I sometimes wondered if I should have asked for Mr. Rafferty after all. Two weeks passed and I grew reasonably certain that Mr. Kilner hated me. I didn’t know any more about him after being near nightly stuffed in his little sports car with him than I had when he first pulled up, and he knew nothing more about me. We only spoke of driving, and as little of that as possible.
Even so, we fell into a routine. I tried a different scent of shampoo every night and he eventually stopped spraying air freshener at me, content instead to just leave a window cracked. We drove around town, practicing parallel parking in the one part of town that had it, and he only commented on my driving when it was wrong. Our one hour of purgatory seemed to last a little longer each night and I was counting the days to my next attempt at getting my driver’s license. It was embarrassing how many times I had tried, but Mr. Kilner never asked and I never mentioned it. We remained mysteries to one another, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was as curious about me as I was about him. The sight of him still made my heart flutter, and the brush of his hand on mine brought roses to my cheeks, but we got used to each other over time.
Evenings were a little harder for my mother’s schedule than my afternoon sessions with Ms. Jones had been, and she spent most of my lessons out running errands around town. I often finished with Mr. Kilner before she was done and walked over the meet her at one of a few shops further in town. As the nights got colder, I considered how much nicer it would be for him to drop me off there, but never quite found the courage to ask and he never quite found the courtesy to offer.
The routine was cold, soulless, and boring, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over, even as a near-suffocated sliver of my soul cried out that I would miss him.
The night before my test at the DMV, we finished earlier than usual. Mr. Kilner’s dark eyes looked everywhere but at me and he seemed jitterier than usual, his typical cold indifference barely holding at the surface. Without ceremony, he directed me back to the One Way office and went inside to finish some paperwork. The building’s front door slammed after him and I sat in his car a moment longer, briefly flirting with the thought of stealing it. Just picturing his perfect face contorted with disbelief and fury was entertainment enough, though, I stepped out into the cold with a sigh.
I zipped my old jacket close around me, jamming my hands in my pockets, and started walking. Winter seemed to come earlier every year. I shivered, wishing I had warmer pants, and jogged across the parking lot and onto the pockmarked pavement of the road. The night passed slowly as I followed it out past the stop sign and onto a larger road, eventually finding the sidewalk. The stars were bright, but that only meant that it would be cold tonight. Shivering, I regretted my refusal to ask Mr. Kilner for a ride. Not that I was even sure he would have. He largely seemed to view our time together as a personal trial to be endured as impersonally as possible. He was an endless fount of driving knowledge, but I knew absolutely nothing about him, nothing about the thoughts behind those probing dark eyes. I shuddered again, my misty breath clinging around my face. I glanced down at my phone, wondering how long it would take me to get to Safeway if I jogged. I looked up at another four-way stop and hurried across the street for the far side. The playground was abandoned this time of night, its swings tracing a phantom pendulum through the cold night air.
I paused. In the parking lot was a silver Volvo. Mr. Kilner’s car. I turned, glancing back through the playground, but didn’t see my instructor anywhere. Perplexed, I started walking again, my hesitant steps suddenly seeming loud in the stillness. It was a relief to hear the sudden wail of police sirens somewhere across town, probably off on some late night call that would turn out to be nothing. In such a small town, excitement was a rare and migratory bird, and winter simply wasn’t the season for adventure. I took a deep breath, listening through the darkness for other sounds. The breeze through the last of the autumn leaves, the skeletal boughs rattling together. A back door slamming. The rev of a car engine, the pounding of my own heart. I heard a noise behind me and turned, startled, to stare with wide eyes down the empty sidewalk. I stuffed my hands back in my pockets and started walking again, quickening my pace, feeling strangely hunted.
The engine roared louder and I looked up as a battered van came skidding around the corner, its headlights wavering wildly as it slid across the pavement. I froze, watching it come down the street, and then it suddenly veered left, blinding me. I gasped and stumbled backward as its tires bounded over the edge of the sidewalk. I clenched my eyes shut and shrieked, raising my hands. Suddenly, a strong arm clamped around my waist, twisting me away, and a slim form placed itself between me and certain death. We dropped to our knees and he threw an arm out. Miraculously, the van’s grill crumbled around his hand and I realized I was screaming, clinging to his open jacket. The van reared up around his hand, and then slammed back to the ground, the engine puttering like a wounded animal. The headlights flickered off and the engine died, and I blinked up at my savior in the darkness.
He was staring down at me with wide eyes, as if he could hardly believe what had happened either, his arm wrapped around me, drawing me close. I couldn’t help but pull closer, my face raised to his. I drew a shuddering breath and realized it was Mr. Kilner.
Wordlessly, he released me and rose, graceful even on the edge of disaster. I slumped to the pavement, shocked, my hands bare against the cold concrete. I stared down at my fingernails as he went around the front of the van and angrily tore the door open. “Hey,” I heard him snap. “Wake up.”
I glanced up as he briefly examined the man, fussing with his neck and leaning back from the potency of his breath. He sneered.
“Is he alright?” I called.
I looked back at the warped grill, the metal buckled around a rough hand print. It wasn’t possible. The hazard lights started flashing and I glanced up again. “What are you doing?”
Mr. Kilner looked down at me, his eyes unreadable. “In an accident, you make sure everyone is unhurt, warn other traffic with hazard lights or flares, and move the vehicle to the side of the road if possible. Don’t you know that?”
I blushed, looking away again. Of course I knew that. What was wrong with me? I looked down again. I could hear him muttering at the driver, something dark and threatening that I didn’t want to hear, and I pulled my phone out, shaking.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, ducking back out of the cab.
Brandishing the phone, I stammered, “Calling the cops.”
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” he growled, stepping toward me.
I stared up at him, my hands trembling, and protested, “But if there’s an injury or damage of two-thousand dollars or more, we’re supposed to call the police right away.”
“Nobody’s hurt,” he said, calming down. “None of the damage is anyone’s property but his own. The irresponsible drunk can pay for his own van. And driving while intoxicated is ten points off his license, I hope he knows.” He glared back at the cab and growled, “And he’d better have insurance. That’s another six points.”
Bewildered, I pointed wildly at the rumpled front of the van. “But how can-”
“Miss Dove,” he interrupted. “Please. Nobody can know about this. Please.”
I stared, not sure what to say. Finally, I stood and whispered, “Ella.” I swallowed hard, glancing down at the van again and then back up at him. “Call me Ella.”
He gazed at me for a long in the silence of the night, orange hazard light flicking a percussive warning across my face. He stepped around the side of the rumpled van and came closer, pausing just a few steps away from me. “Alright. My name is Edmond.”
“Edmond,” I breathed, the archaic syllables rolling naturally off my tongue, and cautiously crossed the space between us, my gaze transfixed on his. Maybe it was the shock. I didn’t care.
His eyes darted away as the wail of sirens shattered the silence. He glanced back at me once more, and then ran back for his car and was gone.
I shook my head as the spell broke, looking once more at the man passed out against his steering wheel, and then turned and ran for Safeway down the dark street. Even then, I knew I would never be the same.