As Chelsea parked her best friend Jill’s car, she heard the front tire squeal as it dug into the curb. Cursing under her breath, she pushed the shift into neutral and managed to grind the gears.

“Jill loves her car. She’ll hate me,” Chelsea groaned. It was bad enough she had filched the keys out of her friend’s coat pocket and run out of the party without asking permission to borrow the Honda. At least she wouldn’t have to endure her friend’s fury, not after she killed herself.

“Nothing’s going to matter anymore,” Chelsea muttered as she drew a handgun from her purse. It was small and pink, a lady’s gun, but it felt strangely heavy in her hand like the brick she had once hurled through a window in anger.

“Just do it,” Chelsea said through gritted teeth. She took a deep breath, sucking in the darkness that seeped through the windshield. Only the fragile halo of a nearby streetlamp disturbed the night with an eerie chiaroscuro that pitted light against shadow.

Chelsea traced the barrel of the gun with her slender hand and closed her eyes. “I hate my life…hate myself…” she spat out the words like bullets. Before she could raise the gun, a sharp staccato broke her concentration. An old woman was tapping at her window–a bag lady with frayed gray hair creeping out of a grimy, red bandana. She stood at nose level with Chelsea on the driver’s side, peering at her with small, sharp eyes set under thick brows.

Startled, Chelsea clicked the lock on the door handle. The old woman held up a slightly bent cigarette and pantomimed needing a light.

“I don’t smoke,” Chelsea raised her voice so she wouldn’t have to roll down the window. Then she realized she was holding a gun in her lap and tugged her jacket to cover it.

The old woman’s voice was gruff and hard as granite. “I need a light.”

“I don’t have any matches,” Chelsea said, wishing the old woman would go away.

“You got a lighter on your dashboard,” the old woman snapped.

“Oh…” Chelsea hesitated. Although the demand was innocent enough, the bag lady appeared sinister in her ill fitting black coat and Chelsea felt threatened. She desperately wanted to start the car and swerve away from the curb, but the elderly woman was leaning against her car door and could easily lose her balance. She might topple forward, maybe break a hip if Chelsea drove away abruptly. She certainly didn’t want to go on living, but she had no desire to kill anyone else.

She pushed in the car’s cigarette lighter, averting her eyes from the old woman with the misshapen nose. When the lighter popped out, she rolled down the window and held it out with a shaking hand.

Without a word of thanks the elderly woman grabbed the lighter and shoved its red, glowing ring against her cigarette. After inhaling deeply, she coughed as she exhaled a cloud of smoke.

“Life’s a bitch,” the bag lady grunted as she returned the lighter.

Chelsea shuddered as her hands brushed the woman’s gnarled fingers tipped with dirty nails. As she hurriedly rolled the window back up, she wished the old woman would shuffle away and vanish into the night. Instead she hobbled to a bench under the street lamp and sat there.

“So what if she sees me shoot myself?” Chelsea sputtered, bristling in anger at the old hag hunched like a black crow in her oversize coat. The woman puffed on her cigarette, apparently oblivious that she was intruding on Chelsea’s privacy, spoiling the plans she had concocted in solitude.

“Why the hell is she just sitting there, staring at me?” What inner strength or madness gave the old woman the will to go on living when she was destitute and homeless?

Chelsea set the gun on the dashboard and fumbled in her other pocket for her last ten dollar bill. “I should give it to her, it’s not like I’m going to spend it…maybe I should give her my coat, too. It’ll be ruined once it’s blood stained.” Even in the diluted light of the streetlamp, the threadbare condition of the old woman’s coat was painfully apparent.

“Just get this over with,” Chelsea mumbled as she got out of the car and started to shuck off her coat.

“Chelsea!” Startled, she whirled around. Jill appeared out of the shadows, running down the sidewalk. “What’s going on? You took off like a bat out of hell.”

Bursting into tears, Chelsea said, “I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to end up like her…” She faced the bench under the streetlamp but the old woman had disappeared. Only a thin vapor of smoke coiled like a pale snake as it drifted toward the streetlight.

“Oh honey…” Jill wrapped her arms around her friend and drew her back to the car. She gasped when she saw the gun.

“There was a bag lady,” Chelsea tried to explain. “I would have killed myself by now but I wanted to give her my coat.”

“I’m glad you did,” Jill said as she took the shells out of the gun.

“I wanted to ask her why she went on living,” Chelsea sighed. “Now it’s too late.”

“Oh no, honey. It’s never too late.” Jill helped her into the passenger’s seat. “Let’s go home.”

Published in Stories