by A.C. Koch
Courtney stumbled over a set of car keys on the ground as she came out of the supermarket: old-school keys, no electronic fob. A proud Buick logo was embossed on the largest key. She looked around the parking lot and saw the guy right away. He was about eighty years old, standing stooped beside a brown coupe and patting the pockets of his droopy sweatpants. He’d been in line in front of her at the cashier. He’d taken five minutes to write a check for two cans of tuna and a book of stamps, and then he’d snatched his purchases away from the bag boy while muttering something about “the Mexicans.”
She’d led a law-abiding life until the moment she bent down and picked up the keys. The old guy was jiggling his door handle. The word Hey was halfway out of her mouth before she stopped herself. She didn’t know why. Now the old guy was shuffling back towards her, rheumy eyes scanning the ground. She stepped aside to let him go through the automatic door even as she closed her fist around his keys.
Her heart was racing. This is weird, she thought. I’m doing a bad thing. Then she went straight to his car, got in with her groceries, and drove away.
Aside from a few speeding tickets and some recreational drug use in college, she couldn’t think of another time when she’d broken the law. She’d raised her son as a single mother, gotten him off to college, paid her mortgage on time, and always filed her taxes. Now she had to clear out the other half of her two-car garage to hide the car she’d just stolen. Her nerves tingled as she moved boxes and dragged dusty lawn furniture into the utility room. She listened, hyper-aware, for police sirens. An hour later, she pulled the beige Buick Skylark into the freshly swept garage bay and closed the door.
It wasn’t even a vintage or well-preserved car, it was just a crappy, mid-90s coupe with lots of dust everywhere and loose change in the center console. There was an aluminum cane with a rubber hand grip in the back seat.
She didn’t think she’d taken the car because he’d been a dick about the Mexicans, or because he’d annoyed everyone by writing a check. She thought she’d just done it because she could. But she wasn’t sure about that.
The last thing she did that day was to walk the two miles back to the grocery store to drive her own car home, parking it next to the Skylark in the garage. Now, for the first time, it really was a two-car garage.
A few weeks later, her son Cameron came home for the weekend with garbage bags full of dirty laundry. He’d ridden the bus lugging the bags and she’d picked him up at the bus station—in her own car. She did his laundry while he stood in the cluttered utility room sipping lemonade and regaling her with freshman-year stories. “What’s all this stuff in here?” he asked after a while.
“Oh, I had to make room for Mr. Johnson’s car in the garage. He asked me to look after it.”
“Mr. Johnson, that nice old man from down the street?”
“Ah,” he said, and dropped it.
Cameron sure could have used that car, but there was no way she could give it to him. She didn’t have the title, it wasn’t on her insurance—and it had surely been reported stolen. So Cameron rode the bus back to college at the end of the weekend, with his bags full of clean clothes, and the Skylark stayed parked where it was. She sometimes found herself leaning in the doorway just off the utility room, sipping a glass of wine and contemplating the big bad secret parked in the shadows.
When she took the Skylark out for a joy ride late at night, it was some of the most fun she’d had in years. She brought along water bottle filled with white wine and cruised slowly through the winding suburban streets, windows down and classical music playing on the radio. She felt a little bad about the old guy—it was kind of cute that he had the radio tuned to the classical station—but she didn’t feel that bad. It didn’t feel like she’d made a choice, the car had just happened to her. The old man’s misfortune felt like it was just part of the same misfortune that befell poor people and sick people and displaced people all over the world, all the time. You couldn’t obsess over that stuff or you’d never be able to live.
She did suspect that there was something invisible that was wrong with her, but only in the way she sometimes worried that she might have a brain tumor or Ebola: a spike of paranoia that lasted a few minutes until she started thinking about something else.
The baddest-assed thing she did was to drive the Skylark back to the same grocery store where she’d stolen it. She parked in the handicapped spot—where he’d parked it even though he didn’t have a tag or a disabled license plate. She bought her groceries and walked outside, wondering if the cops or the old man would be there. They weren’t.
She stood on the very spot where she’d picked up the keys and looked at the car. Then she dropped the keys at her feet and started walking away.
She turned to see the bag boy in his apron holding up the keys. He jogged over to her. “You dropped these,” he said, handing them over with a smile.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “You saved me.”