I drive my old Mazda through the silent, late night solitude of our small college town. It’s a weeknight, so the usual carousers are gone. We travel down a small highway leading out of town. The hospital rests on a steep hill overlooking the city’s south side. Elena lies in the emergency room, the severity of her injuries unknown. Derek and I had been pounding whiskey since ten that night. When the nurse called and asked Derek to come immediately, he put his hand over the mouthpiece and mouthed my name: Mickey.
I don’t know her well. She’s Derek’s girlfriend and likes warm champagne and long, tapered cigarettes. After rehearsals, sometimes I look out from the stage, adjusting my gaze from the glare of the spotlights, and see Elena in the middle of a row, feet propped on the chair before her. She’s not supposed to do that, but every time she waits for Derek, those feet idle like oars resting on a canoe, her toes spinning in circles.
Beginning to hurt, my hands fiercely grip the steering wheel. I suffer the silence that has fallen between us. He might know I’m slightly in love with him, but I put the thought out of my mind.
“How long have you two been going out?” I ask him, despite knowing the answer.
“Two years this February.”
“When did you move in together?” I knew that answer too.
“Just before the fall semester,” he says, toneless.
“You two seem like such a tight unit.”
“We are,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “We are.” He punches the lever on the side of the door, but the window won’t roll down. He beats the glass, but nothing happens.
“That’s broken,” I say. “I’ll roll down mine. Just hand it to me when you’re ready to ash.”
Derek takes in a drag, expels the smoke in one smooth breath. I switch on the radio. It’s a classic rock station. Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll” thunders through the speakers. It’s a bit loud, so I twist the knob and the music fades.
“You didn’t have to do that. I like that song.”
“Musicals aren’t my only love, Mickey.”
“That’s good to know,” I say, thankful for Derek’s lighter mood.
“Are we almost there?”
“I think so. It’s on the other side of the interstate, right?”
I crank up the tune. It’s a sleazy little number, Hot tramp, Daddy’s little cutie. You’re so fine, I never see you leaving out the back door. Derek hands me his cigarette. Our fingers graze each other for a moment, and the sensation is deeply erotic. I chide myself for getting aroused. Elena is broken and bloody on a gurney somewhere, and I’m speculating how to seduce her boyfriend. People shouldn’t trust me, but they do.
I hand back the cigarette and notice disquiet in his eyes. During rehearsal, we stare at one another dozens of times a night, playing our parts. I know his gaze quite well, its shades of meaning.
“She wants to break up,” he says finally.
“What do you mean?”
“She was on her way home to tell me,” He passes me a pitiful look, his lips drawn tight. “That’s why I asked you over after rehearsal.” He laughs bitterly. “Can’t break up with your boyfriend in front of company.”
“Maybe you’re imagining things,” I say.
“No. I could feel it.”
We pass a green sign indicating that San Carlos Memorial Hospital lies two miles ahead. I think about searching the seats in the auditorium, seeing the empty space where Elena always sits.
“Do you want me to stay in the waiting room while you see her?”
“No, Mickey, come with me. Please.”
“I’m not family.”
“Neither am I.”
On impulse, I grab his hand and squeeze it. He squeezes back, and I sneak a look at his face. The moist track of a falling tear shimmers underneath the passing streetlamps. Daddy’s little cutie. So fine, I never see you leaving out the back door.
“Tell me she’s going to be okay,” he says. “Tell me she’ll be fine.”
“Elena’s going to be fine, Derek.”
I rev the engine to beat a yellow light, but I’m too late. I grind the Mazda to a halt several feet beyond the thick white line painted on the asphalt. We pitch forward, strain against the seat belts. Both stunned, we settle back into our seats. Our ragged breaths burst forth in sync, as if we were one being.
Derek turns to me. “We’re safe …” He sounds surprised.
“So is Elena,” I say. The gratitude on his face reminds me why I love him.
Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Berkeley Fiction Review, Timber, Foglifter, Hobart, Gertrude, Adroit Journal, Split Lip Magazine, Cutthroat, Litro, PANK, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Gulf Stream Magazine, and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and three-time Best of the Net nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives in Houston and works as an English tutor at a local community college. His Lambda Literary Award-nominated debut collection of short fiction, “Texas Crude”, is now available from Lethe Press at numerous online booksellers. His second collection, “Death by Misadventure”, will release from Dark Ink Books in Spring 2022.