By: Lily Spiro, Essays Editor
The night was heavy and warm, full still of fragrant afternoon heat that had failed to dissipate in the darkness. Open windows held no cure for Cameron’s pressing fatigue; she felt like the wind was a rippling blanket, tempting her to sleep. The road was lonely before the sun rose. Even the radio with its soothing, muffled voices conspired against her.
In moments like these, when Cameron was alone in the darkness, she began to feel afraid. The fear crept up on her, settling on her shoulders before she was even aware of its presence, before she could summon her rationality. She would see the looming walls of trees that trimmed the road on either side and find shadows that moved too quickly and became sinister. Even though she was ensconced in a 4,000-pound metal shell gliding weightlessly down the road, the fear on her shoulders whispered with certainty that the shadows would follow her. This she believed.
Her mother had said, on the day of her prom, “No matter how late it is, you call me, and I’ll pick you up. I don’t want you driving after midnight. It’s not safe.”
Cameron had pouted and squabbled, pointing out her age, her magically legal status, which had been illegal only a few months before. She was an adult now, and adults didn’t steal their mother’s sleep over a stupid matter of driving 20 minutes back home.
“You’ll call me, or you’ll come home at eleven,” her mother had said. “There’s nothing worse than driving with a tired mind. It’s like driving drunk, except when you’re drunk, it gives someone a reason to take the keys away from you.”
At age 26, Cameron had accepted that she was now too old to be told what to do. Once she had crossed the threshold of adulthood and the bills had piled on her kitchen table, she was no longer expected to swallow an order and chew it down because it was good for her. The problem, she had decided on the umpteenth dead of night journey back to her apartment, was that she was stuck, prostrate, in a sticky après-youth that forced her to make her own decisions when she didn’t have any idea what they were supposed to be. Cameron was old enough to know herself by now, and with that knowledge came the realization of her limitations.
“I wouldn’t call what you do thinking, so much as barrelling head first and hoping you don’t break your neck,” her sister Deidre had said, as she, Cameron and their mother lounged around their fire pit and watched the sparks fizzle out into the twilight. She was living in Gilroy, California, which unlike the sodden swamp where Cameron lived now, had proper control of its daily temperatures. The daytime heat was scalding and dry, and the nighttime cooled the air so that the family could gather around a flickering fire, smell the orange blossoms and plan for the future.
The preceding afternoon, bitter and fuming after a hair stylist had berated Cameron for her chlorine bleached hair, Cameron had ordered the stylist to shave her entire head until she could pass muster as a Marine. Her mother, absent for less than five minutes, had been shocked to tears, and her sister, who was getting her hair trimmed in the next chair, had snorted and re-christened her Skinhead Cameron.
“You don’t like it, do you?” said her mother. “Tell me it was a mistake.”
It was a mistake, a horrible one. As the hairstylist had removed the black shawl, Cameron had squinted back tears. She had never realized how skeletal a face could look without hair. Her nose, once delicate, became sharp and hawkish without a frame. Her eyes needed shadows to shrink behind, her lips a curtain to balance them. As much as she hated her decision, admitting her mistake was worse. What was the point of being chastised by another when she had already chastised herself raw?
“I think it suits me,” she had said. She rubbed her hand across the curve of her skull and sighed. “So soft.”
“God save the man who tries to get between you and your decisions,” snickered Deirdre. “He’ll be out on his ass before he’s finished his sentence.”
Seventeen, basking in the faltering light of the fire pit, waving off mosquitos, her future felt certain. She only had enough advice for Santa Clara; her mother had warned her away from buying houses on mountains or at the bottom of the road, from living on a fault line, from being too close to the forest line or too far away from the Pacific. She had her sister as a model: Deirdre was 23 with a boyfriend, and she lived in an apartment only four streets away.
Cameron had not actively sought to live outside of Santa Clara. The move had lassoed her, but she was passive, obeying meekly as the rope whisked her away from California almost 3,000 miles to Richmond, Virginia. Her residency application had been rejected from all the major universities in California; most urban centers filled quickly with the more promising students. Cameron had struggled in medical school, but she hadn’t realized that an average GPA would mean losing her family for years at a time. Her mother, predictably perceptive, had implored her not to take the residency.
“You’ve never been without your family for such a long stretch of time,” she said, as Cameron was packing. “There’s no shame in failure. You’re still so young.”
“But, I haven’t failed,” said Cameron. “I’ve been matched, and even if it’s not what we wanted, I can’t go back on this. I’ve put years into my education, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent. You want me to waste it? Because you’ll miss me?”
“Listen to me, please,” said her mother. “You won’t do well without us.”
Cameron still wondered, six months later, if her mother was right. The hours were endless and grueling. Her supervising physicians gave her no rest. That was normal. That was residency. It was only in these long, lonely stretches of darkness that her unhappiness crystallized and curdled until she was trapped in its fog. She hadn’t called her mother in more than a month; it was her mother’s foresight that stopped her and caused Cameron to stew in her own sourness. There would be the inevitable “told-you-so.” She was eight years too old for “told-you-so’s,” and she felt that age like a pin in her side.
Tonight’s shift had been exhausting. Somewhere between one o’clock and two, she had fallen below the water and struggled to stay afloat. For the remaining part of her shift, she visited her patients with one half of her brain and focused on remaining upright with the other.
The double yellow line on the two-lane road was beginning to blur. Cameron cursed herself for not filling up a thermos with coffee before she left the hospital. But, Cameron hated coffee. Her mother had said that it was the type of acquired taste that developed with age and fatigue, yet she was an exhausted, barely functioning adult, and it still made her lips pucker.
The car vibrated with the scolding bumpbumpbump that signalled the transition from asphalt to gravel. Cameron hastily corrected the wheel. She thought that she had been driving straight, but now she could see that the car was careening off the road. She slowed to a halt and turned off the ignition. There were no other vehicles in sight, no need to turn on her hazards. Cameron’s eyelids closed like the sudden pull of a window shade. All was smooth and still, and perhaps, if she was asleep, her worries would leave her. She sighed.
“Wake up! Wake the fuck up!”
Cameron jumped and knocked her head against the steering wheel. There was a girl in front of her car, emblazoned by the headlights. She pounded once more on the hood of the car.
“We gotta go. We gotta go!”
Before Cameron had a moment to process her intent, the girl was at the passenger door, yanking on the handle in a frenzy of shrieks and tears. Her forehead was marred by an enormous gash that was beginning to crust over black with dried blood. She wore neon running shorts, a grimy white tank top and only one sneaker. In the dead of night, she was an unsettling cross between a ghost and a Runner’s World cover model. Cameron unlocked the door and watched as the girl rocketed into the passenger seat.
“Go!” she shrieked. “Please, go.”
They drove for a few minutes in silence. Cameron’s mind was moldy with sleep. Should she take the girl back to the hospital, or bring her to the apartment? She had no idea what this girl expected of her.
“I’m sorry, it’s so late,” said Cameron. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was resting my eyes for a few seconds. That’s all.”
The girl was still shaking. She glanced at Cameron in disbelief.
“I don’t care if you were sleeping,” she said. “I’m just glad you were here. We’re going to the hospital, right?”
Cameron shook her head.
“No, I don’t want to go back there,” she said.
“I’ve been there for thirty hours,” muttered Cameron. “I want to go home. I’ll call the police there and they can come get you at my apartment.”
“Please tell me that you’re joking,” said the girl. She grabbed Cameron’s wrist. “My head is bleeding. I need to go to the hospital. Do you see my head? Do you see the blood?”
“Of course I see that,” said Cameron softly. “Of course, of course. I’m a doctor.”
After a brush with sleep, her head felt robbed. An indignant pulse pounded at her temple. The lines were blurring again.
“Do you have a phone?” demanded the girl. “I’ll call them right now and they can pick me up.”
“Yeah, it’s in my bag in the back,” said Cameron.
“Are you falling asleep again?” asked the girl. “Your words are slurring.”
“It’s in my bag in the back, I told you,” said Cameron forcefully.
“Oh my god,” whispered the girl. “First that psycho, now you. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.”
She latched onto Cameron’s wrist again and tried to pull her hands away from the steering wheel. Cameron pushed her away, but the girl hung on.
“Please let me drive,” begged the girl. “You’re scaring me.”
“Who are you anyway?” said Cameron. Her head was screaming in pain; her eyes were sore from resisting the urge to fall shut.
“I can’t find your phone,” said the girl. “Are you lying to me? Are you working with him?”
“I don’t know where it is!” said Cameron. “I’m so tired.”
“Wake up!” shouted the girl. Her head was bleeding from the stress. “Wake up!”
She felt the bumpbumpbump again under her front wheels, but she couldn’t see the road. The double yellow lines were gone. She tried to lift her head, but it was pressed back against the headrest as if it was glued to the fabric. The wind was no longer ruffling, but pelting past her windows and coming straight towards her. The shadows began to move, almost touching her, until she hit them.
The pain was too great for her to sleep, even when it beckoned with long, graceful fingers. Cameron couldn’t lift her neck, nor her arms, nor wiggle her feet. She felt that she was being crushed, but couldn’t see the weight that pressed her to the ground. She moaned.
At least her head had quieted. She knew that she was upside-down, but from the small sliver of window she could only see the crumbling dirt and, barely in her sights, the corner of her face that was smothered with blood.
“Cameron,” it said. “You should have called your mother.”