Rides with Strangers
Emma glanced up from her book at the rear view mirror. She gave up trying to absorb the paragraph she had been reading for the past few minutes, the lights from the truck behind them blinding her, and illuminating the majority of the cabin, but in so doing left the untouched corners in inky shadows. "He's still behind us?" She barely managed to get the words past her teeth, and at first thought Alice hadn't heard her.
"I guess so," Alice replied in an impatient tone after a long and persistent silence, head bobbing lightly in time with the bumps and imperfections of the road. Her eyes only briefly strayed from the monotone rush of pavement beneath the car.
"How long has it been?" Emma turned a bit, giving herself a better glance of the truck. She could see Alice's eyes move quickly to the GPS before dutifully looking back to the road.
"Don't know Sweetie," she said. "We still have about another hour before we reach the campgrounds."
That didn't feel like an answer to the question Emma had asked. She turned herself as much as possible within the confines of her seatbelt, the material biting into her shoulder through her clothing. She had to squint. Emma didn't know car models very well, all she could tell was that it was a black truck.
Emma jittered her leg in place, the car starting to feel like a careening metal trap. The discarded bottles, wrappers, and the plastic bags they had futilely attempted to use as trash cans littered the floor and cracks between the seats, leaving her confined in her chair.
"Maybe-" she started, but was abruptly cut off by Alice's deep breath and gentle hand resting on her knee to settle it.
"Sweetie, I don't want to pull over."
Pulling her hand away, Alice returned it to the wheel. Emma wanted Alice to look over at her, but knew her eyes wouldn't move unless they had to. "What harm would it do to let him go ahead?"
"Pulling over would waste time. I'm tired and don't want to be on the road for much longer." She spoke with the patience a parent would use on a child. Emma felt a lump forming in the middle of her throat, causing her to try and swallow around it. She wanted to insist it was an inappropriate tone to use towards another adult, especially her wife, but let it go. She tried to focus on the trees rushing past the window, but the headlights coming in from behind just drew attention to how disturbing the starless void beyond the forest line felt. They were so isolated out here, but somehow the highway lights, which were so far separated from them now, still washed away the beauty of the night sky for miles around them. Her thoughts stubbornly started to draw back into the car.
"I'll drive then," Emma said. "You can sleep in the car 'till we get there."
"Why would you suggest that?" Alice gave Emma a quick look like she had smelled something rotten before giving attention back to the road. "You know you can't see well at night."
"It's literally just a straight shot! It's not like I have to read road signs."
"Em." Emily didn't notice her leg had started jittering again until Alice's hand placed pressure on it, forcing it still before she returned it to the wheel.
Normally it sent pleasant little goosebumps up her arm when Alice used the shortened version of her name, but today it grated, like someone dragging a fork against a plate. She jittered her foot against her ankle.
"Em it's nothing. They're probably going to the same campsite."
"In the fall?"
"Why not? We are."
She wanted to argue the point, but while coincidence seemed unlikely, she couldn't think of another explanation that didn't sound just as implausible. There was no explanation that felt satisfying. There was nothing that felt concrete enough for her to sit and relax with.
"Please," Emma finally said. "it would just make me feel more comfortable okay?" She had stared blindly out the front passenger window until this point. It was easier to give voice to her anxieties when she didn't have to look at the calm and steady demeanor of her partner in comparison to the chaos going on in her head, but now she really did want Alice to look at her. To see the fear on her face.
The knot in her stomach started to grow worse, making her regret eating all the gas station junk that had passed for their dinner. She felt bad for pestering. She couldn't help the gut feeling that a fly stuck in the cabin would have been less annoying than she was being, but she also couldn't let it go. The longer she let the silence between their words sit the more it insisted upon itself.
"I know it would, but we can't just pull over for every car that starts making you nervous."
Emma declined to respond. She saw Alice give a few quick glances her way out of the corner of her eye, but pretended not to notice.
"You remember what your therapist said?" Alice asked, tapping a finger against the steering wheel. Emma wanted to reach out and place her hand over it the same way Alice had done with her leg, but knew she would get snapped at for touching the wheel.
"This isn't the same thing!" Emma raised her voice, dropping the conversational tone she had been trying to hold. "I'm not just randomly thinking of him!"
"No, you just imagine every single black truck you see on the road belongs to him, and that's not much better." Alice shifted a few times in her seat, her hands readjusting into a tight grip on the wheel.
"Why are you being so dismissive?" Emma snapped. "You know what happened!"
"Yeah, over a year ago! When was the last time he sent you a letter? Or stopped by your apartment? When was the last time you ran into him at the grocery store?"
"Why does that matter?" Emma rocked forward in her chair, a poor substitute for the agitated pacing she really wanted to do. Alice must have been feeling similar for she was shifting again, leaning towards the wheel and taking full long looks at her wife before making sure they weren't about to hit something in the road.
"When was the last time a noise outside turned out to be him?"
"The police never confirmed it wasn't!" Emma slammed her balled up fists into her legs.
"I've never even seen the guy outside of pictures that you still keep around the house, for some reason." Emma could hear the eye roll even if Alice was too meticulous about her driving to actually do it. The car started to speed up a little before Alice realized she had been placing pressure on the gas pedal and eased back off. Emma saw her glance at the rear view mirror.
Emma dug her fingernails into her jeans, trying to resist heated tears coming to her eyes.
"He wasn't even stalking you. Yeah it sucked that he kept showing up and trying to talk to you, but don't you think if he still wanted to see you he would have come to our house by now?"
"That's not how that works," Emma said, some of the fight leaving her. She was staring outside the window again, eyes bouncing from tree to tree like it was a game. It was almost reflexive, her mind content to distract her and not pay attention to Alice's white knuckles on the steering wheel.
"Then how does it work?" Alice snapped. Both women let the question hang in the air.
The silence grew swollen around them, seeming to absorb even the faint hum of the car's air conditioning. Alice began glancing with more frequency at the rear view mirror. Squinting at the light reflected there, she reached up to adjust it, but the new position didn't seem to please her.
"Damn it, why does that have to be so bright?" Alice snarled jamming her finger onto the button for the hazard lights as she started to slow down, guiding the car off pavement and onto grass and dirt.
"I thought you didn't want to waste time," Emma said, placing her hand against the door to steady the rough jostling from the car on unpaved road. She didn't want to start a fight, but she still wanted to poke at it.
"Don't be childish." Alice reached up and adjusted the rear view mirror back into position, a small increment of movement that seemed to barely change anything about what you could see through it. "I was getting tired of being blinded. Giving me a headache on top of everything else."
"Sure." Emma started to jitter her leg again, watching as the truck approached them, waiting for it to speed up once Alice had fully moved out of the way, but the way her wife turned her head to watch caused Emma's stomach to drop before she registered exactly why. The truck was actually slowing down, moving at a snail's pace as it drove up next to them.
Goosebumps formed painfully along Emma's arms and legs. She bit her lips, wanting to reach out for Alice's hand in reassurance but scared that moving or speaking might set something into motion that she couldn't stop. Now Alice was watching the truck, her body completely still save for her hands, which were minutely flexing on the steering wheel like she was planning to bolt out of there at any second.
Seconds seemed like hours before the truck had passed and picked up speed again, disappearing down a bend in the forest road. For a few moments lights were still visible through the trees before darkness fell in on everything, but their blinking hazard lights. Emma watched Alice, who continued to watch the road for the truck, as if she was expecting it to suddenly come back.
Finally Alice shifted in her seat again, reaching up to adjust the rear view mirror one more time before throwing the car into drive and pulling back onto the road. She took a moment to pick up speed, and Emma could see her eyes scanning the treeline as they passed. "We pulled over on a dead road in the middle of the night," Alice whispered, keeping her concentration firm in front of her. "Probably just checking to make sure we were okay."
"You really think that's it?" Emma didn't know anymore what she wanted the answer to be. The thought of Alice being worried, validating all her previous concerns, scared her just as much as the idea that she still couldn't see clearly what was happening.
"Yes Emma. I promise you I really do think that's all there is."
Emma watched Alice for a moment before curling up against the passenger side door of the car, resting her head against the cool window and letting the darkened forest become a painful blur in the corner of her eye. It occurred to her just how little there actually was separating her from the rush of road beneath them. The seat belt probably wouldn't do much to save her if she opened up the door and just let the whole of her body weight drag her out of the car. It was likely she would get caught under the back wheel as she fell, probably even more likely if the seatbelt was still dragging her along a bit before it snapped.
Emma imagined what Alice's initial reaction would be, definitely shock. She might even drive for a bit before the reality of what happened sunk in. Emma wondered if she would hear the screeching of the tires as Alice came to a halt, or if she would be too blinded by the pain of broken bones to make sense of anything. Certainly she would notice Alice's breaking voice, and red puffy face as she cried into the phone for the police. She would confess that it was all her fault, that she should have listened. Even if she would never believe the actual source of Emma's fears she would be more careful in tending to her after that.
Emma was tracing the line of the door handle with her finger as Alice reached over to turn on the radio.