The Best Short Story

Alexis Vergalla, “Sprain”

The air is smooth, in the minutes before rain sort of way. Cold too, enough to make goosebumps prick my skin and my nipples hard beneath my soaked sports bra. Sweat salts my face. Yesterday’s sun had convinced me that it was finally weather for working out, but now I doubt that decision. In the heat of exertion I have left my longer sleeves crunched beneath a shrub further down the trail, and now I walk with a limp and goosebumps, peering into the growing shadows at each lump that looks suspiciously like my shed shirt. It was a stupid mistake, a mistep, a miscalculation, and my ankle has already begun to swell. The creek bubbles happily beside me, glad enough to be free of ice skin and welcoming duck bellies back home to its surface. They float and look at me quizzically, this strange woman, limping in shorts and bra, shining in the grey evening with old sweat. I hiss at them, but they only turn their feathers flippantly, continue downstream without a response. I should throw a rock, a twig, anything, but my ankle is swelling, and I haven’t found my shirt yet. The air is still smooth, and a wind kicks up. Just as I bend to reach beneath the right forsythia large drops start to fall, darkening the dirt in splotches. Rain adds to sweat, and by the time I limp all the way to my jeep, a few hundred meters past the forsythia, the trail emptying out onto a gravel lot and blocked by cairns, I am drenched.

My knuckles turn white as I grip the seat and pull myself in, putting as little weight as possible on my ankle. I start my jeep, it growls loudly and spews exhaust into the rain. The right ankle, the driving ankle, swells. The seat beneath me is soon as soaked as I am, but I do not move. I don’t even start driving. Through the blurred windshield I see lightening, and a few seconds later thunder cracks. Gingerly, I push down the brake and gasp with pain. Can I drive with the left? There is nothing to do but try it, I release the brake and try again with the opposite foot. It's as though I have too many legs, the well of my jeep filled with limbs. I pull my jeep into gear, and ease off the brake. I have forgotten the windshield wipers and the headlights, and it’s dark both within and without the metal walls. Clumsily I grasp at the wipers, reaching with my right hand instead of left. Everything has switched, and I roll slowly on gravel while scrambling to see into the rain. The thud of wipers clears momentarily, but the rain is heavy and the inside fogs with my heaving breath. Brake on again, I roll down the window a few inches, let the cool air flood into my car. Goosebumps again, and rain sneaks in to land on my shoulder. The fog clears a little. Gas, gently, and I roll out of the gravel lot onto the access road, little better than gravel itself. Divots swiftly fill with rain and mud and my jeep rocks back and forth on the uneven ground, urging ever forward. Each bounce is painful and jolting, kicking my ankle up from its rest against the ground, my knuckles still white with steel grip against steering wheel rubber. I drive further than I ran, finally reach real road, paved, painted, and smooth. The last lurch is the most painful, as though to seal the bad idea of a run on a predicted rain day. The rain still falls, but it lessens now, lightening and thunder grow further apart. My left foot pushes down the gas.

The light looks like another strike of lightening, but red joins the flashing, and blue, and then a siren wails. I pull over, not stopping completely, but instead of soaring past me, the speeding cop pulls behind me. Left foot on brake, pull into park, turn off my engine, hands flat against the wheel. My shorts squish as I adjust and turn back to watch his slow advance. Plastic caps the top of his hat, like a lunch lady’s bonnet. His slicker is grating orange. My window is down and I can feel my skin pricking yet again, my nipples hurting with the change in temperature. My teeth begin to chatter.

“What’s the problem, officer?” as though I wasn’t speeding, as though he might ask me for directions, or where I got my car painted.

“Mam, do you know how fast you were going?” he isn’t playing along.

“Sir, I’m sorry, I was trying to get back home, to ice my ankle,” I glance down, in the shadow of the well it looks purple and malformed, “I was a little distracted with the pain.” Maybe I can play the sad, injured woman. I recognize the man, as a boy, one of the pricks from high school, a few grades beneath me, but always beat up by the football team and forced into the mascot costume at halftime. In the years since then he has grown a little fatter, his acne cleared to reveal pockmarked skin. How he must revel in pulling over the equally fat, equally out of high school, football team. How he must enjoy each ticket he writes to their sons, speeding in their beat up junkers with the invincibility granted only the young and cocky. How he must hate still living here, never leaving the shadows that covered him those years ago. I have tears welling in my eyes, and I let them fall slowly.

He looks where I glanced, and sees my ankle, swollen and purpling. Water drips off of his brim, and splashes against the bottom of my window. “Mam, can I see your license and registration please?” He is undaunted. I lean to the glove box, pull out registration, and reach beneath the seat to find my purse. My purse, which is sitting on my kitchen counter. I pat the ground, hope that it will materialize.

“Sir, here is my registration, but I’m afraid I’ve left my wallet at home...” I look hopelessly at him, then glance back around the interior, but I have left it at home, with my money, not planning on stopping for a drink on the way home, just exercise in the free trails of the park. Yesterday’s enchanting sun seems forever ago.

“Mam, are you saying that you do not have your license?” I nod. “Then I’m going to need you to step out of the car.” He steps back and opens my door for me. The rain still falls, lightly. He’s got to be joking. Step out of the car? I could barely get in, and now he wants me out, a standing flamingo getting soaked.

“Sir?” Maybe he will change his mind, I act confused, let tears gather at the corners of my eyes.

“Out of the car, mam.” He just stands there as I slide to the left and step out, bracing myself with the door. “Can I have your social security number please?” I rattle off the digits and he writes them down in a little notebook. “Wait here.”

“Outside?”

“Yes. Wait right here.” He walks back to the cruiser, still flashing. The rain starts to get a little heavier. The slick road is flashing. I can see him calling in my information, his windshield fogging a little at the edges. I want to reach into the back seat of my car, rummage around, see if I left a sweatshirt, dirty but dry, but I stand outside as I was told, weight on my left foot, arm against the jeep door. The tree trunks are the dark wood of rain soaked forest, and nubs are budding at the ends of branches. Every so often, an third car will pass us, leaving our tableaux with a trail of mist from tires. The cop is headed back towards me, a smirk just barely visible across his face.

“Well,” he mumbles my name, butchering the pronunciation, “Happy birthday.” He looks down at my ankle, taking entirely too long to cruise the distance from ankle back up to eyes, lingering.

“Thank you, sir.” I want to shift, but it hurts too badly. A shiver runs down my spine. “Can I get back in my car now?” He nods, and watches my ass as I pull myself back into my car. He just stands there, hand on the open door, and when I finally am seated again, I turn towards him. Beads of water roll off of his plastic wrapped hat.

“So,” a long pause, his eyes drift again, “I think I may let you out of this ticket. A written warning. What do you think about that?”

“Thank you?” my voice lilts up at the end. I don’t know what I am supposed to do now. I’ve kept my hands on the wheel, I gave him the information he needed, I even stood in the rain. What more is there, what is this new game? More importantly, what are the rules I have to follow?

“You know,” he doesn’t watch my eyes, but still stares, “Cathleen,” he says my name, and it sounds like poison. “I’m doing you a huge favor.” He draws out his pen, slowly, and taps the window. The rain has slowed again. “What do you think about that, Cathleen?”

“Sir,” I decide to go for it, “thank you. And aside from that, what do you want me to say?”

His face darkens. I stopped playing, and he taps the pen one more time, sharply, before starting to write. “I want you to thank me. Again.”

“Thank you.”

His pen is digging into the warning, I can hear it tearing paper. He wants something else. He tears off the slip, and hands it to me. The rain splatters, and ink bleeds. This is a ticket.

“Sir?”

“Thank me, and you will get your warning.” He is staring again.

“Thank you,” but I know that isn’t what he means. He steps back, closes my door loudly. He leans in the window, his face is so close to mine that I can smell coffee on his breath.

“Cathleen,” he draws out the last part of my name, rolling the sound through his teeth. “You have in your hand a ticket for speeding, eleven over the limit, and for failure to show documentation. The first carries points, the second doesn’t. Thank me properly for your break, and I will give it to you.” He hisses the last bit, and I bite my lip. I say nothing. My ankle is throbbing, my skin is prickled. “Cathleen,” I stop breathing, his voice is low, “I can follow you. I can pull you over as soon as you pull out, and you will never be able to give me documentation. I can give you ticket after ticket.” My stomach cramps up.

“Sir, thank you. I will send the check tomorrow morning.” I am staring forward now, through the streaked windshield. I am seven miles from home, as the crow flies. I have a bum ankle and my clothing is soaked. It is still raining. I reach over, lock the passenger door, and turn towards the open window. He stands straight, backs away from the window. I roll it up, open the door, push down the lock, and take my keys from the ignition. I shut my door and turn towards the flashing lights. He has retreated, he is inside once more, his windshield more fogged now. I can only see a heavy shadow moving inside. He turns the lights out, but stays on the side of the road. I walk around the front of my car, using the hood for support. In the woods, I will be able to find a stick, make a crutch. In the woods, I will walk home. I hear his car, idling behind my abandoned jeep, until the sound is lost to breaking twigs and the rain against fallen leaves.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes