And I was off, pedaling madly on a dusty dirt road, my disheveled ponytail damp with sweat. Messy bun. Ball of keratin stress. I winced in pain, my thumbs bleeding, brandishing shredded, gnawed-on hangnails. Though usually self-conscious, wincing at the very thought of hurting myself, I paid no heed to the perils ahead, already losing balance after wheeling over littered soda cans sad in their disarray. Worse so, I wasn’t wearing a helmet. So much for being a pragmatist. I resolved to recapture composure in spite of the aluminum obstruction. Or so I thought.
I found myself snorting and spitting, struggling to drain out the water that rushed into my mouth and nasal tract. I could feel my head throbbing, but I was too dazed to be sure. Listless, I closed my tired eyes, the onset of crow’s feet accentuated as the murky waters splashed against my neck. In Tom’s words, I was just “laying there, completely knocked out, looking like…a sad death.”
And indeed, he found me, following the, well, sad death of his car battery. Alone. By the roadside. Needing assistance. Feeling a callused, clumsy hand touch my too-messy hair, I awoke to find myself in a vortex of disorientation, ominous sounds and images compressing my head. Gently, he propped me up, his hands ostensibly sanguine. Moist.
“You hit yourself pretty hard there,” he said, his eyebrows furrowed as I rubbed the back of my head. “You okay?”
“I suppose,” I muttered, discovering I had indeed fallen into the river, scraping my scalp on a rock. Luckily, the pain wasn’t too unbearable, though it still was unflattering to sit there, droopy, dripping, and damaged in front of a total stranger. Physically. Perhaps emotionally. My eyes widened in bewilderment as he ripped off a square from his flannel shirt, not really seeming to care that it was obviously ruined. Smoothly, tenderly. Yes, with great care, he soaked up the blood that trickled down my neck. I almost backed away, thinking he’d pull something dirty, but there was something about him that compelled me to sit so still. Deep brown eyes, complexion kissed with freckled grace. Even more enchanting—that chestnut hair, the way it fell along the back of his neck. With a brotherly gentleness, he cuffed my wrists, guiding me out of stagnant waters while beaming a shy smile. Feeling shame that seemed out of place, I turned away from his gaze. He noticed, and grinning so warmly, took hold of my hand, urging me to let him walk me home.
“But what about—” I began to ask, nodding towards the halted car. That shabby, dinged Camry that no one really loved.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing, really.” He shook his head in nonchalance, imploring me to follow him in the opposite direction. I found this kind of annoying. But only for a moment. That accent. It was not commonplace.
“But, your car—”
“Hey, leave it alone, will you?” His voice grew cool, his irises subtly dilating in slight provocation. I spoke no more, picking up pace and trudging after him with my usual sense of caution. Did he know me, or at least of me? If so, that was odd, considering that I’d never seen him before in small suburbia. In my right mind I would’ve ran in the opposite direction, but at the moment, I was too confused to think of what I could be getting myself into. My mother always warned me of the dangers of rape, regardless of my not knowing what that really was, or what usually precedes it. But nonetheless, I walked on until we reached my street.
He was an innocent joke, his cheap, frayed, bleached-gray jeans contrasting heavily with the putter-green lawns that carpeted Vermillion Drive. One sleeve intact, one sleeve severed. A scraggly oddity, a living blemish among the neighborhood flock of pompous Sperry’d boys. I had to smile, though I welded my face straight at eye contact’s strike.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” he mumbled under his breath. Already, he was scrutinizing my home, nodding thoughtfully at the scarlet begonias draped over the creamy brick planters. He moved on to my windows, appraising the lilac curtains hanging behind the glass. He must not get out that often, I thought to myself, but I was too overwhelmed by the day’s events to say anything.
“Hey, you alright?” I jumped as he spoke. Deep, sincere. When will you leave?, I asked in my mind, appreciative of his concern, yet again, rather annoyed by the fact that he was hanging around for a bit too long. More than anything, I wanted him to leave. He just seemed so out of place. So plain, garish, approachable, scary.
“You want me to leave, don’t you?”
Now he had let it sink in.
“Yeah. You’d rather me leave. You’re not even talking, so I think I’ll go.”
Okay, then. Go, I guess. But for some reason, he would not budge. Likewise, indifference paralyzed me. Stung my eyes, numbed my mind.
“So… you’re just like the rest, huh?” He grew angry. Eyes narrow ellipses. Icy and sickle-like. He sighed, and started walking in the direction we just came from. The taut line my lips had been was now a wide oval, uttering not a sound as he grew further away from where I stood.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I loudly retorted, offended at the semantics behind this remark. “Hey, come back!”
“Why do you care?” His voice was tense. Lethally, hurt. “You know, you could have drowned to your death if I wasn’t there and found you. Either that or you would’ve bled a helluva lot more.” Saying nothing more, he disappeared in the evening dusk, the glare of the streetlights pouring onto him like rain. But only when he went around the corner. That gait was not commonplace.
Trembling, and more perplexed than ever, I lumbered up my driveway, only to find a wrinkled index card nestled in the grass. Scribbled on it, in faint blue ink, was a note:
If you ever need me, call me, at XXX-8521. Meet me at the end of Schley Street if you ever need anyone to talk to. Yours, Tom.
Still uncomfortable after the recent encounter, I hurried inside, cautiously locking the door behind me, afraid this “Tom” might break in during the night. He didn’t seem to fit the stalker’s prototype, but come to think of it, the note he left behind was, well, creepy. I questioned myself as to when he could’ve written it. Shaking off dizziness and grabbing at the back of my head to spot any more broken skin, I dashed into the shower, just now realizing that the piece of his shirt used to stop the bleeding was still wrapped around my neck. I grimaced in disgust, but instead of tossing the rag into the trash, I threw it in my laundry basket. Stranger still, I didn’t even bother to take it out of the basket. Ever the bearer of commendable hygiene.
Slipping into a clean set of clothes, I crawled into bed, and though I didn’t want to, I thought of him. The awkward savior. Tom. So that was his name. He seemed so carefree, different from me in the sense that he didn’t stress over much. I mean, what else propelled me to take that violent ride down that vicious country road? I was pissed upon finding out I’d earn a high “B” in advanced physics for the present semester. It wasn’t a failing grade, but still, I felt entitled to more. Entitled. Maybe I got what I wanted that afternoon, getting attention from some boy that came out of nowhere. Boys never found me pretty. And while wanting to get to know Tom, I was still repulsed by him. Too different. Too…simplistic. But he was lovely. Ashamed of myself, I shook my head, falling asleep in a quiet room with a mind they all said to be unsound.
The next morning—a lazy Saturday—I awoke a little earlier than expected. My parents were still not through with their travels and wouldn’t be back in five days, so again I’d have the house all to myself. Going out the front door to water the already-wilting begonias, I stumbled upon a sight that left me dumbfounded. Lo and behold, in the center of the driveway, was my bicycle. The one I rode yesterday. How could I have forgotten my bicycle? I was too hurt too care. Rubbing the back of my head once again (it was throbbing something horrible), I marveled at its peculiar newness, the fact that unlike yesterday, it stood tall, lustrous, and not so rickety as before. I gaped, noticing it was coated with a brand new layer of mahogany paint. Tom. It had to be Tom. But why? Why would he do something so nice after basically telling me he never wanted to see me again? Still ashamed, I shook my head and rolled my refurbished bike into the garage. I ran up to my room, retrieved that modest little index card, grabbed my phone, and did the unthinkable.
“Hello? Tom? Hey, this is Collette, the girl you saved at the river yesterday. Look, I just was feeling so out of it that I…I’m sorry if I…hello?” Silence on the other end. Yet, I was soothed by his gentle breathing.
He was there. Probably not as mad as yesterday, but still somewhat bitter. I felt he wouldn’t hang up. And he didn’t. So I kept talking, my verbal spillage losing its tremor as minutes tiptoed on.
*Previously published in In-Flight Literary Magazine in July 2016.
Kristine Brown is a law student who shuffles between poetry, prose, data entry, and wishing she could properly fly a kite. She photographs strangers’ cats and writes poems for them. You can find these poems on her blog, Crumpled Paper Cranes (https://crumpledpapercranes.com). She has written one novel, Connie Undone. Her writing appears in Hobart, Occulum, Burningword Literary Journal, Burning House Press, among other publications.