The wind changed from ferocious to more familiar and the afternoon sun seeped into her skin but Darla gave up and sat down. She had been walking more than an hour, ever since the car broke down. It had shuddered and coasted to the edge of the road, right before the highway exit. She knew it was a bad idea to take Abe’s car but, then, she didn’t see that she had a choice. He was working on her beat up Volvo at his buddy’s–she had dropped him off, ostensibly to go to work. She had thought it over. It was either take her chances or try to placate him again. But she just couldn’t put the effort into peacemaking anymore. Not because she didn’t care because she did, sometimes. It just didn’t work.
She’d kept on until she got to this stretch of beach. It was easier to walk than the roadside. Abe would first look at her best friend Sarah’s, then Teddy’s studio above his café, and lastly the Knit and Purr (the owner’s sickly Persian cat had died during summer) where she worked three days a week. He wouldn’t try Granny Robb’s until tomorrow, likely–he did have to work later. And he didn’t like Granny, had told her a thousand times to stay away from her so he assumed she took his opinion and advice to heart. Darla hoped to be at Granny’s by nine o’clock and in the morning to be somewhere else. Had to keep moving, otherwise Abe would catch up and haul her back home.
Her new tennis shoes were chafing her left foot. A blister was ballooning on her heel so she took them off and stood up. The wet, smooth sand was soothing.
If Darla knew anything, she knew the ocean. She grew up not far from there; all this had been her playground. Kept alive in her memory were tidal secrets and all the places she could hide and explore. The weather’s shifts and turns here were an intimate part of her knowledge. She had lived to surf and kayak before Abe. Today the sea was restless as ever, gleaming waves muscling their way in, carrying humans, boats or debris with an indifferent elegance. She tilted her face to sea spray, then tied her tennis shoes together and tossed them over her shoulder. Darla’s feet pounded the wave-carved beach, hair loosening, legs lengthening. This is how it felt to be free. Like she had no origin or destination or ending, as if she was one hundred percent bona fide alive only in this moment. Every cell sparked and danced, primed for joy. Nothing–no one–could claim her as theirs.
Salt kissed her lips and light burnished her skin. She was turning to gold and snared by the rhythm of running so imagined she was a wild horse as she did when a child, galloping and cavorting past waves, rocks, driftwood, crabs, mussels, the world. Only when her breathing was pinched by the pounding of her heart did she slow and drop to the sand, gasping.
There was no time for this foolish play. What an idiot to dredge up memories made of childhood innocence. A naiveté not yet shredded by disappointment and loneliness. Now Darla had to deal with facts that required she come up with a better plan. Soon. She was an escapee, after all. Broke right out of Abe’s Coastal Camp–that’s what he called it since it was his summer camp. Abe’s work camp, he should call it, for all she had done for him to keep him even halfway placated. He loomed in her mind: that furrowed forehead signaling dissatisfaction, the immediate or delayed anger instigating more ridiculous demands–“corrective actions”, he called them. And too often the force of his broad hands marring her face or grasping on her shoulder, hair, neck. Those were “reminders”. Of who was in charge.
She had to climb the hill and get back to the road, find a ride to Granny’s. She was gone this week but she’d told her to come on. Darla put her socks back on and then her shoes, her heel tender. She had four protein bars in her bag and ate one as she hiked up the twisty trail. Two women passed her laughing, a blanket and a tote full of food between them. She kept her head down, not to be unseen but to avoid their normalcy, their happiness. She wondered if they carried wine, then banished the thought before it stole her mind away like a thief. The last thing she wanted ever again was a drink.
When she reached the road she loosened her shoe and stuck out her thumb. There were trees standing close together here; the ocean roar was gentled. An October sky was dissolving into a powdery grey-blue and coral. The sun would soon begin its disappearing act on the vast celestial stage. She had to be off the road by then. Fear pricked her innards. What had she done? Did it really have to come to this?
She waggled her thumb at several cars but they sped by, sometimes honking or swerving, as though her small presence might be a serious threat to them. She stepped back, close to underbrush and the darkening forest. After about twenty minutes she started walking fast even though her heel was hot and stinging. Darla took in the sea between treetops like a gulp of hope. She considered praying when headlights blinded her. She turned at the sound of the vehicle as it pulled up nice and easy.
The interior lights went on. They looked okay, both man and woman, each with greying hair. A brownish tabby cat curled up on the woman’s lap. The car was a new model SUV, deep blue. The woman rolled her window halfway down and stuck her face out.
“You need a ride, dear?” She peered over her glasses and smiled with pale peach lips closed. “You shouldn’t be out here all alone.”
“Well, about 60 miles is all. To Winton, up north. You know it?”
The older woman nodded, loose curls bouncing. “Oh, we go right by it on the way to our cottage. We’re eighteen miles past there.” She looked Darla up and down for a quick assessment then made a motion to the left with her head. “This is Kenneth, my husband. Just get rid of sand, please.”
Darla bent down and looked in the car. Kenneth had on an old straw hat but he pushed it back from his forehead, then peered at her. His hooded eyes made an attempt at smiling. He looked sixtyish or more, ruddier and younger than his wife.
“Well, I guess…”
“What happened, dear? No car? How on earth did you get here?”
Darla could feel the heat being leached from the air as the sun stayed its own course. She shivered; she had to get out of here. She stomped her feet to rid them of sand and brushed off her jeans.
“It broke down. I’m on my way to my grandmother’s, Lena Robb’s.”
The man gestured for her to get in back. “Pile in. I want to get to our place before it’s too late.”
Darla took off her backpack, tossed it in and settled in the leather seat. The cat jumped from between the front seats to the seat by Darla, walked over her twice with a sniff or two, then jumped back to the woman in front with a plaintive meow. Darla didn’t like cats that much but here she was, stuck with one again.
“I’m Roslyn Gentry, by the way.”
“Darla, ah, Darla Robb.” She took a painfully deep breath as they started off down the road, then looked out the window, through the pines. The ocean was receding; the sky was aflame. The SUV was warm and smelled faintly of cinnamon and, possibly, sausage. A tangy hint of sweat. No one spoke the first mile except the cat, who hissed at her once from her mistress’ shoulder.
(TO BE CONTINUED. Please come back for Part 2, to be posted this week.)