She always wore her seatbelt, but not this time. Sharp, shooting pains ricocheted through her ribs with such veracity that the mere thought of strapping the belt across her chest stole the air from her lungs and left her gasping. Naked without her seatbelt, she tried to convince herself that car accidents only happen when you’re driving far from home or navigating down unknown paths. It was a short drive from their apartment to the shopping mall and she knew it well.
Thirty more minutes.
Despite the pain in her ribs she took the back roads. She normally took Route One to the mall, but this time was different. Route One was a smoother ride, but, even in this weather, it would have been busy with insatiable post-holiday shoppers who were thirsty to buy the overpriced gadgets that their lives couldn’t be lived without. Fewer cars took the back roads. She accepted the pain in exchange for the smaller likelihood of being seen by anyone who might remember her.
Her ribs screamed while driving over the potholes on Spencer Street, the speed bumps in front of the elementary school and the grated metal bridge that linked the south part of town with the north. The sum of these obstacles was no comparison to the train crossing that jarred her ribs in a way that made her long to escape from her own body and maybe, even, her entire world.
She avoided the empty rows at the perimeter of the mall parking lot. She couldn’t risk catching the attention of the mall security guards who might find her presence there suspicious. She drove closer to the main entrance where everyone parked, especially in this weather. There, she could blend in and look like just another girl waiting in her car at the mall in the rain.
She turned the ignition off between a pickup truck and an SUV. The engine sputtered into silence. She remembered to breathe, wincing in pain as her lungs lifted her rib cage and took in a shallow gulp of chill, damp air. By habit, her senses absorbed her surroundings. Sound, feel, smell and sight. She scoured the parking lot through the drops of rain that slid down her windshield for a glimpse of his hurried walk. She closed her eyes and frisked her inner being for a gut inclination that he was here, somewhere, watching her from afar. She felt for the hair on her arms to raise, as it often did when he was close. In her breath she searched for traces of his scent, the musk of his deodorant or the faint floral trail left behind by their fabric softener. Nothing.
She tightened the blood stained bandage that encircled her hand. The gauze didn’t need adjusting, but she became fidgety when she was nervous. Her hand was swelled in shades of blue and purple, injured from being used as a shield in a debris field of broken glass. So deep were the cuts and bruises that it felt like they emanated from the depths of her soul.
Twenty-five more minutes.
It seemed like she was always falling sideways, but she only had herself to blame. She had a choice, he said, and she chose to land on her side, letting let her ribs break her fall. That’s what she gets, he would say, for being so clumsy. It was her fault that her body wasn’t properly proportioned like most other women, that her ribs were too bony and the rest of her was too plump. She should work out more, he said. Squats would tone her dimpled thighs and miles on the treadmill would burn off the jiggle clinging to her hips. Handles, he called them, not love handles. No other man would ever love her imperfect body except for him. She was lucky to have him, he said, and she needed to remember that the next time she thought about telling someone that it wasn’t her fault that she fell.
The rain hastened, signaling the start of the storm. Normally, she’d stake out a Nor’easter from the window in their kitchen. She’d sit on the sill for hours, watching the sky darken and the temperature drop and ground disappear under sheets of ice and snow. But, this time was different.
The tint of the windshield distorted the grayness of the sky, but she could still make out the sluggish nimbus clouds that billowed with rain and sleet and snow. Even as a child she had been fascinated by the weather. While her elementary school classmates played at recess, she’d lay in the grass and watch the clouds race high above. She wondered where they had been and where they were going and how freeing it must feel to fly around the world like that; endlessly. She had long dreamed of becoming a meteorologist and the more that she learned about the climate and the clouds and the atmosphere, the more that she wanted to know. The weather was a boundless creature to study, simultaneously simple and complex. and something would never be truly understood.
Seventeen more minutes.
Their story had an all too familiar beginning. She remembered the keg party in a dingy basement with the Dropkick Murphys emanating from the speakers and a door, removed from its hinges and repurposed as a table, covered in plastic cups that held cheap beer at various stages of consumption. Her cup was mostly full and his was mostly empty when he coaxed her outside for a cigarette. She didn’t smoke, but he had one to spare. They stood in the mushy grass near a lingering snow pile that seemed determined not to vanish under the strengthening grip of spring. She lit her assigned cigarette and inhaled. The smoke singed the cilia in her lungs and the nicotine rushed to the top of her head. She felt like she was floating above the ground and beyond the realness of life. He grabbed her arm and steadied her and she instantly wanted more.
Soon, spring encompassed their world and life took on a brilliant intensity. Flowers bloomed and the temperature warmed and he gave her the nickname Lily because she looked like a tiger lily with her sanguine hair and freckles. She had always wanted a nickname, but a name like Carly hardly lent itself to a nickname; it wasn’t poetic or long enough. He promised to give her a nickname the night that they first met. He said that he’d take her out to dinner when he came up with one that was worthy of describing her; mysterious and beautiful.
Like summer weeds in a yard they grew hastily in every direction without worrying about whether or not they’d survive. There were lessons to be learned. He taught her about the restaurant industry so that she could help him to become a chef-owner of the most popular restaurant in town; that was his dream since he was a child. From the cramped kitchen in his apartment he introduced her novice palate to exotic curries and chilis – flavors that made her taste buds dance. Quick with a knife, his lessons included how to chiffonade and julienne and dice. He’d give her onion after onion and cabbage after cabbage until she mastered the perfect cuts. In exchange, she taught him the differences between the shapes of cirrus clouds and culumus clouds and the details of barometric pressure. She wondered why everyone didn’t have a love like theirs.
She tried to predict their future together in the same way that she was learning to forecast the weather. She saw herself in a white dress in a field of yellow flowers. Nothing about the weather was certain, her professors would repeatedly lecture. She knew that weather patterns would often change without notice but she was too consumed in her new world to have noticed that the same logic applied to people.
He told her that he wanted to name their restaurant Lily. The restaurant would just be something small at first. He would cook and she would waitress until they could afford to hire staff. It wouldn’t be long before they’d be swamped every night in the summer and they’d make enough money to start a local restaurant chain and buy a house with a yard and a pool. Owning a restaurant wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. She reminded him that she was studying to be a meteorologist; that was her dream since she was a child. He said that she was the only person that he could trust to open a restaurant with and didn’t she want him to be happy?
The rain turned to sleet and the wind changed direction, whipping the rain sideways against her windows. Her body contained an electrical storm. Shocks of adrenaline pulsated from the pit of her stomach, up through her chest and branched off in varying directions before settling in the clenched muscles of her neck, arms and shoulders. Each pulse tried to scare her into changing her mind and turning back. It wasn’t too late, her nervous system screamed, but this time was different and she knew better than to listen.
Twelve more minutes.
They moved in together to an apartment near the mall. It had new carpet and a well equipped kitchen and a balcony that was big enough to hold a table and chairs so that they could sit out on warm evenings. He filled the kitchen cabinets with his skillets and saucepans and the drawers with his knives and wooden spoons. She read articles about gardening and started growing indoor herbs. She filled mason jars with soil and seeds of coriander, tarragon and thyme and aligned them in the window where the angle of the midday sun was the strongest.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when an ending begins, but she suspected that their ending began last fall. They were on the balcony that night, having just finished a meal of chicken chettinad. Dirty pans and knives were scattered about the kitchen and the herbs in the mason jars had wilted; they had grown only to be scorched by the late summer sun. A citronella candle burned between them and he insisted that she take time off from school. She was three credits away from graduating but he said that she was so focused on her externship that she never made time for him. Afterall, one semester off is not forever and he needed help finding a restaurant to buy. Slowly, she realized that their ideas for their restaurant had turned into their ideas for his restaurant.
Like a vine winding its way around a tree, inch by inch he crept his way around her. Her credit cards disappeared and her bank account was closed. They were in the kitchen when she questioned him about it. He threw a mason jar of wilted thyme at her head – she ducked before it crashed against the wall. It’s not like he wanted to take over the finances it was because he had to, he yelled while standing over her. She was bad with money and needed to learn how to budget. He said that they would never be able to afford a restaurant if she kept spending the way she had since they met.
He started giving her a cash allowance every week. Some weeks the allowance was more than she needed, some weeks it was nothing at all. No matter how little money he gave her, he’d always insist on inspecting her receipts and counting her change before he’d give her more. She knew that he wanted to know where she had been and what she had been buying. He did it because he loved her, he said. She’d wait to show him the receipts and change until after he had been drinking. He’d get sloppy with his math and pay less attention to a missing dollar or two. She’d stash away spare change in an envelope that she labeled coupons. She stored the envelope in her glovebox; she changed the lock on it months ago. He seemed to have they key to everything in her life except her thoughts and the contents of her glovebox.
The sleet gave way to snow and the reflection of a police cruiser filled her rearview mirror. It pulled close and stopped behind her car. She was trapped. Her heart thumped madly, but this time she didn’t feel the pain in her ribs. A wave of numbness washed over her until she was engulfed in an eerie sense of calm. She was trapped in the eye of her own storm.
Seven more minutes.
He insisted on buying a dilapidated burger shack that had been vacant for over a year. She told him that, calculated in restaurant time, one year of neglect might as well be forever. The shack needed extensive renovations and it was in a bad location to attract passers-by. She told him that they should be patient and wait to buy a restaurant until they found one that was in good condition and close to Route One where traffic was the busiest. He didn’t listen. He said that she was just a wanna-be meteorologist. What did she know about the restaurant industry, besides how to chop vegetables? It was almost like she couldn’t even do that right, he said, striking her cheek with the back of his hand. The slap happened at the speed of light and in slow motion at once. The next day she dabbed layers of concealer over her cheekbone and wondered why the good things in life, like falling in love, always seem to happen in a split second that’s too fleeting to savor. She topped the layers of concealer with powdered bronzer and wondered why the bad things in life ooze over you so slowly that you don’t even notice until one day you’re too stuck to break free.
He always apologized. He told her that he loved her and that that he was sorry that he let his emotions get the best of him again. He was a passionate person, and she needed to understand that, he said. Besides, it’s healthy to argue. All couples argue, he said. In a gesture of empathy, he’d take her to dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. He always hated going to that restaurant, but that he’d do it just for her, he said. He’d let her order the spicy crab stuffed ravioli and too many glasses of wine to count. Her throat burned from the red pepper flakes and the Chardonnay and she’d always accept his apology, mostly out of fear of not knowing what would happen if she declined it.
The cruiser was still stopped behind her, but she was prepared. She had rehearsed for this moment by practicing her answers to the whats and the whys in case someone asked. What was she doing? Waiting for a friend. Why was she at the mall? To return a pair of shoes she bought for Christmas. She hated lies and at least neither of her answers contained a blatant one.
The proof was in her car. She held onto the receipt from her shoe purchase, though the ink had begun to smudge from the sweat on her palm. The shoebox was in the backseat, dented from being thrown across the living room. She had searched for those sneakers for two months. They were hard to find; newly released and in high demand but, eventually, she found them in the exact style, size and color that he had asked for. He even wrote down the description for her on a notecard: gray, V7, size twelve. She equated his longing for those shoes with the way a child fixates on the possibility of getting a candy bar at the checkout aisle. At some point between writing down the description of the shoes and tearing off the snowflake covered wrapping paper that contained them, he changed his mind. She didn’t get the right pair. They were gray instead of black. They were a size twelve, not a size thirteen. He interrogated her. Could she never do anything right? Why did she never listen to him? Was she really that stupid? She kept that notecard locked in her glove box as a reminder that she wasn’t crazy and his handwriting perfectly described the shoes in the dented box in the backseat.
She closed her eyes to keep from gazing into the rearview mirror at the officer idled behind her. She didn’t want to catch his attention but, if she did, she wondered if he would remember her. Do women like her even get remembered? Or, was she just a piece of paper on a desk waiting to be shoved into a filing cabinet of police reports and turned into a statistic?
Five more minutes.
He said that he wanted to surprise her when he put a blindfold over her eyes and drove her to the dilapidated burger shack. When she got out of the car, she instantly knew where she was. The stench of grease and fries drifted in the air. He took off her blindfold. They stood in the kitchen where a coat of dust covered the floor. The electricity didn’t work and somehow the roof was leaking even though it wasn’t raining outside. The industrial sized grills and ovens had been taken over by mice and decorated with cobwebs. She knew the truth before he even told her. He had taken all of the money that was in her savings account and used it as a downpayment. He got a great deal on it, he said, and it wasn’t like she needed the money herself. A few weeks later she started getting phone calls from collection agencies. He had stolen her social security number and took out high interest loans from online banks in order to fund the restaurant renovations. He had destroyed her credit and with it, her hopes of getting her own apartment and student loans to complete her meteorology degree. He always seemed one step ahead.
His anger twirled around her the night she that she told him that she was leaving. She likened the situation to a tornado. Him, the storm, and her, the chaser. She had interviewed storm chasers for one of her meteorology courses. She wanted to know what drove them to risk their lives to chase after nature’s ferocity. For most, the prize of the chase was recording scientific data or capturing unworldly photos of churning clouds and lightning veins. For others, it wasn’t about the tornado at all. They did it for the feeling of the chase itself; the adrenaline of speeding down unmapped Midwestern roads and the freedom of never knowing where the next tornado would take them. All of the chasers had stories to share about finding themselves on the doorsteps of death after getting too close to a storm. She knew that feeling. She knew that she had gotten too close to the storm that she was chasing but, unlike the chasers she interviewed, she had been pursuing something that she knew could never be realized in data or photographs or feelings; the past with a man who no longer existed.
The downstairs neighbors must have called the police after hearing her thud to the floor; sideways, ribs first. It wasn’t the first time that the neighbors alerted the police to the violent storms inside of their apartment. This time was different. The police came faster than usual.
Although her ears were ringing, she recognized the muffled chatter over their two-way radios. It grew louder as they traipsed up the stairs. If this were a different storm, she would have gathered herself to greet the officers, like she had done many times before. A soft smile paired with feigned confusion were all that it took to convince them that this was a misunderstanding; they had gone to the wrong apartment or the downstairs neighbors were just being nosy again. But, this time was different. She stayed there, sideways on the floor in the midst of his debris field. She could barely breathe. She watched as her blood formed congealed droplets that the carpet refused to absorb. Maybe it had had enough, too.
She opened her eyes and looked into the rearview mirror. The police cruiser was gone.
Three more minutes.
She opened the glove box and took out the envelope labeled coupons. She flipped through the bills, counting each one again and again. She had two hundred dollars. She counted again just to make sure.
It was time.
Darkness set in and the lights from the mall’s entrance illuminated the snow. She watched as a figure approached her car – it was the friend that she was waiting for. He knocked on her driver side window twice with his knuckles, just like he said he would. A silver ring wrapped around his index finger. He wore a leather jacket that was unzipped to reveal a sweater underneath. His face was obscured by a winter scarf but she could tell that he had strong, pronounced features.
She rolled down her window.
“Carly,” he whispered. It was all that he would say to her.
She handed him the envelope. He handed her a plastic shopping bag wrapped tightly in packing tape. It was heavier than she expected. She’d normally ask for a receipt, but this time was different; she wouldn’t need a one for this purchase.
Five more seconds.
She stood with the green screen to her back. She was about to do her first live weather report on camera. The studio lights were intense, almost blinding, but she kept her focus on the teleprompter. She had been practicing for this moment for years.
Three more seconds.
She was excited to report to her viewers that, after a series of storms, a high pressure system was moving in. There wouldn’t be a cloud in the sky for days. She knew there wouldn’t be any more storms in her future, either.
It was time.