Chapter One

My hands gripped the steering wheel as I drove in a trance. Where I was going, I had no idea. All I knew was that I had to get away.

The distortions of darkness rushed past me as the haze of taillights in the distance glowed like embers in the night. My whole body was stiff, and a persistent ache radiated throughout my lower back. The hours had blended into a blur of gas stations, motel rooms and prepackaged food hastily bought in convenience stores. It all tasted the same, bland and dry, nothing more than a weight to hold down the emptiness clawing around inside.  

On the passenger seat, my phone flashed its eager blue light once more. Dozens of missed calls, text messages and voicemail alerts littered the screen. All from John. Reaching over, I turned it off, the thought of listening to them filled me with dread.

What I had done was extreme, but like a wild animal stuck in a trap, I knew the only way to survive was to relinquish a limb. It was the last frantic vestige of my attempt to keep on living, despite there being nothing left to live for. I was hollowed out. Only tender bruised bone remained as I followed the endless white line of the highway.

Sometime during the night, I crossed through Washington, the tip of Idaho and into Montana. As if breathing a deep sigh, the road had stilled its incessant movement; only the occasional passing car slipped by my rearview mirror. I wondered what stories these people carried with them as they drifted past me, encapsulated in their own silent confinement, their bodies bathed in the soft glow of console lights. Were they returning from a long journey? Driving desperately to a lover? Or running from their own misfortune? There was a sense of comfort in knowing I was not the only one traveling through the dark.

The sky was a clear blaze of stars with a sliver of moon hanging shyly in the sky as I pulled off route ninety, and into a sleepy truck-stop town. I spotted a small, neglected looking motel ahead, the once optimistic neon vacancy sign now like a faded beacon to weary travelers.

Stepping out of the car and into the balmy warmth of the late July night, I made my way into the muted light of the lobby with its threadbare carpet and racks of dusty tourist brochures. The smell of stale coffee and cleaning solution hit me as I pushed a button on the worn wood of the counter and watched a silent glow appear beneath my finger.

“Looking for a room?”

A brisk voice startled me, and a woman emerged from the back, her grey hair pulled into a tight bun.

I nodded as the weight of the road settled over my body, a heaviness that spoke of all the miles that stretched between me and the life I had left behind.

                                    

Through the cracks of the metal blinds, slanted beams of morning light filtered into the motel room, stirring me from another restless sleep. The distant rush of the freeway was a comforting hum as I rolled over in bed and stared up at the fractures that crisscrossed the ceiling like a faded road map. Adrift on a churning sea of emotion too heavy to hold any longer, I attempted to take stock of what was left to cling to in my life. I knew I needed to call John, to at least tell him I was okay, but I couldn’t yet summon the strength to do so.

I quickly dressed, and gathered my clothes and toiletries, throwing them into my duffle bag. The pull to keep moving was like a persistent force, compelling me forward without thought.

Throwing my bag into the front seat, my eyes glanced at my car, which was now covered in a fine layer of dirt and grime from the road. I ran my hand across the roof, my heart clenching as I remembered how Caleb used to draw pictures on the car whenever we got back from camping, his tiny finger trailing lines through the dust.

I shook the image from my mind, pushing away the memories that threatened to flood me and all the emotions I did not have the strength to sit beside. Sliding into the driver’s seat, I turned the key in the ignition, and drove back out onto the safe, enveloping silence of the road.

The sky was a slash of blue against the outline of the Rocky Mountains, which towered in the distance. The lush green landscape of forest leveled out to an expanse of prairie as I approached Missoula and pulled off onto an exit, following the gentle curve that hugged the open pastures.

Parking along the side of the road, I stepped out as the warm breeze of an early summer’s day blew across me, kissing my skin, and teasing my hair. The endless stretch of whispering grass tugged at the tight spaces within me, and for a moment I could suddenly breathe again.

With my phone clutched in my hand, I took a deep breath, gathered my resolve, and dialed John. He picked up after one ring, his voice strained.

“Where are you, Lara?”

“I’m okay, John.”

“Yes, but where are you?” Through his cold, clipped words, a controlled anger radiated through the phone like a palpable force.

I cringed and closed my eyes, trying to gather my thoughts and still the racing of my heart. “I’m in Montana.”

A moment of tense silence echoed on the other end before John finally spoke. “What the fuck are you doing in Montana?”

“I think you know the answer to that.”

“No…I’m sorry. I don’t know why you’re in Montana.” His voice dripped with thick sarcasm. “You just disappeared in the middle of the night. No note. Nothing.”

A trembling sigh escaped my lips. “I’m sorry. I just had to get away.”

“Clearly.”

The heavy pause between us reminded me of every other time we had attempted communication, struggling to pry down the walls of self-preservation we had built around ourselves. We had both stopped trying years ago.

“When are you coming home?”

I stared up into the vast expanse of turquoise sky, watching as a flock of birds ascended from a tree, the graceful arc of their movements like the gentle promise of a freedom whispering to me.

“I’m not.”

“What the hell do you mean?”

“I’m not coming home.”

A sound of rustling on John’s end was followed by a loud crash of something breaking. “What the hell are you talking about?’

Tears leaked from my eyes, running a hot trail down my cheeks. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this anymore.”

An abrupt silence filled my ear, and I realized that John had hung up. I stared at my hand, clenching the phone as I sank down onto the grass, allowing the tendrils of grief to slip out of their locked cage for a moment and entwine around me.

At some point, I found myself back in the car. My shaking hands clutched the wheel as I continued down the country road, passing a faded sign that read ‘Stevensville.’

 I stopped at the first gas station I saw, a tiny pit stop consisting of two pumps and a quaint looking general store. Parking alongside one of the pumps to fill up, I made my way over to the store and stepped inside, slipping into the flickering fluorescent light of the cramped and airless bathroom.

My bloodshot eyes stared back at me, blurred by the opaque mirror, my hair tousled and stuck to my cheeks from dried tears. What was I doing? I had finally found the strength to rip through the suffocating strands of my marriage, and I was now standing untethered in a landscape foreign and immense.

Turning on the tap, I let the cool water run through my cupped palms before splashing it against my face, willing the delicate filaments of my composure to return.

I weaved through the aisles of the store as I headed back to my car, my gaze falling upon a flyer tacked to a faded wooden bulletin board next to the door.

Seeking live-in equine assistance/light caregiving duties. No experience necessary.

On impulse, I found my fingers plucking free one of the numbers provided on the bottom of the paper and slipped it into my pants pocket.

                                                           ********

Sitting amidst the surrounding murmur of a small dimly lit diner, I gazed out at the tall waving grass of the prairie stretched beyond the window. This open countryside was such a soothing contrast to the enveloping density of the Northern California coastal forest. I had spent my whole life among fog and ferns, and I welcomed this change in scenery. There were no sharp edges to crash into, only limitless beckoning space.

I rested my back against the worn booth, the material cracked and faded from years of bodies sliding against the vinyl surface. My hands curled around the consoling warmth of a cup of coffee as I waited for someone named Miriam. The cheerful voice I had spoken with over the phone an hour ago in response to the ad had requested we meet here.

Why I had been compelled to call that number on the paper eluded me. I had no experience working with horses, and the only caregiving I had done was sitting beside a bed, holding my mother’s hand within the bare, white walls of a nursing home. But I felt a pull to explore the possibility of this place, and the thought of something so vastly different from the life I had been living was strangely comforting.

I glanced over at the customers who sat around me. Salt of the earth people, with dusty boots and worn cowboy hats. The jingle of the door drew my attention over to a tall woman walking in. Her thick, dark brown hair accentuated with strands of grey that caught the light, was twisted into a loose braid slung over her shoulder. She immediately strode toward me, her gait long and purposeful.

“I’m Miriam, and you must be Lara?” She thrust her hand out and enfolded mine in a strong grip, her eyes twinkling as she smiled down at me. I imagined she was the type who laughed loudly and often.

“How did you know it was me?”

Miriam chuckled as she slid into the booth across from me and signaled to the waitress for a cup of coffee. “It’s a small town, hun. A new face sticks out around here.”

I nodded with a smile that felt strained.

“So, what brings you to Montana, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Shrugging, I gazed down at my coffee for a moment as if the dark contents of the liquid held the answers. “Just passing through, I guess. Looking for a fresh start.” I nodded toward the view. “It’s so peaceful here.”

“Yes, it is.” Miriam sighed, looking out the window. “This place can shake your soul free.”

I sighed, and folded my arms on the table, leaning in closer to her. “I think I could really use some of that right now.”

Miriam regarded me with a warmth in her eyes. “Well, you’ve come to the right place, then.”

I gripped my coffee as sunlight filtered in through the window, exposing the harsh state of my nails which had been worn down to painful slivers by my excessive picking. I quickly slipped them onto my lap as a plump older woman with a ruddy complexion breezed by our table, sliding a cup of coffee over to Miriam.

“Thanks, Mary,” Miriam said with a wink before her gaze fell back on me. “So, let me tell you a little about the position. It’s on my brother’s property. He’s disabled and will need some mild assistance, mainly help with grocery shopping. He also owns horses, so the bulk of your duties would involve helping him out in the barn, just basic grooming, and maintenance care. In exchange, you’ll be provided the cottage on the property to stay in.” She raised her eyebrow at me as she leaned back against the booth, appearing to take me in for a moment. “Is this something you think you’d be interested in?”

“Yes, I think so.” A faint glimmer of hope fluttered inside me, pushing through the tangled, bleak footpath of my mind.

“Great.” Miriam said, flashing me a big smile. “I just got married, and we’ll be moving to the East Coast by the end of this month. I’m hoping to get all this squared away before then. But the cottage is available now if you want it. All I’m really going to require from you is a background check.”

“That sounds good. I’m able to start anytime.” The words spilled from my mouth without hesitation. The idea of my own quiet place, among the backdrop of mountains and prairie, tugged at me with a convincing force and filled me with a sense of relief.

 “Well, if you’re free right now, I can take you on over to my brother’s property. It’s just a few miles down the road from here. I can show you around, and you can meet Peter.”

“Okay.” I shifted in my seat to grab my purse when I suddenly felt the warmth of Miriam’s hand on mine.

“I have a good feeling about you, Lara, and I think the two of you will get along well. Peter can be a little gruff at times, but underneath it all, he’s such a gentle soul.” Her eyes grew sorrowful. “Things have just been really hard for him, ever since his accident.”

“His accident?” I posed my question hesitantly, not wanting to come across as prying.

Miriam squeezed my hand briefly before letting go. “Yes. Peter lost his sight about five years ago.”

“Oh… I’m so sorry to hear that.” I was all too familiar with the swift change of course that loss could bring, and a swell of empathy washed through me.

Miriam waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing my concern. “He doesn’t take too well to sympathy, and he is extremely independent, so he won’t need much from you, really.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “I think this arrangement is more for me. I’ve been the one staying with him for the past four years, and I just want to make sure someone is looking out for him when I’m gone. He tends to isolate.”

I nodded, while a voice in the back of my mind wondered how much help I could possibly be to anyone, given my current emotional state. Was this really a good idea? But I had relinquished the oars to my boat when I left California, and I was now adrift in unknown waters, leaving me with a strange feeling of buoyancy.

Pulling out some bills from her pocket, Miriam set them down on the table. “Shall we head out, then?”

I nodded and slid myself out of the booth to follow Miriam as she sauntered out of the diner, throwing friendly comments to the locals as she passed. The small-town jocularity that surrounded the restaurant reminded me of an odd assortment of family all gathered for the holidays. It filled me with a sense of warmth and a sudden longing as I realized how isolated I had become in my own life. What would it feel like to be a part of something again? To belong to a community that welcomed you with the ease of collective familiarity.

Settling back into my car, the breeze from the open window blew against my skin like a warm caress as I trailed Miriam’s truck. Sepia painted fields slipped past my view while we drove down the quiet stretch of sun-baked road, the imposing mountain range cradling the horizon, beckoning me with a whisper toward something undefined.