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Bleeding Heart

September 25, 2008 by · 4 comments

David Snell

Photo: Dan Zen

As soon as she let the boy in the car, Claire knew she’d made a mistake.
“I…I’m Claire,” she said to the hitchhiker, holding out her hand.

He looked much larger sitting beside her. Seconds before, he’d appeared at the edge of her beams. A lone figure, half-crouched with his thumb stuck out. She smelled sweat and oil as she pulled back her untouched hand.

“I can give you a ride to town. Is that—?
“We’re not goin’ to town.”

This pronouncement thudded against Claire’s brain like a two-by-four. Just before she felt something pushed against her rib. Hard, pointed. She tried to control her shaking. “I…I don’t—”

“Quiet.” His voice matched the weapon. “Don’t try anything. I’ll tell you where to go.”
She sat. She wanted to speak, but the only thing about her body that seemed to work was its quiver. Sweat broke out in her armpits. Her heart and mind tried to outrace each other. She imagined Michael hovering over her corpse. Muttering to himself, “Damn bleeding heart fool.” His dark eyes penetrating. His mouth drawn into a small, tight circle.

“What you waitin’ for, bitch. Drive!”
Claire jumped, whimpering. Her foot hit the accelerator with such force that the Volvo fishtailed back onto the two-lane road.
“Jee-sus, woman.” He pressed the thing tighter against her.
“I-I’m sorry.” She concentrated on slow, deep breaths and gradually sped up.
“That’s better. There’ll be a left comin’ up. Take it.”

Claire didn’t remember the road her captor mentioned. She, Michael, and their two daughters had moved out of town to Mallard Lakes Estate hardly a month ago. She tried to focus her runaway mind on following the boy’s orders. She’d had a lifetime to practice pleasing a man.

“Don’t try anything funny to bring attention to us. It’ll be your last trick, got it?”
“Y-Yes, sir.”
He chuckled at that. “‘Sir.’ Yeah, I’m the boss.”

The night was cold and clear, the half-moon offering some illumination. She glanced at the boy. He couldn’t be over twenty, twenty-five. His eyes looked tired.
But not unkind?
She cleared her throat. “I have a daughter…Lucy Ann, about your age.”

“She’s away at school.”
He snorted. “You must really love her.”
“Oh, I do. She—”
“Yeah, sendin’ her off.”
“Oh, no. She’s in college. She’s studying to be a—”
“Dammit, slow down. Bust a left.”

Claire hit the brakes and swerved. The headlights revealed a gravel road. The boy leaned forward, his body stopping just short of the glove box. Claire brought the car under control to complete the turn.
Her eyes darted in his direction. His long face stretched tight like tent canvas against its ribbing. And made more menacing by a scar that resembled a fishhook.

He glared at her, his arm extended to reveal a knife. “Shit!”
“I’m sorry,” she said, louder than she meant to. She had stopped the car.
“You lookin’ to die?”
Something snapped inside her. “Michael, dammit. I said I was sorry!” She stared at the shadowed figure. Her mind spun into a void.

“Who the hell’s Michael?” The disembodied voice brought her back. The knifeblade glinted white in the moonlight, like a strobe sending an unknown code.

“My husband.” The calm way she said it surprised her. She was still scared, but her body relaxed.
“Trouble in paradise, huh?”
Claire didn’t answer.

She did as she was told, concentrating on the road that narrowed and curved through stark trees before it became a lane of dirt. Claire felt as if she had split in two: one part, herself in thought, hovering overhead like a balloon; the other part, a body on automatic pilot. Sometime later—it could have been ten minutes, it could have been two—he told her to stop.

“Uh, look, she said, “I…we could help you.”
“You need money? I don’t have much on me, but at home—”
“Woman, you’re just a bag of loony, aintcha?”
“What do you mean?”

“I’m supposed to turn you loose, and you’ll get me all this dough and won’t say nothin’ about tonight?” He snorted.
“Yes. That’s what I mean.” Her reply hung in the air several seconds before he spoke.
“You have no idea….” His voice trailed off.
“You’re right. I don’t know your circumstance. Tell me.”

“High school dropout. No job.” Like a slow traveler reading roadside signs, his monotone pronounced the litany. “Girlfriend pregnant. Ain’t eaten in two days.” Twisting in the seat, he grabbed her coat and bunched the front of it in his hand. “And I don’t care what I hafta do to survive. That sum it up enough for ya?”

He pulled her closer, enough that his breath pricked her skin. A thought mocked her. Another time or place, he might have been a friend of Lucy Ann. Even a date.

Through blurry eyes, she saw his grimace, the hurt in his wide stare. She smelled faint traces of alcohol and nicotine on his breath. She noticed pockmarks around his nose and wide slit of a mouth.
“It doesn’t have to be like this.” She said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I’ll give you food, a job. Help your girlfriend.”

He let go of her coat. She didn’t move.
“Damn!” he said. “If you ain’t on TV, you oughta be. Had me almost believin’.”
“I’m not acting, young man. And I don’t lie.”
She saw his jaws clench. Had she gone too far?
But seconds later, he just looked away.

Claire studied the army jacket he wore, the rise and fall of his slow, deep breathing. She heard a howl in the distance and shivered, more from the cold that seeped into the car than from fright.
The boy turned on the dome light and stared at her. His dark skin shone, beaded in sweat.

She noticed the digital clock on the dash. 8:12. How much longer to live?
Finally, the boy spoke. “What does your old man do?”
She swallowed. “He works for a bank.”
“Doin’ what?”

Claire felt as if she stood on sand about to give way. “He’s an officer. He makes decisions about the bank’s operations.” She looked down.
The boy grasped her chin, squeezed it.
She shrieked, then realized it was the suddenness of his move more than pain that had caused her cry. His skin was softer than she would have expected.

He stared at her as if she were a curiosity, an object of study. His eyes were cold. Vacant.
“Got it ‘made in the shade,’ aincha.”
“L-Let me…help you.”
“Bet your old man’d just love that.”

“No. No, he wouldn’t. But we have a large place. It needs lots of care, and I could convince him—”
“Get outta my face.” His growl sounded barely human.
“Go on. Out of the car before I change my mind, ‘cause, woman…I could do anything I want to you out here.”

Claire nodded. She opened the driver’s door and got out. Almost tripping at first, she regained her balance, pulled her coat up around her throat, and stepped away from the car.

He stared at her a second, slammed the door, and switched off the inside light. He started the motor, kicking up dirt as he turned. Claire had to jump clear. Before she knew it, the car lights were gone, swallowed up by the trees, dips, and brush of the lonely terrain.

Claire embraced a tree and tried to stop shaking. Could she find her way back to the road? Was she safe from animals? Thank God, walking would warm her.

She offered up a silent prayer and began to walk. The partial moon seemed to beam just for her. Her senses sharpened. She was alive, had been granted a reprieve. But a sadness crept in. She’d been unable to save the boy.

A few minutes later, she thought she heard a vehicle. Was she that close to the road? She continued in the direction of the sound. She could see well enough to jog slowly.

All at once, light broke around a curve in the path. The sound of a motor, suddenly loud, cut a jagged swath through the night.

Who would…? The boy! It had to be him. She had seen him. Could identify him to the police. And he’d returned to tie up loose ends.

Before she could run or hide, the headlights caught her. What a fool I am. To think that people are really decent inside. Claire felt naked. Like she faced some sort of tribunal who’d found her out. Numb and weak, she sank to her knees. Oh, God, please let it be quick.

She dimly heard the car approach and stop. The door opened. Footsteps. A voice. His.
“Lady, you for real about that job?”

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