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It was a dark and sleety night," I muttered as I slid behind the wheel and slammed the car door, grateful to have reached protection without drowning. I tossed my briefcase onto the seat and shook the water out of my rain-frizzed hair.
"Merrileigh Kramer, what have you done?" my mother had asked in horror when I'd had my waist-length hair drastically cut at summer's end on the new-look, new-person theory.
I'd looked in the mirror and wondered the same thing myself. I hadn't cut my hair, except for its annual split-ends trimming, since ninth grade. For a woman who hated change, I'd done a very drastic thing when I entered that beauty parlor. And it had only been step one.
Now my hand bounced on my curly mass like a kid on a trampoline. I sighed and reminded myself that it'd grow eventually. The only trouble was that I had to keep it curly until it grew. I didn't know what else to do with it.
I eased my way across the parking lot, uncertain how slippery the millions of needles of icy rain had made things. The others who had been attending the Wednesday evening Board of Education meeting with me moved just as slowly. What had begun as a cold, nasty rain had turned to sleet when we weren't looking.
When it was my turn to pull out onto the road, I stepped slowly on the gas. The wheels spun for an instant on the thin layer of ice, then grabbed hold.
I hated ice. Every time I drove on it, I thought of my mother and the winter's day in Pittsburgh years ago when she had been driving me and four friends home from Brownies. I remembered the terrifying spin across the other lane and the oncoming cars scrambling to avoid us. I remembered the thud of our car as it hit a utility pole. I still felt my heaving stomach and tasted the fear. Mostly I remembered the screams and my mother's white face and the blood from the bashed noses. The fact that no one had been badly hurt then did not ease my fluttery heart tonight.
I drove carefully, watching for trouble. At Manor Avenue and Lyme Street I detoured slowly around a pair of cars half blocking the intersection as they sat with their left headlights locked together. Their drivers stood in the rain doing a good imitation of their cars, noses mere inches apart.
I couldn't help grinning at them, but I gripped the wheel more tightly. My heart throbbed in my temple.
With relief I turned onto Main Street where traffic was moving more quickly, keeping the road from freezing. When I passed The News office, the lights were still on, and I felt a surge of belonging. I beeped my horn in greeting to whoever was working so late. Don, my fearsome editor? Mac, his lecherous but charming assistant? Larry, the sports guy?
Tomorrow Don would bestow upon me the honor of writing a story about the first ice storm of the season. I knew it. Such stories were favorite ploys of editors, and as new kid on the block, I was certain to get the assignment.
I'd had worse. At least there'd be plenty of material in the police report about all the fender benders. Between the ice storm and the Board of Education meeting, I'd be plenty busy before morning deadline. Then I had scheduled the interview with that local artist. Variety, to be sure.
I turned onto Oak Lane and felt the wheels slue.
Hang on, I told myself. You're almost home.
I took my foot off the gas, gritted my teeth, and proceeded slowly between the rows of cars parked against each curb.
Suddenly a car on my right roared to life like a lion scenting its prey. Without looking, it sprang from its parking spot, barely leaving the paint on my fender. I instinctively did exactly what I'd always lectured myself about not doing. I hit the brakes hard on ice.
Of course I went into an immediate skid. My headlights raked across the offending car as it pulled away, briefly revealing a man, hat pulled down over his eyes, collar up against the weather, staring intently ahead, completely unaware of me or anything else.
My stomach became mush and my heart thumped wildly in my ears as I skidded helplessly toward a new blue car parked on the left. I whipped my wheel into the skid just like everyone said you should, but still the shiny blue door panels with their navy-and-red racing stripes rushed at me. My headlights blazed on the chrome; the black windows loomed darkly.
But my real terror was for the man who had suddenly materialized at the front bumper of the blue car, standing like a pedestrian waiting for a clear path to jaywalk. I had no idea where he'd come from.
"Please, God, don't let me hit him!" I was a Brownie again, panic-stricken.
His features were indistinct through the rain-washed window, but I could see the O of his mouth as he saw me rushing toward him. He turned to run.
I closed my eyes involuntarily against the crash, shoulders hunched, face screwed up in apprehension. I was probably screaming, but thankfully I don't remember. Screaming has always struck me as a sign of weakness, and I like to imagine that I react with style even when I'm afraid. And I was afraid.
After a very long, slow-motion moment, my car shuddered to a silent halt. I cautiously opened my eyes and found myself mere inches from the blue car's front fender, the two cars neatly side by side and too close together for my door to open. I could not have parked so well had I tried.
I slid across the seat and flung open the far door. I didn't think I'd hit the man I had neither heard nor felt a thump but I had to make sure he wasn't crushed beneath my wheels. I pressed a hand against my anxiety-cramped abdomen and climbed into the downpour.
The man wasn't lying broken on the road. In fact, he wasn't anywhere, lying or standing, broken or whole. He had completely disappeared.