The Opposite of Sin

by Jad Josey

She’d walked past him moments before backing over the man. She was refreshing her timeline, glancing right and left on the way to her car. The man had leered at her, his gaze scraping the length of her body. The bridge of his nose was bowed, broken years ago in a forgotten brawl. Astrid had paused, soldiered by the moment.

“Bring that pussy over here,” the man said.

Astrid tilted her chin down and kept walking. The man swiveled his shoulders and raised both hands in the air.

“Too good for me,” he screamed, the tendons in his neck like tentacles. Astrid’s head buzzed with an alien heartbeat. The key bounced around the lock, her hand trembling. The car door whooshed closed and made her ears pop. She watched her knuckles on the steering wheel for a while, closed her eyes against the muffled dredging of his voice saying, “Too fucking good for me,” over and over. She worked the key into the ignition and fired up the car. Her phone dinged, and she reached across her body with her left hand to shift into reverse while unlocking her phone with her other hand.

She felt the car lift and descend as if over a speedbump. She closed her eyes and listened. The parking lot was silent. It was seven o’clock on Sunday morning, and even Damy had been asleep as she’d tucked the note into the mail slot outside Damy’s apartment. She had hesitated at that iron gate, her finger hovering near the buzzer for seconds that stretched out, elastic. But she resisted. She would catalog that resistance as a victory in a long series of small battles. She felt buoyed as she crossed the street to the parking lot, certain of her words and the way her handwriting had steadied as she wrote. She envisioned Damy unfolding the note, leaning into the tired couch cushion, her heart blown wide open. Or maybe, she thought now, the body beneath her car would ruin everything.

Beyond her windshield, the leaves of the trees were canvassed with the mint-green of new growth. She focused on those fledgling tips, watched the wind move through them, the confident sway of having been there for years. She stepped out of the car and into the day. It was rising bright and humid. Her sunglasses fogged. She had the sensation that she was floating just above the pavement.

The man was speaking, and then her face was near his mouth, his freckles like lava punctures. The world was not right. But when he spoke, the wetness of his voice pulled Astrid back into her body. He wrenched another breath from the air around them and said, “Don’t touch me, bitch.” Astrid unlocked the trunk.

She fished one arm beneath the misshapen crook of his knees, her other arm beneath his lolling head. She closed her eyes and prayed for a moment about her sciatica. When prayer worked it was easy to forget the thousand times it didn’t. She lifted and felt the way a puppet might feel, limbs carried upward on taut strings, always the rising. He wasn’t feather-light, but he was only slightly heavier than her prayer. It was her first miracle.

She tipped him into the trunk headfirst. His head was not bleeding, but his mouth was cornered with tiny triangles of blood. When he tried to speak, his teeth were washed in foamy pink spittle. The middle of him was flattened, almost cartoonish. Astrid would not have believed it was real if she’d seen it on the news channel blaring at the gym each morning. The man winced, tried to look down at the pressed bits of his body. Astrid placed her long fingers on his forehead, slick with sweat, and gently urged it back. The body always follows the head, her instructor had said during her inaugural year of junior lifeguards. No matter what, he’d said, it always follows.

There was a grocery bag of laundry she had been meaning to take to the laundromat, but she despised the cylinder-head gray, the B-movie flickering of the dour fluorescents, the sickly-sweet smell of Tide or Dreft, the men that stumbled drunk into the building with no laundry, with no good intentions. She wanted to roll up one of her dank sweaters and tuck it beneath his head like a pillow. She dragged the bag from where it was pinned beneath the man’s legs, but he cried out so loudly that she slammed the trunk shut.

“You bitch,” the man called over and over. She looked up and saw a triad of red balloons drifting across the cloudless morning sky. They were tied together at the very end of their long tails, so that they careened apart and bobbled against one another with a static plonking. She jammed the key into the lock cylinder, quickly realizing she’d used the ignition key, and of course the trunk had its own key, just like the passenger door on this maddening piece of shit car. “You need to help me,” the man called out, tapping the inside of the trunk lid in a slow rhythm between each refrain. “You stupid bitch, you need to help me.”

She tugged the key, but it wouldn’t budge. At least, it wouldn’t move out of the cylinder, instead seesawing back and forth as though it might unlock the trunk—which, of course, it would not. Still she tugged and twisted, finding some niggling sense of relief in any movement, fruitful or not. When the metal grew tired, its invisible molecules bounding with heat, the key snapped off in the lock cylinder. The man no longer called out. Astrid stared at the twisted chunk of key protruding from the lock. She rounded the sharp rear quarter panel and slid into the front seat, the ignition key slotting into the cylinder with a chunky satisfaction, the car shaking itself to life.

She drove toward the coast, away from the sun turning into the bright blue sky. Every so often it blasted her retinas from the side view mirror, and she held out her hand to block the light, tucking her thumb tightly against her forefinger, cupping her hand like an eyepatch. The long valley swept outside her window. The morning warmed.

She hummed a tune so soft and lilting that it took a while to feel it in her throat. She hummed and she whistled, and she cranked her window down so the wind could catch her hair. She passed two herons, lonely totems along the corridor of the valley, statuesque and stoic.

She drove to where she’d watched a pod of right whales last week. Damy had met her there as the sun started moving toward the horizon line. The words she’d spoken were different than what Astrid had expected to hear, but she kept herself from crying until after Damy pulled away and she was alone. The right whales had been just far enough off the coast that she couldn’t see their sad black eyes, but close enough to catch the clumps of barnacles stacked beneath the pectorals, the dorsal. They exhaled in great skyward plumes, and she exhaled with them. She pulled into the dirt turnout. The sea rolled in thick ropes a storey below.

She used the lever at her feet to open the trunk, then stepped into the day and opened the lid slowly, slant light cutting across the broken middle of the man. She was surprised to find his eyes open. She’d half-expected them to stay closed forever. They looked at each other for a long time, his brown eyes heavy-lidded but the gaze sharp. It seemed as though they nodded at one another, silently and without motion. Astrid leaned down toward the man, her arms extended. He recoiled and grimaced.

“You’re all the same,” he said. “All of you.”

“All of who?”

“Bitches,” he said.

She slammed the trunk. She shook her shoulders out and rolled her neck in a slow half circle. She thought about Ani de Franco. The sky is gray. She rubbed her temples and smoothed her eyebrows. The sand is gray. She fired up the car and pulled onto the highway, gravel chirping. The ocean is gray. If she was going to bury him somewhere, the beach wouldn’t do at all.

The pavement moved beneath her, pulling her along like an escalator, and she drove until there were red and blue lights in the rearview mirror. She kept driving until it became clear that driving was no longer an option. She pulled into the gravel and then into the tall weeds because she wanted it to seem like she was conscious of the officer’s safety.

The cop was a woman, small in stature and with a Glock on her hip and a hundred generations of precedent to her actions. She stared at Astrid in silence for a long time. There was a loud thump from the trunk of the car, the man’s voice ragged. He yelled things heard and unknown. The officer did not ask for her license and registration. She turned and walked back to the trunk of the car, her sunglasses catching the flare of the sun in swinging flashes. She turned her head and listened to the man, and he hollered. She unholstered her weapon and rapped on the metal, not hard enough to leave a dent but hard enough to matter. Whatever he said made her lip curl. She rapped on the trunk twice more and holstered her weapon.

“Stay safe out there,” she said to Astrid, and Astrid knew she meant out here out there everywhere they are and she made a silent promise to always stay safe, which meant being exactly who she was and walking exactly where she wanted to walk at exactly the time she wanted to do it, and she refused to think of the man who might try to stop her. The officer smiled and disappeared in Astrid’s side mirror and then in her rearview mirror and so Astrid drove on until the man stopped thumping.

The sun dove into the west and she drove on. She had just passed a small gas station when the car started bucking. The fuel needle was way below the E, probably had been for a long time. She swung the car around almost without braking, and the bucking stopped as the remaining fuel sloshed around the tank. She steered into the gas station with the car sputtering.

The man in the trunk was silent as she inserted her card into the reader, keyed in her zip code, and selected the premium option. He didn’t make a sound as she tipped the nozzle into the filler neck and squeezed the lever. The pump clicked off in her hand, so she readjusted the nozzle and depressed the lever again. Click. She tried again, but the pump shut off almost instantly. She peered into the brightly lit kiosk, glanced back at the still-silent trunk, and left the nozzle resting in the filler neck.

The woman inside was asleep on the counter, her head tucked into the crook of her elbow. Damy would sometimes fall asleep at the kitchen table after a long night of studying, terrified to take the Adderall in the medicine cabinet because she’d been down that road before. When Astrid found her that way, she would touch the point of her elbow lightly, the skin rough, familiar. An ache juddered through her. There was a small stack of textbooks near the register, a rainbow of sticky notes like tassels streaming from the pages of each one. A blue Pentel Rolling Writer pen rested atop the collected works of Eudora Welty. Astrid was about to leave as quietly as possible when the woman raised a hand and said, “It’s the fucking pump on number three, isn’t it?” When she looked up, her brown eyes were bloodshot, eyelids puffy. “Come on,” she said, “and let’s go fix it.”

Astrid heard the man as soon as she pushed the door open, his voice a blight on the stillness of the evening. There was a white Miata parked at the pump behind her, the driver standing near the trunk in a smart white pantsuit, her head cocked to one side in thoughtful attentiveness. The three women stood in the corona of fluorescent light together.

“He’s a loud one,” said the driver of the Miata.

Astrid nodded. Her mouth was dry, but her hands were steady.

“Every once in a while, you need to get a good buzz on,” the woman said. “Tonight was one of those nights. One of those nights when I probably shouldn’t have driven, should’ve used an app. But the last time I did that, the guy drove way out of town, out into the dark where I couldn’t even see the city lights. He didn’t say a single word. I didn’t, either. There was something between us that could’ve broken a different way, but it didn’t.”

“Do I know you?” Astrid asked.

“You sure do,” said the woman, “and we’ve never met. You know me. And I know you.”

The gas station attendant nodded. She’d been listening intently as the woman in the white pantsuit spoke, her eyes darting back and forth between the two of them. “You know me, too,” she said too loudly.

The man in the trunk was bellowing now, his voice rising in a ragged crescendo. The woman in the white pantsuit pounded her fist on the trunk of the car.

“Quit your hollering,” she said, and then more quietly, “I think we’ve all had just about enough of that.”

“I want to see him,” the gas station attendant said. Astrid and the pantsuit woman looked at her in earnest. “I do,” she said, “More than I can tell you.”

“Let me pull the trunk lever,” Astrid said. “I broke the key off in the lock earlier.”

The two other women snickered. Astrid was certain they didn’t intend for it to sound comforting, but she flushed with a camaraderie she hadn’t felt in a long time. The latch unlocked with a satisfying click.

The attendant had already raised the lid by the time Astrid returned, fingertips resting lightly on her collarbone and her voice gone for a moment.

“Did they always look like that?” the woman in the pantsuit asked. Astrid followed her gaze to the man’s hands. His fingers were curled like he was holding an invisible pole, clenched and claw-like, the knuckles a sickly, hard yellow. His nails were long and pointed, Like goddamn talons, she thought. She started to silently chastise herself for not noticing them earlier, but she knew that wasn’t it.

“No,” Astrid said, and the woman nodded knowingly.

The man started to reach up toward them, his face a contorted grimace. Astrid slammed the trunk closed hard. The attendant unlocked the pump and squeezed the trigger on the nozzle. “This one’s on the house,” she said. “My boss—he’ll never know.” The gasoline scent made Astrid feel woozy, emboldened. The way the night sky made her feel both connected to the universe and utterly alone.

The man started yelling again, but his words were no longer words. He was an animal making animal sounds in the darkness. The three of them huddled together in the fluorescent light and made a silent pact. They spoke the same language, and it was not his.

Astrid pulled back onto the deserted highway. After a moment, the headlights from the Miata turned in her direction and they both moved along together. Some moments later, another pair of headlights joined their covenant. The moon was just rising in the east, and Astrid knew that it was not rising at all. They were turning toward that moon, all of them, turning toward it while it pulled and pushed at their oceans and their blood.

The procession moved along. Headlights began spotting in the middle distance of this spreading darkness, rounded their way into this highway parade. Astrid counted the cars until she lost count, until she saw the red and blue lights flashing far behind. They moved together toward wherever it was the reckoning would be found, and the man in the trunk, his voice hollowed out and worn, was the only one slouching along pitiless and not quite ready to be born again.

Jad Josey’s work has appeared in Ninth LetterGlimmer TrainCutBankPassages NorthPalooka, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions, and his story, “It Finally Happened,” was selected for the Best Microfiction 2021 anthology. When he’s not writing, he spends as much time in the cold ocean and the warm kitchen as possible. Read more at or reach out on Twitter @jadjosey