Cold Night

By Amy Block 

On a cold evening in February, the parking lot at the SuperShop was nearly empty. Heavy snow was expected to arrive the next day, but at 10 p.m. the shelves were almost bare, scoured hours earlier, in the usual pre-storm panic.

Molly had worked late, in an attempt to get ahead, in case the weather affected her commute the next day.  She had deadlines to meet, as usual, and her cheap, profit-reaping boss loved to crack the whip on those lowly proofreaders and copyeditors. She’d marked pages until her eyes couldn’t possibly focus for another minute, bundled up and taken a detour to the market before heading home.

After tossing a slightly dented loaf of bread, some yogurt, a frozen pizza, bottled water, hot cocoa mix and the latest issue of Fashion Passion magazine into her cart, she headed back to her little VW. She glanced around and saw someone piling bags of groceries into his trunk, several cars away, and a hunched over, elderly person slowly walking in her direction.

As she opened the driver’s door, she saw the person, a woman with white hair wrapped in a gray woolen scarf, drop her SuperShop bag onto the ground, spilling some of its contents. Molly ran and grabbed a roll of paper towels as it rolled away, and returned it to the woman, who was shaking and coughing. A cold wind nearly blew the scarf off of her head.

“Do you have a car?”, Molly asked. Her reply, a rather hoarse: “No, dear. I don’t live far. I’m fine. Thank you for helping.” She coughed a cloud of white breath into the bitter air.

She then pulled her scarf in front of her face as the wind continued to blow.

“Practice random acts of kindness,” Molly thought to herself, remembering the New Year’s resolution she’d made just over a month ago. Helping an old woman by getting her out of this cold, and home safely certainly fit the bill. She’d be guilt-ridden for the rest of the night if she didn’t offer.

Once inside the car, the old woman having opted to sit in the back seat, Molly cranked up the heat and promised they’d be warm soon. The traffic light around the corner from the market seemed to turn red quite suddenly, forcing Molly to come to an abrupt stop. She looked in the rearview mirror to see the woman. “Sorry if I made you jump out of your seat,” she apologized.

She noticed that the woman had pulled off her scarf and loosened the top few buttons of her shawl. Her appearance was somehow strangely altered. Molly turned around and saw that a very realistic rubber mask was pulled up, to just below the woman’s nose. The old woman smiled, then laughed, in a voice that was distinctly male. Molly could see the person’s rough, unshaven complexion, and a smile that was missing a tooth.

Horns honked behind her, forcing her to turn around, see the green light, and hit the gas pedal. She clenched her cell phone in her hand, silently praying that her boyfriend, someone, anyone, would call. The road was narrow, with sidewalks on either side, and there was nowhere to pull over. Put on the flashers, she thought, then fling the door open and run like bloody hell. She reached very carefully for the door handle but a large, calloused hand, smacked itself over hers.

“Pull over there”, the man commanded, pointing to a parking lot near a dark office building. Molly could see that he’d pulled his mask back down. She steered into the lot, her heart racing up, into her throat, nearly choking her. Images of proofer’s marks swirled in her head; the circled words, underlined letters, punctuation marks, all in red. Then she saw ink, all of the red ink she’d ever used during her years at the publishing house, drip, then bleed across the pages. Every page she’d ever used her creative head to fix had always seemed like a waste of time, and now all of that wasted time compressed itself into one big useless blur.

“See my mask?”, the man handed it to Molly. She looked at it, as it lay limply on her lap. It truly looked like flesh, with a wrinkled forehead, arched, pencil-thin eyebrows, thin lips painted with pink lipstick, and a stretched and sagging pouch of skin just below the chin.

“Pretty, huh?”, he asked.

Molly dove toward the front passenger seat and again his strong hand grabbed her arm, twisting it. With her other hand, she reached for her purse; there had to be something in there to pound him with, maybe a pen to stick into his eye. Her cell phone had fallen somewhere, out of sight, under the seat.

He wagged his finger at her, and shook his head. “Uh, uh, uh..”, he warned her.

“Now you get to be Granny. I like Granny; she’s so sweet.” He let go of her right hand, grabbed the mask and held it in front of her face. She reached toward him, and they struggled until Molly decided to go numb, to let go of her feelings, thoughts and memories and give in to whatever was about to happen.

“Now wear your mask, Granny”. She followed orders.

“Now sing so sweetly, the way you used to, to help me go to sleep.”

Molly first hummed, then started to sing “Rock-a-bye, baby.” Her voice was muffled beneath the mask.  The man’s mouth curved into a half-smile and his eyelids drooped, until they were no more than slits. Was he faking this sleepiness?  Molly kept singing, her voice becoming louder and louder, speeding up, words running together, losing its melody.

She heard the man’s voice shout over hers, “Not like that! You’re a bad girl, Granny. A very bad, bad girl…”.

Molly stopped, still numb, nearly frozen.

Dead silence.

“I’m sleepy, Granny. Keep singing.”

She sang in the sweetest, softest voice she knew, and had fleeting thoughts of her own dear grandmother. She wondered if the last time she saw her was truly the last time.

After what felt like hours, but in reality was only minutes, she heard a muffled sound; the man was snoring a wet, gurgling snore. She kept singing beneath the mask, her face dripping with sweat, feeling as if it would suffocate beneath the thick rubber contoured features that pressed against her own.

She stopped singing. No response, just rhythmic snoring that felt like it was inside her head. She moved her hand in silent slow-motion, toward the glove compartment, from which she pulled a Bic lighter. Just the day before she’d complained about her friend, Toni smoking in her car. Today she was grateful for what her friend had left behind, and for the smoke she’d practically choked on yesterday.

Ever so slowly, she pulled off the granny mask. In one motion, she ignited the rubber face and threw it into the face of the stranger, who stirred immediately. As she jumped out the door, the man lunged toward her.

As Molly ran from the scene, she looked back to see the old woman’s face melting into the man’s, engulfing his head in flames. She had an overwhelming sense of power, a sense that every person who’d ever hurt her or let her down was burning into nothing more than ashes.