see him until it was too late to avoid him. The dark
shape at the side of the road up ahead was nothing, a blot at the edge of her distraction,
then it was an abandoned truck to pass by, and then it wasn’t abandoned and her way
was blocked by a man with his arm raised to flag her down. Her fingers stopped their drumming
on the steering wheel and tightened around it, white knuckles as she slowed but not enough
to stop. She wouldn’t have stopped for a man she didn’t know on an otherwise
empty country road even under the best of circumstances, and she was not in the best of
She heard his voice calling
to her as she aimed her car across the dashed yellow
line. She set her jaw and refused to meet his eyes as she rolled past him. As she eased
her car around the wide curve the road took next, she flicked her eyes to the rearview
mirror to see him standing in the middle of the road behind her, watching her leave with
his hands outspread. She watched him a moment too long, and when she looked again to the
road ahead of her, she had barely a few seconds to react to the deer carcass lying directly
in front of her.
She swerved and stamped on the brakes. Her tires
skidded into the soft shoulder gravel. She gasped for breath and peered out the windshield
to find a way around the fallen deer. She let up on the brake to start the car rolling
forward through the shoulder.
A hand slapped against the window next to her
head. She bit off a scream and braked again. The stranded driver stood outside her car,
knocking on the glass and waving. With gritted teeth, she lowered the window an inch.
“Listen, I can’t help you right now,” she told him.
The driver held up his hands in a gesture of understanding. “I
get it, I’m sorry for chasing you down. But I’m stuck out here and there’s
no cell service. Can you take me up the road to a gas station?”
just said I can’t now.”
“I’ll go whatever way you’re
already going,” he said. “Just drop me off anywhere in civilization. Just a
few minutes. I’ve got cash, I’ll pay you.”
fingers curled around the top edge of the open window.
He seemed nice enough. Just harried and worried. Maybe a little overwhelmed. She knew that
look because Brandon got like that a lot. She had learned it was usually easier to go with
it than try to reason it out of him, and it was always faster. “Fine,” she
told him. “I’ll take you up the road. That’s it.”
smiled at her. As he walked around to the passenger side
of the car, she unlocked her phone and slipped it against her thigh so she could get it
quickly if she needed to. He was right that cell service was spotty out here but it was
worth trying. She knew the nearest gas station was a few miles away and she could get there
in a few minutes.
The stranded driver sank into the seat next to
her. His scent filled the car, a woodsy aftershave layered with sweat and motor oil. She
pressed her lips together and began to accelerate before he had buckled his seat belt.
She circled the deer carcass, the car tires grumbling on the gravel, and pulled back onto
“This is great of you. I really appreciate
it,” he said, turning in his seat to face her. She kept her eyes on the road. “My
phone is useless out here and no one has passed by in a while. I was about to start
She didn’t respond, but she picked up peripherally
on his grin, big and easy. If it was fake it was a good fake. “I’m Dustin,”
She twisted her hands on the steering wheel and
said nothing. He chuckled good-naturedly.
I get it. I know this is a lot to ask, a woman picking
up a strange man by the side of the road. Here— “He dug into his pocket and
plucked out a handful of bills. He dropped them into a dashboard compartment. “That’s
for your time, and for being nice.”
drove in silence. The road rose and fell along rolling
corn fields and curved around clumps of trees. The horizon was dotted with farmhouses with
no discernible way to reach them. She knew that soon the road would swell with an intersection
and a gas station. Soon she would be there and then he would be gone.
“I think I know you,” Dustin said, in a rush of apparent
realization. “I’ve seen you at Nancy’s, right? You bartend there.”
bit at the inside of her mouth. “Not me.”
no, I know I’ve seen you there. Your name’s Shelby,
“No.” She snapped the word off like
the end of rope.
“Shelby from Nancy’s. You live up
on Briggs Hill Road.”
That drew her full attention. “What?”
His face was all bland friendliness, a plain curtain that
could have anything behind it. She didn’t recognize him, but she blocked out a lot
of details about bar patrons. He continued: “You live on Briggs Hill Road. With that
guy, what’s his name. He comes in a lot. I think he drinks too much. Talks too much,
too. What’s his name?”
“Brandon,” she whispered, not knowing
why she was answering.
“Yeah, Brandon. He
doesn’t seem to treat you that well. I wonder
all the time why you’re with him.”
Tension froze her body. She wondered if he knew
this was just the time on just the day she always drove to her shift at the bar. She
wondered if he knew that from Briggs Hill Road Route 12, this road, was the straightest
shot to Nancy’s. She wondered how long he had been sitting on that bar stool across
from her, listening to Brandon run his mouth and Nancy run Brandon down, storing away all
these overheard bits of her life. She wondered if that truck behind them really wouldn’t
start up again.
She concentrated on keeping steady pressure on
the gas pedal, on keeping her eyes on the road ahead of her. Her hands were locked to
the steering wheel. She had learned the lesson from walking the woods and from Brandon
in his cold rages: If you encounter an animal that could harm you, you stay still and wait
either for it to go away or for a chance to slip away yourself.
Dustin laid his hand on her arm, heavy and tight, his
fingers curling around her forearm as they had around the edge of her open window. She
barely swallowed down a cry. “You can talk about it with me, Shelby.”
Then there was a loud thump from the trunk of the car.
“What the hell was that?” Dustin spun in his seat. “Did
you hit something?”
She rolled her shoulders
back, held on to the steering wheel and looked straight
“Shelby, you hit something back there. Or
something hit you. You should stop and check.”
fine,” she said quietly.
Another thump sounded, followed by another. Even
with her eyes on the road, she could sense Dustin staring at her. He said: “Shelby,
there’s something moving in the trunk of your car.” When she didn’t say
anything, he added another, “Shelby …”
There was no more blandness,
no more friendliness. His face was confused. It raised
her spirits a bit. “I know that,” she told him.
He slowly leaned back in
his seat. “You don’t have to take me all
the way down the road. I can walk the rest from here.”
driven through her tension to a place of calmness.
“I’m not stopping now.”
She spotted Dustin’s hand reach for the
door handle. She thumbed a switch and the car doors locked.
stop the car.” His tone was close to panicked, which
“I told you this was a bad time,”
she said. “I told you and you didn’t listen to me. I’m
so tired of no one listening to me.”
She could feel him tense, and then he jumped at
the steering wheel. She jerked it, sending the car skidding
through the gravel on the shoulder and throwing Dustin back against the passenger side
window. His head knocked against the edge of the car door and lolled for a moment.
She stopped the car, got out and popped the trunk.
Brandon was still thudding his feet against the side of the
trunk, but she knew he was bound well enough that he wasn’t going anywhere. She ignored
his muffled shouts and rolled him over to find the tire iron. She took it up, slammed the
trunk shut and walked to the passenger seat. Through the window, Dustin blinked at
her, dazed. She opened the door.
“I guess there’s
enough room back there for two,” she muttered,
Jen Myers is a writer and technologist in Chicago. Her fiction has
appeared in Coffin Bell, the Molotov Cocktail, and Tales from the Moonlit
Path. She has a website at jenmyers.net and is on Twitter as @antiheroine.