Chapter Five

Her breath coming in spurts, chest rising and falling desperately, Denise tried to grasp the rightness of what she had done. The guy had given her a ride. She sort of forced herself into his life and then, when he willingly stopped at this rest area for her, she stole his car keys and flushed them. Before bolting up the trailhead into the mountains, she sicced more innocent bystanders on him, forcing more people to get into her fight. But the guy was drunk. He never should have been driving in the first place. Denise brought her hands up to view. They held steady. You did the right thing, she assured herself.

But then she witnessed another car crash she couldn’t deny. It hadn’t been the drunk driver’s fault. And she was beginning to feel like it had been hers. How could she take that smoothly? Even after seeing the remains of car crashes working a desk at an insurance agency, it never could have prepared her to hear such a motive. Was someone hunting down people who looked like her husband?

Again she had to remind herself that the world wasn’t about her. She considered the forest surrounding her, looking at one pine tree after another, naming loss, pain, and him. They had managed to keep up with her. She was losing hope. Her plan wasn’t working, but refusing to wait for time to fix things seemed the only way to hold onto her sanity.

She glanced behind her. I can’t go back. Not yet.

The only way she had, she turned and looked at the trail, was up. And besides, in the forest, man and car couldn’t reach her. Just don’t name the trees after them.

She grabbed her pack off the ground and strapped it to her back. Logs were staggered up the trail, embedded in the dirt path. She took her first step against one and started to climb.

She pushed herself hard and, if not for her pack, she would have preferred to start off running. Walking seemed much too slow; it allowed time for thought, doubt.

Hikers came down the path, but they never lingered to start serious conversations. They simply passed her by with a brief comment on the weather or how beautiful the lake looked today. She’d offer a nod and a smile.

When a spell of dizziness touched her, she eased back on her pace and focused on the plants bordering the trail. Never extending far from the ground’s surface, wild roses ran along the trail as did, in a few areas, collections of wild berries. Roses and berries were the limits of her ability in botany. Deeper into the population of bark-wrapped wooden poles, in the pine needle beds, she observed green leaves of a broader size, in groups of three. She thought of poison ivy. Did it grow in the Rockies? Maybe she should have bought a field guide or two. Until she did, she wouldn’t be petting any leaves anytime soon.

A mile seemed to pass beneath her feet as she continued her ascent. The trail cut through small fields that broke the forest. Her stride shortened and the time between her steps lengthened as her lungs found less and less oxygen in each intake. If anything wanted to shut down to conserve energy, it had better be parts of her brain. They weren’t needed; they weren’t wanted. She wanted new sights to stockpile into her memory banks, ones she would not be nervous about accessing.

The heat she felt in the fields which led to thoughts of shedding her flannel were argued against each time she stepped back in the dark, under evergreen canopies.

She drilled her legs for still more climbing. Trickling water played parallel to the trail. It was too clean for her. She felt like she’d contaminate the flowing glass if she touched it, near fainting for the low supply of air to her lungs.

When exhaustion surrounded her, she welcomed it with all her heart, or what was left of it.

She approached a small clearing to her left, not shrouded by trees, took two steps up its rise, and held her breath. She turned putting the trail behind her, the view before, and all within her paused.

She’d reached a point where she was not below the peaks but among them. Here, she could abandon a few things, but that would require acknowledgement. The tear she shed as she stood a statue, another thin tree rooted to massive, granite giants, was offered in regret for her weakness, her brutal denial of her past.

With one last look back at the frosted, jagged peaks, she returned to the trail headed back down. She had to keep moving, if nothing else. The climb had cleared her head, mostly leaving it thinned out, nothing for her to firmly grasp. It was time.

Her leg muscles felt like rubber during her return hike as she descended thousands of feet, fighting a momentum encouraged by gravity with its will to tumble her down the mountain.

She made it to the rest area, surprisingly standing, and couldn’t wait to see the next car pull in on its four, comfortable, level-rolling tires.

Or SUV, she thought, as it pulled into the shallow parking lot. A middle-aged, stout woman stepped out with dark hair cropped short and a long red sweater over black pants, and Denise planned on using her whole arsenal to get into that vehicle.

* * *

She needed the most absurd story she could think of to get her out of this, Denise decided, after prolonged exposure to the stout woman’s talent for prattle.

Resting her legs wasn’t worth ear trauma.

“My sister,” Denise said as she finished her tale of why she needed a ride, embellishing just a touch, “She used to tell me stories about being abducted. Of course I never believed her. But now I do. I knew I’d be okay because she always was. Hey, you think the aliens mistook me for her? After all, we are twins.”

“I don’t know, dear,” Sherry, Denise’s driver, replied. “You know, this cool mountain air is freezing up my knee. After the surgery I told you about, it takes so long to adapt after Arizona. You don’t mind if we stop at that rest area so I can work it out?”

Denise smiled. “No, of course not. Why would you ask? You have been so nice to me and I cannot give anything in return. You have no obligation to worry about me.”

“Oh.” She sounded surprised and relieved. “Good.” She came to a stop and set the transmission into park but had yet to shut off the engine. “Now, you go ahead and use the facilities. Can’t tell when we’ll stop again, huh? And I’ll just walk around the car a few times.”

“Alright. Thank you.”

When the restroom door closed behind Denise, she heard tires squeal and assumed Sherry was escaping, headed back for the highway, and wondered if she should feel a little more guilty. No, she was protecting Sherry. After all, no one should be that trusting of rest area strangers.

Stepping back out, she found herself brutally pushed into another conversation, of wind and forest.

Gusts broke the peaks and flowed down the mountains. They tugged at her clothes and wrangled her hair. She tried to gather the tresses together, pulling them through a hair tie, but it proved ineffective against the twists of air, whipping strands loose. Claiming a neckerchief next, from deep in her pack, she folded and knotted it around her head.

Keeping her eyes on the parking lot, there were only three options for shelter. The restroom was overly rustic for an extended stay. The man she observed returning to his truck seemed preferable. Not liking the idea of trying to erect her tent in this sudden fury of air, she rushed over as the man finished transferring his fishing tackle from the bed into the backseat.

She should have taken time to consider his appearance.

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