Chapter 4: Shadows of Leaves of Trees
He wilted under the light of day, Etta realized, as she absently manuevered her car down the nameless streets. Her mystery man was slumped in the passenger seat, one arm draped limply over the armrest, and the other clutching at the seatbelt slung across his chest as if he were a prisoner in it. His half-closed eyes were turned towards the window; the fading sunlight lapping at his window seemed to make him want to turn away, but he kept forcing his face to the right, so Etta could not see his eyes. She wondered what he was hiding from her.
Etta was straying over the center line before she heard him speak. Jerking the wheel untidily, she brushed errant strands of hair from her face and gave her passenger a quick glance. "What? Did you say something?"
"Y-es," the man said, his voice grinding over the words. "Where..."
Not wanting the man to speak any further, Etta was quick to answer. "We're going to my house. You look like you need to get cleaned up." She raised slim eyebrows at him, not wanting him to be offended. He didn't reply, but flinched as a metal surface outside the window caught the sunlight and flashed it back into his face. There was a popping sound Etta could not identify, and there was nothing out of the ordinary when she swivelled her heard around to look for the source. "What was that?"
The man shuddered, the hand on the seatbelt clenching it even harder. "Event horizon," came the gravel-filled voice. At least, that's what it had sounded like. Etta decided not to press the issue; her passenger seemed distraught enough.
High-rise office towers and mirrored skyscrapers gave way to smaller buildings, until they were coasting through a tree-lined boulevard where the shadows lay in leafy patches upon the ground. Single-floor houses drifted by, their windows dark and empty, their front yards covered in the sheddings of trees. A girl on a tricycle watching them drive past, slowly turning her pig-tailed head, an inquisitive animal in an abandoned zoo.
Etta spoke slower to match her driving speed. "I should probably warn you, I'm living with someone. It's not a very big house, but... you know..."
The man beside her nodded, greasy hair now obscuring his profile. He had no fear from the sun now; the trees formed a protective shield against his particular solaric demons. His death grip on his seatbelt had relaxed, and now his hand slid down to his lap, pale against the dark cloth. It was only then that Etta realized how long it must have been since he had last had a shower; until this moment, she had not paid full attention to the smell of long unwashed skin that now prowled the inside of her nostrils with its stench.
Trying to breathe as naturally as possible through her mouth, Etta slowed and parked neatly in front of her house. The weeds were consuming the front steps and one of the house numbers, the 6, had fallen off into a bush. At least the cone-shaped trees on either side of the door obscured the state of the blue-grey house paint, which seemed to want to part from the walls at quickly as possible. It had been a while since a guest had arrived; Etta suddenly felt embarassed about her house's dilipadated apperance.
She opened the side door, and, holding her breath, leaned across the man's lap and freed him from the confines of the seatbelt (she'd had to fasten it for him when getting him into the car). He nearly fell out of the car; Etta gasped and caught his deadweight, collapsing painfully between the car and the sidewalk. Slimy leaves in the gutter imprinted wet marks on her jeans.
The door of her house opened and someone called out. "Hey, Etta! What's going on?" Etta grunted in response, immobilized. She could hear her housemate clattering nervously on the front steps, hesitating. "Are you okay, Etta? Who's that?"
Carol could be so dense sometimes.
"Just... someone I picked up at the coffee shop," Etta mumbled as she struggled to lift her helpless passenger, who had been unable to put on his own seatbelt, let alone pick himself out of the gutter. Finally, with much heaving and grunting, Etta managed to get the man's arms over her shoulders, where he allowed himself to be dragged bodily towards the house. Carol seemed to think that the situation was under control and went back inside, almost shutting the door on them both.
Carol could be so dense, Etta thought affectionately, lugging her cargo over the threshold. That's why we love her.