The phone rang at 7:30 that Tuesday morning and I should have let the call go to voice mail because I was already late for work. I thought about it; maybe I could be on time for once. The curiosity got to me and I answered it and found out it was Jennifer, one of my co-workers.
“Are you going to work today?” she asked me.
“I was on my way out the door when the phone rang.”
“Damn. Can you call in?”
I sighed into the receiver. “Are you seriously going to the sale at Macy’s?”
“No kidding,” I said. “Look, I missed two days last week because I had my period.”
“I’ve never called in for a period, Kendall. God…”
“You’ve never had cramps like these.” I looked at my watch. “I have to go, Jen. I’ll swing by Macy’s after work and maybe you’ll still be there.”
“At two? All the stuff will be gone.”
“Not all of it,” I said. “I don’t have any money, anyway.”
There was a pause before she complained about me making her shop alone--like we were kids or something. I said good-bye and dropped the handset into its base and headed out the door.
The air felt good, not as humid as it normally did in the Chicago suburbs. I parked my Subaru near the trees the night before because most of the good spots were taken. Had I remembered this, I may have tried to leave earlier.
There was a blue slip of paper under my windshield wiper. I grabbed it and tossed it on the seat next to me while I started the car. Probably an advertisement for laundry or a Chinese take-out; I’d read it when I came to a stop light.
I wheeled out of the parking lot, almost clipping a duck who was making some sort of beeline for the pond at my apartment complex. The traffic on Freeport Street was light and I was able to pull into the left lane in order to take Butterfield Road for the seven miles it would take to get to work.
Despite the fact my apartment was in the suburbs, couched among houses and a stone’s throw from a strip mall, and the coffee house where I worked was in a suburb, located on the edge of a parking lot of another strip mall, there was an unexplainable stretch of Butterfield that ran past empty fields and a small patch of forest before one saw big box stores again.
Sitting at the light waiting to turn left onto Butterfield, I did a quick scan of the blue paper. It was Kook.
That wasn’t his real name. I didn’t know his real name and I doubt he’d ever tell me. I had seen him once or twice around the complex and one of those times he was putting a note on my car.
On this one was written: ‘I still think you are the hottest girl in the apartment complex and I die a little when I see you because you don’t love me like I love you’.
And that’s pretty much what the first two said, too. I was told by a maintenance guy that the kook was harmless, but I tried not to appear too friendly when I had to deal with him. Pretending I didn’t know it was him was hard sometimes, because even if I hadn’t seen him do it once, I’d suspect him. He tends to look at his hands when he passes by me and one time a male friend and I had spent some time in the complex swimming pool and we were headed back to my apartment to change.
This particular guy and me had nothing, and by that I mean no chemistry. We were great friends--he’s since gone to Florida to get married--but the temptation to get our inner freak on never reared its head.
But Kook was standing by the playground equipment with his fists jammed in his pockets, watching us as we passed by on the sidewalk--Mark in his navy surfer trunks and I in a black Body Glove two piece--and when we were almost out of earshot, he said, “Don’t touch her. You better not look at her.”
Inside my apartment, we giggled quite a bit.
The light turned green and I was on Butterfield heading west. My window was down, as was the passenger side, because it was too cool for the air conditioner. The road seemed relatively empty. There was an occasional oncoming car or truck and there was one Jeep that passed me, making tire screaming noises as they did, but other than that, it was a quiet ride.
I was reaching for the Play button on the CD player hoping I’d left the Green Day album in from the night before when my cell phone rang.
I have a rule. I don’t drive and talk on my cell phone. It drives my friends nuts, but I’ve seen way too many people slide through intersections or damn near hit kids or trees because they’re too busy telling Marge about the latest episode of Days of our Lives or closing some merger with the other white collars back at the office. I don’t have a lot of rules but I like that one. What did we do before they invented the things? We drove and listened to the radio or talked to someone in our cars, that’s what. My friend, the one who moved away, Mark, he used to try to make me buy a headset. I would tell him it’s the same thing. My concentration would be elsewhere and then I’m suddenly in court for vehicular manslaughter.
So, I pulled onto the shoulder, regretting it as I did because I knew it would make me later than I was. It was my doctor’s office confirming an appointment. She said she had to give me the number of a laboratory because I’d need to go there first and take a urine test.
“Write down this number and set up a time with them. They’ll see you before Friday when your appointment is.”
I had the car in Park and I had my head down, writing the number on the green piece of paper Kook had given me. My head stayed down as I listened to the woman ramble on about being on time to my appointment or possibly missing it.
Yeah, yeah, I thought.
She finally let me go and after I’d closed my phone, I looked up and pulled back onto the road.
I didn’t get far.
Before I could get my car up to 45 again, a woman emerged from the woods. She was probably in her late thirties, dirty blonde hair, kind of skinny without a lot of curves. She wore a light blue t-shirt that was torn at the collar, making it look like a V-neck. There was blood on her face and left arm. She wore acid washed blue jeans which I noticed quickly on account of the fact they were out of style at this point. The jeans were covered in mud on the left side.
She saw me approaching and stuck her hand out at me, almost running to me. With my window down, I could hear her yell to me. I slowed down.
“Oh god,” she said. “Help me. I was hiking and I fell.”
“What do you need?” I said.
She was at the passenger door. “Can you take me to the doctor? Is there a doctor nearby?”
Her voice was husky like she’d just chased down a pack of Pall Malls with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Her nails, painted red, were chipped slightly. “Okay,” I said, hesitating. “I’m late for work, but I guess I can drop you off at the Primary Care Center. Please please don’t get blood on my seats.”
She stood still, not opening the door for a moment and then looked back. I put the car in Park and that’s when it happened.
A guy, apparently hiding behind the tree, steps out and looks east and west on Butterfield. Satisfied nobody was there, he stepped toward the car and grabbed the woman by the neck.
“Easy, Haven,” she said, wincing in pain.
Haven shoved her to the ground and pulled my car door open in one swift move. Seemingly out of nowhere, a handgun appears and I hear a crack. I screamed and saw the bloody woman fall sideways into the tall grass.
I started shaking but found it in me to put my hand on the gearshift and slide it into Drive, but Haven was in the passenger seat before I could even pull off the shoulder.
“Start driving, bitch, or you’re dead, too.”
I pulled out onto the road, fighting back tears of nervousness. What the hell? Wishing now that I’d been on time for work or let the cell phone call go to voice mail. Wishing I’d missed the woman, all of it making sense suddenly. She was obviously working with him, the two of them were going to carjack me and Haven decided the smoker was dead weight.
That’s what I thought anyway as I pulled out onto Butterfield.
“I have to work,” I said, not knowing what else to say, but hearing once that if you talk to a criminal and engage them, they’re less likely to kill you.
“Day off, honey,” he said. He waved toward the horizon and to the left and said, “Catch 55 up there and head south.”
His voice had an eerie calm drawl to it. I’d heard similar accents in South Carolina or somewhere around there. I hadn’t even looked at him yet, not thoroughly anyway.
But here I was, in my Subaru, with a stranger toting a gun, headed for an interstate that could take me to St Louis or the end of my life.
I didn’t know which.