“I’ll see you at Thursday’s lecture then.”
“Yup, see ya then. Have a good night, Maree!” I wave goodbye to my classmate, she’s going to another part of campus. As I walk, I can feel my stomach clenching, gurgling - a symptom of too many things to do and not enough time to do them. My mother is going to be annoyed. It’s my turn to make dinner but my incomplete lab report, sitting in my bag, bouncing against my side, is stamping its foot at me, demanding to be done. With long strides, I rush through several buildings on my way to the car. The cold makes me shiver and I’m glad that I chose to splurge on my little rust bucket and get the heating fixed. I am looking forward to the blissful moment when it kicks in and reaches my frozen feet.
As I near the car park, I start searching for my Ford Laser. There aren’t any people around, this time of the night. I stop when I notice there is a dark shadow leaning against my car. It looks like a twisted tree branch has fallen on the door; the wind has been strong today. We could hear it banging petulantly against the door of the lecture room, trying to get in. It’s not a tree, though. There’s someone standing and waiting by my car. Do I know this person? I hope I’m not about to have one of those awkward moments where someone who knows me tries to ‘catch-up’ and I have to act like I know them, when I can’t remember their name let alone where I know them from. I commence walking again, a little more cautiously, and hug my waist with my arms. As I get closer I can make out the shape as a tall, skinny man, his clothing all browns, blacks and dark greys. I decide that he is not a student. He doesn’t appear to have a satchel or backpack on him. He doesn’t have the look of a lecturer or tutor either. His face is youthful and he’s looking directly at me.
What the hell? I don’t know him. I’m sure of it. A small prick of fear pinches my chest. Maybe he just wants directions, or something? Maybe he’s waiting for someone else and he’s got the wrong car? That must be it. I try to appear confident as I close the distance between us. I’m two metres away when I decide I’m close enough. I look him in the eye and say, “Hello?” I’m relieved when my voice comes out steady and strong.
“Oh hi, I’m sorry.” His voice is deep. He has an accent, not foreign. Inter-state. A small part of me, the part that isn’t frightened, feels proud at recognising this – my linguistics classes are paying off. “This must seem so weird, me standing by your car like this, but I was hoping to grab a lift.” He is smiling sort of hopefully at me. But it is strange, his smile. It isn’t quite real. A mimic of smile. Like he knows what it’s meant to look like but his muscles don’t know how.
After clearing my throat, I reply, “I’m sorry; I don’t give lifts to strangers.” I glance nervously around the car park, hoping there might be someone else about, another student leaving for the night. There is no one, though, and I can hear the sound of my father’s voice, somewhere in the back of my mind, “if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” He was talking about the new mattress he and Mum had bought, but still. My hackles are now well and truly raised.
“Okay, I get that,” He’s beaming at me and it looks manic. I can’t help but take another step back. “It’s just that my car’s on the other side of campus and I completely forgot I parked there today, and came here as a habit. I’d really like a lift.”
It’s not right. And it’s not even a good lie. He puts on a show of nervousness, wringing his hands in apparent embarrassment. His eyes seem dead, like a stuffed animal my dogs play with, except they keep twitching around the place. I start thinking now, considering, what does he want from me? Horrible possibilities rush through my head and I swear he can hear my heart racing. I try to focus on breathing normally, so I can calm down and buy myself some time to think. I know instinctively that I cannot let him into my car. It will be the end. I suspect it would be fruitless to try and run. I’m wearing ballet flats and he looks fit. If I try and get my phone out, he will act. If I refuse him, he will act. I have a moment where I wonder if I could fight him, maybe. A swift kick to the crotch would ground him. As quickly as the thought comes, it evaporates. It would be stupid to take him on physically. My mind sprints erratically as I try to think of what to do.
“Er… why can’t you just walk?” I ask, buying time. “I’m already running late.” I pull up my sleeve to look at my watch but realise I’m not wearing one today. I see his eyes linger on my wrist. His eyes meet mine and it’s momentarily mesmerising, like I’m an owl startled by headlights. I cannot look away and the corners of his mouth curl upwards. He has high cheek bones and they appear to move up his face as he breaks into a real smile. It is terrifying. At that moment, I finally come up with a plan. I have to let him think he’s won.
“Oh, forget it. It’s actually lucky you’re here, my car had trouble starting this morning and my dad had to give it a push-start,” I don’t look at him and I make a show of going through my bag, jiggling it about trying to find my keys. I move towards the driver’s door. “I’ll give you a lift if you help me get it started?” His brow creases together and I can see him thinking it over, considering me and what angle I might be playing. I try to look calm and hope he just thinks I am very stupid. Eventually he smiles and nods.
“Sounds fair to me.” I watch him walk towards the back of the car and I unlock the door and climb inside. I wind my window down so he can hear me and look through my rear-vision mirror at him. He’s staring back at me, expectantly.
“Okay, I’m ready now, push on the count of three.” I shout, “One.” I put the key in the ignition. “Two.” I turn the key, release the clutch and slam down the accelerator. The car lurches forward, and so does my stomach. I put the car in second gear and he’s still there, his hands white, trying to grasp at the back of the car, but it’s no use. He’s yelling something; his face is contorted and purple with fury and something else. Humiliation, I think.
He screams at me, “You BITCH! YOU LYING BITCH!”
But it doesn’t matter, I move into third gear and he’s trying to run after me, his brown coat billowing behind him. I glance in the rear-view just before I have to turn the corner and I see him stop and watch me go. His hands are white fists at his sides.
Thank God. I breathe some fresh air back into my tight, tense body. Then I start to worry again about what he wanted to do with me. And it’s awful and now I’m shaking and crying and holy shit this is the worst night of my life. I keep driving, not even in any particular direction, but just… away. Away from him and away from that damned car park.
It’s more than ten minutes before I can feel myself calming down. I’m halfway home, I realise, but I decide to pull over because I know I have to call someone and I need to do it now. I should call my dad, I should call the police. I find my mobile and dial.
The police and my father arrive around the same time. When my dad gets there, I’m barely coherent, sobbing into his chest and mumbling. It’s funny how easy it is to revert back to a child when you are upset. It’s exactly what I do now, wailing and crumpling into him. “I don’t know what he wanted, Daddy,” I tell him. I don’t know.
And my dad just holds me and strokes the back of my hair and pats me on the back. He reverts too and I really do feel like a little girl again, safe in my father’s arms. “It’s alright,” he tells me, “It’s fine.” There is a little strain in his voice though and that hurts to hear.
Minutes pass, I don’t know how long. But soon enough the police want to hear my statement. I tell them in front of my dad, on the side of the road, while sitting on a damp suburban nature strip. I am too weak with fear to stand. I read somewhere that shock can make you tired. That’s how I feel. So tired and like it’s not even me talking.
“So yeah, that’s about it. Then I called Dad and you guys.” I finish.
“Thanks, Laura, you did the right thing. You absolutely did the right thing.” One of the cops assures me. “You’re safe to go home with your dad now, but we would like to check your car out at the station, if that’s alright with you?”
I nod. I don’t wonder about why they want the car, I just go home with my dad.
The next day my nerves have recovered but I still feel the need to distract myself with television. My mother is being ridiculous. She’s called the university and screamed at about seven different people. It hasn’t made her feel any better though, so now she is on the phone with my grandma, complaining to her instead.
I spoke to Maree in the morning, more as a warning than a debrief. I don’t want to talk about it yet. She listened in horrified silence and then declared she was creating a Facebook page to keep everyone “alert but not alarmed”.
My mother ends her conversation with grandma and almost immediately the phone rings. I am sprawled on the couch, watching British sitcoms. My dad answers. I hear a few short replies and a loud, “WHAT?!”
I hear mum and dad arguing.
I wait some more. It’s going to be bad, I know. I’m going to wish they hadn’t told me, I know that too. But curiosity is a strange thing and when they ask me if I want to know, I’m going to say yes.
They walk in to the lounge together, grave looks on their faces and I’m reminded of the time they told me that our old dog had died. I brace myself by digging my nails into my palms the way I do at the dentist. Dad begins, “So … Honey, the police called just before with some news-“
“Wait, wait,” my mum interrupts. “Ask her if she wants to kno-ow.” Her voice cracks and she throws her hand over her mouth to hold back a sob. I don’t know why, but it’s devastating, watching my parents cry.
I hear myself say, “Yes. I want to.” I hate myself a little. I know I’ll regret this. It’s all over their faces.
“The reason they wanted to look your car over,” my dad begins. “Is that last week, at the hospital across from your uni, a girl was… taken. They haven’t found her, but they did find her car the next day and there were… some things in there.” My mother is hysterical now, collapsed on the armchair, Dad reaches for her hand and continues, “There was a witness who saw the girl being taken. Your description of the man matched theirs. And well, they found something on your car.” He pauses and now he is crying too. He rubs his eyes and takes a deep breath. “We weren’t sure if we should tell you this, but decided that at least if you know, then you don’t have to wonder about it your whole life.”
“There were knives taped to the bottom of your car.”
by Natalie Morgan
(This was a story I wrote last semester for uni, only just thought I should put it up on tumblr now)