Driving home, she allowed her mind to wander. Her hands flashed through the motions, adjusting the steering wheel, flicking on the indicator, correcting the volume on the radio. Click was an image of her changing from third gear to fourth. Click, and she was applying the brake, gently, to avoid a swerving cyclist. Click, a stylish black and white shot in which she squinted against the sun, creases framing her dark-ringed eyes. As her car wheels ate the miles, the desire she thought she’d quelled began to pulse through her again like a tree root, pushing out all else. The deliciousness of it buzzed through her veins like an electrical charge, the suggestion of it making her knuckles whiten on the wheel.
Coffee. She needed to think.
She pulled over and let the car sit, pink-pink-pinking gently as its engine cooled, while she rummaged in the glove compartment for change. She shoved aside a random purse, an identity card spilling out of its unzipped opening, showing her a face she’d already forgotten. Several sets of keys to houses and cars she didn’t own rattled beneath her questing fingers. Finally, she found the stash of dusty, fluff-covered coins kept for emergencies, and she tossed them into her palm.
Emergencies. Like ‘My car’s broken down; do you mind if I come in and just call a garage? I’ll pay for the use of your phone, ma’am.’ Or ‘Have you seen this little girl, here? Please, ma’am, I need your help! Just sit into the car, for a moment, and take a better look.’ Or ‘I’ve just been mugged. Everything’s been taken, my wallet, my keys – can you please spare just a few cents, ma’am, so I can call my husband?’
She looked at the wedding ring she always wore, and grinned down at it. Inside, it said Cedric, April 28th 1976, Eternally, but she’d forgotten where she’d found it.
Snapping shut the glove compartment, she unfastened her seatbelt and pulled on the door release. She stepped out onto the pavement, whistling softly through her teeth as she checked for anything in uniform, but everything looked quiet. Still, she reasoned, fingering through her coins, doesn’t hurt to stay on the right side of the law. Smiling, she strode to the parking meter and fed it enough money to last the half-hour she felt she needed to get settled over a cappuccino, maybe read a newspaper. Flirt with a waitress or two.
But on her way back to the car, she saw her. Across the road, against the brickwork, holding a panting dog on a straining leash, laughing as she pressed a cellphone to her ear, a dark-haired beauty stood. The spotlight descended upon her like the finger of Heaven, shining on her nut-brown head and freezing her beneath its glow like a fly caught on a pin, and watching all this, she knew. She knew, just looking. Her blood jumped, like someone had slapped her, and she knew.
This was the one.
Quickly, she yanked open the car door, flung the ticket on the dash, and grabbed up the crumpled map she always kept on the passenger seat. She licked her lips and stretched them out, baring her teeth, warming up to a smile, before backing out and slamming the door shut again.
Look left. Look right. Cross. The sleek dark girl was still on the phone. The dog saw her coming, and released a yapping growl.
‘God, Christian, all right! Jeez. Okay. I’ll come over.’ The dark girl was laughing, and for the first time in a long career, she waited, holding the creased map, still practising her smile, one that looked open but not stupid, trustworthy but not weird, friendly but not too friendly.
And she waited.
‘Hang on, Christian, okay? I’ve just got to…’ She trailed off, muffling the phone against her chest. ‘Hello? Do you need help with something?’ She’s talking to me.
‘Oh, gosh. Um. Please – finish your call! I don’t want to impose -‘
‘No, it’s fine. Honestly. Do you need directions?’ Her eyes were brown too, clear, guileless but wary. There was no smile on her face.
‘Sure, sure. Um. Hardacre? Is it around here someplace?’ She fumbled with the map, the wedding ring winking in the glow of the spotlight.
‘Please, don’t bother with the map. Please! Just listen, okay?’ She looked up, and the dark-haired girl was earnest, staring, one hand on the leash and the other on the phone. She started to give directions and the other woman pretended to take them in, even asking questions and clarifying details, before the conversation tapered off.
‘Okay. So, you’ve got it?’ The girl’s eyes were wide, wanting to help.
‘I sure do,’ she replied, wrapping up the map. ‘I sure do. Thank you, ma’am.’
‘Wow. Ma’am is for my mother. Please! You’re welcome.’ She nodded, just once, before picking up the phone again and turning, the dog’s straining making her leash-holding fingers turn yellow. She began to walk away.
‘Hi, Christian? Yeah, sure. No, no – just a woman lost, needing directions. Okay, so where were we? Oh, really…‘ The girl’s laughing voice left a trail, like scent, in the air, and she didn’t notice she was gripping the map hard until she heard it tearing in her hands. She took two strides to the nearest trash-can and threw it in.
Her calf muscles were tensed and her shoulders taut. Her fists clenched and her jaw set and she wanted to, so badly, but she’d blown it. She’d gone off too early, using the map trick. Now, how was she going to approach her again?
Before she knew it, she was halfway down the block, keeping well back. The spotlight moved with the dark-haired girl, and she shone within it like a newfound pearl.
She’s been chosen, you know, she heard, inside. Not by you. By someone higher than you. Through your hands, His will be done.
She kept walking, her throat sore from holding back a sob.
This will be the last one, the voice inside her whined. Just one more, and that’s all!
But that’s what you said the last time, she answered.
And the time before that, sang the voice. And the time before that, and the time before that.