Authors: Ania Ahlborn
Copyright © 2011 by Ania Ahlborn
All rights reserved.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
he Saturn’s engine rattled like a penny in an old tin can. The car was a junker—its headlights pale and off-kilter. It was a temporary fix that had become a permanent mode of transportation. Jack had insisted that when they had the cash they’d buy themselves a pair of fancy wheels—a car that had that new car scent. And then Abby broke her arm. Charlie got bronchitis. Aimee needed a tooth filled. Years had passed and that second-hand Saturn had become their lifeline, but Jack refused to lose hope. He tossed loose change into an old Mason jar, squirreled away an extra dollar here and there. He worked extra hours at the boat shop, sweating through Southern summers that buzzed with the soothing hum of locusts. Now they were only a month away from reaching their goal for a second time, and the idea of that shitcan Saturn rusting in the Louisiana bayou was enough to make Jack smirk at the engine as it rattled and coughed. The humor of it trumped the migraine that was blooming behind his eyes, creeping along the inside of his skull, growing with each reflective flash of broken yellow line.
It would take them half an hour to get back home. Live Oak was a blip on the map—a place you drove past and thought
Oh, how quaint
, before blowing through without a second thought. It was the kind of place people ran from; the kind of place that was heavy with dark secrets and strange people—strange because they stayed there, somehow having found a way to survive in a nowhere town. But Jack loved Louisiana, from the bridges that stretched over swampland, to the long grey moss that hung from ancient trees like a tangle of witch’s hair.
Aimee dozed in the passenger’s seat as the Saturn sped down a rural road. She and Abby had the infant gene; they fell asleep as soon as the car was in motion. Jack glanced at Charlie in the rearview mirror. She sat next to her sister, tucked into her car seat, humming the tune the Pizza-Rama rock band had played on a loop just minutes before. She inspected the high-bounce ball she’d won with a stack of game tickets. To Charlie, that little ball was proof that she wasn’t a baby anymore. She was six, and she could hold her own in a game of skeeball. Nobody would catch
on the baby rides.
Charlie never slept in the car, not even when she was a baby. With Abby, all it took was a quick drive around the block, but driving only made Charlie restless. Jack often wondered whether there was something spiritual that tied Charlie to their house; something that called her back if she strayed too far.
Reaching the turn-off, Jack steered the car onto the road that would take them home. They passed Live Oak’s single grocery store—conveniently closed at eight on the dot, seven days a week. They sped by a brightly lit gas station and a blinking stoplight, hanging heavy on its overhead power line, swaying in the breeze. The highlight was Bijou, a little diner that served the best red beans and rice in all of Louisiana. That place, in Jack’s opinion, was a national treasure. He was determined to single-handedly keep it in business until the day he died.
Live Oak was so small that the roads in and out were darker than pitch, and the Saturn’s yellowed headlights didn’t offer much in the way of illumination. It was a murky drive—one that Jack took two to three times a month; most times in the dead of night, sometimes in the pouring rain—conditions that made it next to impossible to see the road at all. Tonight the sky was clear, the stars were out and burning bright for the birthday girl; and yet, despite the stars, it seemed darker than ever, like someone had reached into the sky and turned off the moon.
Jack furrowed his eyebrows against the throb at his temples and backed off the gas. He couldn’t see more than twenty feet ahead of him, and the blind spot in his right eye was blooming like a supernova. He flipped on the high beams, and for a moment he could see the road as clear as day.
The headlights flickered once.
The last thing he saw was a pair of animal eyes, reflecting bright silver and wide in the darkness. The headlights went out.
Jerking the wheel was an instinct. Jack’s mind wasn’t focused on whether the car would fly off the road, but whether those eyes belonged to a human rather than an animal. The trees along the side of the road housed occasional stragglers, and the idea of killing a man outweighed the impulse to keep the wheel pointed straight ahead.
One of the Saturn’s tires caught the embankment. The car was thrown off-balance. It jerked sideways, tires screaming across pavement. And then inertia swallowed them whole, lifting the car off the ground and spinning it into a graceful pirouette.
There was nothing but silence.
Nobody cried out. For that brief moment, the world had gone soundless.
Then: the sickening crunch of metal against asphalt.
The creak and pop of safety glass.
The explosion and powdery stench of airbags.
The grinding of the roof against the road as they slid to a stop.
The first sound that breeched the silence was Aimee’s hyperventilating. She tore at her seatbelt despite being upside down, determined to get out of the car if it was the last thing she did. Jack dangled from the driver’s seat, suspended in the air like an astronaut awaiting ignition. He imagined being paralyzed, wondered if it hurt to sever you spinal cord or die in a car accident like this one. But he could hear Aimee thrashing. He could hear her crying. He couldn’t possibly be dead.
And then, a final assurance that he was still alive: Abigail began to scream.
That scream motivated Jack to tear himself free, to fumble with his seatbelt and shove open his door, tumbling onto the glass-speckled street like a clown rolling out of a circus car. Aimee kicked at her door as she screamed along with Abby, sure her children were mortally wounded.
Jack got to Abby before Aimee crawled out of the car. He pulled open the back door and caught her around her waist, heaving her from the mangled wreck. Abby stopped screaming the moment she saw her mother. She started to bawl instead.
“What happened?” Aimee yelled. Her face twisted with panic. “Jack? What the hell happened?” She was trying to keep calm, but every word that clawed its way up her throat was a shriek.
Jack didn’t reply. He was busy dashing around the other side of the car, his heart stuck in his throat, threatening to choke him. Like a newborn baby fresh to the world, Abby had screamed and assured her parents that she was alive, but Charlie hadn’t made a sound. Not a whine, not a whimper. Stillborn. Dead.
His every nerve stood on end, buzzing with dread as he wrenched open the backdoor and stuck his head inside. To his relief, hovering over him like an overturned angel, Charlie dangled from her car seat, her hair hanging in her face.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said softly.
Jack’s heart swelled in his chest.
“Hi, baby,” he whispered back, fumbling with the seat’s latch, freeing her from the wreckage.
“Did we flip?” she asked. “Like in the movies?”
“Yeah,” he replied, only now remembering that reflective pair of eyes, the ones that had made him jerk the wheel in the first place. He hadn’t bothered to look and see if anything was lying dead in the road. Part of him hoped that whatever had caused this had been flattened by the Saturn’s front bumper. If the road was clear, he had half a mind to storm into the woods and find something to kill, if only to satiate his sudden need for retribution.
Jack pulled Charlie from the car and set her down on her sneakered feet. Abby and Aimee wept into each other’s arms while Jack and Charlie stood silent, both of them transfixed by the smashed Saturn.
“Cool,” Charlie whispered under her breath, her eyes sparkling with mischief. That single word of childlike wonder thrust him back into reality and for the briefest of moments, despite the circumstances, he tried not to laugh. The moment was cut short by Aimee’s shouting.
“Call the police,” she yelled. “What are you waiting for? Call the police!”
Jack patted down his pockets. Empty. His cell was missing. He ducked back inside the wreckage, searched the bent roof of the car for his phone, and found it close to the backseat. Half-expecting there to be no service, he imagined a psychopath bursting from the trees with an axe held over his head—that hitcher he’d saved by swerving was, coincidentally, a crazed killer looking for a nice family to Julienne.
Reality was never as exciting as Hollywood. There was no killer, and Jack’s phone boasted four bars.
He dialed 911, reported the accident and their approximate location. Crouching beside a shaken Abigail, Jack wiped his eldest daughter’s tears from her cheeks while giving the dispatcher details of the incident. Nobody was hurt, but they’d send an ambulance anyway. A fire engine would arrive, accompanying a handful of police cruisers and eventually a tow truck that would drag the Saturn to its final resting place.
The thing was totaled, twisted like a tin can. Under different circumstances, Jack would have set its smashed frame on fire and danced around it like a devil around a bonfire. But instead of whooping with joy, he stared at the thing, waiting for it to come alive, waiting for it the engine to rumble to life and mow them down like King’s Christine.
“What happened?” Aimee asked again, trying to compose herself before the cops arrived.
Jack shook his head, bewildered.
“I thought I saw something. An animal.”
He looked back the way they came, squinted in the darkness, tried to spot a carcass in the road.
“It’s like the headlights just went out,” he said.
“They went out?”
“I think so…”
? Jack, we could have been killed.” Aimee shoved the back of her hand against her damp cheek, swatting at stinging tears. “What were you thinking?”
“It was a reflex.”
“What, jerking the wheel instead of slamming on the brakes? Have you lost your goddamn mind?”
He saw something shift out of the corner of his eye, and shot a look down the road again.
“Where’s Charlotte?” Aimee’s voice took on a sudden urgency. “Jack?”
Looking back to the car, Charlie wasn’t where Jack had left her. His eyes fluttered around the wreckage. He fell into motion, surveying the road around the accident.
“Charlotte?” Aimee called out, her voice shrill with panic.
“Charlie!” Jack yelled. His heart had crawled back into his throat.
“Oh my God, where is she? This isn’t happening,” Aimee choked. “This can’t possibly be happening.”
Jack jogged a few yards down the road, his pulse hammering against his ears. Aimee’s whimpers grew fainter until she sounded like she was underwater: muffled and indiscernible. The air had grown thick and heavy, impenetrable by sound.
Jack finally spotted her. Charlie stood on the soft shoulder a few yards from the car, facing the trees.
“Thank Christ,” Jack murmured. “Charlie, what are you doing? Your mother is losing her mind over you.”
Charlotte looked at her father, then looked back to the trees with a furrowed brow.
“Something ran into the woods. Over there.” She lifted a hand and pointed a small finger at a tangle of trees.
Jack looked to where she pointed, his own eyebrows knitting together as he tried to spot movement in the darkness.
“Probably just an animal,” he assured, taking Charlie’s hand into his own. “Come on, let’s get you back to your mom.”