This time she did, her footsteps slapping on the pavement. Weaving like a drunk on numb legs, she fell once to her knees and skinned her palms but was barely slowed. Still no shout of alarm. She reached the windowless side of the gas station and kept going. Darkness lay beyond. If there was a moon, it must be low or behind clouds. The pavement gave way to dirt. She slammed into something rough, something that scratched at her face and had arms with clawlike hands.
Scrambling backward, she saw enough of an outline to understand. A tree. Her eyes were starting to adjust and she saw more trees, rows of them. Small, sculptural ones. An orchard maybe. She ran down the aisle between rows. Ran and ran, then cut between rows and ran some more, until the lights at the gas station were far away. Then, her stomach heaving again, she dropped to the ground and tried to shrink herself to nothingness so that she would fit behind the narrow bole of a tree. There she cowered, listening. Shivering. Shuddering as cold crept into her bones. Eventually hearing a car start up and take off. Others passed on the highway. Trucks with their heavier rumble. Vehicles came and went at the gas station. Night became the gray, pale light of dawn that left her feeling terrifyingly exposed. But no one came.
The sun rose until it was high in the sky, but gave little heat. The trees were bare of leaves, which meant it was winter.
Why don’t I know what season it is?
She didn’t know anything. Was afraid to let herself examine why she didn’t. She was nothing but an animal caught far from its burrow, horribly exposed. She was cold. So cold, despite the strange, too-large shirt she wore. At last it wasn’t so much courage as desperation that had her creeping slowly back toward the gas station and the highway. The worst was crossing the last open stretch onto pavement. The restroom doors were on this side. Hiding behind a big, white propane tank, peeking around it every time she heard footsteps, she had to wait almost forever before a woman came out of one of the restrooms and walked away, key dangling from a hand, without looking back. The door was just swinging shut and she raced for it. It was slamming when she slipped her fingers into the crack just in time. This hurt barely registered.
She hardly even examined herself in the mirror, beyond recoiling from the blood and vomit matting her hair and dried on her face and wondering why she was wearing this man’s shirt/jacket thing that was as long as a dress. With liquid soap, hot water and paper towels she scrubbed desperately at herself. She managed to get most of her head under the stream of water and used the hand soap to wash her hair, too. It hurt, hurt so bad, and the water kept running red no matter how many times she rinsed. She unbuttoned the olive-green shirt with an embroidered patch on the shoulder and scrubbed the blood and vomit off it, too. It had to be military, but it looked old, like somebody had worn it forever. Not her, she thought. Right now, it was all she had to wear, except for the thin cap-sleeved T-shirt beneath, so she wrung it out then put it back on wet. She’d be even colder, but that had to be better than being bloody and stinking with puke. Plus, wearing the shirt felt...necessary. Like it meant something.
The face she finally saw looked shell-shocked, but okay. Skin dead-white, her eyes dilated, but no bruises showed. The wound was on the right, near the back of her head. Touching it once had hurt, so she wouldn’t again.
She cracked the bathroom door enough to see that there was no one in sight, then rushed back behind the building.
A thought shaped itself. She could go inside and ask for help. The clerk would call the police. Somebody, somewhere, would know where she belonged.
A whimper slipped out and she looked down to see that she was hugging herself again, shaking. There were faces, the same man she’d remembered telling her to put down the seat. And a woman, too, whose stare was so icy that the girl had shriveled and crept away.
No, no, no. If they were her family, she couldn’t go back to them.
Then...I must be running away. She calmed as she accepted a truth, something she did know. They had been cruel to her...or something. She rocked herself, trying to remember, and couldn’t. But she knew they weren’t to be trusted, not those people, whether they were her family or not.
For most of the day, she watched from behind the propane tank as cars and trucks arrived and left. Finally a U-Haul truck pulled in. She heard the metal scrape of the rear door being lifted and crept forward to watch as the driver checked the load. Leaving it open, he disappeared around the side of the truck. She ran again, faster than she’d ever run in her life, slap, slap, slap on the pavement, and slithered into the back of the truck, trying not to make it bounce with her weight. There wasn’t much weight, though, because she was small and skinny. Heart pounding, she lifted a quilted pad and shinnied beneath it, finding herself wedged beside a wooden dresser. Another squirm and she made it behind the dresser. Something—a chair leg maybe—pressed into her back. Then she waited some more, trying not to breathe, until the footsteps came, and the metal door was released to drop, bounce once, then stay down. She heard the man snap closed the padlock, then get in behind the wheel.