She looks drowsier than yesterday, her hands barely gripping the wheel, making a soft left off the main road and toward a dirt path hidden in the willow trees. Cars pass and glide away in the rearview mirror. The earth around us is leaves fallen branches and small pebbles. The path crunches beneath the car, rocks shoot up under the hood.
Having not spoken all day, I feel a little like dying in the passenger seat, opening my mouth only for air, briefly catching my reflection through the window, before all I see are trees. Ilse turns to me to smile before she makes the car ford a little river and water seeps in. I close my eyes to listen better to the things around me, the thud of water on all sides, the sudden screech of metal from somewhere; I even let go of my armrest and imagine perfect dark.
The first time I felt like this, I remember Ilse locked in the bathroom. The second time, I remember waking up from taking all the pills and wanting to go back to sleep to spread my limbs as far as they could go under the covers. My blood feels thin, my ears are plugged. Ilse shifts the gear, reaches to hold my hand, and as my eyes open, we pivot over a small log and level out on dirty white sand on the shore. Her mouth smiles after a surprised look on her face, as though she didn’t think we were going to make it. Water drips from the open car door onto my shadow on the sand and I crave a cigarette. I have just been avoiding everything.
Ilse says, I need some calm. The impulse returns and I lean over to kiss Ilse, first on her eyebrow before her lips. She smiles before opening her eyes again. I have no idea why we’re here, but she points past a meadow in the distance and says, I grew up just right over there.
She pops the trunk and her hair falls and hides her face. Ilse walks holding a flask and a red plastic gas tank and keeps walking past me, sand sticking to her bare feet as she reaches the tall grass. There is a house deep past the brief meadow that appears abandoned and worn down the closer we draw near, exchanging sips of whiskey, passing the flask back and forth in silence.
I ask Ilse, Is this where it happened?
She says, Yes. Let the weeds take this place.
Ilse says a name I can’t hear and pours whiskey on the dry earth in front of the looming house. Even though her eyes are open, they are shut. I feel the most calm I have felt in days and there is nothing to be afraid of. I know what she will do next, then see her pour gasoline on the front porch and light a cigarette. A doe appears from the woods to watch.
Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, a collection of short stories published by Scrambler Books. His work has appeared in Thought Catalog, City Arts Magazine, and Everyday Genius, among other places. In 2008, he survived a car accident. He is currently living in Seattle with his fiancé and their loud cat.