by Karen Runge
It wasn’t my fault that the storm winds blew such hard, brittle bolts of rain-washed hail on the night I took the back road home from the bar. It wasn’t my fault the moon had turned to that cloud-shadowed black, or that my wiper blades couldn’t keep up with the spill of rain blurring down over my windshield.
I could hardly see anything, and even with my brights on all I had clear in front of me were those dim-yellow beams bouncing light off of steam and pelting rain, and then her, running out like that across my path, a sudden flash-blur of little girl in red coat and white sneakers, her face suddenly frozen still for an instant in front of me, right before I heard that hellish bang and felt the nerve-crushing jolts of her body tumbling through my tyres.
Did I tell you, though, that I could have sworn she was smiling? That in that horrible moment when my eyes locked to hers through the speed and rain-washed darkness, she came at me wide and shining, and it seemed for an instant that she was grinning at me?
It didn’t happen because I was drunk – though I guess it’s true that I was. And it didn’t happen because I was speeding – though I guess I was guilty of that, too. I’m trying to tell you she was happy in that moment – and if you’ll listen to me you’ll understand that it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t.
* * *
So she was just twelve years old, and she was running away from home. What could make a child do that?
She must have only just finished playing with dolls and started worrying about lipstick. Maybe arguing with her mother that she was old enough to shave her legs. Getting hooked on soaps. Falling in love with some new, flash-in-the-pan boy band.
What would make a twelve-year-old run away from the warm, safe enclosure of her pink-wallpaper bedroom walls, with her teddy bears on the shelves and her Barbies half-packed away, and her aging cat that always slept on her bed in the day, soft and sleepy and happy to see her every afternoon when she came home from school?
They say her mother drank, but that’s common enough. I’ve seen her in the street before – she dresses like a kind of modern-Victorian vamp, with low-cut lace and red lipstick, and perfectly ironed jeans.
I bet she drinks a lot more, now.
The father, as far as I ever knew, was just a typical mid-level businessman, manager, something. Working regular hours, saving up for holidays; pictures on his desk of his fair-haired daughter and his dyed-red wife clashed together in a cheap frame, the black-talon pincers of his wife’s hands not visible out of shot, clenching tight-force grip on their daughter’s wrists.
“Hold still, now.”
“Pull your lips back and show your teeth.”
He probably didn’t have much beyond that savings account, and those pamphlets advertising overseas trips collecting in a drawer. Dreaming of holding his little girl’s hand on the streets of Paris, London, Rome. Amused, maybe, at the wriggle of her fingers, the tug of her hand, every time a boy around her age with clear skin and clean hair walked by.
This is the way I piece it together, but I know it still explains nothing.
* * *
Or maybe this picture is slightly different.
Maybe there are rips and tears down those faded-pale pink wallpaper walls. Maybe that bed was hard-plank rough, splinters stabbing at her through the sheet as she slept. No dolls, just some worn-out teddy bear with both its eyes missing and the stuffing pulled out of one of its legs, the fur filthed deep-grit black, stinking rancid with the memory of long-ago spilled milk.
Her mother flicking channels downstairs, long white legs tangled in blankets as her daughter sits by her window upstairs, staring out across the street and over the buildings to the open shot of smiling blue sky beyond. Massive swells of hopeless rage twisting through her tiny chest.
This can happen, you know, to children raised in defiance of how little they are wanted.
The father the drinker now, hands always shaking when not gripped tight around a bottle of Jack Daniels, or Stolichnaya vodka, his head perpetually pounding, tearing his voice out in rough-grain groans, or thunderous shouts. That little kid always too close under his feet, yelling “Daddy’s home!” and thundering up to him in those white-sneakered feet, arms squeezing tight around his waist as he pushes her away.
“Where’s your mother?”
“I said go to your room.”
Not realising through the blur that sears his eyes that his daughter isn’t hugging him so much as she is hiding behind him, as his wife slippers up to them on half-dragged steps, smudged lipstick smile, saying, “Have a drink, honey,” and handing him a glass.
This is possible, you know, in families where the parents match each other in slovenly habits, their lifestyle clouding out their child, that child with desperate, up stretched hands too short to reach their line of vision, ignoring the storm at their feet as they grin at each other over their glasses, and forget to give her dinner, and send her to her room.
* * *
Or maybe they meant well, and the kid was a brat.
“What’s wrong with Harry’s tail?” the mother shrieks in horror, seeing the fur snipped back through scabbed and blood-traced skin, the daughter laughing hysterically, scissors in hand.
Late for school and stubborn at the wardrobe, those hands now twisted to fists that beat against the face and stomach of the woman who bore her, who now finds her unbearable, trying to pull that specially bought My Little Pony t-shirt over that tangled-hair, thrashing head.
The father overworked, tired, desperate to be oblivious, sick of his wife whining every night when he gets home:
“She’s out of control.”
“I can’t handle her.”
“Please do something!”
Now spanking her with the smooth side of a hairbrush, tired hand falling, Whap, whap, whap.
Later, she’ll break his glasses, twisting the rims, and paint the carpet with her mother’s face cream in revenge. The parents then saying that thing kids say to each other, “Go play in traffic.”
Part of them really meaning it.
Maybe it was that, and maybe she deserved to die, and those parents shouldn’t hate me because I did them a favour, really.
* * *
What could make a twelve-year-old run like that?
Maybe there was something on the other side; something she was chasing. A dog? I don’t know that they ever had a dog. A ball? Something small, red, and bouncing, tripping out in front of me in carefree rubber arcs, invisible through the veil of rain?
What kind of child plays with a dog, or a ball, in the rain?
No, the ball came earlier. Smashing through the window in the pre-storm afternoon sun, silver shards laying delicate crystal traces on the flawlessly carpeted living room floor. The mother, irate, slamming down her glass of wine and yelling, “You wait until your father gets home!”
And the father, so tired after work, resigned to the wishes of his wife, belly-up begging for peace, picks up the hairbrush: Whap, whap, whap. Perhaps, or perhaps not, trying to ignore those disturbingly delicate arcs that have dipped in around that tiny waist; hints of the woman developing inside of her.
Their little girl, small sick heart wrenched in outrage at this reaction for an accident, at this treatment for a single mistake, tears streaming down her face, tenses her back and throws out her chest, and yells:
“You’ll be sorry for this!”
They’re too amazed to stop her when she pulls on her little red coat and runs out into the road, just as my car is zigzag-swerving down that turn, and she wasn’t smiling as I hit her – that wasn’t a smile – she was still crying, probably wailing, lips peeled back to show her teeth.
Her parents, sorrier than ever, beat into each other over that rain-washed corpse, and instead of driving on, I stand there frozen, watching, my body white-hot, breath frozen still.
* * *
It doesn’t matter because I didn’t mean any harm, honestly I didn’t – that’s why I stayed that half-hour longer when I should have gone home.
There was that woman in the bar, you see; serene and softly smiling to me in that blue-velvet dress, the one so low-cut I could see the traces of colour, the shadowed pale pink arcs of her nipples pushing up. She was drinking neat Martini mixer out of a whisky glass, sucking on wedges of lemon, and she was the one who said to me: “Stay a while.”
Something about that face of hers, with its angelic angles and wide-arch eyes that kept me smiling – I couldn’t stop smiling – and she put her hand over my keys where they rested on the table and said to me, “Don’t leave.”
No, I didn’t want her – not in that brutal, animal way – really I just wanted her to be happy, not to be lonely. She seemed so desperate for me to stay. I didn’t want to do her harm, leave her there for some guy with rough hands and weak decency to pin her to the wall outside, and rip that delicate softness out of her eyes.
It could have happened, you know.
Don’t ask me what we talked about – I couldn’t begin to remember, not through all that alcohol she kept giving me, lining up those shots, saying “Don’t worry, you can head back soon enough,” and other things to keep me seated. She had a voice like melted honey, and later she was trying to tell me a story, I think, something about….
But I don’t know; I forget.
And then finally she said, “Now you can drive.”
And I knew that I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t – but she walked me to my car, and then – wait.
I think I remember now; something strange about her then. The rain was just starting up; large cold splashes slapping me awake for an instant as we walked out the sour hazy warmth of the bar. Within ten steps I was drenched, but she… she didn’t seem to get wet at all. Long hair uncovered, shining bright, rolling down her shoulders in dry-gold waves.
But it can’t have been, I couldn’t have been looking at her, because that was when I was digging for my keys, and even through all that vodka, all that Jack, the keys found the ignition just so perfectly and slid in just so smoothly, and how easy it was, even with my hands shaking and my stomach boiling, even with the acid flaring up my throat.
And then she kissed me on the cheek with soft-touch lips and said, “Go quickly, now.”
And I nodded up to her, and I smiled, and when I drove so fast, I only did it for her.
I didn’t expect to see her again the way I did – on the other side of the road on that treacherous zigzag stretch, beckoning to a little girl in a red jacket, a little girl running out on white-sneakered feet. And that girl saw her and grinned that dizzy-happy grin, that smile I had smiled when I was in the bar, and she ran out into the road to reach those outstretched arms, those arms wide and shining, warm and velvet-wrapped.
* * *
So now they say that the dead twelve-year-old was running away from home when it happened, that a life of torment was chasing her – and I say angels drink Martini, and none of this was my fault.
Karen Runge is a South African who now lives in China. She has stories in the South African SF and Horror magazine ‘Something Wicked’; ‘Horrorbound’ online magazine; and a story due for broadcast in August on ‘Pseudopod’, the audiofiction horror podcast. When she can’t write, she tries to be an artist.