She waved at the approaching headlights as if she signaled a plane, her hands sweeping wide, desperate arcs. When the car slowed she lunged, throwing herself against the fender as if to prevent its escape.
Still sobbing, partly now in relief, she pulled open the door. A rosary hung from the rear-view. A sweater folded over the console. The driver’s expression was a mix of compassion and confusion as she clambered into his sanctuary.
“Please, drive! As fast as you can!”
“What are you doing out here alone?”
He pulled back onto the road, watching the rear-view mirror, then glanced at her. “You’re bleeding.”
“I’m alive. Alive, right? I can’t believe it.”
“Somebody hurt you?” He stretched to reach into his pants pocket, tugging free a handkerchief. “Here.”
She pressed it to her head, checked the bloody smear, and pressed it again, harder. “Yeah. You can say that. How fast can you get to Wilkes-Barre?”
“Forty minutes. Why there?”
“Lights. Lots of lights.”
“Somebody back there doesn’t like lights?”
Her tone sounded black like a well, hollowed and a long way down. “They don’t.”
“Them. They’re like water and shadow and I thought they’d never end.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They drip onto your skin and creep over your face and pour inside—and—I never want to go back.” She was babbling and she knew it, but it was hard not to sound crazy. He looked like such a nice old man. He’d never understand. “Those shadows. They were so deep.”
“You’re afraid of shadows?”
His words could have implied teasing, but his expression and tone did not. Didn’t matter, she thought. She knew nothing could ever be black and white again. The window was cool against her forehead and the trees lining the road spattered past. “Forget I said anything.”
“When we flip a light switch, the shadows disappear.” He used a cautious, careful tone that made her think of hands, palm-side down and gentle. “That’s easy, isn’t it?”
She shook her head. “Not when you’re strapped down.”
“Strapped—” He faced her, the lines of his face reminding her of her dad: concerned, protective, outraged. “Do the cops know?”
She barked, a harsh laugh. “Who do you think did this? Those things couldn’t be real. But they were. And the good guys—they were the ones using them.”
“You weren’t just attacked, were you? You were—”
He let the implication hang in the air. “And you weren’t the only one.”
“Nope. My entire class was quarantined. Said it was swine flu, but we weren’t sick. They sealed off the campus, made it a medical ward. Rats in a trap.”
“Anyone else make it out?”
“How many others did you pick up?” She craned her neck to look in the back seat at no one. “Everyone else—just broke, opened up, and the shadows spilled back out. Not me. I drowned in them.”
Her eyes felt cold, making her shudder. The shudders travelled and multiplied, causing her to bite her cheek. Pain and a thin taste of pennies. “I saw things. So dark inside. So dark. Felt capable of doing anything. No boundaries. No one should ever feel like that.”
“Full of—I don’t know.” The words were heavy, as if they weighed upon her. They were a load she’d carry until the end of her life. “What’s the opposite of mercy?”
He flicked up his high beams, illuminating more than just the chipped yellow sign: Dangerous Curve. He checked his mirrors again, drummed his fingers on the wheel.
“Mercy is overrated, anyway.” The driver drifted to the berm, the parental lines of his faces shifting into uncrossable chasms before solidifying into granite splits. He hooked his tie and tugged it loose. “Where did you say you went to school?”
The door lock clicked. His eyes held shadows as he grinned and turned the car around.