This is the story of how I almost die. But don’t worry, it’s actually quite good. As any good story does, it starts in a land far, far away. Far away from spicy kimchi ramen, hooded figures and traffic jams. In short, it starts in Suburbia. In a shitty Peugeot that smells like the inside of a Pringles can, its trunk stuffed to the brim with suitcases and cardboard boxes. The perfect noble steed to go chasing one’s heart’s desire, am I right? In my case – who would’ve guessed – the city! Bingo. Honestly, I don’t know what it is with honky cats and this strange, abstract concept that is The City. We don’t see the canal rats or drug addicts passed out in a subway station or dog shit in the streets. All we see is possibilities. Endless ones. It doesn’t smell like hot tar, it smells like freedom. Or maybe that’s just what freedom smells like to us. Either way, whatever our heart’s desire may be, that’s where we’ll find it.
So there I am, perched behind the wheel, Mum beside the window, looking droopy like a crow at a funeral.
‘Are you sure you have everything you need, honey?’
‘I’m sure, mum.’
‘Oh Elsie.’ Mum dabs at her nose with a crumpled handkerchief. ‘Do you really want to go?’
‘Oh come on, Mum, don’t be so dramatic, for god sake.’ I reach out my hand through the window and brush it against her cheek. ‘You do know I’m not dying, right? Or going to Mars either. It’s just the city. What’s the worst that’ll happen.’
The city. Finally. Mum is still standing on the porch, waving at me but I barely see her anymore, disappearing between the trees in my rearview mirror. Cinderella, leaving behind the cottage and the country to take up residence in her castle right at the centre of the kingdom and all its happenings.
The stereo is blasting Elton while, outside the day rushes by, lush greens slowly turning into shades of grey. As the late summer sun sets it is replaced by a warm haze of light reflected on the dark canvas of the sky ahead. That’s gotta be it. I check my navi. Only a half hour to go! A bubble dances through my stomach and I grin at myself in the mirror, my foot pressing down firmer on the gas. I can already smell the hot tar.
I gotta say though, it smells different than I’d thought. A lot more… burnt. No wait. It’s not hot tar. It’s the Pringles can. Behind me, a concert of honks and screeches erupts on the highway, lights flashing like crazy. The oil lamp glares red on my dashboard and a metallic stream of purples and greens trails behind me, cars braking and swerving aside. I knew Pringles would give up soon, but now? Come on. I’d do anything for a magic oil lamp right now so that I could wish myself invisible. I shrink into my seat. Get back, honky cat, Elton screams at me. Okay, stay calm. I run a hand over the sweat pearls beading my forehead to clear my thoughts. What do I do?
‘Hey, Missy!’ My head jerks at the raspy voice streaming in through the car window. It’s coming from a moustached man in a pickup in the lane next to me.
‘Take the next exit. There’s a gas station right up ahead!’ He points to a road sign, signalling the exit in 500 metres. Oh thank goodness.
‘Thank you!’ I holler back, my voice tinier than ever. He throws me a quick nod and a wink and speeds up again as I put on my blinker and creep to the breakdown lane in slow-motion, a flood of eyes and headlights burning into the back of my head.
When I manage to reach a parking spot in the glaring orange light of the gas station, I exhale long as though I’d been holding my breath. The air inside the car tastes stuffy and burnt so I get out and scan the place for someone that looks like an employee. I finally spot a woman in blue work pants and a baseball cap.
‘How can I help you?’ she asks with a crooked smile.
‘Well…it smells kinda burnt and that oil lamp is blinking red.’
‘I’ll take a look for you. It’ll be a few minutes, go grab yourself a snack in the meantime, huh? You look a little pale.’
She puts a hand on my shoulder and, catching a glimpse of my face in the wing mirror, I nod and head toward the little gas station shop.
At this hour, the place isn’t very crowded. A group of people in leather outfits is standing outside, each a beer can in one hand and a cigarette in the other, talking loudly to each other. I walk by quickly and slip into the shop but none of them seem to notice me. The dull buzz of a radio fills the inside of the little shop, rambling about gas prices as I stroll through the candy isle. I pick up a small can of Pringles and a sparkling water and head up to the cash register when I notice another person inside the shop. A tall figure in a black Metallica sweater, its hood falling low into his face. Just as I catch sight of him, his gaze jerks toward the shelf in front of him and he picks up a can of antifreeze and examines it. Instinctively, I tug at the rim of my shorts and cross my arms, then quickly walk past him with steps that are too long for my legs, out of the shop and toward my car. My heart is pumping in my chest, petrol air flooding my lungs when I finally reach the parking spot. I throw a glance over my shoulder. The black hooded figure is leaning against the wall outside the shop with his phone in his hand, but though I can’t see his eyes, I still feel them on me. Okay, don’t panic. It could be a total coincidence. A pressing heat fills my chest and I fumble for my phone when the mechanic emerges from around the gas taps. Thank goodness. I feel myself relax a little.
‘Good news is, she’s not broken,’ she says and pats my car’s hood as though it was a horse. My noble steed. ‘But the bad news is, the leak needs to be fixed before you can drive again. She’ll be ready in two days. Do you wanna leave her here? You can pay once you come to pick her up.’
Not seeing much of a choice here I nod, hand her the keys and watch her drive Pringles around the gas station building and disappear into a garage with a sign that says ‘service station’ above the entrance. Great. What now? Great freakin’ start. Stranded at a gas station in the middle of – I don’t even know.
At this low point of the story we’re probably all asking ourselves where the hell’s the prince? Doesn’t this story have a good old prince with dashing hair and spandex pants, riding up in slow-motion on a white stallion, and wouldn’t this be the perfect moment for him to swoop in? Plot twist – it doesn’t. Because apparently that’s not how real life works.
Suddenly, I feel the gaze of the hooded figure on me again like two burning stings. For a moment I’d completely forgotten about him. I whip my phone out and scroll through my contacts to ‘Mum’. The signals beeping in my ear come painfully slowly. Come on, Mum. Please pick up. Another beep then the person you are trying to reach is not available… Of course not. And, of course, the hooded figure is no longer where I left him but walking, slowly, right in my direction. My heart’s in my throat, beating so hard I might just pass out. I start backing up against a gas pump and whip my head around looking for who knows what. Okay. This is how I die –
‘Hey Missy!’ The voice is familiar. I turn around. It’s the man from the pickup. Thank goodness. Finally, some luck. Up until now my fairy godmother must have been asleep on a cloud somewhere. I let my shoulders sag and the haze in my head slowly begins to clear.
‘Yeah, they said it’ll take two days till it’s fixed…I don’t know what I’m gonna do…’ I throw my head into my neck, letting out a sigh.
‘Where are you headed?’ He flips a cigarette into his mouth and offers me the package. After this day, I could really use a smoke. I grab one and he leans in to light it for me.
‘If you want, I can take you as far as the city boarder. You can get a cab or take the subway from there. Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be out here alone at night.’
Thank you, fairy godmother.
‘Are you sure? Oh, you’re a lifesaver.’
‘Of course, no trouble at all. Hop on in! I’m Jack, by the way,’ he says with another wink and gets into the pickup parked a couple spots away.
See, it’s not all canal rats and drug addicts and strange figures in black hoods out here after all, as I was starting to fear. I open the passenger door and step inside, when someone suddenly grabs ahold of my wrist and yanks me back out.
‘Hey, Lisa! Is that you, good to see you!’ Before I know it I’m being pulled into a tight hug.
‘What are the odds of running into you here! How’s Joe, still playing college football?’ My brow crumples, thoughts racing to catch up with the swell of nonsense facts hitting me as the stranger shoves me behind him and pushes the car door shut with a pang.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he calls to Jack through the window, ‘Lisa won’t be needing a lift after all. I’ll take her home,’ he says and starts edging me in the opposite direction. It’s not before then I realise who this is. The tall shape. The Metallica sweater. The hood. My hands turn numb and shaky, my tongue furry and dry inside my mouth.
‘Hey, what do you – ’
‘I don’t know you! Let go, asshole!’ Frantically, I try to wriggle out but his grip is firm like a handcuff around my wrist.’
‘Just play along.’
The pickup stays parked a little longer but then the engine roars and it starts moving toward the highway ramp and disappears around a bend, along with my last chances of survival. This is how my story ends, book smashed shut in the middle of the action, no happily ever after for me. But as soon as the car is gone my kidnapper pushes me down on a metal bench beside the shop and – just like that – lets go of my arm.
‘Finally,’ he says and leans back, letting out a breath and running his hands over his face, ‘that was way too close.’
For a moment, all I can do is stare, dumbfounded. So does this mean I’m not being kidnapped? Story goes on after all? Whatever just happened, I should probably use my chance and bolt. But something, other than the sweat trickling down my thighs, keeps me plastered to the bench. Before I find the right words, the stranger next to me breaks the silence.
‘You didn’t know that guy, right?’ he asks, his voice now mellow like a harp.
‘Did he give you something? Drink? Food?’
‘Just this,’ I point at my cigarette and he flicks it out of my hand.’
‘Hey! I was still smo – ’
Before I can finish the sentence the stranger suddenly grabs both of my shoulders and stares at me intently from under his hood.
‘Hitchhiking at a gas station – are you insane? Do you want to be kidnapped? Raped? Murdered? Sold on the black market? Cause that’s where you were headed. Jesus Christ, girl.’
I feel myself shrinking under the grip, hot blood seeping into my cheeks. I’d been easy prey for Jack from the start. He’d known exactly where I’d be, alone, stranded, helpless. The passed out drug addicts and canal rats slowly shift into focus behind my inner eye again. Maybe Elton’s right. My legs begin to tremble. Maybe I’m not cut out for the City. A little lamb on a meadow, oblivious to the big bad wolf.
‘That creepy guy kept lurching around the gas station, just waiting for the right moment like a vulture,’ the stranger says, making a face as though having just bit into a grapefruit. ‘Disgusting asshole. Sorry if I freaked you out by being all stalkery, but I just didn’t wanna leave you out of my sight…’
‘Thank you,’ I breathe.
‘Of course. Come on, I’ll take you wherever you need to go.’
‘Wait a sec. How do I know you’re a good guy?’ I smile, squinting my eyes.
‘Seriously?’ he says mock-outraged and I can make out an eyebrow arching beneath the shade of the hood. ‘After I just saved you from certain doom? Also,’ the stranger flips back the hood of the sweater, ‘not a guy.’
Wait, what? How did I not see that? She quickly runs both hands through a head of short curls and flashes me a big white smile that sends a rush of awe through me. Who’d have known that in an urban fairytale, nice-looking men can’t be trusted to be princes and will probably turn out to be rats in disguise, while girls in black Metallica hoodies can be the knights in shining armou?. Like I said, possibilities. Endless ones. Maybe those are the kinds that I’ve come looking for.
‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ she says.
I shake my head. ‘I’m actually just moving to the city. Literally today.’
‘Wow, bad start, huh? I’m sorry.’ She threads her arm through mine. ‘But hey, consider this your City Lesson Number One – it’s also the most important one: Girls always look out for each other.’
‘Thanks,’ I nod, smiling at her, ‘I love that. I’m Elsie.’
‘Jess,’ she says and shakes my hand. ‘Hey, you must be starving. Let’s grab some food and then I’ll take you home. There’s a place nearby that has the best spicy kimchi ramen in the whole city. Trust me, you’ll love it. My car’s right over there.’
Except for the Pringles I haven’t eaten all day and my stomach aches like a hole in my gut, so even though I have no idea what kimchi ramen is, it sounds perfect.
‘That’d be great,’ I say and together we walk toward Jess’ car.
Overhead, the night sky is deep blue and starless. The road goes uphill for a bit, then an endless sea of lights appears on the horizon and it’s not long before we plunge in.
‘I made it. I’m actually in The City!’ I can’t help but laugh out loud.
‘Yeah you did!’ Jess turns up the radio and it blasts Empire State of Mind. She rolls down all the windows and reaches out her arm, letting the breeze curl around her fingers. ‘Breathe it all in,’ she says and inhales deeply.
The warm wind streaming in from all sides makes my hair whirl like crazy. I breathe in. It doesn’t smell like hot tar at all. It smells like fallen leaves, like slow cooked curry, like fumes and parked cars heated up by the sun, like cigarettes and left over pizza, like stale water, like dogs, like too many people. You’d need to smell it to believe me, but despite everything, it smells delicious.
About the author
Emma is a young creative writing student from Vienna. When not studying she spends most of her time in a coffee shop, either behind the counter making cappuccinos or at table three, reading or working on her latest story, fantasising about changing her job description from barista to writer.
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)