She looks scared and not very bright. That’s Jared’s first impression, and he’s a man who bets on first impressions. She’s thin except for the swell of her belly, as round as a full moon. She’s wearing a pale blue knit cap and a puffy nylon coat, but the coat hangs open because of that belly. She has a kid’s red backpack strapped around her shoulders.
The first time he drives past, he’s going the speed limit, possibly a bit more. She’s just a flash of blue under the single fluorescent light of a closed service station. Christmas. Everything is closed, that’s why he’s circled the six block area twice looking for a place to grab a midnight snack.
It’s cold enough for snow, but in the San Francisco Bay Area, the clouds evaporate when it drops below forty.
Normally he wouldn’t stop for a strange woman. He’d expect a big guy with a knife crouching out of sight, he’d expect the chick herself to have a knife, he’d expect drug-induced, psychotic behavior. But she’s pregnant, extremely pregnant, and it’s Christmas. He shouldn’t be a sentimental moron. What is it about this fucking holiday that makes him melancholy, makes him think people aren’t really such shit-heads as they are every single day of the year?
Three wives in twenty-five years. Four employers in seven years, he ought to know, the human race is nothing to write home about — not worth saving. But, hey, he’s an optimist. Just because he’s an out-of-work programmer, his skills out-sourced, doesn’t mean things can’t get better. It’s Christmas, a new year is right around the corner.
He pulls to the curb. The window grunts before it retracts into the passenger-side door. He leans across the empty seat, yells — It’s pretty cold. You waiting for someone?
She wipes her nose with the inside of her wrist, scrunches her face into a snuffle. Coke? The flu?
She trudges toward his car. Can you give me a ride to the train station?
Sure. He pops the lock and waits for her to open the door.
She heaves herself into the bucket seat and sinks down like she’ll never get up again. What if she starts to give birth? What was he thinking? Fluids. Blood. Pain and panic. When’s the baby due?
She shrugs and he pulls away from the curb. This was a mistake, he can see that already, feel it in the cramping of his foot on the gas pedal. He presses harder, picking up speed, it’s not like he has to merge, the street is deserted.
Are you hungry? I’ve been trying to find something open.
The Thai place on Murphy.
He gets three boxes of food and drives to the train station. She pushes her backpack into the space between the seats so he can place the food cartons on top. Their fingers bump repeatedly as they stab plastic forks into the open boxes, noodles dangling, slapping their chins. She eats fast, shoveling food into her mouth so that it turns out he only gets one of the four spring rolls and a third of the Pad Thai.
She burps and starts crying, sobs accompanied by gasping for breath, I need you to help me, please help me.
Turns out she has no cash for this train ride she’s planning. She left home, a fundamentalist family that would kill her if they found out she was pregnant. She’s been living with the boyfriend and his mother, who’s a real bitch. She had to get out, couldn’t take it any more because the woman was treating her like a slave. She ran with nothing but that red backpack. The boyfriend is probably looking for her now. She wants to get to her cousin’s in LA.
He’s growing impatient. We all have it tough, kiddo.
He crams the empty food containers into the paper sack and hands it to her. Go throw these in the trash. Maybe I can scrape up a few bucks for a train ticket.
She hoists herself out of the car and waddles to the dumpster, lifts the lid and drops in the bag. She lets the lid fall shut and then clutches her lower back. Great. Going into labor? He knows that sign.
He takes her pack out of the space between the seats, yanks the zipper open and reaches under his seat. He pulls out a package of folded newspaper and shoves it into the backpack, zips it closed, praying she won’t notice the extra three or four pounds. With his hand back under the seat, he puts his fingers inside a plastic garbage bag and removes two fifties.
When she opens the door he leans over and thrusts the backpack at her. I gotta go. With his other hand he holds out the fifties.
It’s too much. I can’t take that.
It’s Christmas. It’ll take you farther.
Thanks. Thanks so much. You’re like an angel.
He slams the door and peels out of the parking lot. Now that the gun is on its way to LA, all he has to do is get rid of the leather gloves, and his shirt with the blood splattered down the front. Then he’ll be ready for the new year.
Cathryn Grant has had psychological suspense stories published in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines. She received an honorable mention in the 2007 Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction contest.