He’d never seen anyone so disappointed in him.
She appeared out of nowhere, a stranger ten years older than any of his students. It hadn’t been shock or fear on her face, frozen white in the headlights of his sedan.
The details remained fixed in his mind, a digital photo he’d never be able to delete, one with sights and sounds: the contrast between her slack facial features washed in light and the void behind her, midnight on a street without functioning streetlamps. Radiohead murmuring from his sound system. Tires ripping across the pavement as he shoved down on the brake pedal with both feet — not something they taught in Driver’s Ed, but it worked thanks to his reflexes.
Hope blazed in her eyes, holding him for that uncanny moment, as if he were her hero, come to rescue her from this life. But as his front bumper failed to make contact, she stumbled backward as though she’d mistaken it for something else.
“I’m sorry!” The chill of the night tossed his comb-over and stung his eyes as he leaned out the window. “I didn’t see you!”
She didn’t cuss him out or flip him off. That would have at least made sense. Tugging the coat tightly against her, she hung her head and retreated to the sidewalk from where she’d emerged, dissolving into the night.
Are you okay?
He wanted to, but he didn’t call after her. It would have been pointless.
She was obviously far from okay.
“I don’t see why we have to fight about this.” He stood at the door to their apartment with his coat and gloves on, the keys to his car clenched in one hand. “I’ll be back.”
“Every night.” His wife’s eyes cut into him, never pleased or impressed or satisfied with him. “Where do you go?”
“I’m not cheating on you.”
She scoffed as if that was the furthest thing from her mind. “Are you on something?”
“Do I look like it?”
“You look like hell.” She dug her stocking feet into the couch cushions and hugged the life out of a tasseled throw pillow. “Two weeks of this. What do you do out there?”
Had it been that long? A lot could change in a couple weeks, he supposed.
That’s how long it had been between his retirement from the gas company and his first day offering driving lessons. He couldn’t stay put; he knew that about himself. He’d go stir-crazy if he didn’t serve some kind of greater purpose.
“I need — ” To see this through. To do something important. To save her. “I’ll be back.” He turned to unlock the door.
She cursed him and hurled the pillow as hard as she could, her face flushing with rosacea splotches. He caught it with one hand and set it on the carpet, leaving without another word.
If he’d been in law enforcement, he might have known what to call the ever-expanding circles he made behind the wheel of his beige sedan. But he was just a driving instructor with a handful of students each week, and he didn’t know what to call his behavior.
Perhaps he was being obsessive, losing touch with reality. He was freaking out his wife of thirty-eight years, he knew that. He’d have to stop at some point.
But for now, all he knew was an overwhelming sense of unfinished business. He couldn’t forget that look on the woman’s face: so consumed by a yearning to be free. For that split-second in time, she’d stared at him like he was her savior.
No woman had ever looked at him that way.
He drove around the block, radiating outward from the corner of the dark street where he’d almost hit her two weeks before. It wasn’t a nice neighborhood; anybody who saw him might have thought he was a late-middle-aged john or some middle-class schmuck, slumming it to grab a quick fix.
What am I doing?
He squeezed the steering wheel as he peered through the rain-spotted windshield, scanning the streets for any sign of her. Clean, well-dressed, modest — she hadn’t been a prostitute. High-end escorts might look that classy, but why would she be out alone? On foot? In this part of town?
Midnight drives settled him, helped clear his mind, and it never mattered where he went. Insomnia had been a lifelong curse, but he usually managed to snag four or so hours of sleep. Ever since the incident — when that woman had placed all her hope in him and he’d failed her — he was lucky to catch an hour in his recliner after lunch.
I’ve got to stop this. How long could it go on? Whatever this was?
He caught sight of long, raven-black hair swishing across the back of a corduroy coat, and his heart shuddered in place. Then it raced. She was walking past a liquor store; white fluorescents cast her in a graceful, slow-motion silhouette.
He gunned the engine and whipped the car around in a tight U-turn. She crossed the street with barely a glance at the cross-traffic.
He would not fail her. Not this time. He was Superman to the rescue.
Before the wet thump of her body on his bumper and the crackle of her bones, she faced him. For that split-second, he was overcome by a nauseating horror.
What if it’s not her?
He stared at her body on the asphalt. Voices shouted and dark figures rushed to the scene from both sides of the street. His grip loosened on the steering wheel. His hands dropped into his lap.
She looked so peaceful lying in the glow of his headlights.
As his car struck her, there had been something different about her eyes. She’d traded that abysmal look of disappointment for one of unadulterated terror. She hadn’t wanted it to happen this time. She hadn’t wanted him to save her from life.
She’d wanted to live.
A whole lot could change in a couple of weeks.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a writer by night. When he’s not grading papers, he’s imagining what the world might be like in a few dozen alternate realities. His novella Immaterial Evidence is now available from Musa Publishing.