This story is by Mary Parker Bernard and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sound of her feet hitting the ground echoed from her toes into her ears. The harder she ran, the louder the pounding and the more disoriented she became.
Sharp branches, black and overwhelming, grabbed Jessica’s gray hooded sweatshirt she’d gotten on clearance. She had always been good at finding a bargain, taking advantage of opportunities, and working situations to her benefit so that she could remain in control.
But now, deep in the woods, she was anything but.
Heaving, she stopped, and a sharp, hot pain sliced through her lungs. She panted, sucking in the cool, damp air of dusk. After a few minutes, her breathing slowed to a more normal pace, but her heart still throbbed in her ears.
Jessica glanced around the clearing. Trees were beginning to shed their early-Autumn leaves, but she was grateful for the stragglers that helped her hide and find protection from her demons—both inside and out.
She had walked through this park before. Then, she was with her husband, Brad, listening to yet another empty promise about getting help for his opioid addiction.
As they walked that day, she’d been on the asphalt trail around the perimeter. She had never run beyond the trail like she did today.
But she’d never had a reason to before.
Until earlier this afternoon.
The look on his face said it all. Terrifying, angry. He couldn’t believe what she had done. Before she could explain, she saw his face flare with vengeance. He had started after her.
The only thing she could think to do was run. Run longer, faster, farther. Keep running.
She checked the zipper pouch on the front of her hoodie. The wad of $27,000—all the money she had—was secure. She had cleaned out every account she could get her hands on. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to make a fresh start with a new identity.
As night fell, so did the temperature. Jessica tugged on her hoodie and folded her arms. She brought her knees to her chest and rested her head on them. Ironically, she felt safer alone, and a sense of calm came over her, lulling her to sleep.
Jessica woke with a start. She checked her wristwatch: 3:25. She’d never been more thankful for a piece of analog technology than she was right now. She knew he’d be looking for her, so even in her haste, she had ditched her cell phone, since it would have given away her location.
As she waited on daybreak, she felt the fatigue of the last twenty-four hours weighing heavily behind her eyelids. She had gone to work just like usual on that Friday morning. She ticked back through the day’s events.
If only she could do the day all over again. If she’d called in sick or not gone back to the office after lunch. If only she’d gone home, packed a bag, bought a plane ticket, and gotten away. She’d be halfway to wherever by now, and it would have been easier all the way around.
Instead, she was on the run.
Finally, she noticed streams of sunlight peeking through the branches. Jessica rose to her feet. Her back, legs, and neck cracked in protest after a long night on the ground. Her jeans were heavy and wet. Even without a mirror, she knew her damp, frizzy, shoulder-length hair was a mess, and yesterday’s makeup was likely accentuating the dark circles under her eyes.
Jessica wiped her grimy palms on the sides of her legs. She licked her index fingers and ran them under her eyes. Black smudges of old mascara stained her fingers. She kept wiping until there was no trace. She raked her fingers through the wet tangles on her head.
It will have to do, she thought.
Jessica got her bearings and estimated she could be on the highway in about twenty minutes. She glanced at her watch: 6:50 a.m.
“Perfect,” she whispered and started walking.
“I really appreciate the ride,” Jessica told the petite woman driving the Volvo. “I’m trying to get out of town, and my car is in the shop.” She needed the woman’s sympathy, so the lie was necessary.
“Of course, dear,” the woman said. “You looked quite a sight on the side of the highway. I knew you needed help.”
Jessica saw motherly concern in the woman’s soft, brown eyes. Obviously a professional, she was in her early sixties and was dressed in a navy blazer and khaki pants. With carefully applied makeup, she wore her chestnut hair in a chin-length bob. Shiny white pearls dotted each earlobe.
“Yes. I couldn’t go back home.” Jessica leaned her head on the door’s window and watched as the trees passed outside. She was so close to getting away. “I’m Jessica, by the way. What’s your name?”
“I’m Judy. Judy Long. I’m happy to meet you and glad to help.” A smile lifted her face so that the edges of her eyes crinkled in the corners.
Jessica returned the smile. “Thank you again, Judy.”
Just then Judy slammed on the brakes, jolting the Volvo to a screeching stop and lurching Jessica forward in her seat.
“Darn traffic! I’m sorry,” Judy said, her face flushed in frustration.
Judy’s open briefcase had been sitting on the floor next to Jessica’s feet. With the sudden braking, it toppled over, spilling pens, papers, file folders, and Judy’s laptop onto Jessica’s wet Nikes. Instinctively, Jessica reached down to return the items to the briefcase.
“Oh, no, dear. That’s fine!”
Judy quickly put the car in PARK and leaned over to clean up the floorboard. As she did so, Jessica got a glance at the interior of the briefcase. What she saw was unmistakable. A long metal barrel in a black matte finish, a trigger, and a shorter handle. Jessica’s stomach flip-flopped.
Judy hurriedly zipped the top of the briefcase and put it in the backseat. “Sorry. I should have moved that when you got in so you’d have plenty of room.”
“Oh, no. That’s okay. I’m fine,” Jessica said, hoping Judy didn’t notice the fear in her voice.
The car inched slowly along the highway. The hair standing on the back of her neck told her she needed to get out of the car as soon as possible—one way or another—but she was still several miles from the bus station.
Maybe if she started walking now …
“What is taking so long?” Judy said, voicing Jessica’s frustration.
The women craned their necks, trying to see beyond the brake lights and bumpers lined up in front of them.
“I think I’ll get out now,” Jessica said. “I can probably walk faster.”
“Oh, no. It should be moving along soon enough.” Judy smiled reassuringly.
With the car stopped, Jessica pulled up on the door handle, but it didn’t budge. She looked for an unlock button when the car started to accelerate.
“See? There we go. Traffic’s moving again,” Judy said.
Jessica sank back into her seat and stared ahead. Flashing red and blue lights reflected on the cars’ windshields. Police officers were speaking to each driver, checking licenses, and looking inside.
“It looks like a police roadblock,” Judy observed.
Jessica wondered if she should speak up about the gun in the backseat.
The Volvo crawled to the front of the line.
A police officer with a badge reading “Smith” leaned in to speak with Judy. “Good morning, ma’am. Where are you two ladies heading?”
“I work downtown on 5th Street, and I’m going to drop my friend here at the bus station.”
The officer nodded and looked at Judy then Jessica. “May I see your license and registration?”
Judy reached into her purse, which was next to her briefcase in the back. She pulled out her license and then reached over to the glovebox to find the registration.
Jessica saw her opportunity. She found the unlock button on her door panel, pressed it, flung open the door, and hopped out, yelling, “She’s got a gun!”
Before she could say another word, she heard a booming voice from behind her.
She spun around to find another officer whose badge read “Meyers.”
“Yes!” Hearing her name was instinctively relieving. But, then, almost instantly, panic and confusion confronted her. “Wait. How do you know my name?”
Officer Meyers pushed the radio button on his shoulder and said, “We got her.”
He looked at Jessica. “Jessica Caldwell, you’re under arrest for embezzlement, wire fraud, and identity theft.”
Officer Meyers cuffed Jessica and began reciting the Miranda rights. She looked at Judy who had gotten out of the car and was standing with Officer Smith. She overheard them talking as she was led away to a waiting police car.
“If you hadn’t called when you first saw her walking along the highway, we may have never found her. Thank you, Agent Long.”