The Empty Car

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Bess travels a lonely road.

The Empty Car

It was all woods where mom and dad built a back-to-the-land house in the ’70s. We did most everything for ourselves. Made our own soap, raised chickens, grew vegetables, and didn’t depend on people. I was their only child and spent a lot of time going and coming on the school bus, but I liked school and went to work there after I graduated.

It was the shortest day of the year, late December and the last day before Christmas vacation. The sixth graders were planning to watch a movie and my regular job was working in the lunchroom, but the teacher needed the day off so I said I’d show it. I wanted to be a teacher once and got money for college when I graduated but when I added up how much more it would cost – it was a lot. Dad said, “Why spend money on school, Bess, when you could earn it.”

Mom said they only offered me a taste, so I’d get in debt for the rest of my life and that made sense, not to get roped into anything, so I stayed. And I was good at the mashed potatoes and back then we made them from scratch. I’d heap them on their plates, and they ate every bite. Anyway, I’d never set up the movie all by myself. The teacher showed me how and I wrote it down, but I wanted to get there early and have a practice run.

So, I left the house in the dark. It was raining and the windshield wipers were swishing back and forth. That truck was old and beat up, but it could plow through anything. That’s a long, lonely road, nobody’s back in there and you have to watch out for the mud holes.

There’s a five mile stretch that runs by the National Forest and I’d hit a deer there once, so I hunched squinting through my windshield because they can come out of nowhere. The headlights shone a little way down the road, and I drove real slow around this limestone wall because rocks can fall off the wall and sit in the road. Mud slides, too, and the road gets slick.

It started to snow. I couldn’t tell at first because the flakes were mixed with the rain. My windshield wipers slowed down under the slush and I just wanted to get there. See the lights in the school, but still had miles to go. After the wall there’s this big wide shelf where spruce trees grow thick on either side and as I was inching around, I got this horrible feeling. This terrible fear like half the mountain had slid down ahead of me, or the road had cracked, and I’d plunge off. My mouth got dry. My heart pounded in my chest and it was so real, slow down. Slow down, and I saw this car slid into the trees with the headlights on.

The headlights shone a little way into the woods and by then it was snowing harder and that’s the loneliest point of the road, so I rolled my window down. “Hello,” I said, not loud at all because it was only a little way down the hill and the taillights glowed like red eyes. There was this sleeting sound and my windshield wipers thumping back and forth and it was four miles back to the house. We’d never heard of a cell phone then but had a regular phone and the Miller farm was a mile beyond. I used to see their boys at school when they were little, but they were teenagers now. “Hello,” I hollered louder. My flashlight lay on the seat and I wanted to go for help, get somebody to come back with me, but it’d take hours to get back, so I picked up the flashlight.

I left the engine on, you know, in case. Go back – screamed in my head as the flashlight shone on water running in the ditch. I jumped across it in my better shoes, sort of a low heel I got for grandpa’s funeral and slid on the mud. They weren’t the shoes I wore in the lunchroom but maybe for showing a movie. I smelled burning rubber and heard the radio playing inside the car. Not loud at all, that song they play at Christmas – Feliz Navidad.

The door was open on the driver’s side. The lights were on inside the car and there was a wedge of light to the outside. A triangle of light opened to the sleeting snow and I inched into it holding my breath tensing up for this horrible sight. For blood and guts, but the driver’s seat was empty. And I smelled roses. This rose perfume like I smelled one time in the store where you sprayed your arm. The perfume was too expensive, but it came in a bar of soap. Mom said we made our own soap. We could make fifty bars for the price of that one. And there was a scarf on the seat, a red scarf with little reindeer that smelled like roses, too.

 I stood shaking and shining my light in the woods because it was really starting to snow, and my feet were cold. Sleety flakes came on my head as I stepped in the spruce trees. The branches were thick to the ground as I pushed inside; ice fell down my neck. Snow stung my cheeks as my flashlight shone on a hump in the woods. A mound lay covered in snow, maybe it was a rock or a log, maybe it was a fallen branch or a bush, I couldn’t tell but I went a little way toward it shaking and scared and the lights jolted out in the car!

They blazed and died – the lights, the music went out behind me – and what if my flashlight died? Then I was running, crashing back through the trees slipping, sliding into the ditch to get to the truck, crazy on my hands and knees the whole way.

Shaking, gasping, sitting behind the steering wheel as I stepped on the gas, lurched forward, then stopped. Oh God, oh God, my hands gripped tight. I stared straight ahead  all the way to the Miller farm peering and straining to see if somebody was walking ahead of me in the snow or slumped in the road so I wouldn’t run over them.

When I got to the Millers the lights were on and I blew my horn over and over, maybe a little hysterical, and Mr. Miller came out. Mrs. Miller, she put her arm around me, and I cried, “There’s a car cracked back in the trees. They’re lost in the woods, maybe hurt.” Then I was sitting at their kitchen table covered in mud and Mr. Miller was calling the sheriff and the boys were pulling on rain gear.

Mrs. Miller got towels to dry me off and the men were leaving to go back and of course I wanted to show them, but Mrs. Miller said, “Let’s wait for the sheriff, dear.” And maybe I needed to call my father and then, of course, the school. All the sensible, logical things I needed to do instead of go back.

* * *

By the time Mrs. Miller and I got back with the sheriff it was daylight. The woods were white; the spruce trees were sagging white with more coming down. Mr. Miller and the boys stood beside the car and my father was crouched there studying the ground. The muddy tracks were covered with snow.

“What did you see, Bess?” the sheriff asked, and Raymond was sheriff then. We went to school together. I thought maybe he liked me once, but he married Sandra and had three kids. And I stood beside the car with the snow falling on my hair and said that the lights were pointing into the woods. The door was open, and the radio was on and there was a shine into the woods, and I went part way, calling a little way into the woods.

But I didn’t say about the hump or about the smell of roses or that as I stood there, I’d felt this glow, this warm breath, like someone was just there – had just left. I didn’t say any of that because a pick-up truck arrived full of hunting dogs. More men came and they gave the scarf to the dogs and the dogs were yelping to be on the hunt and Raymond organized us in a line.

A fan line spreading throughout the woods checking under the spruce trees and the branches all covered with snow. The dogs went ahead of us yelping and were already down the hillside because that shelf drops into a steep ravine. Then I was slipping, sliding in my shoes as I pushed through the trees the same as before and the Miller boys were tearing snow off this hump on the ground.

They were digging snow off this mound and I gasped to see a frozen face, but it was only a log. Only the chunk of a log on the ground and I raked the sides to make sure and the boys rushed on. The dogs were yelping in the distance and I wondered how they could track in the snow like that as I searched down under the trees, trying not to miss any lumps or bumps. And when we got to the bottom by the stream, I stood gasping and holding onto my chest. But it was a wonderland. Snowflakes floated through the trees and the stream gurgled all silver with ice. It was a fairyland except for the dogs.

Across the stream was a steep rock wall and those dogs bayed at that wall the whole time as the line of us stopped. I was shaking with cold but wanted to be a part of it because I’d found the car, but Raymond put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m sending you back,” he said. I was shaking inside my shoes.

“Some us are going back,” he said louder, dividing us into groups – the weak and the strong – the fit and the gasping. Anyway, the Millers went back except for their boys who were good at climbing. Dad and I went back and as we crawled up that hill, the wrecker was hoisting the car.

Some of the snow fell off and it was a Mazda, brand new, a ’96, not even out yet. A green Mazda like the one I’d seen in the magazine only the week before with a sleek curve and this class. I don’t know about cars, but I liked the style of it. Dad laughed when I showed him the picture. “It won’t make it here,” he sneered. And seeing that car hoist up on the back of the wrecker there was this hinging whine and dad said, “No wonder it wrecked.”

Later when I got back to our house mom said that the school had called, someone else showed the movie. And I was sagged on the couch when I glimpsed this outrageous life where I was a teacher in a red scarf and drove a new car.

That night Raymond called to tell me that the car was stolen. “Hot-wired straight off the car lot. Delivered in time for Christmas and somebody stole it.”

“Where?” I asked, but somehow I knew.

“Lake Leila,” Raymond said, and he went on to tell me where it was but, see, I’d been there. Not stayed, of course, but the train stopped there for two hours. It was the time my mother and I went to visit grandma after grandpa died. Grandma sent us the money for the tickets and dad said why spend all that money to go to the funeral when her father was already dead. Anyway, mom stayed in the station, but I walked down the street and it was all decorated for Christmas with the lights and the stores and the music playing. People carried bags full of packages.

Dad said it was a sin what they did to Christmas when you ought to stay quiet, but I thought it was nice.

“The search is off,” Raymond said and of course it had to be with two feet of snow in the woods. “Thanks for your help, Bess,” he said and that was nice, too, because he didn’t have to thank me.

And when I told dad he said, “The buzzards will find him.” But I knew it was she. It was she who hiked those woods, scaled that wall in her cool boots, then she hitched a ride and went on.

* * *

I don’t know what got into me, but something built up all through Christmas. Mom made a little cake, and we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus and did chores and stayed quiet, but it kept at me about that car. It kept at me how she’d hot-wired it in the middle of the night and drove all that way listening to Christmas songs and smelling nice. And one night I had a dream so real, so real that it was me who did it that I woke up with my heart hammering in my chest and took off in the truck and drove all the way to Lake Leila. And it was New Year’s Eve and people were eating in restaurants and shopping and they still had the Christmas lights.

I got a bowl of chili and some potato chips at the lunch counter and they told me where they sold Mazdas. So, I drove down there, and the salesman took one look at the truck and said, “Let me help you.” And I saw the green Mazda and ran my hand over the front. “This one’s brand new,” he said but I could tell it was fixed.

He opened the door and I stood in that wedge of light, “Want a test drive?”

“Sure,” I said like I did that every day and I sat in the seat and there was that new car smell mixed in with the roses. I gripped my hands on the steering wheel and drove straight off the car lot. I drove around the block a few times and it was smooth the way it shifted gears. I eased back on the clutch and was sitting in the seat where she sat gripping tight to the steering wheel. 

And I thought to drive all the way to visit my grandma. You know, show up in a new car but Raymond would have to arrest me, and I didn’t want that. So, I drove back to the car lot, and the dealer said, “Let’s draw up a contract.”

“Not me,” I said and drove all the way home in the truck. I don’t think I was meant to hot-wire cars or scale cliffs or get in debt for fifty years but that spring I wrote to my grandma. “Can I live with you and go to college?”

So, guess what? The next Christmas, I was frying fries in the cafeteria at the college and taking my classes there. I had a beat-up old car and a bar of soap that smelled like roses.

Submitted: February 21, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Suzanne Mays. All rights reserved.

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D Mays

Another good one! Keep writing and posting. I like your writing!

Sat, February 27th, 2021 2:23pm

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