I remember feeling very small in the backseat. The world beginning and ending at the worn fabric edges, the scuffed molded plastic. The musty smell. A past dampness baked in and starting to turn. I could stretch out fully across the car’s width without difficulty, but on that evening I chose to remain curled. The jackets I had drawn around me formed a small tent, the nubby fabric soothing in its scent and texture. It filtered the harsh orange light of the streetlamps outside to a faint, earthy peach, flooding the car intermittently as we rattled down crooked roads. I pressed a palm to the corduroy sky and imagined I was catching the sun.
I drifted pleasantly in and out of sleep. The in-between of waking and resting when you may feel, for the briefest moment, released from the glittering grit of life. You become lighter, lifting slightly within yourself. Hovering, not flying; breathing, not gasping.
She was singing along absently to the radio, both so low that I hadn’t noticed it had begun, only realizing once it was happening. We had found the highway, so the ragged rocking of the car as it caught against cracks and dips had eased, and instead we slipped seamlessly along. I couldn’t see it in the dark, but I pictured the asphalt as a silken stream, someone at the other end patiently gathering it up and pulling us forward. The heavy summer air, thick despite the cover of night, pressed its clammy face hard up against the windows. Persistent, it found its way inside, through leaky windows and wizened metal plates. Patient fingers tenderly easing under rotten paint. The lights became fewer and less frequent, brief flashes that eventually disappeared altogether. I peered out from under the coats and gazed into the night. The whole world was a black sea, the moon picking out tiny waves as they crested and crashed across the sky.
She was still singing. More of a hum, really, since there were no words. I couldn’t see her face, only the hand delicately gripping the steering wheel. It looked like something dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, tinged green in the glow of the dashboard. I watched thin trails of algae sway softly in the half-light, stretching from her slick skin to her knees. The seat was stained wet, the dirty carpeting sodden and squeaking occasionally under her feet. Once, she lifted her hair slightly, heaving it over one shoulder and rubbing at a knot in the side of her neck. But other than that, she kept a hold of the wheel, sitting still and staring straight ahead. We didn’t speak. The night rolled on, endless, vast, and wide.
After some time, we came to rest stop, one of those parking lots cut out of the tree line. It made me think of a gap-toothed smile, and I poked my tongue through empty space in my own gums. It still tasted of blood.
She turned off the car and sat for a moment. Smoothed back her hair, hands briefly cupping her face. I could still feel the whirring of the engine and the clicking of some mysterious machinery somewhere deep under the seat cushions. It made my bones tingle, as though absorbing the extra energy.
Wait here, she said, and twisted backwards in the seat to face me. The other presence rippled beneath the surface of her skin while her hands, cold and clammy, grasped for mine. Bruise-coloured eyes to match shiny nails. Something coiled below one cheekbone slowly unwound itself and squirmed over the bridge of her nose. Straining between bone and flesh, nearly bursting, before slithering away into the tendon ridges of her neck. She didn’t appear to notice, although even in the night haze I could pick out the thin trail of blood staining one corner of her mouth. Like oil, polished to a high shine.
I won’t be long, she whispered. And then stepped out of the car. She left the door open and I watched as the darkness crawled in, pulling itself over the lip of the floor and inching steadily along. I hugged my knees closer. The night had begun to gather below, thick and shining, curling and twisting. Sometimes a hand or a face would punch out, a sudden show of exuberance quickly extinguished.
She was gone when I looked up. No shadowy shape in the distance or footsteps fading away. There was a hole in the air where she had stood, a patch of nothing at all that roughly followed the curves and edges of her body, smeared slightly where she had moved. The outline burned bright, just for a second, before melting and twisting in on itself once more. And once more, the air was smooth. The forest gazed back, impassive. It was unbothered; it had seen stranger things. She had to come back, I thought.
Didn’t she? I crept forward, wedging between the driver and passenger seats to reach the door and pull it shut. The sound was satisfying, crisp and certain. Something solid to grip. I turned it over in my mind, like an interesting stone picked up while exploring. There was nothing to do but wait, and so I settled amongst the mess of clothes and bags in the back, the disorder mirroring our hasty departure.
The nighttime that had leaked inside was pooled in the footwell, but had stilled now, resting. I heard it muttering softly to itself, chuckling occasionally.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep but my bones were still tingling and, around them, invisible ants scurried hurriedly through my veins. I gave up and curled into a corner of the bench, blotted against the musty covering. I watched the trees standing in the night, straining for the slightest hint of movement, hungry for her return. I didn’t understand, then, what it meant when she left or where she had gone. Our whole lives unspooled erratically between different nameless cities and low-slung towns, strung together by frantic escapes made at odd hours. Are we running away? I had asked her once. It was a soft desert morning, the sky still bloated and purple with sleep. The sand around us was dry and spiced, so unlike the salty silt I was used to. She patted it absently into small dunes as she thought. I buried my legs while I waited. The heat felt like it came right up from the center of the earth.
No, she said finally. We’re running towards.
Towards what? I asked. I didn’t look up, shoving my fists into the sand.
She sighed. Towards home.
When will we get there? I asked.
Its not a there, she said, like a place on a map. Or a house or any kind of a building. It’s a feeling.
I raised my arms, letting the sand stream golden through my open fingers.
It’s safety, she said quietly. It’s being allowed to exist.
I nodded, although I didn’t really understand. To me, then as now, living was simply the mechanics of breathing and waking, sleeping and eating. Everyday moments strung together every day, and for every day after that. When I looked up she had her eyes closed, face tilted at the sun. It shot through the blood bubbling at the edges of her lips so that it glowed from within, deep and vibrant. Time to go.
I don’t know where she went, but it had always been so. Just as mornings cycled through mid-day and finally to night, so too did she come back and disappear, return before vanishing once more. You could tell it was going to happen by the blood. Usually a thin trickle inching from the corners of her mouth, jewel-bright with heat. Other times it was angry, less sedate. Something bursting, straining, heaving to be released, a cascade of rough-cut gems flushing through parted lips. She emptied herself on the ground. And then of course there were the in-between occasions: a gentle bubbling or perhaps a thicker flow, nevertheless easily staunched by a corner of fabric or the back of a hand. The blood would come and then she would leave. I did not question this, my natural order of things, and when she showed up again she would have food to share, love to give. After eating, she might let me curl beside her until I fall asleep. And the rest of the world would do the same, curving closer and closer around the two of us. Cupped between two palms.
I had begun to drift off again when the air just beyond the car screamed apart with a terrible tearing sound, light gushing pus-like through the opening. She fell out into the damp darkness, and through the heavy glow I could see something small and dead cradled firmly between her teeth. Clouds of insects swirled and billowed in the yellow thickness, partly obscuring the other figures clambering through behind her. I scrambled to the far window, pressing my face against the warm glass. She had struggled halfway to her feet, knees bent and back hunched in an awkward half-crouch, arms raised to shield her head. Three others had spilled out, backlit so that I couldn’t make out much more than their general forms. It made them seem extra solid, basic outlines filled with something heavier than flesh and blood. Stone or sand poured into human-shaped weights. They stood in a half-circle around her as she stiffened, the gaze of their guns pinning her to the ground. The rip in the summer night gaped behind them, ragged edges smarting where they hung in ribbons. Although the first bright blast had faded, a weak stream of liquid light continued to dribble into the sweaty grass.
In my head, but not of my thoughts. She spoke again, the words unmuffled despite her mouth being full.
Get down. Now. And whatever happens, do not. Come out.
I heard the night time on the floor stir and slide, rustling over the matted rug. I squirmed away, pushing up hard against the door as I slid down, trying to make myself as small as possible.
Don’t fight it, she thought to me. Its to hide you. Outside, she slowly let the mass fall from her mouth.
I hadn’t even formed the thought, the cool darkness just easing over my feet, tasting the strip of bare skin around my ankles, when she leapt forward. One movement that contained whole worlds. She grew smaller and sleeker as she surged up, skin flushing with thick fur as hands and feet gave way to steel-tipped paws.
They shot her and the pain cleaved my skull. Her screaming or mine, it didn’t matter. I heard it blast open every door in my brain, just as I felt my own throat turn raw and ropey. The current slammed into our bodies, leaving our bones brittle and skittish and scorching our veins.
It continued, never waning. The pain made time elastic, expanding the dead space between seconds into full minutes so that it felt like whole days were passing by. Teeth sang in their sockets while soft things inside us were starting to burst open, a throb layered just below the sear.
And then: her voice. Barely audible at first, a drip amidst a tsunami. I felt it rather than heard it. In the soft stroking of my hand, in the tiny kiss on the furthest edge of my mind. There were no words left to answer back, only pictures. I was fading, thoughts slipping away any time I got near. I love you, came the whisper, I love you.
And then: the end. The electricity shut off just as abruptly as it had begun. Everything was still and quiet once again, except for my body. It jerked and trembled in the dark, slick and sticky.
The humidity was already oppressive, despite the early hour. It beaded on neatly trimmed mustaches and collected under arms and in the smalls of backs in dark patches and splatters. A flagrantly abstract pattern, at odds with the strict uniforms. A woman pushed a pair of glasses further up her nose, sweat threatening to slide them from her face. She peered through the thin film of condensation at the mess splayed out across the ground.
What do you think? Someone asked behind her. You ever seen an animal do this kind of damage before?
She mopped the back of her neck and shook her head slowly. Sank into a squat and began to photograph the bodies.
Hey boss, over here, I think I’ve found something.
It was a couple of paw prints, rusty and perfect in a shady corner of the parking lot. The woman adjusted her glasses and snapped a picture.
Probably rabid, she said, turning to her colleague. Find it and put it down.
Jacqueline lives in Ottawa, Ontario. She entertains herself on long runs by thinking up stories.