Her VW Cabrio sputters in the cold as she drives home. She told Matthew that it felt like snow when they walked to their cars after drinks at Chili’s. Before leaving the brightly lit parking lot, she waited for her car to warm up. The cold air tends to irritate her asthma so she took a puff of her inhaler while waiting. The defroster wasn’t working well and her breath kept fogging up the small car. She cracked a window in the back, which helped a little. It’s not too far a drive: just fifteen minutes through the downtown area and then up through the nature preserve.
She hopes that Matthew is okay. She doesn’t feel like she helped him much, but she wasn’t sure what to say when he told her he blew a guy during his lunch break that afternoon. She asked if the guy had been tested. He had, but Matthew hadn’t seen the results. He said that the only free time the two had to fool around was at lunch. He explained how this guy, like him, lived at home with his parents¾an unemployed school psychiatrist whose mother worked during the day; the father was out of the picture. Tonight, while his mother was visiting her sister, he wanted Matthew to come over. Matthew wanted her opinion.
It is dark and the glow from the streetlamps and the few headlights that pass reflect distractingly off the haze on her windshield. She keeps the defroster on but cracks the second window in the back. Matthew told her that she should get her car looked at, but she’s stubborn. Much like he was when she told him that his first time shouldn’t be with some guy he knew through lunch break hook ups. He shrugged and took a sip of his Bacardi and coke. She had a ginger and Jameson. The waiter originally mixed up their orders, but Matthew winked at him and explained that he preferred the sweeter things.
She was surprised when Matthew told her he was a virgin. He was so flirtatious after he came out. He was scared to tell his parents, but his mother said that she always knew and his father told him that it made sense. It had been two years since all of that and she knew he was getting desperate. Some of their friends told him to get it over with, but she was always the romantic, suggesting that he wait for the right person, time, and place. That was when she was still dating Kyle though. They had met in college and their first time, her first time, was on Valentine’s Day in her lofted bed.
The red light takes forever to turn. There is a gas station on her right that is cheap, but she never goes there because she doesn’t like the neighborhood. She reminds herself that it isn’t actually that bad¾Matthew calls it the ghetto, and compared to where he lives in his parents’ colonial house, it is. She looks up at the red light and then across the street. Not many people are out, but she can make out three men huddled together in a parking lot across the way. She can’t help but think that they may be dealing drugs. She looks at the time on the dashboard. It’s only 10:41¾her mother, who hasn’t been out past ten in years, says that gang activity doesn’t start until two a.m. But it is late and dark and the streets are more or less empty and she is alone at a red light. She imagines a big dark man coming up to her car and staring into her window. He has a toothy grin that is stained yellow and his eyes are too bright against his face.
The light turns green and the men across the street stay huddled. She keeps driving, shaking her head at her silliness and possible racism. Her fears started more after Kyle left. She kept the apartment, which she always thought was in a safe part of town. She was excited when they found the place since it was close to hiking trails and to neighborhoods filled with happy couples ready to start families. But now she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night afraid to look out the window. It’s always the same. She’s afraid that the dark man with the yellow smile is there, staring at her through the blinds. But when her chest constricts and her breaths quicken, she refuses to open her eyes and reach for her inhaler. Instead she turns towards the wall with her back facing the window and tells herself that no one is there.
Matthew told her that her fears may actually be sexual desires, and, while she nodded in agreement, she thought that he was saying that because of the school psychiatrist. He told her that he was scared he wouldn’t meet anyone. She told him that everyone had that fear. He told her he was afraid that he wasn’t going to be any good at it. She told him that it takes practice. He told her he was going home. She wonders if he is with the school psychiatrist right now.
She turns into the preserve, her headlights winking at Smokey the Bear and his fire chart. She likes driving through the woods at night. There aren’t many cars and there aren’t any streetlights. She likes to turn on her brights and look out at the winding road. She likes to think of old times, when she and Kyle used to walk the familiar trails and get lost on the unfamiliar ones. She remembers how the flash from his camera reflected off the ornaments and tinsel they found strung on a young American beech last July. And how acrid Lake Surprise smelled that humid afternoon when he planned a picnic. She remembers her uncertainty and nerves when they found a worn sleeping bag and dirty clothes a little off the trail and how vacant she felt the day Kyle left and told her not to go hiking by herself. She hasn’t been hiking since.
She closes her windows when a chill runs through the car. She doesn’t like the draft and believes that the defroster is working better. She looks out at the trees and thinks that the woods look especially eerie tonight. Most of the trees are bare, gray, and swaying slightly in the wind. She gets the distinct impression that this is what cold looks like. She reaches down to turn the defroster up and change the temperature when she hears the ding of her phone. She sees that she has a text message from Matthew. She wonders if he is with the school psychiatrist¾if they are naked yet and if Matthew is scared. She wonders if it will hurt. She looks up and a flash of dark brown stops in front of her headlights. A deer, blurred by the condensation on her windshield, stands tall and close enough that she can make out the small buds poking up from his head. She screams and turns the wheel and hits the brakes. Then a thump. Something rebounds off her car.
The car stops. Her foot is pressed hard against the brake and her eyes are closed. Her wheezing breaths drag out of her chest painfully. The familiar tight weight bears down on her like a crushing hug as she puts the car in park. She reaches into her purse and when she finds her inhaler she leans back and takes a puff. She feels some relief in her chest and slowly breathes out. She does this two more times with her eyes closed, trying to remain calm. When her breathing returns to normal and the heavy press against her chest lightens, she turns her head and opens her eyes. She starts when she sees something moving towards her side of the car. She checks the locks while her brain conjures up images of worn sleeping bags and yellow teeth. She grabs her phone prepared to call 9-1-1 when she sees the familiar silhouette of the deer. It is on the other side of the road, unscathed, and her brain goes into overdrive. She unlocks the door and steps out. The chill immediately sets her on edge. She looks around the hood of her car where she sees a man, lying bedraggled and bent on the asphalt¾his face contorted in a look of pain and his teeth stained red with blood. And his eyes are open, so glaringly white and blank against his black face.
Her phone dings. She forgot that she had it in her hand. She looks down at a message from Matthew that says, “I’m doing it.” She hears a strangled moan and looks down at the man. His glazed eyes stare back at her. She watches his hand twitch before it rises slightly off the ground. She steps back and wonders where he came from and why he was there. She sees movement out of the corner of her eye. The deer retreats into the woods, and she believes that she could too.
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About the author: Margaret Flannery, an aspiring writer, makes her debut in Gravel Magazine. She is a graduate of Marist College and is currently pursuing her Masters in Fine Arts in Fiction at Southern Illinois University.