I am quite proud to introduce this short story, “The Driver” by Lisa Burgess, which won our “Show Off” Writing Contest for January. Lisa is a high school English teacher, a writer, and a mom. She lives in Michigan and is particularly inspired by the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Enjoy the story!
Lila reached past the steering wheel and adjusted the volume on the radio. “A storm of at least twelve bombings ripped across Baghdad this morning, killing at least seventy-two people….” For years she had found the calm voices of the news reporters on NPR soothing after a long day. This day was no exception.
Without a word, her husband reached out and twisted the volume dial back down so that Lila had to strain to hear voices. “The developments heighten fears of a new round of Shiite-Sunni sectarian bloodshed….” She squinted through the glare of the streetlight as it reflected off her spectacles and could barely see where the yellow line separated the turn lane from the road. White gusts of snow swirled angrily across her windshield. Lila switched on her blinker and pulled into the turn lane.
Earlier that day, the perky girl-of-a-meteorologist on the television had been calling this a winter storm watch and warning people to stay inside if they could, if they had nowhere else they needed to be. Lila resented this warning. The girl appeared to be in her late thirties, young enough to be her daughter—if she had ever had one. And if she had, she would have taught her never to wear a bright red suit or tacky pink lipstick that poked out toward the camera every time she used the phrase, “Winter solstice.” Apparently this meteorologist was keenly interested in the fact that tonight would be the longest night of the year.
It was dark out. A gap in the steady flow of headlights opened up ahead, and Lila turned left into the parking lot of the diner. “A suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden vehicle blew himself up outside the office of….” She pulled into a parking space and turned the key, killing the engine. The calming voice of the reporter cut off immediately. A cold, dark silence ensued. She waited for the inevitable crabby announcement from the passenger’s seat: One, two, three—“Oh, hell. Let’s just order at the drive-thru.”
Right on cue, she thought, turning the key toward the dashboard and allowing the engine to cough, inhale, sputter, and then groan back to life, resurrecting the voices from NPR along with it: “After the guards let the ambulance driver through, he drove to the building where he blew himself up.”
Shifting the car into drive, she pulled through the darkness surrounding the diner and pressed the brake when she came to the glowing, screen-like menu. “May I take your order?” a disembodied voice asked. She hated the drive-thru. She wanted to turn around, park, and go into the clean, well-lit diner. She wanted to demand they eat a meal at a table together, but the language between them had dissolved some time ago. She couldn’t remember exactly when. Before his affair—she was sure of that. But how long before, she was never able to say. He’d told her he was sorry a hundred times, but his apologies sounded like a flute solo masked by the discordant bellows of a dozen bassoons. He’d offered to file for a divorce, if that was what she wanted, but she’d told him she wanted to work things out. But she had no intentions of repairing their relationship.
Her true intentions? She guarded them, especially from herself, as if they were the face of Medusa. She knew if she looked at them she would surely turn to stone. And so she hid the fact that she really wanted to stay married because she enjoyed making him suffer. She wanted to transform herself into a scar, a burn—stretched pink skin, like raw, dried out meat, right across one cheek. A reminder of his misstep that he must look at every single day, for the rest of his life, and remember how beautiful he used to be. She wove a shroud of winter darkness, and it fell like a curtain between them.
And then, one day, something horrible happened: her stone-cold punishment stopped working. For a while—a year at least—he had been like an abused dog, cowering through the back door each evening after work, and hanging his coat neatly in the closet before taking a seat at the kitchen table. He would offer her submissive conversation speckled with sycophantic praise—to which she always returned as ice, of course. But now, now he seemed to have established a certain level of immunity against her punishments. He’d been playing cards with the guys on Tuesdays, just like he did before the affair. The number of times he called her each day dwindled from five to one—and she felt the one would return to zero rather soon. So now what? She was nearing retirement, childless, unhappy in her career, and unhappy in her marriage. He called her bluff, and now she was going to have to file for divorce. But worse, her main source of enjoyment—tormenting her husband—would melt into a memory, and then slowly, she would evaporate.
He shouted his burger-and-fries order over her lap, and as she contemplated the value of a diet coke over a chocolate shake, she wondered, when this had become her life? A thoughtless, unexamined crawl toward, toward what? But, there was always a choice—wasn’t there?—a well-lit diner even in the darkness of a winter solstice?
Her mind wandered backward through the news report….
“Do you want to get away for a while,” she asked, eyebrows raised.
He looked up at her, surprised. “Where?”
“I don’t know. Florida maybe? Or Vegas?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know if we can afford it right now.”
Why had she ordered a salad? She didn’t really like salads. In the past she had eaten them to keep her weight down, to keep herself healthy. But now, neither of those mattered. She did it out of habit, she supposed, pulling forward to the pickup window where she accepted her dinner.
Outside the streetlights stood like executioners uniformed in holly, red ribbon and masked in snow. She exited the parking lot and slowed the car to a stop behind a line of about fifteen other cars waiting for the light to turn green. The sound of a siren and red, flashing lights in her rearview mirror forced her to inch to the side of the road. Waiting, she was always waiting.
It was at this moment that she realized her hands were shaking. I’m cold, she explained to herself, it’s so cold outside, so dark, the darkest day of the year, and then a thought appeared to her like a prophecy and a shiver of delight slid down her spine and the thought glowed on her dashboard and it shimmered and it looked through her and the sensation was like nothing she’d felt in years, like she had been sinking down through the darkness of the ocean, and now she was swimming up up up and breathe! “You’re listening to NPR news. It’s 5:30.”
The streetlights melted into cowering mounds of holly and ribbon. A smile crawled up through her esophagus, into her throat and then pulled at one cheek. Her trembling hands turned the wheel to the left and her foot made its way to the gas pedal. “Lil? What are you—“ The siren roared. And then a crash, glass shattering, metal bending, a scream.
The thought had become flesh.
When the second ambulance arrived just minutes later, both the old man and the woman were proclaimed dead upon impact.
“Long night?” the police officer politely asked the EMT.
The EMT lifted the first covered gurney into the falling snow. “The longest.”