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DRIVER’S ED - Madeleine Belden

It happened on the same day that I got my driver’s license. It was after dinner (Claire, my mom, made her usual vile eggplant and kale casserole), and I was on my way to Jenna’s. I was at the intersection of Marshfield and Buttercup Drive and the light had just turned red when this legit psycho in a black ski mask and skanky green coat jumps into the backseat.

“Go,” he said.

He was like so agitated. He caught me staring at him in the rear view mirror and yanked it so I couldn’t use it anymore. He told me he was going to kill me if I didn’t get going.

His attitude was so the opposite of Mr. Miller, my high school driving instructor. All my friends hated driver’s ed but I loved it mostly–or maybe all–because Mr. Miller was so patient and kind and I could just feel that he had actual respect for me. He called me Miss Dilinowski. He always looked me in the eye when he sp oke to me except when I was in the driver’s seat and he was instructing me. When I would make a mistake he would say, “It’s okay. Everybody makes mistakes. That’s why we’re both here now, isn’t it?”

By the end of the six weeks he told me that I was a wonderful driver and an asset to the road. And that it had been a real pleasure to have instructed such an intelligent young woman.

When the guy in the back seat told me to run a red light–I know this is going to sound weird–I just didn’t want to let Mr. Miller down.

The light turned green. I counted three full seconds before pulling out into the intersection like Mr. Miller said to and then the man told me to get on the highway after the second stoplight. I panicked. I’d never driven on the expressway before. That was when I peed. You could smell it and I was mortified.

“Could we just take side streets?” I said.

He punched the back of my seat, and I totally swerved, just about hitting the car next to me. He clicked the gun like they do on cop shows and when the entrance ramp came up I had no choice but to hold my breath and follow the other drivers and do what they were doing. My heart was racing. He told me to follow the signs for Wisconsin. I stared straight ahead, trying to ignore all the cars behind me that were honking. All the middle fingers aimed at me.

I suddenly got three texts and one phone call. They were no doubt all from Claire, asking if I had gotten to Jenna’s house safe and sound. There goes another text. And another. Claire doesn’t have a job (she doesn’t know how to really do anything) so she’s just going to keep texting or calling.

Right after passing a sign that said The State of Wisconsin Welcomes You the guy says that now he has to take a leak. He ordered me to pull over ON THE HIGHWAY! I’m like I could barely get on this monster now you want me to get onto the shoulder and somehow not cause an accident?

I did everything Mr. Miller told me to do: put my hazards on and got over to the right and gradually reduced my speed but even so my attempt to pull onto the shoulder of the highway did not go well. One car nearly rear-ended me. I was hoping someone would see and call the cops but that didn’t happen.

Before he got out to urinate he made me give him my phone. He threw it into an empty field. I thought about speeding away but by the time I got the guts up he was back in the car and I was driving again. Neither one of us talked for an hour. He told me to take an exit just outside of Racine and then it really got dark. Chicago is never really dark because of all the lights but on this narrow gravelly road it was pitch black and I asked where we were going and he didn’t answer but about twelve minutes later we pulled up to a shack in the middle of nowhere and he told me to park the car and then a gruesome possibility hit me: maybe he brought me here to kill me.

My mom would def have to be medicated.

From the time I was born Claire’s whole thing was to warn me about some unseen, impending danger. She always had a gazillion personal instructions about the things that my friend Jenna and I can do to stay safe. Some of her greatest hits include the following: don’t ever get into an elevator with a strange man, don’t give an adult directions (if an adult needs help from a child something’s wrong). Don’t talk to anyone on the internet.

I honestly started to tune her out right around fifth grade or so.

When that psycho got into the car uninvited, part of me really thought that he could be a paid actor that my mom hired to scare me so that I would take her safety measures more seriously.

Before I left the house that night the last thing she said was to lock all the car doors.

I started whimpering and hyperventilating and he told me to shut the fuck up and get out of the car. It was freezing and my pants were still really wet–man I peed a lot!–and the frigid temps were shocking to my privates.

Not only was it pitch black outside but I was totally dizzy from panicky breathing and as I hobbled along in my new boots that Claire bought me for having gotten an A in chemistry, I was determined not to stumble and fall. I didn’t want this decrepit perv to have to help me walk. There wasn’t even a freaking moon to light my way. I was not used to this. I live in a highrise building on Lake Shore Drive with a doorman named Scottie. And it’s always lit up. Even at three in the morning it’s as bright as it would be at noon.

The inside of the shack stunk like feces and was a complete mess. Garbage on the floor. A couple of dead rats. Claire would have a field day with her warnings about Lyme disease. She’d literally faint if she saw that the toilet was just attached to a wall right out in the open.

Obviously this was his place. He knew where everything was and started to turn on lights and tossed the rat traps outside. He told me he was going to make a fire.

I felt truly lost without my phone. Like disoriented. Like I was trying to remember a word and couldn’t and I was subconsciously waiting to remember it and couldn’t really concentrate until I did recall it.

The only thing I could think about was if this loser kills me I’m going to be so embarrassed. They won’t be able to get the red out of the face of my corpse. The funeral guy is going to be like, uh, sorry Mr. And Mrs. Dilinowsky, that red hue in your daughter’s dead face just won’t come out. I’m just going to have to comb her awesome silky blonde hair down over her cheeks, so you don’t notice it as much.

My friends are going to be so judgey about the way I died. They’re going to gossip about how I let him get in the car just to get back at my mom–everyone knows that mom’s safety precautions get on my nerves. They’ll say I constantly talked about how it would serve her right if something bad happened to me. So I probably picked up a hitchhiker just to piss her off.

I won’t lie. There is some truth to that. Claire’s warnings bothered me. Like a lot. I mean, that’s all she ever talked to me about. She never cared how I felt about anything else. She only cared about whether or not I was going to get hurt. Let me tell you there are lots of different kinds of hurt.

The guy’s phone rang and he answered like he was expecting a call. He went outside and locked the door and started talking and he got really upset. His voice got louder and louder and he started yelling and then he stopped and listened for a long time.

When he came back inside he was still upset and even though he still had the ski mask on, if I had to guess, I would say that he’d been crying. He opened one of the cupboard doors and got a scummy looking bottle of something brown and took a couple of drinks and sat down on the most disgusting couch I’ve ever seen. He held the bottle out to me and told me to take a sip. I could tell the way he said it I didn’t have a choice. I just about lost it the stuff was so gross. If a cow drank sewer water and then peed it into a disgusting old bottle it would taste like what was in my mouth. It made me dizzy but I didn’t see a chair nearby so I just sank down onto the foul floor and hugged my knees to my chest. I wasn’t about to sit on that skanky couch that he was sitting on.

I thought I saw a deer outside the window. It kind of made me feel more upset. Like this is the kind of thing I’m never going to see again if I die.

He saw me wipe a tear and he told me that this would all be over soon.

Did he think that was going to make me feel better? That’s like what people say before they kill themselves and take other people with them.

In my literature class last year we had to read this book about a girl whose dad didn’t bring her back after his weekend visitation and it progressed into a life or death situation. The girl in the book talked her dad off the ledge. I didn’t know if I could do that. I’m really awkward when it comes to speaking to men my dad’s age (except for Mr. Miller!). It’s actually really hard to talk to my own dad. I can’t even think of a time when my dad and me ever had an actual conversation.

I thought of Mr. Miller and tried to envision what he would want me to do. He’d probably tell me: you’re an intelligent young woman. You can certainly fake your way through a conversation with this loser. Then he’d give me one of his I believe in you nods.

It was hard to read him with his face covered–you don’t realize how much you depend on other stuff besides words to give you information about how someone is feeling. It was my guess that he was just as distraught as I was.

I asked his name and he told me it was Wendel.

I told him my name was Kristin. I checked his eyes to see if he could hear how shaky my voice was. I wondered if he could detect that I was trying to manipulate him.

“Like, why are you upset?” I said.

He took another sip from his trashy bottle.

“My wife left me,” he said.

In the story, the girl created common ground by relaying that he wasn’t alone in his plight.

I cleared my throat. I forced myself to say something I’d never told anyone before.

“My mom left my dad,” I said.

That got his attention. He didn’t say anything for a while. He looked like he was thinking about something that he didn’t want to say out loud. Finally, though, he asked when that happened.

“It was last year,” I said. “Just before Christmas.”

I told him that my friends weren’t a real compassionate bunch.

He wanted to hear more. I could tell that even with the loser mask on.

I told him that not being able to unload my stuff on my friends about my mom leaving my dad was super difficult.

Because I didn’t have anyone to tell me everything was going to be okay or how to handle this or guide me in any way, I just had to kind of be my own boss. Since I’ve literally never had a job or even a single household chore I could only guess if that was a good analogy or not.

I realized that I was motor-mouthing it and I thought the guy was going to tell me to shut the fuck up again but he didn’t. He told me he was sorry about my parents and I was surprised at how much I liked hearing him saying that.

I asked if he had any kids.

No kids, he said. Then he added that he did want some eventually and I thought when? You’re like a thousand years old. Time’s running out.

I told him that if I ever had kids I wasn’t going to overdo the whole safety thing. And then I told him about Claire. How she gets on my nerves with her dire scenarios. How I really sometimes couldn’t stand her. Sometimes I even hated her.

The truth is though now, the thought of how my mom must be feeling was making me almost sick to my stomach. For the first time in my whole life my heart literally ached for her. I thought about asking the guy if I could at least call her and tell her I’m okay. Just to, you know, kind of ease her suffering. She was probably sobbing and begging my dad to get off his phone and stop working on his contracts and help her figure out why I wasn’t answering my phone. Or texting her back.

He took another big swig and then he said, fuck it and pulled off his ski mask and tossed it onto a nearby table. He itched his cheeks and neck like the mask had been bothering the shit out of him. His hair was dark but with gray in it and his eyebrows were way too thick and completely disarranged. He was about my dad’s age. In fact he didn’t look that much different. If you put a phone to his ear and an irritated look in his eyes he could be my dad.

“My wife threatened to leave all the time but I ignored it,” he said. “I didn’t think she meant it. She was always saying stuff to get attention.”

I told him that lots of people try and get other people’s attention. That I could kind of feel for his wife. I really didn’t know if this was the right thing to say–sympathizing with his wife–but it just wanted to come out of me.

Then I told him that I tried my whole life to get my dad’s attention. I confessed that my dad never seemed attached to me the way other fathers are attached to their daughters. I mean I couldn’t really say whether or not Henry even liked me.

Wendel got this awful expression on his face. Kind of looked like he wouldn’t be me if you paid him a million dollars.

I didn’t tell him that the second thing I’d thought of when it dawned on me that I might die in this loser cabin was that my dad would react the opposite of my mom. My dad would totally be okay. Like he wouldn’t break a sweat. Even if the police told him something extra gruesome happened to me. Like he for sure wouldn’t lose weight or go into a depression or anything like what Jenna’s dad would do. He was the exact opposite of Jenna’s dad, who was always doting on her and saying how proud he is of her. Don’t get me started on what Mr. Miller would do if one of his kids was murdered.

Yeah. Henry Dilinowsky is totally not like those dads.

I had even pictured him at work, at his desk, annoyed because co-workers kept stopping by his office and interrupting what he was doing to offer condolences for his murdered daughter.

We didn’t talk for a while after that. The fire was making the cabin warmer and my toes weren’t numb anymore. The best part was that my pants and underpants were just about dry and I didn’t have to feel like a five-year-old anymore. Then I spent a lot of time thinking about Mr. Miller and how pumped up I always felt by how much he believed in me and how I didn’t know what I would have done without that specific light in my life. I looked over at Wendel and he seemed very upset.

“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “even though my mom was the one who left my dad, she still cried non-stop. For weeks.”

“Do you think she missed him?” he said. His voice was clear and genuine and I could hear how much he loved his wife.

“Maybe she did,” I said. I honestly hadn’t thought of that.

“Did she ever go back?” he said. “To your dad?”

“It’s kind of complicated,” I told him. “I had to have emergency surgery and my mom was practically catatonic. When I got out of the hospital we moved back home.”

“So it was a happy ending,” he said.

I needed to totally change the subject so I asked him who called earlier. “Was it your wife?” I said.

“It was my brother,” he said. “He told me not to do anything stupid.”

We fell asleep. At least I know I did. I really wasn’t sure if he slept or not. But when I woke up it was light outside and he was standing over me. I didn’t remember anything and naturally flipped out and got scared and tried to run out the door but it was locked.

He grabbed my arm and shoved me onto the couch. He threw a white bag in my face. He’d gone into Racine and gotten tacos and drinks. If Claire knew I was eating junk food for breakfast she’d flip out. Even though I was the hungriest I’d ever been in my life I still refused to eat or drink because I didn’t want to have to use that toilet.

The day dragged on and on. I was so hungry and thirsty and was actually thinking about those tacos. I told myself to stay strong but it was so hard. I tried to comfort myself by thinking about the book from English class but then I suddenly remembered that there wasn’t a happy ending at the end of the book! It was sad ending for the dad and the girl, too. Ugh. Were they allowed to do that? Make us read something with a sad ending?

“I miss my mom,” I blurted out of nowhere. Even I was surprised.

He told me he missed his wife.

“Maybe she’ll go back to you,” I said.

He told me that he was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to come back to him like my mom went back to my dad.

“Not everyone is as lucky as you were,” he said.

He saw me glance down just then and asked me about the weird look on my face. I denied it but he wouldn’t let it go. He told me to explain myself.

I tried not to but I started sobbing.

He went and got me a roll of dusty toilet paper that a million spiders had probably peed on.

I told him that my mom didn’t want to go back to my dad but she did it anyway.

He totes didn’t like hearing this. “I thought you said she missed him,” he said.

“No. You said that. I said you could be right. Like I told you,” I said, “it’s complicated.” Then I considered that there was a real chance I could die today and I didn’t want to die with the horrible thing I did to my mom still inside me.

So I told him the real story. That after my mom left my dad, we had no money. My mom and I had to move into a gross garden apartment because my dad cut off all her credit cards and she was having trouble finding a job. He also closed their joint bank account.

She was okay with the no money part. And the crappy apartment. And how she was going to come out of the marriage with nothing at her age. She told me it was worth it to not demean herself anymore.

“What made her decide to go back to him?” he said.

I exhaled. Wiped my tears with the rank T. P.

“When I was in the hospital,” I said. “After I had my surgery and I was all weak and groggy. I knew I looked awful and so I knew that Claire would probably give me anything I wanted if she could. Kind of like Make a Wish foundation or whatever.”

The guy didn’t follow. He couldn’t even imagine where I was going with this and he was someone who kidnapped a teenage girl at gunpoint.

I explained that I totally took advantage of Claire’s kindness. I rattled off this sob story to Claire about missing my dad and being part of a family. Which were total lies. And Claire responded exactly how I knew she’d respond. By moving us both back 1237 Lake Shore Drive. Apt. 11 E.

My dad was nice to her for exactly one day and then went back to his old behavior: telling her what a screwup she was. What a failure. What a pathetic excuse for a human being. And my mom went back to being a complete doormat who silently sponged up his abuse.

You’d think a daughter would help a mother leave an abusive husband. Not me though. I manipulated her into going back so I wouldn’t be without a doorman.

The guy was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“You didn’t go back because of the money,” he said. “You missed him.”


“Your dad.”

“Dude. You can’t miss something that you’ve NEVER HAD!”

He came over and gently put his arm around me and we kind of just sat there for a while, not saying anything. Technically that should have creeped me out but it didn’t. It was actually like, so comforting. Even though he’d kidnapped/imprisoned me, I just appreciated that tiny kindness. Also he’s the only person who got that I wanted my dad’s attention. Like more than anything in the world. Even just one minute of it. Just to see what it would feel like.

Lights were flashing outside.

Wendel got up and went over to the grimy window. His brother was out there with two police cars.

He got really agitated and took the gun out of his pocket.

He told me to leave.

“Go,” he said.

His voice was different than when he first got into Claire’s car. Fragile, maybe.

“You know your wife loves you, right?” I said.

He looked down at the disgusting floor.

“I screwed up,” he said. “So bad. You can’t even imagine.”

Worse than not locking the car doors?

I looked at the gun and suddenly got this strong sense that if I left he was going do something awful to himself.

I didn’t know why but I couldn’t let that happen.

“It’s okay,” I managed to say, holding my hand out. Even though my voice was trembling and I was scared to death and I was trying really hard not to cry, I was determined to sound as bright and encouraging as Mr. Miller always did. “Everybody makes mistakes,” I told Wendel. “I mean, that’s why we’re both here now, isn’t it?”


Madeleine Belden lives in Chicago with her husband, three children and adorable pup, Nino. She was a cast member with the renowned Second City theater for many years. Her short stories have appeared in Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Arkansan Literary Review, and Share Journal. She also was a recipient of Canada's Kelly J. Abbot Short Story contest. Her hobbies include wine, more wine and shopping for wine. Cheers!


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