The sign said "REST STOP 1 MILE", a little over a hundred more miles to go.
I was thinking how tiresome this drive was becoming. I was on my way back from visiting my mom in Pennsylvania over the spring break and had just crossed the Virginia-North Carolina state line on my way back to school in Chapel Hill. I had driven the route so many times that the beautiful scenery along the Blue Ridge Parkway no longer had much of an impact on me. I just wanted to get back to my apartment and veg for a couple of days before classes started again. I turned into the rest stop to unload some of the coffee I was sipping to keep my eyes open.
It was as crowded as I knew it would be, what with the warm weather and it being a weekend. I parked and headed for the john. There was a line for the women's but fortunately the men's moved much faster. It probably had something to do with men not having anything to say to each other. So I peed and washed and headed back to my car.
I was back on the road and about a mile down the highway when a voice behind me said, "Excuse me."
"Holy shit!" I croaked as I damn near ran off the road trying to turn around to see who was behind me. I swerved back onto the road. "Jeez, Lady, you scared the crap out of me. Who the hell are you?" I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a female with a face that had obviously taken a couple of punches.
"Damn, are you OK?" I started to pull off onto the shoulder.
"No, please don't stop! Please!" She was really freaked out so I pulled back onto the road. "You parked next to our van at the rest stop. When I saw you were alone and that you hadn't lock you car, I thought you'd be my best chance. Please, I need to get away from my husband before he kills me."
My knee-jerk reaction was to check behind me in the side view mirror.
"You better get down on the floor then because I see a van coming up pretty fast about a quarter of a mile back." Every time he passed a car he would slow down and check them out. He did the same when he came up even with me but I just looked strait ahead. After a few seconds, he took off for the next car. A couple of minutes later I saw him turning across the median and coming back our way.
"Stay down! He's coming back." When he passed us going the other way he must have been doing 90. "I'm going to get off the interstate up ahead at the Mount Airy exit and take the old Highway 52."
After I was headed south again, I found a convenient place to pull off onto the shoulder. "OK, Ma'am, you want to come up front and tell me what the hell is going on?"
When she got settled in beside me I could see she had a bad bruise on her left cheek and she was holding a bloody Kleenex to her nose. "Can I ask your name?" Her voice was shaky and she looked like the end of a very hard day.
"Mark. What's yours?"
"Lonnie. Mark, I really feel bad about doing this to you but I was afraid he might kill me. This isn't the first time he's beaten me up but after I told him I was leaving and filing for divorce, he just went nuts. If he hadn't stopped to pee at the rest stop I don't know if I would have survived the day. Please let me ride with you. I left my purse in the van but I've got a little money in my pocket to help pay for gas. Please!"
"Don't worry about the gas. Do you need a doctor? Shouldn't we find a cop and report this."
"No. The last time I went to the police things got even worse. This is just going to be another in a long series of black eyes. I need a place where I can get things sorted out. Can you give me a ride to where ever you're going?"
I thought about it for a while. "OK. Tell you what, Lonnie. I'm a grad student at UNC and I have an apartment off campus where you can hang out until you figure out what you need to do. Will that work for you?"
She was so relieved that she grabbed my hand and kissed it. "Oh, thank you so much, Mark. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help. I promise I won't be any more trouble."
Over the last hour and a half of the drive, I heard the whole sordid story of a very bad marriage to a very abusive husband. An old story, I guess but never less tragic for its frequency. At her request, we stopped at a liquor store along the way and picked up a couple of canned cocktails. She finished the first one off almost immediately and offered me part of the second one.
"No, thanks. I don't drink and besides, I'm driving."
"A college student who doesn't drink? That must be a rarity."
"Not rare at all. I don't have any moral objection to it as long as the user can handle it. It's just that my dad was a heavy boozer and he was really ugly when he was on a tear. The thought of becoming an alcoholic like him scares the hell out of me so I never started."
"You're wise beyond your years and I hope you stay that way."
By the time we were driving through Winston Salem, Lonnie was pretty much calmed down. I could see as she leaned her head back and closed her eyes that, aside from the swelling on the side of her face, she was an attractive woman in her mid 30s. I hoped she would be able to stay out of the sights of that asshole. Nobody should have to live like that.
We pulled in about 8:30 and I showed her into my apartment. She curled up on the couch while I unpacked my bag and put water on for tea. "Are you hungry, Lonnie?"
"Yeah, I haven't eaten today. I could use something light."
"How about if I make us some Spanish omelets with toasted English muffins?"
"Sounds super. Do you like to cook?"
"Yeah, I find it relaxing. You can turn on the tube if you want or I can bring up some music on the I-pod."
"Music, please. Something peaceful and relaxing."
I brought up some Manheim interludes. I think it was exactly what she had in mind because she dozed off and on while I cooked. After dinner, she helped me clean up, then asked if she could use the shower. Her clothes had blood all over them so I gave her an old terry cloth robe and asked her to hand her clothes out so I could put them into the wash with mine. When she came out of the bathroom, I had the couch made up for a bed. I told her she could have my bed but she wouldn't hear of it. "No way, Mark. The couch looks just fine for me."
"Well, OK, if you insist. I'm really beat so I think I'll crash. See you in the morning."
"If you don't mind, I'll stay up and finish the laundry so I'll have something to wear tomorrow. Good night, Mark. And thanks again for saving my butt. Oh, and the rest of me too."
I was up early the next morning but Lonnie was up earlier. I woke up to the smell of coffee. When I walked out of the bedroom headed for the shower, I saw that the blanket, sheets and pillow were all neatly folded and stacked on the couch and the apartment was considerably "neatened up".
"Good morning, Mark. What would you like for breakfast?"
"Morning, Lonnie. Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up. Um, I usually just have some oatmeal with raisins and walnuts, but go ahead and fix whatever you want. Did you sleep OK?"
"Yeah, better than I thought I would. I found some Tylenol in your medicine cabinet. That helped a lot with the pain in my face." She was growing one hell of a shiner.
"Don't you think we should get that checked for fractures?" I asked, gently touching her swollen face.
"No. I've been down this road before, Mark. I can bite down without pain and my teeth fit together the way they're supposed to so I'm pretty sure nothing's broken. But thanks for your concern. Are you needing to be somewhere today? Because if you are, I can find someplace else to hang out for a while."
"Not really. My first class isn't until Tuesday. I think you should stay here until you can work out some plan of action. Do you need to call your lawyer or start some kind of legal action? Do you have any family we should be calling?"
"I don't have any family except my husband but you're right. First, I need to call my boss and tell her what's going on and ask her to send me some money. Then I'll call my lawyer and get the divorce started." Her anxious expression told me the fear was beginning to rise again. "I'm scared to death of even going back home to face him in court." Her eyes teared up as she threw her arms around me, pressing her face into my chest. I just held her and stroked her hair. There was nothing I could say that would make it better.
Lonnie's boss apparently knew about the whole abuse situation and congratulated her for finally deciding to dump the bastard. She told Lonnie to take some vacation time and asked where she could send her paycheck. I said it was OK to send it to my apartment because this is where she would be staying for the time being. I'm not at all sure when that idea popped into my head.
"Mark, I have a huge favor to ask. I know we're still practically strangers but I wonder if I could borrow enough money to buy some basic necessities. I don't have anything but what I'm wearing."
"I was just going to suggest that. We'll stop at an ATM on the way to the mall and get you some cash. There are a few things I need as well."
We got our shopping done, then stopped at the grocery store to pick up stuff she needed for the 'very nice dinner' she insisted on cooking for us. Every place we went she had a death grip on my arm like a scared little child. Being a twenty-two year old man with a full compliment of testosterone floating around in my body, I couldn't help but get a little bit aroused by her breasts and hips pressing against me all the time.
She turned out to be an excellent cook. We did indeed have a very nice late dinner of trout almandine, new potatoes in butter and parsley and a nice tossed salad. I began to clean up after dinner but she nixed that. She insisted on doing the dishes and putting everything away. After she was done, she asked if she could totally occupy the bathroom for a long, hot soak in the bathtub.
"Be my guest. I'm going to work on my thesis for a little while and go to bed. Yell if you need anything. Good night."
About two hours later, she knocked softly on my door. "Mark, are you awake?"
I was just crawling into bed. Since I was in my skivvies, I opened the door just a crack and saw that she looked really distressed. "What is it, Lonnie?"