“Splintered piece of glass falls in the seat, gets caught
Broken windows, open locks, reminders of the youth we lost,
In trying so hard to look away from you
We followed white lines to the sunset,
I crash my car every day the same way.”
—Thursday, Understanding in a Car Crash
Later that night after everything. After what took place in the mansion with the woman in white. After what took place with Will.
After the woods.
I drove in the rain as far as I could go.
I called Zach. He came, he found me. I was wrapped in his jacket. I was in the passenger seat of his car.
That was when I said, “I have to go back to Nightfall.”
Zach nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said, “okay,” turning the steering wheel, pulling out of the gas station onto the highway, turning towards Park Heights.
I glanced back. It looked like my station wagon had been abandoned there at the pumps for decades, not minutes, a heap of junk rusting fast-forward in the aftermath of the rain.
“What is that, anyway?” Zach said. “Nightfall. It sounds like some sort of Vampire crap.”
“No, it’s the theme of the fundraiser. At Arcyn."
“You were there tonight, at this fundraiser?”
“And then you just left? On your own? Before it was over?”
“I got away.”
“You got away from what?”
I felt my heart pounding. I said, “I want to tell you Zach. I’m going to tell you. I am. You have to give me some time.”
He looked at me quickly and then looked away as if it hurt him to see me. He accelerated out of a bend in the highway and the car’s high beams swept across a wall of pine trees, branches slicing light.
I had decided to go back to Arcyn, I knew that I had to, but now I felt it again, that panic. It was rushing into me just like before. I was afraid. My thoughts all scattered. No breath in the lungs to breathe.
Zach said, “You’ve got all the time you need, Tess. You know that. I’m not pressuring you.” He paused. “But I have to ask this much: how did you get way out here at this gas station in the middle of nowhere?”
Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t cry. Drive.
When I tried to remember coming out of the woods between Arcyn and my car in the parking lot, at first there was nothing, and then there was this: looking down from above you can see a girl sprinting out from between the trees. Stumbling right down, staggering back up. Her dress is torn into pieces and there is blood all over her: blood in her hair, blood on her face, blood smeared across her mouth like lipstick. You can see her running barefoot into the parking lot and there’s no sound because she’s holding back the sound of her screams. There’s only one hired valet at this time, sitting on the grass—he’s on his phone and he doesn’t see her; no-one sees her. She doesn’t have a handbag anymore but she never locks the station wagon because no-one would steal it and the keys are hooked onto the sun visor so that they drop into her shaking hands when she folds it down. She starts the car. She drives.
That girl is me. A few hours ago that was me.
Zach said, “You left Arcyn in your station wagon. And you drove out here until you ran out of gas.”
“Yes,” I said. “I drove until I was out of gas.” He waited for me to tell him more. “I think I was in shock. After what happened.” A shiver went through me from fingertips to toes. “I think I’m still in shock.”
“Is this something that happened at the fundraiser?” Zach asked.
“Remember a few seconds ago when you said I had all the time I need?”
“I meant it, Tess, I did.”
“But you want to know.”
“I have to know.”
Don’t go back, Tess. Make him stop the car. Don’t go back to Arcyn. Turn around before it’s too late.
I said, “There was a man.”
"Stupid girl," he said.
Zach became still. “What do you mean.”
“In the woods. It was after I came out of the mansion. I just wanted to get out of there, I wanted so much just to leave and go back to my life.” Now I was telling it. “And I knew there was a short-cut through the woods to my car.”
“Right,” Zach said. “Between the parking lot by the front gate and that tacky fountain.”
I’d forgotten that Zach had spent time there with the Severands. That he’d loved Linna, or thought he’d loved her.
“I went into the trees,” I said, “because the air was cool and there was light left to see. I was alone and I thought I was free of them. That’s all I wanted, just to be free of them!”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The Severands. Linna and Will and their father. Who are they, Zach? Something’s not right. There’s something wrong with them and we don’t know what it is.”
“You saw them in the woods?”
I started shaking. “No,” I said, and then it came out: a long sobbing cry, as if something had been released. “Noooooooo, no, there was a man. He was waiting for me. He knew my name.”
“Tess Bellamy,” I heard him whisper. “You’re even more beautiful like this.”
“And he… he had a knife. He came at me.”
Zach made a constricted sound, cut short. “Oh Tess. No no no, Tess.”
“I got away at first. He let me run away. But I knew I wouldn’t make it. He was faster than me. So I hid.” Stillness can be unbearable, silence terrifying.
“Tell me that he couldn’t find you,” Zach said softly.
“That’s not what happened.”
His hand went into my hair and yanked my head back, bashing it against the tree trunk.
I said, “I couldn’t get away from him. I tried. I fought him.”
My hand flew up and I clawed him across his face.
“And he was about to kill me.”
His knees pressed into my chest, one hand closing around my throat.
“He raised his knife.”
Then it plunged down.
I didn’t tell Zach all of it then, in the passenger seat of his car, going back to Nightfall. The solid white line in the center of the highway slipped right and left and out into the dark past the headlights. I couldn’t find a voice for what I had to say. I could barely even remember what had happened. Since then, it’s something that’s gone deeper and deeper down inside of me, something I hold onto as tightly as I can hold onto anything.
Here it is.
He drove the knife down. And it stopped.
The tip of the knife had gone into the skin of my stomach, just the very tip. I couldn’t even feel it.
The man in the bomber jacket. He was frozen. He was held in place. I could see the strain in the muscles of his neck but he couldn’t move at all. His eyes rolled in their sockets and his chest moved in-out, in-out with rapid, shallow breaths. A thin, high-pitched whining sound trailed out from between his clenched-tight teeth.
All night, since driving out to the gas station, I had been seeing phantom images of Linna. I had seen her at the back of the gas station, at the side of my station wagon, and then on the hood of Zach’s car as we had prepared to leave. None of these were the first time.
Right then, in that frozen moment, I saw as if through a haze the apparition of Linna Severand wrapped like a spider around the body of the man in the bomber jacket. She was behind him, she was around him, she went through him, like a ghost. The white strands of her elongated hands pulled at his face, clawed his eyes. Thin, stretched legs folded into a cross against his chest. I blinked and I saw this and I blinked and it was gone.
I didn’t think about what I’d seen. It made no impression.
This was my moment.
I pushed on the man’s black-gloved hands and lifted the knife up and out of my stomach. I struggled up. On my knees, I pried the knife from his fingers. I held the handle in my own cold hands. I jammed the knife up into him and it made a snicking, popping sound when it went through the bomber jacket. I rammed the knife up and up again, into his body. Up, up—and blood poured down.
At last, he moved. Released from the hold that had him, he fell on top of me. Fell onto his knife, which embedded itself. A long ragged breath came out of him, and then nothing.
“He couldn’t do it,” I said to Zach in the car, not telling him any of it. “He raised the knife but he couldn’t do it. And I….”
“You got away,” he said.
“I took the knife from him. I stabbed him with it.”
“What, Tess, are you… you took his knife?”
“I stabbed him again and again.”
“I killed him.” There it was. I killed the man in the bomber jacket. And I dropped the knife and I ran and I came out of the woods and got into my car and I drove. “So now you know why I have to go back.”
“No, Tess,” Zach was saying, “no, we have to go to the police right now. I don’t know—call them, drive to a station. Why do you want to go back there? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I have to show them where the body is,” I said.
“You’re not thinking right. Let’s pull over and call 911 like you said before.”
“No!” I shouted. “Take me back there! Just take me back. We’ll call from Arcyn. We’ll call 911 from the parking lot.”
“I don’t think we don’t have to do that,” Zach said slowly.
“I have to go back now, Zach, now!” Suddenly I was shrieking. My hands raked at the dashboard, at the seat belt. “I want it to be over,” I pleaded, sobbing. “It’ll never be over unless I go back there and find him.”
“Tess,” he said, “it’s alright. We don’t have to. It’s already over. You’re safe and I’m with you and nothing’s going to hurt you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Well I’m going to. Nothing can hurt you now.”
“Zach,” I said sadly.
Zach—sweet, noble hero that you wanted to be—what would have happened if I’d been able to choose your happy ending? If that date of ours had gone differently; if I was different, if I was someone who could have been yours. Would we have made out in the parking lot outside of your high school prom while the film flickers to a fade, you in your best white suit and me in the dress I made to be pretty in pink? Instead it’s me in your car in a blood-soaked black dress, driving back to the place where I stabbed a man to death.
The panic was leaving me. My mind slowing down. At the side of the highway, I saw one burned-out pine tree on its own, black surrounded by green. I was only beginning to understand that I would bear this night forward with me forever.
With a sudden sadness I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same.
“I don’t want to drive us to Arcyn,” Zach said finally.
“We’re almost there,” I said. We had reached the end of the highway where it met Beech Boulevard, north of the town. From here, Beech Boulevard ran south, touching on everything in Park Heights: Summit Estates where Dylan lived; Arcyn to the west; then down through the scattered neighborhoods, the clutches of darkened houses, to the main drag where Green Machine and Crazies Diner sat together; past the Arts Nexus; past the turnoff to my house, to Kevin Cho’s house; down the hill at last to the Wellness Centre where it crouched at the edge of Los Angeles.
“I don’t think we should go there,” Zach said again, more forcefully.
I wanted to reach over and put my hand against the side of his face. His beautiful, stupid hair was in front of his eyes again.
Zach turned right at the lights on Summit Drive and Beech Boulevard. It was inevitable now. Arcyn was drawing us toward it.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’ve been through hell, Tess. We need to get help.”
“Right now. Before we go back to Arcyn.”
“But we’re here,” I said.
To our right, the trees had receded behind the tall ironwork fencing along the side of the estate. The front gate would be just ahead.
“What the hell is that,” Zach said suddenly. “Turn on your lights, man.”
There was a car coming toward us on the road. It was a black Mercedes, no headlights on.
Then something impossible. The car exploded upwards into the air as if thrown by an incredible, unimaginable force.
“Tess!” Zach shouted, throwing his arm across me.
The black Mercedes slowly spun in the dark above us like a satellite above the atmosphere, turning and turning at the height of its flung trajectory.
It fell down onto us with a crash. A scream of splintered metal slicing metal.
Impact. Flung out against the seat belt’s limit. Suspended in that pocket of weightlessness. The shattered, cut glass glitter of the blown-out windshield. Then the returning heaviness, crushing weight. Head snapped forward against the sting of the airbag’s shockwave.
Roof of the car coming down around me, crumpling like a sheet of paper clutched in a closing hand.
Pain began. So did mercy.
Everything flickered out to nothing.
© 2017 by C.D. Miller