There were deer eyes everywhere. Staring out from the brush at the edge of the trees on the other side of the guardrail like white Christmas bulbs glinting in the dark. The night was so dark, I kept thinking maybe the headlights were broken.
We’d eaten some LSD from Burning Man the night before. Little red squares of perforated paper emblazoned with little pictures of burning men that some girl named Angel gave us for free because she said she liked our faces.
We got that a lot. We had good faces.
A kid named Todd, who was probably almost thirty so really more like a man, zipped himself up in our tent, casting T-Rex shadows against the nylon walls, and went on and on about your big eyes and my high cheekbones.
He wanted to sleep with us. He loved our faces.
We drove Todd home to St. Pete because we didn’t know it was so far down the side of the state and that the state was so fucking huge.
We’d been driving for hours and hours and hours, chewing Doublemint gum and smoking Camels to stay awake, when I noticed someone looking at me in the side view mirror from the corner of the back seat.
I tried to crane my neck to get a better look, but every way I turned, he just slipped into the shadows.
“Did we forget to drop Todd off?”
“Todd. Todd. Did we forget to drop him off?”
“What are you talking about?”
The deer eyes glittered out there in the dark. One of them was about to dart into the road and smash through the windshield of the car we’d borrowed from your mother, I knew it.
I glanced into the side view mirror. Todd was blinking silently.
“I think Todd’s still in the backseat.”
You said, “I’m trying to drive. You’re freaking me out,” and lit another cigarette.
The cold rush of air through your cracked window felt good. I lit another cigarette and cracked my window.
The deer were all poised at edge of the shoulder like an army ready to advance. I started chanting Hail Marys inside my head.
I could hear Todd shifting around in the backseat. I stared into his eyes in the mirror. I see you, Todd. You’re not getting these faces. Not tonight.
Suddenly, everything was shaking. My body vibrated.
“Oh shit! What’s this? What’s this? An earthquake?”
Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble. We were veering onto the shoulder.
You said, “Sorry, I just closed my eyes for a second.”
Those deer eyes shone like marbles.
You said, “You don’t want to drive, do you?”
Todd was staring at you now. I whipped my head around just as he ducked into the shadow behind me. Uh-uh, Todd, you can’t have her. Not tonight.
We were young and we were women and we had to protect each other.
I turned back around. In the mirror I could see Todd sliding back and forth from one side of the backseat to the other, moving like some pest out of the light. When we passed beneath the intermittent highway lights, he seemed to disappear. He was a sneaky mother fucker, that Todd.
You said, “We need gas.”
The little orange light under the E of the gas gauge beamed from the dashboard like the eye of Sauron.
“Oh shit,” I said, “Oh shit.”
You lit another Camel. You were chain smoking now.
I reached for the cigarette pack in the ditch of the console and pulled out the last one.
“Oh shit,” I said, as I lit the last cig, “I think we’re really fucked now.”
You nodded your head and narrowed your eyes to the highway. You were brave and I wasn’t, but it didn’t matter because you were brave enough for the both of us.
The exit sign said there was a gas station, but it didn’t give the mileage. It felt like forever. The road was so dark, we may as well have been floating through that deep part of the ocean, that part that no light touches, those strange submerged canyons, surrounded on all sides by invisible giant squid. We could have been dead and not even known it. We couldn’t see a thing.
Someone was singing. I could hear music. Todd was singing in the backseat. Todd was singing our swan song. Every wayward note pierced the back of my neck like a pin.
“Goddamnit! Will you shut up, Todd?”
The gas light had abandoned its place in the dash and was bouncing around the car like a neon orange superball. You glanced at me, and your big eyes said it all. We were goners. We’d done ourselves in.
I slumped in my seat. Todd was singing. I couldn’t save us.
Not even you—golden girl with the good luck, the best friend I could ever hope to find—could save us now.
If we had to go, at least we could go together.
Then—suddenly!—you swerved. The Flying J sign loomed out of the darkness and then, by some miracle, we were under the lights of the station parked beside the pump. I flung my door open and my feet hit the pavement. The lights were so bright that for a minute I was blind. I blinked and blinked. You stared at the pump like a zombie then pushed some buttons and undid the gas cap and filled her up.
I peered into the backseat. I knocked on the window. I couldn’t see Todd, but it was still dark in there.
Inside the streaming neons of the Flying J, I asked the old man at the counter for a pack of Camels, then slid my card through the machine, said thank you way too loud, and got the hell out of there.
We got back on the road. Everything was turning gray. The sun was coming up.
The deer had left the side of the highway, gone back into the woods for their deer breakfast, or whatever it was that deer did in the morning.
We got off on our exit. We were almost home. The sun was searing the sky into a heart-stopping shade of pink.
“Fuck,” I said. “Fuck, it’s beautiful.”
You nodded your head and ashed your cigarette out the window.
I turned around. The backseat was empty.
“We finally got rid of Todd,” I said.
You half-chuckled. “Todd. I sort of liked him.”
Your face was serene, the color of raspberry sorbet, glowing with the rising sun. You’d gotten us home. I smiled at that fire-shot picture of you and rested my head against the headrest.
There would be more Todds, of course, and you’d like them all. Even the ones that didn’t deserve liking. One day, when I wasn’t there to be afraid for us, you’d trust the wrong Todd. And then that you, that brave you that saved us in the dark of night, would be gone. My fear would be yours, just like so many others. And all that would exist of that brave woman you once were would be a picture in my head of your face on fire in the burning dawn.
© Elizabeth Mayer
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Elizabeth’s interview]