Brian ran for it, dashing across the parking lot with a box tucked under his arm. Raindrops zipped by like bullets, hitting hard enough that he could feel them through his sweatshirt. Moving as quickly as he dared with an armful of electronics, Brian stuck the box in the trunk and jumped into the driver’s seat, closing the door just as the rain started in earnest.
Safe inside, Brian gave himself a moment to get his thoughts in order. It had been a busy day. Meetings all morning, working through forms and codes all afternoon, and he’d just finished the evening volunteering at the community center, teaching a class on computers and programming.
One of the kids from his class – Shawn, was it? – was getting into the back seat of a decrepit van in the next space. They made eye contact, Brian giving a nod, but the boy stared straight through him and shut the door, as though he didn’t exist.
Brian sighed as he started the car, watching the van disappear into the city streets, just another hunk of junk lost in the pile. Working the kids at the community center was more draining than any meeting. He couldn’t understand it. Why was it so damn hard to get through to anyone? He’d learned his lessons the hard way, but he would have gladly taken a better path if he’d had the chance – the same chance he was offering these kids. Sometimes he still couldn’t believe he’d made it as far as he had. That was one benefit of volunteering, anyway. It served as a constant reminder of how easily a few wrong choices could bring his whole world crashing down again.
Brian dragged himself back to the moment, putting the car in gear. Nothing’s going to happen tonight, he told himself. The only items left on the agenda were to go home, nuke some leftovers, and unwind with an hour or three of gaming.
Through the rain, he could make out the vague blaze of traffic crawling down the highway. It would clear up before too long, but he’d still make better time taking the side streets. Putting his wipers into overdrive, he turned onto the access road running parallel to the highway.
It was raining at full force now, running in streams down the curb and turning the pavement into a dark mirror, showing the glow of the street lamps in watery reflection. Before long, the only light left was the glow of his headlights catching the rain, carving a claustrophobic little reality out of the black – two yellow lines and a patch of blacktop swallowed up by his passage, like Pac-Man devouring dots. The experience felt strangely meditative, nothing but himself and his thoughts.
Brian focused so intently on following the road that he nearly missed the woman walking alongside it.
Swerving in surprise, Brian slowed down at once, but he still only caught of glimpse of the woman as he passed her. She had no jacket, no umbrella, not even a light to see by. Totally unprepared for the weather. Brian couldn’t imagine how she’d ended up here, but he wasn’t about to leave her.
Putting on the hazard lights, he threw the car in reverse and slowly backed down the road, searching the mirrors for any sign of the young woman. He wasn’t sure, but he though he’d seen her staggering, perhaps drunk or injured. Maybe she’d fallen into a ditch.
There. Just when he thought he’d have to get out and start searching, he spotted her standing by the side of road, hugging herself for warmth, hair and clothing plastered to her like wet paper mâché. In the red glow of the tail lights, the girl almost looked like some sort of demon spirit, sent to haunt him for his past misdeeds. As she half-ran to the passenger-side door, however, her hunched posture made it clear that she was just a miserable young woman.
She had to pull the handle a few times before Brian remembered to unlock the door, feeling stupid for not thinking of it earlier. It took a couple of tries further before she stopped pulling so the lock could catch. Finally, the door opened, admitting a cold breeze and a very wet girl. She got in without a word, sitting with a squelch and slamming the door behind her. She was soaked to the skin, through multiple layers of mismatched clothing that had seen better days. Brian felt glad he’d invested in good seat covers.
“You okay?” he asked, turning the heaters on. Mutely, she nodded, brushing the hair away from her face and trying in vain to wipe the water from her eyes. Fumbling, Brian reached behind him for the tissues he kept in the back seat, handing her the whole box.
“You’re sure?” he asked again. This time she glanced his direction, biting her lip as she thought. She looked to be in her early twenties, with Asian features pierced by an assortment of cheap jewelry and dark hair streaked with neon highlights, reminding him of street lights reflected on wet asphalt. Punk rock on a budget, though her style had been dampened by the rain. Still, in more pleasant circumstances, he could see them hitting it off. Girls like her always had an interesting story.
“Just drive,” she grunted, turning away again. “Please.”
Brian frowned but complied. He pulled back onto the road, but took it slow, so he could keep an eye on his passenger. “What’s your name?”
She took a few seconds before answering. “Jennifer. Jen.”
“I’m Brian,” he answered, trying to stay upbeat. “Where you headed? I can take you anywhere within a few miles. If you want, we can stop for food or coffee. I’m starving.”
When she didn’t answer after a moment, he glanced over to see if she was doing okay. She wasn’t. She stared straight at him, face hard and hands trembling. Those hands held a gun, leveled right at his head.
“Keep driving,” she ordered, voice shaky. Though her tone lacked conviction, the desperation in her eyes convinced him that she was serious. “Get on the highway, going south.”
Brian felt his heart skip a beat, even as his thoughts spun into overdrive. Fear and annoyance flared up in equal measure, and he fought – with limited success – to keep his tone level. “Oh, come on! Are you serious? I offer you a ride and you hold me up? The hell why?”
“Because, okay? Just shut up and watch the road.” Jen punctuated every word with a motion of the gun, like someone used to talking with their hands. Brian could only hope she had the safety on, in case she pulled the trigger by accident. Or on purpose, for that matter.
He turned his attention back to the road, still traveling at a reduced speed, but he could feel the gun’s presence hovering over his shoulder like a tiny angel of death. His thoughts raced, almost detached from the rest of him, running through a dozen scenarios, searching for a way to get on top of this situation. He’d come too far to let some gun-toting pixie tear it all down.
“Look, I don’t have a choice, okay?” Jen said, derailing his train of thought. “I got screwed over and now the cops are after me, so just… just drive, and I won’t have to do anything to you? ‘Kay?”
She sounded as though she were trying to convince herself as much as him. Wonderful. She was unstable and desperate. Brian clenched his jaw and sped up, hurtling through the darkness. A blob of red down the road coalesced into a stop sign, and he jerked to a stop, hard enough that Jen nearly slammed into the dash. She caught herself at the last second, taking one hand off the gun to steady herself.
She swore, then whacked Brian with the butt of the pistol, hard enough to leave his arm numb. “Son of a bitch! Try that shit again and you’ll get a bullet for it.”
“You’re probably just going to shoot me anyway,” Brian shot back, turning to look at his passenger. He pointedly ignored the baleful eye of the gun barrel staring back at him. Jen stared back, angry, but she had a ghost of doubt haunting her eyes.
“Only if you make me. I’m in deep enough shit without a murder charge on top of it.”
Brian softened his tone, just a shade. “Look, I get it. I’ve been there. Worked the streets, spent five years in prison, couldn’t catch a break on the outside. You get caught in a bad situation, and it seems like everything you do only makes it worse. But you don’t have to do it this way.”
Jen bit her lip, then shook her head. “What the hell else am I supposed to do? You. Drive. Highway. South.”
Brian sighed. “Look, why don’t you just take the car? You can go wherever you want without having to worry about me, and I can report the car stolen for the insurance.”
“I don’t drive, okay, genius? So you start driving or I’ll blow your brains out the window.”
“So if I die, you don’t get anywhere,” Brian concluded. He sat motionless, letting the engine idle.
Jen growled and shoved the barrel of the gun against his cheek. The kiss of cool steel sent a chill down his spine, stopping his thoughts cold. “I don’t have to kill you, smartass. How about a bullet to your hands? Your spine? Or your di-”
“Fine!” Brian growled. Wet rubber squealed on asphalt as he took out his frustration on the road, gunning for the highway. Traffic had thinned out since he’d left the community center, and he merged into traffic with little delay.
“Where are we even going?” he asked, working his way to the left lane with a devil-may-care practicality. There was still a slight chance he could drop her off and get home at a reasonable hour.
“Out of the state. Maybe out of the country. We tried to pull something on an armored truck. A big freaking deal. Well, they did. I got dragged into it, and then they took the money and left me to take the heat. I’ve probably got every cop in the damn whatever looking for me.”
Brian rode a surge of frustration and jumped ahead of another car, cutting into an open space with precision that would have made a surgeon jealous, prompting angry horns from the other cars and curses from Jen, who fumbled with one hand for her seatbelt.
“Listen. I’m not leaving the city, much less the state,” Brian said, eyes fixed forward. He swerved back into the left lane, and Jen lowered the gun for a moment to fumble with the buckles. “I spent years building my own business when nobody else would hire me. Worked my ass off and fought every step of the way. I am not leaving that behind.”
The buckle clicked into place, and Jen raised the gun again, digging the fingers of her other hand into the armrest. “No choice, mofo. You can come back when I’m somewhere safe.”
“I have deadlines. I’ll lose my clients.”
“That’s a shame.”
Growling and gritting his teeth, Brian threw his last cautions to the storm. Before and after prison, he’d always been a hard worker – tried to make something of himself. Helping himself was his first priority. It had to be. But that didn’t stop him from doing everything he could to help others when he had the resources and saw the need. He’d bend over backward to help somebody who deserved it.
But when someone took advantage of that kindness– taking his help for granted, overstepping their bounds or trying to manipulate him – that was intolerable, and he would spend just as much time and energy seeing that things were put right. Justice – real justice – had to be served. Jen wanted to play on hard mode? Fine. He could do that.
Leaning forward in the seat like a jockey, Brian floored the gas pedal. The car screamed, lurching forward as though kicked. Jen brandished the gun wildly, letting out yet another strangled oath – but before she could start shouting orders, Brian rolled down the passenger side window.
Wind and rain lashed through the interior of the car, drowning Jen in sound and fury. Brian didn’t even bother to look over as she fought to find the window controls, focusing entirely on weaving through traffic. They were going ninety, still picking up speed, and it took every bit of his concentration to keep from crashing. Cars twitched away as he passed, the blare of their horns fading as he blew by.
“Throw the gun out the window!” Brian shouted. He could hardly hear himself over the roar of the wind, but the shove of the pistol against his temple told him she had heard.
“If you shoot me, we will crash,” he continued, feeling an uncanny calm. Going a hundred now. “And cops like to hide under the next overpass, so if you don’t ditch the gun, we will get pulled over.”
Jen hammered at his arm with the gun, nearly causing him to merge into a semi, and she was forced to stop as he fought to regain control. The driver of the truck gave them a one-finger salute as they passed. Jen finally managed to find the window controls, getting the window half-way up before Brian stopped her.
“Out the window,” he repeated. “Or we both lose.”
“Yep, just a little! Cop’s coming up fast!”
They were going too fast to risk a look at the speedometer, but Brian spared a heart-pounding glance at his captor. She was a battleground of emotions, tough and vulnerable at the same time, paralyzed with indecision. “Look, I- I never wanted any of this,” she choked out. “I didn’t want to help them, or hurt you, or- or any of it, but what choice do I have?”
Brian felt a small stab of pity for the girl. He’d meant what he said about understanding her situation, how hopeless it was with the system stacked against you. It was why he volunteered at the community center, why he’d bothered pulling over in the first place – trying to give somebody else the opportunity he’d never gotten.
But he couldn’t destroy himself helping someone else. “You have this choice, right now. Ditch the gun or go to jail!”
The overpass was looming ahead in the darkness, approaching at frightening speed. The cops could be lurking on the other side of that bridge. but even if they weren’t, somebody had probably called in to report his cavalier approach to traffic law. His gambit was a two-edged sword, but he was betting the involvement of the police would cut her a lot deeper than it did him.
Jen glared at him with x-ray eyes, searching for any hint of weakness, and then glanced toward the overpass, weighing the odds. The gun shook in her hands, swaying back and forth like a needle on the gauge of her thoughts. Brian didn’t let the pedal up one inch.
Finally, as they passed the exit ramp, Jen hissed a series of vaguely obscene sounds and whipped the pistol out the window. The darkness swallowed it in an instant, as though it had never existed. Jen stared after it, strangely quiet, as though she couldn’t believe what she had just done. She barely even reacted as Brian hit the brakes, slowing as fast as he dared on the slick blacktop.
He didn’t slow fast enough. Only seconds past the overpass, lights flickered into life behind them, blue and blood red.
“Daaaaamn it,” Brian breathed. He began slowing, shifting into the left-most lane but not stopping. Catching up with impressive speed, the cop gave a single whoop with the sirens, as though there could be any doubt about what the officer wanted them to do. Brian had ended up calling his own bluff by accident, but for all the difficulty this would cause, it had to be better than a gun to his head.
Controlling his speed carefully, Brian slowed, looking for a good spot to pull over. For a split second, he entertained the thought of speeding off into the night while the officer got out of his car, but his license plate had surely been noted by now – unless he actually wanted to make a run for it, he would have to talk his way out of this.
He found an empty shoulder and eased the car to a stop, putting it in park with a couple of deep breaths. The rain had let up a little, allowing him to see the officer fiddling with his car’s computer, They had a minute to prepare, if they did it discreetly.
“Jen. Jen, listen to me. We’re going to work this out, okay? But if they’re looking for you, you need to change your look. Take out your piercings and put on the hat in the glove compartment. Do it quick, but be careful.”
He looked over just in time to see her fumbling for something hidden inside her boot. It was bound to be something bad, and he had no time to reason with her. No choice but to go for the nuclear option.
Jen pulled a knife free from a hidden sheath in the same moment that Brian reached over and pull his own gun from the holster on his right ankle. He hadn’t been able to draw it earlier, while driving, especially not when he was already at gunpoint. And while he absolutely didn’t want to draw an illegal firearm with the police about to approach the vehicle, he had to be sure Jen didn’t start anything stupid.
Jen froze at the sight of the weapon, now shaking from nerves more than the cold. “You- you had a gun the whole freaking time?” she stuttered.
“I’ve made enemies,” he answered shortly. “So I’ve got to watch my back. If that helps defend myself from crazy car-jacking psychos, all the better. Now, do what I say, keep your mouth shut, and we can still walk away from this. Do you understand?” She stared as though he’d just spoken to her in an alien language, but when he pulled back the hammer of the gun, she startled as though he’d actually shot her, dropping the knife to the floor and shying back like a caged cat.
“Piercings out, hat on. Quick.”
She followed the instructions clumsily, eyes darting but somehow distant – possibly in some sort of shock. Brian swore under his breath. From the corner of his eye, he could see the officer approaching in the side mirror, holding a flashlight big enough to cave a man’s skull in. Knowing the officer would be wary of sudden movements, Brian carefully slipped the gun into the pocket of his sweatshirt and put his hands on the steering wheel. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths.
Jen had removed a couple of the piercings, but she was shaking too badly to remove the rest, and it was too late to go for the hat in the glove compartment without alerting the cop.
She was in worse shape than when he’d picked her up in the first place, fighting unsuccessfully to maintain some semblance of composure. Any though of Jen being a hardened criminal vanished – she was a kid, clearly in over her head. He knew the feeling all too well.
But how the hell was he supposed to explain this? Reckless speeding in bad weather, with a wanted and waterlogged woman in the passenger seat, apparently on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He could throw Jen under the proverbial bus with just a few words. He’d done it before, testifying against his former gang in exchange for a reduced sentence – the reason he carried a gun in the first place – and she had held him up. Turning her in was only fair. Eye for an eye. Justice.
A rap at the window, made Brian jump, scrabbling for the window controls. The wind was cold, but it had nothing on the officer’s stare. Brian found himself talking before he’d even made a conscious decision.
“I think my girlfriend is having a panic attack or a stroke or something,” he blurted. “I’m trying to get her to the hospital.”
The officer leaned down and studied the two of them, his wide-brimmed hat spilling water into Brian’s lap. Brian fought the urge to curse. Once again, Jen stared blankly, eyes wide and breath shallow, trembling like a kitten after a cold bath.
The officer snapped his fingers. “Ma’am?” Jen flinched, but didn’t look in his direction, as though he couldn’t exist if she didn’t meet his eyes. The officer turned his attention back to Brian. “She been breathing okay?”
“Not deeply, but steady, I guess. It’s just… I’ve never seen her like this, you know?”
The officer chewed his lip for a second, scanning the car’s interior. He took a second, longer look at Jen, his eyes narrowing. Brian could feel his heart hammering in his chest like a techno beat. If he spotted the gun or recognized Jen…
Brian’s panic faded a fraction as he noticed the subtle flare of the man’s nostrils. He was searching for signs of drugs or alcohol, something that might explain Jen’s condition. These days, Brian only used one addictive substance – caffeine – but if Jen was on anything, the officer didn’t seem to notice.
Reaching a decision, the cop straightened up and met Brian’s eyes. “I’ll escort you to the hospital on Third,” he said brusquely. A command, not a suggestion.
Brian swallowed the knot in his throat and nodded. How very… problematic. The officer apparently hadn’t recognized Jen, but somebody at the hospital would connect the dots, and since the police undoubtedly had his name and address…
The officer pulled out in front of them, sirens wailing, and Brian had no choice but to follow, gripping the steering wheel as though strangling it. He’d always assumed that he would be the cause of his downfall, relapsing into bad behaviors or skimping on his security measures. But now everything was falling to pieces, but he couldn’t find where he’d done anything wrong. Picking up a girl stranded in the rain? Fighting to keep the life he’d built with blood, sweat and tears? Maybe he shouldn’t have had a gun, but even that had been necessary to keep from getting stabbed.
Lying to the officer… not a smart move. Illogical. It made a messy situation a hundred times worse. It made him complicit. And yet, somehow, he couldn’t convince himself that he’d made the wrong decision. Some stubborn, sentimental segment of his brain couldn’t help but compare Jen with the person he’d once been, and as stupid as it was – even after she’d threatened to shoot him – he couldn’t stand to put her through what he’d endured. She’d been desperate, but in the end, she’d stood down, listened. She was innocent, in a sense. Or at least redeemable.
But that didn’t leave him a lot of options. Go to the hospital and subsequently jail, or go anywhere else and maybe end up in jail. Between what he’d learned in prison and his electronic expertise, he had the skills to create a new identity. Better to start over somewhere than go back to prison for any length of time.
Brian let the cop gain some ground and then jumped onto the next exit, swerving so suddenly that Jen snapped out of her stupor. “What are you doing?” she asked, more confused than anything.
“I need to head to my place and pick up a few things before I ditch the city,” Brian said tersely. “With luck, Officer Jackass won’t be able to follow in time to stop us.”
Jen frowned. “Us?”
“Unless you’re going to try and kill me again, I think we’re better off together. Unless you want to do this solo.”
Jen rubbed her arms for warmth, staring at him in confusion. “Why are you helping me?”
“Good question,” Brian grunted, scanning the mirrors for any sign that they’d been discovered. “I guess I’m just stupid like that. Keep trying to help people that don’t listen.”
“Okay, but… why? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Nope. Sure doesn’t,” Brian agreed with manic false cheer. “Any other questions?”
Jen just stared at him, intently enough that he began to grow uncomfortable. “What?”
“I just… everywhere I go, everybody keeps screwing me over, in one way or another. I just screwed you over, and you’re still helping me. It’s… I just don’t get it.”
Brian sighed, turning onto a smaller street, where they were less likely to be spotted by roving cops. “Look, I’ve been in your shoes before. Born in a rut, and it looks like the only way out is to climb over somebody else. But all that does is make the problem worse. It’s a shitty system, and you know what? Most people don’t care. If they actually cared about helping society… never mind.” He shook his head, as though trying to sift through a thousand little thoughts and find his original idea.
“The point is, the system isn’t big on giving people like us a real chance, much less second chances, and prison isn’t going to help that. For either of us. So if I have a shot at getting out and starting over, I’m going to take it. And if you’ve been telling me the truth, I think you deserve one too.”
Pausing at a stop sign, Brian glanced over at his passenger. For the first time since she’d gotten in, Jen looked at him like something other than an obstacle or a threat. She gave him a small, sad smile, and blinked back tears. Then, impulsively, she threw off her seatbelt, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, in the same spot she’d once held her gun on him. The touch of her lips was nearly as cold, and stopped his thoughts and objections with the same efficiency.
She broke contact almost immediately, but she hovered by his side, gripping the shoulder of his sweatshirt in one hand, as though it would keep her tethered to reality. “Thank you,” she whispered. “But I don’t deserve your help, and you don’t deserve my problems”
A stunned second passed before Brian could think again.“It’s a bit late for that now,” he said, gently pushing Jen back into her seat.
“No,” she answered. “There’s a way out. For you, at least.”
Brian’s response died away as Jen pulled away and pointed a gun between his eyes. Again. His gun, stolen from his pocket during the kiss.
“So, buddy,” Jen announced, sounding certain of herself for the first time. “You’re gonna take me to the hospital, ‘kay?”
“Are you fu–”
“Nuh-uh-uh! Just drive. I’m a tough kid – I can handle a few years in the joint. Might even be fun, you know? Good stories.” She laughed suddenly, a little off kilter, but genuine nonetheless. “If my mom could see me now. Facing consequences and shit.”
The tables had turned in more ways than one. Jen had stolen the power, and transferred her confusion to him. “Now you want to go to prison? What happened to freedom? We can both still escape.”
“No we can’t,” Jen said. “What are you gonna do? Spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? Living low?”
She hit him with the gun again, almost fondly. It still hurt. “I can. You get an excuse for all the lies, and you go back to your life. I’ll go to jail for a while, sure, but I can make it work. Victor and Nat are the ones they really want, anyway. Hell, I might even stay clean for real this time.”
A minute passed in silence before Brian spoke again, knowing she wouldn’t actually shoot him. Probably. “How would I explain all this? Why would you actually go to the hospital if you’re on the run from the law?”
Jen considered for a moment, then her eyes lit with a wild spark. Keeping the gun trained on him, she leaned forward and found the knife she’d dropped earlier. “I’m injured,” she announced proudly. “My ‘partners’ stabbed me, and I forced you to take me to the hospital, and you lied because I had a gun on you.”
Brian had known some crazy women in his life, and he knew all too well what was coming next. “Jen, don’t-”
Without hesitation, Jen flicked open the knife and plunged it into her hip, not stopping until the point hit bone. Brian jumped, swearing in shock, while Jen hissed in pain. Tensing, she used both hands to pull the knife free. Blood welled up from the wound, turning the fabric of her ratty jeans dark.
“Nothing deadly” she grunted. “But you’d better hurry. I’m bleeding all over your seats.”
Brian floored it, cutting off a few other drivers in the process. “Are you insane?” he demanded. “I give you a way out and you stab yourself?”
“Just watch the road, asshole. I’m trying to make things right, for once. Besides, it doesn’t hurt that bad. I’m still riding the stuff I took earlier.” As if to punctuate the statement, she punctured herself a few more times, adding cuts and scratches to her hands and clothes, making it look as though she’d actually fought.
“Are you actually crazy?” Brian asked. “Like, literally psychotic?”
“I’m impulsive,” Jen replied, managing to sound offended. She rolled down the window as they passed over a bridge and tossed the knife into river, wincing as the motion aggravated her injury. Once the window was back up, she settled back and closed her eyes, though she kept the gun on him. “Besides, they say everyone’s a little crazy, right?”
“More than a little,” Brian muttered. A road sign indicated the hospital up ahead, only a mile away now. “Jen, c’mon. You’re doing this the hard way.”
“A first time for everything,” she grunted. “This is what I want. You helped me, now I’m helping you. Just let me have this, ‘kay?”
Brian ran a light that an optimist might have called yellow. Half to himself, he whispered, “I still don’t get it.”
“And you don’t have to. It’s my choice.” She leaned against the door, pressing a hand to her hip to stall the bleeding. “I’ve done enough running for a while. Time to try something else.”
They pulled into the hospital parking lot a moment later. The cop car sat by the entrance, with a clearly furious officer on the radio. His eyes widened in disbelief as Brian drove past, heading for the emergency room, and he raced after them.
Brian felt a strange mixture of relief and guilt as he screeched to a halt by the doors, the experience he’d felt when testifying against his former gang. Belatedly, he noticed that the rain had moved on, unveiling a small handful of stars on the horizon, untouched by the chaos of the storm.
“Jen, I’m trying to help you.” he said, one last time.
Jen smiled and put one hand on the door handle. “Brian, you already have,” she whispered. “More than you know,”
She cut him off. The officer was coming up quickly. “Maybe we can keep in touch?”
He smiled back. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
Jen gripped his hand in goodbye, and then threw open the door, screaming obscenities and threats, making a spectacular show of things before the scene devolved into a mess of policemen and paramedics. She gave him a wink as they wheeled her off in handcuffs.
Not long after, Brian found himself in the back seat of the officer’s car, being taken downtown for questioning. The situation was far from over – the fallout from this could still set him back at square one – but for the moment, he was in the eye of the storm, surrounded by chaos, and yet strangely peaceful, in a way that went deeper than lonely drives and dark nights.
What do you know, he thought, staring at the stars. Maybe I reached somebody after all.