The Long Way Home
That night, I heard the sound of someone being killed. Not simply dying, being killed. It was a scraping, metal sound. I was the last to leave work that night, locking the back door behind me. I was crossing the parking lot to my car. I could have parked closer, but I never did. There was a small white dog that lived at the house on the other side of the parking lot, and sometimes he would be looking out of the window when I got to my car, pyramid ears perked in my direction.
If he was at the window, I would wave and say hi. Call him by name. I can always remember dogs’ names, though I can never remember people’s. Maxes and Zeroes and Bubbles from down the street, and Finley at the window by my car, sometimes barking at me, sometimes gazing out quietly.
Finley wasn’t at the window that night. I would have seen him, even from across the parking lot. I heard the sound. It sounds like the top of a semi getting sheared off. That’s what I thought at first.
There were two men standing behind the realtor’s office up the block, chatting. It was spring; they weren’t wearing jackets. When they heard the sound, like I did, they stopped and stared at each other for a moment. Then one of them began to run toward the street.
The funny thing about my workplace was that we were in the middle of a residential area. Squirrels and ducks and even deer once went darting across our lawn. And yet we were only one block south of one of the busiest streets in town. My coworkers didn’t have to go on that street to get home, but I did. People always drove too fast there.
When I was a child, my parents made me go to my brother’s tee-ball games. I couldn’t stay at home alone, or with a neighbor. I had to go. They let me stay in the truck of the station wagon while they sat in the bleachers, trunk propped open. My feet hung out the back of the car, ankles resting on the bumper. I was always reading my mother’s magazines then: Redbook, Lady’s Home Journal. They used to publish fiction in them — does anybody remember that? I liked to read the stories.
I looked up from the story I was reading, and there was a girl on the other side of the street, maybe my age, maybe younger. I didn’t know her. She was coming out from between two parked cars, and I could tell she wasn’t going to look. And there was a pickup truck coming, blue, I think — whenever I think of this moment, I think of a blue pickup truck and a little girl with long ash-blonde hair. I don’t know what she really looked like, or the truck either. That’s just how I remember.
I saw the girl and I saw the truck and I was the only one who saw them both and I knew that they didn’t see each other and all I had to do was shout: Watch out! There’s a truck!
And I didn’t.
And I didn’t, and I didn’t, and I didn’t.
I sat up in the back of the station wagon, thumb marking my place in my mother’s magazine and watched that little girl get hit by a pickup truck and I didn’t say anything.
When I used to tell people that story, they always thought the little girl died. But she didn’t. She actually stood up right after, the pickup truck driver leaping out into the road to check on her. She said: I’m okay, I’m okay, and her parents came running over from the tee-ball game and collected her, and she was fine.
Oh, said people when I used to tell them. So what’s the problem, then?
Every year, someone ties balloons to a tree on the corner on the anniversary of his death. The sound I heard was this: A boy on a motorcycle, driving too fast — everyone drives too fast on that street — and a girl in her car pulling out in front of him, misjudging his speed, thinking I have plenty of time. The sound I heard that night was his motorcycle crashing into her car, that terrible metal sound that could have been a semi getting its top sheared off, that wasn’t.
I stopped halfway across the parking lot, keys in my hand. I saw one of the two men run toward the street. I heard the sound of people shouting, faintly. For a moment, I looked toward the street like I might do something, like I could do something. For a moment, that was all, and then I walked the rest of the way to my car. I thought: I’d better take the long way home tonight.
And I did.
Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. Her work has been published in various journals, including Superstition Review, Booth and Monkeybicycle. She was recently named a finalist for the Best Small Fictions 2017.