Monday, July 21, 2008

The Red Car by Linda Roan

At 8:20 a.m. Ellen reversed her black Escort out of the driveway, hoping to avoid the red car. Dark clouds, swollen with rain, threatened the June day as she drove toward the school.
“You need glasses,” her husband had said the week before when she’d complained about the red car.
“I don’t need glasses to know it’s the same car that follows me every day.”
“If it bothers you so much, why don’t you make a complaint to the police?”
“It never gets near enough for me to read the license plate.”
She could tell that he was about to say something unpleasant. She watched his mouth form familiar words of abuse. Instead, he said aloud, “The counselor said we should stop fighting in front of the boy.”
They never discussed the red car again.
Now, as she stopped at the light she glanced over at her son Darren slumped in the front passenger seat in his usual position of resentment. Strands of long brown hair covered his eyes as he peered out the window. She worried. Would he run away from summer camp like he had last year? Her parents had made her go. She’d learned to tolerate the bullies. It was his father’s fault that he couldn’t stand up to them.
“Last day of school,” said Ellen in a cheerful tone which even to her sounded false. She wove the Escort through the lines of parents’ cars jockeying for position nearest to the main entrance of the school. Darren grunted in reply, slammed the car door behind him and, shoulders hunched, walked away without a backward glance.
Ellen waited behind a grimy Sunbird while her neighbour, a short, plump woman, who lived with her loud family across the street, hugged her daughter and son. Their faces shone with love, and when the daughter ran back to give her mother another hug Ellen pressed her car horn. The mother gave an apologetic smile and gently pushed her daughter away, climbed into the Sunbird and drove off with a sunny wave of her hand.
What did that mother with her big smiley face know about stress? Had strangers ever questioned her parenting skills? Did she ever need to force her son to take assertiveness training? Had she a clue how much that cost?
A black van pulled in front of Ellen, and she wondered why drivers were so inconsiderate. Didn’t they realize other people had to get to work? And there was the damned red car. If she could get to the highway in the next five minutes, she was sure it wouldn’t be able to find her.
At the exit from the school grounds, most cars turned south. Ellen drove north and increased speed as she neared the crosswalk. She breezed though, narrowly avoiding a woman holding hands with her toddler and a crossing guard attempting to stop traffic. Angry shouts followed her. Screw ’em. She was in a hurry, and it wasn’t like she’d hit anybody.
She turned right on to Upper Middle, without checking the traffic on her left and barely skimmed past a gold SUV, unaware of the panicked look on the driver’s face.
The heavy humidity of the low clouds felt smothering in spite of her open windows. She didn’t dare turn on the air conditioner because it would use up her gas too quickly and her husband would bring up his habitual argument about the costs of her job outweighing her income.
Moving from lane to lane she quickly reached Ford Drive and turned right. Still no sign of the red car. By this part of the journey, it was usually either behind her or beside her. Perhaps something had happened to the driver. Perhaps she’d only imagined the red car had been following her. The muscles in her neck and shoulders relaxed. She’d worry about Darren and her husband tonight.
Then as she drove up the on-ramp from Ford Drive to the QEW, she saw the red car behind her. Where had it come from? Ellen’s face tightened in frustration, her fine-boned hands clenched the steering wheel, and her stomach knotted. She had never even been able to tell whether the driver was a man or a woman. It didn’t matter which way she twisted her rearview mirror or how she turned her head to stare, all she could ever see was the outline of a figure huddled low over the steering wheel. That she didn’t know the sex of the driver made the car seem even more menacing.
A fleet of mountainous trucks blocked her entrance to the highway. Ellen felt her Escort jolt forward. Her neck muscles spasmed and her head jerked backward, as fragile as a flower on its stem. She had to get away.
Shaking, she spun her steering wheel sharply to the left and tailgated a Lexus onto the highway. Tires screeching, the red car pursued her. The sky darkened and heavy rain fell, pounding against the windows, obscuring Ellen’s windshield. She couldn’t see worth a damn. Then her world exploded: glass shattered, metal crumpled.
She heard a soft voice nearby.
“Are you all right?”
With great effort, Ellen opened her eyes. Her vision was blurred and she felt as if a top were spinning in her head but she could just make out the fuzzy pink blouse of a woman leaning over her. Blood oozed from a large cut on Ellen’s head, but the warm soft flow soothed her. The stranger took Ellen’s hand and stroked it. It had been so long since Ellen had felt this peaceful. “Thank you,” she whispered.
The woman pressed toward her. Her words were low but harsh as she put her lips to Ellen’s ear. “You killed my cat when you raced through the crosswalk two weeks ago. How’s it feel, bitch?”
“Thank you,” Ellen repeated, letting all the tension finally drain out of her. “Thank you.”

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