The moment that I climbed into the passenger seat and swung the big door shut, I knew I should not have. Instead of the nods and smiles, the wheretos wherefroms, the meeting of the eyes by which men take quick measure, this man glowered straight ahead into the dark, knuckles clenched upon the wheel. He exuded not just alcohol, but in his hooded eyes and frozen face, his big body coiled in the shadows, danger. Even his dark hair knotted on his neck and spilling down his back seemed menacing.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said. “I’m beat.” No answer. He drove slowly, letting the car assume its own slow motion up the hill. I told him I was going just a couple of miles, to the college. Again, no word, as if I were not there, as if he had not chosen me to be there. The fatigue that had dulled my instinct, that had led me blindly into this car, was gone. My body buzzed with vigilance; I kept my backpack on my lap, my fingers on the handle of the door.
A fork in the road, a single street light beneath which a police cruiser idled, the only other car on earth—a gift, a reward for my store of good karma, if only I knew what to do with it: open the window, wildly wave and shout—anything to summon action, trigger my release. The car slowed down still more and glided past the cop, as if to invite me, as if to taunt. With a swivel of my head, I blankly followed the cruiser past my line of vision, and in so doing forfeited free will, gave it over to him. Here it was again, the fatal flaw, that which made me ill-prepared for the life I lived, for any life: paralysis at the precise moment when action was required.
Anyone who says time beats a constant pulse has never known the disconnect of free-fall, suspended in motion above familiar ground; or been deprived of sight and sound in a cave where nothing else exists except one’s racing heart; or been trapped in a closed space that the threat of violence permeates. You disappear into the depths between two beats; you live and relive your whole life there, in an interval that others might not notice.
Only another mile until my turn off, I thought, but that measure too, in this prison in the dark, meant nothing. I did what I best knew how to do; I sought to fill the depths with words: “Hard to believe I’ll be in class six hours from now… I started out this morning five hundred miles south…haven’t left the road all day…”
“You like Shakespeare?” He shouted this question at me. He hit me in the face with it.
Stunned, I could only stutter, “I don’t know, I haven’t read him yet,” and I clutched the strap of my pack, squeezed the door handle tighter.
Maybe what he said meant nothing, a drunken man’s explosion. But maybe, I have thought since then, the Bard was made to stand for all that had gone wrong for him, all that had been done: force-feedings at the Indian School to which he’d been committed, the subjugation of his tongue, the twisting of his mouth around some stupid sonnet. And I, a boy in the thrall of freedom, a creature of the open air, a member of the culture that had claimed all good things for itself, signified what had been taken from him. I was guilty, and he would have me.
He spun the wheel with his left hand; the car veered right onto a two-track, and my body, seized by gravity, lurched towards him. He hit the gas and I fell back against the seat. With his other hand he groped at me—hard fingers raking across my arm and closing around my sleeve. My hand on the latch wrenched my body back. I threw my shoulder against the door and, pushing hard against the floorboard, launched myself, the clean tear of fabric in his grip etching the night like a comet tail.
And so I was flying. An object in space with a pre-set motion to describe, a sum of competing vectors. A creature that, strangely, knew how to manage flight—head drawn down, legs up, arms and shoulders in, bracing for the impending fact of landfall. A person in the grip of a profound terror, aware of every detail of his passage.
I smashed headfirst into a thicket and cartwheeled. Torn twigs crackled in my ears, and the pungent scent of sage enveloped me as my body plowed a passage and my boot soles somehow found the ground. In a world bled red by the brake lights of the car, I found that the motion of my free fall had been translated to earth, and I was running, oblivious to injury, thrashing through sagebrush and prickly pear, continuing my line of flight forward into the forest. When I came up against something I couldn’t run through, I rebounded off it at an angle and ran some more.
Had he too bailed out of the car? Was he moving through the woods after me, long legs loping down the path that I had opened, head and shoulders bent forward, following the scent and sound of me, awake to the long-suppressed thrill of the hunt? I would not stop to listen. I ran like a deer with the cougar’s breath on its flank, like a rabbit in the shadow of the hawk. How can I be moving so slowly? I thought. Surely a body is capable of much faster.
Ahead loomed the sudden mass of an adobe wall. I hit it, fell back, moved sideways along it past a darkened window to a door and threw myself against the door, pummeling it with fists and feet and forehead. I thought of him crouching there at the edge of darkness, and shouted still more loudly so as not to hear him breathe—both of us waiting to see if there were someone home who thought I was worth saving.
Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches writing and philosophy at Western Wyoming College. His essay “Alms for the Birds” received the 2017 Alligator Juniper Creative Nonfiction Award. Other essays of his can be read online at Blue Lyra Review, Ducts.org, Hippocampus, and Watershed Review. For more info, see http://www.rickkempa.com.