Meg glanced at the rearview mirror for the tenth time. Why was she so jumpy? Travis wouldn’t even be home for another hour. He was out with the guys again. If he came home drunk again, he might not even notice until tomorrow that she’d packed her clothes and left him.
She touched the bruise on her cheek. Things with Travis had gotten worse lately. Leaving was a rash decision, but she felt good about it. At least, she would feel good about leaving after she put a few states between them. This highway was dark and creepy. Maybe that’s why she couldn’t get her nerves under control.
Some music might help. She clicked on the radio. “...on the lookout for an escaped convict. He was last seen on Highway 35 heading toward Greenville in a blue Honda Civic. Cade McMillan is a convicted murderer and the authorities consider him to be armed and dangerous. He is five-foot-eleven with brown hair and a tattoo of a dagger on his left wrist.”
She clicked the radio off again. Great. Just what she needed. Another reason to see things in the dark shadows of the cornfields. Meg bounced her leg as she tried not to concern herself with the escaped convict. She’d passed Greenville thirty minutes ago, so she was ahead of the killer. No reason she should worry.
Something white flashed in the dark, and she slammed on her brakes. A deer skittered across the road. Meg’s heart raced as she waited for the deer to clear the road before pressing the gas. Was the universe trying to give her a heart attack?
What she needed was a good upbeat song to sing. She pushed in her favorite pop CD and cranked up the volume. She tapped the steering wheel and sang along. It was helping her to ignore the creepy feeling crawling up her spine. Music always helped her. It was like salve to her soul.
Travis wouldn’t call the cops on her, would he? Technically, the Mustang was in his name only. He could come after her for it. But she was hoping he wouldn’t since she left everything else except her clothes, her ukulele, and a tattered box of household items. She’d even left her ring on his pillow.
Her car made a noise, and she looked down at the gas meter. Empty? Now? She was still miles away from the next town. Crud. Why hadn’t she filled up when she passed through Greenville? The thought of running out of gas in the middle of nowhere was terrifying. Meg crossed her fingers and started coasting down each hill. Maybe that would make her gas go a little farther.
The next song came on and she put her heart into singing along, doing her best to dance while buckled into the driver’s seat. No one was around on this deserted highway. She could act as silly as she wanted. And it took her mind off the empty tank.
When she rounded the corner to Huntington, she sighed with relief. A gas station sat on the right side of the highway. She pulled up to the pump and stopped the car. She ran inside to pre-pay in cash. She couldn’t use a credit card. She didn’t want Travis finding her. He’d be madder than a wet cat on Sunday.
A TV in the corner of the store played a late-night comedy show. The man behind the counter looked annoyed that she’d interrupted. He took her cash. “Which pump?”
She tried to look out the window but didn’t have a good view of the parking lot. She had to take several steps to see. “Pump two.”
He punched something into his machine, waited for it to print, then handed her a receipt. “Have a good one.”
She walked back outside and filled her tank. The creepy feeling came back, and she glanced around the parking lot. A couple of cars sat on the dark side of the convenience store. She didn’t see anyone around. Still, she’d be glad when she was back on the road.
She replaced the nozzle and turned to get into her car. Rough hands grabbed her, covering her mouth, cutting off her startled scream. “Give me your money and you won’t get hurt.” The man’s breath, hot on her cheek, stunk like stale beer and cigarettes.
Terror ripped through her, and she struggled against him. The man released her mouth to hold her arms down. Now she was pinned to him.
“Really? You’re holding my arms. How am I going to give you money? Didn’t really think this through, did ya?” She cringed. When she got scared, the sarcasm flew out like vomit.
“Shut up.” The man covered her mouth again, and she wriggled until she had one arm free. Her father had taught her a little bit about self-defense when she was a kid. Not that her father was any expert. He took one class in the ‘90s and thought he was Jackie Chan.
She shoved her elbow in his ribs and his grip loosened. She turned and jammed her knee in his groin. That was her dad’s “if all else fails” move. It worked. His eyes bulged, and he grunted and doubled over. His brown dirty hair hung past his shoulders. Brown hair...just like the escaped convict.
Meg turned to run into the safety of the store, but the man hit her from behind, knocking her to the pavement. She struggled to breathe. The man pressed down on her. Gravel bit into her already bruised cheek.
“Now you’re going to pay,” he said, his voice low.
Her heart beat wildly in her chest. “Shouldn’t you be running? The police are looking for you. Heard it on the radio.” She cringed. She really shouldn’t be egging on a murderer.
The man yanked her hair. Tears stung her eyes. She tried to get free but only succeeded in scraping the skin off her elbow. She prayed the man behind the counter would tear his gaze away from the television and look outside.
Something moved in her peripheral vision. The man’s weight suddenly lifted. Meg rolled over to see another man hit her attacker in the face. He wore a plaid shirt and cowboy boots. Relief flooded through her.
She scrambled backward, crab-walking until her shoulder hit a car in the parking lot. Her attacker pulled a knife on the cowboy and they circled each other, crouched low.
The cowboy motioned to her. “Run!” She hopped up and ran around the car, which she now noticed was a blue Honda Civic. Great, just like they said on the radio. Why didn’t she notice that before?
Her attacker swung the knife. It only caught air. The cowboy responded by throwing a punch. Meg couldn’t help but notice the muscles on him. Nice. He was fighting for his life and she was staring at his muscles.
Meg glanced at the store. Why wasn’t the guy in there calling the cops?
The thug swung the knife again, and it sliced through the cowboy’s chest. “No!” she yelled. The cowboy doubled over. Her attacker stepped back. He gave her an angry glare. Distant sirens sounded. The greasy man turned and ran down the street, tossing the knife into the gutter.
Meg ran to the man who had saved her. His shirt was turning red with his blood. “Are you okay?”
The man grunted. “I’m perfect. Never been better.”
The cops were coming. The last thing she wanted to do was stick around to be questioned by them. A police report would lead Travis right to her. The man would be fine. The police would take him to the hospital. “I have to go.”
“Take me with you.”
“What? No.” What was wrong with him? Was he crazy? The sound of the sirens grew louder. She had to get out of there. She ran to her car and got in the driver’s seat.
Her passenger door opened, and the cowboy slid in, his hand pressing on his wound. He slammed the door. Blood stained his fingers red.
“What are you doing?” Meg asked, her voice high-pitched.
“Please? Just give me a ride to the next town.”
Meg didn’t have any time to argue. The police lights were already bouncing off the windows of the nearby residential homes. She slammed the car into gear and pulled out onto the highway. She watched in her rearview mirror as two cop cars pulled into the gas station and stopped. She sighed with relief as she sped down the highway, no one following her.
She swallowed and looked at the man who had saved her. “Thanks for getting that creep off me back there.”
The man didn’t say anything, and that’s when she noticed it. Her throat went dry as she stared at the small tattoo on his left wrist. A dagger.