The windshield had an odd crack in the corner, shaped almost like a duck with that bulge and the tiny head. But it always looked like a duck, every time she went on this ride, and Rachel Marie felt her stomach do a somersault as she peered at the glass with the fracture and the crusted water-drops and tree leaves stuck in the little space between the hood and the windshield.
The driver reached out and nudged the radio volume down. “You like music?”
She shook her head. Actually, she and Bucky liked singing along with his favorite CDs; he would crank up the stereo way loud and then they would have contests. Okay, R.M., who can sing louder, you or me? But she didn’t feel like talking about songs with this man.
“Just a few minutes now and we’ll get to where your mom is. I’m sure everything’s all right,” he added. It was meant to be soothing, but somehow his words made her feel nervous instead.
Don’t ever ride in a car with strangers. Mommy had said it a hundred times. Never, never, never, sweetheart. But this was different; at least, she sure hoped so. This man with the sweatshirt and baseball hat had told her it was an emergency. Someone had hit Mommy’s car; the police asked him to bring Rachel Marie over to the shop where it was being fixed. So that wasn’t exactly riding with strangers. Plus his sweater had a picture of a cute puppy on the front. Still, they’d been in this blue car for a long time, and after pulling away from Beecher Christian School this police helper had gotten right on the freeway. That was kind of weird too, since Rachel Marie and her folks only lived two miles from school.
She felt bad about not saying goodbye to Belle, her best friend. They’d been playing on the teeter-totter, laughing whenever the bottom person went thwang against the cement base. But then Belle had to run inside and go potty. It was right after that when the man came and told her about Mommy’s car and the broken fender and how he was supposed to take her.
So this is okay. But . . . um . . . I guess he is kind of a stranger. Mommy didn’t mean this, did she? A strange tightness, childish dread spelled out in crayon and a first-grader’s vocabulary, began to seep through her skin. She could almost feel her heart pounding against the seatbelt. “Are we almost there?”
“Just a bit longer. Your mom said it’d be okay to stop and get something to eat first. Since it might take a while before you guys get home. Do you like milkshakes? Boy, I sure do.”
It was just then when she managed to glance down onto the floor mats of the blue car. There was a big kind of coffee stain on it, so the gray rug was almost a yucky kind of black. And right next to the blotch, a couple of inches below her tennis shoes, was a stack of magazines. The man was whistling something quietly to himself, the notes coming through his thin mustache, and Rachel Marie could tell her bad feeling was getting worse. Okay, this man said he was nice, that he was helping. But the top magazine had a picture of a naked lady on it. She had really big hair, but she was pulling her shirt way up and it was showing everything.
Rachel Marie didn’t want to cry, but as she jerked her head away from the bad magazine and tried to see where she was, all at once there was nothing around but freeway and other cars and big trucks going a long ways away. She didn’t recognize the school or the church where she went every weekend with Mommy and Bucky. There weren’t any of her friends living around here. There was a big mall coming up but it didn’t have a J. C. Penney’s like the one back in Hampton Beach.
“You’re sure a pretty girl,” the man said now in a voice that was trying to be gentle. “It may be a little while before we see your mom, but that’s okay. Waiting around to get a car fixed is really boring. But hey, let’s get that milkshake first. Then we’ll just see what else is fun to do.”
Rachel Marie awakened with a start, and couldn’t be sure if she might actually have screamed out loud. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus. Not again, Lord. Her pillow was wet with tears and she turned over, feeling her stomach lurch. The last time she’d had this dream, she’d had to bolt for the bathroom in order to heave up her supper.
Sixteen years of safety and her dad’s strong, protective arms had never been enough to erase the recurring nightmare. Am I going to puke my guts out? Again? She laid there in the choking darkness, now a grown woman, and it was all she could do to keep from dashing to the front door just to check the bolts.
With nerveless fingers, Rachel Marie flipped on the lamp next to her bed and peered at the digital clock. Not quite four in the morning. Barely coherent enough to add three hours of time zones, she grabbed her phone and dialed her big brother. It took two rings before he came on the line. “Holy cow, Rachel Marie. Are you okay? It’s the middle of the night for you.”
“I had that dream again,” she blurted out before dissolving into sobs. “Oh my God. It was so terrifying.”
“Wow.” It was all Bucky could manage. “Same as the other times?”
“Yeah. We’re in the car; I’m freaking out. I don’t know if I messed up–don’t ride with strangers, but I’m only six and don’t know. And just the minute I figure out, I messed up; this guy’s a predator, then I wake up and my heart rate’s up at two hundred.”
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. You think you’re going to go see what’s-her-name again? Dr. Winthrop?”
“I don’t know what good more therapy does. This nightmare just comes back when things are a mess for me, and right now things are pretty much caving in.”
“I know you’re upright about being pink-slipped. What else?”
“Just . . . well, everything. My best friend’s barely holding on with uterine cancer. And I’m marching toward the wedding chapel with a really great guy who looks like a GQ cover but will never ever be a soul mate—in terms of Jesus and all that. And I don’t have the guts to admit it to myself.”
“Sounds like you just did.”
“That’s with you. Well, just wait. Next time I see him, I already know all my big resolutions will just melt away.”
There was an uneasy pause. “I don’t know what to tell you, R.M. It was just a dream. You know that.”