Chapter 21: Gathering
“Deena, be honest. What is the real reason you wanted to come along?”
She was startled. That was not the question she had expected.
“Hmm.” He had asked her to be honest. Did that mean he didn’t believe her? What does he think?
Oh! The hint of a blush crossed her face.
“Well, it’s not for your body! So, don’t get any ideas. We’re going to rescue Katy!”
“And?” He didn’t seem offended, at least. But he was still pushing for something more.
What am I doing here? Why did I need to come?
She couldn’t honestly say the rescue was the only reason. That’s what he asked, wasn’t it?
“Wait a minute. I need to think.”
Light and dark alternated as they got deeper in the tall tree forest. Luther kept his eyes on the road, and waited.
“My feet have been itchy lately,” she confessed. “I couldn’t sit still in school. I went outside to run between classes.”
“The red face.”
“Yes. Before physics class, I went outside, and before I realized it, I had gone over a mile. When I noticed the time, I ran back as fast as I could, and overheated.”
“Which direction did you go?”
She sighed, “South.”
He nodded. “You’re consistent. ‘Go south’, you kept saying.”
“And that’s the way we’re going, and I feel better because of it. No toe tapping, no itching to run.
“Luther, I don’t know why I had to come along, I honestly don’t know.”
Not good news. Luther tried not to let it disturb him. His whole life was one new layer of bad news after another. He just had to carry them—just let them build up around him.
Some day he would break out of this cocoon, but it didn’t have to be today. He could still be himself in spite of it all.
“Your mother seems a bit...possessive. How is she going to handle this?”
Deena shook her head. “Not well.
“Mom has no life. Not really. My Dad died in an airliner crash when I was little. What with his pension and the insurance and the airliner’s money, she hasn’t had to work for a living. She spends her day clipping coupons out of the newspaper and finding ways to avoid spending money.
“Well, you saw our car. She took an auto mechanics class—a free one—at the community college so she could change the oil herself. She’ll run it on bald tires until the cords show through, and then buy used ones to replace them. We keep it in the garage out of the salt air and one of my chores is to wash it off with the garden hose once a week. She never drives it fast, and she stays on the same, well-known roads.
“I’m like that old car, I think. She’ll keep me barely maintained, cleaned up and serviceable until I fall apart from rust and old age.”
He nodded. “You had to break out of your rut.”
She shrugged, “I guess.” Sadly, she stared out the side window away from him. “It’s scary, what I’ve done.”
“You can always back out.”
She shook her head at that.
He looked on down the road. “It’s a two day drive to Malibu. I know where Katy lives. We’ll scope the place out—see if she’s there, or if she’s left any messages. If she has indeed vanished, we’ll make an anonymous call to the police, to see if she’s with them. At the least, we can warn them that she’s been kidnapped and that she identified the person who was chasing her.
“One way or the other, we should be able to do something within a day or so of when we get there. After that, when there’s nothing more to do, I can put you on a bus headed back home, and I can vanish again.”
He looked to see how she was reacting.
Deena was gazing raptly up at the big trees all around them.
Click. Without warning, she opened the car door.
Luther jammed on his brakes, but she stepped out onto the moving pavement.
Horrified, he saw a tumbling mass of white on the road behind him in the rear view mirror.
The road was too narrow for a shoulder—and too twisty to just stop on the pavement. The next car would come over a hill and smash into it.
There! It was a small spot, but he pulled all the way up into the vegetation. His front bumper was against a giant tree and yet one set of tires were still half on the pavement.
It would have to do.
He slammed the door and started running back.
What happened? Did she suddenly snap? Change her mind and panic? Was she sick? What made her do that?
His mind raced, and he was terrified that she had injured herself badly. A skull fracture, and I’ll have to get her to a hospital.
Then it would be a race to get out of town and vanish. The police would be after him then. No doubt about it.
He slowed down. She had to have fallen near where he was standing.
If she can walk, she might have gotten off the road.
He walked slowly along the edge, looking for signs.
This feels very familiar. A broken patch of fungus caught his eye.
He pushed on through the gap. There were other signs of recent passage. A patch of white was visible through the trees. Where is she going?
The white was a scrap of cloth. He held it out. Girls’ fabric, part of a sleeve. Deena had been wearing white, but he hadn’t paid attention to the details.
On the torn edge, it was dark. Blood.
He felt another layer of bad news come down over him.
I have to take this with me. If the police were looking for Deena, and if they found a blood-stained piece of her clothing, there would be a state-wide manhunt in place in hours, complete with roadblocks and humorless men in uniform, holding guns. He stuffed the cloth into his pocket.
The trail led through the underbrush, until suddenly, there was the hiking trail. The ground looked undisturbed on the other side. She took this, but which way?
There were no fresh tracks. The trail was so beat down, it wouldn’t show them easily.
Is this the same trail we took on the field trip? They all looked alike. But if it was the same, then the tree fall was to the left. Could she be going back there for some reason?
It was the only theory he had. He marked the soil with a stick in the ground, in case he had to retrace his steps, then moved on as quickly as he could over the uneven ground.
He felt the presence behind him before he heard it. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a large bull elk bearing down on him.
One adrenalin boosted jump, and he was off the trail, ready to duck behind a large tree.
But the elk didn’t even look his way. Luther had been close enough to see scrapes and scars on the antlers. The animal moved purposefully down the trail.
Luther crept back. He had to have seen me. On a hunch he picked up the pace, following the elk.
After a quarter mile, the elk left the trail and angled off into a dark grove.
Luther was panting and dripping from sweat. The air was thick with moisture. He paused only for a couple of breaths, then followed.
A patch of white brought him up short. Through the trees, centered in a long thin ray of sunshine, Deena stood motionless, arms spread out, in the center of the grove.
He slowed, moving carefully through the undergrowth.
Deena is hot. He could see her red skin and that her clothes were plastered to her body with sweat. I need to get her to some water.
Suddenly, from the trees far overhead, a thin trickle of water splashed on her head. She gasped, but didn’t alter her position. The anointing stream cooled her quickly. In seconds, her skin faded back to normal and just as quickly, the water stopped.
He shivered, not because he was cold, but from this hint of forces he didn’t understand.
She’s in a trance. Deena wouldn’t stand like that. Her blouse was torn, and gaped open. The girl he knew would never let that happen. She would pin it shut, or hold it tight, fiercely protective of her modesty.
Like a spirit at one with nature, she seemed in rapture with the elements, oblivious to skin.
He took another step.
Shadows moved. As if his eyes were opened, Luther could suddenly see the others.
The elk he had been following turned to see him, as if for the first time. There were deer, other elk, and rabbits underfoot. The forest was alive with animals, all surrounding Deena, and until he had disturbed them, they had all been waiting motionless, patiently.
What have I stumbled into?