Taillights in the Rain

Jacob drove down the street, tires kicking up puddles to splash empty sidewalks. It was only three o’clock in the afternoon but the storm had damped the entire area, had washed out the light. Wipers beat hard on the windshield of the old Buick, slinging the droplets to the side as fast as the torrent could throw them down. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel, a death grip that he could not alleviate himself of.

“Slow down.”

“Hm?” he asked, startled out of his own head.

“Slow down,” Valerie said. “You’re gonna get us killed. You hydroplane me into a streetlight and I’ll haunt your ass.”

He eased his foot onto the brake and the car slowed back down to the speed limit. Their escape had not come easy, the stress of it thundering in his head. The car had been flying at nearly fifteen over and they were lucky they had not been pulled over. His family had probably already tried to put out a missing person’s report on them, her ex in cahoots with the whole thing. A long drive lay ahead and they had to be careful, no one wanted to be caught this time.

“You made sure to grab everything?” he asked.

She reached into her bag and pulled out her inhaler, took a couple of deep puffs and held them. She slowly exhaled and put it back in her purse. Continuing to rummage around, she came up with a flask. Taking a swig, she threw back a deep pull on the vodka within and passed it over. He took some himself and she put it back in her purse. “I got it all,” she said with a nervous smile. Then she pulled her purse open further. Inside were a collection of wads of cash, various denominations.

“Good,” he said, a smile climbing onto his own face.

“Did we need all of it?”

“Maybe not,” he admitted, “but it doesn’t hurt. Two plane tickets in Oklahoma City just became two first-class tickets. Besides, we need all we can get if we’re going to hide somewhere. We need every penny.” Jacob had emptied his savings, all four grand of it, and she had emptied his parent’s safe while he had been at the bank. In total they were sitting on nearly three hundred thousand dollars, enough for a small house and a place to hide for awhile once they reached their destination.

“I just felt bad,” she said. “Your mom and dad have always been super-nice to me.”

“Yeah, but they hated us being together. That’s the trade-off, they were only nice when you were with Albert. Once that ended they didn’t like you so much, they were worried that…”

“That this exact thing would happen?” she laughed.

“Yeah,” he said. “Pretty much, yeah. Mom said you were after the money.”

“It was never about that,” she said. “I wish she’d understood that”

Silence hung over them, the memory of that last fight still thick between them. His parents, shouting their disdain for Valerie as she tried to sneak out of the house without them realizing she was there. Jacob had shouted back, had been livid at their treatment of her. Annie Carnahan, his mother, had always veiled a dislike of her with politeness and friendship. Hell, she took Valerie shopping for clothes and the night her parents had been too drunk to do anything but swing fists she had gone to pick her up. Annie and his father, Don, had loved her like family – so long as she remained outside of Jacob’s reach.

Once Albert had grown too much for her they had begun to shun her a bit, inviting her around less and always being courteous but distant. Annie had known what was coming, had seen the split in the works and knew Jacob would be there waiting, had known he had wanted this for over a decade, and she was against it. This poor girl from a destitute family was not good enough for her son. She remained unaware that it was the other way around, that Jacob felt he was not good enough for her.

“I just wish we’d left a note or something,” she whispered.

“Why?” he demanded, suddenly defensive. “They wouldn’t have read it, and even if they had they wouldn’t have understood it.”

“Honey, I love your parents. You do too, you know you do.”

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “Most of the time I just feel like they want me to be something I’m not.”

“Are we running off to prove something to them? Or are we running off to be together.”

“We’re running off to be together. Nothing else, no ulterior motive. I just want you.”

Jacob was quiet now, thinking. He had not really wanted to leave the comfort of his home, his wealthy parents and the life they had given him, but what else could he have done? They were suffocating him, demanding he live up to their standards. Jacob wanted nothing more than to be a writer, something important, and to be with Valerie. With the money they had taken he could have both, hidden away somewhere quiet where he could finally work on his big project and Valerie could have her painting. The two of them, artists in exile.

“This is the only way,” he said. He meant it, too. After she had come to him, the night she left Albert, he had known this would happen eventually. Her face, bruised and bloody from the beating, she had sat outside his bedroom window and tapped quietly against the glass. That had been the worst night, with him taking a wet cloth and wiping the blood from her upper lip and sneaking downstairs to get a piece of cold steak to slap over the whole left side of her face. Her dark hair had hung down, sticky with blood and sweat, to frame her miserable face and he had been there for her. That had been the beginning of his new life, the moment he knew that his dreams were finally within his grasp.

“I just wish it hadn’t had to happen like this,” she said.

Valerie had spent two years with Albert after Annie had saved her from drunken parents, the shouts driving them both into the night. She had spent two days with the Carnahans and then gone to move in with her boyfriend, worried and strung out with stress. She had been drinking too much and, sadly, Annie had been all too happy to provide the wine while they talked late into the evenings. Jacob could hear them upstairs, laughing and crying and rambunctious. Annie Carnahan loved a charity case, it made her feel important and big, and Valerie had been her crown jewel. This poor girl, sick of her life in the hellhole she had grown up in, desperate for a safety net and there was Jacob’s mother, ready to lead her up into the light.

“I’m glad it happened like this,” he said. “She treated you like a stray dog she’d rescued or something, a trophy to show everyone how great she thought she was. It’s better that you aren’t on a leash for her anymore.”

“You were on one too,” she said, annoyed.

“I know,” he snapped. “I know I was. Me and dad both, for that matter.”

“Your poor dad,” she said. “Do you think they’ll come after us?”

“Hell yes they will,” he said. “Dad may not love mom anymore but he’ll still give her anything she asks for and you can be she’ll ask for that. Mom doesn’t want anyone to be really happy if she can’t and she knows what she is, where she came from. Dad told me once, when he was really pissed at her. He told me about the strip joint he found her in and how he got her out. She has no place to be such a bitch to you”

“She’s not a bitch to me,” Valerie said, frustrated. “She was always sweet.”

“To your face,” he said.

He had never told Valerie about the things his mother had said when she was elsewhere, about how she looked down on the girl. “She’s kind of trashy,” Annie had said when the wine was taking its hold. “She only hangs around here for our money and you can bet the instant she gets the chance she’ll stop stringing you along and snatch what she can. She’ll drag you into some shit, Jakie, she’ll pull you right along with her.”

Jacob had never mentioned to her how his mother took weekends out of town. “Weekends with the girls” she had called them, though Jacob knew they were weekends away with whatever fling she was having. He knew about the abortion, about the bastard little half-brother-or-sister he had lost. She had been talking to her sister about it on the phone outside one night while he listened at the window, hearing her describe the great sex with her new boyfriend and how relieved she was after the procedure had been over.

“She was going through some stuff,” Valerie said, “but she cared. I could tell.”

“What, you on her side now?” he asked, angry.

“A little, of course!” she said. “Your mom took care of me, made sure I had food and clothes and people who loved me. She let me stay at your place, she helped me get away from Albert. Jacob, if it wasn’t for your mom I don’t know what I would have done.”

“You were a charity case for her,” he said. “That’s all you were. I’m the only one that really cares about you.”

She sat quietly, thinking about this. She put a hand over his on the gear shift, lacing her fingers over his. They drove in silence, the pounding rain hammering in the discomfort and tension between them. Valerie was crying, he could see it out of the corner of his eye.

“This is wrong,” she sniffled out.

“What?”

“This. The whole thing. This is wrong.”

“Well what the fuck do you want me to do?” he snapped at her. She looked up at him, the tears still streaming. Valerie’s face was dark and angry now, her defense of his mother now at the forefront of her mind.

“Pull over,” she said.

“What?”

“I said pull over.”

“Why?” he asked. “What are you going to do out here? Just show back up with the money? Call them? You think the bitch won’t press charges? Valerie you robbed her.”

She released his hand, picked up her purse. Unzipping it she began pulling out the wads of cash, tossing them one at a time on the floor of the car. One by one the wads hit the carpet mats, a couple of them popping out of their binding and sending bills scattering around her feet. “Pull over,” she demanded again.

He hit the brakes hard and pulled the car skidded to a stop. There were no other cars on the street, the rain deterring any other activity in the near-deserted little district. She finished tossing out the money and opened the door, got out of the car. Jacob rolled down the window. “Valerie, please,” he said. He was still angry but he did not want this.

“Show me the taillights, you asshole,” she growled.

He hesitated for a moment, wanting to apologize and beg her to come with him. Then, the anger finally winning out, he rolled up the window and threw the car in gear. The tires smoked in the rain, spinning for a moment. The Buick sped away down the street, flying through a red light and disappearing into the downpour.

Valerie stood, looking after him as the red taillights disappeared into the night. She reached into her now-hollow purse, fishing around. She pulled out the flask and drank deeply, savoring the burn in her throat. Looking around, the lights of the convenient store before her shone in her eyes. The neon pinks and yellows and greens flashed, offering sales and letting her know they were still open. She sighed, then headed inside to call Mrs. Carnahan.

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