This story appears in my book of shorts, Goners, available on Amazon. Download a copy, it’s only $0.99!
I was stopped behind a van at a red light when an old woman who could barely see over the steering wheel pulled in behind me. I noticed her almost immediately through the rearview mirror. She was alternately fussing with her hair and gripping the wheel, looking around and talking to what seemed no one in particular.
She was driving one of those classic cars I didn’t know the name of. From what could be seen in the rearview it was in excellent condition, although it could use a wash. It was black with wood-paneling trim.
There was someone in the back seat running a hand in what looked like a pink mitten up the rear passenger side window. I couldn’t see anymore than the long, stripe-sleeve covered atm, but it looked like clothing a child would wear. The hand kept going up the window then the arm stretched out impossibly long as it went across the ceiling and back down the other window.
Tuning out the old woman and her passenger, my mind turned back to a half hour ago. Life had been slowly returning to me over the past six months and if things kept going well like they had today, it would be no time before I could get visitation with the kids.
I couldn’t blame Cynthia for leaving. She had tried too long with me and it had gotten to a point where she was drowning in my troubles. Leaving the house was next to impossible. Driving was out ofthe question. I had to be hip deep in the bag when she shuttled me to physical therapy. But in another half hour maybe I could show her that was all behind me now. We’d made a lunch date for later today.
The night of the accident was a distant memory. Doctors had patched me up with three pins in my leg and a plate in my skull, but being whole again was still a ways off. I gripped the steering wheel with the relief of being able to drive without thinking every other car would plow into me. Dr. Rivers had reduced my antidepressant prescription by half after today’s session.
The light turned green. Edging my foot off the brake as the van in front of me pulled away my car was slammed from behind. I rolled a few feet and put on the brake, my brain pinwheeling from whiplash. I closed my spinning eyes and sat a moment, running a mental diagnostic over myself. Nothing seemed hurt.
“Excuse me,” said an elderly voice just outside the car a moment later. I opened my eyes and saw her, breath pluming in the cold air. She appeared worried. It was the old woman from the antique car, but it took a moment to recognize her. I hadn’t expected her to be dressed so strange in a buttonless ratty fur coat hanging off her like a clothesline and some flower-patterned sleepwear thing underneath.
“I’m okay,” I said, not thinking to wind down the window. She shook her head, the half blank, worried expression still on her face. Not wanting to bump her, I began opening the door slowly. I waved her off so she would back up, but she just stood there.
“Move!” I shouted. Immediately, regret followed at the harshness of my tone against the semi-harmless elderly woman. She backed up and I swung the door open, almost forgetting to put the car in park.
I stepped out of my nest of warmth and into the stranglehold of the bitter cold. My bad leg nagged me as the crisp air worked its way underneath my coat. I ducked back into the car, turned on the hazard lights and took my keys. This fragile old woman had to be at least a foot shorter than me and I’m only five-foot nine. She had one white bunny slipper and one green alligator one. Her sunken blue eyes were on the verge of falling into the back of her skull when she looked up at me (I had seen that shade of blue before. When Cynthia and I were shopping for colors to paint the baby’s room when she first got pregnant. Cerulean.) She had a fine line of red lipstick that was more than ample for paper-thin lips and her iron black, neck length hair was a tangled mess.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” I asked.
“Could you get my baby?” she asked in a gruff, smoker’s voice, clasping one hand in another and kneading it against her chest.
“Baby?” I asked, still shaking the mud from my brains.
“Yes, when you hit my car she got frightened and hid.”
“When I–” I began, but cut myself off. “Look, ma’am, we need to exchange some information here. I think we need to write down each other’s licenses and insurance and phone numbers. “
“I don’t have any insurance or a telephone. Please–could you get my baby?”
I wanted so desperately to lose it all over the old bat, but it was a setback I could do without. Maybe I could prove something to myself by going the other route. I took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Where is your baby?” I asked, forcing my face into a smile.
“Oh bless you, sir!” She smiled with long, nicotine-stained teeth. “In the trunk.
She’s in the trunk. Bless you, bless you!”
Poking my head into her car, I looked for the trunk release.
“Oh, that won’t work, sir. She’s holding it shut.”
Holding it shut? What kind of animal could do that?
“What’s in there?” I asked, jerking my thumb in the direction of the trunk.
“My baby,” she replied as if that were all the explanation I needed.
I eyed her suspiciously, chalking it up to the last remnants of my paranoia while approaching the rear of the car. Visions of a grandmotherly rapist/murderer briefly danced in my head.
I saw the tiny pink mitten sticking out of the trunk, holding the lid down. It looked like a human could be in there, but there was some feature not consciously noticeable that kept me from believing there was a little girl in there.
“I don’t need this right now,” I muttered to myself. I realized my fingers were scratching my neck at the base of my skull or my ‘comfort itch’ as my psychologist had called it on first examination of the worn, scabbed-over skin haIfa year ago. “Stop it,” I said, making fists at my sides.
“Lady, I think we need to call the police,” I said walking back to the old woman. “I mean, just so they can document this whole thing and everything. I just want to do the right thing here.” Part of me felt like a coward. It told me I was failing on a fundamentally mentally-healthy plane. I wasn’t supposed to be the guy who saw the demon-eyed driver behind every wheel anymore. How could I just take this giant step backward?
“Please no!” she begged. She began a bout of coughing from being exposed to the cold so long. “They’ll take my baby away and stick her in some kind of zoo. I just need to comfort her and tell her everything’s all right, but I just need her to come out. Surely a gentleman like you can talk her out of there?”
The old woman’s plea combined with my own self-loathing redoubled my resolve to go back there and get that trunk open. But what was in there?
“What kind of animal do you have in there?” I asked again, wondering why she couldn’t do it. I had to know, my curiosity and paranoia were racing neck and neck.
“Animal?” She repeated like I’d spoken the word in Farsi. “That’s my baby.”
It felt like someone snapped their fingers in my head and it came to me. I held an index finger up as the idea fermented in my head.
“Is that an orangutan in there? Some kind of monkey?” Probably something she couldn’t legally have. I smiled as I turned to go back.
“My baby,” the old woman said, nodding and smiling.
“I swear you had me going there for a second. I thought you had some kind of freak show running around in there.” I knelt in front of the trunk, grimacing as my knee cracked, and lightly touched the pink mitten.
“Hey, she doesn’t bite or anything does she?”
“She hasn’t so far,” she called back.
Something about our exchange suddenly nagged me, but I ignored it, choosing to bask in this all around good feeling I had in me. I was helping an elderly person, my car probably wasn’t even scratched (but I should check before I let her go) and in less than twenty minutes I’d be sitting with my wife at our favorite restaurant with an interesting story to tell.
“Hey you, whatcha doin’ in there?” I asked, doing my best to appear harmless as I took a peek. I heard some sound from inside–kind of like a coo, but more whistle-ish.
Do monkeys coo?
Drop it already.
A big blue eye winked at me as the trunk opened a little. It was to one side of the trunk and I put on my best closed-mouth smile. I put one hand on the hunk and stroked the pink mitten with the other. The cooing got louder and I could suddenly smell something like lilacs in the air. The mitten let go and withdrew into the trunk and then the other eye opened.
“What’s her name?” I yelled. I didn’t want to just yank the trunk open and frighten her. I would either be balls or face level with the trunk and didn’t want to imagine what an orangutan in a panic could do to either area.
She touched my bare wrist with both mittens, running them up and down the length of exposed skin. It felt weird kind of. Like flesh with no bone underneath. I peeked again, but turned my face back toward the old woman.
“I said, what’s her name?”
I had both of the following thoughts at the same time, but only voiced one. Why isn’t she over here? and “She has the most beautiful cerulean–
–I finished the sentence, but right as the second eye slowly gravitated to the other side of the trunk, both still fixed on me–
–aiEEEEEEEEEEEES!” I screamed, falling on my butt and frantically crab walking away. The adrenalin rush erased the pain of my bad leg and I threw the trunk open as I fell. It was the most horrifying thing I have ever seen. A hairless mass of flesh-colored coils beneath a bulbous human head. ‘She’ looked to be about five or six years old with huge lidless eyes attached to the freckled face by long, cord-like structures jutting from the indentures where her eye sockets were. Some coils were different sizes and lengths and at the end of each was a pink mitten. There was a knitted sweater covering the small torso with armholes for each of the upper coils. I didn’t look too long (thank goodness), but it looked like a giant squid had successfully mated with a human.
The mouth was nothing but angry rows of little silver scythes gnashing together. Everything else was too overwhelming to remember.
An acrid odor choked the air out of my lungs and everything was suddenly colored with polka dots. Right before I blacked out as it sprung from the trunk at least ten feet in the air, all the while the old woman screaming unintelligibly.
I awoke after what hopefully was only a moment later to find it and the old woman gone. I stood on shaky legs, the aftereffects of that stench still wearing off, retching twice before throwing up right there on the street.
It was amazing that during this entire exchange only a few cars had passed right after the initial accident. But maybe not, when I thought about it. I had driven this way because I knew that.
Wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, I walked in a semicircle around both cars, watching closely for any sign that that thing was still around. I could see plain as day it wasn’t in the antique car. The trunk was still open and there was nothing on either the front or rear seats.
I’d left my car door open, though, and there was an abundance of room beneath the overflowing mess of papers and trash I had in there.
There was no way I was getting back in my car. After those coils and how fast that thing had been I couldn’t sit in there with the possibility of having that as a passenger.
Oh no! I’d almost forgotten. I’d never get a cab here in time and make our lunch date. She wouldn’t wait more than ten minutes. I was hanging by a thread with her as it was, I couldn’t just not show up. And there was no explaining this. No, this went in the vault. Forever. I’d come too far to have a setback. Things would work this time. Even if the boogeyman had turned out to be real.
The old woman’s car. I needed it more than she did right now. I was ninety percent certain that thing wasn’t in there and getting down and looking underneath the car I was ninety-nine percent sure.
I kicked my door shut and got into the old woman’s car. It took a moment to orient myself, but with the throaty roar of the engine coming to life, soon I was on my way.
My fingers found my comfort itch and as I pulled away, constantly peering over my shoulder, I tried to think of a way to tell Cynthia that I was giving up my driver’s license.