He saw it. The car. It was still, molded into the side of the brick wall. The shredded Honda was not the first impact weighing on the integrity of the wall. A family had formed. Misfortunes and consequences of time flocked together. Metallic chipping and the hole-turned-front-door for a family of racoons. They congregated at the wall. And now, the car. It seemed a sad thing. A nuisance, really. An old family car, maybe, passed on to a new driver. A family heirloom that had overstayed its welcome. He saw it. It was there, until it wasn’t. Then, the wall stood alone. Family dinner had not been interrupted.
It was the third Thursday of the month when James clocked out of work and arrived at the parking lot naked, unadjusted. Tossed back into the bottom of the lake. Maybe this time he would sink. He fumbled for his keys. Waxy street lamps illuminated the empty lot around him. Road noise was animal. When he found himself situated in the outdated sedan, he sat for a second, listening to his own breathing. And then it was there. The car, one lot over.
His fingers slipped over the 9 and 1 keys on the grey flip phone. The chest burn hadn’t ceased when he heard the click of a seatbelt next to him. He tossed his glance at her. The woman with three pencils stabbed in her bun. He stared for a second, letting his eyes catch up. He went back to the wall, but then, it was just a wall. No carcass was left for picking. He shut his lids and bit down on his hand. Near the thumb. He focused on the welt. It was a flower he left for himself often. He knew he wasn’t crazy. When he lifted his head back up off the wheel, she was still there, and the car was still gone. She had her hand extended out to him, presenting her peace offering.
“Coffee?” The most casual question.
“What? Who are you? Did you see it? Why are you in my car?” His priority list was chopped to bits. He knew he wasn’t crazy. Her expression let him know that she did not share his panic.
“See what? Anyway, did you want this? You looked like a coffee guy. No offense.”
“You didn’t see that? The car. In the wall?” He was begging. Her face read, ‘No, sorry,’ with pursed lips leaning left. And then he remembered. “Do I know you? Do you just get in people’s cars?”
“You do now. I’m Fern, like the plant.” She held her hand out. He gave it a squeeze. She gave him four seconds to reply before asking, “and you?” as if he were being a horrible host.
“What are you doing in my car?” he finally pressed again, unsure if this was a safe explanation to demand. She sighed, dramatically emphasizing it.
“Not a small talk guy. Noted. I thought this would be easier if we were friends first, you know?” She scanned his face for any indication that her idea might click with him, waiting for it to just make sense. Disappointed, she continued.
“I need to get out of this god awful town, and so do you. I see it. The way you walked over here. You’re in prison here with me. Wanna bust out?” She straightened up, refolding the collar on her baggy shirt.
“What are you asking me to do? I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. We shouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Fern was a ghost of a time before the bottles. A collection of Do Not Disturb signs from every hotel she could get her hands on, especially the upscale ones. The fried ends of her hair twisted on their own. Cinereal vines at the entrance of a cave somewhere humid. She was a whisper; an anthem of words forgotten. He knew this image but was unsure exactly how or why.
She shot him a look; he saw the sting in her face. No reply. After a moment, he added, guilty, “Do you need me to take you somewhere? I live off Hemingway. Maybe you’re on my way.”
She turned forward, adjusting the seat belt wrapping her chest.
“What’s stopping you?”
“What’s holding you here? Back from anywhere else. This miserable town? You get pain. I can see you. We can go anywhere — the city.”
He swallowed, still holding onto the cup of coffee. He was quickly learning that questions, with this woman, did not beg answers.
“Let me take you home.”
She spun back to him and gripped his arm, the childlike wrist, inspecting it; lab coats and test tubes. She arrived at the watch, pulled it right to her nose, and looked back at him, still pulling. It irritated his skin. She was especially careful not to crush the arm entirely for his bones felt hollow, full of air. She steadied the trembling hand.
“Your watch. It doesn’t work. It’s all frozen inside.”
He should have pulled away. He couldn’t. He might’ve pulled one of the buttons from his collared shirt. He liked this one the most. The color counteracted the purple pools below his eyes, he told himself. Decorated in light green, he passed as a traditional small town ornament.
“I never really got around to getting a new one,” he said.
She exhaled loudly onto it, clouding the surface, and wiped it with the corner of her orange stripes. She inspected it further, turning the wrist to and from. A birdkeeper tenderly studying a finch. She stared, almost begging it to thaw and begin beating again.
“It’s been dead for a while.”
She dropped the arm without breaking eye contact. “Do you want mine?”
“Do I want your watch?”
“Yes. Do you want my watch? It still works. It never stopped.”
“I’m okay. Thank you,” he said.
“Okay. Suit yourself.”
She stared at her lap for a moment before continuing, “I live off 2nd and Lister. My roommate is probably worried, anyway.”
The car spat when it started, and the broken heater blew cold into the stale space between them. James always liked the way the signs on storefronts only worked halfway at night. A few letters missing felt more sincere. They mimicked a reality that he subscribed to. They drove for a while, admiring the highlights of the suburban wasteland. Machine hum bumped into the pitch of the wheels on wet asphalt. She cleared her throat and directed him through two lefts and a right.
“I know you think I’m crazy, but I also know you want to listen to me. That’s why I’m still in your car.” She saw him.
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know that you’re tired of this life. Start over. We can go anywhere you’d like. I have friends in West Philly. What do you stand to lose if you want to give it all up anyway?”
It made no sense that she was making sense. There was a warmth to her. Her weak rays brushed his cheek. Doctors had tried to help. Prescriptions every day, new doses each month, therapy every Tuesday. They didn’t see him, when that was all he felt he needed.
She didn’t know him, but that didn’t seem to matter. The pale blue glow leaking in from the outside was enough for her. The car began to scratch again — the alarm that meant one of many potential things. He wished there were a ‘Too fast!’ sound and a ‘Not right now, try again later,’ sound. Warnings should always come with labels.
“Here, pull in here.” She startled him.
“In the parking lot?”
“Yeah. I want some fries. Are you hungry?” He didn’t answer. He knew he didn’t need to. The fluorescent glare of the small station diner struck him before they had even reached the entrance. They found a table, the first of three booths in a row. Fern pranced to the counter to put in an order: fries, please, and two soft drinks. When she slid back into the booth, she stared him down for a second, scanning his features in the new light. “Where were we?”
Station Plus was a small pharmacy in the town James grew up in. It seemed a sanctuary for greeting cards and cheap imitation brand toilet paper. Counters stained a stale brown with faded green trim. He made his trip up the street to it every other Thursday from the bus stop. The pharmacist always listed off every side effect before he could leave with his new bottle. Nausea, vomiting, headaches, liver failure. Sometimes she made him read them back to her. It’s important to know what we’re getting into, she would tell him. Even when he moved away for university, he took the habit with him. Reading every possible ailment out loud before accepting a prescription. It seemed a safer way to live. We plan our lives in accordance with the divine rule that it is a good thing to avoid possible threat.
He didn’t have his first episode until he was seventeen. His highschool girlfriend decided that he had already wasted six and a quarter months of her life, and it was not her intention to throw away any more. He remembered it in photos. At the door. She left a box of things on the doorstep. In the yard. He stood in the center of the overgrown lawn as she drove off and turned the corner. Something rustled in the grass nearby. It was a bird, limping around in a small circle. He constructed a faux nest for it out of a shoebox and some old newspapers. Hours later, his mother arrived home from her job at the clinic and asked why he had a rock in the box on the kitchen table. After that, the medication coated everything in a film. Solid images only from then on. It was worth dealing with a couple of pale screens because maybe he could have been crazy.
The waitress (with a pin that read ‘Velma’ on her right collar and cherry lipstick smudged unapologetically on her chin) brought over a tray with the order and offered them ketchup, even though there were two bottles on the table already. The booth seat was already starting to bother his back. He had spent the last week sleeping on the kitchen floor when he didn’t quite make it to his bed — or want to, for that matter. He was sure there must’ve been indents from the blue grouted squares permanently imprinted in his back. The underside of his dining room table reminded him of stars.
“You were trying to convince me to run away with you,” he said, almost smiling. She watched him line up every salt packet along the thick black stripes on the table. After the salt, he moved one row over, and began the process again with each brand of artificial sweetener.
“When I was a girl, there was this huge willow at the creek behind my house. I used to run to it after school. It was mine. My heaven.” He wondered if this story had a point, and if she knew what it was. “I was scared to climb to the top. I broke an ankle and two fingers climbing up that tree. I always went back.”
She was retying her orange curls, letting a few drop over her eyes. James thought she looked like a fluffy cat he had seen at the laundromat the week before. The waitress cleared their food and wished them a good night. Fern slung her old patchwork bag back over her shoulder and slid out of the booth in a single motion.
“Well, let’s go.”
The neighborhood she lived in was a perfect replica of every other neighborhood in town. Sometimes it seemed like they only had one, took a photo, and spread it around town like a lost dog poster stapled to telephone polls. The flowers leading to front doors were shiny plastic. Lawn chairs laid out like chess pieces in a tie game. Arrive at any door, and you were home.
She popped a mint in her mouth and crunched on it like ice. She pointed to a spot on the side of the road, between two houses.
“You can drop me off here. Thanks for the ride.”
He parked the car and watched her close the door tenderly. She crossed behind the vehicle, clouded by the hot exhaust. He watched her path, the waves. She almost skipped when she walked, he noted. James looked at the clock, and then his CD case, and then back at her, her image smaller now. She saw him. She saw him pull up beside her, rolling down the window with the loud motor. She smiled.
“We’ll need gas.”
This story was ranked 3rd in the second Broken Mirror contest.