The car rocked back and forth in that way old cars did, shivering their way from point A to point B. It looked old and worn, and from where she lay across the back seat, she could just see an old apple core rolling back and forth on the stained floor below her. She could still smell it faintly, but it wasn’t the smell that turned her stomach. It was just starting to brown, and she tried not to think about how he was probably eating that apple while he was waiting for her—or waiting for someone—to walk by. Like he didn’t have a care in the world, like he wanted to get his apple-a-day in before he got too busy.
“Did you hear that, honey?” he asked, turning up the radio. She could make out the monotone female newscaster—accent-neutral, she thought, absurdly—but not what she was saying. “It’s gon be a foolmoon tonight,” he said, turning his bright eyes to her, his hands still at 10 and 2. “My momma ‘salways scared of a foolmoon,” he continued in his affected southern drawl, vowels long, words strung together in a breath.
“When there’s a foolmoon, Momma says, the moonshine turns the gators inna men. As soon as the moonshine hits the water, boom, they come out walkin. They hungry, see, an angry bein away from the water. So they go round, messin people up, attackin the women, that sorta thing,” he trailed off, chuckling. “Momma’d always warn my baby sister to stay home come a foolmoon.”
Alligators. He’s from the south, she thought. Louisiana or something. She tried to store the facts away, in case. It could have been an act, his accent. She wasn’t sure. There was something off about it. Something forced.
“Course she never said nothin like that to me. In fact I rememer this one time, I was about, oh, fifteen, sixteen, somethin like that, an I come sneakin inna house early in the mornin’ all quiet-like. I was out with my friends or somethin, I don rememer, but I rememer clear as day walkin inna door, and there was Momma standin inna hall, just peerin’ at me. She walk up to me an she went, ‘Where you been, boy?’ all suspicious. Just ‘Where you been, boy,’ and gawkin at me with her eyes all squintin like she was tryna see to my soul.”
“I din know whatta say, her surprisin me like that. An Mommas always be askin them sorta questions, but they don’t wanna know the answers. Not deep down. Well I made a big deal about bein a man, an what does she care where I been all night, I don’t ask her where she been all night, and that was that. It din occur to me til the next day that it’d been a foolmoon. Momma’d been scared shitless!” he guffawed. “Of me!” He turned to look at her again, see if she was laughing, as if he’d forgotten the pile of blankets he’d covered her with. The sight sobered him up a little. “She thought I’s one of them gator people,” he said, more seriously.
They’d been riding for a while now, she was sure. It had to have been at least an hour. At first, every turn he made, every time he slowed down, that apple core rolling this way and that, she thought they’d reached their destination and she felt her heart race again. But they’d been going at a fairly steady speed for most of the trip, meaning they were on a highway or the turnpike. If she was lucky, she thought, he’d stay on the turnpike and they’d catch him on the toll cameras. Not like anyone would be looking for her yet, but he didn’t know that. Still, despite the rough clothes and stupid accent, she was sure he was too smart for that. He’d gotten her, hadn’t he?
“Listen, girl, I know you can hear me. An I din tape you up for a reason. Now you gon talk to me or am I gon have to pull this ve-hicle over?” She felt her body pulled forward as he stepped off the accelerator. With her arms tied behind her back, she had nothing to steady her body as it rolled closer to the edge of the back seat. The A-hole wasn’t going to get her to speak. She’d rather throw herself out the window. It was meant to distract her anyway, she was sure. That way she wouldn’t be able to hear anything, catch glimpse of anything familiar from the slit of the window she could see from her angle. What would she notice? A McDonald’s sign, a gas station? Would she be able to tell the difference between one McDonald’s sign and another? No, but no one could, right?
“You know I can tell the difference when I’m talking to you and you’re clearly not paying attention,” Ari had said to her, just last week. She’d laughed, thinking he’d been joking, only noticing his mouth turned to a scowl after the fact. It wasn’t true. She paid attention when it mattered. Maybe this is all an elaborate scheme to teach her a lesson, she suddenly thought. The man with the strange accent that only made sense in Pennsylvania if he was faking it, the meticulously planned attack, the full moon. But he wouldn’t do that. Ari wouldn’t.
“Momma’d always be talkin at people. She jus like the sounda her own voice. All people do, time to time, but whooee that woman. Where I come from, children have the same teacher their whole time in school. I had this ol hag, Mrs. Nelsen. She was just like Momma, too. I go to schoo, I get her yammerin on, I come home, and it was jus a different ol hag, same yammerin!” He laughed at this, too loud. “Never called Momma no names before, girl. You mus be bringin out the bad in me. Well, make matters worse, Old Lady Nelson—we used to call her that behind her back; in person is was, yes, ma’am and no, ma’am—lived just up the holler from us, an she really was a ol hag, ain ever been married. Jus her. So Momma’d have her come for sup least once a week, Sunday dinner too. An it be just a competition tween them two—who could go on longer thout takin a breath!”
“Yeah,” he said, and trailed off. He looked back at her, his eyes resting on her for a beat longer than seemed safe. “It was somethin,” he said, fainter, and turned his gaze back to the road ahead. He didn’t say anything again for a while, but turned the dial up on the radio—a country station—and Patsy Cline’s voice whined through the old speaker. “How…can I be…just your friend,” he sang along, humming the lyrics he didn’t know.
They’d been on the road now for how long? she wondered. This was her mantra, of all things. She wanted to keep a level head, try to anticipate his moves. He’d be headed for some place industrial, maybe. Or wooded. There weren’t that many options nearby. But no, they could be anywhere, considering how long they’d been in the car. Had it been two hours now? Ari wouldn’t have done this. He wouldn’t take it this far. This guy’s eyes, though—the blue—reminded her of something. Someone. It was a creeping feeling; a familiarity in the shadows of her consciousness, just beyond her reach. You don’t forget that kind of bright. She tried to focus on it. Blue eyes blue eyes she said to herself, scrunching her eyes closed in a feeble attempt to drown out the music and concentrate. Something about her childhood, maybe, or someone at work. But she couldn’t do it. Her mind wouldn’t slow down long enough to settle on a memory, blue-eyed or otherwise. She closed her eyes and all she could think about was the scratchy twine tied around her wrists, tight and rough, her compulsive need to pull her wrists against it, her shoulders burning from being pulled back for so long, the tug of space between her shoulders and her neck that seemed to grow longer with every breath. She could barely move, but every nerve in her body was awake and full of frantic electricity. Her chest pressed heavily against the seat, and when she rested her head down on it she could hear the hum of the tires, feel the pebbles of asphalt pinging off the bottom of the car every now and then. Baby’s favorite lullaby, her mom used to call it, but of all things, she didn’t want her mind to go there, to her.
Christ, she would not be one of those women. Victim with a capital V. She was smarter than this guy; she just needed to calm the fuck down. Notice her surroundings. Maybe get some evidence dug under her fingernails, since that always seemed to do the trick on TV.
“Now who else got to see their ol hag teacher outside the schoo?” he started up again, as if he’d never stopped. “Boy’s I the lucky one. Yeah Nelson’d jus perch herself there at the dinner table an her an Momma’d ballyhoo til late at night. Wan nothin when I was small, din know better. Nelson, she still like me then. But somethin come over them two when I got older, when my baby sissy come long. Some point long the line, there, them two chose her over me. Ain nothin I could do to stop it, neither. I’sa boy doin boy things. They can’t blame me for that.”
What the hell was he talking about? She tried to drown him out in case he was trying to mess with her somehow (yes—of course he was), and got to work. She needed to keep tabs, notice her surroundings. She paid closer attention to the inch of window she could see from a sharp angle above her head. Signposts she could see, distorted and imposing looking, utterly useless. They were too close, or the angle wasn’t right, or it wasn’t enough of a view to get a sense of anything. She’d need to try to sit up, crane her neck, but he’d be on her in a second. She watched for a familiar landmark, something to help her figure out where they were, and abated the cynicism and futility welling up inside her with the resoluteness of someone trying to prove something. But really, it wasn’t working. She needed to try something else. Figure out what kind of car this was, and then, where he put her cell phone. The car was old, no doubt. It was too big to be a new car, too roomy. No way she could lay lengthwise on the back seat of any car they made these days. He’d grabbed her in a silver sedan, but then there’d been a pillowcase over the head, and she didn’t think to see what make or model it was. Maybe the apple core? It’d have his DNA on it, so if she could grab it when she made a run for it, maybe they’d be able to catch him.
It made her tear up, thinking about some unseen “they” searching for her, tracking the a-hole. She was driving to god-knows-where with god-knows-who when she should have been braving the evening commute. At least she thought it was probably close to four. Who the hell knew what the hell time it was? And who the hell knew what the hell would happen to her if he ever got to wherever he was going? She needed an escape plan, damnit. Maybe she could shrug down a little, so she could bend her knees. Then, when she was in the perfect position, she’d kick at the window. He’d have to pull over and deal with the broken glass, fix it up or cover it somehow. She could use a piece of the broken glass to cut the twine wrapped around her ankles and run, cut him with it if he tried to come after her. This seemed like a reasonable option. But what if he pulled over as soon as he saw her scooting down? She needed to distract him. Maybe she’d talk to him after all, if she could get a word in.
“By the time Nelson was done with her, my own momma’d be lookin at me sideways. I blame her for turnin Momma gainst me, probly tellin her all kinds of untruths bout what I did at that schoo. Waste of time it was, that place. Don’t know what else a boy’d do but get in trouble inna place like that. Trouble come easy there. Don’t even have to go lookin for it, can’t even hide from it. Trouble come walkin in my front door and sat itself down at the kitchen table,” he said, shaking his head. He looked back at her like he’d forgotten she was there. “Now how you got me talkin bout all that? That’s some histry. But I don’t want you thinkin I don’t love my momma. Just the way she look at me sometimes…”
He paused and she thought, this is my chance. Say something. But she could barely register what he was saying, let alone have anything to respond to. Her mouth felt dry and her throat closed. Would she even be able to talk? But then she felt the deceleration, the tick-ticking of the turn signal, and they were turning. She tensed her body to keep from shifting on the seat, leaning slightly to her right to compensate for the sharp turn. And then they stopped, the apple core coming to a stop soon after.
“I’m gone rightyonder for a bit. I’ll come back for ye,” he said, not even bothering to look back, and he was gone. She didn’t even hear him lock the door behind him. But then a shadow, and she craned her head up to see him looking in on her through the window above her head. That blue. Just for a moment, and he was gone again. This was it; her only chance, probably. If she was still there when he came back to her, no doubt she’d be as good as dead. She knew it, and she wasn’t about to go out like this, by some hick in a shitty car. But something was happening that was making it hard for her to get to work. It had started when he’d stepped his foot off the accelerator, the car responding immediately with a pull of resistance—a tug towards death, in her mind. Acceleration was safety, movement was safety; it was a chance to think and plan. It was a part of the before—before whatever was going to happen to her—and she wanted it to last as long as possible. She’d not thought about what would happen when they reached their destination. But they’d slowed down, and then they’d turned, and she had tensed, and then she couldn’t change her body back to normal, to moving and capable. She was frozen. And something else. Shit. She was crying. Then he was out of the car and her nerves were on fire, and he came and hovered over her, right outside her window, and maybe she thought, at that second, she saw a flicker of something behind those blue eyes. And something unraveled.
What was it she saw in him there? She had to figure it out. It held the key. A key. Something, she thought, that would save her. But her mind didn’t want to think anymore. Not about the man, not about escape, not about Ari or her mother, not about life or death or the hows and whys of any of it. Maybe she just needed to take a minute and catch her breath. How long had she been in this car? All of a sudden, she felt a wave of exhaustion that was intoxicating, impossible to ignore. She rested her head on the seat, her face pressed into the cool leather upholstery, her eyes closed. Just for a second she didn’t want to think about any of these things, and so she closed her eyes to them, felt the smooth leather stick to her tear-stained cheek. She felt the grains in the leather, the less-than-epic history of the animal that gave its life for its skin. This was its afterlife, its immortality, she thought, but quickly put that idea out of her head. How fucking pathetic. It was pathetic. And, now, she was shaking. She was pathetic, too. She’d lost complete control over her body, couldn’t stop the crying, the shaking, couldn’t move her arms though she kept trying. But she couldn’t think about that. Her mind wouldn’t rest on any of it. Her mind thought only of this cow and the possibility that what she lay on was the skins of not one, but five or six or ten cows, their hides sewn together, their grains crisscrossed and interjected, and what a shame that was, what an embarrassment. And then.
With a metal scrape, he opened the door and sat down. In some forgotten recess of her mind it clicked that it was hard to see him now. It was dark—they’d driven all day. He didn’t say a word, but took his time putting on his seat belt, turned on the ignition, and adjusted the rearview mirror and then the radio dial. “Well, time to go!” he said, flicking a glance back at her where she lay. She felt the gears shifting through her cheek, through the cows’ hides, through the frame of the car, before they set off again, towards whatever lay under the rising light of the full moon.