By the time they got to the Annual Double Dutch Christmas Festival, the rain was making a nuisance of itself. Marie was proud of herself for having the foresight to wear her new boots, though they weren’t yet broken in. Ilya watched her feet trounce the puddles and tried to ignore his own spongy socks. The town was supposed to be lively, full of people. The reality was a smattering of rigid family trios and foursomes, children wrapped in parkas and parents keeping them close, determined not to give up the Christmas cheer.
It was Ilya’s first coupled-up holiday season, and Marie was putting him through her favorite traditions.
“This is just the beginning,” she said. “Later I’ll make mulled wine from this great recipe and we’ll watch movies. I’ll even let you choose which, as long as it’s totally not Christmas themed. That’s how I always do it.”
Ilya nodded at her through the downpour. He’d heard about a third of what she’d said. It was also hard to see her properly through his rain-speckled glasses, but he knew she looked pretty. Bedraggled was a good look for her. Everything was a good look for her. He was happy to be here, in this place which had been so magical to Marie when she was a kid. It was a heathenish alternative to the boring Christmas mass her parents would make her go to on Christmas Day itself. He knew that she rarely went home for the holidays anymore, since home, if defined by where her parents were, had migrated to South Florida. Ilya was grateful that she wanted to share her ghost of Christmas past with him.
Marie took Ilya to the chocolate shop to buy bonbons for his mother who had a sweet tooth and diabetes. She took him to the pet shop to ogle the fish swimming around their tanks and the iguanas climbing the branches of their cages.
“Don’t you want one?” Marie pointed to a poison-green reptile pouching up his cheeks.
“It looks like a cow chewing cud.”
“Spoilsport. I think it’s cute.”
“So are cows.”
Marie didn’t think cows were cute, but she didn’t say anything, because she was learning to compromise.
Ilya pulled the hood of his windbreaker up as they stepped outside again. “Is it always this empty?” The streets were even emptier than before.
“No, I don’t know what’s up. Must be the rain.”
“You’d think people would want to be inside the shops at least, where it’s dry. How isn’t it packed?”
“Maybe they all just went back home for cocoa. Before the parade.”
“You think the parade’ll still happen?”
“The website says rain or shine.” Marie had been disappointed to find that the Double Dutch Christmas Festival had a website. It also had a year-round countdown to Christmas.
A man holding a pole topped with bells and dressed in a costume made of grayish rags danced by with three children running after him, laughing and splashing in their rain boots. “Ho ho ho!” he shouted.
“Is he supposed to be Santa?” Ilya asked.
“No. He’s, I don’t know, it’s part of the thing here. A pagan tradition or something.”
“It’s kind of creepy.”
Marie pulled Ilya into the bookstore, but it too was empty and the clerk gave them a look as she yammered on her cellphone, like they were on her turf. So Marie pulled Ilya along again, this time back out into the rain. She kissed him and brushed his wet hair off his forehead so it stood up, a unicorn horn of hair. “Want to just head home?”
“Yeah, kind of,” he said.
It was the wrong answer, but compromising was important to every relationship. “So let’s.”
The way back to the car was longer than they thought it should be.
“Are you sure it’s this way?” Ilya asked.
“Yes, look, we saw that house on the way out. The Tim Burton-y one.”
“I don’t remember it.”
“How can you not remember it? You were the one that said it looked like something out of Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“That’s Tim Burton?”
“Jesus. Maybe I should pick the movies tonight.”
When they got to the car, Ilya pulled the keys out of his pocket and gave them to Marie. She hated carrying a purse, but she also never wore anything with pockets, so Ilya often carried her keys and cellphone somewhere on his person when they were together.
The car started smoothly – it was Ilya’s mom’s car; Marie hadn’t been able to get hers out of the snow that had buried it in the city – and Ilya punched the defroster button. Marie smiled at him. They shared one of those moments that Ilya associated with good relationships, the kind of moment that Marie felt in relationships that hadn’t proven bad yet. It was a moment of intuitive understanding of one another’s smallest needs: Ilya switching the defroster on, Marie plugging her phone in and putting on The Cure’s Disintegration because it made them both feel sexier.
They held hands over the automatic shift as Marie pulled out of the space one-handed. At the stoplight, she leaned over and kissed Ilya again. It was the week after their first anniversary and they’d been talking about living together since their second month. The words “the one” floated around their heads when they made love, roughly, with her on top and a necktie choking him to orgasm, and after, curling up together, whispering safety into each other’s ears.
The rain came down harder as they neared the highway. It was a long way back to the small town where Ilya’s mother lived, where they would drop the car off and then take a bus back to the city and to Marie’s place, where they usually spent the night because she lived alone, in a studio, where they didn’t have to turn down the volume on their fucking or their fights.
“I’m so glad we’re going home.” Ilya’s head felt heavy and his eyes heavier. “I think I’m getting a cold or something.”
“Did you take the echinacea pills I told you to take?”
“No, I forgot.”
“Did you at least bring those sucky things with you?”
“No, I thought you had them.”
“Maybe I do; check my bag.”
Ilya began to rummage in the messenger bag slung over her seat, the one that carried everything she didn’t want to carry unless she absolutely had to and which she left in her apartment usually. A messful of things came between his fingers and he couldn’t identify any of them without light, but Marie was slowing the car down and turned back to the road.
“Shit, look at that poor guy.”
Ilya forced his neck to support his head again and squinted. The water-streaked window showed him a shimmering shape, ungendered, just a vague human in a jacket with light-reflector stripes waving its arms.
“I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker.” Marie was continuing to slow down the car. “I’d hate to be outside in this weather.” Her mouth was quirking sideways, the way it did when she saw a dead skunk on the road or a pool of blood on Law & Order: SVU. “Let’s just see if he’s okay.”
Ilya didn’t register anything but the car slowing and the man climbing into the car without an explicit invitation. As Ilya moved his head too slowly from the opening door behind him to his right to the man sliding in behind him, he saw Marie’s knee shaking, stuck between breaking and accelerating, unable to make the snap decision she should have made when the man opened the door in the first place. She should have pounded the gas pedal, just gone, letting the hitchhiker fall and drown in the puddles, but she didn’t and Ilya couldn’t completely fault her for that. He remembered Driver’s Ed way back in high school, the teacher also named Ed, Edmund or Edward or something, and how this teacher tried to explain the math behind reaction time and braking time, finally giving up and shouting, exasperated, at the group of fifteen-year-olds, “It takes longer to react than you think, okay? And don’t fucking drink and drive.” The class had erupted in oohs and aahs at the dropped F-bomb.
The piano wire, or that was what Marie assumed it was, that’s what they used in movies, was very promptly wound around Ilya’s neck, and the man in the jacket was pulling it taut on Ilya’s Adam’s apple, and Ilya’s fingers were so slow to reach his neck, where they scrabbled futilely. He couldn’t get hold of the wire, or the string, or whatever it was, but he kept trying. Fumbling.
“What do you want.” Marie rarely thought of her voice when she was speaking, reserving that dubious joy to when she heard herself on recordings. But she heard her voice now. The tonelessness of it.
“I want you to drive,” the man said. He was chewing gum, his jaw moving up and down around his closed lips, like his mama raised him right, to chew with his mouth closed. His face was obscured in the darkness of the car and the hood that was up and the lower half of his face was the only part visible to Marie in the rearview mirror. She was too scared to turn back and really look at him. Seeing the monster half-choking her boyfriend would make it too human, too real.
“Just drive, I’ll give you directions.”
Marie started driving. Ilya couldn’t turn his head because he felt the thing around his neck scratching when he tried, but he strained his eyes as far left as they would go, where his vision was broken up by the rim of his glasses. He could see Marie’s hands on the wheel clearly, but her face was blurry. He should have worn contacts that morning. Another mistake.
The man in the back slackened his hold on the wire a little bit. “Don’t get any ideas. I’m leaning back now to get comfy, and I’m giving you some room to breathe, but this thing is long and if you move too much I’ll feel it and pull and I’ll slice your fucking neck open.”
Ilya felt his throat unconstrict a little and took a deep breath. “Thank you,” he said. The man in the back snorted. There was a light hovering around the roof of the car, and Ilya had the distinct feeling that the man behind him was checking his phone for directions.
“Get on this highway,” the man said. “Here. Turn here.”
“Marie, just do what he says,” Ilya said, even though she was. He felt like he was talking to one of the new dogs at the shelter where he worked. You had to soothe them with your voice before you tried coaxing them forward with food. You had to make sure they didn’t see you as threatening. He hoped the man in the back wouldn’t see him, Ilya, as threatening.
“I. Am.” Marie moved her mouth very little. As if speaking through clenched teeth would make the man in the back not hear. She yearned to say, “You want to take over and drive, you let me know,” but she was too scared, too worried that the carjacker would think she was talking to him, so she repeated the words over and over to herself in her head, like a mantra directed at Ilya’s obliviousness. The carjacker’s head was down when she looked in the rearview at him again, looking at something lighting his face. Marie hoped he wasn’t activating a bomb with his phone. Was it on his person? Would he leave it ticking in the back of their car? Were they on a suicide mission? Maybe he was going to have them crash into something. Kill people. She couldn’t do that. Could she?
“Excuse me, um, sir?” Ilya said.
“What do you want from us? From me?”
“I want your wife to drive.”
“Girlfriend,” Ilya corrected. Marie shot him a look, but it was too fast, and he could tell by the set of her lips that she was mad, but there were so many reasons to be mad right now that it didn’t seem to matter whose fault anything was at the moment.
“Whatever,” the carjacker said. They were passing exit after exit on the highway, heading in the direction of home, technically. “If she’s fucking you, she cares about you enough not to get you killed.”
“That’s true. I think. Right?”
“Jesus fuck, Ilya. No, I don’t want you killed.”
“See? She doesn’t want you killed. Stay on the right here; the exit is coming up.”
“Stay on the right,” Ilya parroted.
“I know. Sorry.”
“You’d rather I have that wire around my throat, huh?” Marie’s question mark was less questioning, more ascertaining the veracity of what she already knew.
“What? No. What?”
“So you can be the hero, the prince who saves me from the fucking thug. I got it.”
“Marie,” Ilya wanted to shut her up, to make her speak softly and keep her temper so as not to anger the man in the back, this carjacker who was ignoring them so far. ‘So far’ – a temporary state of being with a very distinct possibility of future change in attitude. “Please, can you just be quiet?”
“Oh fuck you; no, I won’t be quiet. Where do you want me to go now, Mister, huh? Stay on this highway for how long? I only have half a tank of gas, so if you want to get to Canada you’re gonna need to find another ride.”
“And he’d have to turn around.” Ilya let slip another stupid remark.
“That’s plenty,” the man in the back said, distracted, ignoring Ilya. “Yeah, take exit 11B. Should be in a couple miles.”
Ilya leaned back slowly, trying to see if maybe he could extricate himself from the loop around his neck which was slack enough now that he could see around his chin when he looked down. But the car jounced over a pothole and the carjacker seemed to jump to attention. He pulled the wire tightly around Ilya’s neck.
“And no funny business,” he said, sounding like he’d memorized his lines. Reading from a script. Studying for a role. Wouldn’t that be something.
“You wouldn’t,” Ilya said, because now he had to make sure. “You wouldn’t by any chance be a method actor, would you?”
“Jesus Christ. Are you a fucking idiot? I could kill you right now, you know that?”
“If you kill him, I’ll stop driving.”
The carjacker was quiet. He tightened the wire further and Ilya felt the air beginning to strain and his skin starting to fray and part, layer by layer. “Please,” he whispered.
Marie wasn’t scared. She had more power than the carjacker thought. She was the one driving this death machine. “I’m serious,” she said. “Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll stop right here on the highway and someone will crash into me and then they’ll come see what’s wrong and they’ll see all of us knocked out and you with that fucking wire around my fucking boyfriend’s neck and who do you think they’ll send to jail?”
“You’re crazy,” the man in the back said. Almost admiringly. “The exit’s right there.” He loosened his hold again.
Marie switched lanes and headed towards the exit. Why did Ilya say such stupid things, ask such ill-timed questions? He could have gotten himself, and her, killed right then and there. And then where would she be, if she were still alive? She would be trying to explain to his mother why her son’s blood was all over everywhere in her leased car. He was a mama’s boy; he thought his mom was the greatest thing since premade cookie dough. He used premade cookie dough, for fuck’s sake. How was she with someone like this? What did she see in him?
The rain was letting up, but Marie’s wipers were still going full force for just the little droplets that still appeared. Ilya wanted to reach over and nudge the switch to slow the wipers down. They were making screeching noises. His fingers tingled with the urge. But he was scared. He wasn’t as scared as he thought he should be, but he was still more scared than he’d ever been in his life, save for the first time he’d been to Disneyland when the huge cartoon characters kept trying to hug him and shake his hand and he’d felt something was wrong, so wrong, because they belonged on TV and not in the real world. No one had told him they existed for real. His mother still told stories about him running away from Donald Duck. Marie had laughed at him, a full-throated true laugh, when she’d heard that story. It was sort of like that now, though. This wasn’t, shouldn’t be, real. People didn’t do this kind of thing in real life. It was a crime drama scenario. He and Marie should be sitting on her drooping sofa by now, her ugly, drooling dog at their feet, watching this exact scene on TV and stuffing themselves with pizza.
“So what happens next?” Ilya asked. “After we drop you off.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” The man in the back was distracted again.
“Shut up, Ilya, just let’s get him to where he needs to go and drop him off.”
“You’re the one who let him in.”
“Yes. Very good, Ilya. It’s all my fault. Thanks.” Marie’s hands gripped the steering wheel harder. She resisted the urge to punch the middle of it and honk the horn for attention. She didn’t want to risk the man in the back accidentally freaking out and killing Ilya. Even if she was going to break up with him.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, it was. It is. Don’t take it back now. Grow a spine.”
“I have a-”
“Stop it, both of you. Christ. Okay, take a right at that stop sign.” The man in the back leaned forward, both hands tight on the wire again. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, Ilya realized, with the kind of puritan consternation that his mother had bred into him. How dangerous.
The highway exit was one of those that seemed to emerge into the middle of nowhere. A strangely muted community, where the houses were far behind trees and the roads were unlit by modern conveniences.
“And turn off the fucking wipers; the sound is driving me crazy.”
The rain had stopped completely, though the smell of it was still running off the man in the back. Marie mourned the scratching sound the wipers had been making, so similar somehow to the screeching moans she made when cutting her thighs late at night. A painful grating of her senses to cover up reality. But she turned the wipers off. Ilya let loose a long, slow breath.
She turned and they drove in silence for another few miles, the man in back looking out the window. A big house, all lit up, loomed around the bend. There were more lights, more buildings, beyond it, as if a town of some sort sprouted up from this corner of quiet farmland and suburbia.
Marie stopped behind a row of other cars pulled onto the muddy side of the road.
“Great, thanks, see ya.”
The man in the back opened the door and slid out, leaving the wire behind. He slammed the car door and began to run towards the lit house. Ilya opened the window on his side and heard music and shouting and laughter. One of the doors of the house opened and two young men emerged carrying a keg. They greeted the man who’d been in the car with bro calls and thumped him on the back. The carjacker turned towards where Marie and Ilya still sat, numb, and yelled loudly enough for them to hear, “I told you I’d find a ride here!”
Marie jerked the wheel left and stepped on the gas pedal so hard that she pulled something in her foot. She zoomed up the empty, quiet, dark road until it widened enough for her to do a full U-turn. Driving back, she was on the side of the frat – she realized now the exit they took had been the same as for one of the SUNYs, where she used to go with friends to get better parties than their own campus offered. She refused to turn her face away from the road in front of her until she reached the stop sign and turned back onto the street that would take them back to the highway.
Ilya kept rubbing his neck. He felt a lump in his throat, vomit or tears or some physical manifestation of fear. Maybe feces had climbed up the wrong way through his body. It felt like the correct kind of horror for the situation they’d just endured. The wire had fallen off his neck and into his hands. It wasn’t a piano wire. It was a long piece of floss, folded several times and rolled to make it thicker, scarier. His neck was fine. Nothing was bleeding.
“I’m going to drop you off at your mom’s with the car,” Marie said when she got back on the highway. Her voice sounded different now that there was no one in back to listen to them.
“And then I’m going to walk to the bus station and get back to the city.”
“So you’re saying you don’t want me to come with you.”
“Yes. That is what I’m saying. Your mom will be happy if you sleep over tonight.”
Her voice was tight, Ilya noticed. Like it was she with a piano wire, or floss, around her neck now.
“I love you?” He tested this sentence tentatively, gauging whether it sounded as right as it had that afternoon.
“Me too,” she said in a voice that made Ilya think of mornings with her, when they both woke up with scratchy throats in her dry overheated bedroom.
They said nothing else. She drove Ilya to his mother’s house and left him there, sitting in his mother’s car, with the keys in the ignition.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast that showcases fiction writers’ stories and struggles. Her work has appeared in The New York, Tin House, The Toast, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, Printer’s Row and more. She can be found @ilanaslightly.