Chapter Thirteen

Denise slumped in the seat as Richard drove, and he allowed the silence until their next stop, taking her to the closest rest area but not the one Frank had radioed from, the one where he had arrested her.

Richard kept thinking how things could have been worse, much worse. As he had followed in his truck, the bench seat empty where she had last sat and then fear had clogged his throat, he couldn’t swallow, mouth dried up when the patrol car slammed into the divider. Images of her being slapped against the interior gripped him; a limp doll against a metal cage, jolted and torn. Gashes and gaping wounds across a body with her face. His heart had stopped and clutched, frozen until he made it to the car, discovered her unharmed, and he had wanted to gather her close, smell her healthy scent, and simply hold her. She had run from him.

She’d made it so anyone else would think her guilty, but it hadn’t been her, he knew, so why had she run? Whatever it was had to be related to her, as she had said herself. Maybe she was wrong. Fear could be connecting random dots. Making sense of it would be up to what she told him. He was about to get his chance for honest answers as he spotted the rest area and decided he wasn’t letting her loose until she told him everything.

Tapping the brake, he turned the wheel to the right and pulled into the parking lot. The engine went from a rumble to a purr, then ceased. He dropped his hand from the shift knob, now in park, and sat back without a sound.

“Okay,” she started. “I didn’t leap out of the truck. Will you un-cuff me now?” She turned her back toward him and lifted her arms as much as she could in the bonds.

“No, not yet.”

She turned and set her back against the seat. “Why? What do you want from me?”

He finally looked at her and with his expression cemented, said, “Answers.”

Her eyes widened. She pressed her back against the passenger door, increasing the distance from him any way she could. He must have looked fierce, was going for hot anger like it surged through him, wanted–needed to intimidate and not let his protective instincts take over; she would take advantage. She needed him no matter what she said. She couldn’t do this alone, wouldn’t, not anymore.

“If you haven’t figured it out by now,” he began. “Let me spell it out for you: I have just aided and abetted a criminal. That’s what they’ll say. I deserve one, or as many as I want, answers.” His eyes searched out the open valleys of hers. The way she huddled, kept away from him, was like a doe cornered by a mountain lion.

She moved her head back and forth.

He hesitated but knew he had to push on. “I know very little about you since you’ve offered me nothing but lies. You want me on your side or else there’s no one. In order for that to happen, I need to know something real about you.” He took a moment for that to sink in and then he prodded, hard. “Why did you start running in the first place, start hitchhiking, start all of this?”

The outer edges of her eyelids crowded in on the white surfaces.

He hardened his jaw line. What happened to her and who did this to her? He wanted to know who to aim his wrath at. He wanted to know. “You’re not going anywhere and you’re running out of time.”

“You insensitive beast,” she flung the words at him like she wanted to fling objects.

He crossed his arms and waited.

She dropped her head and squashed her lips under her teeth. A sob rattled her shoulders.

He coughed into his hand, trying to make it sound impatient while clenching his fingers into a fist to keep from touching her.

Her muscles bunched up at her nape and her head shot up. “My husband is dead!” she hurled at him.

His arms weakened and lowered from his chest. Then they took up position again. “This is the best story yet. The acting … you nearly had me.”

She had hung her head again and her back was bent, wrapped over herself like a defensive cocoon, but at those words, she flipped up and flew fire in his face. “How dare you! You …You … Take off these cuffs and I’ll show you the white strip of skin on my finger.” She pushed a bounded arm toward him then stopped. “Wait. I don’t need to prove anything to you. If you don’t believe it, I don’t need to say any more. Now let me loose and out!”

He leaned in and glanced over her shoulder. While near her ear, he whispered. “It’s either here or in their interrogation room.” He sat back.

Her mouth opened. It was not to be released, but finally, she coughed up the beginning. “Was a car accident. Mine was in the shop. I waited at work for him.” Her eyes eased out of reality, losing all focus. She inhaled her strength and closed her eyes, the lids crushed down. “I spotted his car, coming around the corner. I stepped out and waited by the curb, heard tires squeal, sound of sirens came next. The runaway car tried to swerve around my husband’s car. It slammed head-on into my husband.

“I was a statue. I couldn’t move, only saw knotted metal. Then he started to grunt and move. I rushed over, but the police car cut me off. One officer ran to the scene. The other caught me. I cried for him to let me go; that he was my husband. The police officer said there was nothing I could do. I slumped against him and fell to my knees. What could I do? My husband. More sirens sliced through my thoughts, cold metal bells. I looked up as the ambulance parked. The passenger side officer yelled that the driver of the other car was done for. My heart became ice and each pulse hurt. My shins cold on the ground. I saw blue uniforms crowd around where he was trapped. A firemen came from somewhere and slammed something into the door. I heard bending, creaking. The door banged open. He was carefully lifted unto a gurney. I saw the gurney, not him. Couldn’t see around the others. The ambulance pulled out and the officer opened the back door to his patrol car. ‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘We’ll take you to the hospital.’”

She stopped. Her spoken words began to replay, in high focus across the shimmering surfaces of her eyes. Unspoken emotions but before they could break the water tension in her eyes, she threw out more words.

“At the hospital, they were racing him away from me again. The minute they opened my door, I flew past the officers throwing off their arms. I saw his face. I looked past the gashes and the blood to his eyes. They saw me, saw me. Words and air pumps crowded around me. Then his hea–” she coughed and gasped. Her chest heaved. “His face turned back to the ceiling. I saw his lips part and I could almost feel his breath like it brushed my arm as it did so many nights in our bed.… An alarm jerked me back to the florescent lights, the walls and metal instruments. His heart had quit. I was not by his side. ‘No,’ I whispered. I screamed. I crossed the hall and broke in to his side. I begged Charles not to leave me. Another voice demanded how I managed to get in there. He hollered for an orderly. I clutched the railing. Someone grabbed me, took me away. Then I heard the shocks. Paddles tossed his body up, dropped him like a rag doll. I couldn’t breathe. The white faded. I woke in a hospital bed. A needle and drip kept my mind slow and my muscles numb. A friend had been called. She was at my side. I turned away from her. I did not want to see that type of smile. It told me before she spoke. Still turned away from her I whispered, ‘where is he?’ Her hand shook in mine and a crack in her voice. ‘He’s not coming.’ I clenched my eyes shut. ‘You mean he’s dead,’ I said matter-of-factly. Then I cried, and cried. She started to stroke my shoulder, but I pulled away. She stood by as I moaned and screamed into my pillow. They had to dope me.”

She shuddered, trying for a deep breath, not succeeding. He wanted to stroke her hair back, see her face, but she kept it away from him. Inexplicably, rolling her shoulders, she inhaled deeply and then met his gaze. Her wide, doe eyes were dry.

Her voice held renewed strength. “My friends and co-workers would stop by afterward. I despised them. How many of them knew? Their faces started memories with them and him. My house was worse. Empty space stood always by one side of me as I sat on our couch, or ate at the table, or washed at the sink. The pain turned into everything. He betrayed me … by letting go so easily. Did he ever really care about me? Why would he throw us away? Enough, I decided, I wasn’t making sense, had to get out. I gave my friends and family some line that I was going to a grief-slash-religious camp in the mountains, but I didn’t know where I was going, didn’t want to choose. So I hitched, but it’s not working. Why can’t I escape him? Why does everyone have to look like him? And if that wasn’t enough, the wind forced me into your truck. I can’t do anything. I have no control. He was my life. Strangers came between us. And strangers that haunt me now, terrify me with memories.” Her eyes took a hard turn. Her brows lined up and slanted against them. “Strangers like you. I can run from all the others but not you. You won’t let me be. You’ve done this to me.”

She spoke of the mess her face was now victim to, her eyes smoldering, gaining fire as she glared at the hairs clinging in chaotic strings along her cheeks, brought in by the falls of water that had coursed down her cheeks. “Are you finally satisfied? Thrilled I’ve been more honest to you than anyone else? You should be, because I’m not!”

And then she was gone, dropped out of sight once the passenger door broke open, was running away–her legs free–before he gripped the handle on his side.

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