The Shortcut

by Susan Coyle

The girl protested the move and called it the boondocks, but her parents bought her a car, a three-year-old Corvair, so she wouldn’t have to transfer high schools. The car almost made the move worthwhile. She drove the back roads and the state road and the new interstate extension, trying them all on for the best route. Looking to make the best time.

The state road took her to high school, got her past the monotonous fields and farms, and delivered her to “civilization.” Meanwhile, the suburbs continued to sprawl, and practically overnight a Mobil station was built out there in the sticks. The first time she stopped for gas she was surprised to see an adjacent, unmarked lane cutting through one of the pastures. She decided to explore it. It ran straight through a dairy farm and emptied out a mile away, close to the highway extension. The gravelly lane was rutted and unlit, but it would shave ten minutes from her commute. Easy.

No one seemed to care when she began to use the shortcut. The owner lived in a big brick house tucked into a far corner of the fields, away from the barns and equipment. Hired hands with families were quartered in four plain white cabins arrayed near the entrance to the lane. Gullies separated the road from the rolling fields. Midway down the road was a small grove of oak trees, which provided a welcome wash of shade in the autumn months. Further along, the lane gave over once more to empty blue skies and alien sounds of interstate traffic.

It was January of the girl’s senior year, and two feet of snow had fallen off and on all week. The wind sculpted the snow into mounds. On Friday a watery sun melted a few inches of it, but the clear night turned very cold, and a thick crust formed on top. The interstate was salted and plowed, and at 10:00 p.m., the girl sped to her usual exit. All that mattered was that the radio and heater were on full blast and she’d be home before curfew. She sang along with the radio: “Ticket to Ride” and “Wooly Bully.” She wore the standard outfit of the day: mini-dress, boots, textured hose, and a slouch coat.

Off the ramp, the girl turned toward the dairy farm. It flitted across her mind that the road might be impassable, but as she arrived at its entrance, tire tracks glistened in the moonlight. Other cars plainly had gone through. The unlit road, the cold night, and heaps of snow in sleepy fields held no menace.

The girl snapped on her bright lights and ventured in. The car rumbled along, and when it fishtailed, she gripped the steering wheel hard and got it under control. That little spurt of adrenaline made her sit up and do a quick calculation about whether to try the shortcut or not. Well, turning the car around wouldn’t be easy, she figured. Concentrate, that’s all she needed to do.

She shut off the radio, and the world got closer. She advanced deliberately, stealing glances at the frozen fields on either side of the road.

She came over a small rise. The car dipped down, and then slowly, almost surreptitiously, lost traction on the ice. The girl applied the brakes—gently, gently—but the car had its own momentum. The rear end drifted—gradually, languidly—into a gully on the left side.

The girl worked the stick into reverse and applied gas but could only feel the car vibrate. Hot air howled in her ears. She dialed down the heater and now she heard the back tire spin. She put the car in first gear, then tried reverse again, as Dad had shown her. She raced the engine but could not get the car out of the furrow.

Now she’d done it. She’d taken this stupid road to save a stupid ten minutes. Well, another driver would come along and rescue her. Someone always did. She turned off the engine to wait.

Moonlight spilled onto the pastures around her, and the snow shone like polished silver. The heat in the car dissipated quickly, and she shivered. She wore no gloves, and even the steering wheel began to feel cold. Where were the other cars? She was going to be late.

She stepped out and walked around the car. The gully was in shadow but didn’t look too deep. The left rear wheel hung ever so slightly in the air; that was all. Surely another driver could knock it forward easily. Another driver was bound to take this road. It was just a matter of time.

She watched and waited, pressing her hands in her armpits. No one came over the rise.

The girl returned to the car. She turned on the ignition, then the heater, and finally checked the gas gauge. The tank was a quarter full, but the temperature was dropping and it could be a long night. Maybe she shouldn’t wait. Maybe she should go for help. The walk could not be very long, after all.

She climbed out and put her keys in a coat pocket. She stepped back onto the lane, where she looked and listened. The fields were bleached of color. She weighed whether to walk back toward the interstate or forward to the cabins and, beyond them, the Mobil station. Behind her came the whine of long-distance trucks. Ahead of her creaked the grove of old oaks. The girl pulled her coat tightly around, dug her hands in her pockets, and walked in the direction of the cabins.

The lane was cratered with ice, and she stepped gingerly. Moonlight poured down, making the beautiful frozen snow glisten and wink. Soon she felt a great burst of hope when she reached the trees. She was halfway to her destination.

The branches stretched and rubbed in the wind. In the agitated shadows, she lost her footing and slipped forward. She thrust out her arms for balance, but it was too late. Her right knee crashed through the crust of the snow and hit a root. Her knee split open. An electric shock ran through her whole body. She let out a sob and suddenly retched. She lay on the ground and breathed in and out, in and out, while the pain spread in widening circles. The stinging air penetrated her coat and dress, while her tongue burned with bile. She clasped a palmful of snow and put it in her mouth.

She lay still. She waited. She let self-pity and loneliness wash over her. Finally she forced herself to think. An hour had elapsed since she’d first driven into the lane, and no other car had come through. She had to get up. She had to walk.

The girl rubbed snow into her knee. The bleeding stopped, and she set off. Snow had slipped into her boots and melted, leaving her feet wet and stinging. She hunched against the cold and pressed on.

Before long she smelled smoke and saw the outline of a chimney. Her heart lifted and she kept shuffling until the whole of the cabin was in view. It seemed dark inside; only a bare bulb over the door quivered and sent tongues of light into the night. But sprawled outside the cabin was a long, late-model sedan, well cleared of snow. Someone was home.

She picked her way to the front of the house. The dim light of a television screen flickered through the window, and she saw a man and a woman in straight-back chairs. The girl knocked, and in a few moments the door jerked open. A husky, dark-haired man stood in his work clothes and socks, blocking the view. He had a bottle of beer in his hand. She asked to use the telephone; her car had gotten stuck.

It turned out the man didn’t have a phone, but he waved his bottle to let her inside.

Someone switched on a lamp. A large TV dominated the right side of the room. Steam rose from a crock atop a pot-bellied stove, and the air was warm, almost hot. The walls were bare. A baby slept in a playpen wedged in the far corner of the room. Next to the playpen was the woman’s tall wood chair. She wore a robe with a satin collar, her thin hair pinned up and her mouth pulled down. This was not a time for someone to come calling.

The girl apologized for interrupting and explained what had happened. Since they had no phone, she would go on to the gas station—but, first, would they please let her take the chill off for a few minutes? Even if the station were closed, there’d be a pay phone and she would call her dad.

The man sighed. He looked at his wife, back at the girl, and guessed he could drive her to the station. He’d already put chains on his tires. She could stay in the house while he warmed the engine.

The man sat to lace on his boots, and the girl saw the gleam on his hair and felt a flush of pleasure when she realized he was handsome. In her high school circles, his slick-backed hair would not be in style, and maybe he was a little old for her—but, still. A solid, good-looking man. Maybe he’d sighed that way only because he was tired.

When he stood, he pointed to his chair, and she took it. He got a fresh beer and headed outside. His wife paid them no attention and stared into the TV.

The girl settled into the man’s wooden chair, which held the warmth from his body. She rubbed color back into her fingers. This was good. But in a short while, the air became stuffy, and she felt her knee grow hot. Maybe it would crack open again. She abruptly thanked the woman and left the house.

Outside, exhaust was huffing from the tailpipe of the big sedan. She climbed in and closed the door. It reeked of tobacco, and the dark interior seemed enormous; a space yawned between the dashboard and the long bench seat. She tentatively stretched her aching leg, the stocking torn at the knee. The inside of her boot was damp with melted snow.

The man shifted in his seat and glanced at the girl sidelong. She explained to him that she had fallen. She pulled her knee in close and massaged it.

The man clicked his tongue. “Look here,” he said. The car was still idling. “I’m thinking the gas station is closed for the night, so I might as well take a look at your car. Probably able to get it out of the ditch myself.”

The man probably spent half his days with farm equipment; surely he could get her car out. But she was late and her folks would be worried and probably mad, so she said again she’d better call her dad.

The man slit his eyes at her and smiled. “Don’t you worry. I can handle a car.” He rested the beer bottle against his leg and shifted into drive.

She watched as he nosed the sedan onto the graveled lane. After that brief exchange, silence hung between them. She listened to the chains thump along the road. Music rose faintly from the car radio, a keening country song. They drove by the trees where the girl had fallen through the ice. She peered out the side window to see where she had lain, but the moon had risen higher, and the branches threw gloomy, restless shadows.

She was surprised to hear the man’s voice. “Looking for something?”

“Not really.”

“Not really?” He chuckled at that and said, “You look like somebody who lost something.”

“No. I’m fine. I really appreciate you doing this.” She felt awkward with the handsome stranger.

Finally they reached her Corvair. The man brought his sedan to a stop and let out an exaggerated sigh.

“Aw, hell, why didn’t you tell me it was sideways?” he said. “This ain’t going to be easy.”

“I’m sorry.” The girl felt a flurry of distress but wasn’t sure why. She looked at her car. It sat a little off kilter, but it wasn’t sideways. And why should she apologize? They just needed to get that back wheel up on the road. “Look,” she said, “if it’s a problem, we can go to the station and I’ll call my dad.”

The man took a swig of beer and laughed. “Aw, I’m just pulling your leg. Come on, we’ll give it a try.”

He directed the girl to start her car and move the steering wheel to the right. She hated to leave the warmth of the sedan, but in a way she was relieved. She’d begun to think the man had an odd sense of humor.

She smiled to be back in her own little car. She’d be out of there in a jiffy. Easy. She arranged herself in the seat while the man wheeled his car behind hers. She thought about how she would tell her parents and her friends about getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. It would end up as a funny story.

She breathed free when she felt the sedan slide up against her bumper and give it a tap. That was strange. She peered at the rearview mirror, but headlights made it impossible to see the man’s face. With her hand, she signaled him to push. He began to rock her car with a series of staccato bumps, but the Corvair didn’t move forward. She hoped the man wasn’t joshing her again. A good, firm push was all that was needed.

The next thing she knew, the man was standing next to her car. She rolled down the window. “Is something wrong?”

The pomade on his hair caught the moonlight, but his eyes were dark in shadow. “I can’t get a good angle on your bumper.”

“You can hit it harder. I don’t care about a dent. Just a solid push ought to do it.”

“Not going to happen. The road’s too slick and I can’t get at it right.” He tilted back his head and now she couldn’t see his eyes at all. His jaw looked wide and unyielding.

“Get back in my car and I’ll take you to the station.”

“I thought you said it was closed.”

“You can use the phone.”

That’s what she’d been saying all along, for Pete’s sake. And now why did the man say the road was too slick if he had chains on his car? She studied the frozen acres on either side of the lane. Nothing moved. All this time, no one else had driven through. She thought she didn’t have a choice. She returned to the sedan.

“Hop in, that’s right.” He smiled, a crooked but friendly-stranger smile.

The engine idled but the man seemed in no hurry to shift into gear. Instead, he slowly slanted across the girl, as if reaching for the glove box. She turned her head and gazed out the side window, waiting for him to find whatever he was rummaging for.

“So, what're you looking at out there?” the man asked her. He’d stopped his movements and now hung partway over the girl. He gawked out her window. “See something interesting?” He leaned further.

The girl felt his body brush against hers. She caught a stale smell of hair wax.

The man rolled his eyes downward and said, “Well, my, my, what do you call those?”

She looked down at her legs and shifted her coat. “I told you, I fell.” She’d been ignoring the pain in her knee, and now she rubbed it. “It really hurts.”

“No, I meant those things.” He pointed. “Are they fishnet stockings?”

The hard moon lit the interior of the car. A black-and-white movie began to roll. The man’s fingers traced the hem of her dress, the action spooling out in slow motion. Light flooded behind his head, and she couldn’t see his face. This could not be happening.

She slid her hands down the dress and tried to brush his away, coolly, as if his touch had been accidental.

“I just want a look at those fishnet stockings.”

“No.” The girl’s chest felt crowded. “They’re not fishnets. They’re textured.” Stop the film.

The man chuckled. “I think you want me to look at them, girlie. I think that’s why you’re wearing them.”

“No, I’m wearing them because they’re warm. Look, I hurt my knee. Please leave me alone.”

The man swung back to his side of the car and snickered. “Maybe I just got a good imagination.” He switched off the ignition, casually, and lit a cigarette. The flame from the match briefly illuminated his broad face, stubbled with a day’s growth of beard.

The girl rearranged her coat and dress. “Please don’t turn off the engine,” she said. “I’m late and my parents are going to kill me.” She suddenly wished she hadn’t said “kill.” Her breath shortened.

I’m just thinking.” He drew in a lungful of smoke, exhaled it, and finished his beer. He tapped lightly on the dashboard.

The girl watched his fingers drumming. His wife must wonder what was taking so long. She looked at the empty pastures. Now her knee really throbbed, and she felt a new wave of nausea. “Could we please go now?” she said.

“Awful cold out.” The man turned his face to look at her. The whiskers around his mouth and under his nose were thick and black. “I bet I know a way to keep us both warm.” He snuffed out his cigarette.

“I want to go now,” she said. Her voice sounded tinny. Someone else’s voice. A soundtrack.

“I’d like to know what they feel like.” The man twisted back over the girl’s body and put his hand on the stocking of her good leg. He brought his face close to hers and she smelled his breath, a sepia breath stained by tobacco and beer.

“Don’t.” Rooted at the spot.

“Now, don’t you want me to keep you warm?” he said. He pressed his moist mouth to hers.

The pressure jolted her, and she struggled.

He drew back and fixed glassy eyes at hers. “Aw, give me a little kiss and then we can go.”

“You don’t want a kiss. I’ve just been sick.”

He laughed at that. “I don’t mind. I don’t mind a bit.” He caught her face roughly in his hands and plunged his thick tongue in her mouth. His tongue was oddly cold but moved like it had a life of its own. Like a snake.

She pushed against the man but he pinned her arms. She felt she was choking. She worked an arm free and forced a hand up between their mouths. She began to babble. “I was sick. I hurt myself. You have a wife at home.”

That snigger again. “But you, you’re right here, girlie. And you got those fishnets on.”

“A baby. You have a wife and a baby.”

His hand began to hunt along her hemline again, quickly now but more firmly.

“No!” She flailed at the car door and he struck her. Her face crumpled and she moaned, though the blow had been more of a shock than anything else. She felt a short spurt of urine in her panties and huddled into herself.

“Now just relax and enjoy yourself. We’re going to have us a little party.”

Outside, everything looked hollow. Bare fields. An indifferent moon. Wind soughing through the trees.

No, wait: it couldn’t be the trees. They were too far away. But she’d heard something.

The man was busy with his belt when headlights dipped over the little rise in the road. She saw them and shoved open the door. She ignored the man’s yelp and the ice on the lane and the pain in her knee and rushed forward. She waved her arms.

A car came to a stop. A little Volkswagen Beetle. It would have to do.

She crashed toward the driver’s side, and a young man cranked open the window. He was alone. “You’ve got to help me,” she said. Her voice was thin and sharp. The newcomer grimaced at her and then at the road ahead.

The big man had gotten out of the sedan and straightened his clothes. The girl watched as he slid over the snow toward them. “Well, we got us a situation here,” the man said to the newcomer. “Her car’s stuck in the ditch, but I got it under control. I’ll move my car and you can get around it.”

“No,” the girl said. “My car’s not really stuck. It’s just one wheel.”

The newcomer blinked at them and then through the windshield where his headlamps lit the road.

The girl knew he figured that his car might just make it around the sedan. She leaned down and grasped the cold chrome at the windowsill. “He’s messing with me.”

The newcomer flicked his eyes at her, then back at his steering wheel. After a few beats, he leaned against his door and nudged it open. He got out slowly and stood beside his car. He was tall but narrow-shouldered, almost spindly. He wore a dark pea coat.

“Please come look,” she said. “If both of you push my car, it’ll come out easily.” She took her keys from her pocket. They jangled in her hand.

The newcomer scuffed to the edge of the lane and peered at the Corvair. His face was blank, and she reached out to touch his arm. “I’ll pay you,” she whispered. “Just get me out of here, and don’t let that guy follow me.”

The big man stepped closer. In the headlights, his eyes glittered like coal. “Hey, I got this,” he said. “I got this.”

“Please,” she said again to the newcomer. “Get between us.” She gripped the sleeve of his pea coat. She could feel the hard bone of his arm, and her stomach dropped.

The newcomer looked at the girl with an expressionless face, and she ducked her head. He leaned close to her ear. “This is your lucky day,” he hissed. Her thoughts flew in all directions.

She heard him raise his voice to the man to say, “Don’t push from behind. We’ll move her car backward, get some traction under the wheels.”

The big man squinted at the moon and didn’t reply.

The newcomer drew himself up. “Look, Buddy, you don’t know who’s going to show up next.” He walked to the front of the girl’s car. “Let’s go.”

The girl shook herself to move into the Corvair. Although the engine was off, her ears were filled with a loud whooshing sound. Then she heard someone count, “One, two, three, push!” A few grunts, and the car slid backwards into the gully. Trembling, she started the car, and the engine came to life. She nudged the car forward and onto the lane.

The girl passed the men and looked at them in her rearview mirror and moved to second gear. She knew better than to stop. She would not thank them, not even the good one. She would get down that road. She would get down that road and go home. Home.

The moon was bright upon the fields. Her car scraped over the snow and neared the grove of trees where the branches cleaved the air. She passed the place where she had fallen and had a memory of snow in her mouth. Her car rolled on, and the cabin came into view. The light at the door shimmied and she had a memory of the man’s tongue. She slipped the car into third gear. Her tires crunched, and snow flew under the wheels. She thought of the young man. She heard, again, “You don’t know who’s going to show up next.” She forced her eyes to watch the lane ahead.

She reached the entrance to the state road. It was salted and clear. The Mobil station was dark save for Pegasus, etched in red neon, climbing for the stars. Maybe it’s time to stop taking the easy way, she thought; no shortcuts.

Susan Coyle has a BA in English and a PhD in Sociology—both good fields for seeing how people interact and how social norms and attitudes shape our behavior. She and her husband retired and moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in 2011.

About The Shortcut—We tend to re-examine our behavior when social expectations aren’t met or are challenged. I developed this story in a Great Smokies prose class, and revised it in response to thoughtful classroom feedback.