Jim stomped on the brakes, but the car kept moving. He jerked the wheel to the right, just as Cheryl screamed, and the car flew off the side of the rain-slicked road, crashing through the guard rail with a deafening screech of metal on metal before careening down the embankment.
The descent simultaneously took forever and an instant. They crashed through brush, bushes, branches; over rocks and dirt and gravel before slamming into the bottom of the ravine. Both of the air bags exploded as the car hit bottom, cushioning them as the momentum of the fall propelled them forward into the steering wheel and dashboard. Jim heard the crash of bursting glass and the crack of exploding plastic.
He was stunned and disoriented, so he sat back in his seat and breathed for a moment. Then he shook his head to clear the confusion and asked, “Are you ok?”
Cheryl nodded as she, too, fought off disorientation. “I think so.” She pushed the deflated airbag away from her, then winced and grasped her side. “Ow. I think I broke a rib.”
Jim sat quietly for another moment, and then asked, “Did you see that?”
Cheryl turned to him and nodded slowly, “The girl?”
The girl was no more than twelve, dressed in a white cotton nightshirt, with skin that glowed white in the car’s headlights. Filling her eye sockets was a black, empty space, that, in contrast to her skin, seemed to suck the light right out of the air. She was standing, unmoving, in the middle of the road, right at the spot in the bend where a car’s headlights reach only at the last second.
Jim had seen the girl three times before. The second time he saw her, she appeared in the doorway of his mother’s kitchen as he was standing in the dining room, setting the table for dinner. He looked away, startled, and then looked back. She could have been one of the neighborhood children that his mother baked cookies for if it hadn’t been for the empty space where her eyes should have been.
He blinked and she disappeared. A moment later, he heard a thud from the kitchen, where his mother lay dead from a massive heart attack.
The third time he saw her, he was helping his brother stock his liquor store. Jim was in the back of the store, moving cases of rum, when he saw the girl standing at the end of an aisle. He looked away, and a second later heard the jingle of the front door, then a demand for money, and then the sound of a gunshot.
He raced to the front, but the robber was gone and his brother was dead.
“We have to get out of here,” Jim said quietly. Now that he was no longer in shock, he was terrified, but he didn’t want to alarm his wife. She didn’t know that he’d seen the girl before.
“Can you open your door?” Cheryl asked. She looked out her window – her door was pinned against a tree.
Jim pulled the handle and threw his weight against his door. It creaked open and he squeezed out, then reached in and helped his wife climb out.
“What the hell, Jim?” she gasped.
“I…I…I don’t know.” He looked around frantically. He didn’t see the girl anywhere, and he felt a moment of hope. Maybe she failed this time. Maybe this time no one would die.
“What the hell?” she reached into her pocket and pulled out a cell phone. “What was that?” She stared at the screen and then started to wave it around.
“I’m not sure,” he said as he stepped back to survey the damage. “Baby, what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to get a signal. Shit – what the hell?” She waved the phone for another minute, then, “We need to get back up to the road.”
“What?” He watched as she took off up the hill. He turned to walk after her but snagged his jacket on a tree branch. As he looked back, he saw the girl again – standing in the darkness, watching them. In the distance, he could hear the rumble of a semi.
“Oh no,” he thought as his heart sank. “No, not Cheryl!” he struggled to free himself – to go after his wife – but the tree gripped his jacket tightly.
“Baby, stop!” he yelled, “Stop!”
“I’m almost there!” she yelled back, and kept climbing.
He could hear the rumble of the semi, could see the headlights approaching, and he prayed that she would stop when she got to the top of the hill. He prayed that she would stop and stand next to the guard rail to flag the truck down.
She reached the berm just as the headlights of the truck cleared the corner. Jim held his breath and felt his stomach lurch as he saw her stumble and fall right into the middle of the road. “No!” he screamed.
His scream was drowned out by the squeal of tires as the truck swerved to the right, following the same path that his own car had taken moments earlier – through the hole in the guardrail, off the side of the embankment.
In that moment, he remembered the first time he’d seen the girl, when he was twenty-three. It was on the same stretch of road, at the same time of night, and she was wearing the same white cotton nightshirt, with the same skin that glowed white in the car’s headlights. That time, though, she didn’t have coal-black eyes. That time, he didn’t have anyone else in the car. That time, he didn’t swerve. No – the first time he saw the girl, her body, not his car, went flying down the embankment. The first time he saw her, he kept driving.
Now, as he watched the truck barrel down the hill toward him – toward where he remained immobilized – he realized that could see through the front windshield, where the girl with the ebony eyes was sitting calmly in the passenger seat – smiling.