The first glows of sunrise painted gold across her eyelids. Denise stretched out almost to the extent that she expected to hear a tendon snap. Pushing her body up and looking around, not a thing looked familiar to her. She smiled.
She had not awakened to a half-empty bed and there was not a single warm thing about the brisk morning air. The frigid temperatures penetrated everything. And the only smell filling her nostrils was pine.
Released from her sleeping bag and in her socks, on her knees, she dropped punches into the bag, achieving its thinnest width possible before rolling it up. Satisfied all was stowed, she reached for the zipper of her tent. The release of each nub along the chain of zipper had a sound and feel all its own. She relished everything about this day.
Pushing herself out and standing, she had her first view of the surroundings under daylight, and the rugged bark of an encompassing forest proved an excellent choice of wallpaper over any motel room in Colorado.
She turned back to her tent, and, after pulling out the poles, applied her punching styles to the collapsed domicile, cramming it back into the bag, and attaching it to her pack before swinging it all over her shoulder. Looking about, she nodded at the trees, bowing to a new memory, one of many she hoped to find that would include her and no other.
Retracing her steps from her hurried escape last night, it wasn’t long before voices became distinct. The rest area and small mountain bus stop stretched out before her. She welcomed the sight of the toiletries.
Her steps out onto the warm asphalt led her to glance at the sky. The lack of clouds reassured her rain was not on the menu today. Good, she thought, as she continued on but stopped at a poster displaying a topographic layout of the mountain range in which she’d been dropped off last night. She’d barely breached the outermost foothills, so far.
A wish for a coffee shop popped into her head when, during her perusal of the map, she realized the sluggish relay of her mental impulses.
As tidy as she wanted herself presented as a hitchhiker, she headed out from the lady’s room, took one look around and then headed for cover. She took up a boulder seat that overlooked some bushes; better to see and not be seen as she considered the possibilities in drivers. Pulling out a granola snack, she accomplished eating breakfast as she considered what was out there.
Her selection was sorely limited. Only three cars sat parked in spaces and most had families. Family…. Something like a small hand gripped her heart, her plan of escaping proving more difficult at the moment. She focused her attention on their faces and acknowledged the strangeness of each one, easing the closed fist in her chest. She would find no memories here, she assured herself.
Then she spotted an older lady who was climbing down from her sedan. The sedan looked a land yacht compared to its senior driver. The woman wore white, pressed pants, and a flowery blouse. Her snowy hair was partially hidden by a pink, threadbare hood, tied under her chin.
It was a good place to start, Denise decided, and walked the border between forest and parking lot until she stood across from the car. She stayed out of view and waited until the woman returned and then, on a deep breath, stepped out and joined her at the driver’s door.
The woman turned with wide eyes and, Denise hoped, saw a harmless, young traveler. When the woman’s eyes returned to normal size, Denise was able to relax a small degree. First test over; now she needed to convince this woman to give her a ride.
She twisted her hands and lowered her head as she attempted a fragile, scared look. “I am sorry to bother you, but I was hoping that … well, you see … um, I haven’t a ride. It sort of, well, consumed by a ball of fire.”
“Oh no! Goodness, girl, are you alright?”
“Oh, yes, I’m fine, but perhaps …”
“Oh yes, of course you can have a ride.”
Denise offered her the brightest of smiles. “I’m Denise.”
“Charlotte,” she replied with a light handshake. “Climb in, would you? Oh, I’ll just pop the trunk for your things.”
Denise thanked her again and deposited her pack that appeared to shrink in the grand expanse of the sedan’s cargo hold. She closed the trunk and walked up to the passenger door, sat down in a plush, leather recliner. The warmth created by the sun-touched leather surrounded her.
Who knew that hitchhiking would provide such comforts? She leaned back and closed her eyes.
After a half hour, Denise turned to her driver. “Thank you very much. I hated to intrude, but my cell phone was damaged and …”
“Don’t you worry. Why I don’t find you to be rude at all.”
“Okay …” Denise replied.
“Tell me again; why are you traveling like this?”
She had started with lying about fire; might as well be consistent: “I started driving in search of a new home. You see my old one burned down.”
“Oh, how awful!” Charlotte exclaimed as she leaned forward, squinting over the large steering wheel at the road ahead.
“Yes, my car ended up a mutilated mess as well and since I had no reason to go back, I thought maybe I could get to know the area better this way.”
“But it could be dangerous; you should never visit a dairy alone.”
Denise coughed to cover her confusion then continued in a higher volume voice, “If it would be alright with you, I’d like to close my eyes for a while.”
“Of course, dear. You go right ahead. It sounds like you’ve had a rough time of it.”
Denise nodded. She laid her head back and took full use of the excuse for silence. The sun topped the trees and flashed across her face. She turned her head to the side and through thin slits watched the roadside pass by.
The evergreens that populated a low slope and shaded the ground, impeding any but the hardiest of undergrowth led her to thoughts of green-splintered toothpicks inserted in a sloping, brown, pin cushion.
To stay seemingly asleep, she had to keep her view limited. Flashes of rock walls occupied her entire field of vision for seconds. She understood their solid standing; a rock might topple from its peak, but the rest shall remain. If she were lost to the world, it would still turn and she would not be missed. A wire mesh net, however, trapped many boulders to their parent walls. Large metal shafts with square sheets at their base held the containment net against the most vertical sections.
After remaining in her false sleep position for an hour, she turned back to the front windshield.
Her eyes fell upon a rocky gateway, entrance to the Rocky Mountains. At each side of the road stood a mountain, barely cut-into by the intruding highway. The car pushed up the hill and the range stretched out before it. The peaks stood in a staggering array of heights, folds of land which crinkled up after plates had collided, surface area of land increased tenfold compared to the flat lands. The closer granite spires held trees that were wedged shoulder-to-shoulder on every slope that lacked a cliff face. The highway wrapped around the slopes, a slither trail directed by the whim of Nature.
An orange and white feline figurine broke the flat horizon of windshield, sitting on the grey dashboard. While holding a quiet pose, it observed the passengers. It had a neighbor which stood with its two front paws extended up to swat and capture any invisible flighty objects. An ornament dangled from the rear view mirror. Inside a heart-shaped frame, rested a photo of an orange and white tabby.
Charlotte spied Denise’s wakened state as well as her line of sight. She smiled. “That’s my lost Teddy. He abandoned me one day. I let him out because he was making such a fuss at the door. He did not come back for dinner that night or ever again. He would have been thirteen this next October. I really miss him, my Teddy. And you know what makes me miss him the most? Seeing his toys and other playthings in every corner of my little apartment. Sometimes I think about getting rid of it all. Maybe then it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
Denise’s eyebrows gathered like storm clouds as she imagined fire getting rid of everything she had left behind.
Charlotte smiled at her little figurines. “But in the end, I couldn’t possibly let myself forget him. He gave me so much in life.” She coughed.
Denise spotted moisture in the old lady’s eyes.
“You know, I think it’s time we visit a rest stop, don’t you?” Charlotte grasped the wheel with both hands. She peaked further up over the dash and slowed her land yacht down for the off ramp.
Once she pulled into a space and placed the car in park, she turned to her passenger. “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright in the end, you’ll see. You won’t hurt forever.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve taken up too much of your time and gas. I think I’ll wait here for my next ride.”
“Alright, but be careful.”
“Thank you very much. It was nice to have met you.” Denise stepped out. The trunk lid popped open and she collected her pack. She headed for the rest stop building only to walk around and hide behind it.
Behind the hedge bordering the parking lot, she took the ground as her seat in order to remain hidden by the stunted vegetation. An open field of mature, yellow wheat strands stretched out behind her. The thick tree line stood on the far side. The bushes didn’t offer much shade from the midday summer sun. After rolling up her sleeves, she grabbed a water bottle from her pack’s side pocket.
She fidgeted her position, cross-legged on the dry ground, fighting the rock bed that rolled under her muscles, missing the cushion of the mulch bed she’d had under her tent. Admitting defeat, she pulled out a sandwich bag of carrots and munched, watching and waiting for a driver with less emotional baggage.
A man stepped out of an SUV, headed toward the building, and at the sight of him, she lowered her snack and her gaze never wavered. Light brown hair and a jaw that matched the line of a straightedge. He wore black denim and a blue-striped, button-down shirt, with one button left open at the neck. Each detail was a reminder. She didn’t know him, but she had known one like him.
Following his every step with her eyes, her carrot stick went back to her mouth. She chewed without tasting. The glare she dropped on him turned to his vehicle when he disappeared inside the building. Her gaze remained on the SUV parked under a grove of aspens, but she recalled another car shaded by skyscrapers. She’d been walking toward it unaware, carefree until the shock that had halted her steps.