I drove numbly through bright summer sunshine toward a nowhere place on a nowhere back highway. Nothing to see here except scrublands on either side of the cracked, pitted road, just my destination; a sad little marker like thousands that stood next to roads across the country, commemorating a place where one or more lives had been lost in a pile of twisted metal.
Twice a month I came out here. Twice a month, to change out the flowers and be alone with my guilt, to wish for forgiveness and fail to get it as I went over that night again and again in my head. To tell myself that I should have done something different.
I slowed sooner than usual, having spotted a dark figure in front of the marker, stark against the backdrop of yellow dirt and pale scrub. They didn’t look up as my truck rumbled near, or when I pulled up onto the shoulder. They didn’t move a muscle at the slam of my door or my shoes crunching through the gravel.
My nerves shrilled with anxiety as I approached. Whoever it was, I didn’t recognize them. I didn’t know anyone with a cloud of dark hair or who dressed in fashionably ragged clothes worn in elaborate layers. They stood as straight and still as a statue, not even glancing over as I stopped a few paces away.
Their thin brown fingers clutched a thick book to their chest, and they glared at the memorial marker as if it was a frustrating puzzle.
I cleared my throat. A gust of wind blew through, rustling the brush and fluttering their clothes, but the stranger didn’t move. I cleared my throat again. “Uh, hello?”
They whipped their head around and fixed me with a piercing look. I drew back and stared – suddenly they seemed familiar, like someone I hadn’t seen for a very long time but used to know well, and their eyes were every color, more than I could name–
“Aha.” They gave me a grim smile and a nod, like they knew me. “There you are. Will you trust me?”
I blinked and shook my head. Hazel. Their eyes were just hazel, and I’d never seen them before in my life. “I… excuse me?”
Their nostrils flared. A breeze ruffled their clothes again. “Will. You. Trust. Me.”
I have no idea who you are, my mind protested, but that weird familiarity tugged at me. I was still about to leap out of my skin with anxiety, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had something important to tell me. Even if only an idiot would trust some random person in the armpit of nowhere, just listening couldn’t hurt. Anyway, they seemed to be on foot, and my truck was right there if I needed to get away–
They made an impatient noise and I jumped. “I– sorry. Y-yes. I’ll trust you.”
A satisfied smile flickered over their face. They nodded. “As you should.”
The stranger opened their book and held it out toward the marker. More moments passed. I fidgeted and glanced at my truck.
The stranger sighed and, after flipping to close to the end, read out loud. “Wind,” they announced. “Air in natural motion, moving horizontally along the earth’s surface!”
What. I leaned over to look at the page. “Is that a dictionary?” I protested — or tried to. A blast of wind whipped the words right of my mouth and replaced them with the dust it’d stirred up.
As I coughed, the stranger held their dictionary out toward the marker again, letting the wind rifle through the pages. Eyes closed, they slammed a finger down into the book, then read. “Regret. A sense of loss, sorrow, or remorse.” And again. “Accident. An event that happens unexpectedly, without deliberate plan or cause.” And again–
I went cold. “Do you–” I coughed again. “Do you think this is funny?”
Their voice rose as the wind blew harder. “Blame. To hold responsible! Death! The total and permanent cessation of all vital functions!”
My heart raced. I took a step back, and my hands balled into fists. “Who the hell are you?!”
“Past.” The wind began to die down. “Having occurred in a time previous to the present. To pass beyond.” The wind settled and they snapped the dictionary closed. The stranger turned to face me. “You said you would trust me.”
My eyes prickled with tears. “Why should I?”
They gestured toward my truck. “Look.”
Despite myself, I looked.
My vision flickered and then it was late evening, made even darker by an autumn rain pouring down. I looked in through the windshield of, not my truck, but one that was bigger, cleaner, more expensive — and him behind the leather-covered wheel, looking like he smelled something disgusting. Past me cringed in the passenger seat, trying and failing to not to show my distress. The night of the accident. We were driving home from a party that I had thought had went well, down a back road he’d insisted, laughing, was a shortcut.
His humor had vanished miles back. “You always do this, you know? It’s really embarrassing.” The swipe of the windshield wipers didn’t hide his sneer. “Really goddamn embarrassing. Do you know how embarrassing it is to explain your little ‘quirky’ act to other people?”
“It– I–” Past me blanched and hunched even further into myself. “I thought they liked me.” I‘d been sure of it when we’d left. Everyone at the party had grinned and laughed at my anecdotes. “They seemed to think I was funny–”
“You know what Greg told me as we were leaving? How weird you are.” He twitched the wheel, making the truck jerk to the side. Past me gasped. “They think you’re weird. Do you know how that makes me look? Like I have some sort of badly behaved pet–” He made the truck jerk again. “–that they’re just tolerating because they like me. For now.” The truck jerked.
“Stop– stop that!”
“Stop,” he mocked, his voice high and nasal. “Stop that!” He swerved the truck sharply at nothing, water spraying in a wide arc from under the tires. “Going to be a crybaby about it? You probably cost me that gig, now you’re going to cost me my patience?”
“It’s raining, this is dangerous–”
He bared his teeth in a grin. “No it isn’t. It’s not like you’re driving.” He hit the gas, swerved into the other lane and back. I yelped and he laughed. “You’re pathetic! Can’t take a little joke–” He jerked the truck. “Can’t take a little fun– Can’t be anything but a total fucking embarrassment–”
This last jerk sent the truck hydroplaning. He bellowed, terror flashing across his face, and wrenched the wheel against the direction of the slide – the wrong direction. The truck spun out of control out onto the shoulder and flipped–
My vision flickered like a dying monitor. It was a little bit later. The truck was upside-down but still, motor humming under the sound of the rain. Behind the broken windows past me shifted, unfastened my seat belt with shaking hands, and slowly, painfully, crawled out of the cab, not even glancing toward the driver’s seat.
My vision dimmed further as past me rolled over enough to dig my phone out of my pocket. After a few moments of staring at it dumbly past me punched in the emergency number. The flickering grew worse and the vision faded as I heard myself whisper, “Please pick up… please pick up…”
“Cruelty. Conduct that inflicts bodily harm or mental suffering.”
I startled out of the memory. The truck was just my truck again, upright and intact on a sunny day. My face was as wet as if I had been standing in the rain.
“Relief. Alleviation of pain, distress, or oppression.”
I remembered waking up in the hospital and the nurse with her tense, cautious face telling me what had happened. I remembered my first, unguarded thought when she told me he hadn’t made it. I’m free.
I choked on shame. “No!”
The stranger looked up from their dictionary, at the marker and past it. “No?” Their brow creased in a frown. “Anyone would be. No one deserves to be yelled at like that.”
“But he–” I choked again. I scrubbed the tears from my face with my sleeve. “He didn’t deserve to die. I didn’t deserve to live more than he did.”
“He didn’t mind gambling with your lives to punish you.” They shut their dictionary and met my eyes. “He gambled, and he lost.”
“Then I should have done something! I should have done something. I should have…”
The stranger watched me as I played the vision back in my head. Looking in from the outside was so different from remembering it and imagining what heroics I could have pulled. Like throwing myself across the cab to wrench the steering wheel in the right direction — maybe I could have gotten enough leverage leaning across the cab, but I couldn’t control his feet on the pedals. Would I have saved us, or would he have just gotten angrier through his panic and made it even worse?
No, further back. Maybe I could have calmed him down — even though up until the truck hydroplaned, he looked plenty calm under his viciousness. Maybe I could have figured out he was angry with me sooner and made him stop — or just not gotten in the truck at all. Maybe I could have stayed home so I wouldn’t do anything he thought was embarrassing. Maybe–
Maybe I could have saved him from himself, but how could I when I couldn’t even save myself from him?
I swayed. The stranger caught my arm and held me steady. “What’s dead is dead and what’s gone is gone,” they said quietly. “There are no hands to hold your chains anymore.” They let go and opened their dictionary to a random page. “Freedom. The power to act without restraint.”
My head hurt. I backed away. “Let me go.”
The stranger clasped the dictionary to their chest and turned toward the memorial again. “Nothing holds you here.”
I turned and fled, slipping in the gravel. I scrambled into my truck and cursed as my hand shook too badly to get the key into the ignition. After a moment of panic I got it in and started the engine, but when I looked up–
There wasn’t anyone there, just the marker, bereft of even the dead flowers. The rising wind had blown them away.
I laid my head down on the steering wheel and wept.
When I raised my head again, I was still alone. I rolled down my window and tossed the flowers I’d brought into the wind before I drove away.