Alina Leffel is the author of Demon High, a young adult gothic fiction novel available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.com internationally. Follow her on Instagram @alinajadebooks or on Facebook at Alina Leffel Books.
The navy car skidded to a halt, dust floating up from the asphalt and settling on the boy’s feet. He lowered his arm, looking into the tinted glass skeptically.
The window lowered, and the driver leaned forward, squinting at him.
“Need a ride?” she asked.
She shrugged, unlatching the door so he could get inside. “Chilly night,.” she remarked, glancing at his feet as she started the car up again. “Too chilly not to be wearing shoes.”
The boy said nothing, staring out the window.
“What’s with the outfit?” she asked.
He pulled his coat tighter around the shimmering bodysuit, smears of makeup on his cheeks, his gaze forlorn.
“Ran away from the circus.”
He said nothing.
“Well I’ll be damned.” They sat in silence for a while, trees rushing by in a blur, a car passing every mile or so, their headlights blinding.
“I killed my partner,” he spoke, his timid expression falling. “My trapeze partner, Velora. I... I didn’t mean to.” He was quiet. “I didn’t know what else to do but run.”
“We were fastening some of the ropes, but they were twisted. I…I don’t know what happened, one moment they were caught around her body and we were trying to untangle them and the next I had hoisted her up and she was hanging by her neck.” He wiped a tear from his eye frantically, tucking himself deeper into the coat. “What the hell am I going to do? Where am I going to go?” The woman had no answer to that, driving them down the quiet road under the night sky.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Eli,” he replied.
“Theodora.” She shuffled in the faux leather seat, the material peeling away and scratching her hip. “Let me tell you…few years ago I lived in Bel Air, over in LA. A friend of mine had to work a double, asked if I could look after her kid, a two-year-old, beautiful eyes, darling little thing. I said yes of course, she dropped off the kid, I let her play in the living room as I got some cleaning done in the kitchen. I had this bright purple dish soap, looked like fruit juice, and I left it on the counter after I was done washing, went upstairs to get the laundry. Come back down and well,” she paused, the headlights of a passing car reflecting off her solemn eyes. “Kid had taken a big ol’ swig of it. Blue in the face, cold as an icebox. So, you know what I did?”
“Same as you. I ran. Took all my savings out of my accounts, turned them into cash. Left the kid on the sidewalk, called 911 from an anonymous payphone and left my whole damn life behind. Now I live in East Denver, in a studio.”
Eli’s eyes widened. “But, but that wasn’t…that wasn’t your fault~”
“But it was,” she shrugged. “I should have been more careful. Should have put the soap away. Should have had a better eye on the kid. Lots of shoulds.” She paused again, giving the boy a soft smile. “There are going to be a lot of things in your life you wish you could have done better, kid. Looking back at it now, I wish I would have come clean. That poor mother is going to go her whole life not knowing what happened to her baby. That’s on me, no one else.”
“You think I should go back?”
“I think you should follow your gut. Even if it takes a little time.” A sputtering echoed out of the front hatch of the car all of a sudden, exasperating a huff from the older woman. “Christ,” she muttered.
“This old car again. Always giving me problems.” She pulled into a gas station that appeared alongside the road, eerily empty, with a fluorescent bulb flickering. The convenience store in the lot had its lights off, no sign of life. She pulled to a stop, the rover coughing out some smoke. “Stay here, I’ll get my tools out the back. We’ll be on our way in no time.” Eli agreed, tapping his fingers on the window ledge as the woman got out, circling around the back and opening the trunk. The boy peered through the rearview mirror, observing the clutter she rummaged through. A half empty case of disposable water bottles. Some old, dirty clothes. A few pieces of plywood and what looked to be an oversized duffel bag, tucked neatly in the corner.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked curiously, peering over the passenger seat.
She smiled, latching the toolbox closed. “Nothing to worry about.” She closed the trunk and circled back to the front, lifting the front hatch of the car and getting to work, aiding the smoke.
The boy grew bored as Theodora worked, glancing around the old interior, settling on the glove compartment. He shuffled through the crumpled paperwork and various fast-food chain napkins before his fingers grazed something clunky. He lifted the papers to find an empty bottle of kitchen soap. The front hatch slammed shut suddenly and the boy jumped, snapping the compartment closed.
“I’m going to hit the restroom before we get on the road again.” She said sweetly, setting the toolbox on the ground and heading towards the back of the dark convenience store. Eli swung the door open once she was out of sight, dashing around to the back of the car and reaching for the duffel bag that was tucked in the trunk. His hands shook as he undid the zipper, a horrid feeling sinking to the pit of his stomach as the contents were revealed. Footsteps echoed behind him after some time had passed, but he made no move to turn.
“What was I supposed to do?” Theodora’s voice croaked. “He wouldn’t stop crying.”