The SUV hummed along as the sunset melted away. The tires on pavement, the heater fan and warmth brought Darla to the edge of sleep. She speculated about whether or not she was being kidnapped by benign but nutty elders or if soon she would actually be at Granny Robb’s, eating something good. Curled up with a big mug of tea. Darla had called; Granny said she was up north but to come on. She’d be back soon, tomorrow probably. Just lock the doors, lay low. Darla could think in front of a crackling fire at her grandmother’s; that was crucial. She’d feel like herself there, a semi-whole person. Separate from Abe.
It was too good to be true, these Gentry people picking her up. She imagined they were angels–that told her just how desperate she was–but she still had a world of trouble ahead.
“Got any kids?” Kenneth asked. “Or are you footloose?”
Darla sat up straight and blinked. “No, just a dog, a husky named Dixie…”
She felt a longing for Dixie that ached. She was mostly Abe’s dog but Dixie and she had become friends as she worked outdoors, the big dog padding after her when Abe was too busy or gone.
“Want a cat?”
Kenneth chuckled when Roslyn flicked his shoulder hard.
“Never mind him. Noto is her name, short for Notorious–I know, strange name but leave it to Kenneth. At the start she was notoriously fussy and expensive due to health needs. But he indulges me. He enjoys making me happy, lucky me! He’s got his parrot–talks back to me and Noto! You married, dear?”
She didn’t want to talk about personal things. This was a ride to safety, not a social excursion. She could tell them anything she wanted. She could as easily say she was single, a visiting professor from British Columbia. She had gotten lost after a seaside conference and then her car broke down so she decided to just have an adventure and see the States, not go home until she made it to Vancouver via hitchhiking. That she was spontaneous, independent, loved a good challenge.
“No, well, once, but things changed.”
“Hmm.” Kenneth took off the weathered straw hat and scratched his head. “Took us awhile to meet up and get hitched. But good thing, as it all worked out.”
Noto climbed up on Roslyn’s shoulder and meowed in assent. The cat sat there, tail twitching back and forth like a serpentine thing.
Roslyn scratched Noto’s ears. “We met at a gym when we were nearly forty. That’s twenty five years ago. We both ran marathons then and worked out. Both teachers, well, Kenneth became an administrator. I taught sixth grade. He was all about science. I was single and he was widowed young. So there we were, working up a sweat and trying not to steal a glance at each other week after week. He had good legs! One thing led to another. Coffee out, running dates, then dinner at my place…I guess some are meant to be married and some are not.”
Darla looked out the window. Could they go faster and talk less? She felt something rise up from her gut and it clutched her with misgiving. She and Abe: three years, six months, nine days. Too long. That’s what she finally decided even though he had this delicious appeal, the way he made her laugh, how he could rejuvenate things with a hammer and nails. His boldly good looks. His way with the campers, which was oddly patient. His lasagna and pot roast dinners. The way he held her when things were good. Up to Abe’s standards, that is. Yes, long enough. Now she had to keep out of his reach. Convince him she was not the one. They were a mistake that needed undoing.
The coastal road was full of switchbacks and Noto was thrown forward, landing on Darla’s lap, claws extended to catch hold. Darla tried to lift her and give her back. The cat hung on to her hoodie, then turned three times and settled on her lap, throwing Darla a look that indicated tolerance and possible appreciation. Darla smiled at Roslyn when she looked back.
“See? Noto’s good with people when she trusts them. Great instincts, too. So tell me about your grandmother.”
Kenneth grunted, either at the Noto remark or a truck that passed going around seventy instead of fifty.
“She helped raise me and now that my mom’s in Seattle, she’s my family. Granny used to own a gift shop in town.”
Why did she have to say that? The less information the better. Or was she being paranoid? Abe always warned her to say nothing. Treat everyone with suspicion, except the campers and their families. They brought in money. Used to. He made less money since he married her, he said. All her fault, her shyness, her laziness.
Breathe, just breathe slowly. Think first, speak judiciously, act later.
“A gift shop in Winton? I wonder if I’ve been there.”
“Not likely! She sold it four years ago, or is it five? I was in college when that occurred. Now she’s retired.”
Roslyn reached back for Noto but the tabby was purring, rumbling against Darla’s legs.
“The shop was called what, dear?”
I didn’t say, she thought. I don’t want to talk about anything, let you know me.
She considered asking them to stop, let her out, but the heat inside, the cold outdoors, the way the cat had snuggled close…Or she could just spew it, how terrified she was getting, how she didn’t know what to do. How Abe could be wonderful and then not, just like that.
No, keep steady now.
“Cornucopia? My goodness, I know that place! I’ve shopped there for years because she’s had the best jewelry and special things. I made it a habit to stop there for some Christmas gifts. You said her name was… Lisa? Lela? No, Lena! I did note there was a change in staff.”
Darla didn’t answer. She had lain her head back and closed her eyes. Roslyn got quiet again. The car swayed along the narrow road. The cat seemed to snore. Maybe she had cats wrong, they could okay companions, smaller and less willing to play but still… She recalled Dixie, those blue eyes, that furry breadth when Darla hugged her. Dixie had been consistently gentler than Abe had ever been and that undisputed fact brought a prickling of tears.
Kenneth spoke in a whisper to his wife. “Do you think something is wrong or is it just me?”
“Of course.” She whispered back. “Just trying to figure it out. What woman would hitchhike alone?”
“You know that shopkeeper?”
“I know of her but can’t recall her whole name.” Her voice grew louder. “Well, we’re going to her house so we’ll meet.” She looked back at Darla to find her eyes still closed. “I think she’s running away.”
“Why that? From what?”
“I just feel it. She’s secretive. Worn out. Something desperate about her look.”
Darla didn’t care. She just wanted to sleep, dream of solutions, awaken somewhere else to find morning light greeting her like a balm. No fear. No wondering what was next. So what if they suspected something? She’d be at Granny’s soon. Never see them again.
They were close now. She opened her eyes a small slit and took in the lights of town. Saturday night and everything was lit up like a celebration in little Winton, tarnished jewel of the coast. It gave her a headache. If she had had money she’d be somewhere far from here. Mexico. Hawaii. Even Alaska sounded good tonight.
She sat up. Noto jumped off her lap.
“Turn left here,” Darla directed, “then turn left again and down four blocks to the beach. Otter Road; the house is an A-frame.”
They drove slowly up to Lena Robb’s dark house. Darla felt her jaw tense and then…no, really? There, parked right before the driveway, was her apparently repaired Volvo. Abe sat in it. He turned his head toward the Gentry car.
Darla fell over and bent down.”Keep going! Don’t stop! Abe is there!”
Kenneth said nothing but kept driving at a steady pace. Roslyn patted Darla’s back with her warm, thin hand. They drove on, right out of Winton and then sped up.
“Say now, Darla…how about coming to our place, having dinner? You can rest, call your grandmother.”
Darla clutched the back of Roslyn’s seat. Tears had breached her will to just carry on and she could not stop. She cried so hard, the painful breaths emptying in small heaves, that Noto cried out with her. Roslyn took her hand and asked Kenneth to pull over.
“Please–right now, Kenneth.”
Darla could barely make out the dash lights but she felt like she was in an airplane or a space ship going somewhere strange and unknown and all she could think was I’m leaving I’m leaving I’m leaving I am really leaving.
The Gentrys waited until the crying stopped.
Roslyn spoke softly. “You’re safe, my girl. We’ll shelter you until you get Lena to come.”
“Yes, please let us help, dear,” Kenneth said, his voice husky.
They drove on to the Gentry cottage. Darkness was like a silky veil on Darla’s hot face as night accompanied them in a quest for comfort. Darla hummed to herself, an old lullaby her mother had sung to her when she was a kid and life was an unblemished horizon. How to get back? Or was she finally going forward? Noto curled up on her lap to better watch her the rest of the journey.