She didn’t see him until it was too late
to avoid him. The
dark shape at the side of the road up ahead was nothing, a blot at the edge of
her distraction, then it was an abandoned truck to pass by, and then it wasn’t
abandoned and her way was blocked by a man with his arm raised to flag her
down. Her fingers stopped their drumming on the steering wheel and tightened
around it, white knuckles as she slowed but not enough to stop. She wouldn’t
have stopped for a man she didn’t know on an otherwise empty country road even
under the best of circumstances, and she was not in the best of circumstances.
She heard his voice calling to her as she aimed
across the dashed yellow line. She set her jaw and refused to meet his eyes as
she rolled past him. As she eased her car around the wide curve the road took
next, she flicked her eyes to the rearview mirror to see him standing in the
middle of the road behind her, watching her leave with his hands outspread. She
watched him a moment too long, and when she looked again to the road ahead of
her, she had barely a few seconds to react to the deer carcass lying directly
in front of her.
She swerved and stamped on the brakes. Her tires
into the soft shoulder gravel. She gasped for breath and peered out the windshield
to find a way around the fallen deer. She let up on the brake to start the car
rolling forward through the shoulder.
A hand slapped against the window next to her
head. She bit
off a scream and braked again. The stranded driver stood outside her car,
knocking on the glass and waving. With gritted teeth, she lowered the window an
“Listen, I can’t help you right now,”
she told him.
The driver held up his hands in a gesture of understanding.
“I get it, I’m sorry for chasing you down. But I’m stuck out here and there’s
no cell service. Can you take me up the road to a gas station?”
“I just said I can’t now.”
“I’ll go whatever way you’re
already going,” he said. “Just
drop me off anywhere in civilization. Just a few minutes. I’ve got cash, I’ll
His fingers curled around the top edge of the
He seemed nice enough. Just harried and worried. Maybe a little overwhelmed.
She knew that look because Brandon got like that a lot. She had learned it was
usually easier to go with it than try to reason it out of him, and it was
always faster. “Fine,” she told him. “I’ll take you up the road. That’s it.”
He smiled at her. As he walked around to the passenger
of the car, she unlocked her phone and slipped it against her thigh so she
could get it quickly if she needed to. He was right that cell service was
spotty out here but it was worth trying. She knew the nearest gas station was a
few miles away and she could get there in a few minutes.
The stranded driver sank into the seat next to
scent filled the car, a woodsy aftershave layered with sweat and motor oil. She
pressed her lips together and began to accelerate before he had buckled his
seat belt. She circled the deer carcass, the car tires grumbling on the gravel,
and pulled back onto the road.
“This is great of you. I really appreciate
it,” he said,
turning in his seat to face her. She kept her eyes on the road. “My phone is
useless out here and no one has passed by in a while. I was about to start
She didn’t respond, but she picked up peripherally
grin, big and easy. If it was fake it was a good fake. “I’m Dustin,” he said.
She twisted her hands on the steering wheel and
nothing. He chuckled good-naturedly.
“Hey, I get it. I know this is a lot to
ask, a woman
picking up a strange man by the side of the road. Here— “He dug into his pocket
and plucked out a handful of bills. He dropped them into a dashboard
compartment. “That’s for your time, and for being nice.”
She drove in silence. The road rose and fell along
corn fields and curved around clumps of trees. The horizon was dotted with
farmhouses with no discernible way to reach them. She knew that soon the road
would swell with an intersection and a gas station. Soon she would be there and
then he would be gone.
“I think I know you,” Dustin said,
in a rush of apparent
realization. “I’ve seen you at Nancy’s, right? You bartend there.”
She bit at the inside of her mouth. “Not
“No, no, I know I’ve seen you there.
Your name’s Shelby,
“No.” She snapped the word off like
the end of rope.
“Shelby from Nancy’s. You live up
on Briggs Hill Road.”
That drew her full attention. “What?”
His face was all bland friendliness, a plain curtain
could have anything behind it. She didn’t recognize him, but she blocked out a
lot of details about bar patrons. He continued: “You live on Briggs Hill Road.
With that guy, what’s his name. He comes in a lot. I think he drinks too much.
Talks too much, too. What’s his name?”
“Brandon,” she whispered, not knowing
why she was
“Yeah, Brandon. He doesn’t seem to
treat you that well. I
wonder all the time why you’re with him.”
Tension froze her body. She wondered if he knew
just the time on just the day she always drove to her shift at the bar. She
wondered if he knew that from Briggs Hill Road Route 12, this road, was the
straightest shot to Nancy’s. She wondered how long he had been sitting on that
bar stool across from her, listening to Brandon run his mouth and Nancy run
Brandon down, storing away all these overheard bits of her life. She wondered
if that truck behind them really wouldn’t start up again.
She concentrated on keeping steady pressure on
pedal, on keeping her eyes on the road ahead of her. Her hands were locked to
the steering wheel. She had learned the lesson from walking the woods and from
Brandon in his cold rages: If you encounter an animal that could harm you, you
stay still and wait either for it to go away or for a chance to slip away
Dustin laid his hand on her arm, heavy and tight,
fingers curling around her forearm as they had around the edge of her open
window. She barely swallowed down a cry. “You can talk about it with me,
Then there was a loud thump from the trunk of
“What the hell was that?” Dustin spun
in his seat. “Did you
She rolled her shoulders back, held on to the
wheel and looked straight ahead.
“Shelby, you hit something back there. Or
you. You should stop and check.”
“It’s fine,” she said quietly.
Another thump sounded, followed by another. Even
eyes on the road, she could sense Dustin staring at her. He said: “Shelby,
there’s something moving in the trunk of your car.” When she didn’t say
anything, he added another, “Shelby …”
There was no more blandness, no more friendliness.
was confused. It raised her spirits a bit. “I know that,” she told him.
He slowly leaned back in his seat. “You
don’t have to take
me all the way down the road. I can walk the rest from here.”
She had driven through her tension to a place
“I’m not stopping now.”
She spotted Dustin’s hand reach for the
door handle. She
thumbed a switch and the car doors locked.
“Okay, stop the car.” His tone was
close to panicked, which
“I told you this was a bad time,”
she said. “I told you and
you didn’t listen to me. I’m so tired of no one listening to me.”
She could feel him tense, and then he jumped at
steering wheel. She jerked it, sending the car skidding through the gravel on
the shoulder and throwing Dustin back against the passenger side window. His
head knocked against the edge of the car door and lolled for a moment.
She stopped the car, got out and popped the trunk.
was still thudding his feet against the side of the trunk, but she knew he was
bound well enough that he wasn’t going anywhere. She ignored his muffled shouts
and rolled him over to find the tire iron. She took it up, slammed the trunk
shut and walked to the passenger seat. Through the window, Dustin blinked at
her, dazed. She opened the door.
“I guess there’s enough room back
there for two,” she
muttered, and swung.