By Phoebe Brueckner
Ella hears from the police on a Wednesday morning. They’ve found her car at last, not far from her house and yet worlds away. When she arrives at the scene, she identifies it quickly. There’s the dent above the driver’s side wheel, a mainstay since that hit-and-run. And there’s the old parking-permits collage on the rear bumper, a relic from her city days.
Her key won’t go into the ignition, but they’ve taken the battery anyhow. Fruit rots in the trunk not far from the tote it has spilled from, and blue-green glass blankets on the back seat. The things that remain: one rubber glove, a baseball bat, a carton of cookies long gone stale, plus an unpleasant smell and the tires, still good.
The brakes, however, are questionable. She’d reminded Ayjay of this before they’d gotten into the car on the day that she stopped trusting him and the rain.
As Ella stands on the corner, leaning against a telephone pole after calling for a tow, she notices a man in a mechanic’s suit standing in the yard a few doors down. Stacked against his fence, feet deep, is such a collection of auto parts that Ella can’t help but wonder if her car’s battery is there too, reasonably new, fully functional.
Heck, she thinks. He might as well take the tires, too. Ella herself (she decides then and there) no longer has a need for those four rubber rounds. She’s going to walk, ride a bike, take the bus from now on. This is the end of the road for her and cars—because still, every time the sky darkens and a few drops of wet hit the glass, her heart rate kicks up and she tenses, gripping the wheel, thinking, find the exit; exit now.
But interacting with others always makes it feel like the world is moving too quickly, with things coming at her she can’t control. So Ella does not approach the man in the mechanic’s suit. She does not offer the tires.
Instead, she watches the tow truck driver roll the recovered vehicle into her driveway, where it sits, untouched, for three weeks. Then a different tow truck takes it away, and Ella gets a tax receipt for her records. The money from the sale of her old car will help the wildlife hospital whose volunteers care for injured and orphaned animals including skunks, mice, birds, and baby rattlesnakes.
A year into her car-free life (which she finds more suitable, easier to trust), Ella passes a rattlesnake while walking next to a dried-up creek. She stops to watch as the creature gracefully curves away after issuing its unmistakable message, its unique self announcement—and she wishes that she had a power like that.
A month later, Ella joins a hiking club. When the path is wide enough, she walks next to her new friends, their voices pleasantly intertwining with bird and brook song. The pace is slow, everything approaching at a reasonable rate. When the path is narrow, she walks in front of or behind or between her friends, and talking goes on hiatus, their ears open instead to the soft rattle of leaves above and fair warnings from below.
This is how she meets Casey—through the hiking club. Casey, whose dark brown eyes pull her in and trap her, like a fly in molasses. Casey, whose strong legs draw Ella’s eyes no matter what. She can’t control her gaze. It rests naturally, and happily, on Casey. Casey, who drives her up to the Emigrant Wilderness and shows her soft dark earth in a circle of trees.
After several of these trips, Ella starts to enjoy taking her turn at the wheel, eyes glued to the target, peripherals gorgeous, her own foot hovering over the brake.
When Casey and Ella separate a decade later, on account of a rupture that feels unhealable, Ella adopts a golden retriever named Lily who likes to hold hands in the car. She tells Lily often that she’s the love of her life, and it’s true: the dog completes her story in a way that contents Ella. Lily loves Ella so constantly that the rupture in her begins to heal. Ella needs only Lily, in the end, her always-present walking companion, moving with her at the pace life should be.
Many years after her breakup with Casey—so many after that they’ve taken to talking on the phone again under the new moon, the full moon, all the moons—Ella feels the urge to be together again, and Casey feels it too. They arrange to meet at a friend’s cabin up north by the river: a chance to diminish the scar, a reckoning with the magnet between them.
It’s on the way up to this cabin that Ella and Lily find themselves spinning out on a patch of black ice. The car is new and reliable, with excellent brakes and safety features, but it won’t prevent what’s coming to them. As they float together across the lanes, the freeway divider looming, Ella relaxes, quiet, into the rate of their trajectory. Helpless, she brings her attention to what remains: her hand, which is holding Lily’s; the buzz of fear inside her; and under the fear, a ribbon of gratitude that she and Lily will exit together in what should be just an instant.