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Now, the story: “Defining Moments: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard”
Karen was the last to leave. She pulled on her fleece-lined jacket, hat, and gloves. As she said goodbye, she yawned.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay over until morning?” Mary offered.
“I have a lot to do tomorrow.”
“It may be April, but you could still run into snow up on the rez.”
“There was a little on my way over this afternoon, but the sun was melting it off as it landed.”
The road passed through the edge of the Apache reservation. For thirty-some miles there would be no house in sight, just high plains on either side, broken by stretches of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen groves. In the summer, driving across it in a thunderstorm was humbling and exalting at the same time. Tonight it would be dark and peaceful; a good ending to a full day.
Mary was skeptical. “Well, watch for elk; they’re always on that stretch.”
“I will. I haven’t hit an animal in thirty years.” Karen gave her friend a hug. “I’ll see you next weekend.”
Mary watched her walk to her car. “Call me when you get home.”
“No, I won’t. It’s an hour drive and you’ll be asleep by then.”
Karen started her car. As she drove out of town, the bank’s marquee flashed the time and temperature – twelve o’clock, twenty-seven degrees. She had to turn down the heater, though. The car might be old, but everything worked except the air conditioning, which she didn’t really need living up here in the mountains.
She continuously scanned ahead to the edges of her headlights’ beams. It was habit, ever since she’d killed two deer six months apart, long ago, before she moved to Arizona. Elk were much larger than deer, and harder to see from her little car because when they were close, their eyes were above the range of her headlights, and their dark coats blended in with the night shades of shoulder and roadside brush.
She spotted a group of large dark shadows off to the left and automatically slowed in case one should suddenly decide to cross the road. They were far enough away that her headlights flashed off a pair of eyes; the other animals continued feeding. She decided to stay well below the speed limit, to be on the safe side.
She passed only one car, going the other direction. There would be no sign of civilization until she reached McNary, a little town on the reservation. While her eyes continued watching for elk as she drove, Karen slipped into a meditative sense of peace. Clouds blocked whatever light the sky might have offered as she drove the deserted miles on top of the world, but she knew when the road dipped she was moving from the vast open fields into a stretch of forest.
Suddenly, anxiety hit, jerking her out of her reverie.
There was no good reason for it. She turned off the radio; maybe the car was making a noise that disturbed her subconsciously. But the car was okay, knocking a little, but that was normal at this altitude.
A cold shawl of prickles dragged up and across her shoulders and her breathing became so shallow she was almost holding it. She forced herself to inhale deeply. She lived alone; she didn’t jump at shadows. She tried to chide away the unwelcome sensation of fear.
But the chill was palpable inside her winter jacket. She cranked up the heat and still felt icy. Goosebumps were lifting her shirt off her arms.
She hadn’t checked the back seat when she got into the car; hadn’t done that since she moved up here out of the city. She resisted the urge to look back or even in the mirror, as if not knowing would make it not real. And if she didn’t see anything, she still wouldn’t be sure.
The pines rose high on either side of the road.
Suddenly, something dark poured into her and constricted her breath. A triangle of lights off to the right came and went so quickly she wasn’t sure she’d really seen it. Silently she recited the 23rd Psalm, as well as she could remember it.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul.” There was something else she wasn’t remembering, then “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
Death and evil, that’s what she felt pouring at her from the forest. It wasn’t someone in the car. It was something out there. She drove a little faster, but not so fast she wouldn’t be able to stop for an elk. She definitely didn’t want to have an accident here, not tonight.
At last she saw the sign announcing the edge of McNary. The feeling eased away from her as she drove through the little town. She passed someone walking along the other side of the road in dark clothes. She was almost home.
By the time she got to her cabin, she no longer felt the presence of evil, in fact she felt a little silly about it. She fixed herself some warm milk. Once it was gone, she was barely awake enough to slip under the covers of her bed.
Karen’s life went on. She forgot all about that unpleasant feeling and there was nothing to remind her. The Apache girl’s disappearance never made the newspaper Karen read.
The first assumption was that the teen had taken off with her boyfriend, but then he came back from visiting relatives out of state and asked for her. He’d been in Oregon when she last left her mother’s house, and he could prove it. In Karen’s world this was still not newsworthy.
It was fall when a hiker’s dog happened upon the girl’s shallow grave – not far from the road, where the Ponderosa Pines stand guard.
Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments – short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.