Woman on the Walk

Author: Brian Gehrlein

Tonight’s more humid than usual. I’m soaked but after walking I’m not really sure what’s summer Missouri moisture and what’s sweat. It all feels the same. It all feels gross. Like you’ll never get dry. I walk the same route I always do, down my street past the park to the middle school and back to the house, about three miles in total. My headlamp keeps slipping off my forehead, so I let it slump around my neck like a light-up necklace. Still lets me see the sidewalk and allows cars to spot me a little better in the dark. I stop to stretch, catching my breath, untying my bandanna, letting my forehead cool for a moment. I look up and notice the stars. Sharp, clean white light peppering a blanket of deep black.

Besides the fact that I feel like I’m walking in a giant sauna, I’m comfortable. And walks at night are actually better in Missouri in the summer. Safer in a way. You walk in the dead heat of the day and you’ll end up with an IV attached to your arm, sitting on a gurney talking to some nurse that inevitably tells you things you already know and who somehow manages to make you feel seven again. So I walk at night. I’ve always thought best in motion, seems to reset things. And besides the obvious exercise benefits, there’s also an emotional cleansing that happens when you walk, like a sort of kinesthetic catharsis. And I need that. Especially ever since the accident. Before all this nonsense began…before she happened. But I’m ending that tonight. I’m ending it. Because tonight, no matter what happens…I’m going to reach the sign.

Beads of sweat annoyingly roll off the tip of my nose and down the water slide that used to be my back. I adjust my ear-buds, to better hear the music from my ipod, my only companion. I blot my face with my bandanna, rolling and undulating my shoulders as I turn the corner at the top of the slight hill that eventually leads to my house. I pause briefly, staring down the sidewalk, the muscles in my stomach tightening. I continue on, wringing my bandanna in my fist, taking a breath of thick, July air, providing no comfort. Nothing to comfort me from what I know is coming. I turn up Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, not missing the irony, hoping to distract myself, swallowing hard as I see the park approaching out of my left eye’s peripheral vision. My chest starts drumming steady quarter notes. It’s coming now and I know that I’ll want to look. But not this time. One walk without looking is all I need for this to stop. I know it now. At least I think I do. My blood runs cold, electricity charging my wet, goose-bump freckled skin. I can’t look but I know…I know she’s there. Ever since my car rolled three times, smashing into the side of tree, almost killing me a few weeks ago, she’s always there. Always.

I lengthen my stride, pumping my arms to quicken the pace. I’m almost power-walking now. As my hips register the change, and out of the corner of my eye, I sense the familiar scene I’m dreading—the dark, freshly mowed meadow fenced in by a towering silhouette of trees, and the single wooden gazebo coldly glowing in the middle of the open field.

My mind drifts off to the accident. Driving late at night, rain coming down in sheets, yet still somehow fighting nods. Gripping the steering wheel, changing the placement of my hands constantly to stay awake. The radio oddly cutting out. Then static. On every station. I turn it off and focus back on the road, leaning forward to see through the storm. Then a strange song comes on. Something I’ve never heard, yet familiar all at once. Unnerving. Like distant memories you can’t shake or some forgotten violin or a far off screaming, haunting melody. I’m suddenly awake but in a jarring way. The song continues but the radio is off. I mash buttons but nothing is happening. I pound the dash to stop it as she pops into view at the top of a hill. The woman in the road. Strange, ancient, cloaked in smoke. I swerve and over-correct. The car rolls. Glass confettis around me. All I hear is crushing metal on pavement and the unearthly music continuing on until everything goes silent. Everything goes black. And I wake up outside the car. Soaked and bleeding in the rain. Somehow still here. Somehow still alive. Somehow still…

“Walk faster,” I tell myself, shaking the memory out of my head.

I have to walk faster. Time to end this. Eyes forward. A splash of ice water races down my spinal cord as my ipod stops working. It’s happening again in the usual spot. My eyes close but I keep walking. The rhythm of my chest picking up to eighth notes. It’s too fast. I’m going to panic. I have to calm myself. I’ve left my inhaler at home. I stop to breathe, focusing on the sensation. In…and out. In…and out…in…and…out.

“You can do this,” I say, every single neuron desperately devoted to reigning-in my cardiovascular system before I spin out of control.

But it’s not enough. I forget how to breathe. Because I know…I know that in the distance…under the unforgiving, single fluorescent bulb…she’ll be there…like she always is. The old woman at the gazebo. The same one from the road. Every night since the accident. On every walk and in every dream. But she can’t be…she can’t…because somehow, somewhere in the deepest, darkest underbelly of my soul, in the places I don’t dare illuminate with words, I know…she’s dead. And when I see her I get the sense she wants only one thing. For whatever reason…she wants me dead too.

I shake off heavy droplets of perspiration that needle my eyes, sponging again at my brow with the sweat-saturated bandanna. And then it happens. Even though the screen on my ipod is black, my music kicks on. The song I don’t want to hear—the strange song that isn’t even on my device that I heard before the wreck. The same evil song that plays every night she’s there. It’s happening again. Just like it always does.

Determined, I take a breath and a step. The edge of the park mere feet ahead of me…and the sign. I’ve had this festering notion that if I can just pass the sign to the park without looking at her…she’ll lose her power over me and be gone for good and all of this will be over. Finally, over. Renewed to fight back, I swing my arms and get up on my toes, starting to jog. I’m so close. I feel the hellish, magnetic light of the gazebo pulling my face to look, but my eyes are glued forward to the sidewalk ahead. I can feel that she’s there and almost make out her shape under that awful light. The thought alone is too much. Thirty feet. Like a pistol shot in the air, I take off. I sprint. This is my base to steel. Twenty. Fifteen. Ten. I’m going to do it. I haven’t ever made it this far. I still haven’t looked. I smile as I reach eight feet. Five. I feel lighter. Three. I hold my breath as it happens. I pass the sign…all at once the ghoulish song stops. I was right. I’ve done it.

In the joy of this moment, I lose my footing, collapsing onto the sidewalk under a streetlight, joints meeting concrete, splitting both knees, finishing on my back. I’m furiously sucking steamy, humidified air and don’t even care that I’m wheezing with every inhalation or that I’m lying there on the sidewalk, my legs covered in blood. I sit up, stumbling to my feet. I didn’t look. Several houses ahead of me I can see my porch light—its inviting warmth drawing me home. Above, I can see the stars and for the first time in weeks…I feel free. I shiver, as the cold leaves my body, letting out a long and open belly laugh. It’s over. It’s…over.

In the chaos of my animal-like sprint, I realize my shoe came untied. And that’s funny to me. Everything’s funny to me. I can’t stop laughing and it feels incredible. After wiping the blood off from my legs into the grass, I tie my shoe, drinking in another glance at my house just down the street. I think I’ll have a beer when I get in. Won’t have to barricade myself inside, steeped in paranoia, crying till I fall asleep, dreaming about this awful spectre. Won’t have to…not after tonight. I’ll drink an ice cold Summer Shandy…maybe two or three…and just…watch TV.

For the first time weeks, I notice the beautifully obnoxious and familiar harmonized symphony of a thousand crickets, frogs, and cicadas. A soothing, moonlit melody that I haven’t really gotten to appreciate since before the wreck. To my right, the twinkle of fireflies softly ebb and flow to the music of this now peaceful Kansas City night. Music. My ipod. Still inexplicably turned off…I click the power button again and again, but it’s still dead. I didn’t look. I DIDN’T LOOK! She won’t be there because I passed the sign. I passed the sign and didn’t look, and that’s how this works. What if…almost without conscious control I feel my head turn left toward the gazebo in the park. Like a puppet pulled by an invisible puppeteer, I’m turning to look. I can’t stop…I HAVE to know. I need to know that it worked. I need to know that I’m free. I close my eyes as I start tilt my head up to where it will be. I squint and see glow of the gazebo…everything slowly coming into focus. My lungs expel air like a released balloon. Hair on its tiptoes. Joints lock. She…she isn’t there…just an empty gazebo in a darkened field. I did it…

My stomach feels sick but my breath and mobility return. Time to go home—just a few blocks now. I nervously force a chuckle and take a step, desperate to get back the feeling that this really is all over. I remember my knees. The pain returns. I walk. Almost home. As I walk, I gently slap my ipod against my palm. Still not working. Probably just needs to be charged. Doesn’t matter. I’ve got beer waiting for me and the best night’s sleep since before this all started. Tomorrow night’s walk will seem boring. Uneventful. Normal. Maybe I’ll take a different route. Maybe I won’t need to walk alone. I smile at the thought. I walk a bit faster as I pass my neighbor’s house. What a night. What a summer.

I untie and shake out my bandanna and turn off my head lamp that’s still around my neck. I stop at the end of my driveway and turn to face my house. I close my eyes full of thankful tears and exhale loudly. My shoulders drop. I’m home. I look up…and everything goes sub-zero. From my headphones that are now on the concrete, unplugged from the device, I hear the chilling music that cannot be from this world…and standing under my porch light is the old woman…shrouded in darkness and smoke…staring back at me with blue, dead, unfeeling eyes…I’m frozen. I can’t inhale. I can’t move. I can’t look away. Just like every night for weeks. But tonight…tonight she is at my house…and she’s smiling…smiling as if to say…welcome home…

She walks toward me, floating above the ground and getting closer by the second. I turn to look away or to walk but my body won’t respond. I can’t even shut my eyes. She’s mere feet away from me as the music swells from somewhere new. Without conscious control my hand reaches out for her, turning palm up. Her arm responds, outstretched as she approaches. Her terrible, eyes look down at our hands as hers hovers just above mine, lowering slowly. Grazing my palm with the tips of her grey, glowing fingers is all it takes. Every cell in my body relaxes and I understand the truth. A peace rushes over me as I see it all. A rainstorm late at night. The haunting tune in the distance. A car on a road. An old woman stepping out. The car flipping again and again. A young man ejected from the car. His lifeless, shattered body cooled with every drop of rain…I see it all. And I understand. She walks past me, turning as if to ask me to follow but without saying a word. My feet turn to follow without hesitation and we walk on to some hidden place…into the darkness…and the source of that awful, wonderful music…

Author: Brian Gehrlein
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