This short story was first published in Empirical Magazine in January 2013. You can read it on their blog here.
by Laura Rittenhouse
The unrelenting heat pounded against the side of her car as Ellen drove the well worn track to work. She absently stabbed her finger against the bottom of her sunglasses when they slipped down the fine layer of sweat coating the bridge of her nose. The back of her cotton shirt stuck to her skin, imprinting the pattern from her seat cover across the damp material. Though Ellen didn’t hold much store in intuition, she had one of those nagging hunches that this wasn’t going to be a good day. She turned up the fan on the air-conditioner in her old but reliable car knowing as she did so, that it wasn’t up to the task of the morning’s heat.
A thump followed by a whump, whump broke Ellen’s pessimistic contemplation. The car started to veer off the road so she pulled over to the gravel shoulder, turned off the engine, yanked on the hand brake, switched on the emergency flashers and got out. She walked purposefully around the car to find the source of the problem; it was the back left tire, flat beyond repair. It definitely wasn’t going to be a good day.
Leaning against the back of her un-drivable car, Ellen now faced the equally unpleasant options of phoning for help, or digging around in the back of her car for a jack and the spare. There was nothing that Ellen hated more than a woman who needed a man to help with the more physical tasks of life – unless perhaps it was figuring out how to stabilize a jack on the crushed red gravel of the shoulder.
As Ellen pondered her choices, she gazed back at the traffic traveling the same road she had been on only moments before. A white SUV was headed towards her and a tiny green car was trying to pass it. She heard and felt the semitrailer coming in the opposite direction and spared a moment to wonder how all three vehicles were going to manage to pass her parked car.
The tiny green car accelerated the best that it could and the SUV hit its brakes. Ellen heard a soft screeching sound and anticipated the smell of burnt rubber that would soon reach her. At the last minute, the green car swerved, its back bumper just brushing the front of the SUV. This slightest of nudges sent the SUV straight towards the shoulder and Ellen’s car.
She barely had enough time to stand and draw in a deep breath, as if she were about to plunge head first into an oncoming wave. When the SUV reached her, she felt it come into contact with her thighs. Then, in a prolonged instant, she felt her feet lagging behind the rest of her body while her legs snapped like crispy bacon. Her torso was hurled into the back of her parked car and she was dead before she heard the grating of the metal that collapsed on impact.
Ellen opened her eyes, squinting at the sun pouring across her pillows. As on just about every other morning, she cursed renting an apartment that had a bedroom with an eastern facing window and thin curtains. But then, as her dream resurfaced, she decided the warmth of the sun was a welcomed intruder today. An inner chill ran like thick treacle down her spine. She untangled her legs from the python-like grip of her blankets and flopped back on the sun-drenched pillow. Two, deep, calming breaths did nothing to erase the creepy feeling that had now pooled at the base of her spine. Ellen slammed her fist into her pillow and bounced out of bed.
Irrespective of the accepted myth that dying in your dream means you’ll die in your sleep, Ellen had a habit of surviving her deadly dreams. This car crash was not her first such dream and she doubted it would be her last. These days she couldn’t turn out her bedside lamp without expecting that her sleep would be filled with dreams; some horrific, some dramatic and some boringly mundane. Those mundane dreams were all too rare as far as Ellen was concerned.
But mundane or horrific Ellen would resignedly take what she got as long as the dream only visited her once. What she had a hard time dealing with was dreams that repeated themselves. These made her fear she’d missed the point of something her unconscious mind was trying to tell her.
To minimize the terrors in her nights, Ellen had developed a system of satisfying her psyche. Every morning she would make a truce with her unconscious mind by spending her rushed shower trying to figure out what had caused her last dream. On good days, this was a quick process where Ellen could easily identify what had triggered her nightmare, what conflict at work or news headline her psyche was mulling over. Unfortunately the death-by-crash dream didn’t have any obvious source – she hadn’t watched a movie with a car chase scene lately, nor had she had any near misses herself. This meant it probably was something too complex to be unraveled in the amount of time a shower lasted, time that she’d gladly spend when she had it free. If she didn’t find the time, she dreaded that her brain would make it for her in a not-too-distant dream. But that time was not now, now she needed to race out the door or risk being late to work.
Ellen didn’t have an overly challenging job but it was a busy one. Make-work kept her mind occupied and helped the day pass quickly. By the time Ellen met Lydia for lunch, she’d almost managed to forget her deadly dream. Almost. It was still hanging around uncomfortably at the back of her mind so she mentioned it as casually as she could.
“I don’t know how you can talk about your own death so calmly,” Lydia said over the top of her iced coffee.
Ellen wasn’t exactly happy with Lydia’s attempt at infecting her with fear. “It’s not my own death, it’s my dream. Big difference.”
“Okay, let’s say it’s not about your death, what is it about then?”
The two women discussed as many options as they could invent in the remainder of their lunch hour – everything from the fact that the tiny green car might represent environmental protection squeezed out by consumerism symbolized by the SUV to the most obvious of interpretations, that the dream was a prophesy. By the end of their break they’d resolved nothing but left Ellen worrying whether her dream was telling her to reduce her carbon footprint or, alarmingly, foretelling her future.
That night Ellen poured a glass of red wine and took it and a book to bed. She knew there was no way that Bridget Jones’s Diary would trigger a nightmare and red wine generally helped her relax into a dreamless sleep.
The next day was another bright and humid morning. As Ellen drove to work she felt her irritation grow every time her sunglasses slipped down the sweating bridge of her nose.
She heard a thump followed by a whump, whump. Her car started to veer off the road so she pulled over to the gravel shoulder and got out. She walked around the car to find the source of the problem; it was the back left tire, flat beyond repair. A sinking feeling formed in the pit of her stomach. Looking up she saw the white SUV heading towards her with a tiny green car passing it. She barely had enough time to draw in a deep breath before the SUV reached her.