It Happens All the Time
I don’t see the gun until it’s pointed right at me.
“Drive,” she says, shifting her upper body toward me. We are in the cab of my truck, me behind the wheel, Amber in the passenger seat. Her arm trembles, from uncertainty or the weight of the weapon, it’s impossible to tell.
I look at her, blinking fast. “Amber, wait—”
“Shut up.” Her voice is stone. Unyielding. She cocks the hammer with her thumb and I jerk to the left, toward the driver’s side window. My shoulders hunch up around my ears and then—I can’t help it—I say her name again.
“I said, shut up!” Amber repeats, this time with a shrill, unstable edge. She tilts her head toward the parking lot’s exit. “Go.” Her index finger rests against the side of the trigger. One twitch, one small movement, and it could all be over.
I straighten and try to steady my breath. Just do what she says. I put the key in the ignition, turn it, and the engine springs to life. The radio blasts and Amber and I both startle; she hurries to snap it off. A bead of sweat slides down my forehead, despite the bone-chilling bite in the air. It’s early November, and it strikes me that
it has been almost a year since she came home for Christmas and found me waiting for her at her parents’ house. So much has happened since then. Everything has changed.
I pull out onto the street, telling myself that one of my coworkers inside the red-brick station house must have noticed the two of us together, that something in Amber’s stance or facial expression hinted at what she was about to do. Someone will follow us or, at the very least, call the police. But even as I think these things, I know they won’t happen. My partner, Mason, had already left for home, for his wife and daughter. The paramedic team who took over for us was behind the closed doors of the garage, double-checking inventory in the rig. The firefighters were upstairs in the bunk room, sleeping if they needed it, or in the gym, shooting the shit and lifting weights to pass the time. As first responders, we are accustomed to crises, our bodies conditioned to react. We race toward disaster instead of from it, but we don’t stand by the window, scanning our surroundings, expecting to see it as it strikes.
When I first stepped outside and saw Amber waiting for me in the dimly lit parking lot, I was foolish enough to feel a spark of hope. “We need to talk,” she said, and I nodded, noting that she was thinner than I’d seen her in years. Her face was gaunt, sharp cheekbones and enormous hazel eyes in darkened sockets. Her thin brown hair fell in messy waves to her jawline, and she wore a puffy black ski jacket that only emphasized her stick-slim legs. She couldn’t have weighed much more than a hundred pounds. Nine years ago, when she was fifteen, in the hospital at her worst, she had weighed eighty-two.
“Get on the freeway,” Amber says now, releasing the hammer and dropping the gun to her lap, where she cradles it, staring straight ahead. Her face is shrouded in shadow, making it impossible for me to guess what she is thinking. “Go south.”
“You don’t need to do this,” I say, hoping I might be able to reason with her. “You said we need to talk, so please . . . let’s talk.”
“Just drive where I tell you to drive.” She lifts the gun and points it at me again, this time holding it with two hands, one cupped under the other, her finger still lying next to the trigger.
“Okay, okay! Sorry.” A familiar, tightly wound panic coils in my chest; I worry what might happen if it springs loose. “You don’t need the gun.”
Her eyes narrow into slits. “Don’t tell me what I need.” She jabs the nose of the weapon into my ribs and cocks the hammer once more.
I gasp, and then pump the brakes, slowing to a stop at a red light. My eyes flit to our surroundings, searching for someone on the street, anyone I can signal for help, but it’s three in the morning in our sleepy college town. There are no other cars around.
The tips of my nerves burn beneath my skin, and then I hear my dad’s deep voice in my head: “Don’t just sit there, Son. Do something.”
The light turns green, and Amber pushes the gun deeper into my side, urging me forward. I ease my foot down on the gas pedal, contemplating the ways my father might take control of a situation like this. I see him shooting out his right arm and grabbing Amber by the back of the neck, slamming her head against the dashboard. I imagine his thick fingers curling into a fist and punching her in the face.
But I don’t want to hurt Amber, not more than I already have. What I want is for everything to go back the way it was when we first met—before my parents’ divorce and her illness, before we grew apart and then came back together, closer than ever, last June, after she came home from school with an engagement ring on her finger. I want to rewind the clock, take back the night when the world shattered. I want to erase everything that went wrong.
“I hate you,” she says. Her voice sounds diseased, infected with disgust. “I hate you so fucking much.”
I wince, suspecting that I deserve every bit of that venom, the pain of the gun jammed against my ribs. I might even deserve the bullets inside it. I turn onto the freeway onramp, accelerate, and then, unsure what Amber’s plan might be, I look at her. “I know,” I say. “I hate me, too.”