Close Call

He spots her standing on the side of the road, her hair damp from the rain. Little traffic this time of evening on a Tuesday. She doesn’t have her thumb out, isn’t waving for help. He checks the rearview mirror—no cars behind him. Then he pulls onto the shoulder, and she makes her way to the passenger door. When he presses the button to lower the window, she lets her stare sweep over his tailored suit. His neat appearance will earn him points, as will the gold band he wears on his finger.

“Need a ride?” he asks.

She is skinny. Not just thin, but bony. Yet she doesn’t have the haggard look of an addict. He guesses an eating disorder. She’s anywhere from her mid teens to early twenties. Hard to tell in these parts, where the women age early and turn to pills to get through their days. Her shoulder-length dark hair looks like it hasn’t been washed in a while. She wears jeans and a frilly long-sleeved blouse. No purse, no bag. Thus, no concealed weapon.

She climbs into his car without answering. He glances around one more time. Still no traffic, no curious eyes. And this is how people disappear.

The girl leans her dirty wet head against the passenger window. He’ll have to clean the glass later. “Where to?” He eases the car back onto the road.

“As far as you’ll take me.”

The windshield wipers make their rhythmic motion. His headlights cut a line through the thickening fog. “You’re not running away from home, are you?”

“I’m eighteen,” she says. “I can do what I want.”

A grin slides across his lips, and he quickly subdues it. “And what is it you want?”

She folds her arms over her chest. “To get the hell out of this town.”

“Why’s that? It doesn’t seem like such a bad place. Of course, I’m just passing through.”

“This place is a hellhole. But I guess there ain’t many places much better.” She shifts in the seat to regard him. “You travel a lot?”

He nods. “For work.” A chill seeps into the car, and he turns on the heat. “If you’re heading out of here for good, you’re going to need more than just the clothes on your back.”

They come to a stoplight at a deserted intersection, and he seizes the opportunity to look over at the girl. She lifts a hand to wipe strands of hair from her face, and as she does, the sleeve of her blouse slides upward. He sees the deep scars etched into her skin. Pale vertical lines extending from her wrist halfway up her forearm. When she made those, she wasn’t playing around. She notices him examining the scars and doesn’t bother to hide them. Her eyes hold a challenge now.

“You don’t really care where you’re going, do you?” he asks. She shakes her head, and he can smell the desperation coming off of her. He leans toward her, and she doesn’t flinch.

Pushing open the passenger door, he nods at the roadside. “This is where you get out.”

Her mouth drops. “I don’t understand.”

He unbuckles her seatbelt. “You don’t need to understand. You just need to get out.”

She clings to his arm, grabbing handfuls of his shirt. “Don’t leave me here. I’ll do what you want. I swear!”

He settles a hand on her pale throat, allowing his fingers to tighten. Studying her face, he finds no fear, no resistance. Only a pathetic hope, an expectation of relief.

He releases an exasperated sigh and gives her a hard shove, sending her toppling out of the car. She manages to stay on her feet and hurls a string of curses at him. “What kind of man are you, anyway?” she screams over the rain.

He gives her a smile. “The kind who doesn’t grant favors. Don’t worry, sweetheart—you’ll find the man you’re looking for soon enough.” Before she can say another word, he pulls the door shut and slams on the gas, speeding through the red light on his way out of town.