Nadie dreaded the winter.
Each one seemed to get worse, though she knew that was just her arthritis. The cold got down deep into her bones and set her joints to throbbing. It seemed like she hurt most days of the year now, with a few weeks respite during the all-too-short summer. Out on the road tonight it already had grown cold; a biting wind chattered through the tall pine trees on both sides of Highway 16 and dug through her thin coat in search of her flesh. If late August was this cold already and she was already in pain, then months of misery lay ahead of her.
Her fingers, carrying two bags of groceries, one in each hand, were stiff and aching, felt swollen. The sun, a thin red wafer balanced on the horizon ahead of her, offered little warmth.
It will be dark long before I get home, she said to herself. If only a car would come along. The irony of her thoughts brought a grim smile to her face as she took note of the billboard beside her on the right side of the road. Big black letters on a yellow background proclaimed a warning: WOMEN DO NOT HITCHHIKE ON THE HIGHWAY OF TEARS. They do when they don’t have a choice, Nadie thought with a snort. She knew the dangers. Any woman did. But the bus that came to take her and the other women of the village into town only came on Tuesdays, and she couldn’t wait that long. “What can you do,” Nadie often said, to anyone who would listen, “when your babies are hungry?”
They weren’t her children, in point of fact, but her grandchildren. Nevertheless they were her responsibility. Nadie’s daughter had left them, taking off with some man. It was not the first time. Nadie had grown used to the routine. Her husband, too, stayed gone most of the time. Other women, and other places to sleep off a drunk. That was okay; one less mouth to feed when he wasn’t there.
Nadie knew the dangers, but she would gladly take the risk if somebody, anybody would just come along and offer her a ride, the way her fingers and her knees were hurting. There weren’t many cars on the road this evening, though. The last vehicle she’d seen, a green pickup, had blown past her a good half-hour earlier. Nadie didn’t think the driver had even seen her.
The air smelled cold, no car exhaust, clear and clean. She could smell the snow to the north and the hint (not much chance, thank God) of a potential rain shower. Then she caught the whiff of something else and she stopped, turned, looking back. Something strange, foreign. The fact that she couldn’t identify the smell frightened her. An earthy scent, not mechanical, but out of place, unhealthy. The wind wheezed in the trees, growing stronger.
*God, why won’t you send a car?*
She started off again, picked up her pace. The odor followed her. The wind carried it. “I am safe.” She said the words out loud, trying to reassure herself. “Nobody would want me. I am not young and pretty anymore.”
The wind howled. Nadie turned to look back.
With a cry, she started to run.
She let the grocery bags fall to the blacktop. As she raced towards it, the sun dropped below the horizon.
*No! Please, no!*
She heard the thing coming up behind her, getting closer, even as the wind roared in her ears. Then it had her, took her, lifting her off her feet. She screamed, but there was nobody around to hear it.
The bags of spilled groceries on the highway were the only signs she had ever been there.