a short story by Charles Ll. Hoehnen
Joan waits for Alice's call. She is late again. Something must have happened to her. Always afraid of what might happen to Joan hears voices and sees ghosts.
"Hello, hello? Joan?"
"Alice? Yeah, it's Joan. I can barely hear you."
Alice's choked breath clamors above the static - gulping air.
"I'm in big trouble. I need help."
"Oh God. What happened? Where are you?"
"It's awful ... I can't tell ..."
A wash of noise obscures Alice's words. She squeals into the speaker and Joan, shocked, jerks the phone away from her ear. The call drops and the line is quiet.
The kitchen table is a square of wood on four angled legs each pair front and back intersecting as an X. Mirroring those are Joan's bare legs with the right over the left thigh and the former restless and shaking. An ashtray overflows into a gray and disfigured circle, each stub adding a layer to its sad circumference, Joan absently snuffing cigarettes while her focus is intent on the phone. Twice the line went directly to voice mail, but since the third attempt it rings up the automated message, "the cellular customer you are attempting to call is out of range." Four times. Eleven.
Joan holds the little pod phone in the palm of her hand. Alice is late again. Always afraid of what might happen Joan hears voices and sees ghosts.
Later, her neck and bicep aching from the constant tension of her elbow and the tilt of her head against the phone, she tries again. A call from her mother had been ignored. Her stomach is tight and hollow. She whispers to herself some prayer or profanity.
Now she is confronted by dead air. This, she thinks, is the emptiness of space. She moans a weak, "Fuck" into the microphone. No voice mail, no automated operator. She nearly let's the phone drop to the table. Her arm is red and her palms slick. But as the speaker hot from her ear descends she is certain a whimper - no, quieter than that - so quiet she could have mistaken it for the cutting of the line or an artifact in the reception, escapes that unknowable distance.
Alice is late again.
Joan tries to respond but her throat catches on the words and she hacks violently, a series of rough coughs brewed from the cigarette smoke and her prolonged silence, making her eyes water.
"Hello? I fucked up," the whisper swells to a pop and then there is quiet again. Joan clears her throat in a defiant hew and spits out:
"Alice. Thank god. Can you hear me?"
"So scared . . . Highway B . . . please-"
The blue cushion of sky is already punctured by needles of purple and red when Joan exits US 89 for county highway B. The sun is setting on the driver's side and orange beams redress the clouds like a lemon foam. She'd lost her again, line clipped like leaves. The phone is cradled in Joan's crotch so she could feel it vibrate and not have to dig in her pockets to answer if she called again.
Her chest heaves in short breaths, her hair hangs loose from a hurried knot, her eyes are wide and watery blue.
Cars head south away from the country and towards the city's gray skyline. Likely homeward. She speeds and passes a dark green minivan with a woman and a young girl. She imagines they stare at her car proceeding into the distance.
"You scared the shit out of me. Are you alright?"
"Yeah," Alice whines and Joan can picture her cowering in the dark with the pale glow from her cell lighting the right side of her face. In her mind Alice's forehead is creased with lines like wind swept sand. Her car interior a cave. Now at the cusp of night, the fields and forests like a grid laid out on either side of the highway, Joan flips on her high beams. She clamps down on the thin cell with her cheek and shoulder. The wheel pulls under the bare touch of her fingers. The phone is hot on her face. "I ran out of gas," Alice's voice cracks as she speaks, the "a" sound in gas stretched out to a squealing pitch, "I'm such an idiot."
"You're not an idiot. Listen, I'm on Highway B, is there any landmark or anything that will help me find you?"
"What? No! I'm on Double B, Double B . . . bee-bee!"
"Jesus Christ that's across the county Alice! You said B." A crackle of static again. Between it, her girlfriend ejaculates a stream of curses: Fuck - one of them.
Even with the window rolled down she sweats and her heart pounds, black wind from the hot blacktop pouring in as it escapes the earth into the heavens. Her own breath goes out into the world, easy and invisible.
The headlights cast a saucer of pale white into the bloated dark. They splay flat and insignificant against the belly of night. Double B: about fifteen miles south of a ranch house and another five miles from a ramshackle gas station that Alice had passed in hopes of another that was not so sinister yet never to surface. This is what she had told Joan.
The world is pitch as if stained with smoke; no contrast, a veil drawn over the stars. She turns on the radio and spins through the dial. The signal stretches and yawns over hissing snake-like yelps and whispering voices. A treble roar pops out on one station and then dies as she rotates the dial further. She lets the radio ride on an old serenade, the vocal indistinguishable from the eruption of quiet strings and the eerie hollow notes of the winds.
Outside, too, the wind is an accompanist to the song. It swirls through the cabin, whipping up dust and hair, a bleak tempestuous blare through her ears. It dominates. It seems to tighten around her and constrict her throat and chest. She finds it difficult to breath.
Joan realizes she had been accelerating, now over ninety miles an hour, as she approaches a long steep hill. She lets the hill slow her as the head lights cut a path through the countryside. A smear of colors rise up from behind the hill, like a mirrored pool reflecting diverse minerals in a cavern. As she reaches the summit of the hill, and the downward slope approaches, her car slows like through water, the twitching branches of the roadside trees grapple in opposition to each other - their strength so matched that they would struggle for an eternity before one gained on the other. The color, which seems to funnel down from an invisible point above, surrounds her now. An outline of fluorescent green shines and wanes as the other colors press forward from the now tangible mass. Inchoate blues that blend with the black night.
She touches her breast over her heart to see if it has stopped - she feels nothing for a moment save the smooth cotton of her t-shirt and contemplates this - until her heart smashes into her ribs with the force of a hammer.
The color; a yellow spear piercing out from its center composed of small soapy bubbles. A chill and a rise in pressure causes Joan's ears to sizzle. She stares at the color until she is beyond the crest of the hill and descending. Her stomach drops and she looks in the rear view mirror with a queasy terror. The car has parted the color, like a vapor, and it dissipates into the leaves of the trees that encroach on the band of road. She concentrates her gaze on this effect until her phone rings sudden, tearing like a cackling bird into her ears. She reaches for it between her legs.
"Alice-" she starts to speak.
But there is a shadow in the darkness just beyond the road. Not a shadow - now a form - not a form but a shape - a shape now, it is seen, solid - a body.
The deer, tall and unhurried, strides into the disc of light. He looks at her and stands if to claim her path with his majesty.
In the moment before the crash she cries out in a primal syllabic - as if on the verge of speaking a word, to Alice, to anyone - the sound blistering in her ears. Her arm holding the phone straightens in an arc from ear to windshield as if its strength could hold back the impact. In those interminable seconds where she can feel everything magnified, the texture of molecules, the reverberation of her own voice, she chooses to fix on the deer. The deer that will die in the space of her, one, breath.
The first thing is the eyes; they signal the beast's presence. Twin globes that shunt away the headlights save a doubled glimmer like the spark of life escaping their orbit. They quiver in shock and stare dumb from behind their watery surfaces, black flesh around them wet and oily, the lights at first white and massive in reflection, coming to pin-points as his body stands frozen under them. His mouth gapes and Joan can see small white teeth ringing his long tongue. The tiny ears twitched, first back so his head was bullet shaped, then with the orifices facing the car, before he turned its neck to avert itself from the sound of the oncoming monster.
She closes her eyes but can still see the animal's outline, etched like fire on her lids.
The deer takes a step towards the side of the road. The white fluff on his belly puffing out with the wind or his breath.
Her hands swing rootless off the wheel, the phone flying in a streak into the corner of the dash between the windshield and the glove compartment. It stuck there, buzzing, even after the accident.
She notices as it was all about to end the vast latent noises and impressions of her vehicle; like how the sand on a beach might feel around your feet and between your toes as a tidal wave approaches. The rattle of a loose strut over the rear tire. A whine underneath the sound of the engine. Gurgling air and gas as she moves her foot from the accelerator. She can't seem to lift it fast enough; stuck in the moment when the deer stepped towards the shoulder of the road - his hoof is still in the air - she fights to break away from the pull of the pedal.
Her face feels tight, her lips pulling back over her teeth, each tooth an intricate impression. She feels the little ridges on her tongue as it floats to the top of her dry mouth. She promises herself - opening her eyes again - she will not bite it.
The impact sends her head rolling forward and it feels like it has been torn from her neck as her shoulders are forced backwards. Then forwards as her head rebounds.
Face to face with the deer she apologizes and reaches out to him. Her fingers are deflected by the cracked windshield. A single bloody eye looks down at her through the glass. His antlers are broken and one is torn from his head with a portion of the skull. She looks at her fingertips bringing them away from the thing's dead face and sees the smear of blood. She is unsure whether it is his or hers. She can taste something like it in her mouth. An imprint on the air bag like a frown, and then the drops from her nose, prove both possibilities.
She decides to stay still here. Sleep comes on her like a ray from the horizon, piercing through the body of the deer, and taking the darkness and turning it to pure white.
Joan wakes; trapped behind the steering wheel, bound tight and breathless by the seat-belt. She can't feel her arms. There they are, cold and skinny like they've been stripped to the marrow, laying on either side of her, the left one contorted with the elbow up against the window. A spiral crack emanates out from where her flesh touches the glass. Her right arm lies limp on the seat, pointing at something down by the mat, a black pit where her feet are claimed by the void. These at least she can move - though it is useless to do so. She blinks her eyes and looks out at the night. She remembers there should be a moon, but it must be obscured by clouds, because the sky is - what? Where is the sky? - gone and the world under it equally as impenetrable. Moving her head she looks up at the windshield, expecting to see the animal she killed, but it is gone. The blood remains, smeared as she remembered it, now seen as a black 'S'. The deer must have slid its obliterated snout down the slope, found a footing on its broken legs somehow, and crawled off somewhere to die.
Falling, Joan's hands move without effort, the gravel and weeds of the eroding highway rushing up to her, and she is able to catch herself before her face hits. She was not sure the door would open so easily. It swings back creaking and glances off her hip.
She let's her face float to the ground anyway. She feels the fibrous stem of a torn dandelion and a rough patch of mangled grass that it grows out from against her cheek. Her lips and teeth meet gravel, it is appropriate, she thinks, to stay here awhile. That time passes with just the howl of a water bird, and an intermittent wind that will jostle the door against her ass once more.
Joan slips her legs from under the seat one at a time because that is all the space the collapsed driver's compartment affords her. Her sneakers chafe against her jeans and she realizes they are torn above the knee though she can't imagine how. This exposed portion is bleeding with a superficial cut.
Joan can stand, but she feels numb and awful everywhere, so doing this, raising her head to look into the far plains to the left and the spare pine forest to her right, she is surprised by the tension in her back and the fiery pain in her neck and the back of her head. The road behind her is black. Further down the road, where her left headlight still cuts a receding cone of light, she sees a sharp curve in the highway, a sign with a cation arrow bent to the right before it.
"Shitty. This is shitty," she says,"The shit that I put up with." It is the last thing she will say aloud for some time, because the sound of her voice is so weak and insignificant in the universe at night huddled around her own ears high pitched and fearful, she becomes dazed with panic. She walks around to the other side of the car, the half on the road still, to escape from the feeling. Opening the passenger door she retrieves her cell phone. The screen is blank and no operation of the machine will bring it to life. Joan stumbles towards the hood of the car, still tapping uselessly on the phone's interface, when the head lights catch the display. Her face is bruised on the left side where it must have struck the steering wheel through the air bag. Blood encircles her mouth from the dried flow out of her nostrils. It looks like a mustache.
A movement to her right startles her. But it is only her elongated silhouette contorted with her shivering. It seems to mock her in its grotesque dance, a taunting bend of its arms that she has not initiated, or its ass shaking in a lude taunt, and the more she tries not to move the more intense the impression becomes until she turns twirls away as if spun by a ghost.
The lights dim to an orange like candle light and then snuff out.
Joan cannot see the road. She even steps off of it into the long grasses of the embankment two or three times before realigning herself with the shoulder. Her body aches in a terrible bleating rhythm and she hallucinates dark monsters making a stampede of her every sore and bruise.
Like two walls running parallel the dark is close around her. She walks with her left side angled forward either because the right is wounded in some way or as an effect of this tunnel. These walls are very real. She hears the wind close by her left where the road slips away into void save the moaning leaves and the cackle of stones before the slope. On her right she can almost make out the echo of her footfalls though her soft sneaker soles should make no noise. No cars pass and she is totally alone. She looks at her phone again, still clutched in her hand, but she has forgotten that it is dead. She crosses her arms, each hand folded under the opposing bicep and pressed against her breasts, tight into her ribs. It is not so cold - why does she shiver so? The echoes on her right are louder now, in so much silence there is nothing to listen for except her own impact on the night.
Here she is walking. The hoarse labor of breath pushed out her gaping mouth:
"Here I am afraid."
"This fist clenched softens the cold with my blood, the throb in my lips the dark kiss with the world. The whole weight of it is unbearable unless I open my self to it and in that submission stave the panic of being lost alone. How far will I go for her?"
Joan licks her lips and tastes the blood. She knows she is about to faint and stops walking, her heel skidding on the blacktop.
The footfall echoes continue, one step, two, three and then four. Finally they halt - but it is far too late.
Someone is with her, someone has followed her.
There is no answer. Joan's heart is in eruption rattling painful against the cell of her chest like a man trapped in a flooding basement. This fluid seems to fill her lungs too. It comes closer, the snap of four steps on the blacktop, so clearly different from her own steps that she must have known always it was there.
She breathes once but it is more like a cry and she tilts back on her heels. Joan runs off the road, away from the stranger, and slips down the embankment into tall dew-drenched grass.
A light grows behind her as Joan flees through the field. At first she thinks the moon had broken through the clouds, a bone-white pall blooming around her and the blades of grass shining under its illumination like a rolling sea. In the distance a solid black band of trees and over them the purple clouds pocked with blue. But then the light changes to a bright yellow like the noon sun and then orange as it is setting; green and pink, then white again. She dares a look behind her and it is the color from before, the atmospheric shape coming from a point in the heavens.
The nexus is a crater in the clouds, deeper purple or black encircled by a labial distortion. The colors stream out and diffuse over the break in the trees where the road is - or was. Instead now a vast panorama is revealed, fading in under the exposure of the colors. An alien landscape. Snaking hills covered in angular-leafed bushes, rusty red, form gully's and deviations. They intersect at a point at the boundary of vision into a singular mountain and a river rushing down from it. At her periphery, before the black night reclaims the sight and abolishes the dream back to darkness, there is a shadow and its halo. She recognizes her head - its shape - and the outline of absolute light, like the sun burns just behind it, and the wisps of her hair are bridges of fire. Joan puts her hands behind her certain she would feel its heat. But her body has gone cold - she can't feel it at all - and moving her hands as she did is only a remembrance of the order to move and the duration her mind expects before the action is performed. She does not feel alone anymore, oneness achieved with the night or having divorced herself from the need of the other: Alice, her, I. The vision closes in under the pulsating color, the hills and its bloody bushes, the blue sky, the mountain and finally the river disappear behind it.
Then a blur, coming out from the color, a deer in darkness revealed by the light. His body is smashed and he limps on a broken leg half torn from its socket. Pink tendons glisten from the exposed wounds. Brown fur is smeared red and his antlers are cracked and hanging.
"Crazy," she says, and is startled by her voice. She flattens her hands, material again, against her stomach. There is blood there too, how did that get there? She wishes she were back inside the warm dark. The deer approaches, she sees his entrails drag in the grass, she hears the recurring clop of its hooves - the steps that had followed her from where she murdered it.
The color goes, too, and she is left facing the deer, all aspects of vision, the hint of trance, banished with it. There is the moon, just over the horizon and the band of trees by the road, and the deer. Eyes like moons themselves, quartered, unblinking. His glassy snout emits a foggy snort once. There is a clean smell like water pulled from a river in a steel pan. The muscles of the deer's unbroken front leg spasm and Joan can hear the flesh quake. He turns his body and she sees the long lean torso slick with strain and a spectral sheen. The deer looks at her and speaks. His voice is deep, though weary and strained, and though his lips move as if chewing (indeed it dips its neck once and she can see the bone jutting out of it as it munches on grass) the words come straight into her head.
"Hey. What are you doing out here all alone?" His tail twitches once and his front legs buckle. Joan fears he will fall and she steps towards him.
"I was going to find my friend. She's in trouble." It was not strange at all that he should address her - both animals, both treading the supple surface of death.
"I see. You are in trouble too."
"Well that's my own fault. I am so sorry I killed you."
"We were both there, we know it didn't happen like that. You are a good friend to be out alone in this place. I am surprised you found your way here."
"But it was an accident. I was so afraid for her, for me, that I lost control. I didn't want this."
"And I didn't want to die. Joan, put your hand on me," the deer says. She hesitates only a little before touching his back and smoothing his bloody wet fur.
"I don't understand."
"Do you share her fear, now?" the deer says.
Joan is crying as the dead deer comforts her. She caresses its head, wiping blood away from a smear under its eye, feeling the crack in its skull. She holds her heaviest sobs so she will not cloud his voice and its rhythms.
"Walk with me. Did you see the colors? I came from them. Soon I'll go lie down."
"No," Joan gasped. She lets the haze overcome her, wet and hot. It is a minute or two before she was able to sniff it back in.
"This way is a fence and, further, a doorway," the deer nodded his head to the left, "do not go that way."
"What is over the fence?" Joan asks groping the deer's back, "What is through the doorway?"
The deer is silent.
"The fence, where would it take me? To your world?" Joan questions like a child hanging persistently to her father's belt loop.
"Yes," the deer pauses, looks at Joan with an uncertain blink, and then continues, "eventually you would see the colors again."
"But I want to go there. What is it like?" Joan has to be careful not to slip on the grass that is under the deer as she moved closer, their bodies almost touching, as it is drenched with a stream of constant blood like the river from the mountain.
"It is beautiful, unspoiled. Never dark, always full of the brightest sun, even the shadows are like a golden blanket. A moment can stretch like light into the future, never eclipsed by the vagaries of memory. But you don't want to go there."
"Is Alice there?"
The deer is silent.
The deer stops and bends his knees, slumping down onto his side, deep exhausted breaths and a stuttered exhalation the only signs of life. His intestines become tangled in his hind legs and they remain bound up until his breath stops.
Joan knelt down and held her body over his and slept until morning.
Joan left the carcass early, maybe only a few moments after it passed, when the first gray shreds of dawn littered the field.
Standing was difficult, and sloppy, as his guts and blood had pooled out from the wide gash in his belly. She damned the crushed metal of her car.
The gas station was not far. It seemed abandoned at first as one side of the sign had fallen off. But as she turned the corner onto a decrepit road she saw the familiar yellow Shell logo. She had no money. The gas station attendant, chewing tobacco, took pity on her sorry state.
"No, I don't want to go to the hospital," Joan said. They drove out together in his red pick-up.
Alice was asleep when they found her. Wrapped in her overcoat, her dark hair piled under her head like a pillow.
"So peaceful," Joan whispered into a tissue that she held over her torn lips.
The attendant rapped on the window with a hard hand, shading his eyes with the other to look in.
"Hey miss?" He said loudly and knocked again. Alice sat up in shock, eyes wild, and then she saw Joan.