Escape: Part 2

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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.

Yeah, right.

“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.

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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.”

“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.

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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.”

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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.

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Known by Creatures We Keep

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I live in a city secretly run by cats and dogs. If I am basking in the sun along the river, nearby there are dogs performing athletic feats as they catch Frisbees in mid-air. Certainly at the parks it is clear we must share and share alike: broad thoroughfares are filled with vocal, leaping, racing canines. Occasionally, a cat on a leash mosies by. When on daily walks in the neighborhood, however, an eclectic array of cats slink across my path with their snaky or fluffy tails swaying, as though sent out to evaluate the rabble on their turf. The dogs are seldom seen outside; they keep guard from the picture windows, but solemnly, as though carrying out orders though they would rather be napping. Now and then they bark like mad. I do feel for them. The cats and I live the good life, indoors and also unleashed (for the most part) in the city wilds.

I faced up to it a long ago when I moved to Portland, Oregon: I may be in the minority here. Felines and canines are just the tip of the heaps and gatherings of animals of all classes that are well-beloved by their human roommates and handlers. I have seen or heard of ferrets and minks, turtles, salamanders and snakes, birds of every feather, fishes from ponds and wild blue seas, exotic animals I can barely identify much less relate to.

One of my friends had pet white rats. Rats! They are the one thing that might induce me to get a weapons–at least a BB gun–permit. The friend and I are still close and it may be partly because the rodents are gone. (One was accidentally crushed beneath her foot in the night; the other, who knows? I know, a terrible fate. To you maybe, not me.) Now I share her car with her dog, Gypsy, who brashly objects to my presence until she recalls she knows me.

All these animals running around in addition to cougars, coyotes, bears, deer, fishes, ample amounts of insects, birds and so on that we see or hear within the city limits. It is the Pacific Northwest, known for dense, pervasive rainforests and mountains (for starters), after all. A  mini-frontier to many, and wild things’ territory.

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I should make it clear: all this observation is not indicative of a lack of interest or fondness of animals, wild or tamed. Not at all. It is true I was raised by parents who held the notion that animals other than human ought to stay outdoors and earn their keep, meaning, participate in field and barnyard types of activities. Provide sustenance to folks as required. Keep watch for trespassers and sound out an alarm. Even if my mother was friendly with some of them, she was dispassionate about their passing. My father knew nothing about domestic animals of any sort, having been raised in town by parents who did not harbor pets. I suspect he thought them a novelty, attractive and capable of good tricks at best, filthy and irksome at worst. He loved aquariums, the best zoos and wildlife seen from a car or train.

When I was growing up, one of my sisters, A., had a number of cats, despite our other sister’s allergies and the parents’ rule of zero animals allowed. Apparently they deemed felines acceptable since they daily roamed outdoors, coming in for dinner and seeking shelter from inclement weather systems. Plus, they cleaned themselves thoroughly and delicately. Even though I was five years younger, I well remember her four-footed friends. They curled up on our beds and gave off rumbling, warm responses when stroked. They played when I was bored. They sneaked around like spies and pounced on their targets with glee, even if it was a wayward dust bunny. I thought them smart and pretty but an aside in my life. For A., my sister, they mean more than I could have imagined until one by one, they died. We lived on a very busy street. The cats did not dodge cars well.  I discovered one, once pure white, bloodied and limp, and it was terrifying. A.’s grief cut through my innocence: so this was loss of what you loved. I felt it yet from the edge of things. These defenseless beings were so easily taken down by the same sleek cars she and I loved to count and identify by year and make from our front porch.

I can’t say any of this encourage me to have pets as an adult. Nonetheless, there have been animals living among my tribe over the years. I can see them run by: Twiggy, a whippet felled by a virus; Max, a huge wooly mutt, given up in a divorce; Buddy, a Brittany Springer Spaniel who eventually zigzagged away, back to the ex-husband’s country acreage only because our son begged. I think he was a hunter’s companion soon after which, I have to admit, is a better destiny than the city life he had lived with a family of seven though he adored playing with us and making us run when he slipped out.

Then there was Miss Mandy.

It was my youngest who saw the “Free Kittens” sign at the curb. I warned myself to not give in. Alexandra found the runt, of course, the one who needed the most love, the petite calico kitten curling up in her arms like adoption was a foregone conclusion. Because it had been a hard year that included a move to a new state, I relented. As we adapted to each other Amanda soon became Miss Mandy. That cat knew what she wanted, demanded it with precision so she was given her way despite misgivings. We should have named her Spitfire or Divine Miss M. I can’t say she was the sort of cat I always looked forward to snuggling at the end of a long work day. Her voice, for one thing: tinny, sometimes a whiny screech, not the voice of a beloved friend. She had claws to match–they would as soon find our flesh as the scarred couch legs.  Miss Mandy was not fully devoted, as sometimes she adored us both, sometimes she found us a nuisance and irritation or one preferable and the other worthless. I had not bothered to research the personality traits of calico cats, but Miss Mandy was certifiably temperamental.

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Of course we kept her. She lived with us for seventeen years, long after Alexandra had left to sample the world’s offerings. For one thing, Miss Mandy was a fair mouser, though she liked to bring them in before harassing them for hours, then grabbing them and taking them back out. Or I had to catch them when she found it tedious. She often offered up a melodious purr, which we all appreciated once she decided our laps were coveted spots. She played, chimed in with cat opinions, lazed in the sunshine like a lady of leisure, and otherwise filled out lives with interesting moments. Not to mention scratches that hurt like crazy. But I was quite allergic to her, discovered too late.

When she finally left us, aged and feeble, Alexandra and I were overcome with sorrow. I was a little surprised. I didn’t fancy myself that sort of pet lover. Yet Miss Mandy had been quite the eccentric family member and would be missed a long while. Even now.

In the end, I do not want another creature living in my home, not today or tomorrow. There was the worry about the traffic and Miss Mandy ending up like the white cat. And I moved from house to apartment. I live a life both active and engaged by many passions (including some travel). I enjoy my spouse and my solitude. I like it this way. And I appreciate all manner of animals in city, forests, high desert, rolling ranch and farm lands, seaside. I extol their virtues, note their peculiarities. It seems their lives are sometimes parallel to ours, different as can be yet often not so far beyond. I marvel at this. I do see and admire you, cat and dog; you see, hear and smell me better, I know.

Meanwhile, my son has raised a German Shepherd-wolf dog. I am fond of his dignified and intelligent ways, his calm protection of my grandchildren. Wolfie’s quiet alertness pulls me closer; he rarely barks or howls. It took some time for him to let me smooth his fine head, hug his thick chest. Now we exchange affection and news. I note how he rests, rises, lopes, circling and shepherding before resting again. He lords over everything without a fuss. Wolfie may frighten some but we find him elegant, gentle, easy. I am very happy to visit him whenever I want. You would agree he is part of the family. But, then, I always wanted a Husky; he’s close enough for now.

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