by K.A. Mielke
First published in Murder Mayhem Short Stories, 2016
The woman sits on the side of the road, naked and shivering, knees pulled up to her chin.
Beside me, Cameron looks up from her phone, her freckled face glowing in the light of the screen. “Oh my god, Kyle, stop the car.”
We speed past the woman.
“What are you doing?” Cameron says, twisting around in her seat to look out the rear window.
I shrug stupidly, the rapid beating of my heart informing me of my guilt the way it does any time I don’t take Cameron’s advice. Before I can think better of it, I blurt out, “What if it’s some elaborate ploy by a serial killer? Set a pretty lady up on the side of the road, wait for some chivalrous opportunist to come save her, and WHAM! Best case scenario, we’re the next nude traps on the side of the road.”
“You can’t be serious.”
I shrug again as the guilt settles into my stomach. “She could be a victim of him, or she could be working with him–”
“Or there could be no serial killer and she could just be a woman in need,” Cameron says, her gaze hard and kinda terrifying.
I sigh and make a U-turn. Our wheels spin in the slush, the car drifting slightly before I get her back under control.
When we see the woman again, still curled up in a ball, I pull over. Wet, frozen gravel scatters beneath my tires. The woman doesn’t seem to notice us.
Cameron practically flies out of the car. I unbuckle and step out.
It’s freezing, the wind cutting through my jacket and burning my cheeks. I slip in the slush on my way to her, snowflakes catching in my hair and shooting into my eyes.
“Are you okay?” I shout above the wind. The woman doesn’t hear me, or maybe she’s too frozen to respond. Maybe she’s dying.
Cameron stands beside her and shouts something at me, but the wind steals her words. Cameron holds out her hand, urging. I guess at what she wants, taking off my coat and wrapping it around the hitchhiker’s shoulders. The woman doesn’t even look at me.
“We’re going to help you,” Cameron says slowly, the way the able-bodied think they’re supposed to speak to deaf people. “It’s going to be okay. Let’s get her in the car.”
My bare arms stinging in the cold, I crouch behind the woman and help lift her to her feet.
She steps with us, slowly, shaking and shaking and shaking. I duck my head and pay attention to my feet, trying not to think about how slow our pace is or how long it’ll take to reach the car when every footstep is a painful, freezing eternity–and then we’re laying the woman in the backseat. I run back to the driver’s side and slam the door as if it’ll insult the weather.
My teeth chatter enough to chip. I crank the heat and rub my hands together over the vents.
Cameron breathes heavily, and for a moment we all sit in the quiet, me, my girlfriend, and the dying hitchhiker in the back seat. Finally, Cameron says, “We should go.”
I look over my shoulder, hoping she isn’t dead, praying we got to her in time–and still wishing we’d never stopped in the first place, though I’m not sure why. Can’t place the feeling, but it’s as if I’m in emerg waiting for a doctor to deliver the bad news…
Then again, I don’t need a reason not to want someone to die in my car.
Her shivering seems less violent, at least, her skin a warmer colour.
The woman looks at me with the deepest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, so deep and blue they look artificial. Like dyed flowers. Like they’ve been digitally altered. I’ve never seen eyes that beautiful.
I turn around when I realize I’m staring. “The nearest hospital can’t be far,” I say, shifting into drive.
“I’ll Google it,” Cameron says.
We’ve been on the road for a couple days now. I woke up Thursday morning with Cameron on top of me, hair in my face, and saying, “I’ve always wanted to go on a road trip.” So I sat up and packed our bags, throwing her over my shoulder and setting out. Right now, driving through a blizzard, we’ve come to admit that doing a huge road trip during winter was not a well-thought-out plan.
At least it worked out for somebody.
Cameron sets the GPS in her phone and mantles it to the dashboard.
I signal and pull out.
A horn blares and I slam on the brakes as a transport truck swerves out of the way and barrels by us. Our car rocks in the wind.
“Jesus!” Cameron says.
“Sorry.” My words shake. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
Cameron doesn’t say anything to that. She’s not the kind of person to rub something in if you’re already feeling bad. The aforementioned guilt she inspires in me is mostly self-inflicted.
I thoroughly check for oncoming traffic, looking in both mirrors and my blind spot until my neck hurts and my eyes ache.
I pull out.
As we drive, the only sounds are the vents pumping warm air and our own erratic breathing. My grip on the steering wheel tightens as I struggle against nature, daring to ride a 4000lbs metal deathtrap at 100km per hour in a blizzard. The wipers work overtime to clear away all the snow, but I still can barely see in front of us–except for the neon sign passing on the right that says DRIVE SAFE.
Might be kinda funny, once we get off the road and into the warmth of a motel bed, bedbugs be damned.
Cameron turns on the radio and leans into me. She cycles through stations until she finds country music. She had to put up with David Bowie’s entire discography up until now, so I can’t argue.
She glances at the woman curled up in the backseat. “What do you think happened to her?” she whispers.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Do you think she was… you know, hurt? Shitty husband? Really bad date?”
“I don’t know,” I say again, snippier this time, feeling anger begin to flush my face. Then, “Sorry.”
She takes my hand. She’s warmer than I am, her hand practically burning mine. I’ve always had poor circulation. “It’s okay. She’s going to be okay. She’s already looking better.”
I adjust the rear-view to look at her. Colour has returned to her olive skin, and she seems more alert, looking around like she isn’t sure how she got in our car.
She sits up, my coat falling off her shoulders, her body exposed. My heart thunders in my chest. When I look at her, my body feels light, as if my soul’s rising out from the dead weight of my flesh. It’s a feeling I’ve only experience intoxicated, but I’ve been sober for years. After how Cameron found me last time…
Embarrassed, I look away from the woman, keeping my eyes on the road and not at her bare chest betraying how cold she is. The feeling starts to fade.
“Hungry,” she says.
That’s when I fall completely, irreparably in love with her. It’s not the perfect curves like a winding mountain road, or the way her eyes look so much deeper than anyone else’s, like there are whole worlds contained in the vastness of her irises. It’s not her helplessness, even though I am very literally her hero right now and that is admittedly hot. No, it’s her voice, uttering a single word we can all relate to, and it shoots me so full of endorphins I’m suddenly a giddy teenager having his first kiss all over again.
I do love Cameron. She’s the most helpful, beautiful, kind person I’d ever met until my fateful roadside saviour act. We both like Indian food and hate fancy coffees, and we’ve spent so much time together she feels like she was never a stranger, like she’s always been a part of me.
But there’s just something about this woman that makes none of that matter. There’s a tugging that I can feel in my gut, my body yearning to be inside her.
Oblivious to the hole blown open in my heart, Cameron opens the glove compartment and pulls out a chocolate bar. She holds it out to the woman.
Our hitchhiker just stares. “I’m hungry,” she says again.
“It might be a little frozen, but it’s better than nothing. I actually think it tastes better frozen.”
The woman says nothing.
“We’re probably about half an hour from the nearest diner,” Cameron says helpfully, putting the chocolate back. “We can stop there and get something to eat. We can get out my suitcases, too. I’m sure some of my clothes will fit you.”
“No,” the woman says. She turns to me. Warmth spreads out from my chest, a beast born within me and stretching its wings. “I need to feed now.”
“Anything,” I say without thinking.
“What exactly are we going to feed her?” Cameron whispers.
“Anything,” I say again. “Find anything.”
“I’m not going to give her crumbs off the floor, Kyle,” she says. She starts looking around the car, checking hidden pockets and cup holders. “Do we have any jerky left?”
“Your lover,” the woman says. “Give me your lover.”
The colour goes from Cameron’s face as she looks back in horror. My own body, however, is reacting like she’s just said she loves me and we’re having a baby and my life can finally truly begin. The pit of my stomach flares. The beast is moving downward.
“Excuse me?” Cameron says.
The hitchhiker leans over me, mouth wet on my ear, breasts on my arm. “I’m going to eat your lover,” she says, and it’s like she told me I’ve won an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii, freeing me from the endless cold and bringing me to the oceanside.
With her. Forever with her.
“Take her,” I say.
“What the fuck?” Cameron screams. “Kyle, stop the car.”
“Don’t stop the car, Kyle,” the woman says.
It’s not even a struggle wondering who to listen to.
The hitchhiker turns to Cameron and straddles the centre console.
Cameron’s sobbing. “Oh my god,” she says through the tears. “What are you?”
The woman dips her face in quickly, once, like a bird pecking its food. Cameron screams and cries harder. She presses her hand to her neck, blood leaking through her fingers.
She screams again, loud and curdled and more visceral than anything you could ever experience reading a book or watching a movie. A sound that explodes in my brain into fireworks of every colour.
Somehow, even with her mouth full of flesh, the woman sings. It’s this country-pop Top 40 ballad that’s all over the radio, something Cameron would have loved. Which means normally it’s the auditory equivalent of chewing glass. But with my new love singing, it’s my favourite song, my favourite sound in a world full of children’s laughter and kittens mewing and love-laced moans.
Cameron bats the hitchhiker away with all the power of an infant, her struggle easing into complacency. Defeat.
The hitchhiker tears off Cameron’s ear.
I blink and, just for a second, she changes. She has wings, broken so the bone sticks out, huge and feathered where her arms should be. She’s still naked, her bare back soft and smooth in the light of the phone’s GPS, but her eyes look darker, almost black, and her mouth is contorted in a single, hard, sharp beak.
And then I blink again and she’s back to the woman who makes my heart race and my body sweat and my dick throb, and I can’t control myself around her.
She swallows, and she turns to me.
“I’m still hungry,” she says.
I know what she wants. I expose my neck to her.
She leans in.
I close my eyes, and I can feel her breath on my neck, warm and wet, and her soft, plush lips too.
And her teeth. Her tooth. Her sharp beak at my neck, breaking my skin so the first drop of blood trickles down and pools in my collarbone.
From behind my eyelids, there’s a light, and I almost think I’m in Heaven. My heart hurts, I’m so happy to be giving myself, all of myself, to this woman.
Then the horn starts.
And in that second I see her for what she is, her beady eyes staring at the oncoming truck, her beak hung open over my neck, the headlights outlining every feather on her body. And I see Cameron, too, my beautiful, smart, funny Cameron, torn apart and slumped against the passenger side door.
I swerve out of the way, the truck’s bumper an inch from taking us out, my hands turning the wheel left and right and left as the back of the car fishtails and the wheels catch on a patch of black ice and suddenly the car is out of my control completely, spinning around as the trees and the road and the black form a panorama of the middle of nowhere and then–
The car flips over–
Glass shatters and cuts open my face–
Metal bends as the roof dents and caves in–
Blood squirts into my mouth, though I don’t know if it’s mine or Cameron’s or the hitchhiker’s–
And everything stops. I hang upside down, seatbelt pressed into my chest as it supports my weight, airbags deflating.
I look over at Cameron, ignoring the screaming pain in my neck. The airbag is covered in blood, and Cameron is everywhere, bits of her stuck to the ceiling and the chair.
The naked woman–her top half now entirely bird, her bottom half still impossibly woman–lies with her eyes closed in the back. Blood trickles out of her head, over her feathers.
I sit in a daze for a few moments, feeling the cold of the snow coming in through broken windows, trying to focus on something, anything–and then I remember where I am. What caused the accident.
I scramble for the seatbelt. It releases, dropping me to the ceiling. I open the door and fall into the snow.
My arms and face are on fire, the snow burning and burning until I’m numb to the pain.
The car door slams behind me. I spin around, slipping in the loose snow, limping through the trees.
She cries out to me, cries like a bird whose wings I’ve broken. Feathers release from her, catching in the wind of the blizzard and blowing away until there’s nothing left. Like she was never here at all.
I cross my arms, climb up the ditch, and kneel on the gravel shoulder. I pray for someone kind, someone like Cameron, to stop and help a hitchhiker.