The Ride Home

from the blog www.stuckincustoms.com

This is my Round 3 entry in the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge. The prompt was to write a ghost story, taking place above clouds, with handcuffs appearing in the story. It has been edited following critiques.

— — — — —

“All right, kid, where’re we headed?” I ask, settling into the driver’s seat of my old pickup. I’m amazed by how familiar it feels; I haven’t touched a steering wheel for a year, but I know it’ll be like riding a bike. I’m having trouble finding joy in the reunion, though. I’m ready to get this over with and get Zara home.

“Above the clouds,” she says softly. Kid’s got jokes.

“Hardy-har-har, very funny. Seriously, where are we going?”

She points to my phone. Dubious, I type “above the clouds” into the navigation app. Rental cabins appear on the screen, “Above the Clouds: Heavenly vacation rentals for your next getaway.” I show her the screen, and she nods, as quiet as the day we met, like we hadn’t just spent a whole year together – strange companions in a county jail.

“Off we go, then.” I start the car, sighing at the two-and-a-half-hour estimated arrival time at our destination in the mountains. I should have headed out earlier in the day.

I turn on the radio, wondering what she likes. There hasn’t been much music available to us until now. I used to be unsettled by these moods she gets, where she just stares into space, but after a while I learned to just let her be. She always gets back to her usual self.

We leave the suburbs and enter the sprawling scrub of the desert, the mountains ahead beckoning. A flat line of clouds drifts across the slopes halfway up. An anxious wriggle works its way through my chest, but I take a deep breath and push it down.

The sun slips lower as we drive, casting an orange light across the desert. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anything like it, I feel my eyes water up. This used to be my favorite time of day, before I was locked away. I glance at Zara. Her expression is unchanged.

We reach the foothills and begin our climb, eventually reaching the clouds and passing through them without event. We come upon a quaint mountain town, the kind with just one grocery store and a town hall in the style of a log cabin. We pass rocking chairs on porches and a diner with the word “EATS” painted on the front window. I like the place. It looks like a good town for a fresh start. I imagine myself stopping on the way back down the mountain, and never leaving.

As we get closer to our destination, a change occurs. Zara sits up in her seat and permits an eager glint in her eye, and I feel the anxious wriggling again. When she asked for this ride as we sat in my cell two days ago, I knew it would be hard, but I also knew it was the right thing to do. She had to cross over; she needed closure.

Or was I just crazy? I look at her again, sitting in the passenger seat in the same pleated skirt and baubled braids she had the day of the accident. She definitely looked like she was there, but was she?

The entrance to Above the Clouds finally comes into view, and I turn into it, my shirt clinging to my skin with sweat. Immediately, we are greeted by the sight of elegant lodges and cabins, lacquered wood and soaring windows reflecting the sunset back to us on a mountain backdrop.

“Go that way,” Zara says as we enter, pointing at a gravel road that winds around the back of the office. We head down a slope to a small parking lot. A line of tiny cottages is hidden away here from the grand cabins and lodges visible from the entrance.  A sign indicates that it is employee housing. My heart is racing but feels like it’s going to stop any moment; something is gripping it tighter and tighter as Zara directs me to park at the very far end of the lot, near the last cottage.

“Wait here,” she says as I turn off the engine.

“Why?” I ask, but she has already vanished. I breathe deeply to keep the panic from setting in. She asked for a ride to see her mother, and I gave it to her, so shouldn’t I be able to leave? What was I even doing here, staring at what is likely her mother’s home in front of me? What if she comes outside and sees me? How could I ever explain that?

I remember the last time I saw her mother, in the courthouse. I had apologized countless times already, but after I was sentenced, I turned towards her again, hoping to finally see some kind of relief in her eyes. There was only sorrow and pain, and perhaps even anger. The handcuffs were cold as they clicked into place on my wrists, and I was led away. I haven’t spoken to her since.

I’ve replayed the accident in my head so many times: starting up the truck, glancing out the back window…or did I? I can never remember if I checked before looking down at the incoming text on my phone while letting my foot off the brake. Would it have mattered? Zara and her mother had come down from the mountain into the city for some weekend shopping. Zara kneeled down behind my truck to tie her shoe. No one noticed until it was too late. I’ll always remember the “bump-snap” sound when I backed up. It hear it again and again every night.

“Why are you here?” I’d asked her one of many sleepless night after I’d gotten used to her presence.

“Because you need me here,” she’d said.

“What for?”

She shrugged in reply. I wasn’t sure what to think at the time, but looking back now, maybe she was right. A year in lock-up for accidentally killing a kid does something to a person’s head. It certainly had to mine. Zara’s company might have saved me, might have allowed me to see that in some way, she was okay. Now she was reunited with her mother, who could maybe be okay, too.

I decide to head back down the mountain, but when I look up, the cottage door is open, and Zara’s mother is walking toward me, a calm look on her face. She stands next to my window. Reluctantly, I press the button to roll it down.

“Zara said you were here,” she says. Relief washes over me – I wasn’t crazy. But the feeling is short-lived.

“I-, I’m so sorry,” I say, my voice cracking. She tightens her lips in an attempted smile.

“It’s been a long year. I’ve had a long time to think.” Michelle sounds tired. I nod, grateful that she doesn’t seem angry. Then she says something that bursts the pressure around my heart like a popped water balloon: “Zara told me what this year has been like for you. She wants me to…to forgive you.

The water from the burst balloon wells up to my eyes and falls. I begin sobbing, and she opens the car door. I fall into her arms, pulled into an embrace I never expected when I left prison yesterday.

“I’m not sure I’m ready yet,” she says, “but you did bring my baby home to me at last. Thank you.”

The tightness of my throat doesn’t allow me to reply. Zara’s mother pulls back from the embrace, hands still on my shoulders.

“Come inside, I’ll make us something to drink,” she says.

I follow her in.

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