Chapter One

They say emotions can be shared, but how far should sharing be allowed to go? Maybe Denise should have avoided letting her feelings run free and dark, but she did not consider the implications as she stepped out of her house. She closed the door behind her, in effect shutting out the entire city of Denver. Anywhere in Colorado besides here was her destination.

Pulling her copper hair back, she unbuttoned her flannel to allow air flow through her undershirt.

Arriving sooner than she wanted at the intersection, she stood at the corner, silent, motionless…. She dropped her gaze to the gutter, the divider between black asphalt and cement sidewalk. Avoiding memories based on sight seemed easy, but it was harder to get past the doubt.

A bus creaked forward and heated air bursts blew from its brakes. Stopped, it waited with a sputtering idle, and she approached as best she could, each step resisting like treading water. She heard the door roll open, not sliding smoothly but snagging on the rollers as if it, too, was unsure, but her eyes found the hand-bar and she grasped the cold cylinder, employing its crutch-like support as she lifted a foot. When it landed on the ribbed metal, a load not visible to human eye fell off, but she almost felt it, imagined hearing it hit the ground, and she hoped to leave it permanently as she had planned for the house. A hesitant smile played on her lips as she finished boarding the bus.

Taking a seat, she rested an arm over her pack which she had dumped in the seat beside her. Face positioned forward, she held it there steeling her neck muscles. Colors out the window held indistinct forms, as long as she kept them in her peripheral view. Her eyes glazed over briefly as thoughts tried to invade, but she re-focused, intently fixed on the lower half of the seat-back in front of her, navy blue with square patterns in a semi-soft fabric.

The bus lurched during a gear change. Her statue form broke loose, and she felt safe to let her gaze wander the interior of the bus as more details began to register. A/C vents released recycled air. She was shelved in a wheeled refrigerator, steel and long and had yet to receive a baking soda box. Human dirt mixed with the worn blue of the seats. Glancing at the ribbed aisle floor, lined with its chrome runners, her mind wildly considered if that was her yellow brick road.

She leaned back and offered the headrest employment. Her eyelids closed on cue. This shot her back into rigidity. Turning to face the window, she clasped on to the window’s short sill. Scouring the road, never looking beyond it, she consumed every flaw in the white paint on the coarse sandpaper asphalt. A car accelerated ahead and then paced the bus.

Her eyes continued their energetic and desperate perusal, recording the minute details of the car. It was red once. The remnants of the paint matched the rust spots. A large antenna was suctioned to the trunk lid, and a bunjee cord held a black hood to the grille. Her gaze followed along to the driver beyond the cracked windshield.

She caught sight of large, wide-knuckled hands on the wheel. A watch fitted his right wrist. Sleeves to a dress shirt puzzled her. She followed them back to the body. The shirt was open at the neck and a thin display of chestnut hair caused an unsteady pause. The chin held stubble of a lighter brown covering a jaw line that was straight and set. Would she dare move up to the eyes?

A millimeter of movement by her was all it took, and she gasped, turned away. They were warm, like his. Would they turn warmer when his arms held her? She stared at the floor; her eyes widened, panicked, and taking on a sheen that turned into ripples, but she held the tears back.

She threw her head back and the overhead bins received a look which flamed through the slits of her eyelids and burned the white curves of her eyes into an arid landscape. She wanted the memories to drain out of her head. They should swirl around, flow down her neck, and get digested by her stomach.

She turned her glare on the car’s wheels and doors. Distressed hair tresses shielded her from another view of the driver. Her body burned. Hadn’t this been what she’d felt discarded at the bus stop?

But the driver of that rust bucket had picked them up and set them on display. All he had to do was resemble another man she had known … known well. But, then, she hadn’t known him well enough, as it had turned out.

She dropped a new blazing glare on the car. Just tap the gas and get out of my sight. Following the command, a metal arm popped off the car’s lower suspension. The top of the right front tire turned in under the fender, and the man had no control no matter how hard he cranked the wheel; she had less time to absorb what she saw as the car slammed into a cement divider. The front end crumpled like a crushed, thin-walled beer can, and the ensuing explosion caused her to nearly jump out of her seat.

The car–the crash was out of sight. The back of the bus had no window. Other passengers yelled to the driver.

He hollered back, “Stop it, all of you! I’ll call it in as soon as they can hear me and that’ll be as soon as you folks shut up!”

The cries turned to heated whispers.

“Alright then,” he turned forward.

The spiral C.B. cord rose and the driver spoke into its black plastic grill.

All she heard were cold, mechanical details.

She sat back and brought her pack onto her lap, held it close. Her eyes had fresh reasons to stay open and alert–The fiery crash burned like a film strip on the roll-down canvas of her eyelids.

Her muscles cried out after an hour, but her tensed posture remained set. Her back insisted on a stretch and her neck reported chances of a permanent kink if not addressed. She kept determined, focusing her efforts on creating distractions. She considered passengers and mountains, swallowing all in her peripheral view to overwhelm her.

The passenger view vanished before the last stop.

An announcement cut through her.

“End of the line,” the driver reported.

A robot with seized joints would have smoother motions than those she displayed as she passed rows of seats. The driver seemed patient, but she heard a slamming door once she stepped out, although how a gliding door could slam so hard, she didn’t know.

The bus pulled away, and a brisk wind brushed across her exposed nape and hands. It found her open flannel and stirred a shiver, breaking her loose.

She scanned her surroundings and recalled her plan. The crash had reinforced it. The plan grew literal; she swung her pack onto her back and ran.

Pushing herself under the weight of the pack, she crossed the parking lot, and shouldered her way through the brush on the other end. She tore up the slope until she collapsed on a bed of pine needles. Her knees hit first, and then dry sobs curved her back.

A car’s squeal from an over-tight drive belt, a trace of exhaust in her nose, and she was grounded, brought back to where she collapsed where she registered the long shadows and looked up. The sun couldn’t be found but for the orange glow blended with a deepening blue that was closing in fast.

She stood and dropped her pack. Bending over it, she loosened the straps at its base and rolled out the tent kit. The deepening twilight insisted she use speed. The creases from the tent’s original pressing showed even as she pulled the canvas taut with flexible poles. It still smelled like the outdoors store. She dropped her pack inside and by a small flashlight’s glow, rolled out her sleeping bag. One last shiver passed through her before she zipped up. She decided the cold night could freeze the water from her eyes before she dared close them.

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