Dark clouds lay heavily over the woods northeast of the
freeway, stealing the best of the light. I glanced in the
rearview mirror. Where had all the cars gone? For a brief,
eerie moment, it seemed as if I were the only traveler on
the Michigan Interstate this Friday afternoon.
The moment passed in a rumble of thunder.
The other vehicles were far behind, their headlights shining
in the thick air. Soon they'd sail past me, as the last wave
of traffic had done. I was driving at the posted speed limit
and didn't intend to exceed it, not even to outrun the approaching
storm. Especially with all the state troopers I'd seen along
the way and my dog in the back seat asleep in her crate.
On the morning news I'd heard about
the chance of severe thunderstorms. As always, I had a contingency
plan. If caught in a downpour, I'd take the first exit I came
to and wait in a well-lit parking lot or restaurant until
it passed. I could have postponed my trip until tomorrow but
didn't want to lose a single day of August.
A green car with one broken headlight
vaulted toward me like a jet-propelled monster in pursuit
of its prey. The distance between us shrank. Why didn't he
hurry up and pass? The thunder and his excessive speed added
to my anxiety.
Think about something relaxing and
wonderful, Joanna, I told myself. The lake, the cottage, the
scent of spearmint, the prettiest little town in Michigan.
Just me and my collie. I should be able to meet the deadline
for my book, if nothing happened to prevent it.
Shifting in the seat, I turned the
AC to high in the hope of discovering that the car's air conditioner
hadn't malfunctioned after all. Waves of hot air hit my legs.
My green cotton skirt, fresh and crisp this morning, was a
wrinkled mess, and the matching blouse left my arms bare but
did little to keep perspiration from forming between my breasts.
I opened the window, letting humid
air pour in. The car was an oven on wheels, sending my discomfort
soaring to the burnt level, and the static on the radio grated
on my nerves. As I rounded a curve, lightning sliced through
the clouds, flashing danger. I shouldn't be driving in this
deadly weather at all.
The green car picked up speed and
came closer. Half a mile ahead, the freeway swept uphill and
curved again. I followed the white lines around the bend,
moving closer to the storm, and tried to read the signs swaying
in the distance; but I was too far away to see the letters.
The green car was catching up to me.
The powerful blast of a horn blended
with the next roll of thunder. Obviously the warning was meant
for me. But why? The impatient driver was traveling in his
own lane. I wasn't in his way.
My rush of anger surprised me, and
I kept my hand fastened on the wheel, well away from my own
horn. I wasn't the kind of driver who allowed annoyance to
turn into rage and cause accidents. Was I about to clash with
one who did?
He blew his horn again.
Ignore him, Joanna. Concentrate on
Last winter, I'd read about a woman
who had been trapped between two dueling drivers, each one
trying to force the other off the freeway and over the edge.
She was the only one killed.
I could read the signs now. Sashabaw
Road. Flint-Saginaw. Keep left . . . Oh, no! Without warning,
my lane had vanished. Right Lane Must Exit. Since when?
The last time I'd driven up north,
only a week ago, this was a through lane. With road crews
constantly reshaping freeway lanes, familiar routes changed
overnight. Nothing in life ever stayed the same, but I wasn't
going to exit.
The green car was approximately ten
lengths behind me now. I had time to switch lanes. A second
only. Pushing down on the turn signal, I entered the new right
lane. With still another horn blast, the driver pulled alongside
my car on the left and slowed to match my speed.
Two young men in a Monte Carlo. Impressions
rushed at me like pelts of rain: Stringy dark hair, thin faces,
black shirts . . . Punks with leering, mean expressions.
The passenger waved a bottle in front
of his face. Tilting his head back against the seat, he poured
the contents into his mouth and rolled down the window. The
driver leaned over him and shouted, "Get a horse, lady!"
Remembering all the warnings I'd read,
I resisted the temptation to fling an answer at him. Pretend
you didn't hear. Don't make eye contact with a belligerent
driver. Never get into an argument with him.
With an obscenity, the passenger hurled
the bottle at the side of my silver Taurus and yelled, "Get
that tin can the hell off the road!"
I felt the jolt as the bottle shattered
against the door. A shower of shards blew in through the window.
Instinctively I veered to the right. With a burst of speed,
the Monte Carlo jetted down the freeway and turned into a
green speck on the horizon.
What stupid, arrogant jerks!
Kinder was awake. From her crate,
she barked her anger at the attack.
"It's over, girl," I said.
The door was probably dented where
the bottle had struck it. Well, better the door than my dog
or me. A piece of jagged-edged glass had landed in my lap.
Looking down, I read the fragment of a label: Vodk . . . The
"a" was missing. I brushed it to the floor, thankful that
my skirt covered my thighs. I'd almost worn shorts.
The incident was over, but shreds
of anger and fear remained. I felt shaky, and my neck and
chest were damp. As I dabbed at them with a tissue, half expecting
to see liquor or blood, my fingers brushed against a sliver
of glass caught in my collar. I swept it to the floor where
it joined the larger chunk.
Thank God the Monte Carlo was out
of sight, swallowed whole by the murky atmosphere. If I came
upon a trooper, I'd stop and tell him to be on the lookout
for the unsavory pair. Or I could call, but in a display of
poor planning, my cell phone was in the trunk, in my suitcase.
The other cars had caught up to me,
and traffic moved steadily and sanely northward, without a
ripple in sight. From now on, I should find smooth sailing.
Except for the storm. It looked as
if it would break at any minute. I hadn't planned to stop
for a rest. If I hoped to reach the cottage in time to salvage
a part of the day, I should keep going. But I needed a respite
from freeway madness and knew enough about driving to pay
attention to my feelings.
When I reached Silver Oak Road, I
drove onto the ramp, turned right, and found myself in a wild,
wooded area. On either side, trees grew high and thick, their
uppermost branches meeting across the unpaved road. Pink wildflowers
sparkled in the high grasses, and streaks of blue water shimmered
through green leaves.
I was the only driver in this tranquil
place, as safe and private as I could ever hope to be. In
spite of the stormy weather, peace seemed to unfold all around
me. The dangerous fools who had vandalized my car were already
part of the past. I would never see them again. Now to find
a quiet place and wait out the storm. Already, I felt calmer.
Get a horse, the stringy-haired punk
had said. Now that the danger was over, I couldn't help smiling.
I wouldn't mind doing that at all.
* * * *
Rain pounded my car, enclosing me
in a world of water. I sat inside, sipping lukewarm tea from
my thermos, belatedly realizing that sheltering under a tree
in a thunderstorm wasn't the best idea. But the rain had left
me no choice. I'd hardly had time to take Kinder for a short
walk before the rain sent us both scrambling back to the car.
This was an inauspicious beginning
to a summer that I'd burdened with high hopes and impossible
dreams. I couldn't bring my father back from the dead or mend
a broken romance, but perhaps I could find a measure of happiness.
Please let this be the last wrinkle,
Kinder munched a Milk-Bone biscuit,
oblivious of damp fur and hot air. I pulled the package of
gingersnaps across the seat, gathered a handful of warm, crisp
cookies, and began to eat them as if they were popcorn. Their
spice and sugar mix revived me. All I'd needed was a little
snack. The thunder was farther away now, and the rain was
tapering off. In a few minutes, I'd be able to move on. Impatient
with delays, I couldn't wait to settle into the cottage.
Kinder's furious barking alerted me
to the presence of a newcomer moments before I saw the tall,
husky policeman emerging through the wall of rain. He crossed
the road and approached my car with grim resolve. In his hand
he carried a long, polished nightstick.
"It's okay, Kinder," I said. "Quiet."
The officer tapped the window lightly,
and I pressed the control button. Raindrops and waves of warmth
rushed in. He shoved the stick in his belt and looked down
His tawny hair was liberally sprinkled
with gray, and his face, with its attractive angles and deep
tan, would have been handsome if it had worn a congenial expression.
He appeared to be the quintessential lawman, however: All
business, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners. At the moment, he
was getting wet.
"Afternoon, ma'am," he said with a
slight, barely perceptible nod. His voice was like steel,
and his eyes were the color of the lake I'd passed earlier,
cool and light, with the shimmer of a pale blue jewel.
"Officer." I swallowed my gingersnap
and brushed invisible crumbs from my lap. I couldn't possibly
be more innocent, but somehow this grim law enforcer made
me feel as if I were desperate to hide some guilty secret.
"Did you run into some car trouble?"
I relaxed. Innocent until proven guilty.
"No, I'm just waiting for the rain to pass."
"Seems to be letting up now."
"I'll be on my way then." I moved
my hand slowly toward the ignition. "But wait." In the austere
presence of the law, I'd almost forgotten the freeway punks.
"Something happened back on I-75. Some trouble . . ." I described
the incident, fumbling on the floor for the bottle fragment
to offer as evidence.
The officer glanced down at the door
and ran his hand along its surface, shaking his head. "Some
drivers are just plain nuts. If he'd aimed higher, you could
have been badly hurt. You were smart to exit the freeway when
"I wasn't running away from them,"
I said. "I don't run away from trouble."
"No, you were avoiding it. If more
people did that, there'd be fewer accidents."
I wanted to set the record straight,
even if it didn't really matter. "I left the freeway because
of the storm. I don't like to drive when I can't see where
I'm going. That's a good way to get killed."
I had said enough and hadn't given
the policeman the crucial information yet. "The men were heading
north less than a half hour ago. The car was a late model
green Monte Carlo with one broken headlight. The right one.
Maybe you could radio ahead to the state troopers to watch
"I'll do that, ma'am." A fleeting
smile transformed his features, crinkling the lines around
his eyes. "That's a nice dog in the crate. He's a collie.
"A purebred collie. Her name is Kinder."
"A Lassie dog." He tapped the back
window and Kinder growled a low warning. "You've got yourself
"The best kind," I said.
"I used to have a collie when I was
kid. The same brown sugar color with white markings. He was
a good dog. Drive carefully, ma'am, and stay cool." He nodded
and strode back to his cruiser.
I wondered if he was really going
to contact the state police. Maybe he was only humoring me
and that was condescension I saw glimmering in his eyes. Well,
it hardly mattered. I'd escaped the wrath of the freeway punks
and set the law on their trail without having to track down
a state trooper.
While I'd been talking to the officer,
the storm had turned into a gentle shower. Pale light washed
the country road, and the air was fresh and sweet. It smelled
of woods and waters and strange flowers, hinting at new beginnings.
Carefully I closed the package of
gingersnaps and replaced the top of the thermos. Across the
road, the officer sat in his cruiser, watching me. Maybe he
was bored with patrolling quiet byroads, and I'd been a brief
That's what I was. Joanna Larne, intrepid
Gothic-time travel-cozy writer, a country cop's diversion.
I turned on the ignition and pulled
onto the road. The entrance ramp should be no more than ten
minutes away. In what direction, though? Back the way I'd
come? Right or left? I'd better ask the officer, but when
I looked for him, he was gone.
* * * *
The road seemed to go on forever,
an unpaved ribbon of a trail unwinding endlessly through woods,
lakes, and country estates. I amused myself by reading the
infrequent signs: 'Welcome to Foxglove Corners', "Neighborhood
Watch in Effect', 'Horse Country - Drive with Care', and the
silhouette of a leaping deer that didn't need words. All the
while I looked for the one that eluded me. Nowhere did I see
an arrow pointing to I-75.
I was lost. Two right turns, one left,
and my sense of direction had deserted me. Apparently this
road didn't have a name, which was as unlikely as the chance
of a criminal being deterred by a Neighborhood Watch sign
posted in the wilderness. There was no one I could ask. At
this point, all I knew was that I was no longer on Silver
Oak Road. Without a name to cross-reference, my road map was
I ought to turn back but hated to
waste time. If I kept going, surely I'd come across another
Thin wisps of fog lingered in the
air, bathing the area in an ethereal haze. The eerie feeling
I'd had of being the only driver on the freeway gripped me
again. This was a perfect place for fantasy to blossom. Probably
I was the only traveler on this road.
Eerie feelings always made me nervous.
I reached for another gingersnap, but my fingers scraped the
crumbs at the bottom of the package. The thermos was empty
too. I had long since passed discomfort and crossed over to
misery. At the moment, I would happily pay any amount for
a slice of pizza, an icy soft drink, and a freeway sign beckoning
in the distance.
If only I could travel back in time
and ask directions of the country cop, before he could vanish
in his patrol car. To take my mind off being lost I played
an alternate version of the reality in my mind.
The officer's blue eyes sparkled like
the lake water, belying his brusque, official manner. His
eyes rested approvingly on my green blouse with its low scooped
"I saw you pass this way five minutes
ago, ma'am," he said. "Are you lost?"
"I'm afraid I am. Can you tell me
the way to the freeway, please?"
"I can, but first, would you join
me for dinner?"
Here I erased the pleasant scenario.
Nothing in life was ever that easy, and imaginary conversations
weren't going to lead me to the entrance ramp. What troubled
me the most was the possibility that I'd traveled several
miles in the wrong direction, setting my arrival time at Spearmint
Lake back again. I couldn't very well make my way to the cottage
on a route of rocky byroads.
"What now?" I spoke more to myself
than to Kinder. She was asleep in her crate, trusting me to
deliver us both to our destination in one piece.
All I could do was drive on.
At last a sign loomed ahead. Slowing
down, I read the worn letters: Star Lake Road. I unfolded
my map, found Star Lake, and then the road. I saw that I hadn't
strayed too far from the exit ramp. If I turned left now,
I should reach I-75 in less than an hour.
Another chunk of time lost on this
convoluted trip, but this road had a smoother surface. Soon
I spied the white three-board plank fence of a horse farm
gleaming in the distance and, on the other side of a crossroad,
a freeway sign, its red, white, and blue half obscured by
a screen of silvery leaves.
An amber caution light blinked brightly
in floating strands of mist. I stepped on the accelerator,
certain of my direction now. The anxiety of the last hours
Then . . . Five or six car lengths
ahead of me, I saw a green Monte Carlo waiting to make a left