It was the first time Charlie had driven alone at night, and of course he got lost. In high school, he’d never needed to drive—he had a bus or his mom or dad had driven him to practice. Now, he had to get to the college pool on his own. It was the same one he’d swum in for years, following the same coach from one level to another. But he’d never paid attention to when they turned onto which streets. In the dark, he missed first one turn, then tried to make up for it by making another one at random. Within minutes, he was in a canyon of looming triple-deckers. Cars clogged both sides of the street, and every time he slowed to see about making another turn, the line of drivers behind him honked their horns and flashed their lights.
Charlie’s eyes darted frantically from the windshield to the rear-view to the side mirror. His hands were frozen at 10 and 2, and he couldn’t even pull over to look at his phone. He had no choice but to barrel on blindly, dodging double-parked cars and glaring pedestrians. He prayed for a traffic light, or a parking lot, anywhere he could stop, but it was like he’d been dumped into a bobsled track, and he couldn’t stop until he reached the end.
Finally, he came to an intersection he vaguely remembered. A voice—his mother’s, his conscience, Jiminy Cricket—told him that turning left was the right answer, so he flicked on the blinker and banged around the corner. He hoped none of the cars behind him was a police officer, ready to nab him for signaling at least 100 feet before his maneuver.
He found himself on a wide road, brightly lit, but no less crowded. He wove with the traffic, realizing this wasn’t the road he thought it was. So much for the smart college freshman. The buildings grew seedier and seedier. The blue lights of a cop car appeared in his rear-view, and he had just enough time to clear out of the lane before it flew by him. A pair of creepy looking thugs stared at him from the dark recessed doorway of an apartment building. He locked the doors. He waited like an idiot while three cars took advantage of his getting sidelined before he got back on the road.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. That would be his mom, whose book club was meeting tonight. The clock on the dash said it was 9:30, and he was over an hour late getting home.
Finally, he approached an intersection he knew, where one corner of the zoo intruded into the wasteland. Back in familiar territory, he was fifteen minutes from home. He still had to contend with the crazy drivers—didn’t anyone in this neighborhood take driving lessons?—and with the panhandler stalking the lines of stopped cars, but at last he was safe.
He idled ten cars back from the light, his blinker flashing dutifully. The panhandler made his way from car to car, shaking a large Dunkin’ Donuts cup. Once he leaned into a window and took a bill. No, Charlie realized, it wasn’t a guy, but a girl covered with a long ratty coat too heavy for this time of year. It flashed through his mind that begging at cars was safe enough for winos and homeless men, but a girl could get into so much more trouble.
Her hair fell from under a filthy Yankees cap that covered most of her face, except for the hardened frown and an incongruously delicate chin. His horror grew when she got closer to his car and his headlights illuminated her face. Along with the pretty chin, a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose gave her something of a cute raccoon’s face. Despite the rags and dirt, she was beautiful.
And familiar. It took him a second, but then he realized that she’d once been in his English class. Last year, or eleventh grade? She’d been there only a short time, and the teacher hadn’t even commented when she’d disappeared, as if she’d never been there. But her seat had been left vacant, and his eyes had often traveled to it, like a tongue poking into the socket of a lost tooth.
The sad-eyed girl got to his window. Charlie wondered what to do. Give her something? Shake his head the way his father did, and pretend otherwise not to see her? That voice was giving him nothing. Before he could decide, she’d spotted him. Worse, she remembered his name.
“Charlie!” she called. The light changed, and he had a brief window to take off. But then she was standing in front of him, and he was immobilized. Drivers behind him started honking, and he panicked. His foot slipped off the brake, and he almost hit her. “Wait!” the girl screamed, and she dashed to the passenger door, trying to climb in. Charlie bit his lip, realized he couldn’t ignore her, and unlocked the door. In a second, she was in, and he was pulling away before she shut the door. He saw too late that he’d run a red light.
“Wow, am I glad you happened by. It isn’t really your neighborhood, is it?”
“It’s your lucky night,” he giggled nervously. He wondered how he could ask her what her name was without offending. “What were you doing there anyhow?”
“Just getting some spare change,” she said. “I’m saving up.” He couldn’t tell if she was serious or not. After a second she said, “I can tell you don’t remember me. No worries. I’m Leah.”
“Right! Did you switch schools?”
“Something like that.”
They were almost at Charlie’s house, the journey through the ghetto fading like a bad dream. “What were you really doing in that neighborhood?” he asked. “My dad says when he was a kid, you couldn’t walk a block without getting jumped. Gangs and shit.”
“Visiting a friend. Listen, Charlie, can you do me a favor? I have something I need to take care of. Could you give me a ride home?”
“Well, it’s late. I need to get the car to my mom.”
“It’s on the way. We’re almost there. Please?”
“Yeah, sure. Of course.”
She smiled and settled back in her seat. “I knew I could depend on you, Charlie.”
She guided him through a section of town he’d never been in. Unlike his own spacious neighborhood, here the houses were tiny cardboard boxes shoved up against each other, or long blocks of old apartment buildings. She led him deeper into the warren of crowded blocks until she said, “Stop here.”
“That’s your house?” he looked at a grim little cottage with a rusted chain link fence and a car older than either of them in the driveway.
“No, I’m over there.” She pointed down the block to a house that might have been the first one’s twin. “Just don’t want anyone to know I’m here. Wait for me.”
“I really need to go. . .”
“Two minutes. I’ll be right back.”
She got out, and Charlie watched her skulk through the shadows. She scanned the block to make sure no one was watching. Satisfied, she edged up the driveway to a darkened window. She stood on a water spigot for a boost, slid the window up, and swung her leg into the opening. She did it so smoothly, Charlie imagined she must have had a lot of practice.
But then it occurred to him, this might not be her house at all. Was she a burglar, hiring him as her getaway driver? He flushed, and it seemed as though all his pores opened at once, soaking through his shirt. Would anybody be able to identify his car? He turned on the radio to drown out the noise in his head.
Five minutes later, she was sliding into the seat next to him. “Thanks,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“That really your house?” he said, starting the car.
“You think I’d break into someone else’s?”
“I didn’t even really break in, anyhow. My little sister leaves the window in her room unlocked. This time of night, my father’s plastered in the living room, but he keeps a Glock on the table right next to his glass. If I went in the front door, I’d be dead.”
“Seriously?” But when she didn’t answer, he said more calmly. “So why’d you make me wait?”
She looked down guiltily. Charlie thought she was lovely, despite the grime. “I need you to take me one more place.”
“Leah, I can’t.”
“OK, then just let me ride with you a little way. For company.”
He pulled away from the curb and started home. It was already after ten. They passed through a wooded area, where the road slalomed and Charlie could imagine he was driving in Le Mans. If only he could go faster. “I’m going to have to let you out soon. How are you going to get home from here?” he asked.
“Oh, my God! Pull over!” Leah shouted. In a panic, Charlie heaved to the side of the road, forgetting entirely to signal. The front wheel dipped into a drainage ditch.
Panting, he looked at her. “What? What is it?”
“It’s really important,” she said, leaning close. Her breath tickled his ear. “Do you have a rubber?”
“Never mind,” she smirked. She pulled a glove from an inside pocket of her coat and snapped it on. Still breathing in his ear, she reached down and popped the button on his jeans and wriggled her fingers into his Y-front. “I always liked you,” she cooed. Terrified and excited, he was instantly hard, but it took only a few seconds for him to come. He flushed with shame, but her giggle was encouraging, and she lightly kissed his cheek. “You taste like chlorine,” she whispered. “Fresh and clean.”
She rolled the glove off, catching most of the come, and tied it up. He stuffed himself back inside, horrified to think what would happen when his mother climbed into the car tomorrow. Would she see the stain he’d surely left?
“Now about that other stop” Leah said, dropping the glove out the window.
“Uh, sure. Of course.” His throat was dry and he was afraid he’d hyperventilate. He hit the gas a little too hard, and they bounced out of the gully. Finally, he eased off and was able to keep a steady speed.
Before she could tell him where they were headed, his phone was ringing again. “You gonna answer that?” Leah asked.
Charlie gripped the wheel with one hand and put the other in his pocket. Just the thought that her hand had been there only a minute ago made him stiffen again. He slid the phone out and answered it. “Hi, mom.”
“Charlie! Where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to call you for an hour. Are you OK? What happened? Why aren’t you home yet?”
In the seat next to him, Leah giggled again, and he glared at her to shut up.
“I, uh, got a little lost. I had to give a ride to one of my friends, and he didn’t know how to direct me. I should be home in…” He looked at Leah for a number.
“An hour,” she mouthed, finishing it with a silent kiss.
“Uh, just a few minutes. I think I know where I am right now.”
“Do you see any landmarks?”
“Ma, I have to go. I shouldn’t talk and drive. I’ll be home soon.” He dropped the phone, and Leah helpfully hung it up for him.
“Didn’t realize I was corrupting you,” she said.
“Listen, it’s really late, and she’s never going to let me use the car again. Where are we going? Where’s this errand?”
“Turn here,” she said. Her voice sounded choked, so he complied, and they left the woods for one of the main roads. They drove past darkened stores and empty lots. After a few blocks, he said, “What did you get at your house, anyway?”
“Nothing much. Some of my mother’s jewelry.”
“So you were stealing?”
“Just keep driving.” She gave him directions to an address in the next town. When they got there, Charlie wasn’t too surprised to find an abandoned strip mall. One window had a sign that promised “Coming Soon!”, but it had faded and half fallen. Charlie pulled into a space, still careful to stay inside the lines.
“OK, wait here,” Leah said.
“Now what? Where are you going?”
“Around back. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” She opened her coat, and he saw the hilt of a hunting knife in her belt.
“What the fuck!” he cried.
“I said don’t worry. Just don’t leave without me. Be right back.” And again, she was gone, disappearing behind a dumpster.
He spent an anxious five minutes ignoring the ringing of his phone. How long ago had he told his mother “a few minutes”? It was nearly midnight. Then he heard shouting, and a short scream. He hesitated, then jumped out of the car.
Two snarling voices echoed in the dark. He rushed towards the shadows behind the dumpster, just as he heard the thump of a fist hitting bone. He rounded the corner, and saw Leah dazed, slumping against the wall. The orange glow of a useless security light illuminated a nasty cut oozing on her cheek. Her eyes flew open and flicked to one side, trying to get him to leave, but it was too late.
Across from her, a guy in a worn leather coat bent half over, guttural moans of pain, or anger, cascading from his maw. Leah must have kicked him in the balls, Charlie thought. But that wasn’t going to hold him at bay long. He stood up, ready to attack again. Charlie shouted clumsily, “Get the fuck away from her!” It wasn’t much of a threat, but it distracted the guy long enough to turn him away from Leah and face Charlie.
A drug-ravaged skeleton stared back at him. Hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, missing half an ear: every nightmare Charlie’s mother had planted in his brain since he learned the phrase “stranger danger.” Charlie wished he hadn’t said anything at all. The monster turned heavily, clearly still hurting from the blow Leah had landed. But when he saw Charlie, the weight seemed to vanish, and he lunged. Charlie had just enough time to deflect the blow, but the second followed faster than he thought, and connected with his eye. A light burst in his head, but somehow he managed to keep his feet, even blocked the third blow, and pushed forward into the onslaught, swinging blindly, scraping his knuckles on flesh and bone and rock.
Somewhere, he heard Leah shouting for someone to stop. Him? The other guy? He couldn’t tell. Then she was joining the fight, wrapping her arm around the guy’s throat while Charlie beat his face and gut. Grunting, but refusing to drop, he twisted and turned, trying to fling the girl off his back. Somehow, Charlie ended up side to side with Leah, and he felt the bulge of the knife in her belt. Why hadn’t she used it?
He reached inside her coat and grabbed the knife. It slid out faster than he expected, and he almost cut her. But she knew what was happening, and let go. She dodged out of the way while Charlie drove the blade into the attacker’s side. It slid smoothly, catching once on something that popped and gave way. Charlie couldn’t tell how deep it went, but pushed harder just in case. He felt warm spurts of blood coating his hand, drenching his shirt. He heaved one more time, and the guy staggered away from them, dumbfounded, and slumped to the ground. He stared into the darkness, and Charlie stared back. There was no mistaking the eternity in his eyes. Charlie held the knife like a live thing, barely aware of what he’d done.
Finally, Leah slapped his face and grabbed him by the shoulder, “Let’s go, she said. “Now!” She took the knife and they scrambled back into the car. Charlie was putting it into gear before their doors were shut, and he bounced over the curb into the street.
After they’d gone two or three blocks, she told him, “Slow down. We don’t want to be stopped for speeding.”
“He could be after us. He knows who you are.”
“He doesn’t know anything anymore, Charlie.”
“What happened?” He let his foot up off the gas, but he still felt they were flying at a thousand miles an hour.
“The son of a whore got greedy,” she said. “Pull up over there.” She pointed at an apartment complex. Behind it, they found a dumpster, and she buried her coat in the garbage. Then she dropped the knife down a sewer grate. Back on the road, Charlie felt a little safer, but his hands were still sticky with blood.
“What’ll your mother say about the jewelry?”
“Nothing. She’s gone.”
“Like. . . dead?”
Leah laughed. “Yeah, like dead. Except she’s alive and well and ignoring the three of us. That’s why my father sits there with the gun. I think he’ll kill her if she ever decides to come back.”
“So you use the money to. . .”
“Not to get high. I figure she left me a nest egg. By the way, you’re speeding again. Turn into those woods there.”
Automatically, Charlie followed her instructions. He drove as far as the trees would let him and killed the engine. The sudden darkness was complete.
“Open the trunk. Let’s see what we got,” Leah said.
He popped the trunk and they rummaged through it until Leah found a plastic tool case and a length of hose.
“This will have to do.” She dumped the tool kit and left it open on the ground. Then she lifted the fuel tank door and unscrewed the cap. Charlie watched uncomprehending until she stuck the hose in and started sucking. When the flow started, she let the gas pour into the tool case until it was full, and then crimped the hose. “Splash it inside. Leave your phone, too.”
The voice spoke up to tell him no, don’t listen to that crazy girl, but then it fell into irrelevant silence. He sloshed the gas along the back seat and came back for more. After two more trips, Leah took a lighter from her pocket. “Your shirt, too,” she told him.
He pulled it over his head, glad he still wore a ratty T under it. Shivering, he threw the bloody shirt inside. The smell of gas hovered like a toxic fog everywhere, while the last of it dripped to the ground from the hose in the tank.
“Stand back.” She clicked the lighter, and threw it flaming into the front seat. It landed on the shirt, and instantly the interior was blazing with sooty heat. The last thing Charlie saw was his swim bag melting into a pool of nylon gunk.
The heat pushed them back, but they stood watching the inferno. His mind briefly registered her hand in his.
“It’s long walk home,” Charlie said finally. “We better get started.”
The flames threw their shadows toward the road ahead of them, flickering and alive.