Drama Fiction Contemporary

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

Ashley paused at the top of the steps and leaned forward, pressing her palms to her thighs as she exhaled a steamy breath in the cool morning air. She gazed across the parking lot and couldn’t help noticing a pair of men standing next to a sleek black sedan. Dressed in matching floral print shirts, they stood side by side with their arms around each other’s shoulders, posing for selfies against a backdrop of blue sky and puffy white clouds. It came as no surprise to Ashley. After all, the city’s awe-inspiring beauty had been her chief motivation for leasing a luxury apartment in North Beach.

Tourists, she thought, Love struck tourists.

Ashley huffed, wincing as she stood up. The muscles along the back of her thigh still ached, and she had some residual bruising from a hamstring injury. It felt good to pull a hoodie over her tank top and leggings and get moving again. She’d looked on the Internet at pictures of urban jogging routes and was convinced this Coit Tower run was the best workout in the city.

While recovering, she’d used part of the time to thoroughly clean her apartment. She had vacuumed and dusted, and mopped the kitchen floor, making sure to clean the large window overlooking the bay. She’d even emptied the dishwasher and put everything away. The place had been spotless. But even then, she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it that way.

After a moment, one of the men turned and looked in her direction. She was used to people gawking as she ran by, but there was something different about this man’s gaze.

It was with a lingering feeling of uneasiness that she set off, running back down to Columbus Avenue where she hoped to grab an espresso. The busy neighborhood embodied everything she loved about San Francisco. There were restaurants, boutiques, and live music venues staffed with young progressive types. In fact, her favorite barista at the coffee shop was a pierced, tattooed man with dreadlocks and a sort of punk sensibility.

The spires of Saints Peter and Paul church seemed to push above the rooftops as Ashley trotted down the stairs to the sidewalk. She brushed an errant strand of hair from her face and studied the building across the street, recalling the apartment where she and her sister had spent Sunday afternoons with their grandmother. The memories came back of the times when they sat at the kitchen table, listening to stories about the Summer of Love. Grandma’s eyes had glistened whenever she reminisced about her experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, psychedelic music, and the free-love scene in the Haight-Ashbury district.

Ten years ago, their grandmother had moved down to the first floor, but kept the flat fully furnished and sublet it. When the girls graduated from college, the place had been empty, and Grandma insisted the twins take it for themselves. As young women in their twenties, they were inseparable, sharing everything—clothes, makeup, and occasionally their unsuspecting boyfriends. But things were very different then.

Crunch. Her foot landed on a defenseless snail. It had rained the night before, but now the streets were beginning to dry. It was also trash day on Filbert Street and absent from the steep hillside was the vast array of cars parked side by side along the curb. Ashley was planning to get an early start on the three-day weekend, and with the traffic being lighter than usual for a Friday, she took the opportunity to run in the street. She crossed the thoroughfare at Grant Avenue, keeping her eyes on the park at Washington Square. Suddenly, she became aware of a sound coming from the pavement behind her. The hiss of wet asphalt beneath the tires of a slow-moving vehicle grew louder as it approached.

Ashley glanced to her left and wondered why the driver didn’t accelerate and go around. There was plenty of room and the car could have passed. Instead, the driver steered it alongside her, impeding the lane as she hugged the curb. She could feel heat belching from beneath the right front fender. It made her feel uncomfortable, and now a twinge of anxiety surged through her veins. She clenched her fists and let out a huff, slowing her pace to walk. “What the fuck, asshole?” she shouted, her heart racing as the car rolled by. “Are you kidding me?”

The brake lights flashed red and the vehicle jolted to a stop. Ashley recognized it as the black sedan she’d seen in front of Coit Tower when she ran through the parking lot fifteen minutes earlier. At the same time, she spotted a young woman at the crosswalk, hovering over the phone in her hand. In her other hand she held a cardboard sign with wood stake attached. After a few moments, she was joined by a man who appeared to be in his early twenties. He wore denim jeans, hiking boots, and a red flannel shirt with the sleeves turned up. Ashley looked on as they gazed at her, and then the black sedan, watching as it eased forward to the intersection and made a right turn before disappearing around the corner.

The bell chimed when Ashley entered the shop and again when the door closed behind her. A leather sofa and two matching chairs were grouped around a glass coffee table, and against the wall stood a tall bookcase lined with gifts and accessories for coffee lovers. Steam hissed above the quiet chatter of patrons and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the air.

“Good morning, Ash.” the barista called from behind the espresso machine. “Do you want the usual?”

Ashley looked around and furrowed her brow, wondering where the voice had come from. She stepped up to the counter and leaned over, peeking around a display of coffee beans and mugs. “Oh, there you are,” she said, giving him an insolent glance. “What’s so good about it?”

“What?” the barista asked, confused.

“Morning, what’s so good about it? And yes, I’ll have the usual.”

The barista crossed his arms and smirked. “Whoa,” he said. “What’s got into you?”

Her eyes drifted momentarily to his dreadlocks, taking in the long braids that fell below square cut diamond earrings, the colorful One Love t-shirt that covered his muscular chest, and the tattoos on chocolate brown arms that at one time had held her passionately on those cold San Francisco nights. “Nothing, Khari.” she said. “Just a little out of sorts.”

Khari’s off-menu special—free weed with the purchase of a specialty coffee—had made him popular, especially with the women in town. Ashley had known he was a player for as long as she could remember. But it wasn’t until he slept with her sister that she finally woke up and got an apartment on her own. Somehow, they had remained friends, but she’d never gone back to him.

“So, spill it.” he said, preparing her beverage. “You can tell me.”

She huffed a sigh, giving him a wry smile as she pulled a crumpled twenty-dollar bill from her pocket and dropped it on the counter. “I saw something unusual this morning. It’s probably nothing, but I can’t seem to get the image out of my head. This guy was glaring at me. I thought he might be a tourist, so I shrugged it off and finished my run.”

“One large mocha latte,” Khari said. He had a sheepish look on his face when he set the cup on the counter, a look that that told her he was holding something back.

Ashley didn’t respond, but stood there staring, waiting for him to continue. Finally she couldn’t stand it. “I know when there is something on your mind, Khari.” she said. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Khari fidgeted with a business card in the pocket of his apron. “The police were here,” he said, evading her gaze. “They have a warrant for your arrest.”

Ashley sucked her teeth and shrugged, rolling her eyes upward before focusing on him again. “Why are the police looking for me?” she asked, looking around the room. “And, why would they come here?”

“You’re still using my address.”

“Khari, what have you done? What did you tell them about me?”

“Listen,” he said, raising a hand—palm toward her. “They came storming in here, acting like real idiots. They were going to shut me down. I had to—”

“I’ve got to go,” Ashley interrupted, glancing at her watch.

“It’s early. You’ve got lots of time. Sit down.”

“I can’t. I’ve got to go!” she snapped, hurrying out the door with the to-go cup in hand.

There was a damp chill in the air and the sound of fog horns drew her attention to the last few rays of morning sunshine disappearing helplessly into summer fog. She made her way down Columbus Avenue and was almost to the corner when she noticed a black sedan pulling away from the curb. Suddenly she stopped, stiffening as she made eye contact with the driver—a swarthy man wearing a blue floral print shirt. She took a cautious step and then another and after a few steps quickened her pace, trotting across the street toward a group of protesters waving signs and banners. “Coming through!” she cried, pushing into the crowd. “Excuse me. Pardon me.”

Ashley’s apartment was just a brisk five-minute walk from the North Beach coffee shop. She climbed up the steps, looking over her shoulder when she got to the porch. She started to pull out her key, but gasped dramatically when she noticed the door was ajar.

Did I forget to lock the door when I left this morning? Damn, she thought.

Ashley nudged it open and peered inside, listening for sounds of movement as she gazed at the entryway and the narrow flight of stairs leading up to the second floor.

Who had been inside her apartment? Why would anyone want to break in? It could have been her landlord accompanying an electrician, or a plumber doing work in the building. For that matter it could have been Khari. He was the only other person who had a key. After taking a deep breath, she removed her shoes and stepped over the mail which had been delivered through the slot in the door. Beside the small pile of bills and junk mail, Ashley spotted something small and yellow.

Hmm, what's this?

She nudged the item with her foot and bent over, squinting to read the label on a booklet of hemp rolling papers as a few drops of blood dripped on the hardwood floor. “Shit!” she said to herself. “This is really a bad time for a nosebleed.”

Standing up straight, she tilted her head back, gently dabbing her nose as she padded up the stairs to the second floor. At the top, the landing backed into an open living area. Suddenly, she stopped and dropped her shoes, staring in utter disbelief. The apartment had been ransacked. Furniture flipped over, kitchen canisters emptied, drawers turned upside down on the floor. Her overstuffed chair had been slashed open as had the cushions of the leather sofa.

Ashley stood motionless, her gaze fixed on the scene as tears pooled in her crystal blue eyes. She felt like a stranger in her own home. It wasn’t a safe place for her anymore.

She made her way through the debris to the bedroom and packed a large suitcase, dragging her luggage down the stairs—smudging the small amount of blood on the floor. Without looking back she picked up her car keys and purse and walked out, closing the door behind her.

Ashley kept her eyes on the road, occasionally checking the rear view mirror to see if she was being followed. After a while, she spotted a sign for a truck stop. With a sigh of relief, she steered her Tesla toward the off ramp and then down to a stoplight, making a right turn at the intersection before turning into the parking lot. The beams of the car’s headlights flashed across the front of the busy travel center and she pulled up to a row of EV chargers where she noticed a hand-printed cardboard sign that read OUT OF ORDER. In fact, none one of the chargers were working.

Welcome to Albuquerque, she thought.

After sitting for a few minutes, she grabbed her black ball cap and swung open the car door, stepping out under a cloudless, star-filled sky. She put the cap on and pulled her blonde ponytail out the back. It would be daylight soon and she needed to eat while she could. Besides, her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

Gone were the days of dining on bistro-style entrees at the Long Wharf Grill, one of the oldest of San Francisco eateries. The restaurant’s cozy dining room had always made her feel at home. Now she’d have to settle for fast food and bad coffee.

She pulled open the glass door and walked-in, her eyes scanning the store.

“Good morning!” said the woman behind the counter. “Where are you from, honey?”

“Um, Phoenix,” Ashley said distracted, her eyes darting about the room.

“Nah, I know a zonie when I see one and you’re definitely not one of them. You’re from California, no doubt about it. Let me guess. San Diego? Los Angeles? No, wait. Frisco, right? That little black dress, and the leather jacket are a dead giveaway.”

“Alright. You got me. And by the way, it’s San Francisco.”

“What brings you here?” she asked.

“Family. I’m going to visit my sister in Midpoint. I haven’t seen her since our grandmother died, a year ago.”

“Midpoint, huh? That’s on the old road. Not much there anymore. Just a burger joint and a motel. There was a gas station there at one time, but it’s been abandoned since the early seventies. You have any other family on the Panhandle?”

Ashley scanned the room nervously, gazing toward the back of the store. And there, walking out of the restroom, back by the auto supplies and travel accessories, was a heavy-set man sporting a blue floral print shirt. When she spotted him, her eyes widened in fear and a shiver skated up her spine. He seemed to be looking right at her and when her eyes met his, her fear quickly turned to terror.

“Uh, oh. Sorry, I’ve got to go…”

That’s when Ashley turned and walked out through the double glass doors, her mind racing as she hurried out to the car.

I am so fucked, she thought.

She took a short, shallow breath and tried to stay calm, watching for the men in black sedan. The Tesla’s battery wouldn’t last much longer, and in that moment, she didn’t know whether to turn herself in to the police or make a run for it on foot.

Then, as if summoned by her thoughts, a pair of headlights bounced into the parking lot and a work truck made a wide circle, pulling up behind her car. A man in a fluorescent yellow vest jumped out. “Need a charge?” he asked.

"Oh, my God.” she said. “You’re a saint. Yes, I do.”

The man winked and gave her a smile. “Stay put,” he said. “I’ll have you back on the road in less than an hour.”

It was late afternoon when Ashley turned into the driveway and rolled to a stop in front of the roadside diner. The place was a favorite watering hole for the local folks, including her bucolic grandfather. She sat with the car idling for awhile, trying to figure out what she was going to say to him. How could she phrase it so she didn’t sound like she was a fugitive on the run?

She took a sip of water from a plastic bottle and pulled a banded stack of $100 bills from the pink gym bag she kept in the car, rationalizing why she’d traveled halfway across the country. No one would ever think to look for her in Midpoint. The tiny outpost with its rural charm and close-knit community would be the perfect spot to hide.

Ashley switched off the engine, but left the radio on. The music would surely wake her if she should fall asleep. She settled back and closed her eyes, musing as a familiar vision drifted into her mind. Khari. She couldn’t believe the man she’d loved had betrayed her not once, but twice. It was one thing that he’d slept with her sister years ago, but now he’d informed the police that she was embezzling money from white-collar criminals.

Ashley jumped at the tapping on the car window. She blinked and raised her hand, shielding her eyes from the glare of the flashlight.

“Miss,” he was saying. “Miss, you can’t sleep here.”

As she lowered the window, the blurred visage of a county sheriff came into focus. “I—I know. I’m sorry, officer. I must have dozed off.”

He swept the wide brimmed hat from his head and raised a hand, running it through his thick, curly hair. “Well, as I live and breathe. If it isn’t Ashley Marie Cash. What brings you back here?”

Ashley leaned back in her seat, rubbing her tired eyes, pondering her next move. It had been twenty-four hours since she’d fled San Francisco. She had planned everything in advance, ransacking her own apartment and planting the evidence before her morning run. Everything except the blood on the floor. That had been a serendipitous afterthought, making it look like a burglary gone bad.

They’ll say I was a thief, she thought. A thief stealing from thieves. And Khari will be the primary suspect in my disappearance. They’ll assume he killed me for the money. It serves him right. Besides, he ratted me out to the police. That’s on him.

March 28, 2024 04:11

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