Tommy was on his way to the 7-Eleven to buy condoms. He had offered to use Saran Wrap and a rubber band, but Sheila wasn’t game. They had just met and they had both been drinking, but apparently not enough. Tommy felt relieved when she suggested the errand. It would give him time to think, to figure out what he would say to Melissa, his girlfriend of two years, when he saw her the following day.
It was warm outside, and the deep snow was turning rapidly to fog, rising up to where Tommy thought the moon should be. He had put the porch light on as Sheila handed him directions, but by the time he got to the end of her long dirt driveway, the fog had swallowed it — or maybe, he thought, Sheila had clicked it off. The mountain roads made Tommy feel like he had wakened in a dark hotel room and couldn’t find the door. He turned off the radio to keep his focus. When one of Sheila’s rights could only be a left, he began to understand.
A yellow incandescence filled the air ahead of him. It was three road flares, leading to a car parked along a bend, its hazards flashing. A woman materialized, waving him to a stop.
“A car went over the side here,” she said. “Do you have a phone?”
“I don’t,” said Tommy, patting his pockets even though he didn’t own one. He got out of the car, and the woman backed away.
“You saw it happen?” he asked. He walked up to where the car had smashed through a wall of plowed snow and peered over the edge. The woman stood behind him, and Tommy wondered if she could smell the wine.
“I was following their taillights,” the woman said. She looked up and down the road again as if more help were on the way, but it was after two in the morning. “I practically followed them right over.”
As Tommy scanned the darkness, the woman kept chewing at a wad of gum. He thought she might be a little drunk herself.
“I could hear someone down there,” she said. “But now it’s stopped.”
Tommy turned to her. He didn’t like the idea of finding a car full of broken people. It reminded him of a terrible accident in high school, in which a baseball player had been decapitated, and the girl who was with him crawled halfway across a field of ready corn to die in the moonlit rows. Everyone said that they’d been drinking, that the headless boy had his pants around his ankles. Tommy and the girl had been dating at the time. He believed he loved her and attempted to separate his outrage from his grief. For many days after, Tommy would not talk or listen to music. He preferred an iron silence.
“What’s your name?” he asked. But the woman only handed him a flashlight, as if to say he was the man and he’d be going over the cliff to check on things now. Tommy clicked it on, but with so much fog, the light made everything harder to see.
Tommy turned, facing the darkness again, and called out to whatever might be down there. Something tiny came back to him. He couldn’t say if it was a radio or a person, or just some melted snow headed for the sea.
“How fast were they going?” he asked, kicking at a bit of sheered brush and noting a broken tree.
“Not real fast,” she said. She took a pair of gloves from her coat pocket and put them on. “Maybe forty.”
Tommy picked up one of the flares and placed it on the lip of the cliff so he’d have something to come back to. He knew he’d never make it to the 7-Eleven at this point, and the way back to Sheila’s seemed impossible to trace. He imagined her finishing the wine and passing out, her body naked and untouched on the living room couch. Then he stepped over the edge, three-limbing it into the deep snow. He headed off in the direction he figured a slow moving car would take over a cliff like this, the height of which he had no way of judging. Behind him, the woman shifted her car into gear and pulled away.
After a couple of minutes, Tommy’s shoes were soaked and the ground began to level. He looked up and could see the faint glowing of the flare. He called out again, waited, and heard nothing. He thought of Sheila’s porch light and how it had disappeared. He thought of his old girlfriend crawling through the corn.
Tommy found another broken tree, then a hubcap lying on the snow like a dinner plate. A smudge of moon showed itself high in the fog above him. His feet were getting cold now. Somewhere up ahead, and very close, he caught the music of a dead girl, singing.
Charles Rafferty’s eleventh collection of poems is The Smoke of Horses (forthcoming from BOA Editions). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and are forthcoming in Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra, and his story collection is called Saturday Night at Magellan’s. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.