Chapter Six

Richard kept his head bent down, his day-old trim being whipped around by wind gusts, as he grumbled at the weather but admitted the sun had gotten too warm anyhow–chased the fish into deeper waters. His feet crunched across the gravel parking lot as he strode with purpose to get out of the brimming storm, knowing he’d only find another, from Charlie, if he didn’t hit Main Street soon.

Opening his truck’s door, he stepped up a denim leg while lean muscles along his arms pulled against sun-darkened skin as he hoisted himself up. Fishing gave him a tan. What had women ever given him?

As he slammed the door, he cranked over the engine and, when it fired up, he thought how brief the release came when a woman was in his arms and then the pain lingers, a stretch of time longer than a cold, huge diesel block trying to find warmth from a miniscule glow plug. Give him the sun and a warm lake any day; just don’t give him another woman.

He shifted gears, turning to look back over his shoulder as he backed out of the spot when a shadow and a rap came to his window.

Shifting it back to idle, he twisted around and fell into brown of a wide, doe-like gaze. Pert, upturned nose and small, soft mouth warmed the shadows under the woman’s makeshift hood. Searching her face, the movement of her lips brought him back to the wilting smile. The hand she had lifted for him to see her thumb started to sink back down.

She started to move away, and he rolled down his window, rested an elbow on the door as he leaned out, toward her.

“You hitchhiking?” He nodded toward the hand that now rested idle on her curving hip.

“Well, I thought so …” she hesitated, “Now that I think about it, it’ll be evening soon and I should set up camp.”

“Uh uh.” He shook his head once. “Unless you have an RV in that pack of yours, you won’t be setting up anything in this weather. You could well be in a downpour before you know it. You plan on sleeping in a bathroom all night?”

She shrugged, “that or a cave.”

A combination of feelings came out at her non-complacent mood pinned down with avoidance tendencies; confusion and conviction were the main culprits. “Get in,” he said firmly then leaned over and unlocked the passenger door.

When he sat up, he discovered her disappearance. Then a thud sounded from his bed. He looked back and found her pack in the bed.

“Thanks,” she said as she stepped up, pulled herself onto the seat. She sighed, looked out the windshield, ready for the road to move under the vehicle.

He stayed, unmoving as he considered her. She appeared clean and healthy–her long walnut hair, where it had escaped the restraints of her bandana, was combed and washed, and he’d smelled white raspberry when the wind flipped the tresses as she had climbed into his cab.

She turned to him, leveled her gaze, calling him out. “Shouldn’t we get a move on? I’ve already taken too much of your time.”

He stuck out a hand, “I’m Richard.”

She grasped it and worked through one quick lift before pulling back. “Denise.” Her touch was small and cool in his hand, and hardly enough. The hell it was, he mentally fired, as memories flipped him grim.

He dropped his hand to the lever and shifted into first gear. “Nice to meet you.”

When they reached cruising speed, he glanced at her. She was watching him and had pulled her soft lips in, crushed them together. Her forehead muscles flexed as her eyebrows curled. His double-take was too late to capture any more, but he’d seen enough before she had turned back to the windshield.

“What was that?”

“What?” she asked.

“Is my driving that bad?”

“I was just reminded of something,” she whispered. She sniffled and dragged a flannel sleeve across her nose.

He let it go, wasn’t his problem. She only needed a ride, to the nearest motel, nothing more. As he focused on the road, he noticed her continued gazing in his direction but took less concern because he knew.

The view past him gave her reason to stare. He knew what she saw, knew it from everyday of driving the area, from growing up not far from this highway. They were curving down the side of a mountain and beneath them, where the range of peaks had opened up, a valley filled the space; ten-thousand feet above sea level, a plain had taken roost. It looked vast even as it was tucked in by disjointed walls of granite. A one-street town, South Park, his Fairplay, sat in the center of it.

A brief glance and he spotted a herd of elk dotting one field. As they reached the base of the mountain, the view in greater detail, a coyote was seen trotting toward the herd crossing the dry field of yellow grass.

She was smiling when he glanced back at her but quickly turned away from his arched look.

Expressionless, she looked forward, and asked, “So am I your first?”

He brought his brows low over his eyes in consternation. “What?”

“Hitchhiker,” she huffed. “Am I your first hitchhiker?”

He nodded. “Yeah. You are.” At least the first one with doe eyes and tiny wrists.

“Well, it’s easy enough. I can walk you through the process if you like.”

He smiled. “I think I understand the basic concept.”

She nodded and then glanced out the passenger window, up at the sky. A gasp went past her soft, parted lips.

Yeah, he thought, the nearness of the sky had that effect. The hulking storm clouds would appear to have dropped down in altitude, shouldering thousands of feet down into this valley.

He tried to distract himself away from appreciating her appreciation. He eyed her gear in his bed, spotted a tent set and sleeping bag at the base of a hiker’s pack. Unable to help a glance back at her, he considered her long-sleeve flannel and faded blue jeans, except the jeans gave him a hint at her figure, her hip curving in to a tiny waist.

She turned back to him and he remembered the road.

From his peripheral view, there was a questioning tilt to how her head angled.

He explained, “I was just wondering how you ended up here.”

She shrugged. “That’s easy enough. Another car dropped me off then you picked me up.”

“I meant longer ago than that.”

“I know,” she sighed. “How long do you have me for?”

“Well, we still have an hour before we hit the nearest inn.”

“Uh huh. Well, I usually save my life story for rides that last more than half the day.”

He shrugged. “An hour can be a long time to fill with silence.” A glimpse hadn’t been enough. He wanted to know more in the short time he’d have her.

“That’s what the radio’s for.”

“Radio’s broken.”

Her eyes narrowed. She leaned over and tapped the power button. Musical notes escaped from the speakers.

He reached under the dashboard and unplugged a harness. The tunes ceased.

She glanced up at his face and shot him a glare for his smile. Then her eyebrows crinkled, and he felt scrutinized. He wondered what was so captivating about his old T-shirt tucked into his faded jeans.

“So,” he started. “You going to start talking?”

“I don’t have to, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But I can’t see the harm in it. After all, you’re just here for the night.” Unless he could think of something to keep her here longer; besides there being something about her, he could at least show her off to Charlie, once.

“I really should make a recording–I can just play it back with each ride.”

“How many have you had so far?”

She thought and pressed on fingers. “Four.”

He nodded, wondering what sort would pick up a half-starved, young woman with coppery hair. He hoped she was thorough in her choosing process. “If you don’t start,” he urged, getting ahead of concern, “I’ll just have to speak for you. So Denise, how’d you end up here?”

“Well,” he answered back, softening his voice, adding a lilt, “As you can tell by my brand new camping gear and reaction to scenery, I’ve never seen a mountain before. And I wanted to before I locked myself up as a secretary in some downtown, Denver….” He was making a stretch, trying to pull her out, but she merely sighed, rested her head on the glass.

They reached the outskirts, a collection of general store, restaurant, and half a dozen houses where he took a right at a three-way junction, and they entered a new expanse of dancing trees. “I see,” he answered. “But why didn’t you drive?” The force of the wind on his truck eased back as the trees and nearby low hills buffeted the storming gusts.

“Well,” he replied for her, in a laughable breathy voice, “I couldn’t watch the mountains if I had to watch the road, could I? Oh, they are so lovely.”

Finally, her tired expression changed–a smile tugged at the corner of her soft mouth. She had to feel warmer than the cold glass his left arm pressed against. But how could he tell? She was clamped up tight, and he’d never seen that before. “Maybe I should get a dog.”

She turned back to him with a cocked brow.

“It would make for more stimulating conversation.”

She pointed a finger, “You know…”

He eyed her as he held his head toward the road, prompting, “Yes…?”

She dropped her hand and sighed. “’Guess I can’t insult a free ride.”

“Hey, I’d take insults over silence.”

“Why are you so interested?”

He shrugged, “You are my first. You pick up rides at rest areas, you travel alone … I want to figure you out. Being confused is uncomfortable.”

Especially since his sister would never shut up back in high school. After so long, he figured she could not breathe unless there was gossip flowing from her mouth. And his most recent run-in with a relationship consisted of a daily recount, every detail, except for the facts that mattered like how much she loathed the town and wanted someone to take her out of there. Charlie was a talker, too. So why wasn’t this one? He wanted to know.

“Alright, fine,” she answered. “My roommate kicked me out. We were great friends, or so I thought, but the minute I get laid off and can’t afford my half of the living cost, she dumps me out on the street. I was … hurt, by how much she wanted my paycheck instead of me.…” The look of betrayal was clearly skin deep.

Noticing his silence, she turned to him, “What?”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“What are you talking about? She really screwed me up so I decided to search for another roommate but …” her voice lowered, “When I looked to my other friends, I wasn’t sure if I could trust them. I knew I could always count on my sister. But we hadn’t exactly been getting along lately. I seemed to have lost control over all my loved ones.”

It was good he had cruise control installed on that old truck of his. He could keep an eye on the road but also penetrate the bullshit she was trying to pass over him. She was buried deep inside there, somewhere. He glanced again, focusing hard.

She was gone. He had lost her consideration as she stared through the front windshield. A different scene played out on the other side of the glass than the one he saw in present time.

She did not see the passing mountain ridges edged against the setting sun with a surface like a serrated knife. She did not see it, she did not need to; she dug up a rusty, old knife that dragged and tore her heart’s flesh with its dull and notched side. He could at least see the wounding in her profile. Then she glared. Her lie was turning its back on her. There was truth, too.

She needed to apply the brakes, he decided, to her speeding thoughts, and he began again, “I guess you’re right.”

Blinking, she looked at him, questioningly.

“You think some of it is true, but the details don’t add up for me.”

“Sometimes that’s how life happens. Who said it’s supposed to make sense?”

“I did,” he said, but he’d change his approach, anything to see a different expression on her face, be it anger at him even. “I mean c’mon–If you want other drivers to buy your stories and leave you be, they have to sound reasonable. Sure, you could have gotten dumped and there’s some bad memories, but what I’ve heard doesn’t justify dumping your life, risking whatever you’re trying to pull out here. What else you got? Try another one on me.”

“Are we there yet?” she asked instead, making it an obnoxious complaint.

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