A Tale of the Unearthly Northwest
M. M. Justus
The bizarre old truck literally came flying out of nowhere. I’d been on my way back from a car fire out near Chesaw and, at first glimpse, I thought it was another fire engine. It was red, all right, but that pickup was older than I was, and all I could see of the driver was a glint of silver as the heap screamed past me at suicide-by-car-wreck speeds.
My vehicle, a standard-issue Washington State Highway Patrol Crown Victoria, rocked in its wake. The road wasn’t wide enough to make a U, with a ditch on either side. I wasted the better part of half a mile trying to find a spot to swing the cruiser around. I slapped the lights and siren on then, and gave chase.
Not that the driver was going to get far at the rate she was going. I braced myself for carnage around every bend in the narrow two-lane mountain road, but each time I came around a curve the road was empty. The Okanogan Highlands in early November are desolate enough as it is, and I didn’t have time to think about it as I almost skidded around the curves as fast as the Crown Vic would let me, but when I thought back on it later, it seemed odd how I didn’t wonder why I saw no one else out there just before sundown that day.
At the time all I could think was, what the hell and why and who is that stupid idiot and please God don’t let me find a pile of twisted metal upside down in a ditch.
I must have gone at least five miles, and was about to give up completely when I caught another glimpse of red through the trees. It was as if she’d been waiting for me to catch up, because no sooner did I see the truck than she took off again. A metallic “nyah, nyah, can’t catch me” all but bounced through my brain, and I slammed my foot on the gas.
Damned drysiders. Nobody’d told me when the Washington State Patrol assigned me to the biggest, least populated county in the state that the few people who lived here had gone completely psycho from too much wide open space. An oversight, I’m sure.
I lost and found that truck at least three more times before she slammed on its brakes and careened off the highway about a quarter mile ahead of me. I could see the fishtailed tread marks as I reached the spot a few seconds later, but damned if I saw anything resembling a road for her to have turned off onto.
You’re probably wondering why I keep referring to the driver as her, when statistically that kind of daredevil is male and the only thing I could have said for sure just then was whoever it was had gray hair. I’m only going to say I had my reasons. I’m not sure what they were, but I remember having them. And whatever my half-cocked reasoning was at the time, it turned out to be right.
I pulled over and turned off the siren, but left the lights on, since the shoulder really wasn’t wide enough to park the car on and the road was curvy enough to block the view from more than a few yards in either direction. I didn’t relish the idea of having to explain getting my cruiser rear-ended while it was parked out in the middle of nowhere.
I got out and inspected the skid marks: impressive, perfect half-moon curves. When I followed them to the edge of the road, I could see the dry, golden grass was flattened, and smell the dusty juices. Something of a track went further on past the shoulder. I gazed up and around at the gray sky and dull gold hills. I had no idea where I was – well, I was somewhere south of Chesaw and if I stayed on the paved road I’d probably end up back in Tonasket on Highway 97. Eventually. But this part of the Okanogan Highlands is laced with dirt roads leading to nowhere. Or to holes in the ground, with a few decaying shacks standing guard around them. This was gold mining country a hundred years ago.
A glint of red caught my eye again, disappearing behind a clump of orange larches further on up the hill. There’s nothing weirder than a conifer that turns color and loses its, well, not leaves, obviously, but goes naked in the winter like a damned maple.
It was the principle of the thing by now. Sighing, hoping I didn’t live to regret my decision, I climbed back in the cruiser and edged it carefully off the pavement. I didn’t want to think how I was going to explain this to Sergeant MacKade if I had to call in and get a tow truck out here. If I could get any kind of cell phone or radio reception out here in the first place.
I had to give the idiot in the red truck credit. The track widened a couple hundred yards off the highway into a real, live dirt road. It was almost as if whoever lived back off up here didn’t want the world to know it existed. After a while, as the Vic crept up the track, dust dampened out of existence from the front that had dropped a stingy few drops the night before, I began to relax, almost against my will.
It wasn’t as if I could go any faster, not without risking damage to the cruiser. I knew my quarry couldn’t go any faster, either. She couldn’t be going that far. Probably to one of those big lone houses on the hilltops overlooking the valley and the apple orchards below. The sergeant had warned me about some of the people who lived in them when I’d first arrived back in August, fresh from the academy. Fresh from getting dumped by Linda, too, because I’d been assigned to the back of beyond, even though it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t like I’d had a choice. It was either come here or waste two years of academy training.
I stopped that train of thought before it could get away from me again. It had too many times before, and I needed to figure out how I was going to handle this situation when I got there.
The kind of rich people who live out here are here because they don’t want a lot of government interfering in their lives. Well, I was going to interfere this time, if only because the rest of the county didn’t deserve some maniac driving under the influence and putting one of them into the hospital. Or worse.
The road, such as it was, reached the top of the hill, but the big fancy house, lording it over a view that probably was pretty darned spectacular in clear weather, wasn’t there. No buildings in sight, as a matter of fact. Just two ruts, separated by a line of grass, meandering down the other side of the hill back into the green and orange woods.
This was getting ridiculous. I debated turning around and heading back to town. Daylight was all but gone, the clouds were sinking like someone was pushing down on them from above, and it was going to take me the better part of two hours to get back to Omak, sign out for the day, and go home.
To my empty apartment, to do what on a Saturday night? Nobody wants to party with the new state trooper in town. If there was one thing I’d learned about small towns, it was that if you weren’t living in the house your grandparents were born in, you might as well have the word “outsider” printed across your forehead with a magic marker. The cop thing just made it worse.
What the hell. It wasn’t like I had anything else to do. I kept going.
Over the river and through the damned woods. Well, except there wasn’t a river. There was a creek – excuse me, that’s a “crick” on the dry side of the Cascades – with a grove of white-trunked and leafless aspens between it and the road. Lots of forest, though – pines so green they were almost black and the larches standing out against them like torches in the dark. I turned the flashers off, leaving the steady, solid headlights on. The last thing I needed was some sort of strobe illusion making me think I was seeing something that wasn’t there.
The rain started up again, more than a few drops this time, making silver lines in the high beams and blurring the windshield. I cursed and flipped the wipers on, and would have turned around then, DUI or no DUI, if there’d been a space wide enough to maneuver the car. But there wasn’t. Even if there had been, the hillside I’d been creeping along for the last five minutes or so seemed to drop into some sort of black hole of a canyon to my right, and I didn’t want to take the chance of sliding the cruiser off into it, never to be found again. Even if no one would miss me if I did. Not Linda, for damned sure. Not Dad and Carol, either. Dad hadn’t missed me for years, and I’d long since finished being Carol’s responsibility, thank God. Not anyone.
Why was I on this road to nowhere again?
Right. I was trying to catch a probable crazy person who’d most likely already skidded off into the canyon herself. The dirt under my tires was turning into something resembling a slip ‘n slide, and the track was getting narrower and narrower, and more and more overgrown, although I wasn’t sure that wasn’t just my paranoia making me think so.
I could have reached out and touched the barren rocky hillside through the driver’s side window, and on my right the cliff dropped away into darkness. Someone’d had a heck of a time blasting this road out of the hill. I edged around yet another curve, hoping for a spot wide enough to turn around and go, well, if not home, then at least back to Omak.
Less than twenty feet ahead of me, a cluster of weirdly flickering lights wavered across the road like giant fireflies in the woods, except we don’t have fireflies here. Not flashlights, the light was too yellow. And were those people? Vague shadows, and I couldn’t tell if they were moving or not. My gut made me slam on the brakes even though I knew better. Not that it did any good. The Vic squirted across the mud as if I’d hit the gas instead. I heard someone scream, even through the rolled-up windows. I steered into the skid trying to regain control, but I might as well have yanked the steering wheel loose for all the good it did me.
The very last thing I remember was seeing one of those damned orange larches careening through the windshield straight at me.
The voices came at me from a long way off at first. Lots of voices, all different, male and female, old and young. All saying the same thing, and getting louder and closer with each anxious question.
“Doc Amy? Is he all right?”
“Doc Amy? How bad is he hurt?”
“Is he going to die, Doc Amy?”
That one got my attention, in spite of my head feeling like somebody’d hit it with a two by four. Be careful what you wish for, was all I could think. Not that I’d really wanted to die. Not right then, and not like that, at any rate.
“No, he’s not going to die, you fool.” Or maybe not, since it apparently hadn’t worked. Maybe I hadn’t asked directly enough. Or hadn’t had the guts to. But the voice, young and female, made me – I wouldn’t go so far as to say glad, but still – I hadn’t died. And she sounded like she knew what she was talking about. Reassuring. In charge. So maybe I had a second chance. I was vaguely surprised to realize I wanted one. “Go on, all of you. Get out. Now.”
A sound of shuffling, like shoes on a wooden floor, and abruptly the room became much more quiet. The room? Apparently. And, yes, a bed. A very soft, very comfortable bed, now that I noticed it. Not at all like the rock of a mattress in my furnished apartment in Omak.
“I know you’re in there, darn you. Wake up before I shake you.” Her voice sounded angry. “I’m going to murder Audrey for this. She had no right –” A warm damp cloth swiped gently at my face. A sweet scent reached my nose. I felt like I should know that scent, but I couldn’t place it.
I was trying, honest I was, but somehow I just knew if I opened my eyes my head was going to fall off and roll across the floor, and I was pretty sure I needed it to stay on my shoulders.
“You’re not hurt that bad. You can’t be. You weren’t going fast enough to hurt yourself that bad.”
“Fast,” I said. Or tried to say. She didn’t answer, so maybe she couldn’t hear me. I wanted to reach up and hold my head, keep it from falling off, but then a pair of hands did it for me. Small hands, but strong, holding my head steady and still. I took a breath to try again, but she beat me to it.
“Don’t jerk yourself around like that. I’m pretty sure you didn’t do any damage to your neck or your spine, but I’d just as soon not find out the hard way.” The hands tightened, just a bit. Secure. Good.
“What?!” The hands flinched against my skin, but held steady. “Did you just say what I thought you said?”
I tried again. It came out louder this time. “Thank you.”
“Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.” Her tone changed utterly. I could hear her breathing now, almost gasping. “You’re alive. Okay, I knew you were alive, but I mean you’re really alive, not just lying there doing nothing but breathing.” She was talking really, really fast now, but her hands still held me like a rock. “Oh, gosh. Okay, okay. Can you open your eyes for me? Please? I’d give anything if you’d just open your eyes.”
She didn’t know how much she was asking for, but I’d have given her just about anything right then, she seemed to want it so badly. To want something from me, even if all she wanted was for me to be alive. It was more than anyone else had wanted in a long time. I took a deep breath, and pushed as hard as I could to get my eyes open.
The first thing I saw was her eyes, so close I could see the wide black pupils in pools of bright blue. Beautiful eyes, surrounded by golden yellow lashes, in the dark room lit only by a pale glow coming from beside us. They widened even further as I watched, mesmerized.
“Omigosh, omigosh, omigosh,” she chanted. Then, loudly enough to bounce off the inside of my skull, “Audrey, you numskull, you didn’t kill him!”
Another voice at the door. Not one of the others; it sounded older somehow. “I know that, Amy dear.” I had a mental flash of silver hair in a red truck, the one that had gotten me into this mess. Was this Audrey the culprit? If so, I was in no shape to do anything about it. One of – Amy’s? – hands loosened its grip and her thumb smoothed across my forehead. I wished she’d do it again, but I didn’t want to interrupt to ask.
“No, you didn’t.” Her blue eyes never left my face.
“You have no faith, dear.” The voice sounded amused.
“Maybe not, but that’s beside the point. Did you get the liniment? Set it here where I can reach it.”
“Yes, here it is.” Amy – Doc Amy? – settled back, her hands slipping away from me.
“Hold. Head.” It was going to fall off if she didn’t, I just knew it. Besides, my skin felt cold where her hands had been. I gritted my teeth against the throbbing, which I’d managed to forget for a few precious minutes.
The older woman – Audrey – chuckled.
“Please go get some more cloths for me,” Amy said. She sounded exasperated.
I heard footsteps leaving the room, but Amy didn’t put her hands back on my head. Instead she disappeared from my field of vision for a moment, then came back with another damp cloth. This one smelled sharply of something herbal. She put it on my forehead, right over the place where the throbbing came from. How did she know?
I probably had a lump there the size of my fist. It sure felt like it, but it didn’t matter. The throbbing backed off, just a little. I closed my eyes again, suddenly exhausted.
“Wore you out, did I?” Her exasperation had faded into amusement. The cloth came and went, along with her small, strong hands. My head began to feel a bit more like it was going to stay fastened to my neck. I gave up, and let myself fall back into the darkness of wherever I’d been.
* * *
The next time I woke up was because I was starving to death and something smelled fantastic. I opened my eyes and promptly closed them again. The candle was gone. The window, which I hadn’t even realized existed last night, had its curtains thrown wide open, and the sun was bright enough to scald me to the very backs of my eyeballs.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” said Doc Amy. Whatever it was that smelled so good came closer, and it wasn’t just the food or the herbal stuff. I think it was her. “Open your eyes again and I’ll give you some of Audrey’s soup. She’s the best cook in town, and that’s saying something.”
“Bright,” I said, hoping she’d get the point.
“What? Oh.” The bowl went down on the table with a soft thump and a moment later I could hear fabric swish. I opened my eyes again, a bit more cautiously, but the curtain was closed and the light wasn’t quite so blinding. “That better?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She smiled. “You’re quite the gentleman, aren’t you? No, here, let me help you sit up. You shouldn’t be jolting yourself around like that.”
I had to agree with her, even though I didn’t like it much. I let her prop me up with pillows and got my first good look at my doctor.
She was tiny. I wouldn’t believe she was five feet tall without proof. She had pale blonde hair drawn back in a messy ponytail draping halfway down her back, the blue eyes I’d seen before now full of mischief, and pink cheeks from the exertion of manhandling me. She sat down in the straight chair beside my bed and picked up the bowl. “You’re in for a treat. Audrey’s minestrone is to die for. Although I’m glad you didn’t.” Her smile widened and she held up a spoonful.
I reached for the spoon, only to realize for the first time that my right hand was bandaged. I tried to lift it and decided that was a bad idea. “How?”
She shook her head. I don’t know if she misunderstood me, or didn’t want to answer me. “Just open up. I’ll make sure it ends up in your mouth and not down your front.”
Hunger won out over curiosity, and like a little kid, I opened my mouth and let her feed me. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in days. She was right about whoever this Audrey person was and her ability to cook. The soup was incredible, rich and delicious.
Amy kept spooning it down me until the bowl was empty, and even wiped my mouth for me. I shook my head again, then waited for all the loose pieces to settle back into place. I was making a hell of an impression. Not that it mattered. Not that I could do anything about it, either.
“You’re still hurting, aren’t you? Well, after the bang-up you went through, I’m not surprised. I wish I had something stronger to give you for it, but I think we can risk some willow bark now that you’ve got something in your stomach.”
She reached over to the small table and set the bowl down, then picked up a cup full of dark liquid that didn’t smell so good.
Her smile turned wry. Even through the pain in my head and knowing her expression was an apology for wanting me to drink that stuff, her smile made my breath catch. She didn’t look old enough to be anyone’s doctor, and she was way too pretty for the job.
She brought the cup to my lips. The liquid touched them, and I touched my tongue to it. “Ugh,” I told her, pulling back. “Disgusting.”
“Yes, I know. Drink it anyway. It’s better than nothing for the pain.”
“Aspirin?” I asked hopefully, but she shook her head.
“Sort of. Same active ingredient, anyway.” She brought the cup to my lips again and tilted it slightly. “Open up. Get it over with and I’ll give you a peppermint to chase it.”
Great. She really did think I was a kid. I took a breath, gave her a dirty look, which she responded to with a shrug, and opened my mouth.
God, that stuff was evil. I don’t even begin to know how to describe it.
Amy laughed. “You should see your face.” She unwrapped the peppermint she’d promised and I reached for it with my left hand. I managed to get it to my mouth without dropping it, and let the mint explode over my tongue.
“Yeah,” I mumbled around the candy.
“I think you’ve had enough excitement for now. Let’s get you back down.”
After I was horizontal again, I watched her as she puttered around the room, gathering dishes and clothes. At last she turned to me. “I need to get some more arnica for your bump. You just rest.” She chuckled. “And if you’re good I’ll bring you another peppermint.”
I was still trying to think of something to say to that when she left the room.
* * *
She hadn’t been gone long when another head poked around the door. This one was much older and grayer. And taller. And familiar, somehow. As if I should have known her, but didn’t. Audrey?
She didn’t come in. As a matter of fact, as soon as she noticed I was awake, before I could say her name, her eyes popped wide and she disappeared.
The next thing I knew, the window was full of faces. I couldn’t see them clearly through the lace curtain, but their eyes were as wide as Audrey’s and they shuffled and bumped for room at the glass as if I was the strangest thing they’d ever seen. I dragged the covers up with my good hand, wishing for thicker curtains. One of them knocked against the window frame just as Amy came back into the room. She sighed and set down the bottle and cloth she was carrying.
“Just a minute, while I chase the gawkers off again.”
“Wait.” I don’t know why I said that. “Again?” And managed a complete sentence. “Why are they staring at me?”
She shrugged. “You’re a stranger. We don’t get many new faces in town.” She went to the window, threw back the curtains and shoved the sash up, but in the few seconds it took her to do it, the crowd had scattered. She pulled the window back down and twitched the curtain back into place.
“Where am I?” God knows it had taken me long enough to realize I had questions to ask, but suddenly I was boiling with them. “What happened to me? Where’s my car? Where’s my radio? I need my phone.”
“Shh…” She came back over to the bed and sat down. “It’s not good for you to be agitated while you’re recovering from a concussion.”
She was probably right. My head was pounding again, but at that point it was the least of my worries. “I won’t be agitated if you answer my questions.” You’d think that would be obvious.
She looked me over, then sat silently, as if trying to figure out what to say. I didn’t want her figuring out what to say. I just wanted her to tell me. I repeated the one question that mattered the most. “Where am I?”
“What do you remember?”
“Oh, no.” She wasn’t going to get away with that one. What was she, a damned defense lawyer? “ You tell me.”
A voice came from out in the hall. “Doc Amy?”
She stood. I reached for her with my left hand, but she slipped away from me. She looked – relieved? Why, dammit? “Yes, Audrey, I’ll be right there.” She looked down at me with, was that regret in her eyes? Regret for what? She’d saved my life. “I’m sorry. I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Wait a minute.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.” And she was out the door and gone. Again.
I had to get out of this damned bed. I lifted the covers with my left hand, and realized for the first time that I was almost naked. Someone – who? – had undressed me down to my t-shirt and briefs. I could see my uniform, in a neatly-folded pile on the dresser across the room, my boots lined up side by side next to it. I had to get dressed, get out of this room, find out what was going on, get hold of my phone, call the station, find out what happened to the cruiser.
I couldn’t remember anything after that tree looming closer and closer, the Vic sliding down the hill…
After that, everything was a blank. Till I woke up here. Surely that pipsqueak of a doctor, who didn’t look old enough to be a doctor, hadn’t pulled me out of the car all by her lonesome.
Obviously, at least some of those gawkers, as she’d called them, had helped. They had to know as much as she did.
I sat up and swung my feet around, and nearly passed out as the world swayed around me like I was on the swing ride at the Puyallup Fair. I grabbed the edge of the little table to keep from falling over, and nearly knocked both it and me to the floor.
“What are you doing, you young fool?” This voice was appalled, baritone, and belonged to a steel-haired man in a flannel shirt, jeans, and boots standing in the doorway. Despite the hair, he wasn’t someone I’d have wanted to take on in a fight even before the accident.
He strode into the room, over to me, and pushed me unceremoniously, if gently, back down into the bed. He swung my feet back up for me before I could do it myself, and in a few swift motions tucked the covers so tightly around me that I couldn’t have moved if I’d tried.
“And stay there,” he thundered, turned, and strode right back out before I could say anything.
I lay still. My head was churning, my brain sloshing about in its casing as if someone had stirred it to mush. I couldn’t move. I was a prisoner. How was I supposed to escape?
* * *
After a bit, as the pounding in my head began to recede slightly, other aches began to make themselves known. I tried to ignore them as I worked my shoulders free of the covers that probably weren’t tight enough to choke me even if they felt like they were. I had just managed to get my good hand free when Amy showed back up.
She immediately came over and yanked the covers loose. “I’m sorry. Rob tends to take his duties a bit too seriously.”
“What are his duties? Keeping me prisoner? Are you going to tell me where the hell I am or not?”
She looked at me as if I’d let loose with a whole string of profanities a lot worse than one simple hell. The disapproval fairly shimmered off her. Funny, I wouldn’t have pegged her for a prude, and maybe I’d misled her when I first woke up, but I hadn’t been clearheaded enough to be angry then.
When she didn’t stop glaring at me, I said, “Excuse my French. But I think I’ve got more right to be pis– ticked at you than you do at me right now.”
She still looked like she had a stick up her butt. “I apologized for Rob’s behavior.”
“I couldn’t care less about that. Why won’t you tell me where the–” at this point I couldn’t have thought of a profanity strong enough, anyway “–where I am?”
Her expression faded from annoyance to frustration. Frustration? “Because I don’t know.”
That was the last thing I’d expected her to say. “You don’t know?”
She looked to the ceiling as if she’d find the answers I wanted written there. After all this time flat on my back, I could tell her they weren’t. After a moment, she brought her gaze back to me. “No.” After another moment, she said, “I can tell you what happened to you last night, if it’s any consolation.”
It was a start. If I could just get her talking, I’d get the rest of it out of her. How could she not know where we were? “Go on.”
“You ran your police car off the road.” She hesitated.
“I figured that much.”
“The car is totaled, I’m afraid. You were going far too fast for the conditions and the slope is steep and rocky. Audrey says–” She stopped again.
I prompted her. “What does Audrey say?”
“Audrey said you were driving as if you didn’t care if you lived or died.”
“I was chasing someone who obviously didn’t care if – was that your Audrey? What was her problem? Didn’t she know she could have killed herself? Or somebody else?” Focus, Reilly, I thought. “Never mind. Go on.”
“It took a while to get you out of the car.” Her baby blues darkened, apparently at the memory. “You stopped breathing twice. I thought you were going to die before we could even bring you here. You have no idea how glad I was to see you open your eyes in the wee hours this morning. I was beginning to think you never would.”
That was all very sweet, but beside the point. “The car?”
“It’s still down in the canyon. The men say it’s down there for good.”
“For good?” I sat up, ignoring the clashing in my head. “My radio’s down there! My phone! Not to mention how pis– angry the captain’s going to be when she finds out.” I took a breath. “Wait. Maybe someone found my phone. I had it in my pocket, but it’s gone now. Hand me my jacket. It could be there.”
“Phone? In your pocket?” The look of bafflement on her face would have been funny under other circumstances.
“You know. My cell phone. Don’t you have one? Everybody should, in case of emergency. Although it’s not doing me much good now, dammit.” When she continued to stare at me, I added impatiently, “Sorry. If you’re not going to let me get up and get dressed, could you at least let me go through my pockets?”
Silently she rose and brought me my uniform, shoes and all. I picked the trousers up with my good hand and shook them. Nothing fell out. Frustrated, I said, “Could you please hold them for me while I check them?” Frowning, she did as I asked.
With her help, I went through every single pocket in my uniform, starting with my trousers, which is where the stupid phone should have been. Everything else was there. My badge and my wallet in my trouser pockets, the pen in the pocket protector in the chest pocket of my shirt. But no cell phone. Not anywhere.
“It must have fallen out. I need to go look for it.”
“You aren’t in any shape to go tromping around down in that canyon,” she said firmly, her hand on my chest. It was warm and a little bit rough through my t-shirt.
“I need that phone,” I told her right back. “I wrecked a patrol car. I haven’t reported in. They’ve got no clue where I am so they’re going to be searching everywhere but here. How many miles off the highway is this place, anyway?”
She gave me an evasive look. “I’m not sure, exactly.”
“A ballpark figure, then,” I said impatiently.
“I, um, I’ll go set the men to looking for your – phone.” She gave me a look I couldn’t quite interpret. “If you’ll tell me what it looks like.”
“It’s your basic iPhone. Nothing fancy.”
I stared at her. “Just how long have you been out in the back of beyond?”
She pursed her lips at me. “Just give me a description so they’ll know what they’re looking for.”
“It’s about the size of a deck of cards, with a screen. They’ll know it when they see it. Trust me.”
“All right.” She jumped up. I’ll let them know.”
“I’ll be back in a minute. I promise.”
And she ran off. Again.