04 Jul Dear in the Headlights
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"Dear in the Headlights"Written by
Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
The last time we saw Eric, the group of us were hanging out in our usual restaurant, pissing off the staff as usual by being too rowdy and mostly drinking coffee. We did order big appetizers now and then, and we tipped well, so when they waitresses did give us grief, it was mostly good-natured. I think the group of us weirdos were their nightly entertainment, truth be told.
We didn’t all meet there every night, of course. Some nights nobody showed up and other times it was close to the whole group. This particular night I think there was a half dozen or so. There were perhaps a dozen of us total, depending on who you considered the core group and who you considered hangers on. Eric was in that grey area between the two, until that night.
From the moment he came in the door, we knew something was horribly wrong. He could barely stand, and he was white as a sheet. His hands were shaking visibly, and you could see white all the way around his eyes. We made room for him fast, and Juju ordered coffee for him twice; black, in case he was drunk, and decaf, in case he was pissed off.
He was pissed off. Scared, and pissed off.
He didn’t say anything at first; I am not sure he could even understand our questions. I got a real bad sinking feeling in my stomach and I squirmed away from the overstuffed booth. I went to the door to the parking lot and took a look at his truck. Sure enough, there was something smeared all over the front. But in the lighting there I couldn’t be sure if it was blood. Choking down bile, I took an old napkin out of my pocket and swept it along the stain. Whatever it was hadn’t dried quiet yet. It was reddish, but mostly clear and shot through with black. Oil? I went back to the booth to hear what he had to say.
He blinked, hard, like he was trying to wake himself from a bad dream, and took off his trucker’s hat -a rare enough occurrence that we knew it was bad- to comb his greasy fingers through his unkempt, straw-colored, dirty hair. Finally he spoke, furrowing his brow. His gaze became intense, angry. “She’s fucking with me.”
I saw one or two of the others kind of relax a bit. Girl trouble, they were thinking, was that all? But I just set my jaw and stared at him. After a moment, he saw my eyes over his coffee cup and grimaced; maybe at the horrible coffee, maybe at me. “Fucking with me.” he clarified.
“Ruby?” I asked. That was the name of the last girl he had gone out with. I think.
He blinked in confusion for a second. “Ruby? Aw hell naw. I might have wanted to run her over with my truck but I never…” he trailed off. I saw some of the gang glancing at each other around the table. They were catching on.
Cap adjusted his baseball cap. He put on a big smile and an exaggerated relaxed attitude, but he kept his voice low. “Funny you should say that, Rick. Kind of thought you might have hit a deer on the way here, the way you looked.” Nate glanced over at me right after he said that, but I held my gaze neutral. I could not be sure I’d seen blood on the front of his truck, and for that matter it didn’t look all dented up like it should have if he had grazed a deer. Besides, Eric was enough of a jerk that hitting deer didn’t faze him. Like most things, it just pissed him off.
Cap can handle himself in a fight, but the rest of us kind of braced. Juju looked at Eric all sympathetic, which was genuine, coming from her.
None of us expected Eric to start laughing. It kind of burst out of him, and we started to relax, thinking maybe this was some kind of ‘gotcha’. It was the kind of thing Eric would have pulled if he was a little smarter and a little less lazy. But the laughter went on too long, and it kinda started to sound like crying at the end there.
“Yeah, I hit a deer,” he said finally, as the laughter died out of him. “Dee Ee Ay Ar.” He let that sink in, while he drank his coffee.
Juju’s hand went to her mouth. She stared, silent, as the implications set in.
Cap’s expression grew dark, which was expected and bad. When he got serious, people got hurt. He was the main man to have on your side in a problem, but you didn’t ever want to be the problem. We weren’t sure just yet whether Eric was the problem, but the odds were not in his favor. Cap thought for a moment. “Is she in the truck?”
Eric shook his head, which Cap did not like.
“Is she lying on the road, Rick?”
A dark chuckle, and another head shake.
“Is she in the ground?”
Eric spoke this time. “Hell no.” He looked Nate right in the eye. “She’s up, walking around.”
Cap matched him glower for glower. “Is she hurt?”
Eric put down his cup and sat a moment, so we could all see the sincerity in his face. “No, she ain’t hurt, Nate. She ain’t hurt at all, because she’s dead.”
Now we all knew that what Eric was saying was impossible. But we also all knew he meant it. So that meant he had gone crazy.
We were all stunned into silence for a moment, and when the chatter started up, he held up a hand to halt it. He shrugged off his own anger – more like stored it away for a bit – and gestured for Eric to continue. We were his friends, after all, and we had all seen weird things. We had to make the effort to believe him.
“I blame Foghat.” He started with that, and a few of us chuckled and nodded. No one sane would ride with Eric at the best of times, but the song Slow Ride made him crazy behind the wheel. “I was taking the old valley highway into town specifically so I wouldn’t have to deal with idiots on the road. I guess I was a little loopy. It was a bad combination. There was no way anyone should have been on that road at that time of night, but there she was. A dear in my headlights.”
He gave each of us a sour look, and then continued. “You have to understand. It was not my fault. I was driving too fast, sure, and my reflexes were slow, sure. I admit that. But the thing is, she was too close to me too fast. Even on my best day, in broad daylight, at five miles under the speed limit, I still would have hit her. You have to understand that.”
We all nodded understanding we didn’t really feel.
Whether he swallowed our act or not was irrelevant. He continued; the pump had been primed. “I stood on the brakes, or as close to it as I could get without jackknifing the truck. I will never forget the way she looked. She had this funny expression on her face. Not fear, not exactly surprise. I saw it for a brief instant, and then her body bounced…” Unable to contain herself, Juju interrupted him with a quiet sob. Cap put his hand on her shoulder. I grimaced inwardly; whatever else happened, Eric was going to get a bust in the jaw for making her cry. But not here and now. Eric had the floor.
“I got out of the cab and ran back to the end of the truck. She… she was all broken and torn. Her eyes stared… I have EMT training, you know. So I checked. I checked for a pulse, you know. I wanted her to be alive so bad. If I had made a mistake, it would have been the other way. I would have thought she was alive when she wasn’t. But I didn’t make a mistake; I know that now.”
“My phone got no bars, which was no surprise. So I went back to the truck to get on the radio. Nothing but static, which was a surprise. It was weird. Even in the valley, I usually get reception on the radio. So what was I supposed to do? If I stayed where I was, I’d cause another accident, or someone would see her body on the road and swerve…”
“So I decided to put her in the truck. It wasn’t like I was going to make her any deader, you know? So I climbed back out of the cab, and looked to the back of the truck, and she was gone.”
“Now I know what you are thinking, because I was thinking it then, too. She was just stunned or something. She had gotten up and wandered off, maybe into the woods. I had to find her, or else she would just wander until she got eaten by a bear or something. I didn’t want her to suffer. So I set flares, went out into the woods with my lamp, and I must have wandered around yelling, “Hey! Girl!” for like an hour.
“I didn’t manage to do anything but spook myself. The woods were tall and black as pitch. Every snap of a twig was a bear or a wolf. My white breath puffing into the darkness was a reminder that I was alive, and that the girl was dead or dying. And the whole time, I was worried about some joyriding kids getting out onto that road and smacking into my truck or something.”
“I admit; by the time I got back to the truck, I was a wreck. I didn’t know what else to do, with no radio and no phone and no girl. I picked up my flares and started home. It was about a half hour later, when my nerves had just about started to calm down and my brain started to work, when I hit her again.”
We all glanced at each other. We could feel the crushing weight of guilt in his every word, so we could imagine what tricks his mind had played on that lonely road. In our glances, we conversed, with something like telepathy: should we stop him? Should we head out to the old road right now and look for the girl? In the end, we decided to let him talk.
“Just like before.” He was staring into his coffee like he could reheat it with his gaze. “Suddenly she was in front of me, too close for me to stop. My headlights washed over her, and this time I understood the expression on her face. It was glee.”
I couldn’t help shaking my head a little to myself. Rationalization. She had wanted to be hit, therefore it wasn’t his fault. I hoped to myself that therapy could fix denial this deep.
“The time after that, and the time after that, and each time, her face held more and more joy before it was mashed into oblivion. I started driving crazy slow, and finally traffic from behind caught up to me, a sea of traffic, honking, uncaring. I saw the exit to the diner, and here I am.”
Cap stood. He started pulling on his jacket.
Eric stood. He put a hand on Cap’s arm, but he pulled it back right quick when he saw the look Cap gave him. “You can’t go out there, man! You don’t understand what’s out there and neither do I!”
Cap simply said. “Sun’s up. We can find the body now. She’s got family somewhere. They deserve to know what happened.”
Eric ducked his head guiltily, then covered it with bravado. “I ain’t going out there again.”
“I don’t want you to. Stay here. Drink coffee. I will deal with this.”
Eric blinked, gratitude spread across his features, quickly followed by stubborn pride and …concern? I saw him try to think hard (also rare) and then he started laughing again. The sound was high, strained and completely fake. “I got you. Heh, I got you all. You should have seen the looks on your stupid faces. Hee hoo. Well, I’m going to be telling this one for a while. See you all later.” He squared his shoulders when Cap stepped into his path.
Eric looked away when Cap talked. “I am going up there anyway.”
Eric looked back at Cap. His eyes looked moist. “Not if I can stop you.” The two men squared shoulders at each other, and the thought occurred to me to clear furniture out of the way. It was at that moment that a couple of thankfully oblivious cops entered. Eric seized his chance and walked right out past them, almost brushing shoulders with them, and earning a suspicious glance. Cap, who had a long and unhappy history with cops, turned away. A moment later, Eric’s truck roared out of the parking lot, and I never saw him alive again.
Sourly, Cap came back to the booth and sat. “We should go out there”, “we should find that girl, say we happened upon whatever stain in the road there is where she got hit; followed it back to wherever her body is. It’s just the responsible thing to do.”
I nodded. “But we should hold up until those cops leave,” I said. “If the timetable on our story matches up with them being here, it could look bad.” Cap furrowed his brow, frustrated with having to wait, but he nodded.
For nearly an hour, we prodded our cold food and drank the bad coffee. The cops finally left; our communities’ finest were on the job again.
We settled the bill, and I stopped myself just before accidentally wiping my mouth on the sample of …whatever that I had taken from Eric’s truck. Whatever was on it was jet black now, with the barest hints of red. It was thicker now, congealed into something like syrup. It smelled strange; pungent but not completely unpleasant. It made me think of maggots. My stomach roiling, I discarded it in the nearest wastebasket.
It was at that moment that the little girl entered the restaurant. The waitstaff stopped and stared, stunned, as did we. She looked like seven kinds of Hell, and she was grinning as if she’d just been told to get ready to go to Disneyland. The only sound was static from the radio behind the counter.
Her feet were bare and covered, no caked, in mud. She carried a scuffed and torn pair of Mary Janes in one hand. Her clothes were nothing but rags, pasted to her form with a combination of mud and some darker substance. Maybe they had been a nice blue dress once; it was impossible to tell. You could even make out a pattern something like tire treads in places.
More disturbing to us who had heard Eric’s story was the fact that the girl, despite the condition of her clothes, looked perfectly fine. Every tooth was in place in her little head. Her hair was matted and streaked with mud, tangled with leaves, but it was all there. She didn’t have a bruise or scrape anywhere you could see. It was almost enough to make one think she was indeed part of some elaborate prank, if you hadn’t seen Eric’s eyes.
Her eyes were also strange. At first they looked like the perfect blue eyes you would expect on a little girl in a tv commercial, but after a moment you caught it. They did not track naturally; almost as if she were navigating by hearing alone, or some stranger sense. And she didn’t blink nearly often enough.
She pranced right up to the counter in front of us as if she was in her Sunday best; maybe she was. “Excuse me, miss,” she said cheerily. “Have you seen a truck driver come in here in the last hour or so?” The counter girl shook her head no, unsteadily. The statement was technically true. “How disappointing,” she said, flouncing a little in exaggerated frustration. “I really had been hoping to find my playmate. We were having so much fun.” I realized, as utter cold crept up my spine, that we weren’t looking at a little girl. We were looking at something that was pretending to be a little girl; something that had learned its mannerisms by rote, or which was recalling them from a distant memory.
Suddenly she cocked her head to one side, and made a beeline right for us. We parted like the Red Sea before Moses, and she proceeded to the wastebasket where I had discarded the sample. She plucked the napkin from it’s place and regarded it for a moment, not quite sniffing it, but with a similar cant to her shoulders. “He’s been here,” she said. “You can’t wipe me away that easily.”
With that she proceeded out the set of doors that Eric had used to reach the parking lot. She twirled in place a few times, and then headed off, skipping.
We all looked at each other. I think we all collectively decided, with something like telepathy, to act as if Eric had indeed pranked us with some elaborate joke. Juju tried to get him on the phone, but all of a sudden she couldn’t get any bars. We sat back down at the booth and tried over and over again. Eventually we got cell phone reception back, but calls to him went straight to voice mail.
We never did get up to the valley highway that day. I guess we figured there was nothing there for us to find.
Credit To – Kitsune9tails