“Anglerfish” is a short narrative based on a true story that my wife will never let me live down. Call me naive, call me a small town boy, but picking up a hitchhiker on a desolate stretch of road in Los Angeles certainly made a lasting impression.
- Includes some swearing
- WGA Registration #: 1928873
It was going on 10pm when I left the studio in Playa Vista; a pearl on the string of beach towns besieged by Los Angeles. The October night had a slight chill, the perfect temperature for people to needlessly wrap themselves in scarves.
I’d been moonlighting at a friend’s small, yet desperate animation company after already sacrificing another Saturday to my regular studio job. The only other artist had escaped over an hour ago with the excuse of a Tinder date. This was code for ‘get high and play the new Call of Duty until the sun comes up.’ Even the boss had left to meet other bosses for boss cocktails. I’d lock up the fort, I told her, no problem.
I billed extra for the trouble. How many hours had I been staring at screens today? Fourteen? Fifteen? Seven day weeks and multiple gigs running simultaneously were an unfortunate fact of life in the film industry, but it’s a survival tactic; feast on overtime now to survive the famine that comes after production wraps.
After locking the office doors I crossed the empty parking lot, texting my girlfriend Ellen as I walked. Finally wrapping up this shitshow and heading home. We haz wine? I really hoped that we had some kind of adult beverage in the apartment. Distracted by the light of the iPhone, I narrowly avoided a signpost that came at me out of nowhere.
I wondered if accountants ever worked these kind of hours? Did Mario, the handyman, pull all-nighters? This wasn’t the first time I’d itched for that green grass on the other side of the fence. But who was I kidding? I was terrible at math and my hands were too soft for manual labor, so maybe I chose right. It beat the hell out of a real job.
The old Jeep fired up effortlessly on the second try. I plugged in my phone and queued the kind of indie/folk/rock/bullshit that I shamelessly enjoy. People here called it ‘country,’ folks back home would fight you for insulting ‘real country’ like that.
My worn leather wallet came out of my back pocket and landed in the cup holder next to the pocket knife I kept handy. The wallet had recently started killing my back while driving. Getting older sucked and my twenties were in the rearview mirror.
The song was interrupted by the chime of Ellen’s incoming text. K! Wine is waiting, love you! followed closely by If there’s traffic, just breathe! You’ll get through it. She’d driven with me all of one time before becoming concerned about my tendencies toward mild road rage. On date nights, she drove.
Pulling onto the street, the squeaking ball joint reminded me to call Dad and see if I could fix it myself or if I’d need to call the mechanic. I turned up the music and saved the issue for another day.
This old Jeep wasn’t anyone’s idea of a commuter car. Its gas mileage was dismal and it looked more comfortable in a mud hole than in traffic. I could’ve swapped it out for a Prius like everyone else, but I resisted, enduring the lack of air conditioning and inability to fit into most parking spaces. Hanging on to this impractical relic was my protest, my way of broadcasting that this city would never be my home. This situation was only temporary. I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that that was true.
Another text interrupted the song. My annoyance doubled when I saw that it was a message from Mom. Your Grandma’s 80th is coming up, can you make it home? We’d love to see you and meet your girlfriend.
I deleted the message and switched my phone to ‘silent’ mode.
Ellen and I lived together in El Segundo, another coastal town directly to the south. Maybe not as nice as Playa, but it still beat the the tangle of freeways and featureless industrial parks further inland.
Linking the two communities was a wide road sandwiched between the airport and a fenced off hill, supposedly a butterfly preserve. Commuters took this route to avoid the never-ending construction, tourist R.V.s, and the entitled “I’m a car!” cyclists that made the parallel beach highway a waking nightmare.
Tonight I had the stretch to myself. It felt odd being alone here, the middle of the city and the middle of nowhere all at once. With the stars masked by a generous layer of smog, the occasional streetlight was the only thing breaking up the dark.
It was easy to get lost in thought on a road you’d driven a hundred times. I’d often pull into the driveway unable to remember a single thing about the trip. Tonight was one of those hypnotic drives.
Light. Dark. Dark. Light. The beams slid by, occasionally to the beat of the music. Light. Dark. Dark. Light. Repeat.
I was cruising along a few notches over the speed limit when I passed something that should not have been there.
I pulled to the shoulder and turned off the music. My heart pounded uncomfortably. The rearview mirror only showed streetlights and my own bloodshot eyes. Did I see that? I saw something. I should call 9-1-1, they’d know what to do. But what if I imagined it? Try explaining that to a police officer. Worse, what if I didn’t imagine it? Try explaining that to a police officer. I needed to be sure before I did anything.
I texted Ellen. Think I just saw a body. Gonna check it out.
Two illegal U-turns later, I sat in the idling Jeep with sweaty palms and regret. At the edge of the circle of light, sprawled across the asphalt was a woman in her early 20’s. She was twisted, legs bent awkwardly and an arm wrapped behind her back. Her dark eyes stared into my headlights.
I rolled down the passenger side window and called out in a cracking voice. “Hello? Are you alright?” No response. There were definitely people better equipped to deal with this type of thing than a stressed out animator.
“I’m gonna call 9-1-1,” I said, giving myself permission to make this someone else’s problem. Would I have to fill out a police report? Give a statement? I never liked talking to police officers, they always made me feel like I did (or am going to do something) wrong. Plus, I’d never switched over my out-of-state license plates and I’d been living here for the better part of a decade.
Before I could make the call, she jumped to her feet! I dropped the phone in my lap and watched as she seemed to take in her surroundings for the first time. After looking down the road, she turned to me. She didn’t look afraid or confused. She didn’t look, well, anything. Her face was blank, emotionless. The overhead streetlight cast deep shadows over her eyes, giving her a kind of skull-like appearance.
“Do you need help?” I asked. She didn’t blink as she moved to the open window. I was glad to have at least that much space between us. “Why were you lying in the road?”
“Waiting,” she said.
I let the silence hang, expecting an explanation. It became clear that no more details were coming. She leaned in and I got a better look.
She wasn’t dirty or torn up like I had expected, even her low-cut pink-ish sweater looked clean. There were no signs of a fight, nothing that would make me look twice if I passed her in public. If anything, I may have glanced again because she was cute. She had silky black hair, tanned skin and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds.
“Do you need the police?” I asked, thinking it might spark some kind of reaction.
“I’m fine.” Her voice was confident. She didn’t sound like some druggie on the tail end of a bender. This was totally normal to her.
She looked around again. Yep, still the middle of nowhere.
“Is there a phone around?” she asked. I assumed she meant a payphone, I hadn’t seen one of those in years. The only place that came to mind was our local grocery store, Ralphs. They’d have a payphone if they still exist.
“There’s a store a few miles up. They might have one?” Had she blinked once this entire time?
“Do you want to use my phone?” I didn’t often make that offer to a complete stranger but where would she run?
“No.” She blinked, finally, and walked in the direction of the store.
Before I could catch myself, I heard the words “Do you want a ride?” come out of my mouth. Why did I say that? Was my small-town upbringing showing? Or maybe my brain was still on autopilot from the drive? Either way, I immediately regretted it. The girl paused, I knew she was going to take me up on the offer.
“Thank you,” she says, pulling on the Jeep’s door handle. “Door’s locked.”
As my fingers searched my door for the switch, I felt the window controls. It wasn’t too late, I could roll it up and speed off, leave all this behind and call someone like I should’ve done in the first place.
“Still locked,” she said as she tried the door again. I pushed the button.
She opened the door and pulled herself into the passenger seat. A faint sweet smell creeped in with her, invading the familiar musk of the Jeep. Not the noticeable bite of a perfume, this was deeper, earthy, like peaches that were about to turn.
Illuminated by the dome light, I looked her over. It was impossible not to notice how short her skirt was as she adjusted it, showing more skin. When she pulled the seatbelt across, it accentuated the plunging neckline of her sweater. For a brief but embarrassing moment, she caught me looking. Before I could stumble on an apology, she shut the door.
The light flicked off and a million panicked thoughts flooded my mind. Who was this girl, this creature, sitting with me in the dark? She could have a knife, gun, anything. And why was she so willing to trust a stranger in the night? Did her parents know where she was? Did anyone?
She took a deep breath, a sigh. Relief, maybe? When her lips parted, the reflection of the marching streetlights made streaks on her teeth and eyes. Those teeth and eyes were all I could see until I adjusted to the dark. She was in my space now and there was nothing to do but deliver her as fast as possible. I put the vehicle into drive.
Thinking the ride might go faster if I shut my mouth, I outlined the route in my head. Straight, left, right, merge, your destination will be on the left. Ten minutes. Fifteen tops if I hit traffic, but it didn’t look like that was going to be a problem tonight.
Like a metronome, the passing streetlights briefly illuminated us. She looked relaxed, eyes forward, watching the road. Fine by me if she didn’t want to talk, I’d happily wait out the ride in silence. When the next light flooded the Jeep, she was looking directly at me! I jumped and gripped the wheel tighter, my knuckles turning white.
The silence was too much. “Are you from El Segundo?” I asked, attempting conversation.
“El Segundo?” She said the name like she’d never heard of the place.
“That’s where we’re going.”
“I’m not from El Segundo.”
Oh. I nod. “Where are you from?”
“Around,” she said. I was being screwed with, right? Where were the cameras? This wasn’t a reality show. This was the pre-title hook in a CSI episode and from where I was sitting, no ending looked good.
“You got a smoke?” she asked.
“Sorry, no. I’m lame like that.”
She still hadn’t taken her eyes off me and I felt cold sweat forming on my forehead.
“Do you have any shoes?”
It took a moment to figure out what she was asking. My eyes slid back and I noticed her bare feet. How did she get all the way out here without shoes? I had the feeling she wasn’t going to give up any information willingly.
“Just mine. The two on me. Sorry. Again,” I said, trying hard not to trip over my words. A glint caught my eye, another sliver in the black, it was the pocket knife sitting in the cupholder nearest her. She noticed it, too. There was no way I could move it without looking ominous.
After a few empty moments she asked, “Do you always pick up strangers?”
“Only the pretty ones,” I said, quickly realizing how inappropriate my nervous attempt at humor was. “I mean, not you. You’re pretty but that’s not why I picked you up. You looked like you needed help or something. I’m an idiot and going to shut up now.”
She smiled at my clumsy backpedalling, finally some expression out of her. Okay, she thinks I’m a weirdo, but not a psycho.
“You think I’m pretty?”
Oh god, was she a prostitute? How was I going to explain this? “I have Ellen. Girlfriend, I mean,” I blurted out, desperately.
“Will you tell her about me?”
“I think I kinda have to.”
“Think she’ll be mad?”
I tried to laugh but it came out as a snort. “Ellen usually gets mad when I do stupid things, like pick up hitchhikers.”
“Hitchhikers ask for rides,” she reminded me.
“I didn’t mean to call you that. You’re just someone who needed a hand,” I said, trying to concentrate on the road. The silence lasted a painfully long time, hopefully she was losing interest. I kept thinking about the knife.
“Let me give you a hand, Zachary Clark from Mirror Beach, Oregon.”
Startled by my own name, I took my eyes off the road. She had my wallet and was reading the driver’s license.
“I’m not stealing your ten whole dollars, don’t worry,” she smiled.
“Give me that,” I said, holding out an open hand.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, Zach?”
“Huh?” This was taking an unexpected turn.
“You did me a favor, now I’m doing one for you. Tell me about the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“How’s that a favor? Why would I tell you that?”
“Because I’m a stranger? Because in a few minutes you’ll never see me again? Because secrets are easier to keep when you have help? Take your pick.” She placed the wallet in my waiting hand and leaned in, uncomfortably close. Her lips were nearly brushing my ear when she whispered “Ever steal anything?”
“I just billed for an hour of work that I didn’t do. Congrats, you found out my big secret,” I said, as I pushed into my window to get away from her.
“You’re a real rebel.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve done?” I countered.
“I killed a guy who picked me up in the middle of nowhere,” she said without missing a beat. I choked on my own spit.
She smiled. “I’m messing with you. Lighten up.”
There was something really unsettling about this girl, her confidence maybe? If I was in her place, I’d be terrified. Instead she sat there, fearlessly, staring and waiting for me to confess my sins.
She waited patiently. Streetlights stretched into the distance. The drive never took this long, it was only a mile, maybe two. There should be an intersection coming up but I still couldn’t see the traffic signal.
I zoned out watching the rhythmic streaks of light, the road hypnosis pulled at me. Despite the oddity sitting next to me, everything was calm. Familiar. Safe. This was my space, I could say anything I wanted and no one could judge.
“I left home after I got my best friend’s girlfriend pregnant.” Hearing those words dig their way out of the grave I had buried them in shocked me back into the moment.
“That’s more like it, Zachary Clark from Whatever Beach,” she said, an excitement to her tone. “Did you make her do it?”
“What? No! It was stupid mistake but, y’know, a mistake we made together.”
“Oh,” she sounded disappointed. “So you ran away?”
“And your best friend?”
“Never found out. She told him it was his, they got married because of it.”
“Put your egg in another bird’s nest. Classic.”
“Then she miscarried.”
“Bad egg,” she said, less impressed.
“No, it wasn’t like that,” I explained, not really knowing what I meant.
“Whatever you say. And you never went back?”
“I will someday.”
“I bet you say that a lot. Have you forgiven yourself?”
“It’s been years, I don’t think there’s anything left to make right. So yeah, I guess I have.” I hadn’t told that secret to anyone, why was it so easy to talk to someone I would never see again? Like an anonymous forum, it made me more open than in real life. Real life. This had certainly strayed from that.
“Will God forgive you?” she asked. There was a seriousness to her tone that made me feel judged.
“You’ll have to ask yours because I don’t believe in one.”
“It believes in you,” she promised.
Before I could scoff, the Jeep drifted to the right. Thump! Thump! Thump! “Shit!” I yelled, more panic to my tone than I would have liked. Gripping the wheel and easing on the break, we veered to the shoulder, the flat tire pulled hard in the soft dirt. I looked for the nearest streetlight, hoping to limp to a safe spot. They were gone. Every light was out. Power outage, maybe? Couldn’t this have waited until after I dropped her off? We came to a stop in the dark with no point of reference beyond the edge of the asphalt.
“I’ll be a minute. You can stay here if you want,” I told her, even though I didn’t want her unsupervised. I took the keys from the ignition just in case.
“You don’t want help?” she asked.
“Not really, no.”
“Okay. I’ll help.”
Before I could argue, she was out the door. I pocketed the keys and my wallet. Almost as an afterthought, I reached into the cup holder. The knife was gone.
A few minutes later, I had wrestled the spare off the back mount and set it to the side. Aiming the flashlight in one hand, I fumbled with the wrench, missing the first lug nut several times before it slid into position. I dropped the light in the dust and twisted the tool with both hands.
What a pain in the ass. My mood wasn’t helped by the fact that it was pitch black and the philosophical roadkill was wandering out there being anything but helpful and possibly armed. As uncomfortable as I was with her as a passenger, it was far worse having her out of sight.
“You’re really helpful!” I called out, sarcastically.
Footsteps. A quiet laugh. “It’s my first time, sorry.” She was enjoying this.
“There’s broken glass, maybe you should wait inside.” The last thing I needed was taking her to the emergency room with cut up feet and trying to explain the situation.
Gravel shuffled to my left but I couldn’t see anything past the tired beam of my flashlight. I’d meant to replace this with one of the retina burning numbers I had bought for camping, maybe this would finally remind me to throw one in the toolbox.
“Shit luck,” she said, much closer than expected.
I jumped! The wrench slipped and my knuckle scraped the ground. “If you can talk, you can hold a flashlight,” I said, hoping to finish quickly.
“Deal.” Her breath against my ear made my neck tingle. A hand reached out of the darkness and took the light, at least now I’d be able to keep track of her.
She wasn’t very good at the job, pacing around and holding the light above her head; never shining exactly where I needed but close enough to stumble along.
My mind wandered to ways that she was going to kill me, take everything and drive off. The knife made a pretty noticeable ‘click’ when it opened and locked, so far I hadn’t heard anything. That flashlight wouldn’t do much damage, maybe it was good I hadn’t replaced it with anything more heavy duty yet?
“Do you believe in the Devil, Zachary?” That judging tone was back.
“Without God there’s not much need for a Devil, don’t you think?” I asked, figuring that every minute she was talking was a minute she wasn’t flaying me. Talking was better, let’s stay occupied. “Hold these.” I held out the first two lug nuts.
“Then bad things happen for no reason?” she asked, taking the pieces. Her hands lingered, touching mine. They were both empty, that was a good sign.
“Things happen all the time, good and bad. It’s not like it’s meant to be,” I said, pulling my hand away.
“Maybe it all happens exactly like it’s supposed to.”
I laughed, then reasoned “maybe it’s easier to accept things if we believe that the universe has a great big plan and we’re a part of it.”
The third nut was loose already. I probably ought to check these more often. That’s the problem with reliable things, it’s easy to forget how important they are. It spun off into the dirt, I picked it up and blew it clean.
“But the universe doesn’t care?” she asked.
“Nope,” I grunted. The fourth nut was putting up a fight.
“Is that why you left when that girl got pregnant?”
That landed like a punch to the gut. “I never said that I didn’t care.”
“The universe doesn’t care but you do? That’s big of you.” She teased.
Struggling with the wrench, I stammered out a response. “Yeah. No. I mean, I choose to care.”
“Why? It’s not like any of it matters. None of this. Look where we are, this isn’t a master plan. It’s down to what we choose to do.”
“Is that why you chose to lay in the road at night?” I asked.
“It got me where I needed to be.”
I couldn’t tell what she was getting at or where she thought she needed to be. She was looking for something but I had no idea what. “What do you want from me?”
“A rough ride, apparently.”
I laughed, that was actually a funny answer.
“I saw you looking at me,” she said, changing her tone. The flashlight beam brightened as she stepped toward me.
“I know, sorry. I’m not used to giving rides to strangers and was being all…”
“Don’t do it again,” she interrupted. Another step and she was directly behind me, the fabric of her skirt tickled the back of my neck. I could feel her warmth.
“I won’t,” I promised.
Trying to pull myself out of it, I tugged on the wrench. My hand slipped, slammed against the tire and bent back the nail on my thumb. I closed my eyes and the white hot pain flashed, all thoughts of the knife and my danger vanished. For a moment, I thought I could see the game she was playing.
“You know what I really want?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“Tell me,” she purred.
“I want you…” I paused and looked her in the eye. “… to hold these.” I offered the last of the lug nuts.
The smile disappeared and she roughly snatched the rest of the pieces. Finally, I felt like I had the upper hand. Upper hand in what, exactly, I was still trying to figure out.
Moving to the front of the Jeep, I inserted the metal rod into the jack. I could have used some more light but didn’t want to push her too far.
“Look, if you really want I can drop you off at a bar or something, but I’d rather get you somewhere safe.” I pumped the lever, slowly lifting the flat tire into the air.
“That’s what you think I am? Just desperate?”
“I honestly don’t have a clue what you are, but if I can help, I want to.”
“You can’t even help yourself.”
I made an over-the-top gesture toward the tire I’d been fixing.
“Changing a tire is easy. Changing your life, maybe not so much,” she said, suddenly sounding angry.
“People change,” I shrugged as I pulled off the flat tire and set it aside.
“The only thing you changed was your location.”
“Hold the light still, please.” All of this could go faster if I could concentrate.
“It’s not like you suddenly cured yourself by running away. You left that girl carrying your child. What did you think would happen when her boyfriend, your best friend, found out? Good thing he’s an idiot. I can see why you were friends now.”
God I wished she would shut her mouth. Trying my best to ignore her rant, I hoisted the spare. After a few adjustments, the bolt pattern slid into position.
“Nuts, please,” I said with an outstretched hand.
“You sure you’d know what to do with them?”
I faced her, annoyed that she was stretching this out even further. “I said please.”
She reached out but hesitated. Before her hand was over mine, she smirked, then opened her fingers and dropped the lug nuts to the dirt. “Shit luck,” she said, watching the metal bits roll and settle.
“The hell did you do that for?” I yelled.
“Maybe it was meant to be?” she asked, smiling wider.
I was done listening to her and dropped to one knee, searching the dust in the erratic light.
“Did I make Zach angry? His lame secrets make him upset when he has to think about them?”
“People change,” I mumbled, blowing the dirt out of the metal.
“Aw. He found a slogan that works for his baggage. That’s cute.” She took a step back and laughed, a sharp exhale through her nose. This was getting to me and she knew it.
The light moved off me but I didn’t care, I knew where everything was and could feel my way through the rest while she did her thing.
“The bad’s still in there, it never went away. He’s thinking about it right now!” she yelled to some unseen audience in the night. “He’s wondering what it would feel like to take me off into the dark and make me shut up, make it stop.”
She wasn’t wrong. Terrible images flowed through my mind. Thoughts. Ideas. Temptations of forcing her to stop talking raged uncontrollably.
Another nut found its threading. I focused on the task and closed my eyes. Breathe. The repetitive motion worked for a second.
“It’d be a thrill! Another memory for Zach to get off to. He’d play it over and over and over again. Only him and God would know,” her voice pierced my calm.
The light turned back to me. “Does Ellen know you think about the other girl when you’re on top of her?”
There were so many ways I could do it. Make her stop.
She got closer. “Do you want me to struggle and run? You like the chase? Or do you like it nice and quiet? What kind of man are you, Zachary Clark? Are you powerful? Or are you a boy? A scared little kid who will never get anywhere in life because he’s too much of a pussy to do what he wants?”
With the final nut secure, I cranked the wrench extra hard, needing a release. “Please be quiet,” I said, doing a pretty poor job of sounding like I was in control of myself.
She started laughing, a long howl that flew through the night. “Are you gonna go cry to your girlfriend? Ellen already knows you’re pathetic, she just doesn’t know why.”
I released the jack and the Jeep slammed down, harder than intended. The detachable lever slid out. It would make a perfect club.
“How long will it be before you disappoint her like you’ve disappointed everyone else around you?” She was smiling. More than a smile, she was grinning. Rows of needle sharp teeth grated, another trick of the dim light.
I clenched the metal bar. This would be over soon.
“You know the worst thing you’ve ever done, Zachary Clark? You kept on breathing.”
The text message. That’s what she always told me. Keep breathing. Stay calm and keep breathing. You’re mad now but that will pass, she’d say. Don’t regret that moment when it all got away from you.
Thoughts flooded in. Ellen stood in front of me, barefoot, cold, confused. I stepped away from my body and watched. I, no, it swung the rod. The reflection danced in the beam of her light. Ellen did not flinch when the club connected with her exposed collarbone, crushing it.
I snapped back to reality, back to my body. “No,” I whispered. My grip released and the weapon clattered on the ground. I’d been holding it high, ready to strike.
We stood in silence, the stranger and I. “I’m not doing anything to you,” my words barely a whisper. “You’re wrong about me.”
Her smile faded. She was disappointed.
“Please stop talking to me until I get you where you’re going.” I opened her door and stepped back.
She didn’t take her eyes off me as she handed the flashlight back.
“I’m where I need to be,” she said. The adversarial tone had vanished, she sounded like a child.
“We’re still in the middle of nowhere.”
“I know my way from here.” With no further explanation, she walked away. I nearly lost sight of her but could hear footsteps in the loose dirt.
“Wait!” I yelled, the second time tonight.
She reappeared. “Change your mind?”
With a shaky hand, I held out the ten dollar bill, the only cash I had on me. All my energy was gone. The rage had dissipated, leaving me with nothing.
“Take this,” I told her.
Her smile returned, smaller but noticeable. “Sorry, Zach, I’m not that kind of girl.”
“I don’t want anything from you. Just, stay safe and get some help. Help that I can’t give.”
She studied the worn paper. Her hand reached out slowly, hesitating every few inches, probably thinking this was a trap.
The bill slid from my fingers. I didn’t say a thing. There were no words left.
She walked into the darkness. Every step, she faded a little more until she was one with the night. I knew that I would never see her again. Something felt permanent, concluded.
Up and down the road, streetlights flickered back to life. Normally that would have startled me but not tonight.
Directly above me, the lamp sparked, surrounding me with a harsh glowing halo. I looked around to make sure this was all real. There was the Jeep, the flat, everything was just as it had been, except the girl. She was gone.
A green flash caught my eye. Not far down was the intersection, the one I’d been praying for (or at least really, really hoping I’d come across soon). I watched the light cycle. Green, yellow, red, back to green. It was the same as it had always been. As familiar as it was, I felt changed; like this was a test that I neither wanted nor asked for, but one that left me feeling oddly calm.
I should call the police but what would I tell them? They’d probably bust me for the license plate that I should really think about switching over.
I opened the door of the Jeep. Before I climbed in, I noticed a reflection on the floorboards. The knife. It must’ve fallen down when we got the flat. I returned it to the normal spot and buckled in.
After a moment of staring straight ahead, I remembered to lock the doors. She knew that I was here but, ironically, I was in the dark as to where she had gone. Hesitantly, I checked the rearview mirror, half expecting a horror movie ending in the back seat. I was alone.
I had a lot to think about. None of this night made sense.
As I stared down the road, the notification light on my phone got my attention and I remembered that the last text message I sent wasn’t exactly reassuring. 18 text messages and 5 missed calls from Ellen. You knew it was bad when someone started calling. Tonight, I couldn’t blame her.
Having a good idea of what those texts had to say, I skipped over and wrote one of my own. Everything is fine. Weird, but fine.
A volley of responses came in record time. What happened? Jesus Christ, I thought you were dead! Followed up with You’re lucky I didn’t call the police!
I responded Just breathe. You’ll get through it.
Appropriately enough, the phone chimed with Shut up! You owe me an explanation!
She was right. I owed her more explanations that she was ready for. Walk to the Purple Orchid for drinks? I’m not feeling wine.
I put the Jeep into gear but sat on the brakes. Home, my home, was hundreds of miles away, but Ellen made it feel so much closer. It didn’t feel like a physical location anymore. She deserved to know the full story, more than what happened tonight.
I’ve got some things I need to tell you. I love you. See you in a few.
But no, that wasn’t all. There was more to it than Ellen. I made the decision I’d been putting off for years.
Hey Mom. I think I can get some time off. It’d be good to come home. I pressed ‘send’ before I could change my mind.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the old Jeep, waiting for Ellen to come out of the rest stop bathroom. I flipped through an online edition of our local paper when a headline caught my eye.
‘Imperial Highway Murder Uncovers Sex Trafficking.’ Not exactly something that happened everyday. I clicked the article and skimmed the details.
A newer model Audi was found on the side of the road by a passing motorist. She claimed that there was a streaking bloody footprint on the inside of the window. Not a shoe print, a bare footprint.
The motorist got the hell out of there and called 9-1-1, that sounded sensible when I really thought about it. When police arrived, they found the driver’s body slumped across the front seat. His neck and wrists had been cut and he bled out. Worse, his eyes were gone, as was most of the skin on that part of his face.
I took a nervous swig from my coffee and discovered it to be as boiling hot as when I’d tried it a minute ago.
Things got even worse. When the police found the victim’s address, they went to his house. In the basement were two teen girls chained to pipes. They’d been kidnapped and held there for weeks. As they were minors, the police couldn’t say anything other than they were safe and reunited with their families.
The article said they hadn’t found a suspect but expected it was some kind of vigilante who had knowledge of this man’s practices. Police searched the empty butterfly sanctuary but hadn’t come up with anything more than a few cleverly disguised hobo camps. As always, they were confident they’d find they’re man.
They weren’t looking for a man.
I contemplated showing the article to Ellen, but decided against it. She already knew I did stupid things and I was working on that, but this wouldn’t boost her confidence.
That detail about the bare footprint stood out in my mind. How close did I come to the same fate? I felt like I’d passed a test that I didn’t know I was taking.
Ellen hopped into the passenger seat, she was arguing with her phone. The white gold of her engagement ring tapped against the glass, a new addition that neither of us had gotten used to yet.
“How far out?” she asked. “My GPS keeps screwing up and switching the pin all over the state. I never should’ve done that update.”
“Don’t worry about the map,” I said, “it’s always messed up. I know how to get to Mirror Beach from here.” I leaned over and gave her a kiss. Not much longer and I’d be home.