Denise’s stomach turned light and airy, making it easier for it to lodge in her throat. Her eyelids slammed shut and her eyebrows ground down like erasers over her eyes. When she opened them, she darted her gaze along the parking lot hardly pausing to let persons have detail.
When she slowed, by demand of her eye muscles, she watched her next driver climb into a small, green hatchback. Her willingness to be far from that rest area forced her to select him.
Pack quickly swung over her shoulder, she raced over and knocked on the glass. He reached over and cranked the glass down.
“Good morning,” she smiled.
“Hello?” He wore a grey t-shirt and was several years younger than her last driver. His hair was a muffled blonde. Much better, she thought.
“I thought you might have room for one more,” Denise explained.
He looked around the car interior. “I suppose you’re right. Where you headed?”
She shrugged, “the same direction as you until you stop.”
He took his time considering her, and she fiddled with the pepper spray in her pocket.
“Hop in,” he said, opening the door for her.
“Thanks.” She pulled the knob on the seat, springing it forward to stow her pack in the back.
As he snapped it into reverse and left the spot behind, she looked back. A woman of her height approached the SUV. The speckled shadows from the fluttering aspen leaves hid her appearance. What did it matter anyway?
She turned back in her seat and focused on the view ahead of her, not behind.
The silence she had originally welcomed with her new driver seemed less appreciated when the same SUV flew by them.
“Russ,” he answered.
“Nice to meet you, Russ.”
He nodded toward her pack. “Is it your first day as a hitchhiker?”
“Close,” she said; her pack did look brand new. “Actually,” she turned toward him, letting the lie spill forth. “I’m a journalist for this humanities mag back home, and I’m getting experience as a hitchhiker for an article. I imagine they meet a variety of drivers. I wonder about the people who will open their door for them.”
“Uh huh. How many so far?”
“Not many. As you guess, I’m just getting started.”
Silence came again, but she allowed it. With the car lacking in air conditioning, she rolled down her window enough to refresh the air inside. The sound of the airflow varied with the waves of land, flowing near then opening out.
“So, aren’t you going to ask me a few questions?”
And she’d thought he’d be the silent, closed-off type. He’d looked tight-lipped when she’d asked for the ride but now she had to go digging for paper. She pulled out her daily planner and a pen. The idea of a planner sounded better than a journal, a way to record events without having to keep track of her thoughts along the way. There were still too many with him in them.
“I usually ask drivers just two questions.”
“Shoot,” he replied.
“Okay. First, why did you agree to give me a ride?”
He shrugged, “you looked like you could use a ride and you seemed clean enough.”
“Alright,” she replied, scribbling loops and commas. “And this is more for numbers and percentages, but what did you have planned for today? You can’t be on a schedule if you’re giving me a ride.”
He nodded. “You’re right about that. I’ve got nothing planned, just went for a drive.”
She lifted her eyes from the illegible scribbles on her planner and watched him.
His eyes remained fixed on the road. “You see, a few days ago, I found something out and ever since I’ve been trying to get a handle on it.”
“Okay,” she shut her planner, “I think that’s all I need. Thank you for–”
“It was my brother. His wife left him ‘cause of what he done. She had every right to and my baby brother needed to be taught a lesson. But, ‘fore I could, you know what happened? But a few days ago, he ended up crashing his car … and dying. Just like that. My brother.”
Why is he telling me this? Then things came together for her. Insignificant details began to add up to something. He had not shaved in days. The ball surfaces of his eyes were red-veined. Dark brown glass bottles clinked on the floor in the back seat. Of course, the SUV would fly by us like that. They were hardly hitting forty miles per hour. He wasn’t a speeding drunk driver.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she offered up as she mentally scoured for a solution to the now obvious danger.
“You see–” he pointed a finger at her. “No.” He re-directed his attention to what lay ahead. He shook his head, “not another one. Why did I have to go driving?”
Yes, why? But she followed his gaze and arrived at the crumpled metal that was propped up by the remains of a guard rail. What was left recognizable among the mangled mess matched the SUV that had passed them. She started to shake.
With her eyes closed, she swung her head back and forth. No. No.
In the throng of slowing traffic, the driver had time to talk, “Just like my brother. I know it. I mean, look. There’s no other cars and the road’s not even wet. Someone did somethin’ to the suspension, had to … like my brother.” He sighed. “The guy probably had brown hair; was about five-ten, and the same age as all those other poor souls. You’re in the news. You must ‘a heard about it.”
No, she wasn’t and hadn’t, but she was nodding as her gaze dropped, processing what she’d heard. What was going on? She shook her head–it had to be nothing. Only she would consider that description matching her ex-husband, because her mind kept forcing everything to circle back to him in a vicious cycle that she did not deserve. “I’m sorry you had to be a part of it,” she whispered.
“You better be careful out here,” he said as traffic sped up once they passed the crash site. “Maybe I should get you back, your work. It’s just too dangerous right now.”
She looked up from the grating surface of the rolling interstate and exclaimed, “Hey, that rest stop. I’m supposed to meet my news team there.” She checked her watch. “Perfect timing too.”
As he took the turn-in, she silently begged for the parking lot to have a crowd of people.
Seeing half a dozen cars and people standing at a historical site plaque, she felt ready for what she had to do.
When he parked, she stepped out, turned around and pulled the seat forward to access her pack. She tugged and replied, “it’s stuck. I think I need some help.”
“Sure,” he replied.
As he stepped out and she heard his door close, she reached across the seat and snatched the keys from the ignition, grabbed her pack on the way back out.
“Hey, what are you–Come back here!”
She raced across the parking lot to the group of people. She started to offer the keys. “Please,” she breathed, trying for air after her sprint. “Call. Cops. He’s drunk.”
A mental image flashed, the people being attacked, the man fighting for his keys. She couldn’t let that happen. Instead she whipped around and ran to the restroom. In the closest stall, she tossed the keys and flushed.
Footsteps clambered on tile. He was right behind her. She came about, heart racing, adrenaline flooding, and she stepped to the side but kept a leg in his path. He stumbled, fell to the ground.
Back outside, she took one look around, spotted a trail head, and as she hurried into the trees, her bag slapping her back, she looked over her shoulder, saw the group of people stopping him from chasing her. One man had a hand to the guy’s chest while he spoke to a woman. She was pressing numbers on her cell phone.
She ran up the climbing slope until her lungs burned and prickled then she rounded a juniper bush and dropped her pack, stopping to breathe, and think. What had she done?