A story by Karen Runge
The 2007 Ford sedan had been reupholstered, retouched, retuned. Every stained and sullied part of it cleaned, mended, replaced. Disinfected, neutralised. Purged. That was the word. The interior of the car had been purged. The way fire burns disease, erases plague. The way any smaller-scale atrocity gets itself denied: written over, glossed over, the facts whispered into the ground until the earth swallows it whole. It’s an evil thing, how eager people are to forget. The lengths they’ll go: atrocities in themselves.
Still, the car was as innocent as any blood-stained patch of earth, as blameless as the grass that grows there after. It was just a car, no matter what had happened inside of it. Engine, wheels, seats. A mode of transport free of sentience. It wasn’t the car’s fault it had been stolen. It wasn’t the car’s fault it had been used in a crime. A murder. The taking of a life. Not its fault—the mess inside. The lawyer-friend who helped Jake get the car back had warned him about that last part.
‘It’s a… mess. Inside. I’d advise you get it cleaned first. The Police can send it on for you. They know the right cleaning companies for this kind of job.’
The car had spent a year in Police custody before it was returned, enduring all the evidence-gathering and forensics-sweeping and months of aimless waiting. Because this is how inanimate objects are questioned, interrogated. How their confessions are extracted. The cops even used those words: in custody. And Jake imagined his car jailed in a locked yard, saw the ‘holding cell,’ its ‘isolation block.’ High metal-mesh fences complete with barbed wire, security guys swaggering around the perimeter with radios on their hips, batons holstered to their belts.
It was in Police custody. But now you can take it back.
Take it back. Like a jailbird relative in need of a fresh start.
Take it back.
Complete with new secrets and veiled histories. Ordeals, which it would never divulge.
Sullied. Then purged. Then returned.
You’re lucky, Jake had been told. You’re lucky you’re even getting it back at all.
It was in Police custody. Take it back. You’re lucky.
Don’t you know.
“Here it is! Good as new.”
The floor manager for SafeClean lead Jake across the lot to where the car stood waiting. His tone was jocular; proud. The Ford gleamed under the late-afternoon sun; a blank shell of spotless glass and rust-free metal. Pale blue, opalescent sheen. Reborn, almost. There was something terrible about the fact that it looked better now than it had before. Jake hardly recognised it—saw it as a stranger in that moment. The Ford was a gift from his father when he turned eighteen—an outdated heap even back then, but one with a steady frame and a solid engine. Also: it was the only true gesture his father had ever shown him. Something of value, something that had cost him. From his blank-eyed, still-mouthed father: a man who shared nothing he didn’t truly mean. Jake had never been worthy of this car. No wonder it’d allowed itself to be stolen. No wonder it had wanted to get away from him. The way a runaway kid falls in with the wrong crowd.
Here it is.
Good as new.
It not She. An unspoken understanding, between Jake and the SafeClean manager, that it would be callous to speak sentimentally about this car. Insensitive. Wrong.
“We had to do… a lot,” the manager said.
“I can imagine.”
No you can’t.
“Some stains were all the way in the front passenger seat. So in the end we just ripped that all out. It’s basically a brand new chair, except for the frame.” The manager smiled, something in his expression rich with pride.
Even a horrendous job can be well done, Jake thought. And why not? There had to be something satisfying in taking out blood stains, repairing criminal damage. Getting things back to ‘normal’ in the wake of the unthinkable. A symbolic way of righting the wrongs.
The mess inside.
“I appreciate the work,” Jake said.
“Our pleasure,” said the manager. “It’s all yours.”
It not she.
Let it be it. Let it just be it.
It’s just a car. It’s just a car.
And Jake took back his keys.
It was late afternoon on a summer Saturday when he left the lot, the day’s heat melting down to a cool caramel evening. Tangerine and peach tones layered the sky, mellowing the light, reflecting off the mirrors and glass storefront windows, the glazed surfaces of downtown commerce. He dropped the visor against the glare. For a moment red flared through his eyes; the sudden switch from bright to dim.
I’m blind, he thought.
But then his eyes adjusted, and he could see again.
It was three weeks to Christmas, and the southern hemisphere was strangling itself with faux winter cheer. It might be summer across half the planet, but the northern hemisphere tells the world what’s what, and the dictate stood that ‘Christmas’ means ‘winter’. Every section of the city was agonised by the farce. White spray paint flecked onto glass panes to look like frost. Mistletoe stickers blistered on storefront windows, warping in the heat. Shopping mall Santas sweltered in thick red suits, their cottonwool beards damp with sweat. The Christmas specials jingling out on Jake’s TV were all about magical reindeer and mittened kids, while outside a hot wind swirled baked dust across his balcony. The evenings were cool, though, and the Christmas lights came up pretty against the balmy night skies. It was already moving into a pleasant evening, with all that warm air lifting in the breeze. Jake rolled his window down. He breathed it in. The taste was like the scorched tar rolling beneath his wheels, like the wide-open flowers that grew on the hills.
Here it is! Good as new.
It not She.
Jake had never been the Christmas type. Too cynical for the happy-family falseness, the goodwill obligations. The glittery veneer layered over gritty streets. Like a smiley-face sticker smacked over something that bleeds. The murder of Cora Mason had been well-timed for this, in its own macabre way. Just enough shock to get people choking on their eggnog as they watched the evening news. What a downer. What a party-pooper. A girl getting herself gutted in a random stolen car.
Turn it off!
I don’t want to hear about that!
With the ho-ho-ho echo thrumming just behind. As if evil puts itself on pause in December, just to avoid spoiling anyone’s mood. What a naive thing to expect. Jake could say a few things about that. It was his car that got stolen. His car that turned itself into a goddamn murder scene. This car his father had given him.
“Fuck Christmas,” Jake said aloud. Bitter.
“Fuck Santa.” And for a moment, he almost laughed.
Good as new.
None of it would’ve happened if he hadn’t been out with Tanya that night. If she hadn’t made him go to her place, and park on that street.
“Fuck Tanya, too.”
Almost exactly a year ago. Those tinsel-strangled lampposts, those twinkling fairy lights. A hot-wired car and a girl gone off the streets. This car. His car.
It not She.
That night, nearly a year ago. An aeon ago. That last night with Tanya.
It was an evening almost exactly like this. Peach-toned, balmy. Electric, the way the air feels before wild things begin. Her hand on his thigh on the drive back. Her fingers tucking in. They’d been drinking cocktails. Before that, they’d been arguing. The aftershock of the fight still shuddering between them, they’d spent their evening at the bar switching from ciders to mojitos to highballs with reconciliatory enthusiasm. The bars were full, with all the office parties and end-of-year get-togethers. It was easy to catch the fever, easy to drink too much even without the added incentive. They should’ve gone to his place, except Tanya’s apartment was closer to the bar than his, only two blocks, and—
“Let’s not take any chances, Jake, okay? Let’s just go to my place for a change.”
Outside her apartment building, he’d parked under a grey-haze streetlight that spilled murk into the shadows, smudged itself into the cement instead of illuminating it. A bad-luck spot to park. You could feel it. There was a reason it was the only open bay on the street. He’d swung in anyway, only vaguely aware of a presentient flash of doubt, dread.
Don’t park here.
Of course the whole thing was cursed. He’d never liked going to Tanya’s place anyway. He should’ve known it would go wrong from that point. It was always better when she came to him. Better when she was in his domain. No edging around her possessions, no overwhelm of her scent, her inner life, her other existence. Better when it was his balcony, his couch, his bed. His alcohol he handed her, his cigarettes they shared. She was drunk and loose on her feet that night, and he’d known exactly how she would be—enthusiastic, playful.
“The things I want to do to you…” he’d say. He’d said. And she nipped at his neck as he closed his arms behind her waist, pressing tight. Her warm, soft belly smooth and taut against his.
Let’s just go to my place, she’d said.
If not for all those highballs, he wouldn’t have agreed. That last night they shared.
And this car took us there.
To her place.
For a change.
“Tanya, you bitch.”
Traffic on the highway was thin, the drive pleasant for its easy stillness. Usually he only found himself on this road during rush hour, in the thick of a mid-week morning when everyone was irritated and aggressive, everybody acting out against the crush. Pushing in, crossing lanes. High-beams stab-flashing in rear-view mirrors; the insensible Morse code of the enraged. None of that now. Just a sky the colour of scorched tangerines, that pine-soap smell of his freshly-detailed car, and the road wide open ahead of him. Jake rolled his window down a few more inches, enjoying the warm, ripe air.
Got my girl, he thought.
Got my girl back.
It was stupid. It was dumb. This echo-memory thought. In the past it had been a phrase his mind repeated after a few drinks, when he looked over and saw it was Tanya standing next to him, lying beside him. Clasped close to him.
Got my girl.
Happy. Grateful. Proud. In those moments, anyway.
It would be nice to have a girl beside him, now. Right now, he thought. Something pretty curled up sweet in the brand-new seat, her feet up on the dash to show the smooth slide of her shins, the brace of her calves, the backs of her thighs curving in firm arcs where they melded into her buttocks. He imagined her dressed in something short and red. One of those slutty Christmas party dresses, all thin red velvet and white trim. They’d talk about how beautiful the sky was this evening: wild peach shades. She’d put her hand on his leg, slide it snug. He’d do the same. He’d drive faster, snitching his fingers higher up, deeper in.
Jake stopped his thoughts.
Thinking, The mess inside.
Remembering, We had to do a lot.
Cora Mason had died right here, exactly in this space beside him. Glancing over, he tried imagining her. How it had been. Imagining the mess. Saw her slumped down, slack, her abdomen hacked to show the coils within. Her eyes blinking away, off. Her gaze fading as her intestines rippled out of her, spilling across the seat, her lap, the floor. Like ropes of Christmas tinsel, unravelling in loops of shining white and red.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right. First Tanya, riding beside him back to her place. And later Cora Mason, in that same seat.
It’s basically a brand-new chair, the SafeClean guy had said.
It better be. It better be. Carrying that kind of curse.
But who gave a fuck about Tanya, anyway? She wasn’t innocent. Not the way Cora was. Cora hadn’t known what she was climbing into. But Tanya had. Dumb bitch with her wet-eyelash smile, lips quivering like she was about to cry, saying, “Please Jake, can’t you just be nice? Can’t you just be nice for once? Huh?”
All that pleading. All that need. It turns any soft feelings sour. Would’ve been better if she’d been a little less intense.
It doesn’t matter now.
That’s all it was.
And he thought of that morning. That morning when he’d headed out of Tanya’s apartment building, ready to leave—dying to leave—and saw an empty parking bay where his car should’ve stood. As she stopped stuck behind him, useless as a plastic mannequin. Her dumb, round mouth making an O as he turned to her and said: “It’s gone.” Then:“My fucking car. It’s gone.”
This car. Of all the cars he might ever own, crash, sell. This one. And for a moment in his mind, he saw his father’s eyes.
He’d stared at her. Like it was her fault. Because in a way, it almost was. She’d been crying earlier, and her tears had dried salt-white on her cheeks.
I don’t give a damn.
I don’t give a damn.
And he’d understood that something final had happened, here. That this time, once he left, it might truly be the end.
It was injury to all those insults, having his car stolen from outside her place. Her place, where he otherwise never would’ve been. If she hadn’t insisted. If she hadn’t told him earlier, Can’t you just be nice for once? Guilting him into trying to be soft, acquiescent. The moment came back vivid, candy-striped: the red of panic, the white of shock. He remembered the dumb, groping hope his brain had offered as he stood staring at that empty parking bay: Maybe you put it somewhere else. Maybe it got moved.
Like the car was a wallet, a phone. The key card he needed for work, and often did misplace. Something important, sure, but generally recoverable. No big deal. Inconvenient, yes, but no big—
No, you fool, he’d thought at himself. It was his father’s voice. If the car isn’t here then it’s gone, and if it’s gone then it’s been—
Not a perfect fit exactly, but that was the first word to mind. Snatched. Something more personal, more of a violation than a set of keys slid down the back of the couch, than a bank card left on a random shop counter. And hopeless confusion had hit him in a sick, spinning wave.
Recalling it now as he headed down the N3, Jake realised he was driving uneasy: sweat in his palms, adrenalin in his blood. Driving a little like he’d stolen this car himself. He lifted his foot. He touched the brake. The car responded smooth and easy, and he switched the gear into neutral to glide off some of the speed. Had this car ever been so smooth? He didn’t remember exactly, given how much time had passed.
Here it is.
Good as new.
The speedometer dropped. Slowing too much. He pushed the clutch back in to return to fifth, and remembered this car never liked that gear. Apparently for all the improvements, the SafeClean service hadn’t fixed that little problem. Jake free-wheeled for a few moments, shoving the stick between neutral and fourth before it eased and let him switch up.
Bitchy little thing.
That’s what he’d called the car when she’d acted up like this in the past.
Bitchy little thing.
Bitch refers to a female.
It not She, he reminded himself.
This car, cursed. That sullied passenger seat. He glanced over at it. Remembering: Some stains were all the way in…
Bitchy little thing.
It not She.
It’s a… mess. Inside.
They say viscera steams when it comes tumbling out. The inside of a body, it’s so wet and warm.
Jake moved to the fast lane.
It was a forty-minute drive home.
He was nowhere near his exit when he turned off the highway. He did it without thinking, an honest mistake—something subconscious nudging him, moving him over the lanes, sliding him into the slip road that pulled him away.
He said this aloud when he realised what he’d done. Taken exit 100, a good twenty minutes before he would usually get off, and a fair way still from home. Following the signs that pointed west, not north. Getting himself turned around.
“Well, shit,” he said, slowing as he approached the yield, checking if the way was clear, already plotting the smoothest route to get back on the highway with his nose pointed in the right direction. The roads got a little tangled in this part of the city. This way on, this way off, this way to some other main artery leading somewhere else.
He wasn’t too concerned. In a way he was okay with this mistake. Maybe even glad. He had the time, the car, a full tank. The roads were quiet, the evening was fine. It was the weekend; he could ignore the alarm tomorrow if he stayed out late.
Drive. Just drive. And see where you go.
He felt himself rise to the adventure.
That night, outside Tanya’s place. Was this how the killer had felt as he bust his way into Jake’s car? As he ripped the wires and sparked it into life? Steered Jake’s Ford out onto the dark, sparkle-lit street and headed up the road, away? Adrenalin buzz, sense of freedom, sense of power. Because when he saw the car parked there by the bushes, surely he’d thought: A good-luck spot. As in the building across the road, up on the second floor where the streetlights hit the windows low, Jake and Tanya were buzzing on their own adrenalin, a different sense of freedom. Oblivious as two over-sexed high school kids who’ve finally got each other alone. While somewhere a few blocks away, Cora Mason stepped into the warm night, her intestines coiled neatly inside of her, her unopened belly smooth and soft under the sheath of her thin, breezy dress.
Seems they were all lost in illusion for those last few moments, those final innocent hours. Too many festive lights twinkling in everyone’s eyes. Before the blow-out. Before the theft. Before the girl.
What kind of dumb bitch accepts a lift from a stranger, anyway? On a holiday night, out late. Hooligans in the bars and maniacs on the streets. Everybody knows this city. Everybody knows.
Christmas. You could blame Christmas. That goodwill to all men crap wrapping around the common psyche, softening the walls. No woman would normally trust a lift from a stranger. Not any other time of year. It was all the sparkling tinsel, it was all those magical reindeer and mittened kids on the television, all that ho-ho-ho going on in everyone’s ears.
Hey, you need a lift?
His smile would have been disarming, wide. Concerned. She wouldn’t have noticed the spilled wires at his knee. She wouldn’t have known the car wasn’t his.
Hey, you need a lift? This isn’t safe, you know.
Don’t you know.
Yes, you could say it was because of Christmas, that a girl like Cora climbed into this car.
And Jake thought again of Tanya. Of him and Tanya. How similar it was, in a way. All that good-time holiday cheer, softening their walls. Like all of a sudden, they mattered to each other. She seemed to think, anyway. For those few hours there. Then: resentment stinging the edges of her smile, the corners of her eyes. After that: the rejection. Her rejection of him. Saying: This isn’t worth it.
No, his rejection of her. Him saying back: Well where’s the worth?
That look on her face like he’d slapped her. Stepping away from him, her hands rising to her throat. Saying, her voice shaking: You need to go.
Why was he thinking about this now? When it had been months since he’d last let his mind turn it over. A year since they’d last locked eyes. A year adjusting to life without her touch, her voice on the phone, her teeth nipping his neck as he shoved against her.
Hey, you need a lift?
Picking her up, laying her down.
This isn’t safe, you know.
Don’t you know.
The streetlights were sparse in this part of town, barely lighting the narrow, trash-crushed streets. The buildings on each side were cramped, hunkered down close to the ground as if bracing themselves for impact. Jake saw speed bumps ahead and slowed the car to meet them. A woman in a pink bathrobe was crossing further up ahead, curlers rolled up round her skull, a faded red leash dangling from her fingers. She was walking a dog, some kind of corgi mix. Limp coat, shiny black nose. It trailed behind her, snout to cement, zig-zag skittering in the stunted, urgent way smaller mongrels tend to move.
Yap-sized, Jake thought. And again, almost laughed.
On the corner up ahead, a young woman in a blue floral dress stood close to the curb’s edge, a lipstick smile scarred into her face. The dress stretched across her hips, her breasts. It was hard for Jake not to look again. Her dress was too tight, her smile fixed too wide. Another young woman, dumb enough to walk these streets alone. Day or night, it wasn’t safe in a place like this. And this was dusk in a bad part of town.
He considered slowing down, opening the window, leaning out.
Hey, you need a lift?
And if she got in, he would warn her. He would tell her. Caution her about her guts, her intestines, and what a challenge it can be to keep it all inside.
It can happen, you know, he’d tell her.
Don’t you know.
She turned her head as he neared; elegant twist of her neck. About to look at him. About to meet his eyes.
A bad-luck spot, he thought, and looked away. He sped up as he passed her. He glanced around for signs that would show him the way out.
This wasn’t how the killer had felt, he was sure. Uneasy, haunted. Strange. Or—had he? All the killer had wanted was a car. The evidence said so, anyway. A young man who’d led a hard life, but never before been known to attack. Making the murder of Cora Mason some kind of spontaneous impulse, strong and sudden. A vivid, vicious urge in him to destroy something. Drum up a few screams, shred some entrails. Anything to counter the false-cheer jingle-jangle of these Christmas-lit nights.
It’s tough to be alone.
It’s tough to be alone at this time of year. Maybe he killed her only for that. Jake could almost understand. Was repulsed, in that moment, by how well he understood.
He glanced again at the seat beside him.
It’s a mess inside, his lawyer-friend had told him.
They say viscera steams when it comes tumbling out.
Jake felt the urge to check the car over. Pull over at a station, a well-lit wayside. Switch the overhead lights on and search for a dark patch; a mottled, almost-gone watermark. On the floor? Under the dash? Traces of Cora’s innards, the places where they’d lain uncoiled. Her blood, where it had sprayed, surging on those final sparks of life.
Good as new, the SafeClean guy had said.
But was that really ‘good’?
Jake turned left at the next intersection, spinning the wheel so it slid back smooth against his open palms.
The girl in the blue dress was far behind him. The woman and her dog. The stories of their evening errands. Whatever they may be.
The sky was darkening. Those sunset shades had seared to a sharp, vicious red, long and straight like a blade pressed to a throat. Stars were spreading out, filling in. Whatever Jake was looking for, this wasn’t the right place. Not the good luck spot, he realised, he’d sort of been seeking. He headed back to where the lights were better—where he knew he’d cut through the edge of a commercial area before he hit the residential roads again. But that side of town was brighter, cleaner. A few posh apartment blocks, a few chic bars. There would be plastic pine trees set up in the parking lots, there would be fairy lights strung across the eaves.
He gave the Ford a little more juice. She sped up smooth beneath him.
It not She, he stopped himself.
But then again.
Got my girl.
How nice it would be, to have a girl here beside him now. Something sweet in a Santa-esque dress. Big-buckled black leather belt, clinched around a delicate waist. Tanya was wearing black that night. A black cocktail dress that slid around her hips, silver bracelets jangling on her wrists.
I don’t look good in red, she’d said. And wrapped a rope of red tinsel round her neck. A boa shedding glittery scales. Red or not, she’d looked good. In those final hours. Their last night.
It’s a mess.
Yes, Jake thought.
Yes, he thought. Yes, it is.
The night was blurring its lines too much: too unsure of itself, of what it wanted to be. Warm air and plastic snowflakes. His blood too hot against the chill within.
“There should be a girl here beside me,” he said aloud, to himself, to the empty seat beside him. And for the first time on the drive, he laughed.
Was that what the killer had felt? What he had been hoping for? Something pretty curled sweet in the seat beside him, her feet up on the dash? Maybe he was always too alone, too. Maybe he’d just wanted a girl with him that night. Something soft to share with. Talk about how beautiful the sky was that evening. Dreaming of her hand on his leg, sliding snug. His fingers on her, snitching higher up, deeper in. Maybe that was all he’d wanted. A moment they could share. It’s tough to be alone. It’s tough to be alone, at this time of year.
But Cora wouldn’t have liked that. She wouldn’t have understood. Or, even understanding, she would’ve wanted to get out. Panic rising in her throat, realising he was taking her down the wrong roads. Never mind that he hadn’t even touched her yet. Hadn’t done anything bad to her, except maybe drive a different way to what she’d thought. Her belly was still soft and taut, the skin unbroken, her entrails warm and safe within.
Where are we going?
All that pleading. It has a way of souring any soft feelings.
Cora Mason. He thought of her slumped low on this seat beside him. Her thin, loose dress shredded, stained. Her soft, taut belly gaping wide. Her insides on the outside. Blood soaking into the seat beneath her, splashed across the dash. Festive lights dying in her fading eyes.
Got my girl, that killer must’ve thought.
Jake could almost understand.
“I haven’t got any girl,” Jake said aloud. “Just this car. Just this… car.”
It not She.
“No, fuck it. She.” Her. His girl. A year from that night, and this car was back. Blood stains all cleaned up, every inch switched and freshly scented. Smiling shiny and driving smooth like she’d never been sullied.
A year gone by and Jake was driving this car alone, the seat empty beside him like nothing had happened. Like it had always been that way. Just him and his car and that chill in his heart, his blood too hot, his hands so tight on the wheel they were cramping.
“Tanya, my girl.”
Can’t you just be nice for once? she’d said.
And he’d tried.
Just forget it, she’d told him. You need to go. Salt-stained cheeks. That look in her eyes like hurt hooked on hate. And what had happened after? Had she forgotten him by now?
It’s a terrible thing, how eager people are to forget. The lengths they’ll go: atrocities in themselves.
The parking space opposite Tanya’s building was open. Of course it was. It waited under the grey-haze streetlight that spilled murk into the shadows, smudged itself into the cement instead of illuminating it.
A good-luck spot.
He turned into it, straightened the wheel, stopped. He let the engine idle for a few minutes, thinking. Then he cut it, unclipped his seatbelt, and killed the lights. The building across the street was well-lit for Christmas, all cool whites and candy reds flickering around the window-frames, the entrance door. Tanya’s window, where the streetlights hit low. One light flickering up there. A television, a wide-screen shot. Tanya, pretty, curled up sweet. The seat empty beside her. Tanya and her Christmas tinsel. That sparkling red boa coiled around her neck. Her salt-stained cheeks, running wet. The skin of her belly, soft and taut. Her intestines coiled neat within. They say it’s warm and wet in there.
Here it is. Good as new.
Here it is. Take it back.
He sat in his car. He stared up at her window. It was hours before her light went out.
Karen Runge is an author and visual artist in South Africa. She is the author of Seven Sins: Stories from Concord Free Press, Seeing Double from Grey Matter Press, and Doll Crimes from Crystal Lake Publishing. Never shy of darker themes in horror fiction, she has been dubbed ‘The Queen of Extreme’ and ‘Princess of Pain’ by various bloggers and book reviewers. Jack Ketchum once said in response to one of her stories, “Karen, you scare me.”