The dirt road was hard beneath my aching feet. It stretched before me, endless and empty. The growl of my stomach broke the eerie silence; it had been days since I had eaten. I kept walking, there wasn’t anything else for me to do.
My legs, weary and shaking with exhaustion, kept moving forward, propelled by my will alone. And that will was strong, but unlike this road, it wasn’t endless.
I was minutes, or seconds, from sinking to the ground, when the growl of an engine made hope grow wings in my chest. Behind me a cloud of dust rose, signaling the approach of a vehicle, a truck by the sound of it. Country music drifted on the wind as it got closer. Thumb out, I hoped that this time would be different. That the people inside would stop, would take me somewhere less empty, somewhere that had food that I didn’t have to try – and fail – to catch.
The truck, a faded blue pickup, passed me by and my shoulders sank, disappointment weighing heavily on my chest, making my next indrawn breath a challenge. Red brake-lights rekindled that flame and burned bright. This time would be different.
The engine idled as they waited for me a dozen yards ahead. Adrenaline pumping, I ran and peered inside the passenger window.
Two teenage boys looked back, returning my cautious gaze, theirs filled with curiosity. I guess they didn’t get a lot of teenage girls hitchhiking in the middle of winter. I bit my lip, my blood pumping faster through my veins.
Don’t be a mistake, I pleaded. Please, don’t let this be a mistake.
I didn’t want to kill anyone else. But if it was between me and these boys, I’d chose me every time.
“Hey! Need a lift?” The passenger’s midwestern lilt was comforting, the warmth in his voice wrapped around me, shoving away the chill from the frigid weather. He was maybe two or three years older than me with sandy-blond hair that fell in front of his soft brown eyes. A smile lifted his lips as he caught me staring. It was hard not to smile back.
“Yeah. Anywhere in that direction,” I pointed forward, where I hoped the desolate dirt road met up with a larger highway, “with food.” My stomach chose that moment to growl again emphasizing my request. Heat infused my cheeks as the boys laughed.
“We’re headed home for dinner,” the driver said as the other boy shoved the heavy door open. “You are welcome to join us. There’s always plenty.”
“You sure your folks won’t mind?” I hesitated, my hand wrapped around the door frame.
“Nah,” the boy with the brown eyes looked in to my eyes. A shiver worked its way along my spine as I felt something strange, something new as our eyes met. His smile widened, “Aunt Sue always makes sure there’s a ton of food. We have a big family to feed.”
I hovered, undecided. The moment felt like it had more importance than it should, like everything was about to change. But would it be for the better?
My shaky legs reminded me that I was moments from passing out and my body made the decision for me. “Thanks,” I mumbled as I climbed into the cab and shut the heavy door with a slam.
Once inside, the cozy warm heat blasting from the vents enveloped me and I couldn’t hold back the sigh as my legs got a well needed rest.
The boys laughed again, cutting off abruptly. My heart lurched in my throat as they looked at one another. I couldn’t decipher the strange expression I caught before they smoothed their features.
I worried my lip between my sharp teeth.
“I’m Gavin,” the passenger smiled and then jerked his thumb to the driver, “and this is my cousin, Cole.”
I didn’t get a creepy vibe from them, not like the last guy I’d accepted a ride from, but I was still wary. “Kyra.” I gave them my new name. One forged in darkness and fear, and seeped in blood.
“Where are you traveling from?”
“Kansas,” I lied. Not for the first time. I was erasing my past, building a new one word by work. Everyone thought I was dead anyway. Or at least, that’s what I hoped.
Cole whistled. “That’s pretty far. What are you doing hitching in this part of Wyoming?”
“I got lost.”
Cole snickered, while Gavin’s expression darkened. “That’s a long way to hitch rides.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Montana?” Cole’s eyes widened. “Girl, that’s over three-hundred more miles.”
“You’ve been on your own for a while, huh?” Gavin’s concern was almost palatable. I needed to spin a believable story, a better one than I had.
“My aunt is there. I’m moving in with her.”
“Where are your things?”
Damn. What few belongings I’d had I lost in my escape. Everything was still in the single drawer I’d been given, folded neatly.
Cole shook his head. “Hitching rides is dangerous, especially for a young girl. Aunt Sue will have a fit.”
“Good thing you weren’t hurt.” Gavin looked relieved as he sank back into the bench seat.
I cupped my hands against the vent, wiggling my fingers to get the feeling back. If wishes were money, I’d be rich. I’d been hurt, but the worst of it was far earlier and far worse than what had happened on the side of the road somewhere between Douglass and Cheyenne.
I’d saved myself.
And I’d do it again, if I needed to. Something was going on between the two boys, something they were trying to cover up. I was so tired, so hungry, I’d wait it out if I could. I’d hold on to the sliver of hope with both hands, until I couldn’t.
Thanks to my new-found abilities, I knew saving myself — even if it meant killing them — wouldn’t be a problem.
Did that make me a psychopath? I chewed on my lip, the coppery taste of fresh blood in my mouth.
Less than five minutes of awkward conversation later we pulled off the dirt road and onto a driveway. The mailbox and metal shingle stated that we were entering the Guarani’s Ranch.
The driveway weaved around a hill, past trees so thick you could barely see twenty feet. The semi-mountainous terrain seemed no deterrent from Cole’s speedy driving, he’d obviously made this route a million times.
“Don’t worry,” Gavin laughed as the shocks squeaked and we bounced around the cab, my grip on the door vice-like. “Cole could do this in his sleep. His house is just another mile down the road.”
We twisted around a bend in the road and the trees cleared enough to take in the view. I gasped in awe as the valley appeared, jagged rocks jutted from the mountains on one side, thick trees covering the area, while the other was flat, dotted with what had to have been tens of thousands of cattle.
“Welcome to the ranch,” he added, pride thick in his voice.
The house was large, three stories tall with a giant wrap-around porch covered in rocking chairs and cushioned seats that enticed. I wanted to curl up on one of the cushions and never leave.
Remains of a garden spread along one side, mostly dormant in the cold. It was well-maintained even in winter. On the other side at least twelve vehicles rested and my heart launched into my throat.
Cole parked and launched himself from the truck. “I’ll let Aunt Sue know,” he yelled behind him as he loped off, long legs eating the ground. Gavin slid out the driver’s side and my fists gripped the door handle. My heart thundered in my chest, panic returning in a flash. Did I just walk into another bad situation? Two teens I could handle, a group of grown men was another thing entirely.
The door opened and I was pulled along with it, tumbling from the cab.
“Shit. Sorry,” Gavin grasped my upper arm to help me stand. Adrenaline surged and I tore my arm from his, jerking away. I leaned against the truck, fighting to gain my breath as spots danced in front of my eyes.
Gavin stood by, his stance awkward as he struggled not to help. He kept his hands in front of him, like he was calming a skittish animal. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” I panted, each breath coming easier than the last. “Just, don’t—don’t touch me.”
“Sorry.” It came out a whisper, like I’d hurt him. He cleared his throat. “You look a little pale. Follow me inside and we’ll get you some food.”
I didn’t deserve his kindness. But I took it anyway and entered the sanctuary he offered me.
Later I couldn’t decide if it was the best choice I’d ever made – or the worst.