In the Headlight

The image flashed by so quickly, that it had gone before her brain could register it properly.  Just a flash in the headlights; a moth, perhaps, or something flung across her path by the wind.  She was already so tired her mental processes were a bit slower than they should be when driving, but it would be another half an hour, maybe forty minutes, before she would reach her home.

For months, she’d been searching for a job closer to where she lived.  It wasn’t just the long drive there and back that made it so hard to take; it was also the long hours in the bar, standing the whole time, dealing with idiots making the same jokes every night.  The young ones, convinced she wouldn’t be able to resist their predictable and usually offensive comments, the older, married-looking ones spouting crap about their problems.  And then there were the ones for whom she was invisible; a nobody who didn’t deserve a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’; the ones who wouldn’t even put the money in her hand, but would slap it onto the bar and turn away, already disengaged from her existence.

Her bed welcomed her with a cool, soothing embrace and, in spite of a vague rumble from her empty belly, she was asleep in minutes.  When the light dragged her into wakefulness, she had no recollection of her dream, apart from a nagging suspicion that it had been about a moth or something.

Hours later, as she eased into the bend, the flash in the headlights caught her eye and a sense of déjà vu hit her.  Without much conscious input, her brain ran through a list of possibilities: a moth, a leaf, a ray of light, a reflection.  A reflection?  She didn’t even know how she’d arrived at that idea.  A reflection of what?  All the way home, she couldn’t shake the idea that she should know what it was that she’d seen lit up for an instant in the beam of her headlight.

Every night for the next four days, she saw the same flash at the same place.  On night three, she drove really slowly as she approached the bend: walking pace, almost, yet she still only saw the maddening flash as the compelling image appeared and vanished.  She found herself lying awake, staring into the darkness, trying to visualise what she’d seen in the hope of resolving the mystery.

On the fourth night, she rounded the bend and saw the flash again, but this time she only drove a short way further until she reached a passing place.  She pulled in and turned off the engine.  It seemed as though this torment would drive her mad if she didn’t find an explanation for the vision.  “Round the bend!” she heard herself say to the empty road.

The exact spot where the image was visible was really easy to find now that she’d seen it so many times, but as she stood at the side of the road, there was nothing that could explain it.  Turning slowly, she looked from the floor to the treetops, searching for anything that might project an image, allow a chink of light through from some hidden source or house a nest of flying creatures that might be taking turns to cross her path.  Nothing!  She stepped back a little.  Nothing!  A little more.  Nothing!  Bending, she tried to fix her eyeline to where she imagined it would be if she were in the car and as her hair swished forward she thought she might have caught a glimpse of something shining in the air.  She heard the car before she saw it swoop around the dark bend.  Just in time to glance towards it as it hit her.  One eye catching the light of the driver’s headlights.  Like a moth.

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Pictures of a girl

His eyes were drawn by the crow as it flapped across the garden on wings like borrowed rags.  He watched until it was a twitching dot, then nothing.  Only then did he return his attention to the pictures in his hand; smudged, old, yellowing, pencil portraits.  The same little girl, drawn from different angles: just her head.   She had large, striking eyes framed by long, curled lashes.  In one picture, she had her eyes closed and a ghost of a smile lay on her lips, in another her eyes were hidden behind the dark floppy fringe, but they were definitely all of the same girl.  Same bow-shaped mouth.  Same dimpled chin.  Same crescent birthmark at the side of her nose.

He looked up at the house.  He’d only lived there for a month, in fact he’d never even visited the area before he’d seen the house, then, one day … absent-mindedly clicking on estate agents’ sites on the internet.  It was just there: the perfect house!  Three bedrooms, original fittings, garage, large garden, much further away than they’d considered moving and a lot more than they’d planned on spending, but it just looked right.  It shouldn’t even have been in the search results.  Just a fluke, really.

Buying it had been much easier than he’d expected; the seller accepted his offer, which was quite a bit less than they’d been asking.  They’d inherited it and just wanted to be rid of it.  His own house had sold quickly, which came as a surprise, and everything just seemed to go smoothly.  Coming here would help them make a fresh start!  It would be so much easier because it was so far from everyone they knew: his family, her family, their friends.  What was left of them!

He jumped as she knocked on the kitchen window.  She was pointing down towards the sink so he nodded, even though he had no idea what she wanted.  He put the pictures back into the tattered envelope they’d been in, slipped it into the satchel that leant against his deckchair then, scooping up the bag, he walked into the garage. 

When he entered the kitchen, he couldn’t see what his wife was doing because everything looked so dark, but as his eyes adjusted, he saw she had potatoes in a sink full of water.  He sighed, picked up a peeler and asked, “What did your last slave die of?”

She laughed and replied, “Asking too many questions!”  She walked away.  He could hear her humming in the living-room.  It was nice to hear her humming again after all this time; she sounded happy when she hummed.  He hummed too: quietly.

They ate their dinner in the garden, chatting about the unexpectedly warm weather, the list of jobs that would need doing around the house, whose turn it was to wash the dishes.  They talked of everything and nothing at all.  The light had barely begun to fail when they finally went indoors and, in spite of an earlier conclusion, he washed the dishes, finding the robotic motions and warm water peculiarly soothing.  He couldn’t hear her humming now, but he heard her laughter occasionally over the noise of the television.

He dried his hands and, gently turning the back door handle, slipped into the garden.  He took a deep breath and identified honeysuckle, lavender, earth smells.  For some reason they made him hungry.  He opened the door to the garage and went in.  Reaching up to the highest shelf, he brought out the bag with the drawings in them and slid them back out.  Standing under the bare bulb, he scrutinised them for something new, some sign to make sense of them; he knew there would be none.  On each piece of paper, just the girl’s face and a date in the bottom, right-hand corner.  He’d looked at them five or six times a day for the last week, since finding them in a box in the attic, underneath some moth-eaten curtains, a few old books and a stack of newspapers dating back forty-something years.  He’d held them up to the light, smudged the pencil markings with his finger to check whether they were real and, time after time, he had placed them side by side with the tiny photograph from his wallet.  Comparing the dark hair in the drawings with the dark hair in the photograph.   Comparing the large, long-lashed eyes, the bow-shaped mouth, the dimpled chin and comparing the crescent-shaped birth mark on the face in the pictures, drawn before he had even been born, with the identical birthmark on the face of the seven-year-old daughter, whose death had come so close to destroying his marriage.