The first time she appeared, she was standing at a corner.
Maureen shouldn’t have noticed her. She was still in the city. It was a busy corner. Others were standing there. But a few blocks later, Maureen couldn’t remember any of them. She could only remember her.
She wasn’t facing the street. The others were all waiting for the light to change, but she was facing the other way. The only thing Maureen could see of her was her jeans. Long blonde hair fell to her waist in loose waves. Was she barefoot? In the city? Gross.
Maureen pushed her out of her mind and turned up the music. This was her perfect day. Her day of freedom. The day where her old life ended. Somewhere behind her was her shitty stepdad and all of her high school ‘friends’ who had turned out to be selfish backstabbing bitches and all the teachers who didn’t think she’d amount to anything. The joke was on them. Sure, she’d only gotten into a state school. But the state was Texas and she’d picked the campus clear on the other side.
She had her little car, the backseat filled with the few things she truly thought of as hers. All her important papers were in the glovebox: her acceptance letter, her dorm assignment, all the money she had to her name. A full tank of gas and a passenger seat filled with snacks and waters.
It was going to be hard. But it had to be better than high school.
Interstates scared her so she stuck to the state roads. Better views anyway. She had her windows down because Stan never would have the windows down. Even on the nicest days the windows were up and the heat or the AC was blasting.
“Too many bugs,” she said in a high-pitched voice that did not sound anything like Stan but caught the essence of his soul. “Too windy. Too many smells. Too loud. Nothing is ever good enough for you, huh, Stan?”
A woman was on the side of the road, walking in the same direction. At first, she couldn’t understand why she was afraid. She had to get closer to see what her subconscious had already noticed. It was the same woman, the one who had been at the intersection. Same jeans. Same long blonde hair. Still barefoot, walking along the dirt.
Anyone walking down a state road barefoot probably needs help.
But Maureen didn’t slow down. That statement had been made by a rational part of her brain. The older part of her brain didn’t agree. Or it didn’t care. It just wasn’t letting her stop. She didn’t even slow down as she passed the woman, and when she looked in the rearview mirror the woman’s face was concealed by her blonde hair whipping in the wind.
“It couldn’t have been the same woman,” she said aloud. She’d seen the first woman over half an hour ago. Miles away. Maureen shook her head and forced herself to laugh. Jeans and blonde hair weren’t exactly unique. She was nervous about starting her new life. That’s all. Totally normal. The only cure for that was louder music.
Her phone rang around hour three of the trip, when the sun was beginning to set all of the metallic or dark things in the car on fire. She’d burned herself twice on the stick shift already and still refused to close the windows. She almost refused the call.
“Maureen Stacy Winston, where the hell are you?” Her mother’s ocean of indignation had been turned down to drops through the tinny phone speaker.
“I told you,” Maureen said, shuddering at the name. “I’m going to college.”
A barking sound that might have been a laugh. “You didn’t get accepted to no college.”
“I did, Mama, and that’s where I’m going.”
“I ain’t telling!”
“Because you ain’t been accepted!”
Maureen made a growl in the back of her throat. “No, because I don’t want you to know.”
“Maureen, I am you mother and-”
A scuffling sound as the phone was passed to someone else. Three guesses who and the first two don’t count.
“Maureen, you come home this instant,” Stan barked into the phone. “You’re hurting your mother.”
Maureen didn’t say anything at first. She’d been distracted by the woman walking on the side of the road.
Slowing down – a little, she wasn’t frightened like last time but her arm hairs were standing up – she managed to get a better look this time. The woman was badly skinny. She could see now there was a t-shirt hanging off her and her elbows were knobby. And dirty. She had thought the woman had tanned skin the last couple of times but Maureen could see now it was dirt scuffs. The car skated by at no more than twenty miles an hour. Still the woman’s hair was in her face.
“Are you even listening to me?”
Maureen pressed on the gas. “Hurt her? You mean like you hurt her. Or like you hurt me? Which is it?”
“You shut your fucking mouth,” he said in the tone that used to scare her. But he was hundreds of miles away already, getting farther every second. She had tried to save her mother, but you can’t help people if they don’t want it. Maureen was done.
She said the thing she knew would piss him off the most.
He was still raging when she hung up. With the scream she had been holding in for six years, she whipped the phone out of the open window, narrowly missing a passing motorcycle.
Maureen stopped for gas and food around noon. It was a little shack on the side of the road with a couple of pumps. Standing on the strip of dead grass between the state road and the parking lot was the woman. She was facing away from Maureen, and as Maureen watched through the window while she waited in line to pay for her hot dog she noticed something. Five cars passed the woman by.
Her hair didn’t move once.
She was too afraid to ask the clerk if he saw her, too. Maureen took her Coke and hot dog and got back in her car and sped out, kicking up gravel and keeping her eyes in front of her. There was an itch at the back of her head as she drove on.
She’s watching me.
She started to believe it about an hour after she first thought it. Sending her phone crashing onto the road meant she had lost navigation. So much of her time since she had been accepted had been spent daydreaming of the day she would leave and the route she would take, Maureen had it all memorized. But she should have found the next state road to turn onto by now. Maybe? She was pretty sure.
Finally, she came across a sign declaring how many miles to three different towns she had never heard of. It would be enough to find herself on the atlas in the trunk. One of the things her Daddy – her real Daddy – had taught her: always have a paper map, just in case.
It was early afternoon and without the shade of the car top or the wind rushing by at seventy miles an hour the heat threatened to pull her into the blacktop, never to let go. The atlas was on top of her emergency case, filled with jumper cables, a crank-powered radio, and a tire iron. Maureen smile at the case as she shut the trunk. She hadn’t been some idiot girl running away. She had planned. She was ready for anything.
Maureen turned and didn’t scream.
Whatever you wanted to say about Maureen Winston, she didn’t scream.
But she did freeze. A whistle did go through her teeth. The strength in her hands left her and the atlas fell to the hot ground with a muted thwap.
The woman was down the street.
She was walking toward her.
Maureen began to scramble around the car. Her foot found the atlas and went slipping away, introducing her knee to the pavement. Now she screamed, a short and girly thing. She ignored the pain and got back into the car.
In the rearview the woman was still coming. She could see her clearly now. Her blonde hair in her face.
She turned the key and punched it, speeding away from the woman.
For a full minute she was afraid to look in the rearview again. Maureen was completely sure what she’d see: the woman, still walking but never getting any farther behind the car. It took several deep breaths before she was able to look.
The rearview held nothing but the road.
Hysterical laughter bubbled out of her. The woman couldn’t be real. Could she? She knew what she saw. Didn’t she?
“Highway mirage,” Maureen said to herself. “Heat. Nerves. Fucking Stan.”
A tickle on her knee made her jump, swerving the car. But it was just blood from her scrape. A few little bits of blacktop were stuck in her knee.
The atlas was on the ground, somewhere behind her.
“I should go back and get it,” she said out loud.
The car continued forward, not even slowing down.
“I can get a map in the next town,” she said. “Directions. Someone will help.”
New thoughts began. What if the woman was real? What if she needed help? She’d never actually been threatening. She’d only been standing, or walking. Maybe she was frightened. Threatened by something. And for some unknown reason, Maureen was the only one who could help.
Anyone walking down a state road barefoot probably needs help.
How many times, in the past six years, had she wished someone had broken through her own barrier and helped her?
Only letting off the gas, never touching the brake, Maureen let the car drift to a stop. She pulled off the road into the dirt. Turned off the engine. And waited.
Early afternoon had turned to late. There was still plenty of sun, but it came at an angle now, more orange than yellow. She had stopped next to an unused field, and as she sat with the windows down she could heard prairie dogs rustling and grasshoppers snapping. Now that she knew what she had to do, her frayed nerves had smoothed out. It was pleasant, sitting there in nowhere, Texas. Waiting.
Maureen didn’t have to wait long. One second she was alone, picking the gravel out of her knee. The next time she glanced up there the woman was. Twenty yards away from the car. Standing. Facing away. Dirty blonde hair trailing lightly in the wind.
How did I not see it? Maureen wondered to herself as she stepped slowly out of the car. Skin and bones, dirty, barefoot. Whether she was a specter or flesh and blood, this was a woman in distress. She needed help. And maybe Maureen could give it to her.
The hairs on her arm stood up again, and a warning was going off in her brain, telling her to runrunrun. But she knew, now, that was just some ancient wiring, no longer necessary. Like the way she still got nervous around spiders even if she knew, logically, they couldn’t hurt her. Sometimes you needed to follow your gut. Sometimes your gut was playing by rules that went out of style a millennia ago.
“He-hello?” she called. She was ten feet away from the woman now, getting closer by small steps.
The woman didn’t move. Maureen moved closer.
“Hello? Are…are you okay?”
The woman turned the slightest bit. She was listening. Still, she faced away, and Maureen was unable to see her face through her hair.
“I’ve seen you following me,” Maureen said. She was only a foot away now. Her skin was crawling but she was staying put. “I thought…I thought maybe you needed help?”
A rasping, breathing sound came, and Maureen realized she was trying to speak.
The woman turned around fully.
Teeth. So many teeth.
There was only screaming. The prairie dogs ran into their holes. The grasshoppers were indifferent.