Chapter Seven

“Hey, if you can’t handle me, what are you going to do when a real problem comes along?”

“I can handle real problems,” his passenger replied from the other end of the bench seat in his old truck. Immediately side-tracked, he wanted to know what had happened to her, who had done what, but his first hitchhiker was done opening up. “Can we kill the chatter for now?”

“Yeah, I better concentrate on the road anyway. Wildlife gets restless right after sunset.”

She closed her eyes and laid her head back on the seat.

She’d been hit hard, he decided. Whatever she’s running away from was keeping pace right alongside her. After their talk, she looked fragile. The strength she had to seek out and ride with strangers while lugging around that pack could not hold up against whatever invisible weight was crushing her, making her look smaller with each passing moment. As his hands rested on the wheel his arms were left feeling emptier than usual. He surprised himself when he accepted that he wanted her there, curled up where he could protect her, inside his arms, instead of leaning against the cold metal of his rickety, old truck.

When his gaze lingered on her, the gravel of the roadside rumbled under the tires. He yanked the wheel back, and the truck was steady again.

He checked on her. Her eyes were wide open, and her breathing came and went in short, quiet gasps.

“We hit a rough patch,” he said. “We’ll be coming up on my town soon.”

“Good,” she answered. “It’ll be good to have stationary ground beneath my feet. Swerving at high speeds is not really my thing.” The gleam in her eyes suggested she was baiting him, possibly had an idea of what had really happened and daring him to deny it.

However, the instant he braked in front of the entrance to the inn, she opened her door, stepped out and gave a quick thank you before she closed it. Lugging her pack out of his bed before he could help, she walked to the front door without another glance back.

* * *

Passing the wooden bear valets, carved by chainsaw, Denise pulled open the first set of doors, exhaling relief after being seated near someone whose physical characteristics matched so nearly her ex-husband, even if she’d never seen him in denim and a t-shirt, his hair mussed or his manner loose and comfortable. Plus, this man had seen through her every stretched truth. He’d seen her. But he was gone, and she shook him off as she pushed on another set of doors passing a rack of brochures. Gone was best when it came to attractive men.

At the check-in desk, the clerk looked up and smiled. He was portly, in his mid-forties and wore a long-sleeve, button-down navy blue shirt. He set aside a fishing magazine.

“I’d like a room for the night please. Single.”

He nodded and slid a form across the pine desk, accompanied by a pen.

“You need to fill out just this section, please, and sign the bottom.” He had what sounded like a faint Polish accent. “I’ll need your driver’s license.”

Her end completed, she returned the paper to him.

He looked it over and said, “from Denver, huh? What brings you here?”

“Oh, just another spot down the road. Passing through, you know?”

He nodded. “How is the job market up there? My wife and I have been talking about moving.”

“Well, there’s at least one opening that I know of.” She looked around, “is business always this slow?”

“Oh, no,” he replied, “you just showed up between the rafting season and the skiing rush. And of course we see our fair share of fishermen. Do you ski?”

“I’m sorry, but I’ve had an exhausting drive. I’d like to turn in.”

“Right, right. Well, here’s your room key. Check-out is ten-thirty. We stop serving breakfast at nine-thirty. Let us know if you need anything else.”

She nodded. “I will. Thank you.” She grabbed the keycard and turned to face the lobby, spying the roomy breakfast area with tables and chairs assembled from logs. The table tops were glazed pine trunks. A small antler chandelier hung from the tall ceiling. No people loitered around; she welcomed the feeling of indoor solitude.

Spotting a staircase along the wall to the left side of the dining section, she stepped onto the plush carpet, patterned with waves of yellow wheatgrass. As she climbed the steps, her hand slid along a railing constructed of sanded logs. The framed photographs of mountains looked like those most preferred by skiers. All of them looked good; flooded with Nature and with no resemblance to her departed, city life.

With keycard in hand and raised to position, she stopped. Her head hung down over the doorknob. Then again, he’s been with me in several hotel rooms before…. A smile crept up for a memory involving his family. Then all it took was that little crack in her cement wall for his absence to slam into her, overtake her like water that floods a town after the dam breaks. Her hand shook. Her eyebrows cowered over the outer corners of her gaze as she weakened.

A vacuum whirred through her pain and neared the corner to her hallway. She slid the keycard through the slot and passed the threshold and then sent the deadbolt home. It felt like she just clicked the heavy lock to her own prison cell. She dropped her pack at the door and her clothes soon followed. Without one surveying glance across the room, she stepped into the bathroom and then under the spray of a hot shower.

She scoured her skin until rosy and the water’s heat wrapped her like a hot towel capable of relaxing muscles, soothing physical aches, if not emotional ones.

Outside the bathroom, white towel clasped around her body, she considered her pile of clothes. She could probably make use of the Laundromat, unpack and pull out something else, but instead, blowing it off for now and with TV remote in hand, she took up the floor as her seat, surfed waves of distraction.

A knock rattled her state of meditation. She pulled herself up and held the towel tighter before she cracked the door.

He stood there and, standing, he towered like a pine tree.

“How?” she asked.

Richard smiled. “Sven, your hotel clerk, has been my fishing buddy for some time now.”

“And is he known for gossiping about tourists to the locals?”

“Well, no, actually,” he turned his head and rubbed the back of his neck, “it took a bit of dealing to learn your room number. I talked him down to a couple six packs and a free oil change.”

She had to smile when she heard that.

“Look,” he continued. “I just figured you might welcome a hot meal.”

“Yes, I would. But, I’d prefer to eat alone.” I’d probably lose my appetite if I sat across from someone who looked like you.

“I don’t think you’ll have much luck with that. There’s nothing here that resembles a fast food or take-out place. The bar and grill fills up on Saturday night, so you’ll have plenty of company no matter what. With me, you won’t have to walk there on an empty stomach.”

She groaned. How am I ever going to do this? “Fine,” she surrendered. “Just get back to the lobby and I’ll be down in a minute.”

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