It’s always a Prius that pulls up, license plate matching the one on her screen, a grinning selfie of a young man about her age when she first went hitchhiking. Mary tucks the phone away and slides into the back seat.
“Hi,” the driver says. Tom, the phone said. “How are you tonight?”
“Fine,” she replies.
“Okay, so 61st and Archer?” Tom flips on his blinker, turns onto the deserted road. “Having a late dinner?”
“No,” Mary answers, watching the blocks click by. Brick bungalows and neat squares of yards.
“Are you from around here?”
“Sort of?” he echoes, smiling at her in the rearview mirror.
“I used to live a few blocks east.”
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re pretty dressed up for midnight burritos. Meeting someone?”
“No. My ride left me.”
“Seriously? On the street?”
“I was at the Oh Henry.”
“You mean the Willowbrook. What an asshole.” Tom huffs, turns a corner. “Were you there for the swing lessons?”
Mary shrugs again, deciding not to correct him. She’s seen swing dancing during her other nights out, but the dress isn’t practical. Already it’s fraying, dropping threads. She supposes it’s the decay catching up, wonders if soon her skin will show its age.
Tom is still chatting. “I’m not very good at dancing, but it looks like it could be fun. You know, with the right person.” Another glance in the mirror at her. “What else do you do?”
“Garden,” she says, because it’s easier than explaining she’s from a family of truck farmers. Mary stopped bothering after another driver thought she meant food trucks, whatever those were.
It’s easier to get a ride home, now that she can request the ride and not worry about payment. Now that she doesn’t have to bolt from the car before it stops moving. Mary might be firmly after and not before, but that doesn’t numb the turn of an ankle, the skin scraped from her palms.
Cabs weren’t ideal, but the personal car posed a different difficulty. Sometimes they didn’t stop. Sometimes they tried to take her to the police station. Once, someone had leaned over, asked Mary if she could tell him how to get to heaven.
That night, she ran the rest of the way to the cemetery, shook the iron gate until it opened. When he chased her, she made herself burn like the prairie fire, unhinged her jaw, screamed until he fled.
“I kill everything I try to grow,” Tom cuts in, “so I just buy all the organic stuff. Compromise!”
“You can let me out here.”
“It’s another few blocks.”
He stops, turns around in his seat. “I can’t let you walk alone out there. Not this late.”
“I’ll be fine,” Mary replies, reaching for the door.
“It’s not safe, you know.” He hesitates. “Look, it’s a liability if I let you out before we reach the address you put in.”
Mary is not surprised. Every few drivers don’t let her out, tell her about her own neighborhood, as if she did not run barefoot through the woods, climb the tallest oak in town, pick off squirrels with a shotgun. As if the white party dress with its delicate lace and tulle was her body, not the sunburned, calloused one beneath. Not the one that hauled hay bales every morning, who twisted chickens’ necks for dinner.
Where, she wonders, was this bravado when her date refused to take her home. When she had to walk late at night. When a driver swerved and shoved her into after.
“Open the door.”
Tom holds firm, so she slips beneath his gaze, out the door, between the bars of the gate.
Her phone is gone again, Tess notices in the morning. She makes herself a cup of coffee, tidies up the dishes she left in the sink last night, and stands looking out the front window to her garden. The threat of snow has finally retreated; it’ll be about time to change the outfit on the lawn goose that guards her crocuses. Soon the daffodils will come up, and then it’ll be a visit to the cemetery to mind the family headstones.
Tess walks her backyard garden, waiting for the landline to ring. When it does, there’s a hesitant voice on the other end, and she gives the young man directions to her house. She hangs up and thinks about whether she’d like to put the goose in a raincoat or get a jump on the summer months. Maybe a floral dress.
Tom, the young man, arrives promptly, better than others who had retrieved her phone.
“Thank you,” she tells him. “I hope you didn’t have to drive very far?”
“Oh…no. No, it’s no trouble.” Tom stops, hesitates.
Tess sees his eyes flicker from her to the house beyond. She waits.
Finally, he asks, “is there someone else here?”
“You mean a young woman in a white dress?”
Tess smiles. “My aunt.”
She watches him struggle with the idea that the woman he gave a ride to, the one barely into her twenties, could be Tess’s aunt. Tess, with four kids grown up and families of their own.
“She used to hitchhike, you know,” she tells him. “Was much easier on my bank account.”
“She said she was stranded.” Tom hesitates, shifts his stance.
Like always, once they’ve run out of things to say, to explain, Tess takes pity. “If you really want to know, go back to where you lost her.”
“I…I’m not sure where it was.”
“Sure you are,” Tess answers. “She’s past the gates, near the back. The stone’s a bit worn, but you’ll know it. Though you won’t get much of a conversation out of her, not in daylight.”
Tom hesitates a moment longer, mumbles a goodbye, and heads back down the sidewalk. Tess watches him go, finishing her coffee.
Floral dress for the goose, she decides. It’ll be July before she knows it.
Emily Capettini is the author of Thistle, winner of Omnidawn’s Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest and assistant editor with Sundress Publications. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and is now Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Fiction at Indiana State University. Follow her on Twitter at @pollycocktail.