Short Story – Shoulders by Lindz McLeod
Tim closed his car door first. Rachel followed.
He looked over his shoulder, reversed out of the space with jerky bravado. His tanned hands rested against the black leather wheel. Typical two-ten positioning. Rachel looked out of the window. The space by her feet was cramped, most of it taken up by a backpack stuffed to bursting. Tim halted the car, pushed his sunglasses down his nose so she could see his blue eyes.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to put that in the trunk?’
‘No, it’s fine. I like having it near me.’
‘I really think you should put it in the trunk.’
He popped the trunk. She got out, dragging the bag. She’d packed for more than a weekend. Essentials though. She wanted to look beautiful for him, but in that effortless way she knew he liked. This required a lot of products.
She slipped back into her seat, shut the door. The car pulled out, purring along one street and then another. She felt lulled by the engine, by Tim’s steady breathing, barely on the verge of hearing. She allowed herself to smile, to unfurl. Pictured what those outside the car could see; a young woman, in a pretty, floral jumpsuit, layered silver necklace dangling like the loops of a chandelier. A handsome young man, in a slim-fitting black shirt, round hipster sunglasses. She shouldn’t think hipster. He didn’t like that word.
‘Shouldn’t take too long to get there.’
‘That’s fine.’ She could sit in this car, with this man, all day, and be perfectly content. Sometimes she felt like that about cars— not trains, or buses, but cars— that she never wanted to journey to end. The destination meant getting out of the car, meant having to adjust to a whole new circumstance. The car though, and especially being a passenger, was soothing. Like being back in the womb.
‘Thanks for coming.’
‘No, I mean, really.’ His eyebrows creased as his focus flicked from the satnav to the road and back again. ‘I’m glad you came.’
‘It’s no big deal.’ She brushed a stray curl from her face, tucked it behind her ear.
It was. She’d never been up here before, this lush, rolling countryside. It was a big deal. She wondered if he knew she meant she was happy, that she saw this as a nice step in their relationship. Not a milestone exactly, but a step on a path. A little stroll, hand in hand, with someone you were getting to know.
The sun beat down. She rolled her window down; the cooled airstream slipping in and brushing along her skin. It felt wonderful. A pleasant meeting of temperatures. She felt him looking over at her, but when she turned, his eyes were already back on the road. She looked out of the window again, watching the verge. A small body was lying there. Rolled up into a ball, nothing distinguishable, no features, no head or limbs. Just a prickly mass of torso. It was such a shame. If only there was a way to ensure they didn’t wander into the road. To protect them. The prickles wouldn’t defend you against a hulking mechanical monster. They were for predators, she supposed, although she didn’t really know what might try to eat a hedgehog. A badger, maybe? Or a fox? Maybe they were like giraffes, and nothing really tried to eat them because it was quite inconvenient.
She rolled her window up. The car drove on. Silence inside. Companionable, she thought. Pleasant. A green sign was coming up on the verge. A familiar mermaid.
‘Do you fancy getting a coffee?’
‘We’ve only just started, Rach.’
‘Surely you don’t need one.’
‘No.’ She folded her hands in her lap. ‘No, I don’t need one. You’re right.’
He drummed his fingers on the wheel.
‘Do you want one?’
‘No, it’s fine.’
‘My friend is getting married in August.’
The satnav beeped. Tim adjusted the car, pulling into the fast lane. August was three months away. Since they were going to a wedding now, for someone Tim knew, it made sense to ask him to a wedding for someone she knew. A polite, affectionate gesture.
‘I wondered if you wanted to come. I have a plus one.’ She’d actually RSVP’d already, months before she’d met Tim. Weddings were such long-planned affairs these days. Steph was a good friend though, and hadn’t minded at all when Rachel had called two weeks ago to ask if her new boyfriend could come too. She’d been delighted. They’d talked for hours, going over every little detail. It had been a while since Rachel had dated.
Tim hadn’t replied yet. His hands had tightened on the steering wheel. She’d felt the car leap forwards, powerful under the carpeted flooring. They were still in the fast lane. In the rearview mirror, she could see traffic lined up behind them.
‘I’m not sure.’
She didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want him to suspect her of overanalysing his facial expressions like he’d said she did. She looked out of the window instead. A dead bird was lying on the road. A seagull maybe, judging by the size and shape; the feathers were a dulled, petrol grey and indistinguishable. Just another victim of the road. The car next to them ran straight over it. The silence stretched on.
‘If you don’t want to, that’s fine.’ She thought about the articles she read on how to communicate well. ‘I respect your decision, but I’d like to understand it.’
He was silent. She rolled down her window again.
‘Can you not do that please?’
‘The window.’ His voice was strained, like a belt pressing against too much dinner. She wanted to go back to before the seagull, before the hedgehog.
The car wasn’t purring. It was growling.
‘It’s fine though,’ she said, knowing she was babbling, ‘I really mean that. I just thought that because you’ve invited me to this wedding, that it would be okay if I invited you to one as well.’
‘It’s just a bit much.’
She didn’t understand this. ‘What is?’
His jaw was twitching. The sun beat down on the car. She put her hand out and then remembered, pulling it back from the window control.
‘Oh, right. I understand.’ She didn’t, at all. ‘It’s honestly fine, just forget about it.’
‘I don’t like feeling pressured.’
‘Right. That’s why I’m saying we don’t have to go.’
‘But you asked.’
She couldn’t un-ask. She didn’t know what to say. Tim jerked the steering wheel and the car pulled into the slow lane. A car went zooming past, honking its horn.
‘I just thought that since you asked me—’
‘Yeah,’ he said.
‘I just thought that it would be fine? And when we were at Josh’s last week, you introduced me as your girlfriend.’
‘Yeah,’ he said again.
‘Am I missing something?’
‘I can see how that would be confusing.’
It was confusing, Rachel was prepared to agree to this, but that wasn’t an answer.
‘Right.’ Her hair had shaken itself loose again, obscuring her vision. She tucked it back behind her ear
‘Maybe this is all a bit fast.’
‘This. I just have a gut feeling.’
‘A gut feeling.’
‘Yeah. So maybe we shouldn’t do this.’
Something was coming up on the verge, something bigger than the seagull.
‘Be together. I think we should stop seeing each other.’
It was a hare. The body lay stretched out, as if it was doing yoga. Brown fur, shining golden in the sunshine. It hadn’t been hit by a car. It looked perfectly normal, apart from the visible ribcage. Like something had torn into it, taken one bite and left it there.
‘We’re on our way to a wedding.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I know, but that’s just what I think.’
‘Can we please take some time to consider this?’ She felt nauseous, hated herself for not pulling a strong Beyoncé stance and telling him to go fuck himself. ‘This seems really sudden, and we’ve been getting on so well—’
A chill scrabbled down her spine. The pitter-patter of fear. ‘Yes. Haven’t we?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I don’t understand. You introduced me as your girlfriend. You invited me up here. You spent all week telling me how excited you were to bring me.’
‘That must be really confusing for you.’ It was such a bizarre statement. He sounded so cold, so robotic. Like the satnav. Delivering instructions without feeling them. It felt like a nightmare. She’d shared a bed with this man, shared dinner and details. They’d spoken every day for weeks. He’d been the first one to ask for exclusivity. How could that unravel in the space of a few minutes?
‘Please, Tim, can we just talk it through?’
‘I don’t think so. It’s my choice.’
There was nothing to say to this. ‘Pull over.’
‘Pull over and let me out.’
‘I’ll drop you off in town.’
‘I want out right now.’
He pulled over. She got out, heaved her weekend backpack onto her shoulder, and turned her back on the car. He waited for a long time before he drove away. She walked on. She didn’t cry. The feeling was deeper than that; it was in her core, like a flu, permeating her cells. She stopped by every roadkill on the way. Bowed low to them; saw kinship in their damp, glassy eyes.