Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
With the windshield wipers swishing back and forth against a heavy late-autumn rain, I chased my car’s headlights down a long stretch of two-lane country road deeper into the odd hours of the night. I couldn’t see much aside from the glistening black asphalt rolling out before me, only the woods and the rain and the darkness. Some song from the sixties was playing on the radio, my GPS was on the fritz, and I felt more than a little bit lost.
I don’t know how it had happened. One moment I knew where I was and where I was going, and then I was drifting aimlessly through a series of unfamiliar roads, all of them twisting and turning and seeming to go on forever and nowhere into the black rain-swept night. I’ve lost my way plenty of times before, happens to the best of us once in a while, but I’ve never—neither before nor since—got lost coming home from work.
I needed to calm down. I needed to relax. I’d keep driving. I’d figure this out. I’d find my way home, eventually. Entertaining anything else was simply too absurd.
Now, turning down the radio and squinting through the windshield, as though this combination of decreased sound would somehow increase my vision and improve my chances of figuring out my location, I stopped at a four-way intersection. I saw nothing useful. No lights. No signs. There was an old graffiti-covered bridge that spanned a shallow, rock-strewn wash set some way off from the road in the distance behind me. As far as clues that could help me determine my location on planet Earth, the bridge was just about as useful to me as the dead possum I had passed an hour before.
I sighed. The GPS suctioned to the windshield was searching for signal, and the cellphone lying in the center console didn’t have any bars. The clock on dash displayed 10:00 P.M. in faint green numerals, but the time felt somehow wrong, for the hour seemed later, much later.
I pulled through the four-way intersection. Then, ahead of me, I spotted somebody walking along the shoulder of the road, and let my foot off the accelerator pedal. They were walking in the same direction I was driving, although they were hard to see at first. The downpour was falling harder than ever. But even in the pouring rain, their walk was distinctively female. Then the car’s headlights washed over her and I saw the young woman clearly for a moment before I drove past her and she was shrinking away into the lonesome rain-swept distance behind me in the rear-view mirror. She didn’t belong out there in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know that.
I eased down on the brake pedal. There were no other vehicles in sight apart from my own, neither coming nor going, and I saw no need to pull completely onto the shoulder. After I brought the car to a complete stop, I tapped the horn and watched the young woman in the rear-view mirror. She was about a hundred yards behind me. She would draw close within a minute or two.
As she approached the car, the murky red glow cast by the taillights painted her white dress and denim jacket in shades of bright red and bloody crimson. Her hair was matted to her head. She was probably drenched to the bone. But in that weird red light it almost seemed that she was soaked in blood for a moment instead of just the freezing autumn rain.
When the young woman reached my car and approached the passenger-side door, I rolled the window down. The car’s interior heat fled into the night. I leaned across the passenger-side seat. The young woman looked much younger up close. In her facial features, I could see both traces of the child she had once been and the beginnings of the woman she would become. But there was also something else about her face. Something else the dark and stormy night kept hidden from me behind its veil of rainy moonless black.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Can you give me a ride home?”
“Sure,” I said. “Hop in.”
The young woman opened the passenger-side door. The cold settled deeper into the interior of the car. The dome light snapped on. She climbed into the passenger-side seat, pulled the door shut, wiped a strand of wet hair out of her face
(her face was too pale)
and buckled her seat belt. I placed her age somewhere between seventeen and nineteen, and although she looked like a normal teenage girl in every conceivable aspect, I still found something
(an invisible mark)
about her face deeply disturbing. Looking at her was somehow the visual equivalent of listening to nails on a chalkboard, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was that made this particular young woman so hard to look at. The dome light winked out and the darkness fell back into place.
“Here,” I said, cranking up the heat. “You must be freezing.”
“No,” she said. “I’m fine.”
She didn’t say anything.
I cranked up the heat a little more, put the car in drive, went through the intersection, cranked the heat all the way up, and introduced myself.
“Lydia,” she said, also introducing herself.
“Well . . . where are you going, Lydia?”
“I really need to get home.”
“Where do you live.”
“Can you give me directions?” I asked. “I’m sort of lost.”
The young woman nodded, as though my last statement had been the most obvious thing in the world to her, and advised me to make a U-turn when possible. I turned around under the dead lights of a closed down convenience store that had fallen into abandonment. The bridge that had spanned the rock-strewn wash in the distance behind me a few moments before flew on the opposite side of the road by and then the rain and the trees and the darkness fell back into place. Once we were turned around, the young woman began to explain how to get back to Highway 71.
It wasn’t a long drive, the young woman didn’t live too far out of the way, but when I pulled onto the highway, an eerie silence stole over the interior of the car. I made a few attempts at starting conversation before it occurred to me that she didn’t want to talk much. She mentioned something about a dance once, and that she hadn’t been home in a long time, but that was about it. I thought she was a runaway and that I was doing a good deed by taking her home.
The young woman spent most of the ride staring out the window, and she didn’t say much more until we reached High Point. The rain was falling in diagonal slants under the sodium-vapor streetlights when we got into town, traffic was still almost nonexistent, and the world seemed to have taken on the nightmarish attributes of a quite apocalypse in which people had simply disappeared with the setting sun and the coming rain.
After fifteen minutes of the young woman guiding me through the rain-swept streets, I hooked a left, splashed through a puddle, and pulled into the mouth of a quiet residential neighborhood at ten till eleven. The young woman guided me deep into the heart of the suburban labyrinth. A few minutes later, she pointed at an old two-story house ahead on the right.
“Right there,” she said. “It’s right there.”
“That one?” I asked, also pointing.
I pulled up to the curb, put the car in park, unbuckled my seat belt, and looked at the young woman.
“I’ll get your door,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
I opened the driver-side door, got out of the car, walked around the vehicle, crossing in front of the headlights, stepped in a three-inch puddle of icy cold water, opened the passenger-side door, and looked at the empty passenger seat where the young woman had been sitting only a moment before. She was gone.
The seat belt hung lose and limp, yet it remained buckled. It was as though the young woman had never existed . . . or had vanished into thin air.
I ran one hand over the empty seat. It was still cold and wet. The color began to bleed out of the world and the sound of the falling rain faded deep into the background, as though I was hearing it from far away instead standing in the middle of it, alone and soaking wet. I grabbed the frame of the open passenger-side door to steady myself.
My mind tried and failed to step away from the ebbing tide of the impossible. She could not have slipped out of the seat belt without unbuckling and then buckling it back again before escaping—
Only that isn’t the right word, and although it’s the best word to describe such an exit, there was no escape.
It didn’t matter which way she had run, either. Her house was fifty feet away from the street where I had parked beside the curb, and everything else was even further. I have good eyesight. If she had run, I’d have noticed. I’m a little hard of hearing, yeah . . . but I’m far from deaf.
Looking at the house, I noted nothing sinister about it, and after a long moment, I walked up the sidewalk to the front door. The rain had soaked through my coat, flooded my other shoe, and my hair was plastered to my head like a helmet. I raised my hand to knock, hesitated with my hand poised in the air like a department store mannequin, and then I knocked on the door. Beyond the door, there was an almost immediate shuffle of footsteps. Then the footsteps stopped. A short period of silence followed, in which I felt certain that somebody was examining me through the peephole on the other side of the door, and then I heard a dead-bolt slide back.
When the door opened, the old woman’s face was familiar to me in a vague sort of way, like cities by the sea once glimpsed in a collection of faded photographs found on a childhood jaunt through an old chest stored away in the corner of a dusty attic.
“Yes?” the old woman asked.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late, ma’am.”
“Ain’t no bother, young man.”
“No,” she said. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“There was a girl.”
“There was. Yes.” A thin smile surfaced on the old woman’s face.
“Come in,” she said. “You look lost.” Then, before the I could answer, the old woman turned away from me and walked into the foyer, glancing back at me and beckoning to me with her hand just before she disappeared behind a corner. <i>C’mon, C’mon.</i>
I stood there for a moment before I went inside, unsure how to proceed, but when I walked into the kitchen, the old woman was already pouring coffee from the pot, and it smelled good. I had never needed a cup of coffee so bad in my entire life. The old woman introduced herself. I did likewise.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, I told the old woman about the young woman, and how I had driven to this address, and how the young woman had disappeared while I was walking around the car to open her door. As I told the story, I got the impression that the young woman was very important to the old woman, but I couldn’t wrap my head around why the old woman wanted to sit around and talk about the young woman instead of trying to figure out where she had gone or what had happened. The old woman also never interrupted me to ask the type of questions I’d have asked if the situation had been reversed. I would’ve asked for a name and a description of her appearance, which was funny, because the harder I tried to remember the details of my story, the more difficult they were to grasp. The old woman filled in the gaps in my memory on more than one occasion, as though she had heard my story before.
“I don’t know,” I said. I was near the end of my story now, and I didn’t know how to finish it, or if I still believed any of it had even happened. “It was like she just . . . just . . .”
“Like she just vanished into thin air,” the old woman suggested.
“Yeah . . .”
“You must’ve met my daughter, Lydia, tonight. You ain’t the first young man to try and bring her home, and you probably ain’t gonna be the last.” The old woman sighed. “Oh, I used to get so upset when the knocks came at the door. I used to—”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“—shout and scream and throw things at them.” The old woman went on as though she hadn’t heard me. “Grief is a strange and lonesome road to wander on your own. But you only wanted to see her home safe. I know that now. Besides, none of my fussin ain’t never made no difference. Every so often Lydia manages to flag somebody down near that old bridge where the car accident happened thirty years ago.”
“Thirty years ago?”
The old woman nodded and went on. “It’s always somebody lost and in need of finding. I think the lost open the way for her somehow. Or, at least, they make it easier for her to cross back over the bridge.” The old woman paused, looked toward the front door, and shook her head. “But she cain’t never come back home to me. I don’t know how it works. But it don’t work like that. No matter how hard-headed my poor girl wants to be about it.” The old woman stopped, sipped her coffee, and went on. “I dread the day she knocks at the door and I have to tell her that she’s dead.”
“Dead?” I asked.
“Dead. Yes. Your passenger was a ghost.”
CREDIT : Scott Landon
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