Sunday, November 27, 2016

#FreeWriteChallenge Day 9 - Time Traveling Taxi

Time Traveling Taxi

Car trouble.

I sighed.

I hadn’t had a meeting scheduled in … well … years. Of course it would happen like this. The one day I needed to be somewhere, and here I was. Stuck.

I pulled my phone from my pocket and did some quick research before calling a local cab company. The last time I’d needed a taxi, things hadn’t gone so well. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

It took less than ten minutes for the driver to find me. I was surprised when the car pulled up. It was a classic yellow Checker cab from 1950, complete with a pair of broad shoulders, huge bumpers and the silver hood emblem I’d seen so many times in movies.  

The passenger side window was rolled down and I bent to peer in. The driver wore a white t-shirt, the sleeves folded tight against his biceps, and had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He grinned and tossed his thumb toward the backseat. “C’mon, baby. Climb in. We need to beat feet.”

I stood on the curb and blinked at him. Then I straightened up and looked around my cul-de-sac. What year was this? I was sure the cabbie had a New York accent, although we were smack dab in the middle of the mid-west. Looking back into the car I saw him grin at me, the cigarette still hanging between his lips. He gave me a bit of a Danny Zuko vibe. It was a little freaky, but I’d always kind of liked John Travolta, so I shrugged and got into the back seat.

“This address is downtown,” I told him scrolling through my phone again.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“What do you mean, don’t worry about it?” I caught the reflection of his eyes in the rearview mirror. “I need to get to this meeting. That’s why I called you.”

“Mellow out,” the cabbie told me. “Things are copacetic. Sit back, relax and let me take you for a ride. I’ll get you to the only meeting that matters.”

He swung the big car around and I slid a little in my seat as I watched his eyes in the mirror. I was about to open my mouth again to argue when the scenery outside the windows began to blur. I felt a surge of speed, the car lurching forward and my head was pressed against the seat. My mouth remained agape, but no words found their way past my lips.

The mileage tracker on the dashboard began to spin and I watched it as the car continued to rush forward. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t keeping track of the distance we traveled, but was displaying the date instead. Just like in Back to The Future, the digital readout skipped past months, days and years. I watched it as the world outside the windows whirled by. According to the read out, we were going back in time.

2012, 2007, 2002 …

“Uh, Danny?” I asked, reaching up to thread my fingers in the wire mesh that separated me from the driver. “What the hell is going on?”

He tipped his head and looked at me in the mirror again. His hands were on the wheel and his foot pressed down on the gas pedal.

“There’s a chick needs some advice. You’ll recognize her when you see her.”

“What?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

2000, 1997, 1994 …

“The only one who can talk to her is you. You dig what I’m saying?”

I shook my head. “No,” I told him, my voice rising to be heard over the sound of wind passing over the car. I didn’t know if it was wind I was hearing, but I did know that it felt as if we were moving incredibly fast. There were objects outside the windows, but we passed by them too quickly for me to make any of them out. “I definitely don’t dig what you’re saying. Just what is it that you’re trying to tell me?”

1992, 1991 …

The car was slowing down.  I watched the display as it clicked to May, 1990. Then it stopped. Danny pulled the taxi into what looked like a parking lot and I peered out of the windows trying to see where we’d wound up.

“Oh, wow …” I said, catching sight of a place I’d passed many hours in while growing up. “I haven’t been here in a long time.”

Danny parked the cab and turned off the engine. “That thing doesn’t look too sturdy,” He said, pointing through the windshield at a roller coaster across the street from where we were parked.

“That’s Lakeside,” I told him, my eyes following the wooden structure. “It opened way back in 1910 or something like that. I’m not sure, but I remember reading somewhere that they used to call it White City because of all the lights on that tower right there. If I’m honest, I’m surprised any of it is still standing.”

“You been there?”

I nodded. “Lots of times. There used to be a fun house. There was this animatronic lady out front, standing way above the entrance. She was big. For some reason, I remember her wearing an orange dress.” I brushed the thought away. “Any way, she stood up there and laughed. She laughed all day long. You could hear her from the other side of the park. There were these barrels inside. Three of them. They were huge, big enough that you could walk through them. The two on the outside spun in the same direction, but the one in the middle spun the opposite way.”

I shifted in the seat and continued to stare at the skyline. “There were big metal slides in there. You rode down them, your knees on big squares of carpet, and there was this spinning ride. Everyone sat in the middle and the floor would spin, faster and faster. Kids would literally fly from the center and hit the outside fence because they couldn’t stay put.”

“Sounds like a gas,” Danny said with a chuckle, the ashes from his cigarette falling into his lap.

“It was,” I agreed. “Though I’m surprised more people didn’t get hurt. I came out of there with a few bumps and bruises myself, that’s for sure.”

Danny motioned out the window with his dimpled chin. “That girl right there looks like she’s got some bumps and bruises.”

I followed his gaze and saw a young girl sitting on one of the black sling swings in the playground. My stomach did a flip as I studied her and I blinked back the sudden onslaught of tears that filled my eyes. I meant to say something, but what came out of my mouth was more of a strangled cry than any semblance of words.

“You’re the only one who can help her,” he told me.

“But how? All the bad stuff is still going to happen, to her …” I shook my head. “I mean to me. I can’t change history. It doesn’t work that way, right?” I turned and stared at him. “I saw all three of those movies. I don’t have a picture of myself handy, but if I did, the last thing I’d want to see is me fading away leaving nothing but background.”

Danny took another drag from his cigarette, then blew out the smoke so it filled the front of his cab. “Who did you have back then?”

I watched the younger me and the tears came to my eyes again. “No one.”

“That’s why we’re here.”

“Not to change things …” my voice faded.

“You’re the only one who knows exactly how she feels right now. You’re the only one who knows exactly what’s ahead of her. You can’t move any of the stumbling blocks, but maybe you can help her navigate them. Be who you needed back then.”

I sniffed. “I’m asleep, right? Having one hell of a nightmare?” I searched his Travoltaesque face but nothing I saw there helped answer my question. “This is the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Danny blew a puff of smoke into my face. The scent made me light-headed for a moment and I scooted away from him. He gave me a smile.

“Bug out,” he said just as the back door of the cab opened, sending a rush of fresh, spring time air into the car. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

I tried to gather myself, then slid across the wide seat and pushed myself from the car. I looked up and saw pieces of the sky through the overhead canopy of trees. It was a bright and brilliant blue. That sky had always been one of my most favorite things about Colorado. When I looked forward again and saw the younger me on the swings, I knew on that day I hadn’t noticed the beauty of the sky.

Filling my lungs with fresh air, I shut the car door and began to walk across the playground. I remembered this park well. I’d been here a million times. My dad had caught two enormous frogs by one of the banks and brought them home. They lived for years in a huge fish tank in his living room.  Petey and Yellow Throat were slimy buggers, but they’d been appealing in their own way.

I’d learned to ride my bike here. I was a slow learner—nine by the time I’d gotten the hang of it, and we’d done some family fitness around this lake. My dad had been a runner and thought the rest of us should be, too. I remember jogging behind him, my step-brother complaining about how thirsty he was. “Swallow your spit,” my dad would tell him. The complaining must have gotten to be too much because I don’t remember our running days around Berkeley Lake lasting for very long.

On many an Independence Day we’d come to the park, situating ourselves as close to the main thoroughfare, the one that separated the grassy area of the park and the entrance to Lakeside, as we could. We spread blankets, ate from coolers and bought glow in the dark necklaces. After the sun went down, we’d watch as fireworks exploded above the unlit tower and the old, creaky frame of the Cyclone—the roller coaster that both thrilled and terrified guests of the amusement park for decades.

There had been many lunches on the grass. I never remember my dad drinking soda except during our picnics. Then he enjoyed a can of Mountain Dew or two. When we were finished eating, I’d jump up and run to the playground.

I slowly walked toward the younger me who was dangling on a swing, my eyes moving over the equipment that had been set up in the gravel. It had been different when I was little. There was a huge, cement frog squatting in the middle of the play area. He’d been at least double my height back then, his deep green paint worn so I could see the gray beneath it. He was a climbing frog, and when I got to the top, I’d slide back down along his back, or perch myself in the crook of one of his fat froggy legs.

The frog was gone now, replaced by something that looked like a seal. It had less character than the frog had, but even back then, my amphibian friend probably had some years on him. It had been a long time since I played on this playground.  

My feet made noise in the pea gravel that filled the area. I walked slowly, remembering how at risk I’d felt on those mornings I’d driven to Berkeley Park. It had been my haven back then. It had been a place I thought no one would look for me. I’d been hiding from the world and no one had ever found me.

This was such a strange circumstance, standing there, looking at me from twenty-six years ago. I studied the girl hanging in the swing wearing a pair of blue jeans and a sweatshirt. I couldn’t see them, but I knew the longer sleeves hid the red marks that wrapped around her wrists.

Her hair was a unique blonde color, the result of a disastrous dye job done almost a year before. I remembered it well. I’d flown to Virginia and spent a month with an old friend. She’d mentioned how good by naturally dark blonde hair would look with a few highlights. She’d coated the long strands in a stinky goo, then wrapped it all up in a towel. An hour later I was standing in the mirror staring at a pale girl with hair so black it shone blue in the light. My friend claimed it had been a mistake. I didn’t believe it back then. I’m still not convinced of it today.

I did a mental headshake. Her hair was the least of her problems right now.

“Hi.” I tried to speak softly, but I still startled her.

She looked up and my heart broke. She wore her bangs long but they swept off to the right side of her forehead and did a poor job of concealing the discoloration that was settling deep and dark around her left eye.

“Oh,” she stammered. “Hello.”

She blinked and I stared at her smooth, nineteen-year-old face. Her eyes were so large, and I could see an oval shaped shadow of a bruise that colored the line of her jaw. Her bottom lip, normally full, was more so than usual. She’d covered it up with a dark lipstick, one she’d never liked because it was too red for her pale complexion, but she’d only been partially successful in covering the bruise he’d put there with his own mouth.

I wondered again how it was possible that no one had remarked on the beating, the physical proof that something had gone terribly wrong for her. I knew she’d seen members of her own family several times since that night, but no one, save her brother, had reacted to the difference in her appearance. She’d gone to work, to the store, to fill her car with gas. No one had said a single thing.

She needed someone to say something.

I glanced up to where the cab was parked. I couldn’t see Danny from where I sat, but his words played in my head. “Be who you needed back then.”

Taking a deep breath, I turned back to the girl. She had her arms wrapped around the chain of the swing and one hand holding onto her other wrist to keep from falling backward. The toes of her white Keds were stained brown. She wore no socks beneath the rolled cuffs of her jeans. I couldn’t see her legs, but, just like her wrists, I knew there were marks there. Especially around her right ankle.  

She squinted up at me. She had freckles across the bridge of her nose and on the swell of each cheek. I’d almost forgotten I’d ever had them. “You look familiar.”

I nodded at her. “So do you.” I moved forward a bit and reached out to grab the chain of the swing beside her. “Mind if I sit with you for a while?”

She didn’t speak, just shook her head.

I wasn’t sure how many days had passed since it happened, but it couldn’t have been more than one or two. I’d gone back to school after that, but only to one class. The paper I’d been working on that night was due a week later. If it hadn’t been a team project, I probably would’ve let it slide. My partner was counting on me, though, and I couldn’t let her down.

The swing was tight around my hips as I sat down. I noticed that the younger me fit in hers just fine. Just one of the many things that had changed over the years.

“Listen,” I began. “I know how badly you’re hurting right now.” She opened her mouth to protest but I wouldn’t let her speak. “I know better than anyone. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

“I’m not.”

“Maybe not right now you aren’t,” I conceded. “But you will be.”

“What if—”

“There are no what if’s,” I interrupted. “Not as far as he’s concerned. You left everything behind you in the house that night. Memories are all you have left. Don’t worry about the rest.”

She let out a shuddery sigh and I saw a tear drop fall from her lashes. That knowledge would have been a gift to me back then. Long after I’d physically healed, I still carried the fear that what he’d done to me in that bedroom had the power to ruin so much of my future.

“It hurts like hell now,” I told her. “But it won’t forever.”

I saw her eyelashes flutter and I knew she was trying to hold back tears. I couldn’t change things. I knew she wouldn’t go back to college. At least not for a couple of years. I knew the road wouldn’t level out for a long while. As a matter of fact, it would get much rockier, much harder to traverse. She still had so much to fight against, but I couldn’t do anything about that. I couldn’t make it any smoother. What I could do, though, was let her know that she would survive it, no matter how bad it got.

“Look at me,” I urged.

Her eyes had brightened, the blue of them deepened with her tears. She was so young. She was so fragile. She was so alone.

“Take a good, long look.”

She didn’t say anything for a long time. I knew she was seeing every wrinkle, every gray hair I’d concealed, every pound of weight I’d gained. There was so much she couldn’t see. There was so much I wanted to share with her, so many things I wanted her to know, but something told me she needed to find them on her own.

“Your life will have a lot of ups and downs. For years to come, you will struggle, but you will also prevail. You’ll need to remember that. Don’t let go of that. You’ll want to. Promise me you won’t.”

I stood and pulled the swing from my hips with a self-deprecating sigh. She was watching me and I gestured her up with a wiggle of my fingers.

“Come here a minute,” I said.

I gathered the younger me up into my arms and I held her tight. I’d needed this so much back then. I’d been broken into so many pieces, sure I would never be put back together again. I felt her shake, and when she began to sob, I let her.

She cried, the sound heartbreaking to my older ears. I remembered that pain. I remembered it so well. A lifetime had happened for me between then and now, and still, I remembered it as if this wound had been inflicted just yesterday.

When she’d calmed, I held her still. I knew she wouldn’t ask to be let go. I knew she wouldn’t try to push away. I closed my eyes and hugged her against me.

The sound of a horn caused me to blink my eyes open. I didn’t know how much time had passed. The sun was still shining above, but the coolness of the morning had burned away. The younger me had stilled in my arms and I looked over her shoulder to see the cab that still waited for me in the parking lot. I watched as the back door opened again, telling me it was time for me to go.

I pulled away and held her face in my hands. She’d cried away the makeup she’d applied in an attempt to soften the black around her eye. The marks he’d left on her face were appalling. I knew the marks he’d left on her soul were a hundred times worse. I knew because I still carried them.

I wanted to tell her to take care of herself, but I didn’t. Instead I gave her a smile and I left her there to climb back onto her swing and wait out the hours before she was due at work. She’d need to hide out for a little while longer. She had some decisions to make, and she’d make them no matter what I told her.

When I climbed back into the cab, Danny was waiting for me. He’d lit another cigarette and was sitting sideways so I could see his profile.

“I’m ready,” I told him.

“Right on.” He turned and cranked the engine.

“Hey, Danny?” I saw his eyes appear in the rearview mirror again and I watched them for a few seconds. “Thanks.”

“We’re solid,” he replied. “Hang onto something now,” he advised. “Time to get you back to where you belong.”

I took one last look out the window and saw the younger me on the swings. Her head was down again, her hair long hair covering the side of her face. She wasn’t okay right now, but I knew that someday she would be.