Highway Chapter 19
I woke up to the suns warming rays, stretching leisurely. I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag, padding over to Veronica. I shook her shoulder gently. She batted at me with displeasure, but awoke anyway.
As she ate breakfast, I tried to wake Julian. He wasn’t an early morning riser, and I became concerned when he didn’t move. Suddenly, his hand shot out, pulling me to the ground. I gave him a shocked look as he laughed, and grumbled when I saw Veronica giggling too. The rest of the morning consisted of them making fun of me as they whispered conspiratorially.
When we stopped for water and they were talking, I only assumed they were planning a prank. Suddenly Julian gave her a hug, and she exclaimed, asking if he knew what personal space was. I told her he didn’t, and wouldn’t if it hit him in the face. She laughed, but he punched me in the arm. I proceeded to complain about being a victim.
Even so, I was glad that they were getting along, even if it was only to make fun of me. When we said goodbye to him at the gates, Veronica even let him hug her again, putting an awkward arm around his torso. She would miss him a little, I thought, and so would I. He gave me a hug after her.
“Take care of yourself, kid. I’m not here to fix your mistakes anymore. Take care of Veronica too. She’s a very special girl, and you won’t meet another like her. Let her be a part of your world, and she’ll let you be a part of hers.”
I nodded, smiling. I gave him another bear hug, slapping him on the back. We waved, telling him to be safe.
We wandered the town a bit, looking for a motel. Veronica commented on the clouds, and I could see that a storm was approaching. She looked concerned, so I told her we would be inside before anything happened. I asked her if storms bothered her, and she said she wasn’t too fond of lighting. I would make sure to have the television turned up and the windows closed.
I spoke to the locals as we browsed the town’s stores, hoping to hear of travelers. They said there had been one man, a traveler with something really wrong with his face. I brushed it off, thinking it another discriminated view. We got to the hotel when it started raining. Veronica was watching another old western, lying on my leg. I could tell she was still hesitant, worried that any sudden show of affection would cause me to withdraw. She wouldn’t talk about it, so I would just have to show her that it was endearing. I told her how close she was to awakening, within the next few weeks perhaps. I could sense her 30 feet away now, a long way for a drifter that hadn’t made it yet.
She asked me what we were going to do when she awakened, wondering if she could help me. It made me freeze up, for the question surprised me. What did she mean, we? I never really thought about her staying. Nobody keeps traveling after they make it, they separate. Sure, if we see each other on the road we are happy, but we don’t stay together. Hadn’t that been the reason I had been sad to see her go?
She was concerned by my sudden silence, and turned to look at me. I told her that I hadn’t thought she’d have wanted to stay. She was confused now, pulling back to look at me. I tried to soothe her, to help her understand. I told her again, saying it would make sense afterwards. I didn’t know why we didn’t stay, but we awakened and then didn’t come back. She was frustrated now, telling me I didn’t understand. I had obviously worded the sentence wrong. She was questioning my feelings now, and I knew this to be getting out of hand.
I was stunned by the sudden bite in her words. Should I talk over her? Should I stand up? Maybe I should give her a tight hug until she calmed down. She was up off the bed and on her feet now, absolutely livid. She told me to just admit I didn’t want her with me. That was ridiculous! Rushing to correct her, I told her frantically that she could stay with me if she wanted, it was just not normal. In the five years I’ve been a drifter, I have never seen any pairs stay that way after the awakening. She didn’t seem to hear, now reasoning out why I wouldn’t want her to stay. I tried a more authoritative voice, calling her name.
I was interrupted, her voice now cold and bitter as she yelled at me. Tears were welling up in her eyes, and I felt my heart ache as they fell down her face. I told her to calm down, to work it out with me. Then she told me that she loved me. Although I had been told last night, I had never heard the words come out of her mouth. Feeling my heart soar, it was quickly cut to shreds as she turned away. I tried to pull her in for a hug, to comfort her. I wanted to tell her she could stay as long as she wanted.
She pulled away, a lightning flash illuminating her face. She cringed, and I was reminded of her fear. She ran out the door, and I followed her as fast as I could. I called to her, pleading to come back and talk it out. I’d waited too long to say what I had needed to.
The storm was worse now, the wind pushing back my hair, my clothes getting soaked within a few minutes. I ran off in the direction I had last seen her, but she had lost me. Still, I wasn’t going to leave her out in the storm. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed, and I could only imagine Veronica curled up in a ball.
I called her name, each time more desperately. My voice was hard to hear over the howling of the wind, but I knew if I came close I could sense her.
“Veronica! Come on! I’m sorry, okay? Please come back!” I called.
There was no answer. After what seemed like an eternity of rain and lightning, I heard a voice faintly. Was it her? Did she need help? I ran off in the direction of the voice, hoping with all my might she was okay. She called for help, telling me there were a bunch of guys. What?
She was screaming now, making it easier to find her. As I finally saw her across the street, I understood what she meant. She was over some guys shoulder. Were they kidnapping her? There was no way they would take her while I was still breathing.
I sprinted to what appeared to be a truck as she was thrown in. I prepared to leap in after her, only to find myself faced with two opponents. Two men got inside, leaving me with the other two. I looked to Veronica desperately, surveying her for damage and planning an escape. But they were closing the door, and I couldn’t get past the guys.
When the door closed on her, I felt as if my heart was being wrenched away. I quickly memorized the truck, gathering every single piece of information I could. I may not have been able to stop them, but I would track them down without hesitation and take Veronica back. For now, I had two men with gangly figures circling me.
Cursing, I realized I didn’t have a weapon. One man was holding a pocket knife, the blade glinting when the light flashed. I could wrestle it away from him. The man behind me swung predictably, and I ducked, kicking his leg out from under him. The other one tried to attack me with the knife, and I gripped his wrist before he could bring it down.
I used his now off balance state to my advantage, pulling him forward until I had my knee of top of his back. I twisted his wrist, prying the knife away from his fingers. The first man was up and ready now, and tackled me to the ground. We wrestled briefly, and I pinned him under me. I punched him hard, and his face went slack.
Rounding on my remaining opponent, I brandished the knife in warning. I wouldn’t ever dream of killing him, but he didn’t need to know that. I darted around him, confusing him as he spun in circles to keep up with me. He went for a punch as I stopped, and it was just the opportunity I needed. He used all his strength for the blow, but that meant he had poor technique. The opening was created when he lunged, and I slammed my elbow into his ribs.
He paused, and I took the opportunity to hit him just behind his knee, knocking him to the ground. As he went down, the scene became quiet. I had fought so many times when I was younger, and I was immensely grateful to see that my survival instincts hadn’t left me.
The man was in pain now, and I pulled him up by his jacket, slamming him against the wall. Hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough to knock him out.
“Where did they take her?” I asked, shaking him.
He looked at me in defiance, and I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.
“I asked you a question. Let’s try again.” I growled, summoning every piece of me that was threatening, “Where is she?”
I used my height against him, looming over him ominously. He looked scared this time. I made a low, guttural noise in the back of my throat, slamming him against the wall again.
“Stop, man!” he cried out, shaking. “I can’t tell you! If I do it’ll be my head, okay? I’m sorry about your girl!”
He was lying. He could tell me where she was, but he was scared of his boss. He would have to be more scared of me if I wanted an answer. I took out the knife, ramming it into the wall beside his head.
“Well I don’t about your boss and what he does,” I commented, “But what I do know is that you’re here with me now. And I also know that I am not a happy man. You wouldn’t like me when I’m in a bad mood, so don’t make me angry.”
He paused, his breath caught in his throat.
“If you don’t want this,” I said, gesturing to the knife in the wall beside him, “Somewhere over here, that is.”
I gestured to his trembling form. He still didn’t say anything, so I started psychologically. I sighed, stepping back just a little bit.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” I said.
I clicked my tongue in disapproval.
"All right then,” I said, nonchalantly, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I tugged the knife away from the wall, using it to dig out the dirt from under my fingernail. I hoped this worked, because if it didn’t I couldn’t do anything else. I wouldn’t kill him, and so this was my last chance. His eyes followed my movement carefully, and he screamed when I suddenly lunged forward.
“Wait! Stop! I’m sorry! Look, I’ll tell you! I’ll tell you! Just don’t do it!”
My heart gave away in relief, but I still had to be aggressive. I raised an eyebrow at him, leaning to touch the wall with one hand.
“I don’t know. Why should I let you say it now?”
He whimpered, and tried to draw back into the wall.
“I’ll give you one last chance. Now, you better not lie to me. But I don’t think you will, because then somebody could get hurt. You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”
He shook his head, too terrified. Leaning in, I asked again.
“Where did they take her?”
He rose his eyes to the heavens, but then looked back at me.
“There’s an old storage building outside of town. She’s there.”
But there could be hundreds of those. It wasn’t enough.
“Where outside of town?” I asked.
He hesitated, looking panicked. I leaned my arm against the place where his neck and sternum met, pressing slightly.
“I said, Where outside of town?”
He cowered again.
“I don’t know, man!”
When I made a dissatisfied noise, he cringed.
“I’m serious! I wasn’t paying attention. It’s to the south of here, about a 45 minute drive. That’s all I know, I swear!”
I would have liked to get more information than that, but it seemed he was telling the truth. I wondered if I should press him more, but every moment I spent here was a moment Veronica was in danger. Hoping to glean one more thing, I leaned over his form, now on the ground.
“I believe you. One last thing, what did you want with her?”
I was pretty sure I could guess, but I wanted to know what I was walking into.
“I don’t know everything about it. All I know is that we bring in girls, and then they leave again. It’s some sort of trade, I think.”
I looked at him with disgust, and he backed into the corner.
“You told me what I needed, so I’m not going to kill you. But if you follow me, or tell anyone else to follow me and I find out? Your boss will be the least of your worries.”
I felt unnatural doing and saying such violent things, but Veronica needed me. I would do whatever it took to make sure she was safe, even if that meant I had to knock a few people around. Or get knocked around myself. I turned away, keeping my guard up for a surprise attack. But he seemed too scared to bother me now, and I left without incident.
As soon as I was out of view, I began to run. I needed a map, and something to transport myself with. I didn’t have a car, but I couldn’t run for 45 minutes. Even if exhaustion wouldn’t have been an issue, it still would take me far too long. The longer I took to find Veronica, the more the probability of never finding her again increased. I would sooner die than let that happen.
I raced through town, looking for any shop that was open in the storm. A pocket of light attracted my eye, and I saw the man running the shop put up the closed sign. But before he could lock the door, I rammed through it. Gasping for air, dripping, and a fervent look in my eyes, I couldn’t have been a pretty sight. I asked the man if he had a map of the structures around town. I expected a fight, but I must have surprised him, for he just handed me one. He fled the room, not asking for payment. Not believing my good luck but not wanting to question it, I quickly scanned the map.
There were two storage building about an hour’s drive from the town. I didn’t know which one, but I had at least some sort of idea. I could have used the stuff at our hotel, but I didn’t have time to get it.
I raced back into the storm, galloping through the streets. Surely there was a taxi, perhaps a bus. But the cars had all tucked themselves away from the storm, which was getting even more violent. I spotted a horse stable, and I knocked on the door. Nobody answered, and so I tried again, pounding and shouting.
One of the stallions was fussing about in his stall, banging against the doors. He didn’t like the narrow space during the storm. Feeling terribly guilty but entirely resolved, I hopped over the small fence.
I approached the beautiful black horse, avoiding his kicking hooves. I let him smell my hand as he whinnied. He stopped his bucking, and allowed me to come close. I placed my hands on his snout, placing a soft kiss there. Horses were included when it came to animals loving us. I would be slower than a car on a horse, but I would be faster than if I walked.
I hastily saddled him up, and opened the horse gate. I mounted his back, gently nudging his sides to make him go. We sped off into the storm, whipping by the town. The horse’s hooves clicked on the concrete, and soon we were in dirt. I was worried he might slip, for the ground had become muddy, but he just kept going.
We galloped across the field, keeping a brisk but not pushing pace. I didn’t want to tire the horse out. He wasn’t mine after all, and I wanted to make sure he got back safely. I’m coming, Veronica, I thought. I will save you.
I cursed myself for letting her leave at all. I should have just pulled her into a hug, or gotten so close she had to look at me. That had always worked before, and yet I hadn’t done it then. Why? Was I just too confused? I didn’t even understand why it was important to say anything anyway. We weren’t normal in general, and I didn’t plan on being the same any time soon. She loved me and I loved her, or at least that’s how it used to be.
I didn’t know what I had done to her, if I had ruined our relationship. She had become an all consuming part of me now. I had always felt lonely, but I hadn’t felt strange about being lonely until I met her. Then, it started to seem as if there was something missing in my life. As we grew closer, I felt the void begin to fill. It was almost as if the path was telling me to find her and care for her, and to no longer be alone. I knew now that I couldn’t live without her, but I might have understood too late. I immensely hoped I could salvage the situation.
Either way, it didn’t matter right now. Even if Veronica hated me with every fiber of her being, I couldn’t leave her. I had contributed to this mess, and it had snowballed. She could hate me all she wanted, but I was going to get her out of there, alive and well.
I had given up all hope of staying dry, my clothes sticking to me. The wind caused the rain to smack me in the face with a painful sting, but I pushed through. I gently urged on the horse, hoping to get close. I found the first storage house, getting off the horse.
I looped his reins around a nail in the wall, sheltering him from the rain. I looked into the windows stealthily, but it appeared as if nobody was there. I cautiously peeked into the doors, and then embarked on a more thorough search.
Exclaiming in frustration, I slammed my hand into the wall. I had picked the wrong one. I had spent too much time already, and now I would have to make it over to the next one. The map didn’t even specify exactly where it was and which route to take, so I would have to stumble in the dark until I found it.
Quickly coming back outside, I climbed onto the horse again, trying not to pull on his wet coat. At least the weather seemed to be clearing up a bit. As I looked to the sky, I realized that we were actually just in the eye of the storm. It would get exponentially worse soon, so I needed to hurry.
Patting the horse gently, I urged him on again. He was remarkably resilient, not showing signs of exhaustion.
It was hard to see now without the constant lightning, and I searched for any clue on how to get to the second house. A flash came from behind, and I glimpsed something colorful. Slowing the horse, I got off to examine it. It was muddy, but appeared to be a piece of torn cloth. I looked at it strangely, and almost discarded it.
Wait, I thought, didn’t Veronica have a green undershirt that color? I had seen her pack it. There was a piece of torn cloth from her on the side of the road. The sight of her shirt made me angry, for I could only think of the men who kidnapped her and their possible actions. But then, it wouldn’t be outside of where she was being held. This had been deliberate, something left by Veronica.
She was leaving me a trail! Her shirt is bright enough to see in the gloom, and she tore it off for me to follow the strips. I felt a feeling of warm pride well up in my chest. She was absolutely genius. How did she get away with that? Hang in there, I thought. I’m coming.
I got onto the stallion again, following the direction the cloth had come from. I spotted a few more along the way, each time becoming more reassured she was near.
The rain was starting to pick up again, the lull ending. The wind was increasing in ferocity, almost blowing us over. Suddenly a flash of lightning lit up the whole area, an ear shaking and sky shattering crash sounding above me.
The building was big for a storage unit, closer to a warehouse than a shed. Still, it wasn’t big enough I couldn’t search it quickly. I hid the horse in a nearby shed, giving him a pat and another kiss on the snout.
“Thank you,” I said to him.
He only neighed his indifferent response. I cautiously approached the unit as I had done before, slipping by the windows lithely. This needed to be clandestine. I didn’t know how many people could be in here, and it could be fatal if I just rushed in. I spent as little time as necessary to study the layout of the building. If I needed to split with Veronica, I would have to know the exits and escape routes. I was a good fighter, but I couldn’t take on more than a few guys at a time. I also didn’t have any other weapon than the pocket knife, which wouldn’t fair well against a gun. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, it’s said.
The place was mostly quiet, except for a few lit windows. A few drunken men were laughing at something, asking for more liquor from the serving girl. As I had guessed, they were using girls as objects and selling them. The waitress was dressed in skimpy clothes, the scarcity disgusting. She had bruises on her arms and legs, and I looked away. Not only were they selling these girls, they were abusing them too. These men were the lowest of the low.
If I had to make a run for it with Veronica, I would definitely set the police after them after she was safe. Although there could have been more inside, it seemed there were only about eight guys here. If I took them out in small groups, I could rescue Veronica without suffering any major injuries. I just hoped they didn’t have guns.
I noticed a smaller container off to the side, and headed over to it, thinking they kept the girls there. But as I turned in that direction, I heard a shriek come from inside the complex. It had to have been Veronica’s, for I had heard it before and it sounded familiar.
Gritting my teeth angrily, I wound my way back. One of the windows to a darker room was slightly ajar, and I stealthy opened it. I cut open the screen with the pocket knife, and slid my body through the small window. It was a bit of a tight fit, but I was soaking and slippery, so I slid through.
It was dark, but I could pick out the shapes of a few belongings. Someone was using this as a temporary hideout. Suddenly there was movement from the bed, and I jumped back. I hadn’t seen the man when I came in, and I froze. I didn’t dare to breathe, my hands gripping the pocket knife tight. If he woke up and saw me, I would have to do something, and fast. I wouldn’t kill him, but I would need to silence him before he sounded an alarm and alerted the rest of the people. When the man relaxed again, rolling to his side, I let out a breath.
This was a dangerous situation to be sure, and I only hoped I would make it out of here relatively unscathed. I wished for Julian, for he would be the one to offer me wise council. Do I make my way through as quiet as possible? Do I start to knock them out? His experience in combat wouldn’t have hurt either. I wondered if I could phone him, but I didn’t know where one was. Besides, if there was even a phone at all, the connections wouldn’t be working in the storm.
I wanted to rush to where I heard her scream, but that could get me killed. More importantly, if I got killed, she would be left here. I shuddered to even think about the things that would happen to her. No, she wouldn’t fall prey to such people. She was going to have a happy life as a drifter, and she would help so many people. Life had sent me here today to protect her, and I wasn’t about to screw up her only chance of help.
I opened the door slowly, sliding through the crack. I could hear the men laughing raucously, whistling at the waitress. I didn’t want to confront them yet, as I still had the element of surprise. I felt the walls on my way through the narrow passages of shelves. Right, right, left, right, left. I was memorizing the way to different places, creating a map in my head.
I came upon a room separated from the rest of the area. Perhaps a small office, one that was used for their so called "boss." This had been where I heard Veronica’s voice come from earlier. If he had done anything to her, I wasn’t sure I would be able to control myself.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed away the anger from my head, making it clearer. I didn’t throw it away however, transferring it to my limbs. I was a much better fighter if I thought clearly, but still had the strength that only comes from a heated situation.
I could feel her now, so I knew she was in this room. She didn’t feel hurt, as there wasn’t a stream of conscious pain. It was strange, for I could also feel her paralyzing fear and distress coming off in waves. This was a scary situation, but it wasn’t as if she was scared of the men.
“Just hold on, baby girl”, I thought, “I’m here to save you. It’ll all be over soon.”
I grasped the knob, and prepared myself for a fight
I opened the door.