MERCY: He was walking along the side of route 202 when my headlights caught him, casting a shadow four miles long in front of him. For some reason, the line of his long leather jacket seemed familiar to me, and then I saw his face. Dante Jackson. I recognized him from the memorial service last year. A photograph of his newly dead girlfriend had been projected on the screen behind his head. A photo of what she’d looked like before the semi smashed her head in, obviously.
    I slowed to a crawl and rolled down my window. I tried to sound friendly. “Did you run out of gas?”

DANTE: Just my luck. Behind the wheel of the car was Mercy the Man-Hater. Supposedly she maced a guy for wolf-whistling at her. And threw another guy’s car keys into the community swimming pool when he offered her a ride home. And I heard she kneed some guy in the balls on a date. That was back when there was still a single guy at school that would go out with her.
    But she’s sort of smiling at me now. She almost looks soft, with her cute bobbed hair and round eyes.
    I thought about lying. I could tell her I got locked out of my house and my parents are out of town. But I was a bad liar. And she was a Man Hater. If she thought I was lying, she’d probably just run me over in her Dodge Neon and leave me for dead.

MERCY: He stood there like a village idiot for what seemed like a minute, and just when I was about to give up, he finally stammered, “I can’t stay at home. It’s complicated.”
    It felt very weird that he would confess this to me, of all people, but duh, we were in the middle of the road at midnight, so who else would he say it to? I wasn’t sure what to do with the information. So I’m not sure why I said, “Can I help?”
    Dante jerked a hand up to the back of his head, scrubbing his fingers over his hair, and sort of ran his eyes wearily over my car. He looked a hell of a lot worse than I remembered from the service.

DANTE: I was all ready for her to say no. Not just say no, but to say no in the most painful way possible. “Could I just – could I just sleep in the back of your car for tonight? I can just move your stuff to the floor and put it back in the morning.”
     Mercy craned her head around to look at her back seat as if she hadn’t noticed she had one before. Even from my vantage point, I could see that it was scattered with papers and books. She looked back at me and narrowed her round eyes so that they looked more like everyone else’s eyes. “Are you drunk?”
    I shook my head, too quickly. I’d never been drunk. There were some nights I’d thought about trying it though. Anything to sleep. Anything to sleep alone.

MERCY: I mean, what the hell. The guy had had a rough time. His car wrecked last year, Iris Miller smashed to pieces in his passenger seat, plus her cheating on him practically in public, but maybe he didn’t know about that, and now some kind of crap going on at home? I pushed the unlock button on my door and the little snick of the doors unlocking was my way of saying ok.
    Dante stared at me like he couldn’t believe I hadn’t eaten him – of course, he’d probably heard all the wonderful rumors about me – thank you, Ross – so I leaned over and opened the passenger door.
    “Only one night. If my parents found out, they’d crucify me.”

DANTE: I got in. I couldn’t help but stare at the glowing clock on her dashboard. 12:02.
    “Is that clock right?”
    She looked at it. “Yeah.”
    So nine minutes left.
    But maybe it would be different, if I wasn’t at home in my room. Maybe tonight would be different. Maybe I’d finally left it behind.
    In my head, I saw the glowing dash clock in my old car. 12:11. The last thing I’d seen before the semi came through the passenger side door.
    Funny, if Iris had just broken up with me back at the dance, instead of waiting until I was driving her home to tell me we were through, she’d still be alive.
    Her last words were, “You’re never going to be anyone, Dante.”

MERCY: I started to drive. Dante said, “Thank you.”
    The answer was automatic, though I thought it seemed too formal after it left my mouth: “You’re welcome.”
    His eyes were piercing, haunted. “Are those stories about you true?”
    “Ross Wentz was just pissed I broke up with him.”
    Dante’s mouth made a firm line. “I believe you.”
    I turned on the heater. The car was starting to get cold.
    I turned it up higher. It was still getting colder. My breath appeared in front of me, slow and dense, and Dante’s, faster and more shallow, in front of him.
    Dante’s voice was miserable. “No, Iris. Please not again.”

DANTE: There was a rustling sound from the back seat. The papers were starting to flutter against the upholstery like dying birds, and a few of them broke free and stuck to the windows, powered by an unseen wind. Mercy scowled as if this was merely a word problem that she could logic through.
    “Pull over,” I said. I knew what this was going to turn into. Driving would be suicide.
    Mercy hesitated.
    The headlights began to flash and the radio blared to rock-star-concert decibels. A book flew from the backseat into the windshield, smacking back and hitting me in the face.
    Mercy pulled over.

MERCY: When Dante lifted his arms to shield his face, his sleeves pulled down and I saw welts and scratches and bruises all over them. He didn’t have to tell me where they came from, and he didn’t have to tell me what was happening here in the car, because I could smell the reek of expensive perfume and burning brakes and taste exploded air bag.
    Everything loose in the car was suddenly a weapon. Papers sliced my cheek and pens glanced off my shoulders, but Dante was the real target. He reached out to shield my face from the missiles and claw marks appeared, shallow and red, on his wrist.
    “Leave her alone! She didn’t do anything to you,” Dante snapped. He fumbled at the door, but the auto-lock was on. “Mercy, let me out, she’ll come with me!”

DANTE: Mercy wouldn’t let me out. Her seat went forward and backward by itself, and the emergency brake came on and off, on and off.
    “Iris,” Mercy’s voice was savage. “This isn’t fair.”
    The car slid into drive and began to creep back onto the road on its own accord. I hauled on the gear shift, but it didn’t budge. Mercy jerked the steering wheel; it didn’t move beneath her hand.
    I don’t know why I looked out my window, but I did, and saw the brilliant headlights of a vehicle down the road, coming towards us. I don’t have to see it any closer to know that it’s a semi-truck.
    “You’ve got to let me out,” I begged Mercy. “It’s only me she wants.”
    Mercy sounded angry, not afraid. “The doors won’t unlock.”

MERCY: This was not the way I was g
oing to die. Not at the hands of Iris Miller.
    We were right in the middle of the oncoming lane of traffic now, Dante’s door waiting for the semi. Iris had turned the lights off; we were invisible.
    Dante stared straight ahead, eyes closed, just waiting. He thought he deserved this.
    “This is your fault, Iris,” I said, furious. “Every choice you made in your life put you where you are now. You think you want to get even with him? Well, guess what?” My foot was on the gas and the engine was revving, revving, but Iris wouldn’t let us off the road.  “You already are. Did you ever tell him you cheated on him? With Ross?”
    Dante’s eyes opened.

DANTE: “She didn’t tell me,” I told Mercy. “But I knew.”
    The headlights flickered.
    “Why didn’t you break up with her?” Mercy demanded.
    I whispered, “Everyone makes mistakes.”
    The headlights came on, full strength. The semi’s horn began to blare.
    Mercy’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “Not that kind of mistake.”
    “I forgave her,” I said. “Everyone makes mistakes.” The semi was huge in my window.
    The transmission growled into drive

23 thoughts on “Headlights

  1. Nifty format! It builds tension very well. And as always, you’re great with the emo.

  2. I think I’m going to make that my slogan: Maggie Stiefvater she does emo right.

  3. Eep!

    Love the phrase: The papers were starting to flutter against the upholstery like dying birds…

    I hope they go run over Ross.

  4. LOL! I thought about doing something terrible to him . . . especially since as soon as I typed that name I started having flashbacks to Friends.

  5. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to leave that alone? To just put down the dirty comebacks and walk away?

    That’s why you did it, huh? :p

  6. Yes, it’s part of my Tess-self-improvement program. I’m hurting you to help you.

  7. Watch out! Take away my dirty humor and all that’s left of my writing will be boring, un-funny blood and guts.

  8. Hey, your icon is definitely what I’m thinking about a character in BALLAD right now.

  9. ooooooh….ghosts. and AHHHHHHHH approaching semi. excellent. fexcellent, even.

    you know, i get the feeling that a lot of the time i give off the impression that i’m a fairly inelequoent person. really, i’m not.
    a novel climax/gigantic dramatic fight scene is just eating all my words right now. and spitting them back out in prettier combinations, which brings me joy. nothing like poetic zombie-centric turns of phrase.

  10. Haha — do you know I’d never heard “fexcellent” until I read THE LAST DAYS?

    This is how sheltered I am.

  11. My favourites “The papers were starting to flutter against the upholstery like dying birds.” And ” … and taste exploded air bag.” New addition to things I wish to do: 16) Write as good as the sisters. Sigh … move, Meditate with the Dalai Lama to no. 17)

  12. do you know my friends and i only started saying fexcellent and fawesome after i read The Last Days?
    and i’m really not that sheltered.

  13. Here (belatedly) from your link to the community on fangs_fur_fey.

    I really love this. I wasn’t sure about the joggling narrators/POVs at first, but that’s what makes it an experiment, right? And for this I think it really worked because by the end it was clear that there was a point to the switching and you weren’t doing it just for the sake of novelty itself. If you’d written the whole thing from Mercy’s POV, I think you would have had to work harder to suspend the reader’s disbelief; if you’d done it all from Dante’s, building tension would have been much more difficult without playing games with the reader. But balancing between the two — and chosing to balance in the ways that you did — really produced a wonderful, creepy little vignette.

    I also love the names. Mercy, whose reputation is anything but merciful, turns out to be rightly named after all; Dante has been living with the dead. I love stories when there are clues (like Dante’s name) that are only obvious in retrospect, and then you see them and smack your head for not noticing them the first time around.

  14. *grin* I love how you read this — analytical, like me!

    The juggling narrators — ohh such an experiment, but it was so fun. The only thing I wish I managed was to keep it shorter, but it just kept getting away from me.

    And yeah, I’m a sucker for meaningful names and hints. I just love it when I read it in other people’s work . . . but darn, it’s hard to be subtle with your own, isn’t it?

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