Finally the handle Denise had been wrangling with gave way and the door unlatched. She dropped to the ground–knees, shins, or whatever came first, catching her. A dust cloud rose up and she with it, one foot followed the other and continued until she reached the forest and its shadows, after space, after air, and after any way possible out of her memories. Stumbling, her legs growing weak, she fell on her side. With no reason left to stand, she let the sobs overtake her body. Remaining energy took to shivers as her tears froze.
A warm hand wrapped around her upper arm, pulling her to her feet. Then the body, she knew it to be Richard’s; his scent, the familiar presence of him stepped away. As she lifted her face to meet his, she couldn’t see him, his face hidden by the shadows of a pine. He remained silent. What more did he expect of her?
She would give nothing more, closing him off with the lowering of her eyelids. She heard his sigh, his step forward and then around. The metal circlets released her wrists. Finally, he’d removed the handcuffs. Did that mean he believed her?
“C’mon,” he said and guided her to the building, a firm hand on her elbow which she didn’t fight.
Inside, he locked the restroom’s door behind them, brought her to the sink.
Nothing happened. She wondered at his dominating essence over her and yet he just stood there. Having no choice, cornered by sink and wall, she dared to meet his eyes and immediately became locked into his gaze until a memory pricked her nape. She swallowed a gasp and turned her head away.
Gently, he guided a paper towel under the cold running water of a faucet and started to move in toward her. In response, she grasped his hand thinking she should have aimed for the paper towel instead, because his hand taking hers for some reason, gave her strength. A deep part of her, deeper than he’d yet seen, needed that strength, but she pulled away taking the wet paper towel with her and rubbed down her face before splashing cold water on it. He handed her dry paper towels until she came out dry, rosy pink, and her eyes, focused on the mirror not him, swollen and red.
“We need to leave,” he said.
She nodded, fixated by her reflection–a horrible mess which matched the situation in which she was firmly stuck.
“C’mon,” he said, probably more than once before finally penetrating to her that he stood by the door, waiting for her. After stepping through, he maintained her slow pace, and she ignored the feeling of his eyes on her as they walked. As they neared the truck, his attention strayed and he came to a complete stop. “Hold on.”
Intent on her mental drive to keep moving, she had to turn back and meet him. She gave him a questioning look.
He pointed past her and her gaze followed to the metal arm hanging down from his truck, by the right rear wheel.
Based on his reaction, it must not have been like that before, meaning someone had messed with his truck while they were inside.
She looked up, fearing what she would find and unable to control the gasp when she saw who. Of course it had been; how could she have ever hoped it wouldn’t be, but she had.
“We have to follow that car!” She turned to him gesturing wildly in the vague direction of the only other car in the parking lot, a Pontiac that was pulling out as she spoke. “We can’t let her-, it, IT, get away.”
Eyeing the car as it left the rest area, she fought the compelling need to yank his arm toward his truck; get his keys out, get them on the road. They had to reach that person who was ruining cars, endangering people simply because they looked like someone else, but Richard just kept eyeing things–now his truck’s suspension had gotten the look.
“We can’t go after it,” he finally explained to her.
“What? Why not?”
“Whoever that was, they took one of the rear control arms off my truck. Even with the tools, I don’t have the parts to put it back together.”
No! Not good enough. She had to do something, could … could–Sprinting across the parking lot, she would catch the car at a stop sign before the interstate, but when she came around the last turn, the blue Pontiac was already a mile down the road.
She turned her head back and forth as she said between winded breaths, “Don’t do this. Not for me.”
She gasped when she realized Richard stood at her side with crossed arms.
“Looks like you’ve got more explaining to do.”
“Forget it. Forget you. You’ve got no part in this.” She continued toward the interstate.
“Where are you going?”
“After that car. I’ll hitch a ride. I’ve got to get to the next rest area and the next and the next.”
He kept right on with her. “I don’t get it. Why, Denise? Why are you hell-bent on catching her before anyone else does? Hasn’t it occurred to you she’s dangerous?”
More dangerous for you than me. “What does it matter?”
“Look,” he offered, walking backward, meeting her glare as he forced her arm down, getting her thumb out of the air. “We’re only going one direction and that’s back to my place. I’ve got another car and I’ll take you wherever you want, but I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
She marched right up to him, chin high as she challenged him, digging for whatever she had left inside which felt pretty hollow at this point, brittle and thin casing called Denise. “Look yourself; this is not your battle, it never was, and, if you ask me, you are causing more trouble than good. Go back to your town and your life and, now that I think about it, take as much of mine with you when you go.”
He nodded. “Alright. If that’s what you want, I’ll take the whole thing.”
He scooped her up and flipped around, taking her back to the rest area.
When she started her struggle, he added, “Keep it up and you’ll find yourself in handcuffs again.”
She didn’t care, not at this point, her hands pressed against his solid chest, trying to get away from him, any space. “Please,” she begged. “I have to–I have to–”
His step never suggested hesitation.
Her pleas transformed into shallow breaths as she felt drained of reasons. He made sense. Her arms shook and she released, collapsing against his chest, feeling as lost as a child in the middle of a dark, autumn forest when, in the middle of silence, the brush rustles and the child thinks herself trapped, no one to turn to. All shadows. No help.
She heard Richard’s voice beyond the wind rushing with each panted breath. She shook her head. “I don’t know. I just want– I can’t–”
“Calm down,” he lifted her face with his open hand and looked into her eyes.
“Why are you here?” she whispered.
His grey irises were her last image. Her field of vision diminished until it circled those eyes and then the shade closed completely.
* * *
Denise woke to a pillow under her head and a heavy wool blanket over her body. Sunlight filtered through thin, yellow curtains. She squinted as she sat up against the back of her bed, discovered it to be a couch. Her socked feet touched down on a hardwood floor.
From where she sat, her gaze searched out every corner of the room. No answers revealed themselves from the room’s contents. She found her long-sleeved flannel draped over the couch and pulled it on over her short-sleeve as she stood.
“So,” Richard’s voice greeted her from the threshold to a tiled room.
When she looked to him, he tossed her a tin-foiled object. Her arms went out and managed to stop its descent. She unwrapped the top and discovered a breakfast burrito.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Just give me a moment.” She set down the burrito, needing a moment to wrap her mind around everything. They had to be at his place; he must be agreeing to help her search for the woman responsible; and she desperately needed a bathroom.
As if guessing the last, he gestured with his burrito to the hallway behind her. “On your left.”
“Thanks,” she murmured. Inside, she observed the basics, basics she hadn’t seen in a while. By the porcelain sink sat shaving cream, a razor, and a dark blue container of deodorant. She re-focused on the sink. The splash of cold water, ice cold, mountain water, brought her back to where she left off yesterday. She returned the blue towel to its rack. Glancing at the mirror, she caught sight of her disheveled hair, briefly considered his comb but opted to use her fingers instead and then collected the mess into a ponytail.
She walked right past him to the door and said, “Let’s get a move on.”
The day refused to be anything but beautiful; clouds shaded sections of the town making the sunlight on the mountains that much more gleaming. The lower slopes were golden, the trees were textured, and the highest peaks were rugged, a climbing contrast between ravines and knife extensions. The ragged texture at least felt appropriate for her sharp and varied emotions.
She hopped up into the passenger seat of his old blue wagon and he dropped in behind the steering wheel. Out of his neighborhood, and they immediately hit Main Street. In a whirlwind, she was back on the highway.
“Well, we made it,” he said at last.
With a mouthful of egg and tortilla, she cocked him a quizzical look.
“I was expecting visitors. I figured local police would want to know how I ended up making that emergency call and if I witnessed anything. I would kind of be hard-pressed to hold to any story with you on my couch.” He finished with a small smile toward her.
“Yeah, that would be a bit hard to explain.” She considered the consequences briefly but parts of her were more interested in breakfast. As she wiped at her mouth, she asked, “The plan? You better have one after kidnapping me.”
He arched a brow but remained silent for a moment. Finally, after a pointed glance her way, he nodded. “We know which way she’s headed based on where she’s been, can scratch-off a couple of rest areas. I was thinking we will give the others down the road a quick tour through the parking lot. After all, we know what kind of car to look for; we’ll catch up with her.”
She nodded as she looked out the passenger window, considering what then? How could she lose him and stop this madness? The mountain views were wasted on her as her thoughts delved deep.
“How did you sleep?” Hardly the question she expected from him next. Why wasn’t he demanding what she knew about the attacker, how it mattered to her?
“Quickly,” she said, still choosing avoidance as her best route.
“Yesterday was a rough ride.”
“Although you’ve been riding it for a lot longer than that. Haven’t you?”
He wanted to know, was willing to listen, but she hardly felt ready to share, to put into words what she suspected. Holding Silence, she kept her face toward the passenger window. He had chosen to help; she did not owe him anything, particularly painful answers, damaging more than the attacker.
“To prove your innocence? Is that why you want to catch this criminal? Because you don’t–”
“She’s not a crim–” Her choked sob covered her revealing denial better than her hand over her mouth. Though she wasn’t innocent, Denise had begun to suspect, neither was the person a criminal. Except Denise struggled to fit an explanation to what’s happened so far. Her hand dropped as she spotted something besides natural green and brown tucked below the guard rail and dipping shoulder. “Stop. Pull over.”
The truck slowed and when it became static, Denise flew out from her door and raced back. The cops hadn’t found it yet, she was sure. It wasn’t covered in crime scene tape or whatever they did to suspect’s vehicles. The fact it was here, the Pontiac untouched, abandoned, said it was unknown to law officials.
She approached the passenger side and found it unlocked. Desperate for answers, she searched through every cubbyhole, flipped open the glove box and still found nothing. She searched the front and rear seats then leaned across and popped the trunk.
Richard joined her at the rear of the vehicle, lifting the lid. Inside, they found nuts, bolts, and a few suspension arms.
“It’s like she knew they were on to her,” Richard considered. “She felt the chase.”
Felt? Denise thought. She shook her head and cleared the thoughts from form like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch.
“Well,” Richard decided. “This’ll make tracking a bit more interesting. We’ll have to do extra thorough searching at each rest area from here on out. It’ll slow things down until she wrangles up a new ride.”
She nodded. And keep an eye out for anymore tall, brown-haired, adult males, she thought. That would be the bait. Her gaze strayed to the man standing next to her. Suddenly fishing took on a whole new meaning.