"Magnets" was published by District Lit in 2020.
Copyright Christopher Stanton
It had been an eventful night for Jo, with the office Christmas party, the six glasses of punch, and kissing Craig from sales. She had even let him feel her up in the copy room while their office mates sang carols and nibbled on gingerbread cookies down the hall.
Jo was 23 and new to the city. Her apartment, with hardwood floors and a hot tub, was only a few blocks from the beach. On the boardwalk, muscled guys rollerbladed shirtless and cute hippies sat on railroad ties, begging for money and strumming songs about Dharma and pomegranate juice. Jo was still driving her mother’s purple ’99 Honda Accord—it still had a cassette player, for goodness sakes—but she figured she would soon trade up for something sporty and black.
She was on the freeway now, heading home. It was past 2 AM, and a cold mist was drizzling. Jo had felt a little tipsy, happy even, walking out to the parking lot, but figured it was nothing she couldn’t handle. It just made her feel even more excited about her life.
She reached her exit and swerved across three lanes to get to the off-ramp in time. As she came to a stop at the intersection, she hazily realized that she didn’t recognize the street name, or the gourmet market on the corner, with its sign advertising cinnamon soy popcorn and caramel barley milkshakes for the holidays.
For a moment, Jo listened to the comforting rhythmic grinding of the windshield wipers, until an abrupt honk from the car behind her shook her awake. Instead of turning, she decided to go straight, where the road led up a short hill and into the trees.
Dark, Spanish-style houses were set back from the road, the properties bounded by thick stands of tropical trees and prickly, blooming bushes. A furry creature lumbered across the street in front of her, vanishing under an SUV parked by the side of the road.
The street didn’t look familiar, but she drove on, a Muzak version of “Feliz Navidad” on the radio, her headlights casting a strong, comforting beam through the drizzle. Jo thought of her bed, how wonderful it would be just to curl up under her favorite, maybe sleep noon, have a late breakfast at the diner down the street, order a Spanish omelet, served by Jorge, that hunky waiter from Argentina, and—
The crash woke her.
Jo opened her eyes. There were trees all around her, pine trees and panels of white wood and broken red and green glass all over the windshield and car hood. She turned off the car engine, her hands shaking, her heart beating out of her chest. As her eyes got used to the darkness, she saw things she recognized. A lawn mower. A hoe. An edger hanging on the wall. Plastic garbage cans, bags full of branches and dead weeds.
She unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. A brown, late ’80s sedan was parked next to her. A handicapped placard hung above the rear-view mirror. Someone had left a pair of black leather gloves on the front seat.
All around her, flung everywhere like a holiday tornado had struck, were Christmas trees and glass ornaments, smashed into hundreds of shards on the garage floor. An enormous plastic candy cane lay mangled under the front tire.
Jo made her way outside, into the drizzle, the world hazy and spinning. The driveway was aligned with the road, at the top of a “T” intersection. She had fallen asleep and missed the turn, plowing straight into the garage.
Looking around, her cheeks and hair already wet, the wind blowing strongly through the magnolia trees that lined the driveway, Jo heard no shouting or sirens. There was no sign of other cars or that people had heard the commotion.
The house itself was enormous, with a red-tiled roof. A brick walkway, illuminated by square lights in the flower bed on either side, led up to the front door. She felt a commanding force drawing her toward it.
Jo swallowed hard. Whoever lives there will understand, she thought. It was dark and rainy and I missed the turn. Accidents happen.
She stumbled up the steps and stood for a moment, under the porch roof. A wreath made of goldenrod and red berries hung on the door.
Jo adjusted her dress and brushed her bangs back from her forehead. She felt nauseous for a moment, then the feeling passed. She closed her eyes and rang the doorbell.
It was dark and rainy and I missed the turn.
No one came to the door. She rang the bell again.
The police will come. The police will come and maybe they’ll know that I’ve been drinking.
Jo tried the heavy brass knocker, then rang the doorbell, three times in quick succession.
I can say it was the road, that I hit a slick spot and my brakes didn’t work and—
The porch light flickered on above her. An elderly woman peered through the bay window at her.
Jo raised a hand in what she hoped was a friendly wave. The woman seemed to smile back, and then disappeared.
It seemed like another two minutes had passed before the door opened, and Jo found herself staring at a senior citizen in a pink bathrobe and curlers.
“Hi,” Jo said. “I’m so sorry to bother you—”
“What time is it?”
“It’s after two. I’m so sorry for waking you.”
“What do you want?”
“I know it’s late,” Jo said, “but—”
“I’m sorry if you were waiting here long,” the woman said, and pulled her bathrobe close around her neck. “I don’t hear so well. Plus, I can’t move too fast, with my foot.”
Jo looked down and saw that the woman’s right foot was covered in a thick slipper.
“Do you want to come in, sweetheart?” the woman asked. “You’re soaked to the bone.”
“Thank you,” Jo replied. She stepped inside the foyer, which looked like a room from a magazine. A magnificent chandelier hung above them; a wide staircase led upstairs.
“I go see the doctor again on Thursday,” the woman said. “After I’m done with the holiday bazaar.”
“I make Christmas ornaments,” the woman said. “Glass ones. It’s been my only hobby since I retired. I’ve got a studio out back.”
A sharp pain shot through Jo’s stomach, and she gripped the edge of the wall for support, until it subsided.
“That sounds lovely,” Jo said.
“I spent all day yesterday preparing the trees out in the garage,” the woman continued. “The people from the bazaar are coming tomorrow to look at them.”
The woman stifled a yawn. “I’m sorry,” she said, “you never told me—”
She doesn’t know a thing. She didn’t hear the crash. I can just back out the driveway and leave before she finds—
“I know it’s late,” Jo said, “but I’ve run into some trouble.”
“Something with your car?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” Jo said. “That’s right.”
“The streets are awfully slick,” the woman said. “I watched the late news, and there was a pile up on the Grapevine.”
“I skidded off the road,” Jo said. “I skidded off the road and my car is stuck in a ditch, a little ways down the street. I don’t have my cell phone.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Jo replied, and she tried to smile. “I was wearing my seatbelt,” she added.
“Seatbelts are lifesavers,” the woman said.
The woman’s legs buckled a little, and she lowered herself to one of the steps leading up to the second floor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t stand for too long these days. Plus, I don’t think I’m fully awake yet. I’m quite a sound sleeper.”
“I understand,” said Jo.
“You look just like my granddaughter,” the woman said. “You have the same short hair. When you waved to me, out there, I thought you were Elaine. Except, she lives in Minneapolis, so that’s why I was confused.”
Thunder shook the house.
I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t—
“I was wondering if I could use your phone to call the tow truck service,” Jo said. “I could wait outside until they come.”
“Nonsense, I’ll make you some Sanka.”
“Really,” Jo said, “you’ve done enough for me already.”
“You’re sweet,” the woman replied. “The phone is in the kitchen, right through there. Just turn on the light. I’ll wait right here.”
Jo walked down the hallway and found the light switch for the kitchen. Pots and pans hung from the ceiling. The refrigerator was covered with photographs, affixed with brightly colored letter magnets. One showed a woman about her age, with short blond hair and bright blue eyes, standing at the edge of a pier, arm-in-arm with the elderly woman. The sun was setting behind them in a blaze of orange.
“What’s the address here?” Jo called.
“58 Magnolia Place. And I don’t want you going back outside into the rain. You’re waiting here with me.”
“I told you, you’ve done enough,” Jo replied.
She picked up the telephone receiver. Her apartment, her job, her new life rushed through her mind in a torrent.
“Hello,” Jo said, after a long moment. She listened to the buzz of the dial tone. It reminded her of the sound of the windshield wipers, rhythmic somehow, and constant.
“Hello,” she said again, her voice sounding small in the empty room. “Are you there? Please send a tow truck to 58 Magnolia Place. Thank you.”
Jo hung up the phone, her hand shaking. The refrigerator hummed. A flash of lightning slashed the sky as rain pelted the windows.
Her breath caught in her throat and she saw someone standing outside in the storm, watching her with dark, lying eyes. It took her a moment to realize she was staring at her own reflection.