by Shanna Merceron
Sometimes I feel like someone’s going to shoot me, right between my shoulder blades, when I’m walking alone at night. It’s just me, the sidewalk, and the occasional dog shit most of the time, but other times I get the sense that someone is focusing right in that space on my spine. I try not to turn around and look, but I can’t help myself; I want to catch the person in the act. I’ve only ever caught ghosts though. Just phantoms who kissed my neck and left. No one follows me.
I like to walk alone at night. I like to walk uphill, feel the burn in my calves, and wonder who takes their eyes off the road to look at me as they drive past. When cars move only in a blur, I turn my body into their speed, letting their wind ruffle my hair and spray the scent of gasoline in my face. I breathe in deep.
I wonder if, when you are shot, your body registers the sound of the bullet flying towards your spine first, or your body isn’t listening at all, but instead dropping to its knees as a hot flash of blood spreads in the space between your shoulder bones. Eyes were there first, but now a bullet lies there. It has wiggled its way into your skin, buried its head and tucked its knees in for a good slumber. Your blood is a blanket. Your unconsciousness signals its takeover.
My Aunt Cheryl used to say I’m always looking over my shoulder because I let trouble follow me. I was walking alone, on the night he called me over. I’ve entertained the idea that I look like a madam or a whore. I’ve got long hair to grab onto and a shape to beg on your knees to touch. Dangerous. I won’t change my shoes of the day for my nightly walks. Working at an art gallery called for stiff skirts and standing on sticks all day, and I never bothered to change, never bothered to throw on a jacket. Shouldn’t my confidence be intimidating? I am invincible.
It didn’t surprise me when I got whistles and men clicked their teeth at me from the steps of their houses and offered me a cigarette and other ways for them to blow off steam. But I just walked past them. Sometimes that’s when the spot on my back feels the sharpest; that’s when I think the shot is going to happen.
He pulled alongside me in his car and drove real slow, his wheels crunching the beer-bottle glass littered on the side of the road.
“What’s your story?” he asked. I tried not to look at him and just kept on with my walk, but his eyes were on my throat and I wanted to move them to my face. I turned to him and stopped walking. He stopped driving. I leaned my forearms on his rolled down window, shoving my hands into the space in his car where hot air blew right onto my fingertips. I smiled at him, and I prepared my accent⎯the one where I sounded like Aunt Cheryl⎯and wished I had gum in my mouth. Aunt Cheryl always had gum.
“Fifty dollas for whatevas in my pocket,” I said. I would have smacked a bubble right then. I gave him a wink. My pockets were empty.
“I don’t want what you’ve got in your pockets,” he said. I was too close. I could only see his mouth. It was a good mouth, plump dark pink lips and a jaw that hadn’t been shaved for three days. The game is harder when they’re pretty.
I pulled my hands out of his car. I kept on with my walk. He drove over more beer glass.
“I asked you for your story,” he said.
“Just because ya ask doesn’t mean I have ta give it to ya,” I almost forgot to channel Aunt Cheryl; my words were weak. It had been too long since I lived on the shore. It didn’t matter now anyways; Aunt Cheryl was dead.
I stopped walking. He drove too far past me, so he reversed, one tire ending up on the curb. I glanced up and down the dark residential street. I stayed closer to the lights, closer to the road. Farther from the steps of the houses and metal grates designed to ensnare the heels of my shoes.
“My story is whateva’s in my pockets.” I put my hands on my hips. “That’s all I have for ya tonight,” I said. He leaned his body to the window and shoved a fifty dollar bill my way. I took it. He smiled. I tucked it into my bra and then pulled out the insides of my pockets.
“I’ve got nothing,” I said. His face heated and a muscle feathered in his jaw. I stepped back before he could say anything. I kept walking.
He drove past me again the next night. I was wearing my favorite dress; it was covered in black sequins that took on the amber color of the streetlights. But I had on the same bra from the other night, it laced up in the back. Another layer of protection. He didn’t come in slow this time but instead pulled his car right up to me and stopped. The halt of the car caused the crystals on string hanging from his rearview mirror to jingle and clank together.
“What’s your name?” he said, attempting friendliness. I admired the effort. He didn’t scare me, this man, with his questions and his money and his five o’clock shadow. He should have, like the men usually do, but his eyes didn’t linger and sizzle my skin. When his car was next to me, the target on my back was gone. I felt relieved; I could focus on the threat of him rather than an omniscient one. He’s not dangerous.
I tucked a piece of hair behind my ear and looked at the ground when I drawled, “Annabelle.”
“The fuck it is,” he said. He looked like he wanted to spit. Men like to spit on the ground, and sometimes you can tell it’s been too long since they last entertained the impulse. He pursed his dark pink lips like spit wanted to fly out. Instead he said, “Annabelles don’t walk alone at night and pretend to sell drugs. Annabelles go on dates at ice cream parlors and never cut their hair.”
“You’re right,” I said. “The name’s Rita.” I puffed out my chest and rolled my rs, tried for a saucy wink. If he wanted to play, we could play.
He leaned over and opened his passenger side door. “Get in,” he said. I felt a rush of heat roll through me. Game on.
I got in.
Aunt Cheryl was killed in her own home. It was a robbery, the man wanted the Christmas presents under the tree. Taking out her gun to shoot him, Aunt Cheryl told me to leave the house. I heard the shots fire. She was dangerous. I went back into the house. Two guns fired, two bodies dead. She wasn’t invincible. I always knew Aunt Cheryl would die at home. She had agoraphobia; she only left the house for church. I walked out of the house that night and I’m still walking.
His car was very clean. I wish I knew what kind of car it was, but I couldn’t tell the difference between anything but a truck and a sedan and a blue one and red one. His car was black. His license plate had three zeros in it. Maybe a five. I reached up to touch the crystals, but he smacked my hand and told me not to fuck with them.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Why, Annabelle Rita, we are going to get ice cream.” He kept his eyes on the road. I rolled the knob to turn on the radio and kept hitting the seek button until smooth jazz filled the car. I felt a small smile curve my lips. He couldn’t kill me if smooth jazz was playing; that would be ridiculous. My stomach churned with hunger and anticipation. Ice cream was harmless, I guessed. I wished I was walking. It was stifling in the car. I tried to unroll my window but he had them locked.
He pulled into the parking lot of an all-night diner, and he was out of the car before I undid my seatbelt. The heels of my boots fell onto gravel as I slipped out of his car and trudged up to the front of the diner. I realized that I could run away. I could turn around and walk back to my house and I wouldn’t know what would happen with this man, but maybe it was for the best. That was the problem, though; I wouldn’t know the outcome if I left. I had to keep playing.
He went into the diner and I was alone in the parking lot. I felt a chill spread in goose pimples on my thighs and the spot between my shoulders grew hot. I turned around but no one was there. The lot was empty save two trucks and the car I came in, the crystals glinting in the light from the neon diner sign. I hurried inside.
He sat in a booth in the back of the restaurant, his back against the wall, watching me as I walked over to him. He looked like he belonged in that painting, the one with the men with hats and the women in the diner in the dark. His un-brushed hair was wild and his dark eyes flashed a puzzle I wanted to piece together. Why hadn’t I noticed he was wearing a suit? He had four rings on each hand, and they were tightly gripping the sides of his arms. I suddenly wondered if I had made the right choice. I felt cagey and my eyes darted to the woman working behind the counter. She was probably seventy years old, but she weighed two times what he did and I could use her as a shield if I had to. I waved at her, catching her attention over the milkshake glasses she had lined up on the countertop. Her mouth opened but her expression didn’t change.
“Chocolate or vanilla?” he said.
“Strawberry,” I said as I slid into the booth. I realized that all I could see was him, and the peeling yellow wallpaper behind him with a framed photograph of some local celebrity.
“Switch seats with me,” I said.
“Why?” He was running his eyes all over my face, like little ants they were, trying to find something worthwhile.
“I gotta face the door,” I said. Aunt Cheryl always kept her eyes on the door. I got out of the booth. I hovered over him with my arms crossed. I debated tapping my foot but then decided that would be too much.
He gazed up at me, meeting my eyes this time, and I could see my face in his pupils. I looked pale and angry. My eyeliner was smudged on my right eye. I swiped at it and gestured for him to move with my other hand.
“I like to see the door too,” he said.
“Why?” I said.
“Me too.” My spine began to itch in an uncomfortable way. I felt the urge to shudder and try to work it out. I slid into the booth next to him, forcing him into the corner.
“Now we can both see the door,” I said. He grunted. We sat in silence, watching the door until the old lady came over to our table.
“What will it be?” she said. She didn’t seem tired or bothered by our presence. I wondered if time existed differently for her.
“Two cups of strawberry ice cream, please,” he said.
“Strawberry? We still have some chocolate, Knox.” The woman almost smiled.
He shook his head. “No, thank you. Her choice,” he said.
The woman walked away and I realized I had never asked him for his name. “Knox. That’s your name?” I said. He looked uncomfortable. He twisted the ring on his thumb.
“I go by Knox, yes.”
I took him in. His hair was black like oil and it curled around his face. His eyes were dark too, shadowed by thick eyebrows and eyelashes. But there was still warmth in his face. He was thirty, maybe; I wasn’t good with numbers. He either hadn’t shaved in days, or he purposely kept his face like that. His suit was gray; it was well-made and well-worn. His rings were all silver. One of them had a purple crystal in it. I liked him, I decided, dangerous or not. Was he dangerous? I wanted to find out. Did I want him to be dangerous? I twisted the taste of that thought in my mouth for a moment.
“What are you doing?” he said. He muttered his thanks when the old lady gave us our ice cream and then shuffled back behind the counter. She watched us, clutching a towel in her hands. Was she worried for me or him? I debated giving her a wink.
Knox picked up his spoon and pushed back his sleeve, making sure not to stain it strawberry. I kept my spoon on the table and ran a fingernail along the cold steel. “You don’t look like a Knox,” I said.
“Oh?” He took a bite that was basically his entire scoop of ice cream. I watched his tongue flick to the corner of his mouth and clean up the cream that was stuck there.
“I imagine Knox is a redneck who steals from gas stations, or a skinny nerd who hacks computers,” I said. My accent was long gone at this point. Aunt Cheryl said I spoke like how my momma used to, without any salt or pepper. “Both of those examples were criminals,” he said. He put his spoon back into the empty bowl.
“Are you a criminal?” I asked. He could be. He gave me money for imaginary drugs. Would he have kidnapped me if I didn’t get into the car? He could have a gun. I thought about pressing up against him to check for one. Maybe he thought I was a prostitute and this was our pre-coital meal. I once walked to a convenience store with a man because he said he would buy me a Slurpee but then he wanted a blowjob in the bathroom.
“No,” he said. He motioned for me to eat. I took a bite of the ice cream. I hated strawberry.
“You know my name. Tell me yours. For real this time,” he said.
“Why are names so important anyways? Call me woman, call me Person A. I’m just another human sharing the same space as you.” Bullshit.
“It’s important that I know your name.”
I forced down another bite of ice cream. “Angela,” I said. I wanted to say Cheryl. I wanted to be Aunt Cheryl, but Aunt Cheryl didn’t lie every time her mouth opened and Aunt Cheryl didn’t risk her life for entertainment, and Aunt Cheryl didn’t have voices in her head.
“Claire.” I tried for a thin-lipped smile.
“Edna.” I clanked my spoon back in the bowl. He pushed himself further in the corner of the booth to get a better look at me. The old lady came over to get our dishes. I caught the name on her nametag. Edna.
“Oops,” I said. Knox frowned. He wasn’t as pretty when he frowned. I put my hands over his on the tabletop. “What do you want to call me? Pick a name and you can call me that.” I was earnest and sincere, like a Cassandra, maybe. But he held his frown.
I gazed into Knox’s eyes and forced a smile. His expression was unreadable. Is he dangerous? Is he dangerous?
Edna came over with the check. She handed it to Knox but he jabbed his thumb at me and said, “She’s got it.” I gulped back my shock and took the bill.
“I thought you were treating me,” I said.
“I am.” Knox reached over and put his hand on my shoulder. He slid his hand down and into the collar of my dress, reaching for the fifty-dollar bill still tucked under my bra strap. He put the money on the table and shoved me out of the booth. I was chilled. How did he know the money was still there? Dangerous.
Knox led the way out of the diner and back to his car. He turned to me before unlocking it. Before he could speak I said, “It’s Makenna. My name is Makenna,” Maybe my honesty would throw him; I wasn’t going to back down.
But Knox just nodded and unlocked the car. “Kinda weird,” he said.
“Your name is Knox!” I shouted, but he shut his door on my words.
Once I was in the car, he sped out of the lot. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw the diner sign flicker off behind us.
“What do you do for a living?” Knox asked me. He put on his blinker and merged to go onto the highway. “Are you old enough to have a job?”
I sucked a sticky stain of ice cream off my finger. When my parents died and I went to Aunt Cheryl, she forgot to enroll me in pre-school because she didn’t think I was old enough. It seems I’ve kept my youthful glow. “I’m old enough,” I said. “I take a lot of walks. I like to walk.”
“That’s what you do? You walk?” he said. He thought I was crazy.
“I’m not a streetwalker, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m just telling you something about myself. I like to take walks.”
“At night? Alone? Dressed like that?”
“Aw, I’m going to adopt you as my dad.” I tried to pinch his cheek, but he swatted my hand away. He was right hand dominant; I remembered to check. Aunt Cheryl always told me to check. I looked at his suit again. His jacket was tucked behind the seat belt clicker and I could see his silk shirt. No holster, no gun. His hand left the wheel to briefly scratch his belly. He’s not dangerous.
I settled into my seat more. I put my feet up on the dashboard, my boots sprinkling some gravel onto the carpet. “It’s my call of the wild,” I said, “I feel like I have to walk, even if I don’t want to, but I like to do it. The air is better at night. The sounds are different, and I’m alone. I can listen to myself.” I spoke like it was bullshit, but it was truth.
Knox got off at an exit. “You’re kind of crazy,” he said.
“You picked me up off the street.”
“You got in.”
We let that sit.
We came to a red light and Knox ran a hand through his hair, disturbing one of the curls that perfectly wound around the curve of his ear. I tore my eyes away from that disaster and watched as the light turned green. Did I like this man?
“Why did you talk like you were from up north earlier?” he asked, looking at me, looking at my own ears maybe.
“The light is green,” I said.
“Are you from up north?” The light turned yellow.
“Jersey,” I said. I didn’t miss New Jersey. Too many people where I lived. They overcrowded the sidewalks. Aunt Cheryl is dead. Aunt Cheryl is dead.
“Huh.” Knox wrapped his fingers around the steering wheel, gripping it so tight his knuckles turned white. Then he let it go. The light turned red.
“Accent wasn’t bad. Nice and subtle,” he said.
“The light is green again, aren’t you gonna go?” I looked in the rearview. No one was behind us.
“We’re talking,” he said. “I’m in no rush.”
We sat through three more light changes. I thought I saw a car pull up behind us, and I turned around in my seat. Nothing was there.
“Do you ever feel like you’re being watched?” I asked.
Knox stiffened, but he kept his eyes on the changing lights. “Sure,” he said, “who doesn’t?” He reached up and tapped one of his hanging crystals.
“I always feel like I’m being watched.” I felt like I was religious again and I was in confessional. Aunt Cheryl used to take me to church, saying it would tame my wild ways. She told me I danced with the devil too much. I told her the devil was in my head.
Knox turned his body to face me. “You do?” he asked. I nodded. He drove through the red light, driving fast, and he took us to a children’s park, a place usually busy in the day, but desolate at night. Dangerous.
The light of the street lamps shone on the candy-slick red of the super slide situated next to rows of monkey bars and a climbing wall lined with knotted rope. I used to walk to a park on the weekends from Aunt Cheryl’s house. She couldn’t go with me, so I went alone. But when a little girl went missing she forbade me to go again.
Not meaning to say it out loud, I said, “You’re going to murder me.” I glanced up at him, as he turned off the car. “You’re going to kill me.” My stomach fell to the floor. I was sweating everywhere, even between my fingers. My shoulders started to ache. How could I be so stupid? Somewhere Aunt Cheryl was laughing.
“Stop, I’m not going to kill you, geez.” Knox twisted off the ring with the purple crystal on it. He held it up to me, the light from the street lamps breaking through the car window. “This is a raw amethyst. It will help with your intuition. It will bring you clarity, stability, and inner peace.” He dropped the ring into my hand. “I want you to have it,” he said.
My panic was replaced with comforting confusion. “Does this mean we’re engaged?” I said. Knox closed his eyes, probably in frustration.
“Ask me what I do for a living,” he said.
“What do you do for a living?” I tried on the ring but it was too big for all my fingers. I tucked it into my bra for safekeeping.
“I like to go for drives. I like to drive, usually at night, because at night there are fewer things happening but more to see. Things are easier to notice. My crystals guide me. Usually I am an observer, but sometimes I choose to intervene.”
“Cool, so you have a job like mine. I thought you were going to say you were Buddha.”
Knox sighed. “Makenna, I saw someone following you.”
You’re not invincible.
The panic came roaring in. My back caught fire, my shoulders aching with pain, the target, the bullseye on my back burning into my skin. “Did they have a gun?” I asked.
Knox shook his head. “No,” he said. My spine iced.
“Oh,” I said, “alright.” I rolled my neck and shoulders, tried to shake away my sinking feeling. My heart was pounding like organ keys at church and my mind was stomping its feet on my skull. I knew it! I knew it!
“Who was it? Why were they following me? Why did you follow me too? Do I collect stalkers?” I said. I thought about getting out of the car. My hysteria needed more space. I tried the handle. He had the damn child lock still on.
“I’ve seen you walking for a long time, but I never thought much of you. But the past few nights I saw this man get up and trail after you. That’s why I pulled my car over the other night. It scared him off.”
“This is weird,” I said.
“I know,” he said.
“I always had a feeling, I’ve always felt like someone was there,” I said. You’re going to get shot, you’re going to get shot. Someone is going to shoot you⎯
Knox tapped my chest, right where I put the ring. “Let it guide you,” he said.
“Can you take me back to where you picked me up? I want to walk home.” My head was spinning. Maybe it was his damn crystals. I still didn’t know if I could trust Knox, or who he was, really, but he did what I asked. The drive was short and silent. I was upset, yet a hot rush of anticipation was rolling through me again. The game was still on.
I got out of the car and slammed the door. “Thank ya for the ride, hun!” I waved like Aunt Cheryl would. Knox nodded, or at least I thought he did. I could only see his mouth again from my vantage point on the sidewalk. He drove away. I walked home.
At work, I would watch the sun set through the wide windows of the gallery, watch as the coming of night distorted the faces of the figures in the paintings once I turned off the accent lights. I didn’t stop my walks. I wore what I wanted. I traversed the streets as if they were my own, because in a way, they were. I started wearing a jacket, though; Aunt Cheryl always told me I could tease Satan without inviting him inside.
I’ve made it this far, I thought to myself, a week after the encounter with Knox, as I trudged up one of my favorite hills, the rise showcasing the lights of the city behind the residential street. I felt the burn in my legs again and savored the feeling. If I’m going to be shot, I’ll be shot. You’re invincible. I tried to rationalize away my feeling of unsettlement. Aunt Cheryl never got out much and she died having done and having seen nothing. But I’m going to walk and see it all. You’re dangerous.
I almost miss-stepped and ruined the heel of my shoe. I wore the crystal ring on a chain around my neck like a trophy. I felt it get hot, searing into my chest, the way I would feel between my shoulders. I turned around and I saw him.
Knox was leaning against a lamppost, trying to pull a cigarette out of his pocket like he had been there for a while. I knew better. I strode over to him, the decline of the hill making my steps louder and harsher. You’re dangerous. Knox gave up his charade with the cigarettes and threw the box down on the ground. He met me in my descent. I could smell whisky on his suit. He said, “What’s your story?”
I stopped walking. A spider worked its way down my spine. He moved toward me, slinking his body around me, fitting it where it didn’t belong. “What’s your name?” he said. His breath smelled like strawberry. He splayed his hand on my chest, the rings glinting under the streetlight. I shoved him off. He came at me again, and I hooked my foot behind his right leg and took him down. His head hit the ground with a crack, causing his curls to bounce around his face. He smiled at me as if he felt no pain. Dangerous. I wanted a gun. I wanted to roll him over, and fire, right between his shoulder blades. Watch blood swallow him whole. I would roll my neck, shake my shoulders; call myself Free. But Knox was still smiling at me, and I was still standing there, empty handed. You’re not invincible, you’re not⎯
A car pulled up, its tires hitting the curb. The locks unclicked. A man rolled down the passenger window. His face was in shadow and he said, “Get in.”
Shanna Merceron is a fiction writer born on the Jersey Shore but raised on the East coast of Florida. No one believes her when she says she’s from “Flah-rida.” She is in the second year of her MFA at Hollins University, currently at work on a story collection thesis that explores the darker aspects of humanity and pushes the boundaries of the strange. When not writing she is an English language teacher and photographer. Her work has been featured in the Florida Times Union and the Hollins Critic. This is her first fiction publication.