When he offers me a ride home, I think there’s no reason not to say yes. There’s a car coming towards us down the winding forest lane, headlights screaming through the darkness, but he’s all caught up–
“I’m not supposed to drive on my medication,” he says, and I startle, so he reaches for my hand. He says “No, it’s fine. I haven’t been taking it.”
My Grams used to tell me that you can outrun anything in the world except your own shadow.
When I was a little girl we would watch Peter Pan on her old television set, ignoring the places where the video skipped or the picture got fuzzy. Sometimes, when she was too weak to kneel, she would let me put the tape into the VHS player and press the buttons, and I’d bring her heavy blankets from the airing cupboard and we’d huddle under them in the middle of the afternoon. I suppose she was sick even then, but my family were never good about talking about those things. Anyway, Grams and I- we’d watch the scene where Wendy sews Peter’s shadow back on and Grams would tap me on the nose with her bony finger and say darlin’ remember what I told you- and I’d laugh, and–
Sorry. Can we start somewhere else?
So this week I’ve been thinking about that story in the news, the one about that hiker in Tennessee who found this abandoned town in the middle of Great Smoky. I think that the town’s name was Wonderland, or Elkmont–or something else that we’ve forgotten entirely. Anyway, this place, it’s been sitting there, untouched, for maybe a hundred years in the middle of some giant fucking forest and–okay, yes, I find this terrifying. How an entire town can slip out of public memory; and there are only wooden structures with caved-in roofs that can’t tell us anything about the people that left them, or why they left, and sure, I guess eventually everybody leaves. But how could we just forget…?
I’m trying to think of a way to tell you that isn’t clichéd–boy meets girl, girl meets boy, girl needs rescuing and boy takes her home; but that’s what happened, isn’t it? I’m trying to think of a beginning without a fast car on a rainy road; but it was storming and the needle on the dash didn’t dip below seventy. I am trying to tell this story without telling you how my Grams died, or how she took my shadow with her; without being the kind of asshole who uses the word ‘wanderlust’ unironically. It’s all just really scattered, like–
When I was twenty years old my grandmother passed away, and it had been two years since I last sat at her kitchen table. Maybe this is where the pieces come together. I had been spending the semester abroad, in Europe, so when I heard the news I caught the first flight home. My black dress was wrinkled in the back from the cramped airplane seats and we piled into the back of my dad’s SUV and drove up to the lake to her old cottage–and nobody said anything about Grams at all, like she’d taken her name with her when she left us. We stayed in her cottage for days, packing up her life into cardboard boxes, and when my father asked if I wanted any of her jewelry, I spent a whole afternoon up in the bedroom sorting through the old tapes in the closet instead. Nobody in the universe has a VHS player anymore, but I kept them all anyway.
That night, we were in his car because he was the only guy at the bar with a college education–and if that doesn’t make me a snob then I don’t know what does. His name was Derek. He was wearing a button-down and didn’t look like he could pull off a backwards snapback, so he was a world away from my last three conquests. I’ll admit: maybe I said yes because I saw Derek as a grown-up. Thirty, maybe, though I never bothered to ask. I’d been busy telling him about my grandmother and he’d been busy making all of the appropriate noises, and he was the textbook definition of a very nice man- I feel like I should tell you that, because it’s important. He told me that he’d give me a ride, because he didn’t want me to walk back to my grandmother’s house if I didn’t remember the roads- and yes, that seemed right, like he was a gentleman, and then Derek’s opening the door for me even though it’s just begun to pour, these quick sheets of rain that sting and burn and sting and
I mean, we’re driving and he keeps shooting me these capital-L Looks like there’s something going on here. Like he’s hungry. There’s this smile on his face like I am a wreck he knows how to salvage. He’s talking about how he feels this connection with me, how he’s never met somebody so beautiful and raw before, and now he’s not taking his eyes off of me at all even with both hands on the wheel. Sure this sounds like a line but I’m a little charmed; I want to tell him he should meet my grandmother because if there was ever a woman for brutal honesty…
We are driving faster than my father would be comfortable with and the lane is treacherously twisty. Seventy. Seventy-five. The needle creeps up and up, and the rain against the windshield is this terrible racket, like static on that old television set, and it’s not driving weather, let alone driving like this weather. Derek’s speeding up.
Perhaps I should have, at the bar, but I don’t ask now if he’s been drinking. I’m pretty sure the abject terror on my face says it all.
“I don’t drink these days,” he’s telling me, and somehow this isn’t all that reassuring because- “doc told me to lay off the self-medication.” The car’s accelerating as he says it, and he’s smiling. Derek doesn’t seem afraid at all.
“Live a little,” he tells me, and I don’t say anything but I think that maybe this might be the root of my problem. “Doesn’t this make you feel alive?”
I didn’t really think about what Grams had meant until I left for that semester abroad. We hadn’t even spoken in a while, what with me being at school and everything being so new and exciting. I’d fallen for this guy who all my friends thought was no good for me, and frankly I didn’t care whether he was good for me, but this one night I’d found him in bed with a couple of townies who were just the wrong side of legal. I didn’t mind that they were minors, but the townie part had me angry. I’d been flip-flopping about going to Barcelona before then because I didn’t know if I could say goodbye to Jesse, but after that I was all decided. Angry. I flew across the ocean and drank a lot of sangria and strolled through sun-lit streets cluttered by signs that screamed REBAIXES in big letters. I found my way down to L’Escala on a Sunday morning, to this coastal town with a market that stretched for miles, and I rummaged through hand-made jewelry and gifts for my family, and the sound of the waves was so peaceful, calming.
Later that afternoon, I came across an American couple by a stall selling fresh orange juice. They were kissing – canoodling, Grams would have said–right there on the promenade, against a metal picnic table. Silly, in hindsight; I stood there, sun beating down on my bare shoulders, as he held onto her hip, as he whispered into her ear, until I couldn’t bear it. I turned away, thinking of Jesse–and there on the pavement in front of me, my shadow stretched out on the ground.
Oh, I thought.
Anyway, when the car hits us I think that maybe I’m grateful. Driver’s side. When we start to spin, when the first wheel hits the wet mud and sprays across the windshield. The impact feels inevitable–first the other car, then the trees, then Derek’s head back and forth between the steering wheel and the window. The other car drives away, because of course it does, and Derek is gripping tight onto the wheel, breathing hard, staring into the literal forest of trees all around. There is a cut bisecting his left eyebrow, skin sliced through from the impact, and a steady trickle of blood runs down his nose, over his lips, dripping drop by delirious drop onto his slacks–
“Are you okay?” I ask, but he’s sitting back, closing his eyes. One of his arms is hanging awkwardly. I think I can see the white of bone at his wrist.
He doesn’t open his eyes.
Did you know that morphine can make you feel like you’re flying? No, look- I’m trying to tell you:
I have these dreams where I am sitting in my bedroom in a white nightgown, and Derek comes to my window dressed all in green with a cap on his head. He’s trying to convince me to come with him, past the clock tower, through the clouds, to this land where alligators eat your hands and nothing ever changes. My shadow is being torn from my body inch by torturous inch and I’m calling for somebody to sew it back on but Derek just keeps on ripping as it squirms and wriggles and cries. He’s taking my hand and talking about the kiss in the corner of my mouth, darlin’, remember what I told you, and when I wake up I’m still screaming for somebody to help me.
We spent hours in that car on the forest road before an ambulance found us. Eons of interminable blackness. I couldn’t tell you why–it might have been the alcohol, or the bump I discovered on my own head. A tree was wedging my door shut, so the emergency services had to rescue Derek first before they could pull me out. I mean–I say rescue, but they never succeeded in waking him up. He’d been dead for seventy-five minutes. I only know most of this because the paramedic told me; all of this went in the official report. The rain and the crash; the lack of alcohol in Derek’s system, which was good, and the lack of benzodiazepines, which wasn’t. That’s not what I think about the most, though. I mean, sure–I think about it.
But before they arrived, I remember looking into the trees. More curious than afraid. I wanted to know what would happen if nobody found us before it was too late. If a part of my soul would leave my body–if I would soar above the trees, second star to the right, straight on to where my Grams was waiting with blankets and some color in her cheeks. If a hundred years down the line a hiker would find an empty car abandoned in the trees and wonder where the people went, who they were, whether their shadows were still sewn on, in the after–
Look, I’m trying to tell you.
Abigail Mitchell is an English writer who graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2013 with a BA in History. Currently, she is a graduate student in the MPW Program at the University of Southern California, where she is also an assistant lecturer. Abigail is the poetry editor for the current edition of the Southern California Review, and has recently been published by Drunk Monkeys.