JERICHO ROAD – BEAUTIFUL IF THE SUNLIGHT HITS THE TREES FAVORABLY, A MURAL OF PATTERNS ON THE GROUND, SPIRALING AND SWIRLING; GLOOM ON THE RAINY DAYS WHEN, UNDER THE WEIGHT OF WATER, THE CANOPY OF TREES FROWN. The two-lane highway runs through a forest of Douglas firs but also many maples and a few inauspicious alders. Ferns and ivy fill the undergrowth. Like a loop, a crescent moon, Jericho Road cuts from the west side of town to swoop into the forest, emerging nine miles later on the east side of town. There is a direct route from west to east, a mere mile by comparison but through the mobile home parks, industrial warehouses, by a homeless shelter, and the indoor soccer stadium.
Later, Mary will consider the consequences of her decision for days, then weeks. But that afternoon, Mary turned onto Jericho Road instinctually. While sons, Colin and Liam, slept in the backseat, this drive was her solace. From kids, calls, errands, decisions. Turning up the car’s radio, she searched for the national news, listened to a segment on the increase of unemployment, and dreamed this last day of summer away. Upon her fell a muted calm, a mellow sensation, what stoned must feel like if she’d ever gotten high. Used as an old logging road, most people in town didn’t even know of the road’s existence. Most days Mary drives the road, she’s alone on the pavement, perhaps never seeing another soul.
So the broken down car on the right side of the road caused Mary’s foot to ease off the gas, eyes look intently ahead. It was a man. A woman. He held her tight. An embrace not like that of lovers or friends. When Mary drove past them closer, she saw the woman was crying. The woman shouted when she saw Mary’s car. An arm may have waved up.
Mozart now played on the public radio station, a calm droning symphony for the children’s sleep. Colin’s stuffed dragon sat next to his car seat, the boy’s constant protector. His younger brother, Liam, sucked his pacifier with fever. Mozart ended. The commentator spoke softly to Mary about a humanitarian effort to restore clean water in southern Africa, then moved onto a segment about local gardeners donating their produce to food banks. Mary didn’t have a garden, never volunteered for anything but her son’s preschool annual auction. She went through motions dictated by her social class, wrote her checks to charities but never saw the charity, never touched it.
Mary hadn’t pressed on the gas since passing the car, so the side view mirrors still held the distinct outline of the couple. The man pushed the woman, dragged her to the other side of the clearing. Grabbing her purse, the one her husband bought her in Paris, Mary’s hands shuffling inside past her wallet, a tin of mints, a make-up compact, to her phone. Mary opened the cell phone. The screen blinked rapidly then went black. No power. Throwing it down on the passenger seat, Mary looked up the road and back. Empty. Liam’s snore created a white noise for Colin’s sleep, a small quiver of his lip with his exhales.
If Mary drove a bit further, perhaps a mile, another car might pass. She could honk to them and make them stop, explain the situation and, then, they could all rescue the woman together. She could drive into town quickly, call from a pay phone, request help. Mary drove on. A mile later, still not another car in sight. Mary cursed herself for not fully charging her cell phone that morning.
It wasn’t Mary’s place to stop. She had obligations, two of them who came from her womb in the backseat. Her moral compass, her forever right and do no wrong. But the further she drove down the road, the more something stung inside her. Something bigger, not bigger than the love for her children but more commanding, more demanding - call it a universal altruism - pricked and prodded Mary.
Now, her car’s rear view mirrors showed only the empty road behind her and bordering trees. The man and the woman existed a mile away, now more, behind her. What was he doing to the woman? Mary shuddered. Her mind exploded like a mirror, shards of glass everywhere reflecting the what-ifs and possible futures.
Her two children snoozed with chins pressed to chests in their car seats. After time at her gym’s daycare, a trip to the department store, and cookies at the coffee shop, their sleep was guaranteed. Their mother’s worries did not float into their dreams. Nothing could harm them in their sleep. Mary wanted to depend on this.
The sun struck through the trees, hitting Mary’s car and blinding her. Her mind paused and she felt herself sink into another self, a self who could act on both sets of morals without contradicting the other. Yanking the steering wheel to the left, Mary sped back to the car.
Stopping in front of the angled white car, a small two-seater without license plates, full of boxes and clothes in the back, Mary waited. For her children to wake or for the woman to smile and wave her on. Staring at the empty car, she saw it was not really white, more a grimy tan from the excessive dirt, the dings and scratches patched over with a cream colored paint. A wind blew and the woman’s red hair flapped like a flag. The man grabbed it, tore some out with his fingers. A maple leaf, speckled orange and brown, floated down and landed on Mary’s windshield. Her right hand flipped the ignition off, slid the keys out, and shoved them into her cashmere coat pocket.
Mary had hoped her mere presence would cause him to abandon his target and flee. Mary imagined herself nodding to this strange woman, in her ragged clothes with her beat-up car, then returning to her children and driving home to make Coq-Au-Vin. Her children would sleep the entire time; it would all take three minutes, maybe five there in the clearing.
But he watched her, held the woman hostage in front of him, knife at her throat. He seemed to relish seeing his reflection with his captive in the side of Mary’s black station wagon. Opening her glove box, she grabbed the pepper spray inside and clicked the miniature tray door shut. A child moved in the back seat. Mary froze. Liam’s blue blanket had fallen to the car’s floor. Her right hand reached back for it. Delicately, she placed in on her youngest child. Then, everything was still. Mary slipped out of the car and locked her children inside.
He took a few seconds to look her up and down. Outside the car, in the clear light of the forest, Mary saw he didn’t hold a woman at all but a girl that couldn’t have been more than seventeen. A teenager. Her body so thin, her hair so messed up it all invoked pity in Mary. He walked a few steps away with the teen, as if not only did Mary’s presence not cause him to flee but would not cause him to stop whatever was his plan. His arm wrapped around the teen tighter, his arm held her throat, fingers gripping a knife.
For being average height and build, perhaps even leaning on the petite side, Mary walked big and resolute with steps unknown to her. Her nose breathed in the forest, the dampness of dirt and leaves, lingering pollen and animal dung. The readiness of the trees to begin shedding their leaves created a sense of anticipation in the air. Her two feet, with pink toenails inside her new boots, covered the ten feet to him. Then stopped dead in a thin layer of mud. She lacked a strategy.
The teen’s eyes, dripping with blue mascara, implored Mary. The teen opened her mouth and Mary was so sure it would be a prayer that she almost fell to her knees. The first word may have been “Run” or “Come.” Mary was unsure because the moment the utterance came out, the knife drove against the teen’s skin, the edge opening a shallow slice on her peachy skin.
“Let her go,” Mary yelled.
Twirling the knife around, like a windsock in a storm, he laughed. A spot of saliva exploded out with the snicker, driving past his black beard and into the dirt. His captive squirmed, whined like a small child, wiggling her scrawny legs, bony arms falling out of the T-shirt that read: Pabst Blue Ribbon. Mary expected the blade to be a shiny stainless steel, the kind a face would shine in. This weapon was tarnished and dull, more gray than silver.
“I’ve called the police,” she lied.
He sneered and shook his oily hair off his face, out of his eyes.
“They are on their way,” Mary said.
He flinched, as if a bug had bitten him. Looking up the road for a sort of confirmation, he snorted.
“Drop the knife and move away from her. You can still escape.”
The man stepped back from Mary, hands clutching the teen. One hand on the knife at her throat, the other hand exploring. First the teen’s baggy, thin shirt. Then, her thighs inside cut-off jean shorts. Finishing with the teen’s bottom where he found a tiny hole in the jeans near the pocket. The teen flipped her head away from him. A few strands from her frizzy perm tangled in his bristly black beard.
“You didn’t call no one,” he rasped out.
The teen’s eyes manically switched from his hand with the knife to Mary’s hand with the spray. Each playing with their weapon, turning it over, caressing it.
“What’s your name?” Mary asked.
“That’s clever,” he said. “Think I’ll tell you.”
“Does she know you’re name?” Mary asked, pointing the four-inch, siren red bottle of spray in the teen’s direction. The teen shook her head, started a low whimper. When the teen’s mouth opened, a cut on her lip became visible and a string of blood dripped out.
“Don’t you be shaking your head, girl!” he said.
The teen’s eyes, the type that may have been hazel but looked like the dark inside of a mossy cave, exploded as if ink dropped inside each pupil. Mary hesitated. Looking to her children, she saw that Liam’s hat had slid off his head as he slept. The soft knit hat her mother bought at a pricey boutique on their last vacation. He would need a bigger hat, a warmer hat, for the impending fall and winter.
Mary could slink backward, slip into the warmth of the wood paneled interior of her car. Drive away. Mary picked up her right foot and placed it a few inches behind her. The teen blubbered, her entire face melting with the force of tears.
“What’s your name?” Mary asked the teen this time.
“Don’t say a word,” the man said, pressing the knife into her neck, a small trickle coming out.
The whimper climbed up the tree’s limbs, hung there, and returned into its victim’s throat as a low suppressed cry. Mary avoided looking at the line the ashy knife created. Instead, she glared into his onyx eyes. She searched and couldn’t find the outline of pupil against the iris.
“I don’t need to know no cunt’s name. Think I want to know anyone’s name?” he said.
“If I did, I’d ask. I don’t.”
“My name’s Mary. Let the knife go.”
“Shut up,” he said.
When she did, he smiled. Stroked his chin. Took his finger and scooped up some blood from the teen’s neck. Stroked the teen’s arm up and down, creating snake lines of blood on the freckled arm. A small group of crows gathered for the show, perched on the branch around them, squawking in participation. The man raised his left hand to them, yelled something in an awkward mumble. Excited, the birds thrust their heads toward him and bellowed louder.
“I was just driving by and noticed this girl looked in trouble,” Mary said. “I only want to make sure no one gets hurt today.”
“You should have kept driving, Mary,” he said. “No use wasting your life on trash like her.”
The teenager’s tears changed, a different cry than before. Notes of shame and sadness struck Mary, held her.
He nodded to her car. “You wouldn’t want them in there to get hurt would you?”
Mary shivered. Her fingers fondled with the spray at her side, shuffled through the filings of her brain for how to operate the release. He let her stare at her children for a moment, a long moment. Both so pale despite recent summer days by their pool, both so fragile in their mid-day nap.
“I can break a window,” he said, stepping toward the car. “I can get to them so quick.”
“Don’t,” Mary said.
“Just keep driving, Mary,” he said, stopping. His bloodied fingertips making circles and crosses on the teen’s neck. “Now it is your chance to escape.”
Mary glanced toward her children. The windows reflected the forest. Through the forest, she deciphered the heads of her still sleeping children. Liam would need his first haircut soon, Colin would be the big brother and hold his hand while they went. Afterward, she would take them to ice cream. Tomorrow that would be their plan. Now, they slept. Safe in sleep, in the cocoon of the car.
Inch by inch, Mary turned her head back to where she could watch the man. He leered at her. He was cocky, smirking. If there was going to be an opening, it was now. Mary rushed at him. Kicked him in the knees and kicked him in the crotch. He treated the teen as a crutch, clasped her hard. Falling down, he brought the teen with him. On the ground, the teen spooned in front of him, slithering against his arms. Fumbling with the release on the pepper spray, Mary aimed for his face. The trigger wouldn’t release.
The teen wriggled out of his grasp, only to stumble. Leaves and dirt stuck to the blood on her neck. The man grabbed her leg. The knife stabbed into the teen’s flesh below her tight shorts. The teen’s mouth exploded in a scream. Mary’s youngest child woke in the car, bolting in his seat, body struggling against the child constraints. Her son’s eyes, bewildered, found Mary gazing at him outside his safety shell. His baby mouth spit out the pacifier and howled in a perfect oval shaped zero.
The pepper spray lay unused on damp brown leaves. Mary reached for it, jerked at the release valve, aimed. But he was faster. He threw it out of her hand, punched her in the face, clawed up his knife, and pointed it at her. The forest pounded into her cheek, her mind fuzzy with the spirals of green above her. Inside the heaviness of her head, she heard yells from the car. Hopefully just Liam’s voice, hopefully Colin still slept. Her eyes blinked, readjusting to the light, the throb. Tried to get back to normal, what normal is, what normal would be now.
“I’ll kill you both,” he grunted.
Mary put her hand up. The one without the pepper spray, with her palm flat toward him. Stop, the hand said. He did. For a moment, the hand cast the magical spell of motherhood obedience and he stopped.
Birds were now in attendance. Crows yelped, starlings sang, jays hawked and hawked, a few robins watched, and perhaps even an owl witnessed the scene from a high. Mary thought she heard a fox or raccoon in the nearby underbrush. The sound of it all was enormous within a moment.
Mary stepped back toward her car, her children. She spit out saliva and blood causing him to grin. By the weight of the right side of her coat, she knew her keys waited in the folds of the fabric. Her youngest child tapped on the window. Over and over, a simple beat falling frantically into banging. Mary should get them home, fix dinner, her husband would be returning home from work. She would forget about her urge to stop for this stranger. Never repeat any of this. Never drive Jericho Road again. Colin, although her heaviest sleeper, was surely starting to stir in his car seat next to his crying brother.
“You lost your chance, Mary,” he said. He lunged forward, steps disheveled.
Mary huffed backward, saw the teen lying still on the mat of leaves, blood pooling under her neck and leg. Enough blood for Mary to be worried. The sun’s rays spiked down in bars scattering the clearing. A cage around them all.
“Are you going to kill me?” Mary asked.
“I should,” he said.
“Then at least tell me your name,” Mary said. She shook her head, pushing the pain further away. “What satisfaction will there be in it if you can’t tell me your name?”
Perplexity blanketed his face. “What would you care?”
“I’d care a great deal,” she said, studying his face and body, memorizing his colorings and clothes. Black hair with the black beard, skin a mysterious shade due to dirt, oil, grim piled on top. A red flannel shirt. Jeans with stains, black and brown and red, another blood stain perhaps. “You owe me that.”
“Maybe I don’t owe you nothing,” he said, nearing her. He was close enough to grab her now. Mary smelled his rancid breath - cigarettes, alcohol, unbrushed teeth.
“Maybe you don’t,” she said.
He stroked her face with his knife. Not as sharp as she imagined but covered in tacky blood, her mind whirled with this information. The man took her hair in his other hand and yanked her head back.
“Never guess a pretty pretty lady like you had two kids,” he said.
“Never ever,” he said, tugging the hair back, inspecting her neck.
“Think about what you’d be doing,” she said, her voice strained by the backward pull of her neck. “I have two children who depend on me.”
He held her head back, took her pearl necklace up with the knife, dropped it down again into the small of her neck. Her eyes couldn’t see him, or her children, or the teen. Her eyes only had the opportunity to focus on the branch above. A crow landed on the branch, already full of several blue jays. The jays lept on the intruding crow with piercing shrieks. The crow fought back, made two of the jays leave, then left himself for another tree.
“My name is Earl Trenton,” he said. “And I try not to think. I’ve been told I shouldn’t think about pretty ladies.”
A moan came from the teen on the ground. The man turned toward his first victim. When he did, Mary took her knee to him. He staggered back. She reached down for her pepper spray, pulled the trigger. This time it worked. She misted his face until it glistened wet. Shrieking, he jerked her to the ground with him. As if splashed by paint, his eyes closed and face turned a fiery red. His body wild with pain, he heaved frantically on top of her and pressed her face into the dirt. Mary winced. Closed her eyes. Said a prayer.
Snot running from his nose, a rough cough exploding from his face, he grasped for his breaths. He found Mary’s body with his knife. Steered the blade into her torso. Seeing the knife enter her side hurt the most, made her silently scream. But she didn’t feel it. He pulled it out to try to stab again. But when the knife came out, Mary bucked him off her. He tripped and lay on his side, hands at his eyes scratching them. She kicked him in the stomach. Kicked repeatedly. She kicked until he groaned and turned away, unable to respond or move. Then cold came into her body, a numbing cold. The muscles in her stomach and legs failing.
The warbling of two sets of sirens raced toward them. Mary shut her eyes, tears falling. Mary wondered if the image of their crumpled mother, bloody and beaten, outweighed the end for her sons. Risking one life, three really, for a stranger. A strange girl who may have been doomed from the start. Mary shook, bigger and bigger until it felt as if the energy fell away into that clearing. Her head was the last to stop its quaking and, when it did, Mary was able to sit perfectly still and look out into the forest.
A wind blew and the trees shook left to right, their branches waving, leaves dropping. Leaves swirled around the bodies in the clearing, the breeze causing a slight raise in each of the bodies. A few of these fallen leaves landed on Mary’s legs, outstretched and useless from her body, limp and numb now. Mary could not even move her hand to remove them. Feeling so foolish now, she lifted her right leg an inch, stomping the heel into the ground, causing more pain. Her mouth wailed out.
One breath, Mary saw him lying in agony, squirming in the leaves. Two breaths, the birds took his strength generating shooting squeals. Third breath, she looked over to the teen, wounded and alone at the far side of the clearing. Another breath, her eyes gazed up into the locked car to her two children, both awake and sobbing. New air now entered her lungs and Mary heaved in the next breaths as the blood from that singular central wound flooded faster than one hand or two could stop. Her flimsy blouse and designer jeans were a filthy, wet brown red mess.
Mary lay against her car, unable to reach into her pocket for her keys to unlock the door. She listened to her children behind her, knew which cries were Liam’s and which shouts were Colin’s, and watched the man’s every movement. She would have liked to have had the strength to go to the teen, make sure she was alive, bandage her wounds, but couldn’t. She wanted to move, get her keys, open the car door, comfort her sons. She might have gone to the man, taken his knife and stabbed him, once or twice or multiple times. But couldn’t. Everything in the forest seemed unimportant to Mary now, yet everything Mary did mattered and, of that, she was proud.
The sirens were now behind her. The light from above almost unbearable, Mary squinted and tried to raise a hand up to shield the sun’s rays. And with the opening and closing of the police car doors, Mary wondered how help knew to come. She hadn’t called. Her head turned, almost fell to the side. Then she saw, next to the white car’s front right tire, a cell phone set to 9-1-1 with the screen blinking. Mary gulped her tears down and smiled, tapping her car to the beat of a song she knew her sons would recognize.
Anna Steen grew up in the Pacific Northwest and never plans to leave. She studied Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Washington where she met her husband and best friend. Anna now resides in the rural town of Snoqualmie outside Seattle, WA where she focuses her time on her family and her writing. The result is “Jericho Road” which is part of a larger collection as well as a newly completed novel. Her writing focuses on family struggles, the role of mothers in their children’s lives, and the moral dilemmas people face when pushed against a wall. When Anna isn’t writing or playing on the floor with her two young children, she owns and operates a home coffee roasting business.
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