A parking lot.
Cars. Hundreds of them.
An August sun high above, the air choked with humidity, the pavement reflecting heat in shimmering waves.
People bustling through – pull in, park, get out of the car, hurry inside (in the distance, a mammoth shopping center sits like a fortress), hurry out, get back in the car, leave.
Lost in the humdrum reality of it all, hidden in plain view, is The Car. It’s stationed in that parking purgatory between the way-too-far-away-from-the-store area and the so-close-there’s-no-parking-at-all area. It’s a gray SUV. The way it sits, with the doors locked and the engine dead, it is barely noticeable. Surrounded by endless rows of other vehicles, it is nonchalant to the point of invisibility. No one notices the scuffed paint on the passenger side, no one reads the bumper sticker advertising the local pop radio station (WJPL – Home of the Hottest Hits!), no one sees the caked-in dirt in the wheels.
No one notices the dead body in the front seat.
It used to be a woman. Now, after sitting behind the wheel for three days, one can’t be too sure. The skin is too pale to be human, too colorless and vacant to suggest even the faintest hint of former life. A blackness has settled about the head, a dusky shadow that fills in the eyes and beneath the nose. Only the face, with its mouth slightly agape and muscles completely relaxed, betrays a bit of humanity. Faded lipstick shines dully atop the cracked lips, mascara clogs the eyelashes. She was pretty once. Thanks to an assortment of items (a zebra-striped air freshener, a half-open purse, a pink cellphone with its battery long-dead), a faded aura of youth hovers in the car. It lingers like mist after a storm. She was probably in her midtwenties, when the bright days of early adulthood begin to fade and the world is suddenly vast and stubborn.
And so it is.
Sun and moon migrate in an endless rotation, with The Car acting as centerpiece. In the morning, a blanket of dew covers the windshield. At night, the sound of crickets bounces off the hood. So The Car has sat, corpse driver beginning her slow march to decay, for days. It wouldn’t take much to discover – wayward glance would do – but the momentum of everyday life keeps those who pass completely ignorant.
Two days ago, a pissy preteen kicked the front tire, rocking the body ever so slightly in its seat (the head rolled back further, eyes pointing blankly at the ceiling). The child’s mother, following behind in his wake, muttered, “Sorry!” under her breath, shooting the briefest of glances up at The Car. Although she had looked in at the body, she hadn’t seen it. Perhaps she’d realize later. Some dream would reveal the shadowy person behind the wheel as the rotting corpse it truly was.
Last night, as the moon glistened between charcoal clouds, two teenagers parked nearby. The lot was mostly empty, the shopping center closed. They tucked their car neatly into the shadows that pooled around the burned-out husk of an old streetlamp. Five spaces away, with impenetrable silence panning between them, The Car went unnoticed. Golden honey sounds of teen love wafted from their open windows into the evening air. Death was the only audience.
Now, with the sun high and people everywhere, a seagull has decided to land on the hood. It takes a cautious step, head jerking robotically, eyes scanning. Feathers glow in the daylight, a brazen beacon of white. It looks in at the body, looks away. In, away.
It’s a woman. The brightness of the bird has drawn her eyes to The Car. She sees through the camouflage, beyond the mundane reality and into the darkness.
She fumbles with her purse, fingers electrified by fright.
“Christ,” she mummers, “Jesus Christ. Jesus, Lord…”
Finally, a cell phone. For the first time in years, it feels awkward in her hands. It’s foreign, alien. Just a molded chunk of plastic. Nothing more.
Before she dials, her gaze swings wildly about. Has anyone else seen this? Has somebody called 9-1-1?
As her eyes dart around, they settle back on The Car. The seagull is gone. She is alone.
She makes the call. Listening to the tinny telephone ring, she imagines the scene that is to come. An ambulance. Police cars. Yellow tape stretched across the spot like jaundiced garland. A body bag. People gawking. Lights, commotion, interest, horror.
What she doesn’t imagine is what happens after that.
When it’s all over, when the body is taken away and the crowd reluctantly leaves, that parking spot will remain. Nothing gained, nothing lost. A few days of general interest will undoubtedly arise – a superstitious shopper might park a bit farther away, kids will stand around the lot and whisper about the body that sat there for three days – but after the mystique fades and the novelty wears thin, it will be as if nothing ever happened.
As the woman begins stammering to the 9-1-1 operator, something happens inside The Car. Some miscellaneous molecule has broken down, some random blossom of decay finally occurred. Whatever it was, set off the faintest of chain reactions inside the body. An imperceptible domino effect ripples beneath the skin, all leading to one final act.
A weak breath escapes the body.
Almost as if it sighed.
Brad Perry is an English teacher from Michigan who reads and writes a lot. He has previously had work published in Page & Spine magazine.