April J. Asbury teaches writing and literature at Radford University, and she is a visiting assistant professor of English at Hollins University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and an MA from Hollins.
White sunlight fell in dusty blocks across Marian’s classroom. The students had disappeared from the hallways, leaving behind a strange hush more suited for church than high school. Marian’s “teacher mask” grew easier to wear every year, but after this last bell she could feel it slide away, feel herself settling back into her human skin. Her chair creaked as she leaned back, and she gave into the forbidden luxury of cracking every knuckle in her hands. She shouldn’t--unladylike, Mama called it, swearing that Marian would give herself arthritis. But there was something deeply satisfying in the sound, as if she were putting all her joints right, popping parts of herself back into place.
“Granma says you’re not too old to whip,” Cathy said, hanging back at the doorframe. For a moment she even sounded like Marian’s mother, the mountain drawl creeping back into her voice. But when Cathy moved into the light she was another creature entirely: young, modern, working so hard to be a grownup that it made Marian’s heart hurt. Dark straight hair veiled her face, and her long legs appeared even longer in tight jeans. Marian and Mama both scolded her for slouching, but that didn’t stop Cathy, and her thin blue sweater hid little even with her arms folded tight across her chest.
“She says that about you, too,” Marian said gently. Twenty years ago Cathy would have been thrown out of school for clothes like that, and Marian would have sworn a daughter of hers would never leave the house looking like her daughter did. School meant long skirts, crisp white blouses, and, for special occasions, neat white gloves. But for Cathy and her friends, white gloves were for old ladies and cartoon mice. Some days Marian couldn’t decide whether she envied her daughter’s comfortable, thoughtless grace or wanted to wrap Cathy head-to-toe in a blanket.
Right now, Marian wished she had a blanket. There was something bruised about Cathy, and she carried herself as if she were trying to hide in her own body. “Sweetheart,” Marian said. “What happened?”
Cathy lifted her head, but she never met her mother’s eyes. Marian felt her fingernails bite into her palms. When Cathy felt wronged, she let the whole world know it: she slammed doors, stalked across the floor, demanded that Marian drive her home right away. Now she took a desk in the front row, at an angle to her mother’s, and hid behind her hair.
“Nothing,” Cathy said. “Something stupid. Just a movie.”
Marian left her high-backed chair and sat in a student desk by Cathy. She wasn’t the only teacher who had a child in the high school. They held an unspoken agreement not to treat those children differently--except, of course, for a quiet word in the teacher’s lounge when a kid had gotten into trouble. But after Bill died, Marian was the only widowed parent, and if somebody hurt her little girl . . .
“Cathy.” Marian took one of the small desks beside her daughter. “You’re not making sense. What movie?”
“Coach Manning’s class,” Cathy said.
That was enough. Jim Manning was famous for the scare films he showed to his driver’s ed classes, gruesome little films full of driving lectures and accident footage. Supposedly the films would hammer home the dangers of drinking, speeding, failing to yield, parking, sleeping at the wheel--getting within fifty feet of an automobile, as near as Marian could figure. She had never seen the movies herself; there was no driver’s ed when she was in high school, and Marian had learned to drive thanks to her friends in college. Still, she knew when Manning was showing the film. Her sophomores and juniors would trickle in to her class white-faced and subdued, except for the occasional coarse boys who whispered and elbowed one another, joking about who threw up afterward and who didn’t.
Marian knew Cathy would have to watch the films. But she wanted her daughter to learn the right way, not to wheedle turns at the wheel from cocky college boys. Besides, Cathy was fearless. No movie could bother her daughter much--and if it did, well, maybe it would teach her something she wouldn’t forget.
“It couldn’t be that bad,” Marian said. “Just remember not to speed. And keep the car repaired, and check twice before--”
“He didn’t put buckets in the aisles,” Cathy said. “Steve said Coach would put buckets in the aisles, but he didn’t. Nobody threw up . . .” She braced her elbows on the desk, her face buried in her hands. “I came close.”
Marian felt her chest tighten. “Sweetheart.” She reached for Cathy’s hands, pulling them into her own, and for once Cathy didn’t flinch and turn away. “Tell me what you saw.”
Cathy looked toward the ceiling, staring into the far corner so fiercely that Marian knew she was fighting back tears.
“Uncle Aaron,” Cathy said. “Do you remember what he was wearing when he died?”
Marian knocked again. She could hear someone stirring in the office, and she smelled cigarette smoke even with the door closed. Smoking was restricted to the faculty lounge, but if she had a private office like Coach Manning she would probably light up as soon as the bell rang. “It’s all right, Mr. Manning,” Marian said, wincing as she realized how prim she sounded. “My name is Marian Reeder, and I teach here.”
The door clicked, then it cracked open. A thin curl of white smoke escaped as Jim Manning slid his considerable bulk through the narrow opening. Manning had been the all-around athlete in high school, running track through college, and his muscled legs seemed to belong to a man half his age. Marian was almost disappointed that his legendary legs were hidden, his usual shorts traded for tight-fitting black trousers and a matching jacket. He was a good-looking man, at least by the standards of the teacher’s lounge, even as his hairline retreated from his movie-star face. But his eyes were bloodshot, and the crinkled skin around them had turned puffy and sagging. Those red eyes flickered over her as he summoned a smile. Because it was expected, Marian decided; he had played the part of the charming, handsome athlete so long that he assumed the role by reflex. But this scene was just one more to get through, and his smile never reached his eyes.
“Marian Reeder,” Manning repeated, and she caught the bite of whiskey under the cigarette smoke. “You teach--science, right?”
He had her confused with Jackie Sadler, the dark-haired biology teacher who was fifteen years Marian’s senior. “Civics,” Marian said. “It’s a shame we haven’t really talked before.”
“Yeah,” Manning said. He adjusted his jacket sleeves, stealing a glance at his watch. “Well, you know how it is. Feels like we’re in another world over here.”
Gym teachers had their own space, their offices close to the weight room, gymnasium, and, in Manning’s case, the driver’s ed classroom. Marian took in the drawn shades, the lowered film screen, the posters emblazoned with traffic signs. When she glanced back at Coach Manning he was brushing the dandruff from his left shoulder as if she weren’t there at all.
“My daughter’s in your class,” Marian said. Getting to the point so bluntly felt awkward, even a little rude, but she had lost Manning already. If she didn’t get his attention, he might leave the classroom and lock the door while she stood there. “Cathy Reeder. She’s taking driver’s ed--”
That brought him back. “Oh? How’s she liking it so far?”
“She said you showed a film today.”
He laughed, a short bark. “Got a real wake-up call, didn’t she? Don’t worry; there’s no harm done, although she might have a few nightmares for a while. We’ve never lost anyone to the safety films yet . . .” His voice changed, becoming as somber as a Vietnam correspondent’s. “Although they might save someone’s life.”
Marian blinked. Of course he’d had this conversation before; surely she wasn’t the only parent who looked him up after the safety film. She shouldn’t be surprised his answers were pat and practiced, but she didn’t expect them to sound so melodramatic.
“I was just wondering,” Marian said. “Where do they come from? The films, I mean.” She found herself massaging her hands, knowing she would feel better if she could just pop her knuckles again. “Did they get permission from the families, or--”
“Maybe,” Manning said. “I don’t know, really. Some kind of safety foundation films the wrecks. Police are on scene, so I guess that’s all the permission they need.” He shrugged, then turned to lock up his office. “It’s a free country. Look, Mrs. Reeder, your daughter will be fine.”
“I hope so,” Marian said, but he wasn’t listening. She reached for his shoulder, stopping just short of grabbing him with her ungloved hand. “But the films. They’re not from around here, are they? Where do they come from--California?”
“Oh, a couple of them. Red Asphalt, I think, is from California. Most of the good ones came out of Ohio. Look, I’ve got somewhere to be. Maybe we can pick this up another day?”
He gestured for her to walk in front of him. In the shadowed classroom Marian felt as if she were sleepwalking. It couldn’t be possible; there was no way Aaron’s crash was in one of those films. Even if she and her brother grew up in Ohio.
Cathy was waiting for her on the concrete steps outside the parking lot. “I asked you not to go,” Cathy said. Marian braced herself for one of those teenage tantrums that hit like a cloudburst on a summer day, noise and tears and then gone as suddenly as it had arrived. But Cathy said nothing else, folding her arms back across her chest and keeping her eyes down.
“It was fine.” Marian hoped she sounded casual. “Mr. Manning said that the films were made with permission, way out in California--”
“Bull,” Cathy said. “This was Ohio. The opening said so. All the cop cars were black with that weird symbol on the side, this big tire with wings.”
The flying wheel, symbol of the Ohio Highway Patrol. How many years since Marian had seen one of those old black cars, angelic tire emblazoned on the side?
Around them the parking lot emptied. Marian’s battered Rebel wagon was one of the last cars left, and near the gym entrance she could see Manning’s black Charger like something out of a gritty drive-in movie. Its bright chrome and glass glittered in the October light. Funny, how she’d noticed the white scuffs on Manning’s shoes, the lopsided stitching on his torn sleeve, but that car gleamed like a new toy.
“He changed clothes,” Cathy said. “Maybe he’s got a funeral or something.”
Marian watched the car peel out of the parking lot. As Manning rolled through the intersection the Charger’s engine roared as if he were auditioning for a spot in his own safety film. Funny, she thought again; she was sure she’d heard Jim Manning was married. “I don’t think he’s on his way to a funeral.”
The newel post wobbled slightly under Marian’s palm. The knob hadn’t fit right, not since six-year-old Cathy slid down the banister, hit the post, and sent the whole structure crashing to the floor. When she heard the racket, Marian had been cutting onions, and the knife bit deep into the base of her thumb. Dribbling blood she had run to the base of the staircase. Cathy sat there, stunned, but by the time Marian reached her she had already started to laugh.
Bill had salvaged the newel post. He replaced the banister piece by piece, then coated old and new wood alike with a heavy coat of red shellac. Marian could still see the scars, just as she could still see the thin white line along the base of her thumb. Sometimes Marian wondered if Bill hadn’t left the knob loose on purpose; more than once, Marian had caught Cathy testing the studying the bannister speculatively. But she’d never tried to slide down it again--thank God.
And that was the difference between Cathy and Aaron. Aaron would have ridden that banister until it ripped from the staircase or he broke his tailbone, just to prove that he could.
Upstairs the box springs creaked as Cathy turned in her bed. Cathy had stayed downstairs as long as possible tonight. She watched television, did homework--and it was Friday, for God’s sake. Cathy never did homework early, and Fridays usually meant that Cathy was begging for a ride somewhere: the movie theater, a school play, her friend Donna’s house. Tonight Cathy didn’t want to leave home. But she didn’t want to be alone either.
Marian couldn’t blame her. She had never seen her brother after the crash. At the time she assumed she would see him again at the funeral; she was still in high school, but she had attended funerals for her grandfather, her great-uncle, her aunt Melissa. By the ripe old age of sixteen, she knew “how it was done.” There was a certain comfort in the routine, as much as she hated it. Enter the church, file to the front. Steel yourself so that you don’t break down, so that there’s no flinch of disgust no matter how waxy the hands look, how unfamiliar the thin stretched smile. The people around talk about how “natural,” how “young.” How at peace. Say something vague, comfort your mother, pass on.
For Aaron that never happened. When Marian walked into the funeral home the blankness of his closed coffin hit her like a fist.
Cathy had fallen quiet upstairs, but Marian still didn’t hear the steady, almost-snore of real sleep. Marian placed each step along the side of the stairs where the wood was less likely to creak. Along the staircase she and Bill had placed pictures of the family: her grandparents, her mother, Cathy as a round-cheeked child. Bill in his uniform, Marian in her wedding dress. And Aaron, the handful of portraits that Cathy had known all her life. Aaron wrecked when Cathy was four; Marian wasn’t sure how much she could remember. The rest of his identity had been created from this wall, these photos. A boy in a striped jersey, a bat draped over one shoulder. A boy on his knees, a dog in his arms. A young man standing beside the glossy white hood of a convertible Chevy Bel Air.
The white Bel Air wasn’t Aaron’s first car. First was an old black Plymouth, a beat-up monster with the seats shot to hell. Within three weeks he’d run the car straight into a ditch outside Mansfield. He’d been lucky then. The front of the Plymouth was a mess, the metal frame bent, but Aaron walked away with a split forehead and a bloody nose. He had the Plymouth towed home, but fixing it was hopeless. For the next thirteen years the car rusted in the field behind their parents’ house. Weeds grew through the bent frame and shattered headlights.
It still baffled Marian that her parents had bought Aaron another car. No recrimination, no criticism--not that she had ever heard, anyway. Marian knew Mama worried about him, saw Mama chew her lip when she looked at Aaron’s crooked nose and the jagged white scar, half-hidden by Aaron’s overgrown hair. But their father seemed to take the wreck as a matter of course. Aaron was the son; Aaron had girlfriends, classes, a job. He was a young man who needed a car and that was that.
In the photograph Aaron’s bare torso was all lean muscle. Rumpled hair shadowed the scar on his forehead, but it didn’t hide his broken nose. He grinned back at Marian with all the cockiness of her most brazen students, the boys who leaned far back in their chairs and challenged her, without ever saying a word, as if they wanted to see just how hard a “little thing” like her could swing a paddle.
Marian had never heard for sure if Aaron had been drinking or if he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, but the Bel Air had slammed into the back of a truck. It was fast, Mama said. Fast and hard and he never knew what hit him. And that was all she said--all Mama ever said about the accident. Thank God it was fast.
When Aaron died her parents handled everything. The black Plymouth still hulked in the weeds, staring blindly at the house, but the Chevy--whatever it looked like--never came home. Back then the town would sometimes take wrecked cars and tow them smack into the town square, setting them up in a corner of the park so everyone could file past and admire the twisted metal and shattered glass. The idea was that seeing the wreck would make people drink less, slow down, drive careful. Marian never went to the displays. Daddy hated the extra traffic, and Mama said they were tacky and, once, “Unchristian,” the strongest word Mama knew. The exhibitions finally stopped when a goggle-eyed farmer caused an accident right in front of the display; he rear-ended the car in front of him, throwing his two kids out of the truck bed, and the mess drew a whole new string of gawkers that shut down Main Street for hours.
Those processions were still thriving when Aaron died, but his car was never put on display. Daddy saw to that. No one was going to file past his son’s car, neck craned to see if there was still blood on the seats.
Unless someone had done so, and Daddy never knew. Maybe someone had a camera on the scene of the accident. Someone could have filmed her brother, his cocky smile gone, being lifted from the crash. Daddy wouldn’t have had a chance to stop it.
Marian took the photograph from the wall and turned it over in her hands. The wooden frame powdered her fingertips with dust. She tried to imagine the crash: the inevitable bloodied nose, the broken headlights, the twist of torn metal. In her mind’s eye she saw his face slack, as if he were sleeping on the couch, with a single trickle of black blood over his eye like a movie corpse.
But that wasn’t right, was it. She knew it was worse the moment she saw that closed coffin. Lilies and carnations spilled over it, a grotesque white blanket hung all the way to the floor. When she tried to imagine her brother in that box, there was nothing, a blind spot she could not blink away.
With the edge of her robe Marian polished the last of the dust from the picture frame. There was no way Cathy could have recognized her uncle in that film; she barely knew the man. An image came to her: Cathy at eight years old, dark hair in matching pigtails tied off with red string. Bill had just died, and Marian had driven up to Ohio to spend the summer with her folks. One night after dinner Marian looked up from the sink to see Cathy, barefoot, balancing herself on the bent hood of that old black Plymouth. She peered over the brown sea of weeds and drought-crisp grass, and for an instant she looked so much like Aaron that Marian couldn’t catch her breath. Marian froze, staring out the kitchen window, warm dishwater dripping down her forearms. Mama was the one who ran out, apron flapping, and chased Cathy away from the wreck. The next day she called a truck and had the Plymouth hauled away at last.
“You think it’s him, don’t you.”
Her daughter stood on the landing, looking down at Marian. In the shadows Cathy seemed pale, remote, too old to be Marian’s little girl. “I don’t know,” Marian admitted. “I don’t see how it could be. You’re sure it was this car?”
She passed the picture up to Cathy, who looked at it a long moment, then shuddered. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “The car in the movie was white. And I’m pretty sure it was a convertible, just like this one.”
“But it doesn’t make sense.” Marian wanted to grab the picture and put it back in place. Instead she cracked her knuckles, the audible pop grounding her again. “What are the chances of a camera crew right there, right then? There’s not exactly a shortage of young men dying behind the wheel.”
“With dark hair,” Cathy said. “In white Chevys. In Ohio.”
“You just described half of Aaron’s friends,” Marian said. Hell, Aaron wasn’t even the only one to die in a crash; two weeks after Aaron’s funeral, the Whittaker boy flipped his dad’s Ford into a ditch. “Cars didn’t come with seatbelts back then. You wanted them, you paid extra. And all those dark country roads . . . A wreck once in a while just happened.”
She looked up at Cathy, and when Marian spoke again it sounded like a plea. “They thought they were immortal.”
Cathy laughed, then struck a superhero pose in her navy blue nightgown. “All teenagers are immortal!” she said, fists propped on her hips as she tossed her hair over one shoulder. “Seriously, Mom. I watch the news. There’s some horrible stuff out there. It just--didn’t seem so real, you know? You hear about the murders, and the wars, and you can go to the drive-in and watch zombies eat some guy’s liver, but this just seemed real.”
For the first time Marian wondered if Bill’s death had seemed “real.” She and her daughter had both watched him getting thinner and weaker, both kept watch over his hospital bed for long hours. And then one day he’d slipped away. The nurse hadn’t called Marian until it was too late. When she finally saw her husband’s body, he was a pallid stranger, empty of everything that had made him Bill. Saying anything to the body seemed pointless; after only a few moments, she left and signed the release for the funeral home.
When Cathy saw her father, he had been dressed in suit and tie, a glow of health brushed over waxy cheeks, the dark hollows of his illness plumped out by the undertaker’s art. Fourteen years old, Cathy looked down in the coffin for a few seconds, then turned away. She didn’t weep, and she didn’t look again.
“Go on upstairs, Cathy,” Marian said. She took the photograph back from her daughter, then placed it carefully on its nail. “To my room, if you want. I’m going to read for a while, and maybe tomorrow I’ll fix French toast.”
The offer was a gamble; normally Cathy would scoff at the idea of sleeping with her mother. But this time she didn’t argue. Her nightgown floated behind her as she returned up the stairs.
Marian looked back at Aaron still grinning, his tan washed out into the silvery grays of the photograph. He was her big brother, and she would know him anywhere. Now she studied the angle of his chin, the length of his hands, the curve of his shoulder. She needed something to recognize, just in case.
As soon as her last students left her room, Marian grabbed her purse from her desk and headed after them. She didn’t need to wait for Cathy today; Donna’s mother was taking the girls to the library. Nothing unusual there, but Marian wondered if Cathy had guessed anyway. Cathy had been subdued all weekend, throwing herself into work, books, television. Maybe she knew what Marian was doing--or maybe Cathy was just grateful to escape the house, where her father and uncle stared back at her from the walls.
Marian made her way to the driver’s ed classroom, nearly bumping into a boy who raced back, grabbed a forgotten book, then raced out again. The lights were already off, the dark classroom stuffy and close with the smell of pencil shavings, industrial cleanser, and Manning’s forbidden cigarettes.
She didn’t want to be here. But twice this weekend she’d found herself clutching the heavy black phone in the living room. She wanted to call her mother.
Each time she placed the receiver back in its cradle. What could she say? The usual small talk had all been crowded out, suffocated by the one question she could not ask. To call Mama up out of the blue, only to ask questions about Aaron’s accident after all these years. . . . She couldn’t do it. After all these years of silence about Aaron’s death, the last thing Cathy could ask was if Aaron’s wreck had been caught on film. Marian may have been infected by Cathy’s nightmares, but she wouldn’t risk spreading them to Mama.
She knocked at Manning’s private office before she could reconsider. When the door opened she was engulfed in stale air and the ghost of smoke. Coach Manning’s legendary legs were on display this time; he wore track shoes, green shorts, a track team sweatshirt. “Marian,” he said, and she felt a wash of relief that he remembered her name. “I was just on my way home.”
She glanced at the huge gray-framed clock on the wall behind her. Teachers were required to stay fifteen minutes past final bell, assuming they didn’t have faculty meetings or conferences. Manning probably thought the rule didn’t apply to him. Or maybe he just wanted to get rid of her. Perhaps both.
“We have a few minutes,” Marian said. Through the open door she could see his office. A battered coat rack overshadowed one corner. The worn black suit from its peg, and a wide striped tie dangled from the hanger like a waiting noose. He pulled the door closed behind him, locking it, and she knew he wouldn’t change his clothes today.
“I don’t think your wife will mind,” Marian said. “Something tells me she’s used to waiting.”
The dig was lost on him. “How are you?” Manning asked. “Katie all right?”
“Cathy,” Marian said. The crackle of her knuckles startled her. Embarrassed she shoved both hands behind her back. “That film you showed Friday . . .”
“Nightmares?” Manning chuckled. “Sometimes it happens. But at least it made an impression.”
“I want to see the film.”
For the first time his eyes met hers. “What? Why?”
“I want to see the film, ‘Coach.’” This time she couldn’t resist biting off the word like an insult. “When I was in high school, I lost my brother in a car accident.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But what does that have to do--”
“The film was from Ohio,” she said. “I grew up there.”
His brow furrowed. “So you think . . . No. That film is way too old.”
“Ancient, I’m sure,” Marian said drily. Part of her marveled at herself, wondered who this woman was, facing down the hotshot track coach as if he were just another student who had really done his homework, honest. “When was it made, Coach?”
“I don’t know,” he said, his eyes flashing toward the clock. “Look, there is no way you know anyone in this film. The odds are just too big. And even if you do . . . you don’t want to see him like this.”
Manning reached for her arm, squeezing it with a patronizing familiarity that made Marian grit her teeth. “It’s not your brother. Just go home. Your kid will get over it eventually.” He smiled down at her as if he were giving her a gift. “If I show any more films, I’ll send Katie out of the room. It’ll be just like you sent a note.”
Marian’s eyes squeezed shut. The anger inside was hot and heavy; she wanted to smack that condescending smile off his face with her handbag. For a minute she felt as if Aaron were with her. Some guy gives you shit, li’l sis, you just kick him in the balls. Kick him like you mean it, like you’re gonna send his privates right up in the back of his throat. Then run like hell, cause when he stops throwin’ up he’s gonna be pissed!
She had never taken her brother’s advice. Right now, however, it sounded like a damn good idea. “Show me the film,” she said. “If you need to go home, then just leave me here with the projector. I think I can figure out how it works.”
The last part she meant as sarcasm; Marian taught high school, for God’s sake. She could work any projector in the building blindfolded with one hand tied behind her back. But Manning considered her speculatively, as if she’d offered to rebuild the carburetor on his precious Dodge. Then he sighed, opened his office door, and started rummaging through a cabinet packed with metal canisters. He took the canister closest to the top, tucking it under his arm, then walked to the projector, still plugged in, at the back of the classroom.
Marian settled herself in one of the desks, smoothing her skirt nervously. “Will I need a bucket?” she asked, trying her best to make a joke.
“For what?” Manning said, and the projector flickered to life.
Damn the woman. She sat in the desk, staring at the screen as if he didn’t exist. She wasn’t much of a looker, not like her daughter, all long legs and tight sweaters. Marian Reeder was small, barely more than five feet, and her graying hair was pulled in a bun that made her look twice her age. Her pink, chapped hands were bare except for a wedding band, and her purse set at a perfect angle on the scarred desk.
On the screen was Officer Tom, or whatever the cop with the thinning hair called himself. He sat at his desk, taking a call about a signal thirty as if it were just a window cracked by a stray softball. Usually Jim loved this part--not because of Officer Tom’s great performance, but because of his students. The way they giggled and whispered and stared straight ahead, already half-green, dreading what was coming. Just you wait, he wanted to tell them. You’re gonna see something to shut you up soon enough.
His audience of one wasn’t whispering, and she didn’t look sick yet. Her face was set, grim and hard, and he felt sorry for any kids in her history class. It was history, wasn’t it? In Jim’s experience social studies teachers were the loudest, a mismatched bunch of super-patriots and pseudo-communists all mixed up together to make the most trouble possible. If he had said no to Marian Reeder, he would never hear the end of it--and if they got into his business, the whole town would know it by Wednesday. He just wished he’d had time for a cigarette before she showed up.
The narrator, flat and deliberately nonchalant, promised that the footage would be real, the blood would be real, everything would be real. The narrator, doing his best Joe Friday, promised that he only wanted--the whole Ohio Highway Safety Patrol wanted--to save your life. Then Officer Tom, or Dick, or whoever was rolling his black patrol car through the brown landscape at a stately pace, as if to emphasize that drivers should never speed, even to reach some poor, broken kid hanging out a windshield. The camera lingered on the flying wheel emblem, outspread chicken wings bearing a cartoon tire off to heaven, and then the crash footage started.
He saw Marian stiffen, her jaw working. But she didn’t say anything. Not when the camera panned over a T-boned Ford at an intersection, not when it cut to a truck wrapped around a light pole. The bodies were already gone--the driver of the Ford, the narrator said darkly, walked away, only to speed another day. A flipped sedan in a ditch, a shoeless pedestrian on a sidewalk, all building to the big pay-off: a white Chevy Bel Air, front end crushed against a truck. The convertible top was down, leaving no barrier between the driver and the camera’s lens.
He heard Marian’s sudden sharp intake of breath. “Oh, Christ,” Jim muttered. Not that one. The camera pulled close--there was something like a breath, or maybe the photographer’s unsteady camera wavered--and for a long moment the camera lingered on the young man speared to the seat by his steering column. His heavy-lidded eyes were still half open, and his face tilted up toward the camera’s light.
What a waste, the narrator said. He believed he was invincible. Look at him now.
Marian’s breathing had quickened, short shallow breaths with her mouth open. Shit, he should have never shown her that film. He should have shown her a different one--a dozen of them--long and dull and colorless. Enough of those, and maybe she would have left him alone.
The picture jumped, the narrator breaking off with an awkward hiccup, before cutting to another bleak scene with Officer Tom. Marian started, nearly knocking over the desk as she jumped to her feet. She stood, swaying, still fixed on the screen, before she grabbed her purse and bolted from the room.
Listening, Jim waited. Then he turned off the projector lamp and put the film in reverse. He meant to put it back in the canister, put it away until his spring class. Instead he flipped thelamp back on for one last look.
She didn’t know how long she had been inside the car. Marian had a dim impression of walking out of the room, finding a bathroom. Sitting, for a long while, on the gritty gray tiles of the bathroom floor. The floor had just felt right--solid, cool, permanent. The longer she stayed, the closer she was to the ground, the slower things moved. When she could leave, the halls were empty. And then she found her way here.
Her hands ached from gripping the wheel. Had Jim gone home, or was he waiting for her somewhere? She had rushed out without saying goodbye; that was rude, Mama would say. Unladylike.
If Mama saw that film, it would kill her.
She fumbled through her purse. Her fingers felt numb, and it took too long to find her cigarette case. While Bill was sick she cut down, tried to stop, even in the teacher’s lounge. But she never stopped carrying the case. The weight of it was solid and familiar, the worn burgundy leather creased by years of use. The clasp popped open, and she pulled out a stale cigarette with shaking fingers. But she couldn’t get the lighter to catch, dragging her thumb over the wheel again and again.
The heavy throb of the Charger made her look up. Jim had pulled his car alongside hers, his window open. He mimed for her to roll hers down too.
Marian shook her head. Jim got out of the car, shifting from one foot to the other. Dammit, why didn’t he just leave already? She grabbed the key in her ignition and turned it, the starter making a grinding screech. She didn’t even remember turning the car on.
The Charger door opened again. Jim reached inside, pulled out a paper grocery bag crinkled with reuse. Then he set the bag right on the hood of the Rebel. Then he got back in his car and slammed the door. The Charger roared as it shot past her, made a wide turn in the parking lot, then hurtled through the intersection without even pausing at the stop sign.
Marian stared after him, her hands falling limp into her lap. How could he? So many times he’d looked at all that death. He’d seen the broken bodies, the cartoon crimson splashed all over the bright chrome-edged dash. He saw those films--how often? Once a week, twice a month? After Jim started playing the film, she’d looked over and caught his lips moving with the narration; he knew these movies, maybe even loved these movies.
“‘He believed he was invincible,’” she said aloud, her voice hoarse and strange in the silence.
For an instant she could see her brother, bending over the exposed motor of the black Plymouth. He had called her over, tried to point things out. You need to know this, he’d told her, even though she whined. She was a girl; she was too young; Daddy would never let her drive. Finally Aaron turned on her. Sis, everybody’s alone sometime. Boy, girl, there’s nobody ever got hurt by learnin’ to do for themselves.
Marian stuffed the cigarette case back in her purse. She got out of the car and picked up the brown paper bag, heavy with metal film canisters.
The Rebel didn’t roar out of the lot like the Charger had. Marian even remembered to stop at the sign, to check for traffic, to pull into the road with her turn signal blinking. But then she put the pedal to the floor, and it was almost like Aaron was with her. She didn’t have her license long before he died; as far as Marian could remember, she had never driven him anywhere. Now, however, she could see him, leaning out of the passenger window with the wind catching in his hair.
For dinner that night Marian fixed pancakes. Cathy loved them, and “breakfast for dinner” had been one of her favorite things when she was a child. Then Marian told Cathy what she needed to hear. “It wasn’t him.”
Cathy stopped with her second strip of bacon halfway to her mouth. “You saw it?”
“It looked like him,” Marian said. “It was close, but that wasn’t your uncle.”
Cathy’s face changed. She closed her eyes for a long moment, and when she opened them they were bright with relief. Just as quickly the light seemed to die out again. “It was somebody,” Cathy said. “And it was real.”
She’d gone upstairs early, but not to sleep. Cathy left her curtains open, in spite of all Marian’s warnings to the contrary. From the yard Marian could see her sitting at the desk by the window. She was talking on the phone, laughing at something one of her friends had said, and all the lights were on.
Marian waited for kindling at the bottom of the trash barrel to catch. It was dark early, but the night had that kind of comfortable warmth that made her think of summer, not autumn. Hands covered in thick gardening gloves, she tossed in a handful of old cancelled checks, then more newspaper. Finally, when the fire leapt and glowed, Marian dumped the first reel of film.
The fire flared up as the celluloid bubbled into sludge. She let the canister go too, and metal rang against the trash barrel. Too late she wondered if the film was safe to burn; she could have thrown it out, of course, but that didn’t feel final enough. The fire flared up briefly, the film bubbling into a sludge. Marian tipped in another pile of film, and another.
The last to go was the one she’d seen this afternoon. She held on to it a long moment, then cracked open the canister and cast the lid inside. She pulled out the tail of film and unwound yard after yard, squinting at the tiny frames, searching one last time for her brother. Maybe what she’d told Cathy was right, and the body in the white car was someone else. She had been distracted by the blood, the shattered glass, the flicker of the projector’s lamp.
There was nothing left to see. Marian threw the film into the barrel. She felt as if she should cry, but her throat was too tight. Instead she waited until the fire died and Cathy’s window was dark.
The barrel was still hot and smoking when she tipped it over. With gloved hands she fished out the charred metal canisters. Bits of melted safety film still clung to the sides, but the labels were gone. With clumsy tenderness she extracted the warped metal, piece by piece, and laid them on grass still wet with dew.