow light onto the black road and I suddenly felt like a neon target- blind but very visible. I kicked the gas pedal and the tires kicked up gravel for a second before they found traction and the car lurched forward.
I finally started to breathe again when I was out of the mountains. I felt, too acutely, the soda and mud on my jeans and the cold blood across my ribs and stomach. The hardened blood down my back cracked when I moved and pulled at the hairs on the back of my neck. I didn’t know where I was going until I pulled up at the gas station and parked the car.
Shaking, I almost fell when I saw my reflection in the window of the closed mini mart. My hair was a mess of leaves and twigs, matted with drying blood. Dark stripes formed against the light blue of my torn sweater and my jeans were all leaves and filth. I didn’t waste time staring as I hurried to my own car and jumped in.
I screamed when the stereo came to life with laughing radio hosts. I snapped it off and started driving, barely able to hear over my own pounding heart. A parking ticket rattled in the wind, plastered to my windshield by the spilled soda except for a corner that frantically beat at my window. A street lamp shone through the paper and I saw the cost of the ticket, in bold black ink. Thirty two dollars. It was a wonder that my car wasn’t towed for being parked at the pump for so long.
By the time I reached my apartment building the whole encounter felt too impossible to have actually happened. The wind that slipped its cold fingers through the holes of my sweater to tickle my bleeding ribs convinced me otherwise.
On the way up to my door some drunk teenager smoking a cigarette on the stairs tilted a bottle of vodka toward me, offering the neck. “Rough day lady?”
I passed him, ignoring the bottle and the question. I was shaking harder, nearly convulsing when I let myself into my apartment. I climbed into bed under the pile of abandoned mail on the comforter and curled up under the thick blankets until I felt like I was going to suffocate. Only then did I slowly uncover my head and look around.
The only beast around was a spider on the ceiling across the room. I silently thanked it for being the scariest thing that might have to be dealt with.
Twisted in the blanket and sheets, I watched the spider make shaky progress across the room. I don’t know how long it took before I started to feel normal again. It was all just a bad nightmare. By the time the spider reached the corner of the wall I felt safe again. I’d never known what danger felt like before the stinking blonde caught me and for what felt like the first time in my life I knew safety. With the sunrise filtering in through my closed blinds, I drifted off to sleep.
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