One night, Ida sees moonlight leaking through the window past the fluorescent television screen mounted to the plain, cream-colored walls. It digs its ephemeral hooks into her legs and pulls them up from her pinstriped couch. She pads silently across the shag carpet matted with dirt and tangled fibers. She passes her mother and father, lulled to sleep by their neon panacea of others’ ill fortune. She crosses a sea of pristine linoleum, dodging cheap wooden stools and worn leather briefcases. Her feet shove their way into a battered pair of sneakers. Pushing the front door open, she begins to walk.
Ida knows her town better than any of her neighbors. Every route and road has branded itself into her mind. They stick to her memory like flypaper. Walk straight down the street to meet the highway. Turn left for gas, right for groceries, straight for collisions. From there, each route changes based on destination and duration. She fantasizes about the highway, wanting the rush of artificial wind to singe her legs and spread her skirt like flower petals. Cars would race past her one mile per minute, infinite cars per hour. She wonders how many would pass her in one day, if she could even keep track of them. What would happen if one of them hit her?
Ida usually stares out the window during particularly long car trips. She’s seen many of the landmarks, but she wants to understand them better. Questions flood her mind about these familiar, foreign places. Who tills the endless rows of corn? Had the burned out ruins of that building once supported a glorious mansion? Did someone mean to leave the battered remains of vans in the middle of a clearing? Why do the owners of the small cottage hide their home in ivy and thick vines? Most importantly, what do other drivers think about during their journeys? Occasionally, she stares at the other passengers in adjacent cars. They stare at her through the gray-tinted glass and accept their mutual existence as backseat captives. Their faces scream help me through the glass. She never sees these strangers again, but she will never forget their empty faces.
Although she knows it’s impossible and illegal, her fantasy haunts her when she sits in the car. Walking on the highway carries a heavy chance of death. Some stoned idiot could fall asleep at the wheel, lose control of the vehicle, and crush both it and her body into the guard rail. Her organs would tumble from her body and roll across the highway, transmuting her into another unrecognizable piece of road kill. Birds would pick out her eyes and tear away her skin and hair to build their homes. Ravenous dogs and bears would feast on her flesh, dragging her home to feed their young. Police and passers-by mistake her for a dead deer or careless stray who ran at the wrong time. Eventually, she would devolve into nothing as crows ate her body and vultures scattered her bones. What an undignified way to die.
Worse, another man could notice her walking alone on the side of the road. He would offer her a ride, mistaking her for a vagrant wanderer. She’d be coerced into accepting his offer, then raped, sold into prostitution, or killed and dumped on the side of the highway. At least, that’s what she’s always believed. Men will take advantage of you unless you defend yourself. Be a strong woman and play it safe. Reject the charity of strangers. Over and over she hears these words and says she understands.
She still dreams of her inevitable death on the road: never pretty and always gruesome. Would it merit the risk? Ida can never tell.
She knows how she will end. All roads lead to home, regardless of her preference. Five hours south on the highway. One stop for food. Pass the box stores, the farms and the power plant. Turn left, right, left again. Sleep on the ride back. Talk a little before bed; you know what answers they expect. Always arrive in that impossibly silent room where the owls sing you to sleep. Welcome home.
Nothing bothers Ida about her house. Its lofty, sloping roof catches light from all directions. Pastel walls reflect the sun inwards. Sky blue lintels repel the birds and bees. The driveway, full of bumps and black rocks, warms her feet as she counts the imperfections. She used to ride her bike down those tiny hills. She used to bounce against the seat as she gained speed. Warm air sent her unkempt hair trailing behind her head, splayed out beneath her glinting, white helmet. Faster and faster she flew down the driveway until she reached the flat road. She would pedal through the street with nothing but the clicking chain for company. Neighbors would wave at her, and sometimes she would greet them back. They never had a place in her private euphoria.
Children will ride their bicycles past her mailbox when she leaves the house, stopping in the middle of the road to stare at her. They fear the strange girl who hardly speaks. She envies their freedom to wander the neighborhood on a tethered leash. They roam the development with no immediate cares. Nothing touches them until an older voice reels them in for supper. She envies their freedom and wonders if they want to keep exploring. How lucky the innocent are, unaware of change and misery, free to wander within the confines of their fence.
She breathes the hot, oily air into her lungs, intoxicated by the gaseous fumes of the highway. The moonlight makes her a shadow, simply existing and barely alive. Cars rush past her, zooming to places unknown and unseen. Her senses tune to the blackness around her, shifting her mind into a higher gear of awareness. She sees the miniature flickers of distant stars in the sky, long forgotten but never lost. One step into the rocky gravel pushed shivers of excitement through her body. Ida walks on the side of the road until she no longer feels stiffness in her legs. Pairs of owls flirt across the road, hooting their calls over the road’s cacophonous whirring. Four miles away from home, she reaches the crossroads where the highways intersect. Waiting for just the right moment — no, another car is coming. Careful, now, you don’t want those deaths to become reality, she reminds herself. Her legs carry her across the gap in a staccato rhythm she has dreamed of hearing. Adrenaline pushes her to run quickly, blinded by her ecstasy and liberated from the nightmare of what if. Her feet touch new gravel, and she smiles with manic delight. The thick, sweet residue of gasoline lingers on her tongue, heavy and leaden. A car shoots past her at sixty miles per hour, pushing hot air around her body. She savors its gentle brush against her legs.