Saturday, June 17, 2006

It was 3 PM and the dusty, muted sun shone through the windshield, prying my eyes apart forcefully. I had a slight headache, but that was hardly out of the ordinary--the pain quickly merged with the background. The interior of the car, a relatively recent 1999 model with no air conditioning I had rented two days before, was stuffy and humid, but my eyes were nonetheless dry enough that my eyelids made a harsh scraping feeling that echoed through my body as I rubbed them. Touching them, however, only exacerbated my headache, so I simply bent over and slowly acclimated my vision to the relative darkness of the floor before trying to face the sky again. Gradually colors became hazy figures, around which sharp edges steadily formed, and I surveyed my surroundings.

The sky was overcast, but the clouds were not rainclouds. My car was parked on a steep hill about halfway to its peak, and it took me a few moments to remember exactly why I was here. But even upon recollection, the events seemed disjointed and illusory. I glanced around the car, empty except for my cell phone and my old, tattered map.

“I want you to do something for me.”

Two days ago I received a call from a friend — an acquaintance, really — who I hadn’t seen since high school. Even describing him as I knew him then would be pointless — in ten years’ time, most people change until you know nearly nothing about them.

“No, there’s no particular reason why I need it.”

Still, nothing else I could say; it was his after all. The phone call was short and urgent, and he had asked me to drive to a town I had never heard of, 290 miles away, and deliver an item he had lent to me at least a decade ago. During the entire conversation he seemed uncomfortable but adamant, and had cut straight to the point as soon as he made sure it was me. It seemed obvious that the request was simply a pretext, and neither of us hid that understanding, but I figured, what the hell, and played along.

I didn’t own a car, so I called my rental agency and set up a rental. My job is a freelance detective, so I wasn’t seriously worried about work or time. I had a few cases going, but both were the typical backburner cases I imagine every detective must have—a corporation wants some dirt on another corporation, a husband with no evidence at all except his paranoid jealousy suspects his wife is having an affair. Total waste of time, it’s hard not to admit, but at least they were my wastes of time, and so it was nonetheless a little difficult to pull myself away to blindly do a random favor to a person I in all likelihood no longer knew. Yet, maybe as a fault of being a detective and the curiosity that comes with it, I didn’t try to fight the inertia of it all.

I took it on as if it were an assignment, much like any other, and used my typical trusted rental agency. Yes, I do not own a car. I of course held no delusions about maintaining loyalty to a client after the job was over, and a few times I’ve even had to tail someone who had hired me earlier themselves and was familiar with my appearance, so it was quite natural for me to trade a small amount of autonomy for a large amount of anonymity. It’s a kind of irony I enjoy, that in order to make known aspects of the identity of another, I have to work to reduce my own identity. And so, the perfect pursuer has no identity. An insurmountable advantage.

When I arrived, I noticed the car was left in a small lot in the front. They had simply said they’d leave the keys under the passenger foot mat. The car was cheaper and lower quality than the usual, but I decided it wasn’t worth straining my good relationship with the agency to demand another. No, in fact upon further consideration it was perfectly inconspicuous, and had obviously been chosen for me for that reason. How should they know that my motivations, and thus my criteria, had already began to diverge in directions I wasn't quite sure of myself? Instead of worrying about the details, I got in, turned the keys, and slowly rolled off the lot.

* * *

I hazily recounted these events, still on the edge of sleep and wakefulness. This was shattered by three loud banging noises that exploded inside my head. I stupidly wondered if I was having a stroke or if my bones were breaking, not noticing the total lack of pain or discomfort. No, the sounds were coming from outside my body, maybe something banging against the car. The pain in my head subsided as a short burst of adrenaline filled my veins, but instead of the normal tenuous anxiety the adrenaline seemed to coax me into a nervous daze. I didn't move. The car seemed to be sinking slowly into a thick pit of sand.

I looked around and didn’t see anyone or anything—just a few somewhat rundown three story tenant buildings lining the street, the same type I’d seen all through town, rising until they vanished over the top of the hill. I looked in the rearview mirror and turned my head left and right but nothing stood out. The streets were empty except for two elderly women and one child walking down the hill on the opposite side of the street ahead of me.

With nothing else to focus on, my gaze naturally fell on the three. An unsettling feeling gnawed at me as I took in the group. The boy was walking in the center and seemed to be on the verge of tears, the slightly squat woman on his left scolding him with a vicious expression on her face. The woman on the right showed no reaction, her eyes blank and mouth taut. I began to watch them silently, but for some reason they were already watching me with a strange expression on their faces. As they approached, the squat woman ceased her abuse and glared at me furtively until she passed. Safe behind the glass of my window and still recoiling, I openly stared back at her.

I realized the overcast day was still extremely bright. I was instinctively squinting so hard that my face was tightly creased and my eyes were nearly shut. Very likely, my expression was more severe than that woman’s. I forcibly relaxed, decided the sounds I heard must have been something left over from a dream. I pulled up my seat, and turned the key. The engine turned over a few times before I noticed that the fuel needle was below empty.

No comments:

Post a Comment