by Charles James
Twisted and scarred from its roll, the Mustang lay like a wounded animal amidst leafless birch and cedars. Inside Kari-Ann shivered. Beside her, Jason still looked at her with his blue eyes, his head pinched between the collapsed roof and the steering wheel. He’d been breathing the last time Kari-Ann looked, but she’d slept since then. Now he sat perfectly still as small drops of rainwater ran down from the crumpled metal hardtop and fell into his open eyes.
Outside, fat rain pellets slowly dissolved the winter snow, turning to a slushy paste the tire tracks that led off the highway down a hill and into the dense forest. Inside, cold water ran onto the back of Kari-Ann’s neck through the broken glass. Drip. Drip. Drip. It slid down her spine, from the part she could feel to the part she couldn’t.
“You’re not going to make it out you know.”
Kari-Ann flinched and tried to turn, but that simple motion sent the kind of pain into her skull that made her want to claw her eyeballs out. The female voice came from behind. She thought she and Jason were alone. The last thing she remembered was racing down the road, Jason shyly moving his hand from the stick to her thigh.
“You’re back is broken and you’re bleeding internally.”
Kari-Ann closed her eyes. An image bled into her mind — a girl hitchhiking in the rain, her long brown hair matted against her face, her red sweater sopping wet. Kari-Ann had wanted to drive on by, but Jason stopped anyway. She had looked so cold. She was still in the back seat. Kari-Ann fought to speak. “Help.”
“Maybe. I need to be sure you want my help first.”
“Phone.” Kari-Ann managed to croak.
“You think there’s service out here?”
Kari-Ann looked at Jason again. He had a cell phone clipped to his belt. Gently twisting her neck, she could see it, a single green LED on it glowing against the fabric of his jeans like a single star in the sky. She tried to move her arm and fight through the pain. But even tensing the muscles hurt. Moving her arm felt like drawing a serrated blade out of her spine.
“Please.” The magic word came out as a whisper.
The hitchhiker let out a sigh. Kari-Ann could taste blood in her mouth. Before, she’d smelled the unnaturally cleansing scent of February rain, but now there was something else. The air seemed dry and thick with ash. A cigarette?
The girl spoke again. “It’s never happened like this. It’s always a rainy night when people pick me up. I suppose with all the black ice around this was bound to happen sooner or later.”
Kari-Ann could still move her fingers. Clenching her teeth in a bite that could break bone, she forced her hand to crawl across her thigh. Her fingers climbed the smooth leather around the stick shifter and over the parking brake.
The girl went on. “Usually I go for single guys. Or maybe it’s just that single guys are more apt to pick me up — a young woman alone all the way out here in the night, soaking wet.” She paused, as if slipping into thought. “Sometimes I let them pull over and do me.”
Something moved outside, startling Kari-Ann. It was subtle movement, light, like a branch scratching against the twisted metal wreck. She couldn’t see it when she looked right at it. It was too dark. But when she scanned her eyes from side to side, she saw the shape. A crow, big and black, its feathers ruffled like it had survived a fight, it looked back at her, watching.
Kari-Ann got her hand to Jason’s thigh. Normally his body heat seemed to seep into her when they touched. Now he pulled what little warmth was left in her from the tips of her fingers.
“They almost always drop me off at home. I leave something in the back seat — usually my sweater. No one ever notices it at first, but they find it eventually. Most of them try to return it. That’s what’s funny. I mean if I found someone left a sweater in my car, that’s their tough bananas, you know. I think they’re usually looking for something more though. You show a guy a good time and he’ll come back lookin’ for more. You know what I mean, Kari-Ann?”
Kari-Ann’s fingers slowly crawled over her boyfriend’s corpse like a tarantula spider, up his hip, taking footholds in the crevices of his pocket and belt loops.
And there she had it.
The pain grew sharper. At that angle, it felt like someone had put her shoulder in a vice and slowly started to turn until the pressure began to crush her bones. But she could feel the phone. Carefully, her fingers reached down and pulled it up out of its holder.
When it fell into her palm, it felt as if someone slammed a sledge hammer into her shoulder. Her fingers trembled as she squeezed the razor-thin plastic shell open. Yellow-green light suddenly cut into the darkness like a lit candle. She needed three bars to make a call. Glancing down, she only saw one. The single black bar flickered for a moment. Then there were none. Soft black numbers spelled out the time below. 03:17.
“When they bring the sweater back, they bring it to my old house, where they let me off. My parents moved out of there years ago. There’ve been at least five different owners since then. Whoever owns the house knows about me though. My story gets passed on with the deed and the keys. When they try to give back the sweater, that’s when they learn I was killed in 1983.”
Kari-Ann lifted the phone and the pressure built. The single bar came back. Then a second one flickered. She had to get it to the window, outside, in the rain. But then a reflection flashed across the phone’s screen. A skeleton with tiny bits of black, decayed flesh clinging to its skull sat upright directly behind her. Kari-Ann dropped the phone. It slid down into the thin crack between the seat and the little storage compartment behind the stick shift. The light still glowed faintly from down there, illuminating the back of Jason’s broken legs.
The hitchhiker took another drag from her cigarette, as naturally as if there was a woman behind her, young, wild and fearless of death. “I really should have stuck to single guys. But I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now. You get tired of playing the roadside slut after a while. Lately, I’ve just been looking for someone to talk to.” She sighed. “I miss the world.”
Kari-Ann took a deep breath. “What do you want?”
“I want to see the world of the living again, just for a little while. I never had a chance to say goodbye.”
Kari-Ann tried not to think about that — saying goodbye — but trying not to think about it felt like trying to hold back a tidal wave with a sand castle. She looked at Jason again. She remembered him breathing, shivering. She couldn’t remember the moment he died. He had just gone at some point in the night. He spoke no dramatic last words, he didn’t confess his sins, and he didn’t reveal the hidden location of a treasure. He hadn’t even said goodbye to her.
“The problem is that you can’t just go back. The gate between the world of the living and this one is one way only.” The girl sounded closer now, like she was leaning forward in the back seat. Kari-Ann could feel the girl’s cool breath across the back of her neck. And she could imagine those yellow teeth, inches from her ear. “But if you were to come here and I to go there, the net result would be zero crossings, wouldn’t it? It would be like no one really crossed over.”
From the corner of her eye, Kari-Ann could see a few locks of the girl’s wet, dark hair — the girl Jason had stopped for. It was that same kind of glossy blue-black as on the feathers of the crow. “A lot of strange stuff happens when you cross over,” the girl went on. “The pain goes away for one. You become this healthy, vibrant version of yourself the way you once were. You don’t have to be afraid of the things that can hurt you. You can’t get sick. The trade-off is boundaries, which you’ll figure out. I can only come out in the rain.” She paused for another drag from her cigarette. “It’s not a bad gig really,” the girl went on. “I get lots of great sex — consequence free.”
Kari-Ann looked at over at Jason again. He was so still. His eyes were so dead. The life had been sucked right out of him. He might have been her first. Maybe. She wasn’t sure yet, but he’d been willing to stick around regardless. Kari-Ann’s muscles shivered. The rain kept pattering against the roof. It was getting colder.
“Or maybe you just want to lie there until you die. You’ll keep shivering as your core temperature drops. Soon your body will run out of energy. Then you’ll grow numb. They say eventually you’ll fall into a serene, almost blissful sleep, but that’s just a pile of crap. They haven’t been where you are, Kari-Ann. I have.”
Her shivering grew more intense. The muscular tremors grew towards convulsions, agitating her injuries. If she could only hold still, the pain would recede. But if she held still, every last bit of warmth would wash from her flesh.
Outside, the crow perched anxiously on the car’s hood. Kari-Ann could almost imagine it, hopping through the broken glass to peck at her flesh.
“You’re close now. So close, Kari-Ann. Close your eyes. Can you see the light? You can’t, can you? That’s because there is no tunnel and no light at the end. There’s only rain on the snow.”
“For how long?” Kari-Ann asked.
“One year. It won’t seem that long to you. Time takes on a different meaning when you are what I am. After a year, I’ll come back, and you return to the world, healthy, like nothing happened. You might have a bit of a mystery on your hands, explaining where you were for a year, but what’s life without a little mystery?”
The pain swelled inside Kari-Ann like a balloon being blown up. Eventually it would pop, and then what? It hurt so much that tears formed in her eyes. “Okay.”
They say you can hear it over the phone when a person smiles. Kari-Ann still couldn’t see the hitchhiker in the back seat, but she could hear her smiling.
The pain started to numb, like when the blood rushes back into a hand that’s fallen sleep and the pins and needles fade away. Her head grew less foggy. Thoughts came faster now. The cold loosened its grip. As the grogginess slipped out of her, fear suddenly surged inwards, filling her from the gut upward. It slammed into her with the same intensity of regret that slams into a suicide jumper in that brief time between the freedom of flight and the impact from the concrete. “Wait. How do I know you’ll come back?”
The crow flapped its wings and flew off into the rain.
The hitchhiker giggled. “I suppose you’ll have to trust me.”
Copyright © 2006 by Charles James