I was nursing a bourbon at The Paradise on the north side. It was a little after midnight on a Tuesday, and the only other customers were a few old timers watching the Winter Olympics and a dope sick kid sweating in his seat. There were two crates of beer steins in my car, and I was hoping to unload them for a few bucks. The owner hadn’t shown, and I was growing pessimistic.
My phone buzzed again. Clarence had been after me all night. I read his message, then deleted it. It said: “You’re a dead man, shit head.”
Clarence was my best pal. We’d started this hustle several months ago, when I was working at a gas station on the east side. I found a card printer and a heat foil press in a dumpster behind a department store, and we started stamping up plastic with numbers we bought off the Internet. We ran around town buying watches, cameras and guitars until the cards maxed out, then we’d unload the stuff at pawnshops, hole up in Clarence’s apartment and shoot Mexican Mud until the money and dope ran out. We were raking in several grand a week until the Feds busted Clarence in City Center Mall with a bag of furs and a dozen boxes of perfume.
Clarence lawyered up and was out on parole. His only priors were for possession and public intox. I’d done two years for a combo of grand larceny and breaking and entering, and another year for forging checks. Clarence had honored the code. He took the rap, prepped for his court date, and didn’t mention a word about me to the district attorney.
Then he found out that while he was away, I’d been giving it to his wife.
I-71 southbound was deserted. It was February, and a snow was blowing in. Wind shook the windows, seemed to test the mettle of the glass. From the back seat, the steins rattled in their crates. I was a half-mile past Morse Road when I saw something that made me blink several times. A silver Buick Skylark had peeled onto the exit ramp at Weber. It was moving north. It was driving the wrong way.
Another car had already turned onto the ramp. The driver laid on the horn and jerked to the berm. The Skylark kept heading toward the highway, skidding on ice and taking speed. I pulled over and watched it fly by. I looked in the rearview to see it pass another couple of cars, both sledding into the far lanes. The Skylark skid again, hard this time. Then it hit the concrete divide and flipped. Twice.
I put on the hazards, got out of the car, and started walking up the berm. I half expected to see a body in the road; a wreck like that, you never know. I found the Skylark belly-up in a bed of glass, its fender crushed against the divide. The radiator hissed a breath of steam into the cold air.
I dug out my phone. Another message from Clarence was waiting.
“I’m telling the D.A. everything. Pray the cops find you before I do.”
I called 911. A tired woman answered on the third ring and I told her the basics: overturned car, middle of I-71 between Weber and Morse. Mid 80s Buick Skylark, silver. Driver going the wrong way. Did I see anyone at the scene? No, I did not.
I was getting off the phone when a girl crawled out through the windshield. She was young, early twenties at the most, and tiny, like a kid who’d gotten into her mother’s clothes. She wasn’t dressed for the weather; she wore a t-shirt, mini skirt, black stockings. She stood up, then got on her knees and started gathering her strewn belongings from the road. A purse, a compact, several pairs of underwear. I was afraid a truck would flatten her so I started yelling as loud as I could.
“Hey, hey!” The wind felt like a cold coin between my teeth.
She looked up and began limping across lanes. She dropped a few things, bent over to pick them up, and stumbled in the glass. I ran into the road and tried to get her standing. When I saw webs of light in the distance I hooked my hands in her underarms, then sort of drug her back to the berm. Under the street lamp I could see her face was soaked with blood. Her right ankle was knotted so bad I was surprised she’d been able to stand at all. Shock, I guessed.
“You need to sit,” I said. I put my coat around her, helped her back to my car and opened the passenger door. “Try not to move.”
Cars were making their way through the scene, slowing at the wreck and rubbernecking when they got to us.
“Can you take me home?” she said. Her face was wound up and bone white. I didn’t smell booze, but her pupils were shrunk to ballpoints. She was loaded on something. She opened her mouth again; it was small and red like a velvet purse. I noticed she was missing a tooth. “Please — can you just take me home?”
“I called 911,” I said. “An ambulance will be here any minute.”
Her eyes got big. She jumped out of the car and started running toward the ditch. She made it a few yards before her ankle gave out and she fell in the snow. I got my arms around her again.
“I need to leave,” she said. “Just let me go.”
She stood up, started prying herself away. Several yards ahead a truck had pulled over and put on its hazards.
“You’ve got to get me out of here,” she said. “I can’t go to jail. Please.”
“Lady, I’m trying to help. The paramedics are coming. You might not feel it, but you’re hurt.”
“I’ll pay you,” she said.
She began fishing around in her purse. “Here’s two hundred dollars,” she said, and handed me a wad of bloody bills. They were mostly singles. I crammed the money back into her purse, told her I’d wait with her until the ambulance arrived. Almost immediately I got second thoughts. I could've used two hundred bones.
“I’ll go to jail,” she said, and began to cry. “Please, they can’t take me to jail.”
I told her jail was better than the morgue.
“I’ve got a son,” she said, and began crying harder. “If they take me to jail I’ll lose my son. If you had kids you’d understand.”
I told her I’ve got a daughter. My wife left a long time ago and I don’t get visitation, but I didn’t tell her that part.
“You shouldn’t have called,” she said. “Not without asking me first. It’s not fair. You shouldn’t have called.”
She was really bawling now. A man exited the truck and walked toward us. He was young, overweight, and held a black Maglite.
“Bit of an accident,” I said.
“Yup,” he said, looked to the wreck, then back to the girl. She repeated her story to him, about how she had to get out of there and how I wouldn’t give her a ride. He told her exactly what I’d said: that she was hurt, that I was trying to help, that she needed to sit down until the ambulance arrived.
I checked my phone. A new message from Clarence.
“You’re a snake. A cheat, a liar, a con.”
The girl was getting hysterical. She started cursing at the man, saying we were ruining her life, that we had no right. After a few seconds the man looked at me, rolled his eyes, then walked back to his truck.
She put her head in her hands. A nest of snow was forming on her shoulders. The wind was whipping and it felt like pine needles against my skin. She was shivering. She looked like a little girl.
“Okay,” I told her. “Let’s go.”
“Are you serious?”
“Hurry up before I change my mind. And you’d better fork over that cash once we get on the road.”
I helped her back to the car. A few more people had stopped. A middle-aged woman approached us. She had a long face and was wearing a sweater with a dog on it.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Fine,” the girl said, and smiled blood.
The woman went around the car. She began hugging the girl, even after the girl told her to stop. I knew the type. Everybody’s mother.
The exit was just a few dozen yards away. Smoke was kicking from a chimney somewhere off the highway. I knew every back road in the area, but most of them were probably snowed over by now, and wouldn’t be plowed until morning.
“I know, I know,” the woman said, and began petting the girl.
We had to leave. I felt my phone buzz, ignored it, and reached in the other pocket for my keys, when my fingers felt the bag. That’s when I realized something.
I was holding.
It wasn’t a lot of dope, just a half-piece of tar I’d left over from the weekend. Still, if the cops searched me — and they would, if I was caught helping this girl flee the scene — I’d get clipped. I did some math. A half-gram of heroin could get me a year in state correctional. With my record, I’d do closer to three. And if Clarence had already told the D.A. about my part in our racket, we were talking five, maybe ten, depending on what he’d said and what they threw at me.
“C’mon,” the girl said. “Open the goddamn door already.”
Traffic had gotten heavier. Several more cars parked on the berm. Drifts of snow moved over the pavement between us. Faintly I heard sirens, then turned to see red rollers making their way over the horizon.
“I can’t take you,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” The girl looked to the middle-aged woman, who seemed confused, then back to me.
“I can’t help you. I can’t give you a ride.”
“But you promised.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I can’t help you flee the scene of an accident.”
“He’s right,” the woman said. “You should wait for help —”
“Shut up, bitch,” the girl said.
“I’m sorry I let you down,” I said. “I’m sorry I gave you the impression I could help. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”
“I’d be gone already if it wasn’t for you,” she growled. “You called the ambulance, now you take me home.”
She threw herself over my hood, gripped one of my wipers in one hand, a side mirror with the other. I walked around the car, grabbed her by the belt and threw her into the snow. She took the wiper with her.
“What are you doing?” the woman yelled.
The girl lay in the snow, crying. “You bastard,” she said. “You dumb shit.”
I got in my car and locked the doors. Red rollers were in the rearview when I pulled onto the highway. My tires shaved ice onto the berm. I drove like I was fighting a wild river.
I got off the exit near my house and found a bar. It was empty. I ordered a bourbon, sat in a corner and watched the Winter Olympics. They were replaying the highlights from the figure skating tournament. A young Russian girl spun over the ice in spiraling rings. She was elegant and small and wore a silver sequin dress. She hung in the air like a stray thread.
I checked my phone. There was a new message from Clarence.
“Do you realize what a sack of shit you are?”
I shut the phone off and thought about the girl, how I wished I could have helped her. I hoped she didn’t get in too much trouble, and if she did, that she was somehow able to find a way back on her feet. Then I thought about my own daughter, and how long it had been since I’d seen her. I wondered if there was some way I could help if she was ever in trouble, or if I’d even find out. I thought about calling my ex, but I didn’t have her number, and it dawned on me that it’d been so long since I’d seen my little girl I might not recognize her if we were in the same room. I ordered another drink and tried to see her face in my mind, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t remember.
Jon Gingerich is the editor of O’Dwyer’s magazine.His fiction has been published in The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, and many others. He holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School.