The cornstalks shifted in the moonlight as a warm breeze swept across the endless fields. Shadows cast like whispers around the edges of the road as a pale summer moon gazed overhead. Humidity hung in the air, lingering after a long day and the far off lightning cut streaks across the otherwise cloudless night. The road stretched out into a yawning darkness to the west as the last tail lights finally crested over a distant mound. A green sign, barely legible in the void, foretold the oncoming of Omaha and the eastern horizon glowed with a promise of lights just past the next hill.
She stood there like a sentinel, watching over the corn and trying to make out shapes in the night. Her fingers absentmindedly pinched a plastic keychain she had bought at a truck stop to hold her hastily assembled keys. The other keychain had been in the bedroom and she knew the floor in the hallway had started to creak in the humidity. She’d held her breath and scraped the loose keys one-by-one from the junk drawer. The noise drove cold chills down the back of her neck, but she was slow and careful and managed to grab as many as she could. Car, house, work, the lock box — she didn’t know why she grabbed what she did, just the faint feeling that they may be useful later. She’d held the keys so tight in her fist that the bumps on her palm remained now 4 hours later.
The plastic keychain had found its way to her lips and she gnawed on it distantly while staring out over the fields. Thoughts drifted in and out of her mind in fragments, nothing firm, nothing real. From behind her a bird flew overhead, trailing a broad silhouette below and causing her to look up suddenly. She grabbed her ribs with the opposite arm as searing pain shot across the side of her chest.
The spot still pulsated from Wednesday night and she could feel a small ridge under her fingers from where she had hit the dresser. Her breath caught like a secret and wordless tears filled her eyelashes, sparkling in the moonlight.
But she never made a sound.
She realized her body had doubled over and she rose slowly, her hand resting on the hood of the car. From the backseat a small figure shifted — too small to move the car much— and she waited until all was still again before returning the keychain to her lips. For a moment the only signs of life were the cornstalks, still swaying in the wind.
She checked the time on her phone, realizing that she had been sitting here almost an hour, and gazed briefly at the ‘2%’ in the top right corner of the screen. Of course she’d forgotten the power bank and her Impala’s cigarette lighter had burned out during their time in Kearney. The home screen cast pale light across her face and she lingered for a moment at the image under the time. A small face started back at her through green eyes and a loose, toothy smile filled the screen.
She clicked the screen off and glanced furtively at the backseat to make sure the movement had ceased. A bunched-up blanket obscured the figure curled against the far-side door and for a moment she thought she saw a flash of green cut through the darkness.
Her hands trembled and her chest throbbed but she steadied herself, taking small sips of air until her breathing slowed and the pain moved to the back of her mind. She had taken an odd way out of town but she worried about how long she’d been here, how dark the road was, and how many miles stretched between her and the city.
She still had the list of phone numbers — discreetly slipped into her purse at the church cookout last week. As she pulled the folded paper out of her pocket, it felt faintly damp. She had been sweating in the humid night and the heat of the moment and she only now realized it had begun to cool outside. Suppressing a shiver, she unfolded the paper and examined it once more.
The paper was worn from usage and the edges had begun to crinkle in the dampness. She studied the lines she had methodically struck through number after number over the course of the past hour. Every number but one had a thin line sliced through it indicating the same thing. Dead end.
The phrase ‘no available beds’ echoed in her head as she focused in on the last number left. The 402 area code reminded her of a trip to buy a prom dress in high school, frantically calling every bridal shop to find out if they still had anything in stock. Slowly running out of options but of course she didn’t want to disappoint him.
She shook off the memory. It was too soon to think about the past. Tonight was about the future, their future. She had come too far to waste time remembering.
She looked down at the paper and the number stared back at her. The last number. 10 digits hastily scrawled with faded black ink. A brittle ledge sitting at the bottom of the page with nothing but a chasm of white beneath it. Her last chance.
She took a deep breath and focused on the pain in her ribs. Her pain had been a weight pressing her down all these years but she had learned to use it, slowly over time. She had turned it into a force, a sense of physical energy and she could feel it pulsing through her body when she needed one thing above all others: To keep moving forward.
Her fingers trembled as she dialed the number. Watching the battery in the corner of the screen, she willed away the descent to ‘1%’ as the call went out. She could feel the signal stretching upwards, to the distant satellites hurtling through the cloudless night. The sky seemed suddenly endless and her lonesome spot on the side of the road felt exposed and obvious. As she brought the phone up to her ear, memories of the night flooded her mind — too many all at once to pick out — and a faint teardrop dutifully fell from her closed eyes. For the first time in what felt like weeks she allowed herself a moment of pity, she allowed herself to feel alone, she allowed herself to think about what might happen if she has to cross out one more number.
A click on the other end and a voice came out like an open hand over a cliff’s edge.
Derick Delloro is a lapsed writer who is rediscovering the form. This is his first publication and has given him sometime useful to do with his mornings. This story is inspired by his time working nights and weekends at a domestic violence shelter.
© 2022, Derick Delloro
One comment on “Shelter, by Derick Delloro”
This is a powerful and emotive story, well told. I felt this woman’s desperation and also her resolve throughout the tense narrative. And I loved the ending–a beautifully written resolution offering a single bright ray of hope.