“You knew I was lying,” Denise turned from the window and its black view, giving him a question that was more a statement. Richard knew she referred to the tale she spun of her ex-husband’s car crash.
“You had a powerful story, but it wasn’t you.”
“My friend, two years ago. I was by her side when she was in that hospital bed. And then, in the truck, with you, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everything I’d seen reminded me of it.”
He nodded. How could it not? Surviving a car crash can end up hitting the replay button for past events.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked.
She’d been hurt, bad, but she’d been lying. He’d refused to drag out the pain. “You weren’t ready. I thought it best not to pick at a sore wound anymore.”
“I guess you should know, to hear the truth from me and not my sister, after everything you’ve done.” It tumbled from her lips recklessly; time to get it out, put it between them. “My husb–ex was working late. I was running behind so I decided to surprise him with dinner. As I walked to his building with bags of Chinese food, thinking how we could have a picnic on his office floor, I came around the corner, collided with seeing him, and her. His arm was wrapped around her waist, pulling her close. He kissed her neck before he realized I was standing there. I froze. She separated herself from him. ‘Denise,’ he started. But he couldn’t come up with anything after that. I shook my head, turned, and crammed dinner into a trash can, felt like I was tossing out our marriage. I got pitying looks from friends and co-workers. On some of their faces I saw they had known. He came by the house when I was at work to collect his things. What I told you from camping gear and on, it was true.”
“But you decided to tell the world he was dead.”
“I didn’t tell the world that,” she snapped reflexively then calmed, admitted, “I did lie, to everyone. I didn’t want to admit I was a devoted wife who was so blind my husband could get away with cheating for two years. What would they think? Who else would take advantage of me? Step right up! See the most gullible woman in the world,” she whispered the last, torn in hurt. She had no more left to give; she crossed her arms, held her gaze out the front windshield.
Richard hadn’t the words to bandage such a long-gaping wound. He felt accomplished, completed and humbled, now that she finally shared, let him in, but it took time to find the thread and needle, the supplies or words to stitch her right. Road noise hummed as he thought and night began to withdraw, black blending with navy blue. His time with her was limited.
“We all start off naive,” he started.
She released a short laugh.
“You disagree?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “Just don’t try applying it to me.”
“Is this trip of yours any less childish? What are you hoping to accomplish?”
Her shoulders dropped their determined, straight posture. “Nothing. I’m not trying to accomplish anything. I was just escaping a fire. My social world was burning down around me. My life was false for years. I needed to find a new one.”
“You didn’t want to rebuild from the ashes.”
She sighed. “You know, I never really did like Denver.”
“You’re looking for a new homestead?”
“No … I’m looking for…. I am letting myself get lost. And maybe, when I … I don’t know what I’m saying. I don’t want to know.”
Her body surrendered further, a posture of defeat against a sky of dark ocean depths and shallow seas.
“You’re trying to lose yourself,” he answered.
She crinkled her brow and after a moment’s thought, she nodded. She stared through the glove box as she replied, “I don’t want to be myself anymore. I want to be someone who doesn’t neglect her sister and lets insanity have her, who doesn’t let herself be a rag doll that her husband can toss aside after giving vows of love forever, who has been taken advantage of by everyone.”
The sun interrupted the shallow seas with streaks of yellow. It was about to break the horizon as he spotted the sign warning him that at the next right he would find a rest area, lose her forever.
He reacted, “Denise, I want you … as you are. You can’t run from what happened to you, you know that. Let it come and I’ll be there to meet it with you.”
She turned from her glove box of meditation and met his eyes. She closed hers against his plea, shaking her head. “I can’t. I don’t deserve–”
He flicked his signal and turned the wheel as he interrupted, “What are you talking about? You don’t deserve what? You are more than what you gave yourself. I have seen it.”
“Just let me go,” she whispered as he parked.
Without a look back, she stepped out and reached over the bed for her pack.
He opened his door and walked around the front of the truck. He started his approach with an arm extended, but paused when her eyes fell on him. He could not deny that pained look. He dropped his arm and watched her turn.
“At least,” he started and she stopped. “If,” he said, “things should change and you pass by again in your travels, promise to make a stop in my town. Don’t lie.”
“Alright,” she replied tonelessly and returned to her planned path for the restroom. “Thank you, Richard,” without looking back, she stepped forward, away from him.
He sighed, having given it all, then returned to the driver’s door and climbed behind the steering wheel. Reaching for the key still in the ignition, he paused, placed his hands on the wheel. She could take care of herself even though she wanted to think herself frail. He knew she was in there right now putting her lying face back on. She probably has three new stories concocted by now, he thought.
But, still, he did not reach for the key. She just needs time to think, he told himself. She’ll get it. He turned the key and brought the truck to life. But it doesn’t mean I have to let her out of my sight. He shifted into gear and drove out of the rest stop.
He parked his truck on the highway’s shoulder, able to see the rest area but out of view of searching eyes, killed the engine and waited.
An hour passed before she stepped out. He wondered at the delay. She dropped her pack, searched one of the pockets, and brought out sunglasses. As she went to put them on, he had a brief look at her eyes. They were red, skin blotchy from tears he wasn’t there to wipe away this time. How long will she force herself to fight alone?
She picked up her pack and walked to the closest juniper bush, choosing its shaded side for her perch.
A breeze had picked up. The non-coniferous trees held leaves worthy of rustling. A pinon jay called out from in the forest. Clouds passed overhead regularly. She didn’t stir and so neither did he.
A silver sedan pulled into the rest stop. A middle-aged male stepped out and made use of the facilities.
Denise shouldered her pack and began her approach as the sedan’s driver exited the building.
She greeted him and, when he spotted her, he offered her a smile. A brief conversation ensued when, at its conclusion, he lifted up the trunk lid and she stored her pack.
He came around to the driver’s door. She offered a laugh at something he said and climbed into the passenger seat.
* * *
The driver reversed and drove away as Denise fell into step of her reliable, and yet false, words. She refused to look back, knowing Richard still wasn’t there.
Can everyone tell I’m lying now? she thought after the driver’s response, but it hadn’t been a lie. He probably just takes every fish story with a grain of salt. She glanced at her side mirror and gasped. Richard’s truck fell into her sights from a couple cars back.
“What was that?” the driver asked.
“Uh, nothing,” she replied. “It must be from that party last night. Your neighbors sure know how to party. I hope you don’t mind if I close my eyes for a little while.”
“Oh, sure, sure. It’ll be a while before we pass another rest area anyway.”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
When she closed her eyes, her mind went into overdrive. What is he doing! I told him no and–I was telling the truth, wasn’t I? She searched out what she had told him. It was true; she did not want to be herself anymore. Then she told him … she paused. She told him to just let her go. Well, isn’t that what she wanted? Yes, of course it was. She could never forget if she was with him, his appearance alone…. She exhaled and dropped her shoulders. Do you honestly think you’ll be able to anywhere else? I have to. I can. This road must have the answers. Stopping will only make it hurt more.
A cell phone ring cut off her thoughts.
“Hey there, little girl,” her driver answered. “How are you feeling? No more fever? That’s great. Yes, tell Mom I’m on my way home. No, I didn’t catch anything, only because I didn’t have you there with me. That’s right. Okay, I’ll see you soon. Love you, too.”
The driver lowered the phone, pushed a button before flipping it closed and returning it to his shirt pocket.
“Oh,” he said as Denise sat up, “sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “Was that your daughter?”
“Yeah, Samantha. I tell you; we adopted an angel.”
Denise nodded. She looked out the passenger side window. The silence did not continue for long.
“We had our own once,” the driver started.
She returned to his face and his clear-lake, blue eyes appeared far away.
“She was in her mid-teens when we lost her.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean …”
“It’s alright. They say it helps to talk about it.”
“Well,” she replied, “I guess I’m all ears then.”
He glanced her way and smiled with appreciation. Then he returned to the windshield and his smile weakened. “It was such a simple thing, but I couldn’t protect her.”
“Should never happen to a parent,” she offered, keep him going; move forward.
“My wife and I had to decide what needed to be done. We were lost for a while, fearing for our relationship. Then Sam entered our lives,” he smiled through his memories. “She changed our outlook on life. She isn’t a replacement. People like to think we were desperate. No, she is our second start, a future.”
He quieted as she watched him.
“Well,” he coughed, “not exactly what you expected from a free ride, huh? A lecture on life?”
She offered up a light laugh, “you’d be surprised how many life stories have been offered up to me.”
“You must just be easy to talk to. You look like you’ve had it rough.”
“Yeah, well, we all look like that at some point in life, I guess.”
He nodded. “To live is to lose, even if, in the end, it’s just your life. But, before you go, you’re also given the chance to share what love you have.”
Her brow crinkled under his heavy thought.
He looked to her, explained, “The lonely road gives me a lot of time to think.”
“You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” she replied.
“Well,” he nodded toward the highway, “it looks like we’re coming up to your stop. You sure you don’t want to join me into town?”
She shook her head and smiled, “no, thank you, I think I can do better thinking out here.”
He flipped his turn signal on and slowed to the corner.
She watched the side mirror out of the corner of her eye. Richard followed. She sighed. Now what?
They rounded some tall sagebrush and pulled into a paved parking lot. Concrete steps led up to a water fountain seated in the building that joined two walk-around wooden walls. The driver parked and looked to her.
“You’ll be alright?” he asked.
“Yes, I will. Thank you.”
“If you come back this way again, I hope to see you again.”
She smiled. “Take care. Say hi to Sam for me.”
She swung the door shut as he popped the trunk from his seat. She pulled out her pack, closed the lid, and waved. After walking up to the wall, she peaked through a slit. After seeing Richard, watching … waiting, for her, she decided.
Stepping out to be seen, she turned and walked right into the evergreen forest. She found a juniper with a wide diameter and stowed her pack into the middle.
Needing to walk and think, pine needles crunched under her boots. She unbuttoned her long-sleeve under the close sun. A slight breeze swept through her tank top. She surveyed the sky, the trees, then arrived at the ground. She watched her every step as she zigzagged through the trees. Her fear of getting lost had gone. She wondered how that happened or when. Maybe because the sound of eighteen wheeler air-brakes remained in her ears even though they grew muffled.
What am I doing? she thought. I’ll never be without this grief, no matter where I end up. Her eyebrows lowered, concentrating her visual view. Then they re-opened. She felt it, grief, but it had lost definition. She had to actually scour her mind in order to reach the explanation for the original grief. So much had happened in the last few days. She reviewed the events but never could name the exact moment that her ex and his influence had dissolved from her frontal view. It was a loss. Now she can gain.
She searched around her. Trees were her neighbors near and far with an uneven ground of natural granite. She listened. When she located the right noises, she took off and started running to the rest area.
Under a towering pine, she stopped.
Richard stood under another.
“I was worried about you,” he explained.
“But you’re okay?”
“Yes,” Denise replied, “I am.”
“Why are you following me?” As if he hadn’t told her enough, but she had to be sure this time, sure of something.
“Well,” he started as he stepped toward her and took her hand, “I’m not ready to let you walk out. I need time.” He offered a half-cocked grin. As it fell away, he offered with finality. “I want you in my life, Denise. Let’s fix this together.”
“I can’t trust you,” she replied.
“No, you can’t,” he responded as he held her face with his other hand. “Not yet.”
He lowered his head and she moved ever slightly to meet his lips. The warm brush ended, but he still held her cheek and encouraged her closer. She stepped into his arms and rested against his chest.
“Now what?” she asked.
“It’s up to you.”
She looked up and stared into his grey eyes. “How about we go fishing?”
He smiled. “Alright. Let’s go get your pack.”
As they meandered through the trees in the general direction of the storage bush, Denise smiled under her thought; well, if things get rough, I can always toss this one back and drop a line for another. She knew it to be a very big ‘if’.