Jillian Wagner could not remember a time when she had been angrier than she was at this very moment. And such anger was dangerous at a time like this, as it took focus away from the things that were of immediate importance. Such anger was all-consuming, your mind raging like a monstrous storm, and you were unable to see beyond the ravages of that tempest within.
And at this moment, her hands clenching the steering wheel, turning her knuckles a ghostly white, Jillian knew she had to find a way to quell the tempest of her mind or else she and Sara, who for the time being slept in the back seat, would likely become victims of the furious gale that pounded her car. Torrents of rain outpaced the speed of the wipers so that for the briefest of moments everything beyond the Civic’s windshield appeared as if through a sheet of warped glass that blurred and unmade the world she could barely see racing toward her.
Every so often, savage winds swept her car uncontrollably into the oncoming lane, and she fought with the steering wheel to wrench back that control. So far, traffic flowing with and against her had been light, thus lowering greatly the risk of a head-on collision when the car—little more than a child’s toy in the grip of the incessant gusts that flattened the hammering deluge and turned falling raindrops into battering projectiles as if fired from Mother Nature’s own Gatling cannon—was carried over the intangible divide separating the opposing currents of what few vehicles traveled the narrow, winding highway that night.
Jillian guided her car along the two-lane road that divided a swath of pine forest that would eventually give way to the rocky terrain of the low hills in the distance. She knew from experience those hills were there because, at this moment, she certainly couldn’t see them. She could barely see road lit by her headlights immediately ahead. She suddenly had a vision of her headlights glowing back at her in the eyes of a deer in the middle of the road. She knew she would be upon it before she could stop in time, and she fought the image in her mind of a child left motherless after a collision with a deer, moose, unicorn, or any large forest-dwelling animal resulted in the unlucky animal piercing and shattering her windshield and instantly beheading the even more unlucky driver. Jillian let a trembling laugh escape her clenched jaw as she imagined Sara coming awake to find her mother’s bloody head in her lap.
She wasn’t going fast, but that grim image she could not now purge from her mind gave her pause, and she slowed the car’s speed even more.
Jillian tried to shift focus to the rage she felt toward her husband, Trevor. Soon to be ex-husband, Trevor. She was so full of anger now but knew full well that in little time that anger would turn to despair and self-loathing. She would ask herself why she hadn’t been enough. They had a daughter, a home, a life they had built together. Did that now mean nothing to him?
And to confess his transgression in a text was more than cowardly. It was downright insulting.
Jillian picked up her phone from the middle console and reread the text for what was surely the two-hundredth time. She tried to discern in those few words some rational explanation for why this was happening to her. She hadn’t seen it. She hadn’t even suspected Trevor might be unfaithful. He was her everything, and she truly believed she had been his.
I’ve met someone else. I won’t be here when you get home. I’m so sorry.
She and Sara had been at her company’s Christmas party. She had felt the vibration of the incoming text, knowing it would be Trevor but believing it would be a message stating he was running late and would be there soon.
Instead, in a mere sixteen words he abruptly ended their twelve-year marriage.
At first, she couldn’t fathom what she read. The words were meaningless, symbols from a language with which she was not familiar. As the message slowly resolved itself in her mind, a sense of being untethered from reality gripped her. But once that tether pulled taut and reeled her back to the truth in the present, she very nearly screamed and threw her phone across the restaurant’s banquet room. However, she managed with herculean effort to maintain her composure, make the appropriate rounds to excuse herself with obligatory frowns and forced apologies (Sara isn’t feeling well. I should probably get her home to bed. I’m sorry I’m going to miss all the fun), take her daughter’s hand, and retreat (casually, of course) from the one place that and from the only people who still made some sense to her.
She didn’t start running, dragging poor Sara so that she was barely able to keep her feet beneath her, until they were both in the parking lot. By then, she had tried calling and texting Trevor numerous times. The calls rang and went to voice mail. The texts went unanswered.
Fucking bastard!!!! She screamed silently in her head in a voice not her own; one that almost sounded like a possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Jillian continued guiding the car along the winding highway. It was thirty rural miles through open woods between Zane’s Sicilian Bistro in Carlin, where her boss, Mr. Fisher had decided to have the party, and Ashley Falls, where the actual company and Jillian’s home were located. On any other day or night, such a distance could be made in about thirty minutes or slightly more (the winding highway prevented those with common sense and legitimate driving skills from trying to maneuver the curves at speeds high enough to overcome centripetal force and fling cars into immovable trees). Tonight, however, the drive home would likely take more than an hour—an hour of impotent agony.
Jillian glanced in her rearview mirror to see a pair of blue headlights perhaps a half-mile or farther behind her. The lights disappeared as she steered the car around a sharp curve.
The rain still fell in sheets, but the wind had let up enough that Jillian no longer felt the Civic pushed in directions she did not wish to go. Nevertheless, the wipers tick-tocked slower than the rain washed completely over the windshield.
Jillian drove toward a sign that appeared in the near distance revealed around a bend. The car was nearly abreast of the sign before she could make out what it said:
She was able to find a brief amount of levity in the fact that those words, that sign, made her bladder suddenly swell painfully. She would not give in to the urge, though. It was only a matter of suggestion, like the sound of running water inducing the need to urinate. She could and would hold it until they got home.
Behind the Civic, the blue headlights appeared again, closer this time.
Before Jillian could shift her eyes from the rearview mirror, a sudden swerve to the left punctuated a thunderous report outside the car. The steering wheel was wrenched from Jillian’s already iron grip, and the car nearly plunged off the highway and into a ditch running alongside before she was able to regain control and get the car straightened out. Sparks flew from beneath the left fender, and Jillian knew she had completely lost the tire from that wheel. She slowed the car to a stop at the shoulder on the right.
Sara stirred from the backseat, obviously awakened by the noise or the abrupt motion of the car. However, she was not awake enough, yet, to start asking questions.
Jillian turned around to her daughter in the backseat. “I’ll be right back.” Sara only grunted as she rubbed her eyes. Out the rear window, Jillian once again caught sight of the trailing headlights. She watched for a moment, but they seemed not to advance. She shook her head. How could she be sure with rainwater cascading down the window?
Jillian unlocked the driver-side door and stepped out into the downpour. She was instantly drenched, and looking at naked rim inside the left wheel-well, she wondered, in passing, what she hit to shear the steeled rubber completely from the wheel. Knowing, though, would not make one bit of difference.
She gazed back along the stretch of road already taken. The headlights glowed blue in the distance, but their halos neither enlarged nor shrunk in size. The car to which those headlamps were attached seemed to have stopped approximately one-quarter mile back. Jillian started to feel a chill that was not a product of the cold rain, but she shook it off and climbed back into the car, feeling like a fish that had just jumped out of the water.
Inside the car, she grabbed her cell phone intending to call AAA Roadside Service, but she discovered quickly that service from where she was presently located had dropped away entirely. She remembered the Rest Area sign, then, and wondered if she might find cell service there. It couldn’t be more than a few hundred yards to a quarter-mile away. Driving on the naked rim would likely ruin it, if it wasn’t already, but that was a problem for another time. Now, she needed to focus on getting her and her daughter home and out of this wretched storm. She needed to catch Trevor before he stole away in the night with his new-found slut-whore.
She had cut the engine when she stopped along the shoulder. Now, she turned the key and a sudden, irrational fear gripped her as the engine barely cranked and refused to turn over. It took several more attempts before Jillian was able to start the car. After shifting into gear and easing down the gas pedal, the car lurched and then slowly crawled forward. With the sound of grinding metal outside, Jillian was reluctant to push the car to any perceived limit (especially given that she did not know what the limit might be).
Sara sat up and leaned against the front seat. Her curly blonde hair was all bunched and knotted from sleeping on the back seat. “What happened, Mommy?”
“We got a flat tire, honey,” Jillian said. “But everything’s going to be fine. Just going to stop in a rest area up ahead and call a tow truck.”
“What about Daddy?” Sara asked. “Why don’t you call him?”
Jillian bit her lip to stop herself from involuntarily spewing forth a tirade of hateful words to explain why she wasn’t going to call Daddy. Instead, she said simply, “Because he’s busy.”
The rain had let up a bit, so she was able to see well enough the blue, reflective sign ahead pointing the way to the rest area. Jillian happened to glance in the rearview mirror as she turned the car off the highway and found herself a bit unnerved to see the mysterious car that had been behind them was closer now and closing in.
Jillian didn’t bother with a parking space. Rather, she brought the Civic to a stop perpendicular to lines delineating where one should properly park. Without a thought, she cut the engine as the rear window alighted with a blue glow. Their follower rolled to a stop approximately one-hundred feet behind the Civic. The driver switched on the car’s high beams, blinding Jillian momentarily. Looking away, her vision swam with splotches of blue.
She waited for the driver to get out and approach, but he or she remained in the car. Jillian grabbed the cell phone from the passenger seat where she had tossed it earlier, heart both sinking and hammering steadily harder against her chest when she saw that the phone could still not locate a signal. She slumped in the driver seat, setting the phone on the dash. Gazing in the rearview mirror first at Sara, Jillian shifted her attention to the car behind them.
Still, no movement there, and the headlights continued to shine with intense brightness directly inside the Civic.
In that moment, realizing she had turned off the engine, Jillian regretted her thoughtless decision as ominous silence greeted each attempt to restart the vehicle.
Ten minutes had passed and the stranger behind them had yet to make any move.
After an hour, the continued stalemate filled Jillian with abject terror.