It was mid-November when Anna realized that she didn’t have plans for the holidays. She had family, her mom and brother, but she avoided them as much as possible. Last Christmas, she promised her mom that she would start back in the fall, but she had made the same promise many times. She meant it each time, but then life happened and months turned into years, every semester with a different excuse.
She lived above a bar in downtown, where she worked as a bartender four days a week. She was basically the perfect employee, if you didn't count being on time. On her days off she shopped, she had a serious shoe addiction. There were probably 200 pairs, mostly unworn, in her closets. She brunched with casual acquaintances, maintained a perfect mani/pedi, made sure her roots were always platinum, and worked out.
Anna's mom was a worrier, constantly checking in on her love life, work life, hell even her diet. She avoided the calls as much as possible, but her mom still got information from her brother, Jayce.
Jayce was the managing partner in a consulting firm. Something about leadership development. Anytime he talked about it, she tuned him out and made sure to give the cursory nod and, “mhmm”, at all the right junctures. Everytime she spoke to him, he would run back and tell their mother an exaggerated pile of bologna.
“Anna is too thin. She’s not eating.” or “That bar is too dangerous. Anything can happen in that environment.” or her personal favorite, “Anna is too old to be a bartender. When will she grow up?”
Too old? She imagined herself with grey hair and bifocals behind the bar, and made herself laugh. Was 32 too old for bartending? She disagreed. All in all, she earned more money than she could spend. Last year, she bought her dream car, a black on black Range Rover Sport HST. Her apartment was an elevator ride away from her job and could be accessed only by residents, so it was secure. True, she went through some crap to get here, but nevertheless, she was here. The owner of the bar loved her and let her get away with being late to almost every shift because she was "that good". Creeps couldn’t follow her to her car because it was securely parked in the underground garage. She was also creep free on the elevator each night after work. Still, she checked her surroundings. Being careful was a skill she learned the hard way.
Before she moved to the apartment above the bar, she was attacked while walking to her car one night after closing. Two men were waiting in the parking lot behind the building. She saw them and tried to hurry to her car, then a Jeep Grand Cherokee. She pressed the unlock on her key fob, trying to get inside as the men began to sprint toward her.
They took her purse, beat her up pretty badly, and then stole her Jeep. They wrecked it later that night, as she was being admitted to the hospital for observation with a severe concussion and a broken left wrist.
She consoled her mother and brother when they arrived at the hospital, not the other way around. She explained that it could have been a lot worse, even as she was registering the shock of her wounds on their faces. A black eye, busted lip, and a gash on her forehead wasn’t great. But she was alive. Not only that, the police said that the thieves had totaled her Jeep. That meant, she could finally get the Rover. “See, it’s all working out in my favor.” She attempted a laugh but the pounding in her head cut it short.
Not only did Anna upgrade the car and apartment, she upgraded her defense skills. She bought a Smith and Wesson M&P 9mm handgun and took a class for a concealed handgun license. Anna went to the range every month on Ladies Night for target practice. The owner of the range suggested a belt that would conceal her gun close to her abdomen and was virtually undetectable. She wore it everywhere she went, even running. She was determined not to be a victim ever again.
It had been over a year ago that she was attacked, and according to her, she was just fine. Sure, she may be avoiding dating, but there would be plenty of time for that, and besides, all the good men were taken. That was the official line she gave her mom each time she asked if Anna had met someone yet. Not dating was a sure-fire way to roll into the holidays alone and without plans.
Of course, she could go to her mom’s for Christmas. Jayce, his wife, and their son would be there. The model family. He called to invite her several times. The thought of listening to her mother cluck around the kitchen like an old hen was not exactly peace, joy, and goodwill lauded in the carols, though. She had to concede, she was alone this holiday season by design.
Anna’s last day of work for 2021 was on December 23rd. She had vacation days that had to be used before the new year, so like it or not, she would be off work for the holiday. In the elevator on her way up to her apartment, she tried to remember the last time that she was truly happy.
She was content with her life now, but when was she actually happy? It was almost 20 years ago, she remembered. Her dad had taken the family to Angel Fire, New Mexico for winter break. Anna was a seventh grader and Jayce was a freshman, back when they were close. She walked off the elevator and down the corridor to her apartment with a smile on her face. The Angel Fire vacation was the last one that they had taken as a family.
The apartment was spacious, with floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the city. It was close to 4 AM when she made it to her bed, notebook in hand. What would she do with eight days off? She hadn’t had this much time off since she was in the hospital the year before. As she opened the notebook and started to write a to-do list, her mind continuing to drift back to Angel Fire.
I could drive there. I could hike, ski, read, and shop. I am a grown woman. I can go by myself. I don’t need company. The affirmations came one after the other until she opened the map app on her phone and zoomed in on the route to Angel Fire. It was a ten hour drive. She could do that. Now, what about the hotel? There was just one room available at the resort where her family had stayed so long ago. If she booked the room, then she would be committing to the drive. How pathetic is a solo vacation? Who cares? Time out of the city would be good for her.
She woke late as usual the next morning. While packing, she realized that she needed supplies for the impromptu road trip. Snacks, a playlist, plus packing would take awhile. As long as she made it onto the road by noon, she would be fine. The hotel was booked for the next 5 days. Arriving at 10 PM would be no biggie.
She met the goal and was on the road by lunch. She stopped to top off her fuel tank just outside of Dallas. One last stop for a large iced coffee, and she was pedal to the metal. Westward, my girl.
Ten hours lay ahead of non stop driving. She turned on an audiobook and was entranced within minutes. The Range Rover was on cruise control, so she decided to settle in. She kicked her shoes off. Her coat was suffocating. She wrestled it off, without removing her seatbelt mind you, and tossed it into the passenger seat. After a few miles, she felt her gun pressing into her side and removed it from the belt, placing it in the console between the front seats. The peace of the open road filled her mind. The weight of the past year melted away with each passing mile.
It was almost dark as she rolled into Amarillo. She decided to drive through the city and stop at the western edge to use the restroom, refuel, and get another coffee. She had about five more hours to Angel Fire. It was Christmas Eve and the roads were bare. Long stretches in pitch black lay ahead.
She pulled in and put the Rover in park at the pump. She inserted her card to pay for the fill up, but an error message appeared. See cashier. Terrific. The store was deserted. An older woman was walking toward the door with keys in hand. Anna rushed to the door, a pleading look on her face.
“Sorry ma’am, we’re closed.”, the woman said through the door as she turned the key. “We are closing at six today, for the holiday.”
“But, it’s 5:55 right now. Please ma’am. I am out of gas and I have a lot of miles to go.”
“Oh, alright. Hurry it up. Count this as my Christmas spirit for the year.” Turning the key the other way, the woman opened the door with a smile.
“You’re a lifesaver. Thank you so much!”. Anna entered the store quickly and rushed to the restroom. Staring at herself in the mirror, she smiled. She was going to be just fine, she assured herself. She dried her hands, walked to the register, and used her phone to pay for the gas. The woman told her that there wasn’t another station for 100 miles and more than likely, even that one would be closed.
“Thanks to you, I have plenty of fuel now. I will be fine. Have a Happy Holiday!”
Anna walked back to her car to find a man standing behind it, arms crossed and staring at the back bumper. He looked to be over 6’4”, very well built, and dressed in some kind of black and grey camo. Reflexively, she reached for her handgun. Damn it, she left it inside the car. He looked up as she approached, then smiled disarmingly.
“This yours?”, he asked with an accent she couldn’t place. He sounded like New Orleans maybe, or it could be Mississippi.
“Yes, it is.” she replied curtly, so as to discourage conversation.
“Sure is nice. Where are you headed on Christmas Eve?” He apparently didn't get the hint.
“Angel Fire. I best get back on the road, it’s a ways away. Have a good night.” She walked to the driver side door and quickly got inside, then shut and locked the door before he could reply. Her heart pounded in her chest. Something about him was unsettling. She was holding her breath and clenching her jaw. She opened the console, her gun was still where she had left it.
It was nothing. Don’t overreact. She coached herself back to calm. After a few minutes, she smiled. See, I am fine.
Looking into her rearview mirror, she saw the man standing near a lifted Raptor about 20 feet away, still staring in her direction. Fucking creep, she breathed through clenched teeth. She backed out of the station and hit the gas. She wanted to get as far away from this place, and him, as possible. A few miles down the road, it was pitch black. The moon was high and lit the sky just enough for her to see pastures in all directions. She pressed play on the book, willing her mind away from the encounter at the station. She was fine. She was safe inside her car.
The road combined with the audiobook lulled her into a mindless trance. Miles flew past with fields and cows as far as the eye could see. No cars though. There were no lights ahead or behind, no opposing traffic. That was until a fast approaching vehicle with high beams blinded her in the rearview. The lights closed quickly, Anna expecting the car to pass, but it didn’t. As it came closer to her Rover, it slowed to the speed that she was driving and remained there, high beams on.
A sign read, Passing Zone in 3 miles. Good, she thought. She would move to the right so this car could pass on the left. So annoying. As they approached the passing zone, an additional lane opened up. She indicated with the blinker that she would move to the right. Finally, this rude ass car would pass her. But no, instead of passing, the car moved directly behind her in the right lane. She slowed; they slowed. She sped up; they sped up. This was a dangerous game to play out here in the dark, no other cars or houses in sight.
Using voice command, she attempted to call 911. There was no service. Panic set in. Could this be the same person from the station 40 miles back? What did he want? What reason would there be to tailgate on an otherwise open road? She opened the console again, pulling her gun out and bracing for the worst. As her eyes drifted to the gun safety, she saw a flash of brown across the road from her left. She looked up in time to see a doe running towards her Rover. She swerved into the ditch on her right and skidded to a stop. Luckily, she missed the deer and didn’t roll her car.
The car with the bright lights pulled over. From the side mirror she saw the man from the station was walking towards her car, something in his hand. Frantically, she put the car in reverse and hit the gas. The car didn’t move. The ditch was muddy and slick. Mud was flying up onto her car and the road. He was almost to the driver side window. She reached for her gun, but it had fallen into the passenger floor board. She slammed the car into park and leaned her whole body over to retrieve it. When she sat upright in her seat, the man from the station was hulking over her window, so close that she couldn’t open the door if she wanted to. This would be the first time she ever had to pull the gun for protection. She prayed she would never have to use it. Looks like that prayer wasn’t answered.
With her gun in her right hand and visible to the man outside the car, she turned her face to make eye contact with him. His piercing blue eyes were fixed on her face. His mouth bloomed into a wide toothy smile.
“You ok?”, he asked. She didn’t answer. Instead, she glared at him, doing her best not to flinch from the fear growing in her chest. A warm, wet liquid dripped down her temple and onto her cheek. Her fingers confirmed that it was blood.
“It looks like you are hurt. Open the door.”, he said in an authoritative voice.
“I’m fine. Leave me alone.”
“Leave you alone out here bleeding, in a stuck car, with no cell service? No ma’am. I can’t do that.”
“Why are you following me you freak? I swear, I will shoot you.” At that, his eyes drifted to her lap and found the 9MM with her finger on the trigger.
“I am the County Sheriff. Please drop the gun. I followed you because you left your purse at the station back there.” He held up her purse so that she could see it with his left hand as his right hand slowly pushed his vest back, revealing a police issued firearm of his own.
She took her hand from her gun, looking intently at the purse. She looked around the car and realized that, yes, she had taken it into the station and sat it on the sink while she washed her hands.
“If you’re the Sheriff, where’s your uniform and badge?”
“I’m off duty. We don’t get much traffic through here on Christmas Eve, so I took the night off.” His right hand moved away from his gun and into his left inside jacket pocket. He produced a wallet that held his shield and his picture. Carroll Blake. She looked from the badge to his face, yep, it was a match. Her quivering lips broke into a faint smile as she dropped the gun into the floor. She let out a weak laugh, “Carroll?”
He laughed. “I know, I know. My mom had a great sense of humor. What do you say about opening this door so I can look at your head wound? I have a first aid kit in my truck.” Reluctantly, she opened the door and attempted to step out.
“Sit tight. I will get the kit.” He handed her the purse and retrieved the first aid kit. After cleaning the wound, he told her that she would need stitches. He would drive her to the nearest hospital and send a wrecker for the Rover.
She grabbed her purse, and on wobbling knees walked to the passenger side of his truck. He opened the door for her and held her elbow as she stepped in. As they pulled away, the truck doors locked. Suddenly, a heat wave rushed over her. She reached out to lower the window, but it wouldn’t roll down.
“Will you crack the window? I’m feeling sick.” He looked over at her, smiling.
“Just relax. It will be over soon.”, his eyes returning to the road ahead.
“What? What do you mean?”, nausea roiling in her stomach.
Something was very wrong. She patted her belt. No gun. She squeezed her purse. No gun. She had left it in the Rover.
"Are you looking for this?" he asked, holding her gun high in his left hand. Her last thought before she passed out was that she should have just went to her mom's for Christmas.