Telephone poles whipped past her, each separate in her headlights but blurred and indistinct. The girl was traveling north. She drove the speed limit along the two-lane federal highway. Into the night she drove once more. Alone, heading towards the big city. The highway stretched out ahead and ghostly phantoms of imaginary treelines wavered in her peripheral vision alongside her route. Occasionally porch lights shone out as she passed by lonely farmsteads.
When she began the weekly journey away from the hills and back home her car heater was turned on to stave off the chill from outside but now, after her chin had dropped down two or three times as she nodded off, she rolled down her window a bit to let in some cold air to help keep her awake.
Every ten to fifteen miles or so the road took her past a modest town or village along the route, each one with a single exit from the highway, clustered around a lonely solitary service station. More often than not only a yard light shone here and there, with some streetlights shining dimly into the still darkness. Only the larger towns had two or more exits. With her window rolled down she could hear the insects making their buzzing nighttime music in the cool air and she smelled the newly mown baled hay strewn over the pasturelands.
The girl should be home in about three hours when it would still be dryly dark and crisply dim. Just in time to perhaps get three hours of restless sleep before going to her job as a file clerk.
She liked her job. It fit her. She liked putting things in order. Putting things in their own special place. Everything, every person, needed its own place.
Her place was away from them. Away from her stepfather and mother. As far as she had been able to go with her limited means after graduating high school. She had to come down and visit every weekend. It was not a choice. If she did not arrive late Friday evening the recriminations would begin. Her mother would be calling, pleading, please, please, don't make him mad. So she drove down in her old rusted out Ford with the bald tires. Just to keep the peace. The little peace any of them had thus far found in their lives.
For some time, minutes since she first noticed, twin lights had been growing steadily larger in her rearview mirror. They took some time getting near but then were staying much too close behind her. They came up and sustained the following for some minutes then the lights began flashing bright and dim, over and over.
"What is it?" she spoke aloud with open exasperation. "What do you want? Pass me, go on, pass." There was not another vehicle of any sort on the highway. None that she had seen for long minutes and now, here was an intimidating semi-trailer truck directly behind her. The route was straight and clear both ahead and behind. "Pass me!" she yelled at the mirror. She slowed down about five miles an hour.
Earlier in the day, the yelling was from him. The usual recriminations. No sense or logic being made. Never any reality invested in his shouts but she put up with it as her mother cowered in the kitchen pretending to be cleaning or some such. Always, the girl waited for it to end, knowing that it had to end sometime and she could leave once more. She would shake it off and try to look ahead.
Now she was nowhere near home and slowing down had done nothing to relieve the intimidation from the truck. She decided to try and give the truck the way. She signaled and pulled over hoping it would pass her by as she waited on the shoulder of the highway. The truck did pass her vehicle, but then, in the distance, she saw its brake lights shining. It had stopped. She turned her own lights off, still keeping her motor running.
The girl found herself trembling with trepidation. For long minutes she stayed where she was until the lights ahead seemed to move away from her and disappear, perhaps after passing over a small rise. She waited. Even more and more. Until she could not stay in this way. She turned on her lights and began moving cautiously down the road.
Persistence of evil. The girl had contemplated it as many had in the past. Why did evil exist in the world? When she was around ten years of age she had tried something desperate. She had been taught that some people were naturally good. After the usual sermon was finished one Sunday she had held back inside the small country church they were required to attend each week. She waited and then as the pastor walked back inside after sending off parishioners she approached him.
She told him. He didn't frown. He didn't smile. He simply stared at her. Then he walked out with her following behind with her New Testament in her hand. She saw him go up to her stepfather. They shook hands and then went over behind one of the last remaining cars and talked for some minutes. The girl joined her mother beside their sedan. Then, the pastor shook her stepfather's hand again and patted him on the shoulder. The girl heard them laughing together.
Her stepfather said nothing on the ride home. And no one wanted to break the silence. Not until they were alone in her room. She had always tried to remove that day from her memory. It was not going to remain in her mind. She simply needed to remember what it did to her young heart and what it did for her understanding of the world and what she would need to do to make it better for herself.
Things did end she knew, as the other things had ended. When she turned sixteen she decided she was strong enough to refuse him, to not take it anymore. Strong enough and smart enough to promise that something would happen. Not being clear what that would be, even to herself. But he understood and the physical horror finally ended while the psychological torment continued.
As she drove by the next exit ramp she sighed with some relief. But then she looked over and saw a semi resting beside the entrance ramp after she went under the overpass. As she sped past the truck began slowly moving onto the highway behind her. She sped up and hoped to get away but again her car was not up to it. The truck began growing larger in her rear. Its headlights began blinking, bright and dim, bright and dim.
At eighteen she graduated and left town. But his past tyranny had been replaced by this constant long-distance harassment. Her guilt at leaving her mother played with her so much that she would still return as she had done this weekend. She would grab a quick bite to eat after Friday's workday ended and take the long drive south to the hill country in her rattletrap car.
Her stepfather enjoyed the tormenting, she was sure of it. She could not understand how anyone could be so cruel. Why would they want to be that way? But he seemed oblivious to right or wrong, at least in her eyes. Harassment of the weak seemed to be his only pleasure in his world.
The semi was now maintaining its following distance. She mumbled to herself and at the next exit, she sped up and then darted up the off-ramp to a small town and drove down the ill-lit road and down a side street. As she had exited she heard air-brakes sounding loudly in the still night air as tires screeched.
She had remembered this town. The girl had passed it many times over the weeks and months of trekking to the south and then northward once again each weekend. This town had two exits and two entrances to the highway.
The girl was now exited. She turned off her car lights and avoided using her brakes. Then she slowed and turned down another side road and neared the next entrance to the highway. She stopped giving it any gas and pulled quietly behind the small auto repair shop she knew was there. She'd had a tire patched there last year after having a flat while going south one Friday evening. The parking area in the rear could be exited from either side of the building. And she waited, lights off, engine idling.
After fifteen minutes, fearing she would run out of gas, she turned off her engine. She waited.
The girl never saw another vehicle for at least two hours. Finally, she made a decision. She started up the motor and moved roughly out over the bumpy gravel drive and onto the road. She cautiously approached the entrance back onto the highway. She paused, saw nothing suspicious, and quickly glided down the ramp and onto the byway. Within a minute she was traveling as fast as her clunker would move.
To the East, the horizon was less dark. She had made another decision this chill, still, night. She would continue onward into the night towards the big city as the sun rose. Her final refuge. It was over.