Florence pressed her palm into the horn. It bleated like a wilting goat, and her car reverberated from the noise, coughing.
This would have been productive, if she had been the only one honking. Alas, the sound of her blast just drained into the sink of yammering traffic around her.
After standing still for ten minutes on Shepperton, she croaked her Volkswagon into park, and stuck her head out of the window, on the lookout for an explanation.
This hadn’t been how her morning started. She woke up early, picked up hot coffee on the way to her car, and left the house twenty minutes before her prosaic routine. Her mood had been light, remarkably uplifted, despite the slightly sultry weather, and the muggy frail fog that clung to the buildings. The traffic, too, had seemed as energetic as it could in Laleham, Surrey.
It was just minutes until the line of cars had accumulated through the middle of town, snaking through the entirety of the main road. Florence wasn’t even aware that there were enough cars to fall the length of the borough, and yet, here she was, sitting still.
She praised Jesus as she reached into the right compartment and landed on a pack of cigarettes. The box was soggy, and there were just two left, but she expected that this traffic wouldn’t clear for a while. Her lighter, a pink, depleted piece of plastic, which she always kept in her left pocket, arrived at the end of the stick, just as she heard a knock on the passenger window.
She jumped simultaneously as the flame peeked from the metal, and fearing that the lighter would ignite something on the seat, she immediately let go of the pedal, and pulled the cigarette out of her mouth. Turning her head cynically, Florence saw a young woman, around her age, with dark purple eyeshadow and a bright zebra print jacket, staring wide-eyed into her vehicle.
Florence, against all her better judgement, rolled down the window.
“Hi, ma’am. You don’t know me, but I need a ride to Ashford.”
“The hospital?” Florence asked.
“Yes, ma’am. See, I’ve broken my foot, and I can’t walk there. I need to get something for it. It hurts bad, really bad.” The woman rolled her R as she said really. “Please ma’am no one else has helped me.”
Florence considered it for a moment. It was rare that she invited strangers into her car, she was someone who tended to keep her private life private. But perhaps it was the weather, or just an impulsive, quick dopamine-incited decision that caused her heart to pluck as she stared into the woman’s imploring eyes.
“Alright. Get in.” She brushed some papers from the seat, and unlocked the door for the girl squeezing herself in.
“Just so you know…” Florence began, leaving a space for the woman to fill.
“Millie. My name’s Millie ma’am.”
“Just so you know Millie, the traffic hasn’t moved in the past twenty minutes. I don’t think a car will be much faster right now.”
“Oh. Well, as long as I'm not on m' feet.”
“Right.” Florence responded, slightly disappointed that Millie didn’t catch on.
Millie, from a closer glance, was tiny. Her hair had inflated with knots, a blotch of blond scrambles pinched atop her head. Her face, and all but her cheeks, was pale. She was nervous too, her thumb digging into her palm.
In front of them, a man opened his car door and swelled onto the street, rubbing his neck. His stomach, which was twice the width of the rest of his body, turned in a circular motion, his eyes darting across the line of cars. The man eventually reached the opposite direction, in which he noticed the two of them sitting, and began towards them.
Once again, Florence rolled down the glass pane.
“Hello Mr. Poole.”
“What in the hell is going on, Florence?”
"Not sure, I would say try walking to the front, but that might not do you any good."
Mr. Poole had shared the same neighborhood with Florence for the last ten years. He was a stout man, who was barely able to keep his head from balding, and who owned a handful of dogs that he shared with his wife, Mary. A kind man, but quite anxious as well.
He wiped his brow, “Alright, maybe I will.” Mr. Poole then leaned down, “I see you’ve got a friend with you. Who’s this?”
Before Florence could speak, Millie reached out a hand, “Millie, sir. My name’s Millie.”
“Well, hello. Welcome to Laleham.” He tipped an invisible hat, “I best be off now, Mary’s probably wondering where I am.”
“Let me know if you find anything Mr. Poole,” Florence motioned to the line of cars in front of her, “I can’t imagine why there's a traffic jam in the middle of Laleham.”
“Aye, yes. Strange times!” He called, and strolled to his vehicle.
“Why don’t you take a look yourself?” Millie implored.
Florence shot her a glance, as if to imply, because you’re in here.
The attempt for pettiness didn't quite work with Millie. She stared ahead, still shifting in her seat.
“I can’t go up front because I have.. Chronic back pain. Real bad, too. I can’t walk too far.” Florence lied.
“Oh, no.” Millie looked shocked. “I’m sorry to hear that, I am.”
They sat in silence.
Florence shoved her cigarette back into the compartment, and dialed in to the radio, wanting to avoid all conversation with this strange girl.
It was another thirty minutes before the cars began to move. Sedately, the snake of cars encroached forward. And Florence, who at this point was progressively getting more annoyed by Millie, pushed her foot into the gas as far as the car ahead would allow.
Surprisingly, as they passed the edge of town, there seemed to be nothing blocking the road. It was empty for other than a trash can, and an empty bench, neither of which she could imagine having caused such a blockage.
The road shortly indulged into multiple paths, and with Millie’s directions, she followed the left, more undulatory course.
After passing their third field of potatoes, Florence noticed a figure ahead waving wildly in the center of the track. And as they approached, she gently began to slow, studying the shadow as it formed into a tall, lanky man holding a suitcase.
The gravel gutturally scraping against her tires, she hauled the machinery to the side of the road.
The window peeled down.
“Hello, sir?” Millie, who seemed just as intrigued by this stranger as Florence, called out.
The man neared.
“Hello.” As he ducked down, Florence began to develop a whole picture. He was ghostly thin, dressed in just a white cotton linen, a leather jacket, and a pair of jeans. His eye bags dripped into his cheekbones, mouth barely able to form a polite smile.
“Are you alright?” Millie asked, her hands holding the edge of the window, her eyes following his expressions.
“I will be, yes.” He spoke in such clipped language, Florence couldn’t tell if he didn’t like them, or was just shy. His voice was much lower than one would expect, a rich, resonant sound tumbling out of his parched lips.
“Can we take you somewhere? I am on the way to the hospital.” Florence asked.
“That would be wonderful, yes.” He made such shrewd eye contact, Florence almost had to recoil. It was then she noticed that he was carrying a bag, nearly the size of a full human body. Millie seemed to realize this too.
“May I open your trunk?” He asked, lifting his duffel to explain.
Florence nodded inaudibly, waiting for him to pull out a gun, or reach in to strangle Millie around the throat. She began to feel strangely protective of the girl next to her.
He strolled to the back, popped the trunk, shoved the bag in, then shuffled to the door. Florence unlocked her car once more, and he made his way into the back seat.
As soon as he closed the door behind him, “Where to?”
“The Queen Mary Reservoir?”
Millie and Florence looked at each other, with a mirroring glance.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
The car tripped headfirst into a mournful silence. Beside them, the road was compressed with low iron fences and trees bathing the concrete in shadows. The sky was a mere grey, the waistline between providing light, and dampening the ground below with a wash of a silvery slate.
“What is your name, again?” Florence asked.
“Two-foot. Or you can call me skippy.” He said this so apathetically, Florence was surprised it wasn’t followed by a laugh.
“Are you in Surrey for long, Skippy?” Millie interrogated. Florence swore she heard a small sigh.
“I live here, yes.”
“Where about? Florence is just down the road-” Before Millie gave away her address, Florence slammed her foot on the break. Millie’s sentence was cut short as the car lurched forward. As she glanced in the rearview, Florence caught a smile leaping from the corner of Skippy’s mouth.
“I live in Byfleet.” He said, almost replying.
“Surprised I haven’t seen you around,” Florence reacted, “That’s near where I am.”
“I tend to stay in my house. You know, routine.” Skippy emphasized the last word potently.
Millie didn’t speak. She was still caressing her collarbone from the impact. They passed through another town, this one even less exciting than the last. Each road bump they hit, gave Florence a small jolt, as she apprehensively waited for Skippy to pull out a rifle and shoot them both.
“What are you doing all the way out here then? Not to pry of course.”
Skippy didn’t acknowledge her for a moment. “I was just taking a walk.”
Millie, eyes moving alike to windshield wipers, fraught with nervousness, was clutching her seat.
They coiled around the corner, and the sight of the reservoir’s bushes that laced the edges of the water came to view.
“Planning on anything fun at the reservoir?” Florence called, hoping to diffuse Millie’s forehead veins and expanding eyes.
“Just dropping something off.” He said, and Florence noticed the crest of his lips twitch.
She nodded, “Where should I leave you?”
“Here is fine, yes.”
She rolled to a blunt stop.
Skippy, giving a nod, opened the back and crawled out, spindly legs crumpling out of the seat like a spider. It was the moment that he closed the gateway behind him that Millie burst into tears.
"I don't want to die, Florence, I'm to young!" Millie cried, her voice hoarse. "What if he kills us? Oh, god, I should have never asked for a ride from a stranger."
"I know, I don't want to die yet either. Just-"
Florence then heard the trunk close and imminent footsteps. She shoved her hand into Millie's open, wailing mouth. With her other hand, she made a signal to stay silent.
Skippy reached the passenger window.
“It was nice meeting you-”
Before she could finish her sentence, Skippy launched his arm straight through the opening of her car window. Florence yelped, jumping back, and slamming her head against the roof, and began to flail her arms uselessly in defense.
Before she could do anything more, Millie grabbed his available body, held it tight, and bit down into his skin. Skippy’s arm, in response to the sudden pain, bludgeoned the headrests, just as Millie ducked down to avoid his lashing arm. Skippy let out a cry of affliction, and revoked his appendage from the inside.
Florence gaped at the man now hopping on one leg, face stretched into a twist, clutching his arm for dear life.
“I. Was. Just trying to-” He expired in breath, “shake your. Hand.”
"Oh! Oh no, oh dear."
Millie looked over at Florence with a swelling expression of guilt.
“I am so sorry, Skippy.” Florence consoled. "Is there anything I can do?"
“Sorry Skippy,” Millie frowned, following. “I just reacted and I- I am sorry, really.”
Skippy had stopped jumping, and was now rubbing his forearm.
“Thank you for the ride, I will be going now.” Skippy grouched, enunciating his words slowly.
Then he picked up his bags, and left, still shaking his limbs with agitation.
The two watched him leave, chests still heaving with the aftertaste of shock.
Florence stuck her key into the ignition, and began to move.
“Are you ok?” She asked finally.
“Yes. Are you?”
“That was so scary, I thought he was reaching in to grab you.”
Florence’s shoulders relaxed. “I know, I’m sorry I reacted by covering myself and not protecting you.”
“I’m sorry that I bit him.”
“I hit my head.” Florence realized, reaching to touch the same spot. “Ouch.”
“What do you think was in that bag?”
“Definitely a body, no question.”
“Good thing I bit him, then.”
They both began to giggle, laugh, and then spill into a fit of air-locked, muscle spasm, laughing that took them a quarter of an hour to calm down from, all while rolling back and forth in their seats.
“You bit him! I can’t believe you bit Skippy.”
“Poor Skippy!” Millie cawed, holding her stomach.
The landscape changed outside their window as they entered the hospital grounds. The streets had become increasingly clustered as they made their way to the destination, the fields of barren green hills gradually melting into rows of brick houses.
The medical buildings were shrimpy, barricades of cubic windows denting the outside of chalky, nearly sepia walls.
Florence, still smiling, progressed into the parking lot, and slid into an open space. The ignition now off, they were left in silence.
“Well, here we are.”
“Yes. Here we are.”
“I hope your foot feels better, really. I’m sorry that it’s hurt.”
Millie turned her head towards her. Her face was structured like a heart, Florence noticed. Millie’s eyes flowered with tears.
“You’re a really nice person. And I am glad I met you.”
“Millie, darling. Thank you for knocking on my window.”
And wrapping her zebra coat around her frail body, Millie exited the passenger side, shut the door behind her, and stood while Florence reversed out of her parking spot.
Millie dwelled in that spot as Florence drove away. And as she turned the final corner from view, Florence’s eyes lingered on the girl waving feebly after her fading silhouette in the rearview mirror.