By the time I left Idaho, I’d stopped looking over my shoulder. When I crossed the Continental Divide, my heart stopped jumping every time I heard a diesel pickup snarling up the highway behind me.
I was no detective, but near as I could tell, Eric didn’t know where I was.
Four days ago, I’d waited until I knew without a doubt that he was at work, slipped out of the condo we shared, swiped his debit card, withdrew the maximum amount I could, rode the city bus as far as it would take me, and started hitchhiking. Phase one of my master plan could be summed up in three words: Get outta town. Okay, four words if you want to be precise about it.
Now, as I stood on the crest of a hill overlooking a large, open valley, I was on the cusp of phase two. Again, three words: Connect with Leslie.
I let the backpack slip off my shoulders onto the brown grass of the ditch and sank down beside it in an effort to rest my aching feet and still my fluttering nerves. I was leery of the reception I would get from my sister. Since August, nine months ago, I’d tapped out two long, rambling e-mails telling her what was happening. But each time I read the mess of my life laid out in black and white on a backlit screen, guilt and shame kept me from hitting the Send key.
The click of grasshoppers laid a gentle counterpoint to the sigh that I sucked deep into my chest. I slowly released my breath, searching for calm, reaching deep into a quiet place as my yoga instructor had taught me to do.
I pulled another breath in, tapping my fingers restlessly on my thigh, waiting.
Find the quiet place. Anytime now.
I reached deep, tried to picture myself mentally going deeper, deeper.
The screech of a bird distracted me. Above, in the endless, cloudless sky, a hawk circled lazily, tucked its wings in, then swooped down across the field. With a few heavy beats of its wings, it lifted off again, a mouse hanging from its talons.
So much for inner peace. I guess there was a reason I dropped out of yoga class. That and the fact that my friend Amy and I kept chuckling over the intensity of the instructor as she droned on about kleshas and finding the state of non-ego.
The clothes were fun, though.
I dug into my backpack and pulled out my “visiting boots,” remembering too well how I got them. Eric’s remorse over yet another fight. He had come along, urging me to pick out whatever I wanted. I had thought spending over a thousand dollars would fix what was wrong between us, and, for a few weeks, it had.
I sighed as I stroked the leather. Sad that one of the best things that had come out of my relationship with Eric was a pair of Christian Louboutin boots with their signature red-leather soles. For now, the boots would give me that all important self-esteem edge I desperately needed to face Leslie.
As I toed off my worn Skechers and slipped on the boots, I did some reconnoitering before my final leg of the journey.
Beyond the bend and below me, the town of Harland waited, secure in the bowl of mountains surrounding the town. For the past three days, I’d been hitching rides from Seattle, headed toward this place, the place my sister now called home. For the past two hours those mountains—so high that they still had snow capping their peaks even though it was late May—had drawn me on, never getting closer.
I lifted my hair off the back of my neck. Surely it was too warm for May? I didn’t expect Montana, home of mountains and rivers, to be this warm in spring.
My head felt like someone had been drizzling hot oil on it, basting the second thoughts scurrying through my brain.
I should have at least phoned. Would Leslie even want to see me after such a long silence? I knew Dan wouldn’t be thrilled to see me come striding to his door, designer boots or not. Dan, who in his better moments laughed at my lame jokes, and in his worse ones fretted like a father with a teenage daughter about the negative influence he thought I exerted on my little sister. His wife.
The few times I checked my e-mail, I read about my little nephew Nicholas’s stay in ICU and subsequent fight for his life. I knew I had messed up royally as an aunt and a sister. Leslie had sent a dozen e-mails pleading with me to connect. To call.
And I’d wanted to more than anything in the world. But at the time, I was holding on to my life with my fingertips and had no strength for anyone else.
You had your own problems. You didn’t have time.
But I should have been there for my only sister. I could have tried harder.
The second thoughts were overrun by third thoughts, the mental traffic jam bruising my ego.
I pulled a hairbrush out of my knapsack in preparation for the last part of my trip. Bad enough I was showing up unannounced. I didn’t need to look like a hobo. As I worked the brush through the snarl of damp curls, I once again promised myself I was going to get my hair cut. I pulled long auburn strands of hair out of the brush and let them float away on the faintest of breezes, to be returned back to the land. After doing my part for recycling, the brush went back into my purse, tucked into my backpack.
I brushed the grass off my artfully faded blue jeans. Still clean.
Zipping up my knapsack, I let out one more sigh before I heard the sound of a car coming up over the hill. Maybe a ride.
I twisted to see better, and my heart plummeted all the way down to the stiletto heels of my designer boots as the car topped the hill.
A sheriff’s car, bristling with antennas, a no-nonsense light bar across the top.
Did Eric sic the cops on me?
I teetered a bit, wishing I were a praying person. Because if I believed that God cared even one iota about my personal well-being, I’d be reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary—anything to get His ear right now.
In spite of my sudden spate of nerves, my eyes were drawn to two young girls huddled in the backseat of the cruiser. They didn’t look older than seven or eight. What could they have possibly done to warrant the heavy artillery of a police car and two officers?
The passenger door of the car opened, and my attention shifted to the man now approaching me. He wore the obligatory Stetson and tan uniform of state sheriffs. And of course a mass of hardware hanging around his waist, including a pistol.
I swallowed again.
There’s no way Eric could know where you are, I reminded myself as I straightened. They can’t arrest you. You did nothing wrong.
Besides, I thought, glancing again at the two frightened girls in the backseat, there’s no room for you in the car.
“Good morning,” the cop said as his partner got out of the car as well, also wearing the obligatory reflector sunglasses. “Nice day, isn’t it?”
Maybe it was the sunglasses. Maybe it was the setting—two men, one woman, empty countryside. I put my guard up quicker than you can say, “Book ’em, Dano.”
“Define nice.” Not a great deflection, and not a good idea, but if I was in trouble, nothing I said would make a difference anyway. If I wasn’t, I had just bought myself some time while I further assessed the situation with my razor intellect.
“Would you be willing to answer a few questions?” He had a deep, rough voice that would have reinforced my prickly tendencies, but the beginning of a dimple at the corner of his mouth made me relax. A little.
“If I answer I won’t need to enter a witness protection program, will I?”
The dimple deepened a little, and I felt an answering smile. I think I could like this guy, in spite of the gun and the shades.
He was about to say something more when his partner strode over, his uniform and upright bearing conveying “Serve and protect.”
“Were you anywhere near a house located five miles down Clarkson Road in the past twenty-four hours?” The other sheriff’s voice was quiet, polite, but his tone brooked no more nonsense from me.
“You know nothing about a party?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t.” I thought the apology was a nice cooperative touch.
“Have you seen any suspicious activity on this road? Any vehicles? People?”
“Any information you can give us would be helpful,” the first officer added.
As my eyes flitted to the little girls with their pajamas and unkempt hair, my mind flashed back to another scene, also featuring two young girls, a hysterical mother, and a social worker who had come to ask a few questions. The social worker had left without Leslie and me, and I learned the first of many varied life skills that day.
“I’m not from around here,” I said. “I wouldn’t know suspicious from ordinary.”
“What’s your business here?” the shorter officer asked.
Self-preservation urged me to keep things obscure. “Just visiting.”
I wanted to tell him to mind his own business, my usual MO with nosy men, but the badge, the gun, the car, and all the authority invested in him by the state of Montana gave him the right to ask. “My sister. Leslie Froese—sorry—VandeKeere.”
The dimple cop frowned. “You don’t look like her.”
Okay, maybe Leslie, being a mother and all, wasn’t the type to be wearing high-heeled boots, a halter top, and a diamond in her nose, but I knew my whole image was way tamed down from what my friends in Seattle were sporting.
“How do you know her?”
“Leslie works in the emergency department of the hospital,” he said quietly. “My job takes me there from time to time. I’m Lieutenant Jack DeWindt. This is Deputy Sheriff Diener.”
I wasn’t up on my Emily Post and wasn’t sure if this was the point where we shook hands, so I simply offered a decisive nod. I hoped I wouldn’t see either of them again anytime soon. I had come to Harland to lay low at Leslie’s while the dust settled back in Seattle. Getting to know cops was not on the list.
“So, you’ve got nothing for us?” Sheriff Diener asked again.
“Nope.” I gave him a quick smile and threw in a “hey, whatever” toss of my hair just to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
Sheriff Diener looked convinced and strode back to the car, but Jack lingered for a moment. “I’ll see you around,” he said quietly, biting back a smile.
I supposed he meant it as a throwaway comment, but something in his eyes hinted at flirtation.
“Not a chance,” I muttered through my gritted teeth as I smiled and waved. Eric had soured me on men and relationships for a long, long time.
As they drove away, two pale, forlorn faces stared at me over the backseat, and a shiver crawled up my spine. I wondered what lay in those girls’ futures.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t spare them more than a moment’s sympathy. If I didn’t get a ride soon, I would have to switch my footwear again.
I glanced back over my shoulder at the quiet highway, adjusted the straps of my backpack, and headed down the hill toward Harland, Leslie, and her family.
Ten minutes and two vehicles later, a car slowed down.
A young woman slouched behind the wheel. Sparkly barrettes clipped back blond hair, the perky effect negated, however, by her tired smile.
“Do ya need a ride?” she asked through the open passenger window as she leaned one skinny arm across the back of the seat. Her pale green shirt and blue jeans, though worn and faded, gave her a conservative look that inspired confidence.
I pulled open the passenger door.
And stopped when I saw a baby in the backseat.
The girl caught the direction of my look. “Don’t worry ’bout Madison. She’s finally quiet. Cried all morning, so I thought I’d take her for a ride.”
Behind us stretched an empty road devoid of vehicles. Unless I wanted to walk the rest of the way to Harland, this was my ride. I tossed my knapsack in the back of the car, and followed it inside.
“Headed to Harland?” the driver asked as she pulled out onto the road.
“If that’s where this road goes.”
“This road goes nowhere,” she said, steering the car with her elbows as she lit a cigarette. “Every morning, I look out the window…”
“And it’s still there,” I finished the old joke for her.
She waved her cigarette at me. “You want one?”
“No thanks.” I wondered if she should be smoking around the baby, but as a rid-er, I wasn’t about to lecture the rid-ee.
“Where you from?” Her question came out on the breath of a tired sigh.
“I’m Terra. I came from out west.” Keep it vague. You don’t know her.
“Amelia,” she supplied. The car swerved as she slipped the lighter back into its holder. The baby’s head lolled to one side, and I could see the trace of veins in her pale cheeks and in the tiny arms poking out of a stained and faded sundress.
“Do you mind turning the air-conditioning down a bit?” I asked.
Amelia frowned at me. “It’s hot as Hades out there.”
“Yes, but your baby seems a little cold. Her fingers are blue.”
Amelia touched the baby’s hand. “Oh, yeah,” she said, then reached over and turned the fan down. “This is such crazy weather for May. I thought she was crying because she was hot, so, well…” She took another puff of her cigarette. “So, what’s in Harland? You know anybody there?”
“Well, I’ve already met the cops…”
“About twenty minutes ago. They stopped to ask me a few questions.”
“Questions about what?”
“A party down the road. They had two little girls with them.”
“Do you know those girls?”
“No. I don’t. It’s just… I can’t believe they would…” She let the sentence fade away as she stared straight ahead.
“Can’t believe they would what?” Why was she so concerned?
“Never mind.” She took another drag off her cigarette, blowing smoke to the side. “I could sure use a drink right now. You want to come with me?”
And the baby? Did she need a drink, too?
This is none of your business, I reminded myself as I licked my dry lips and lifted my hair off the back of my neck.
The pavement shimmered in front of us, and through the heat waves, I caught a glimpse of the town of Harland coming closer with relentless speed. My heart fluttered.
Leslie’s last batch of letters talked about God and faith and how the community had come through for her and Dan when Nicholas was in the hospital. Between the lines lay the unspoken accusation that I hadn’t.
What should I have written her? I’m sorry, but my chaos was more important than your chaos?
Amelia flicked her cigarette out the window, then looked at me again as if underlining her previous question.
I had time. Leslie didn’t know I was coming.
Maybe getting to know a few of Harland’s residents wasn’t such a bad idea. Give me a chance to scope out the place. What was the worst that could happen?