Where Do You Go at Night?

The car was parked down the block near the greenbelt. The tiny splash of nature at the end of the street had always given his husband the creeps. Nick liked it so he let Alan park in the driveway. Nights like tonight though, he kicked himself for it.

It wasn’t cold enough to snow, but the air had a damp chill that burrowed right into his bones. The car would be just as cold. It took forever to heat up nowadays, but with the house needing a new roof, and an adoption to consider, things had to fall by the wayside.

When Nick pulled the keys from his pocket, they slid through his fingers and dropped right into a puddle on the side of the road. “Goddammit,” he muttered. as he knelt down to pick them up.

Before he could grab the keys, a pale hand slid up out of the water and caressed his fingers. He jerked back from the puddle. The keys sat in the shallow water, only getting colder. “Too many hours at work,” he thought. “You have to take better care of yourself.”

Nick fished the keys out of the puddle with a shudder and got to the car. It had seen better days, but for a twenty-year old import, it ran remarkably well. He had just settled into the driver’s seat, shivering and wishing for a better heater, when he saw her.

She stared out at him from the cover of the bushes. Her thin t-shirt and jeans were definitely not suitable for the icy weather. Nick wanted to get out of the car, but something inside of him made him stay put. There was no way that she knew he’d seen her. He could just drive away.

He started the ignition, and the heater roared and spit out cold air. With shaking hands, Nick switched the fan off. A quick glance in the mirror revealed that the woman had disappeared.

“Probably just some junkie,” he muttered. “This neighborhood’s going to shit.” He tried to reach over and shift into drive, but his hand was locked to the wheel.

The woman slapped the window. She glared in at him through stringy blonde hair, her eyes filled with anger. Nick shivered under her gaze.

“Where do you go at night?”

Her voice cut through the air like a rusty knife. Nick stared straight ahead. He didn’t want to make eye contact with her. Didn’t want to see the small chunks of ice in her hair, or the skin that hung loosely from her body. He glared at his hand, trying to will the fingers to let go of the wheel. She slapped the window again, and the car shook.

“It’s a simple question, Peter. Why won’t you answer me?”

“You have me confused with someone else,” Nick said, shaking his head. “I don’t know anyone named Peter.”

The car shook again as she slapped the window a second time. For a skinny woman, she was incredibly strong. Wet handprints shone on the glass. She leaned forward, staring in at him. “Don’t fucking lie to me, Peter. Just tell me where you go.”

Nick leaned back away from the window. He could see his own breath in the cold air; hers wasn’t visible. She pressed her face against the glass, staring in at him. Her skin had begun to rot, sliding away from her face in places as it moved against the glass.

“I don’t know anyone named Peter,” he repeated. “My name is Nick and my husband’s name is Alan.”

“All I want is the truth. That isn’t too much to ask.”

Frost formed on the glass where her hands touched it. Nick closed his eyes, and started to pray. He hadn’t been to church in years, but he promised that he’d start going again every Sunday if he just got out of this.

He thought about Alan waiting inside for him. It was late. He was probably already in bed, reading a book. Alan had never really liked Nick’s late night drives but he had learned to accept them. Nick wouldn’t be missed for an hour at least.

“Tell me,” the woman hissed in his ear. “Where do you go at night?”

He jumped. She was sitting behind him now, fingers grazing his neck. Her skin was cold and damp. His eyes moved on their own, looking in the rear view mirror. Her head was cocked at a slight angle. She seemed more confused than angry.

“I just drive,” he said, hating the way his voice shook. “I don’t go anywhere. All I do is drive. It helps me sleep.”

“I needed help,” she said. “And you left me behind.”

“My name is Nick,” he said, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “My husband is Alan. We’re going to have a baby soon.”

“We had a baby. A little girl. She’s alone now.” Her fingers slid around his neck. Her grip was loose. Nick wasn’t sure if his shirt was wet from her skin or soaked through with sweat. Tears streamed down his face. “It’s all your fault.”

“Why did you hurt me?” she asked again, her voice breaking slightly. Her grip tightened. Not enough to stop his breath, but just enough to make the threat of asphyxiation stick. Nick desperately wanted to reach up and pry the fingers from around his throat, but his hands still wouldn’t move.

Her anger flowed through his skin like an electrical current. Nick felt her argument with Peter, the rage overpowering all of his senses. There had been shouting, and things were thrown. This wasn’t the first of these fights. She had been so sure the neighbors would call the cops this time.

Dishes had been thrown. Now there was pain. Her hands touched her stomach and came up bloody. She had run from the house, not long after the fight had begun. Peter yelled for her in the night. Her bare feet slapped against the pavement. The driver never stopped, even after she rolled up onto the hood of the car, the glass shattering beneath her body.

The air tasted red, the coppery flavor of blood. “Colors don’t have a taste,” he thought, trying not to choke on it. Every joint felt like it had been filled with broken glass. He felt her dragging herself to the greenbelt, too scared to go home. She had died in the woods like a wounded animal.

“I’m not Peter,” he gasped. “I don’t know who hurt you. I’m sorry. So sorry.”

The fingers released his neck. He risked a quick glance in the mirror. She sat in the back seat of the car, hands still stretched forward. Dark bruises covered his neck. Slowly, Nick opened the car door and eased the key from the ignition.

He ran back towards the house where his husband was waiting for him. His keys fell from his numbed fingers in the puddle again, but he didn’t care. The only thing he wanted was to get home, to find the safe embrace of someone who loved him.

Stay With Me

Every morning at 3:37 AM, Elena wakes up and stares at the ceiling. Her arm drifts over to the left side of the bed. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to change the pillow case that still holds a faint smell of perfume. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, she grabs her own pillow and her blanket, and drags them to the couch in the living room, where she falls back asleep.

They say it takes 21 days for a habit to form. It’s been 32 days now, and she’s only just starting to get used to the routine. She’s learned to accept the pain in her neck and lower back from sleeping on the couch. The alarm on her phone buzzes her awake at 7:00 AM. She’s tempted to hit the snooze button, but forces herself to wake up instead.

Elena shuffles through the kitchen, turning on the coffee maker and putting bread in the toaster. For awhile, she made four slices, but today she remembers to only make two. She brushes her teeth in the kitchen sink, and lets her eyes drift around the apartment.

Dust blankets the bookshelves and cabinets. She can’t even remember the last time she vacuumed the carpet. On her way back to the bedroom to get dressed, she does her best to avoid even glancing at the bathroom door.

Nobody says anything to her about her showering in the gym. She thinks about working out, but she just doesn’t have the energy. Some days, the sound of water on tiles is more than she can bear. The rest of her day speeds by in a blur of lights and sounds. In the afternoons, she politely declines her co-workers’ invitations to lunch. In turn, they ignore the times when she cries at her desk.

The last few nights when she’s come home, the apartment has been cold. Even with the heat running constantly, there’s a chill in the air that settles into her bones. She turns the TV on to avoid the silence. Hours go by and she can’t remember what she watched. Sometimes she eats, although most meals are forgotten as well. All she wants to do is sleep.

In her dreams, Elena replays that night, finding new ways to fix the situation, to keep it from every happening. In one, she catches an earlier cab home from the bar. In another, she and Carmen never had a fight to begin with. She never said those ugly words, and didn’t have to see Carmen’s face crumple as they hit her like a knife. She didn’t have to feel the weird flush of joy she got, right before the shame washed over her, and she had to leave. That was the best one. Most of them end the same way, with the sound of water running in the shower and bright red blood circling the drain.

3:37 AM, and she opens her eyes to stare at the ceiling. The room is freezing. She smells stagnant water and a hint of soap. When she tries to move her arm, nothing happens. Frozen fingers caress her jaw. Icy skin presses against her body. Lips brush against her neck and a familiar voice whispers, “Don’t wake up.”

Tears fill Elena’s eyes as the fingers run through her hair. She wants to say yes. She wants to say that she was wrong. She wants apologize for everything that happened. All that comes out is a quiet whimper.

A cold arm wraps around her waist. Carmen’s voice is pleading now. “Don’t go.”

Tears run down Elena’s cheeks. She tries to say something, but the words die in her throat. Every breath catches in her chest. Her left side is going numb as the arm pulls her closer. The shadows in the room grow darker. She turns to the left, afraid of what she might see.

In the growing darkness, she can just make out an indentation on the mattress, where Carmen used to sleep. There’s a slight curve of a woman’s hip just under the sheets. She feels a hand brush against her cheek, and the words hang on the air.

“Stay with me.”

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Phantom Limb

I don’t remember much about the night I lost my arm. Most of it’s still a blur up until the accident. There were five of us in the car that night. We were drunk and going faster than we probably should have been. It was either Jermaine or Bobby behind the wheel, I can never remember which.

One second, we’re coming around the turn on Highway 18. The next, there’s this girl standing in the road. Then, I’m waking up in the hospital with an empty space on my left side.

My psychiatrist tells me that the girl is my brain’s way of making sense of the crash. I don’t buy it, but I don’t want her to think I’m crazy, so I don’t say anything.

My friends and I don’t talk about the accident. We don’t talk about much at all, really. The few times we’ve gotten together, we’ve mostly just sat around in awkward silence. Marie would just sit and stare at where my arm used to be. She had the prettiest blue eyes.

She killed herself a month after the accident. They found her not far from where the crash happened, with an empty bottle of pills in her hand. Left a note saying she was sorry about everything, and that was it. I lost an arm, she took her life. Sometimes I think she was the lucky one.

Most of the time, I stay in my room. It’s easier than going out in the world and dealing with the stares. People are too polite to ask about the arm, but damn if they won’t stare at it. My parents pretend not to notice, and whisper about how I used to be so social. A girl my age should be out doing things, they say. I point out that the last time I went out and did something, my arm disappeared.

Lately, I’ve been looking up Highway 18 on the internet. My psychiatrist says it’s good for providing closure. Mostly, I’m just looking for the girl in the road. The police say there was never any evidence of a girl there. The crash site was too far out from civilization for anyone to have been out there.

The first thing I found was that there have been dozens of accidents along that same stretch of road. Usually blamed on that blind turn or the idiocy of drunk kids. All involving girls. The types of injuries that might be expected:one girl lost a leg, another one had her hips crushed. Some other girl was thrown through a windshield and decapitated. Nothing that stands out as odd on first glance. The type of stuff you only notice when you start looking for the pattern.

I tried to explain this theory to my psychiatrist. She smiled and nodded and did all the sympathetic gestures before pointing out that you can find patterns in most things if you look hard enough. She recommended some pills that would help and suggested that I maybe find some other things to focus my attention on.

Just because you can find the pattern, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I try to follow her advice, but I can’t stop thinking about the accident. Some days, I feel my hand flex, the fingers stretch out. Little things pop into my head: the sparkly nail polish I’d been so proud of that Jermaine never noticed; the look on Marie’s face in the hospital when she came to visit; the way that nobody has mentioned the doctors actually having to amputate my arm.

It’s not long before I’m back on the computer, scribbling down notes on the people who were injured in the accidents. Initially, I just wanted to find them and talk to them, see if they can help me understand. But now I’m seeing a new pattern. They’re all dead.

Suicide, every one. It makes me wonder about Marie. She didn’t lose anything in the accident, not like I did. Maybe she saw something. Maybe she remembered something. Whatever it was, she’s gone now.

The other girls, most of them still have spaces up on the internet. Web pages or blogs with condolences left on the anniversaries of their deaths. Bright, smiling futures reduced to a single moment of time. Embarrassing haircuts or fashion choices left up for the world to see some fifteen or twenty years later. This is how long it’s been going on.

It’s been hard to sleep since the accident. I feel the hand flexing, then pain coming in long scratches down my wrist. I think about what the doctor told me, that sometimes you feel pain long after the limb has been lost. I try to reassure myself this is normal.

Nobody wants to say anything about how little I’ve been sleeping lately. My parents are hoping it’s just a phase I’ll grow out of. My psychiatrist thinks a support group would be helpful. I don’t tell her that the only support group I need is getting smaller all the time.

More and more, I’m finding myself borrowing my mom’s car and driving aimlessly. I try to tell myself that it’s not anywhere in particular, but that would be a lie. Each street I drive down takes me close to Highway 18 and that turn in the road. Most of the time, I’m not even thinking about it. I’m singing along with the radio, minding my own business, and then suddenly I’m on the highway headed east.

I park my car on the shoulder and put on the emergency blinkers. The last thing I want is someone to plow into the car and leave me stranded here. Walking along the side of the highway in the cool air, I feel my heart racing with every step. The turn is just ahead, waiting for me. There’s a sign that helpfully says, “Rocks” set up thirty feet back. I try not to roll my eyes when I pass it.

I can just barely make out the memorials from here: flowers laid by the roadside, a couple of crosses. I stop in the shadows, just past the reach of my car’s headlights. I can’t remember why I wanted to come out here. It’s cold and there’s nothing here that’s going to give me the answers that I need. I realize that all I want is to figure out where the hell that girl came from.

And then I see her, as if summoned by the thought. Standing in the middle of the left lane, staring at me like I’m nothing but a pile of meat. And maybe to her, I am. I swallow nervously and try to think of something to say to her.

“Are you real?” I ask, and immediately realize that’s one of the dumbest things I could say.

She apparently agrees with me. A look of disappointment slides across her face and she turns away, shambling back towards the security rail on the other side of the road.

I take a step forward and shout, “Wait!”

She turns, slowly, and stares at me again. I clear my throat and open my mouth to speak and that’s when I see the headlights coming from behind me. There’s a squeal of brakes and then suddenly my body is flying through the air before hitting the ground with a loud crunch.

The first thing I feel is pain.

It’s all around me. Every inch of my body hurts, except my left arm. That feels fine. I try to call out, but the only thing that comes out is a quiet moan. I can’t move and I’m scared. More scared than I was when the first accident happened.

Then, there’s something leaning over me. Marie’s gorgeous blue eyes stare down at me from a face that’s pulled together from dozens of other girls. Right before a hand clamps down on my mouth, I see the sparkly nail polish.

“You’re my last one,” she whispers. A smile jerks across her face, like she’s still trying to figure out how to do it. “I can be whole now, thanks to you. Real.”

Even with my body broken, I’m struggling against her grip. Her fingers are clamped down so hard on my face that it’s starting to hurt. I’m trying not to think about my shattered bones, the pain that’s threatening to knock me out. I do my best to make sympathetic eyes up at her and nod.

“The others didn’t understand,” she said, giggling to herself. “It’s been so long since I’ve been whole. You’re helping me do that.”

The pain is leaving my body now, fading. Looking down, I see my feet have already disappeared into the darkness. She clucks her tongue, the seams between the stolen body parts are flowing together like candle wax, leaving no marks of where she came from.

“Twenty years isn’t so long,” she whispers, stepping away from me. “I’ll bet you can make a new body in half that time.”

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Better Ways to Go

“You know those things’ll kill you, right?”

The girl asked the question with complete sincerity, but the boy still responded with a healthy eye roll as he clutched at imaginary pearls around his neck.

“Fuck! I did NOT know that! Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

He threw the cigarette to the ground and glared at it. Then, to punctuate his faux-outrage, he stomped on it several times, scattering its remains around the pavement. The girl stood at the entrance to the alley. They waited in silence for a moment, before she offered him a crooked smile.

“I read somewhere that for every one of those you smoke, you lose a day off your life.”

He snorted with derision as he lit a new cigarette, “Yeah, but they’re days off the end of your life, when things are going to suck anyway.”

She had seen him before, this boy. He came here alone at the end of the day, sitting between the dumpster and the stack of pallets from the warehouse. She had secretly watched him as he hunched over his notebook, scribbling furiously and smoking his cigarettes in the thin light. Sometimes, he would stay well after dark, his nose practically touching the paper as he leaned forward, trying to get all of his thoughts down. Other nights, he’d roll a word around in his mouth first, muttering it to himself and placing the emphasis on different syllables.

Now, he leaned back against the brick wall of the alley with the easy arrogance of youth. His hair was a thick oily mop of black, the kind that only came from a bottle carefully applied every couple of weeks. His jeans were carefully torn in just the right places, and the jacket was a faded leather that still creaked like new and smelled like a new car. He was so focused on posing that he missed the flicker of disapproval that crossed her face.

“B-but, they give you cancer…” she stammered.

He shook his head and gave her a bitter smile. “There’s worse ways to go,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

She wanted to argue with him. Tell him that he was wrong about that. But she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had even bothered to talk with her. She didn’t want to ruin this with her opinions. Instead, she ducked her head down and stole a glance at his eyes. They were a deep brown, like the wrapper of a candy bar. He caught her looking at him and the edges of his mouth turned up slightly.

The girl tucked her hair behind her ear and tried to think of something clever to say. She liked this boy, in spite of herself, even with his casual attitude towards death. He didn’t wear a lot of colors, though. That bothered her. The world was a drab place, and sometimes she would find herself smiling when women bustled by in bright pinks and blues and greens. Like little flowers all over the city. He was a study in sharp blacks, standing out against the washed out colors of the buildings around them.

She liked that he was quiet, even though she ached for a conversation. She smoothed her thin white dress and took a few cautious steps towards him. He looked at her now, and frowned. Excitement welled in the pit of her stomach. He looked like he had something to say.

The boy gestured to her feet with his cigarette. “What happened to your shoes?”

The girl looked down, embarrassed. Her bare feet stood out against the cold cement. She tugged on the end of her dress, hoping that it would somehow cover her feet. She felt an intense desire to smile and laugh and change the subject.

“You can’t walk around here barefoot,” he said with a sympathetic cluck of his tongue. It was an odd gesture that reminded her of her mother. Before she could argue, he was digging through the backpack at his feet.

“I’ve got just the thing,” he said, tossing a pair of worn sneakers onto the ground in front of her. She picked one up carefully, tracing her fingers over the obscenities that had been carefully scrawled on it in black marker. Her eyes flicked over to his black boots, polished and shining in the fading afternoon light.

She placed the shoe back on the ground and shook her head. “They won’t fit,” she whispered. “They’re too big.”

He frowned, and tossed the remains of the cigarette to the ground. The tip flared briefly as it hit the pavement with a few sparks, and then slowly faded away. His eyes narrowed as they moved over her face, and he scratched at the fuzz on his chin that still hadn’t made its way to his cheeks.

“I’ve seen you before,” he said.

She took a step back. “No, I don’t think so,” she said quickly.

He stepped forward, staring at her face, “You look so familiar. How do I know you?”

She trembled a little, and stepped back against the wall. “I don’t know. I bet I look like a lot of people.”

“Do you go to school around here?” he asked, squinting at her. “I’m sure I’ve seen you before.”

“No,” she whispered. “You don’t know me.”

He nodded, staring at her feet. With a shout of joy, he dug in his backpack, before triumphantly pulling out a battered notebook. The girl gasped when she recognized it. Hours spent scribbling and jotting down thoughts disappeared in the blink of an eye as he began tearing the pages out. Crumpling the paper into balls, he stuffed it into the ends of the shoes, and leaned back on his heels to look up at her.

The light passed through her, just for an instant, as the sun jumped out from behind a cloud. His eyes widened and he fell backwards. He pushed himself back away from her, his mouth a perfect O of shock. His feet kicked the shoes as he backed away, and one skidded out of the alley and on to the sidewalk.

“What the fuck are you?” he asked.

Panicked, she looked over her shoulder at the lonely shoe just outside the alley. People ignored it as they passed, focusing on the world at eye level. Someone kicked it accidentally, sending it skittering down the sidewalk. The girl shuffled over to its twin, which lay on its side near the wall, laces and tongue sprawled along the cold concrete, little bits of paper sticking out of it.

With a sad smile, she held it in her hands and sank to the ground. The boy sat on the ground a few feet away, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. The girl wanted to cry. Looking at the white shoe in her hands, turning it over and over, she wanted nothing more than to feel the warmth of tears on her face.

“I don’t know,” she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop them. “One day, I woke up in this alley. I don’t know how I got here, and nobody will talk to me or even look at me. It’s so gray and empty. And I can’t leave. I’m so cold all the time. And there’s this fog everywhere. And then you came along with your cigarettes and your boots. And you saw me. And you talked to me. Now you’re going to leave and I’ll be all alone, and I don’t know what to do, and I’m so scared.”

The girl looked up, and saw that he was edging his way past her towards the sidewalk. She dropped the shoe and stood up quickly. He was at the alley entrance, staring at her with those dark brown eyes. He ducked his head and stepped back out into the crowd staring at the ground ahead of him. A small spark of anger flared in her chest as he faded into the mist that hung over the edges of the alley.

She glared at the shoe on the ground next to her. A little piece of paper stuck out of the top, mocking her. Why couldn’t she have just put the shoes on? He’d never have known, and he’d still be here with her. Maybe he’d even have come back and visited her. Kneeling down she ran a finger over the tight laces, the stitching that was starting to come loose.

The girl whipped around at the sound of something hitting the pavement next to her. The boy stood just inside the entrance to the alley. The other shoe lay next to her, where he had tossed it. She reached out for it, barely hoping that it was real.

“You can’t go around with just one shoe,” he said. “Wouldn’t look right.”

She blinked at him before smiling hopefully. “You came back.”

He lingered at the alley entrance and lit a cigarette. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said with a shrug.

The girl allowed herself a brief smile as he cautiously walked through the alley towards her, stopping a few feet away. She sat down against the brick wall next to the dumpster and he settled in next to her. She leaned her head against his shoulder, and felt the briefest shiver pass through his body.

He exhaled a cloud of smoke and she watched it fade into the darkening sky above them.

“Those things’ll kill you, you know,” she said.

He took another drag off his cigarette. “There’s worse ways to go,” he said.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.