Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ladies & Gentlemen, We Have a Winner!

We're excited to announce the winner of our first annual short story writing contest: Ron Dahl, the author of "Just Drive," has won a $100 Vroman's gift card and a consultation with literary agent Betsy Amster. Check this blog soon for a brief interview with the winner. We were going to post the story on our store website, but formatting issues made it difficult; thus, here, in its entirety, is "Just Drive." Congratulations, Ron!

by Ron Dahl

The door fell open with a gentle click and he entered the car as if he were one of her students waiting to be picked up in the dark. The sheer naturalness of it confused her momentarily, but in the time it took to form the thought that maybe he had just climbed into the wrong car by mistake, she realized this was not right and her hands began clawing at the seatbelt release. But then there was a gun to her ear and a hand on her shoulder and the single word: "Don't."

She carefully brought herself upright and sat frozen, counting each sweeping rake of the wipers across the rain-splattered windshield until she felt the gun leave her ear. Then she said softly, "What do you want?"



"Drive, bitch. Go!"

"Okay. Okay. Just don't ---" The car lurched forward as if under its own power, tires spinning over the slick wet pavement. She fought to pull oxygen into her lungs. An oncoming car swerved and its horn dopplered around them through the rain.

"Watch out!" he yelled, the voice raw with the newly acquired timbre of a teenager. She nearly turned to look at him before catching herself. Was he only a boy? She found her lane and straightened the car out and then closed her mouth to slow her gasping. "Okay," she said, forcing herself to breathe through her nose. The lane lines before her seemed to be all wrong, and she fought to keep the car centered. "Okay."

How many times had Jon told her? You push the remote once to open the driver's door. Two clicks and it unlocks all the doors. Can't you understandthat you don't have to push it twice just to get into the car? Is that so hard? Of course she understood how it worked. It's just that so often she approached the car with book bags and projects from class tottering in her arms that needed to be tossed into the back seat. It was a habit she could only break if she consciously reminded herself each and every time. Tonight, with the rain and the running to the car, she had simply reverted to habit. Jon had said it: Something could happen. And now something had happened.One click had been the difference between receiving a nasty scare from a vague stranger pounding on your window before accelerating away... and this.

"What is it you want?" she finally choked out, surprised at the sound of her voice breaking the silence. Her throat felt impacted. She spoke without facing him.

"Just drive, lady."

"All right." The sting of the nails digging into the meat of her palms as she squeezed the wheel reminded her that she was flesh and blood, that there was a distinct chance she could die tonight by that gun. She watched the news; things like this happened around Los Angeles nearly every week. She knew that these situations frequently ended in death.

He had materialized out of the rain. The meeting had gone late, and she lingered for a time under the covered breezeway of the School District offices with a man, a fellow fifth-grade teacher from another school who had sat next to her the whole evening. They ended up running together under his big striped golf umbrella out into the nearly empty lot. He had even stood in the rain while she started her engine before trotting off to his car at the opposite end of the lot. So she was late already. Jon would be waiting: I thought you said the meeting ended at eight. I know how long it takes toget home, even in the rain. And it would come out eventually that the person she had been talking with had been a man, and that he had been a nice guy. Jon always knew if she wasn't telling the truth. Who was he, this...person?What exactly were you two talking about? And she would tell him because he would find out eventually. This is what she had been thinking about, and if she hadn't been preoccupied, formulating just the right placating words to say to her husband, she might have seen the boy come up on her as she paused in the driveway waiting for traffic to clear. She might have noticed him and realized her doors were unlocked and had time to hit the lock button before the handle was his.

She glanced over quickly, just nudging her peripheral vision toward him.The boy, who had scrunched himself down into the seat so that he was nearly eye level with the side view mirror, couldn't be more than thirteen or fourteen. He was watching the street behind them.

"Is somebody after you?"

"Just shut up, lady. You're nothing."

"I don't know where to drive. Where should I go?"

"Keep going this way. I'll tell you where to turn."

Now she did look over at him. "You're bleeding." She watched as he peeled his arm away from his body and inspected the soggy, ragged mess underneath as if discovering it for the first time.

"Oh, my god, you're really hurt. You should go to the hospital."

"No," he said abruptly. "It's just my side. Turn here."

"Which way?" The intersection was almost upon them. "Which way, right or left?"

"Right," he said when they had nearly crossed the limit line of thecrosswalk. "Turn right."

She yanked the wheel in time to make the corner, taking it too fast and breaking loose on the wet pavement. Recovering, she checked the mirror and watched the lights of the intersection draw away from her. The road, now only one lane in each direction, was less populated and illuminated only by an occasional weak yellow bulb hanging out over the street. She only knew one way to get from her home to the District offices and this wasn't it. The street was unfamiliar but she sensed it was taking her farther from home.The green numbers on the dashboard clock read eight-forty. Men all over town would be watching Monday Night Football, husbands that required nothing more than the gentle recline of a La-Z-Boy and a TV remote in their hand. Oh, hi honey. Home already? Not Jon. Jon would be sitting in the front room and checking the clock until she pulled into the driveway. And getting carjackedwas not an excuse because, after all, it would be her fault that it had happened in the first place.

The boy sitting in the seat next to her brought to mind one of her students, a pretty little boy, Fernando, whose thick, dark hair grew impossibly low on his forehead. They could be brothers. "How old are you?" she asked him.

"Why do you ask me that? Huh, lady?"

"I'm sorry. I was just wondering - you remind me of somebody."

The boy lifted the gun, grimacing. "I could fucking kill you. You know that? Huh? You never seen me before."

"Please put the gun down," she said. "I just meant that you remind me of a boy in my classroom." Then, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it."

"So... you a teacher?"

She nodded, staring ahead.

"Where?" he demanded. "What school?" She looked over and saw for the first time a slight smile, as if kidnapping a teacher was an unexpected bonus for him.

"It's just a - it's just elementary school."

She felt the barrel nudge her arm inquisitively as she tried to concentrate on the road. He had moved closer to her and she could smell blood on his breath. "Tell me what school you teach at, lady."

Why had she told him she was a teacher? She might as well have told him where she lived. Maybe she was as dumb as Jon said. She struggled to think of a name, any school name, but she kept coming back to her own school. It was as if no other names existed in the world. She took a deep breath, casting around for anything to give her an idea. "North... Street."

"North Street? Never heard of it."

"It's not around here," she said quickly. The boy leaned back into the seat, resting the gun on his leg, as if it had taken on a great weight. She should have listened to Jon. He hadn't even wanted her to teach. It's a mindless job at that level, nothing more than a glorified babysitter. You want to teach, why don't you try something at least a little challenging. High school. Try that and see if you like teaching so much. You wouldn't last a semester. And if she wasn't a teacher, she would not have been at the meeting and she would not be in this car now. She would be home, or anywhere - but not here. Another person, a different teacher, would have been pulling out of that parking lot at the time this boy chose to climb into a car.

The cell phone cut through the drone of the wipers and startled her out of her thoughts, demanding to be dealt with.

"Where's that coming from?" the boy asked.

"It's down there," she said. She had forgotten about the purse, lying in the space behind his feet. She watched him fish for it while stiffly maintaining his position on the seat. Finally bringing it up, he pulled the purse open and rooted around for the phone with his free hand. The ring was persistent and of course she knew who was calling. He brought it out of the purse and held it up in the glow of the streetlights. When it rang defiantly in his face he found the down button on the window and tossed it into the mist. She instinctively glanced in the rearview mirror and watched it bounce across the lane, breaking to pieces on the pavement. Jon had researched and haggled for their phone plan, one where he could call her anytime, no limit on minutes. At times she had thought of doing exactly what the boy had just done. Now the boy was back in her purse, pulling things out one by one and studying them before dropping them on the floor. He lingered on a wrapped tampon, turning it over and over in his fingers before tossing it. He read her address aloud off the driver's license, mispronouncing her street name before slipping it into his pocket.

On a rainy Monday night like this were few cars on the road. She tried to make eye contact with oncoming cars, but the glare of headlights on wet windshields made it impossible to see the driver inside. When they'd started out, cars had driven alongside of them, but she had been afraid to turn and look at anybody. He might have thought she was trying to signal for help. Now there were no lanes next to her.

After he had openly shoved her money and credit cards into his pocket, the boy shook out the empty bag and set it down. He became still next to her, as if rifling through her purse had made this all worth it. When she looked again his eyelids floated heavily over dark slits. His lips parted slightly, revealing the sharp whiteness of his lower teeth. He wasn't watching the mirror anymore.

"You sure you don't want to go to emergency? You're going to need some medical help. I'm not a nurse, but..."

"I'm okay," he muttered.

"Did you get shot? Is that what happened?"


"Do you think it hit any organs or anything?"

"I don't know. It hurts."

"You've lost a lot of blood. That can be dangerous in itself even if the bullet didn't hit anything."

He reached over with his bloody shirt sleeve and wiped it across the tan leather back of her seat, staring defiantly at her before relaxing again. Jon had made her go back to the car wash once and demand that they clean those leather seats better than they had. Don't you let them give you any crap, he'd told her. We paid good money for that leather, and you can't let it go untreated. He'd driven behind her in his car and watched from across the street just to make sure she did what she was told.

"Why don't you just tell me where we're going," she said to the boy. "I don't know where to turn."

Moments passed before he spoke. The he told her he wanted to go home, back to his neighborhood, and she knew it was a place probably ten miles from where they were driving. She wasn't even sure the best way to get there.

"I don't know if you should wait that long. I think you're hurt worse than you realize."

"Lady, I'll fucking blow your head off, you don't shut up," he said, and then a single racking sob betrayed him. "I told you I want to go home, and if you don't drive me, I'll fucking kill you and drive myself." The gun barrel quivered before her face. He blinked but he couldn't hide the tears now.

"Okay, I'll take you home. I promise. Just let me figure out how to get there."

That seemed to calm him and he slipped back into the solace of the soft leather, closing his eyes completely for the first time. The gun lay across his thigh, pointing toward the dashboard. The outburst seemed to have drained the last of his energy. Free to look openly now, she studied the weapon. She had never been this close to a gun, let alone touched one. Jon was a person who believed the N.R.A. had the government in its back pocket. She knew enough to recognize that it wasn't a revolver, that this kind of pistol was called an automatic. Why? How did it work? She wondered how heavy it was. It was made of black metal. Would an evil black gun like this, leveled at her head, be enough for Jon? If he could actually have seen it happening, like one of those grainy security camera videos of a liquor stor erobbery that they showed on the news, would that be reason enough for her to come home late?

No, it wouldn't matter to Jon. Because she could never be a victim. If she was carjacked, you messed up, lady. That's the way it was. Jon had never actually hit her, that much was true. His rages were as tightly controlledas everything else in his life. Once, he surprised her in the shower and confronted her with something she had done and ushered her out and down the hallway, through the sliding glass door onto the back patio with the water still dripping off her naked skin, where she'd stood pleading in the dark for more than a half hour. He hadn't even raised his voice.

She should be relieved at the way events were unfolding. The boy hadn't killed her, and if she could get him into his own neighborhood, he probably would leave her. He was seriously injured, that much she knew. He just wanted to go home, most likely to his mother. This should be a moment of triumph. She had won, she had cheated death. But Jon was in the car with them and she could hear him pointing out everything she had done to allow herself to be kidnapped by a fourteen-year-old kid, an injured one at that. She knew her husband as well as she knew herself.

Maybe death had cheated her, she thought, eyeing the gun.

"Shit," he moaned. "Something's really wrong." He grimaced and then settled back down. She knew she could reach over and take the gun now, the way it lay limp in his hand. Her eyes kept returning to it as she drove, feeling lost. The road before her narrowed again, running itself into a dark unknownpart of town.

She turned to him. "What's it like to be shot?"

"Huh?" His lips pulled back, revealing clenched white teeth.

"Tell me what it feels like."

"I don't know," he muttered.

The rain by now had weakened to a light mist. She reached down and slowed the speed on the wipers.

"I mean, does it hurt? When the bullet goes in?"

"Not really... at first." In the stillness of the car she listened to his breathing catch on his voice, moving in and out in a ragged hum. It was the sound Jon made during intimacy. She waited. "But then it burns," he said.

She nodded, biting her lower lip, and turned back to the wheel. It only burns if you're still alive to feel it. She pictured Jon answering the call from the police station. No, that can't be, he'd say. He'd argue with the officer that they must be mistaken. But eventually the reality of it would settle on him, would open his eyes, and what would he think? Would he miss her?

Would this boy still shoot if she provoked him? Could he? She would have to do something to startle him out of his lethargy, do something stupid, as Jonwould say. There were plenty of stupid things a person could do to get herself killed. She considered with a thrill the way it would burn. But what if he didn't have the strength left to lift the gun, let alone aim it properly? How heavy was it, anyway? Would it be hard to hold, to grip, to squeeze the trigger? The bullet would have to pierce a vital organ, the head, the heart. She knew she could never pull the trigger on herself. That act would require courage that she knew she didn't possess. But death at the hand of another, a fourteen-year-old boy with a gun, was something that wouldn't require the Ultimate Decision. That would just be wrong place, wrong time. So unfortunate. People at school would discuss it endlessly.There would be a memorial assembly for the kids. She recalled how emotional it had been for everyone when a fellow teacher had died of cancer.

But Jon? He would know it was no accident.

She finally reached a traffic light, and as she sat idling in the empty intersection, waiting for it to change, the boy suddenly jerked alive and began clawing at himself. His legs kicked as if he were being throttled from behind. The gun fell to the floor mat at his feet. "What's wrong?" she yelled. "What's going on?" His mouth was open and his eyes seemed to be looking at something that scared him terribly. And then his panic subsided and he relaxed, as fully and completely as a body can, into the bloodstained leather.

She jammed the shifter into park and shrank away, pressing herself into the armrest beside her. The light turned from red to green and back to red. A lone car passed across the intersection in front of her. Though she had never before seen a dead body, she knew beyond all hope that the boy next to her had died, and that she was alone again in the car. She slowly reached over and placed the backs of her cold fingers on the boy's smooth, warm cheek.

Did he touch you? That would be what Jon would ask before anything else.

After a time, she let her hand drop, fingers slowly sliding down his cheek until falling away one by one. She reached down and moved the shifter back into drive and waited for the light to turn green.


At 11:21 PM, Anonymous Marie said...

This is fantastic. I am happy you won. Would love to stay in touch with you as a fellow writer, if you choose.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent story Ron, I enjoyed it and your ending is very good. Good luck on future contests! -Leana-

At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. wow. I've read lesser work in The New Yorker. You have a career here, friend!

At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Great Ron Is a Great Writter. I love it the story is great. Ron are going to be a great writter. Your Friend, Robert.


At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ron - I really liked your story and I was immediately engrossed in it from beginning to end. Congratulations on winning the contest! -Tiffany

At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that the story has a compelling plot, but also has this other unexpected layer to it.

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good story, but of course profanity wins again in this case...the judges probably use four letter words in their everyday all stories have to continue to use profanity?

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Marion said...

Congratulations Ron! Loved your story but am dying to know what happens next!


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