The first time it happened, I told Jim I'd just taken my eyes off the road for a moment. I blamed it on the migraine, the sudden pain, the dizziness. I didn't mention the man at all.
Truth be told, I hadn't had my eyes on the road, so to speak, for a while.
I was sitting in traffic on the way home from work. The back way took a little longer and there had been a lot of accidents on the old highway, but the view was better. And anyway, the screech and grind of the freeway always made me a little crazy.
I stared out at the shoulder of the road, at one of the last little woodlands in the once rural area, pressed on all sides by voracious development. The road curved sharply there, and part of the guardrail was torn away by some recent accident. I could see into a steep little gully where tires had ripped the blanket of soft grasses.
As I inched forward, the branches of a large bush swung aside, releasing a shower of yellow leaves that fluttered and spun to the ground. Through that golden curtain stepped a man in a black frock coat and high starched collar, dark hair spilling from beneath a tall hat. I blinked, and looked again. He stopped and leaned against the trunk of a large black willow tree, leveling his gaze directly at me. The pale lips formed words I couldn't hear.
Then I felt the migraine coming on—lights dancing at the edge of my vision, the strange, chemical taste in my mouth. I winced at the sharp pain above my right eye, and closed both eyes—just for a moment—against the first wave of nausea.
The neighbors had found Daddy in his pajamas, crumpled in a heap on the bathroom floor. His second heart attack, the doctors had said, with no one there to call the ambulance and make him go to the hospital this time.
He had only been alone a few months. He'd been so strong when Mama was sick, especially at the end. He was always strong—a great oak of a man, spreading his arms like protective branches over and around his family. Maybe sense of purpose was what kept him so strong. But then he was alone, with no one to shelter, no one to provide for. And where was I when he needed me for once? Halfway across the country. And too late, too late.
I must have let up on the brake.
My eyes opened as my bumper hit another with a sickening crunch, and my seatbelt tightened its stern embrace. The car ahead of me turned into a watery blur as tears filled my eyes.
"Hey lady, you okay in there?" A man was knocking on my window.
I rolled it down and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little shaken, I guess." I looked out at his crumpled bumper. "Sorry about your car."
I wouldn't have told Jim about the accident, but I couldn't hide the damage to the car.
"Anna, you've got to pay more attention," he said. "Pull over if you feel a migraine coming on. What were you thinking?"
That night I couldn't sleep, so I got up and walked around the house. I hadn't been sleeping well most of the time, but I found the quiet of an early autumn night calming, cricket chirps and moonbeams sneaking through the open windows. And I could leave Jim alone to dream away in peace.
Down the hall I passed our extra bedroom, the "guestroom" Jim called it, though we rarely ever had guests stay there anymore. My parents had been our most frequent visitors before they died; his family almost never came.
The boxes we brought home from Missouri were still sitting there near the closet,
patiently waiting, guarding the memories and the emotions; quiet, avoiding a scene. I stepped into the room and knelt beside the nearest box, just able to make out Daddy's careful, T-square lettering: ANNA. And the tears started again. I knew it was silly and irrational. I never used to be so emotional.
Jim was great at first, so supportive. He would listen and console, or hold me in silence. Now he seemed tired of it all, wanted me to just get over it and move on. But how could I get over losing my family? How could I fill up the emptiness?
Mama always said blood is thicker than water.
"What are you doing?"
I jumped and looked up at Jim standing in the doorway.
"I couldn't sleep."
"I know." His voice was flat, and I couldn't see his face well enough to read his expression.
He sighed. "Why are you torturing yourself with this? You're making yourself sick with it—you never got those headaches before. It's been over a year. You can't bring your folks back. You have to let them go now."
"You don't understand." I choked out the words through shameful, childish, heaving sobs. "I don't want to be alone."
"Alone?" Jim flicked on the light. "Alone? Who's been here with you all these months, taking care of you, holding your hand through this walking coma you're in?" His voice softened. "Anna, you're not alone."
As my eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, I opened my mouth, but I didn't know what to say.
Jim stared down at me, and the softness went out of his face. "You really could've gotten hurt today, you know. What if you hadn't been stopped when you let your mind wander? Did you even have a migraine?"
"You don't know what it's like!" I could hear the whine in my voice, but now I didn't care. "Your parents are still alive and well. You're not an…an…orphan!"
"Oh, for God's sake. You're 30 years old. You're not an orphan." He knelt down next to me. "Everyone's parents die. It's part of life. We have to go on. And anyway, you'll see them in heaven, right? That's what you believe, isn't it?"
He was patronizing me. I looked away. I didn't know what I believed anymore.
The second time the stranger beckoned, I heard and tried to obey.
Since my little accident, I meant to be more careful. I kept my eyes on the road, for the most part, and tried to keep my mind from wandering outside the yellow lines.
But one afternoon as traffic crawled to a halt, I found myself again at the curve by the gully and the dark willow.
Above the roar of idling engines came a whisper like wind in the leaves: Come.
My stereo wasn't on, and anyway, that sound didn't come from any radio speaker. It rose in intensity until it filled my ears and my mind. I looked to the willow.
The man appeared much as he had before—the same antique clothes and haunted look. But now he was speaking clearly, directly to me. Come. As he lifted a white, long-fingered hand, his mouth dropped open, releasing an infinite, empty vowel, deep and resonant as the chime of an old-fashioned grandfather clock.
I pulled the car to the shoulder, set my brake and turned on my hazard lights. Bright starbursts exploded around my eyes. The chemical taste crawled up my throat. I let my eyelids slide closed.
When I awoke the man was gone, and so was most of the traffic. It was dark. My phone chirped its cheery version of Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Flowers.
"Hello?" I murmured.
"Where the hell are you?" It was Jim. "It's eight o'clock! I've been trying to call. You didn't answer your phone, and you didn't answer at work either." He sounded frantic.
"You're the one who told me to pull over if I got a migraine. I got one. I pulled over. I guess I fell asleep."
"You fell asleep? What the... What am I supposed to think? You could've had another accident, a worse one, for all I knew."
"Yeah, well, I didn't. What do you care?" I knew that was unfair. I was crying again.
I heard Jim take a deep breath. "I'm worried about you. Just come home, okay?"
Tonight there was no traffic. I had stayed late at work, and called Jim so he wouldn't be worried, or whatever. Sometimes it helped to focus on the ultimately meaningless crises of the workplace: a chasing after the wind.
The air had turned cool, with a little bite that made me catch my breath. I had all the windows rolled down.
It didn't matter, I told myself; nothing really mattered. Life was all just a chasing after the wind. So what was the point, again? I could fly down this highway, and it wouldn't make any difference if I ever got home. I would never truly get home again. I was so tired.
I saw the curve up ahead, heard him calling me: Come. Come and rest.
I pressed down on the accelerator, tried to put all of my weight onto it, all of myself. The car leapt forward, and the wind whipped and ruffled my hair, just like in the sports car ads: Feel the unrivaled power and performance. I laughed and tilted my head back into the wind.
And now I was flying; I was free. The wind rushed in cold. And now the inevitable falling, falling, and an ear-shattering crash. Shock waves pulsed up through my body. There was a white explosion, and all was light and silence.
"Come." The man was standing at the open car door. His coat shimmered and shifted from black to brown to red when he moved. The effect made me a little dizzy. He took my hand and pulled me, my face scudding against the bulging airbag, out into the still and misty wood.
I looked up at him—he was remarkably tall—and stammered, "Am I dead?"
"No." He sighed, then as if remembering himself, smiled. "Look." He pointed back toward the car. I didn't remember walking away, but there we were, about fifteen feet from it. "There. You're resting just fine."
I looked, and sure enough, I saw myself, still in the car, sprawled across the airbag—I could smell its ripe, new plastic scent. The willow seemed to have withstood the impact, but the front end of my car was twisted around it in what looked to be a permanent tangle.
I must have been dreaming. I got knocked out, and now I was dreaming. But was that blood trickling from the corner of my mouth?
The man took my hand and pulled me away from the car.
My thoughts were vague, and cloudlike they drifted past before I could catch them. "Where am I?"
He stopped and stared down at me. His eyes were smooth shards of obsidian shining out of his face. A smile spread slowly across his face. "Anna, you're home," he said. "Congratulations. You've finally taken the step you wanted to take for so long."
"What step?" I asked. There was a metallic taste in my mouth.
He frowned and wrapped both of my hands in his long, bony fingers. "Don't be coy. You've heard me calling you since you were young: Come away, come away with me from the dreary world. Come away and rest."
I closed my eyes and saw myself at sixteen, writing morose poetry by candlelight. I opened my eyes again. "Who are you?"
"A friend," he smiled. "A friend who understands you."
He led me through dense undergrowth and further into the twilit wood. All was silence and mist. The colors of the leaves, and of his coat, swirled and swam before my eyes.
We came to a clearing and stopped. I saw a small meadow of golden grasses standing still and quiet in the deepening dusk. Rough-hewn chairs, carved from great tree stumps encircled the clearing.
"Have a seat." He pushed me gently into one of the chairs and leaned over me. He reached out, a forefinger under my chin. The sharp point of his fingernail brushed against my flesh, shaking almost imperceptibly. I stared up into the great blackness of his eyes.
He slid the nail up and over my chin, until his finger came to rest in a shushing sign over my lips. "You'll be mine," he whispered. "No, no, hush." He traced my upper lip with the nail. "No one loves you, you know. No one but me."
"That's not true." My lip quivered. "That's not true."
"Oh, but you know it is. It's always been that way, hasn't it? The other kids, the other girls, the other women—no one understood. Your parents didn't understand you either; they thought you were going through a phase. But that wasn't a phase, was it? That was you. But you figured out how to pretend it was all right, so they would love you." I looked up at him.
"But they're gone now, aren't they?" His eyes glistened. "And now you've chosen to come to me." He stood. "Wait for me a while. And remember, I'm here for you. I always will be." He turned, and strode away.
I opened my mouth to cry out after him.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
I jumped and looked toward the voice. A woman sat in the chair to my right, stringy hair the color of mud, falling into a haggard face. She sighed and said, "He'll be back soon enough."
"Don't worry," another woman sneered at me from the chair on my left. She looked like June Cleaver—coiffed blonde hair and a flattering dress, with a nipped-in waist and full skirt—but there was a heavy, knotted rope where a double strand of pearls should have been. "By the look of you, it won't be long anyway." Her laughter hung in the air like the proverbial other shoe, waiting to drop.
"What do you mean?" I looked from one pale face to the other.
"Honestly," said the blonde, rolling her eyes. "Look." She pointed through the trees toward where I left my ruined car. "You're bleeding to death. Right over there. Right now. Don't look so shocked. I saw you; you revved the engine and drove your own self right into the tree. And now he's waiting for you." She smirked. "Waiting for you to die."
"Oh, God," The car and my body—was it just my body now? It seemed so far away. "Please help me!"
The blonde snorted. "God? God took my babies, took them one by one. Two before they could even be born, one afterwards. I don't know which was worse. And the ladies all said it was 'God's will'." Her mouth twisted with the parody of a solicitous female voice. "Merciful, my ass."
"Miriam, stop. Let her be," said the woman on my right. She turned toward me. Her right eye was purple-red and swollen shut. "We're cut off here. I'm sorry," she said.
"Cast out." She looked down at the ground.
"There, there," cooed Miriam. "Are we scaring you?"
The other one gave her a sharp look, and said to me, "I'm Dolores. What's your name?"
"Anna." She took my hand. I saw her, but not as she was, sitting beside me. She was in a kitchen, offering a plate of food to a man whose face I couldn't see. He slapped her. The plate shattered on a wooden floor. He punched her in the face. She fell into a corner. Now she was in a bathroom crying, fumbling with a bottle of pills. Bourbon, bright and golden brown, sloshed in a bottle, slid down her throat. She was weeping, gasping, retching, choking.
With a sharp breath, I pulled back my hand.
"I'm sorry about your folks," she said.
"I'm, I'm sorry about—"
"Yeah, well." She gave a weak smile, a smile of shame. "I couldn't take it no more. Didn't know what to do."
"Isn't this precious. A little female bonding over suicide and tea, how lovely." I had forgotten about Miriam. "She doesn't deserve your sympathy, Dolores. Killing herself over losing mommy and daddy? Boo hoo. C'mon, Anna, grow up. Oh, sorry." With a dramatic flourish, she placed her fingertips over her pursed lips. "Too late for that, since you're as good as dead."
"Are you dead?" I asked.
Miriam's eyes flashed. "Of course, you stupid bitch! We're all dead here, suicides just like you, only you won't let go. You're going to make him angry, teasing him like this. Dolores, talk some sense into her!"
Dolores said nothing. She was looking past both of us, to the center of the clearing. The black-eyed man had returned. He approached with deliberate, flowing steps, and looked at each of us in turn. His eyes slid over me, oily, indefinite and eternal.
Again he brushed my face with his fingernail. "Who felt your pain and called out to you? Your parents gone, you feeling all alone, and what does that sorry excuse for a husband say? 'Get over it!' As if such exquisite pain could be cast aside like an ill-fitting coat." He gripped my chin and leaned in so close I could smell his hot breath, the scent of rotting flowers and dying hope. "Surrender to the pain, Anna." He released my face, wiped my tears with his fingertips. His eyes continued to bore into me as he rose, licking his fingers with a quick black tongue, a rapturous expression on his face. He turned to Miriam.
Beckoned by the white hand, she stood and stepped toward him. He traced the ugly mark made by the rope around her neck, then tilted her chin toward him. With a jerk the nail punctured the flesh. Miriam was hooked like a fish, and rose off her flailing feet to face the fisherman. She writhed there as he stared hungrily into her face. He smiled, releasing her, and she collapsed into a heap on the ground. There was no blood.
He was moving toward others now. I saw them, wandering out of the woods—dozens of people. Some sat in the chairs, others crowded between and behind them. There were men, women, teenagers, even a child or two. Many looked angry, almost feral. Some sat, their heads bowed or held in their hands. Some were grumbling and cursing. A few screamed or shouted aloud. One was actually gnashing his teeth. He glared and lurched forward at my curious gaze, and I looked away.
"We're nothing but our own misery here," Dolores whispered. "Nothing but misery. He feeds on it: sadness and fear, and bitterness and grief."
"Forever?" My head felt heavy, and I laid it in my hands, as if in a cradle, as if Mama was holding me safe. But Mama wasn't there. In fact, she'd have been ashamed of me, for throwing my life away like this. I could see her in my mind, shaking her head. "It was a mistake," I whispered.
Dolores put her cold arms around me. "There's still hope. You're alive, and he can't kill you himself. Has to wait for you to die on your own."
"Some hope. I'm bleeding to death." I waved in the direction of my car, without looking up. I thought of Jim that night in the guestroom, giving me that exasperated look. I just wanted to be back there saying, "I know. I'm sorry. I love you, too." My arm felt like it was encased in concrete, hard to lift. "Can't stop it. I'm gonna die."
Dolores lifted my chin and looked me in the eye. "Listen, honey, you ain't supposed to be here. I never seen anyone last like you. Now you either got a strong urge to live, despite all, or you got a higher calling, if you know what I mean." She looked down at Miriam, still crumpled on the ground, then across the clearing to the tormentor, now slaking his miserable thirst on another. Her jaw hardened. "Come on." She hauled me onto my feet, wrapping my arm over her shoulder. "Lean on me."
"Where're we going?" I was having trouble standing. My knees wanted to buckle, and there was a buzzing in my head.
"To your car." A strong arm stretched across my back and supported me. "Can you walk?"
My head was full of ball bearings, rolling back and forth, round and round. My vision was all treetops and slate sky.
"Now, you gotta keep your head steady and focus, okay?" I felt Dolores's hand at the back of my neck. "I'll go with you, far as I can."
"Why are you doing this?" I'm not sure if I spoke the words, or only thought them. She didn't answer. We staggered forward, me leaning heavily on Dolores's bony shoulder, until we came to the edge of the wood. My car came into view several yards—an eternity—away.
"You have to go on yourself now, Anna. I can't go past here." She smiled. "Now you keep your head up and focus on getting yourself to that car. And when you get there, make sure you put the flashers on, okay?"
There was a terrible crashing in the woods behind us. "Anna!" My name sounded as if it were being ripped from his throat.
"Dolores, he's coming!"
"I know, honey. Just keep going and don't turn around."
I started to turn away.
"Anna?" She squeezed my arm, hard. "Remember me?"
I looked into her eyes, full of old pain, and older love. "I will, Dolores, I promise." I bit my lip.
"Go!" She released me.
I staggered back a couple of steps, then turned to run.
"Anna? Anna? Oh, thank God." Jim's face was close to mine, his eyes wide. "Thank God your hazard lights were on. The paramedics said you wouldn't have lasted through the night."
"Dolores?" My voice was a barely audible croak.
"Who?" Jim wrinkled his forehead. He looked beautiful. "Baby, don't try to talk, okay? Just rest." He smoothed my hair, kissed my cheek. I was home.
© 2008 Kimberly C. Lundstrom
Original Fiction Debuting at Residential Aliens
Kimberly C. Lundstrom lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she enjoys reading, writing, and disappearing into the mist. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Writing from Rising Generations.