March 26th, 2009
The wipers swish lazily against Stella’s windshield, brushing the drizzle away, if you can even call it that. It’s just spit, really, but it’s enough to make the road slippery and darken her vision. The streetlamps are sparse and weak, barely cutting through the darkness and the woods surrounding the empty road.
Most people don’t like driving around here at night, but Stella doesn’t mind. It’s better than the crowded streets. She likes the peace and quiet this section of the road offers, especially after a long shift at work. It’s the only moment of serenity she gets until the dread of going back to her apartment starts building in her chest again. Hopefully, Derek is asleep already instead of waiting for her, hammered and mumbling insults. She can’t take much of his crap tonight; it’s way too late for that. She wants to crawl into bed and sleep until it’s time to go back to work, and if possible, before he wakes up, sees her, and invents something new to ruin her life with.
Something moves straight ahead and catches her attention. At first, Stella thinks it’s a deer, walking unsteadily along the edge of the forest. As she comes closer, she realizes she’s wrong. It can’t be a deer. It’s much darker and taller.
And it’s walking on two legs.
Stella slows down and stares at the moving shape. Her heartbeat kicks up a notch. It’s a woman. She’s wearing dark jeans and a dark T-shirt despite the cold outside. Her straight, dark hair, weighed down by the rain, brushes the middle of her back.
The woman—she looks young—turns around and squints at the car’s headlight beams. She holds out her thumb to ask for a ride, walking backward. Stella slows the car to a crawl as she approaches the girl—who holds a hand in front of her eyes to protect them from the glaring lights—and pulls over. She exits the car and stands next to the open door.
“Are you okay, miss?”
The girl limps closer, stepping completely into the light. She drops her reddened, scraped hand at her side, and Stella finally discovers the face behind the dark hair. A memory from four years ago strikes her. It could have been hard to recognize her with the much longer hair, the grime on her face, and what looks like dried blood on the side of her temple, but those wide, expressive, silver eyes are unmistakable.
“Miss Winter? Riley Winter?”
Riley peers at Stella for a moment, squinting. She exhales a small breath of relief as recognition spreads over her face, a smile playing at the corners of her lips. “Detective Valdez. I’m glad to run into you of all people.”
Stella tucks a strand of too-curly hair behind her ear. “Could you tell me what you’re doing here, Miss Winter? Walking alone on a deserted road, in the middle of the night, and with no jacket?”
“I’m afraid I can’t, Detective.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I don’t remember.”