I was torn between directing the chase back to the deputy that had been dealing with the van, driving towards town where the risk of injuring someone was higher but being intercepted by a deputy was equally great, or hoping to lose the assailant in the foothills. I knew those roads only by a small margin and the risk our assailant knew them better was far too great. I rerouted us towards the main roads.
“Where’ headed northeast on route four,” Jeff said as he shouldered the phone and splayed all his fingers out in front of him.
“Ten minutes?” I asked, keeping an eye on the car that jogged behind. It seemed to have dropped back a bit. Jeff nodded, then twirled his index finger overhead. Whirly bird. Ten minutes until the helicopter would be over us. What now? Drive donuts?
“They’re trying to make contact with a ranger that’s in the general area,” he held the mouthpiece away from his mouth.
“Ranger? As in ‘gee, Boo Boo, let’s go get a pic-a-nic basket?’” I frowned as I braked lightly to avoid hitting some rocks that appeared out of nowhere, yanking the wheel sharply.
“I guess,” Jeff held onto the door handle to keep upright.
“Okay, well, whatever works I guess.” The car dipped. We flew up off our seats for a moment.
“Yes?” He said into the phone. “Which way?”
“Jesus, Jeff,” I breathed. “Look!”
The car behind us suddenly shot off to the right and a plume of dirt and dust spat up into the air, obscuring it. “What the hell is it doing?”
My stomach convulsed. I knew what was happening, the question was—how would I stay ahead?
“He’s doing it on purpose. The question is, where will he come out?”
“Go left,” Jeff said and pushed his hand toward the steering wheel. I jerked it quickly while he kept the phone pressed to his ear and his body rotated to look out the back window.
“They want to know if we can work our way back to the deputy,” he said.
“Maybe,” I tried to get my bearings, which was hard to do. Although the land formations were strikingly unique, I found it difficult to recall what went where after cavorting across the plains, focused more on the car speeding along behind us than our exact location.
When I was very young, maybe four or five, I’d followed my parents and uncle out onto the docks. I vaguely remember it, but what I doubt I’ll ever forget was when I headed up towards shore and a huge dog came down the docks towards me. I stepped to the side to give it room to pass me, maybe a little afraid too because at my age and size, the dog seemed as big as a horse. Only the dock was so narrow, I wound up falling into the lake.
I remember looking into a tangle of seaweed and then being pulled backwards and struggling because I thought I was being pulled down deeper towards the bottom of the lake. I guess I had been disoriented because moments later I was standing on the dock, dripping wet, bawling my head off. Had I won the fight against my cousin whose hand shot down into the water and pulled me up, I probably would have drowned. Luckily, my cousin had been much stronger than me.
Jeff scanned the horizon. “The town is behind us, southeast. So that means we’re going in the right direction.”
I caught sight of the car as it spun a circle and gave chase again. Nothing looked familiar. Even though the land was fairly flat, there were enough valleys and rises to keep us from seeing for any length across the plains. I worked it to our advantage by following a ridge that kept us hidden for a while. But daylight was quickly fading and sooner or later I’d have to turn on the headlights. The risk of hitting something was too great otherwise.
“I’m sorry? Could you repeat that?” Jeff had said into the phone. I’d forgotten we were still connected to the dispatcher at the sheriff’s office. “The helicopter will be here in a moment.” “Good, because I’m about ready to turn this car in.”
Jeff laughed for a brief moment, then pressed the phone closer to his ear. “Flick your lights,” he relayed the information. I tightened my grip on the wheel and felt around for the headlamp switch. I flashed them twice. This was how they did things? I learned that clear back, age ten, at camp.
Stacy giggled as she hid her head and dodged my pillow. I shushed her as I went back to trying to hold both of the flashlights—one to read the codes, the other to send the message. It wasn’t working very well. The beams crossed, blinding me as they reflected off the sleeping bag.
We had made up our own codes since no one knew the standard Morse codes and there weren’t any books lying about around camp that we were able to find that might have helped us out. We being four of the Camp Willow girls, two Juniper Knoll campers along with Stacy and myself from Camp Redwood, the tent names we had been assigned earlier in the week when we arrived.
It took us a day and a half to come up with the codes, which we all carefully wrote down inside our journals throughout campfire circles, meal breaks and two free-period sessions.
“Wait,” Stacy hissed as she pushed her hand over one of the flashlights, killing the light’s beam. “They’re sending us a message.”
It wasn’t until the next morning during breakfast the Camp Willow girls told us what their message had been. We were only ten, so the message was pretty inane, something to do with boys and all things gross. Of course, neither Stacy nor myself had successfully deciphered the message.
“We need a signal,” Bridget informed us. She was the oldest of the eight and took it upon herself to be the leader. I didn’t like her much before and once she joined our secret group and showed her true colors; I liked her even less.
“Right,” Jennifer agreed, her head bobbing up and down violently. I didn’t like her either. She was Bridget’s “yes man,” a complete and utter suck-up. If there’s one thing ten-year-old girls hate worse than boys, it’s a suck-up.
“Maybe if we flash our lights twice, then the ones receiving the message flashes their lights twice in return that would work?” Stacy had suggested as she flipped a couple of dried up, hard as rock pancakes back onto the serving platter.
“Maybe not,” Bridget wrinkled her nose.
“What’s so wrong with that idea?” I chimed in defending Stacy whose face had fallen like a soufflÃ© that had been removed from the oven a moment too soon. “I think it’s perfect!”
“So do I,” Rhonda, one of the Juniper Knoll girls agreed. The other three girls nodded.
“Okay, fine,” Bridget sniffed before the bell sounded and everyone scurried off to the four corners of the camp for arts and crafts hour. Bridget and Jennifer headed off to the pottery barn, but the remaining six of us decided to head over to the lanyard stations. I began working on my sixth keychain of that week as we devised a scandalous plan.
Late that night, six figures crept along the shadows surrounding the wooden floor tents in pairs. We waited for Bridget to give the signal. When she did, Rhonda flashed back twice and waited for Jennifer and Stacy to relay their message. No one paid much attention to what they had sent because we were too busy moving to new positions around the campground. When it seemed she was done sending her message, Rhonda flashed her light twice and Stacy responded with two flashes.
“Did you hear who won the bossy camper award?” Rhonda’s message said.
“No, who?” We sent back our carefully planned and prepared message.
“Bridget,” came Rhonda’s reply. Everyone flashed their lights on and off several times then waited. Bridget and Jennifer’s light flashed twice. No one responded. They flashed again, this time longer. We all scampered away and slid into our sleeping bags. From that day forward, Bridget and Jennifer would snub us. And we could have cared less.
“The copter sees us,” Jeff announced excitedly, peering out the front window as he leaned against the shoulder belt.
“What about the other car?”
He held his hand up, listening intently, then nodded. “Turn right as soon as you can, then turn on your headlights and keep them on.”
“Yeah, sure.” It was easier said than done. The waning light was making it difficult to see very far down the dirt trail.
“There,” he slapped the dash and then pointed. I cornered, snapping on the lights as the tail end followed around the curve I’d made. My back ached horribly. Jeff craned his neck to look out the back window. I looked into the side view mirror because his head was in the way of the rearview. I didn’t know what he was looking at because all I saw was black. And then a momentary shimmer.
“They spotted it,” he sounded like a school boy waiting for the parade to start, then crying out triumphantly when catching sight of the first floats’ fender covered in crepe paper.
“Let off on the gas,” he said so quickly; his words slurred together, sounding like he muttered an expletive. It took a moment to process the words but by then, he had repeated it, slower that time. I pulled my foot up.
“Could you repeat that?” He said into the phone, turning towards me. I furrowed my brow, feeling a surge of panic flood over me. Had he misunderstood? Are we losing our connection? How do they plan to stop this person chasing us? Guns? Will we get hit?
“Left, then right,” he barked. “No brakes.” I zigged, then zagged, working to stay upright as we jostled about. My hands cramped. I needed it to be over. My head began to throb.
“Gas, Lisa. Pedal to the metal and don’t stop.”
As my foot shoved down on the accelerator, I could hear the blades of the helicopter churning above, felt the thumping as the air buffeted. The car zipped along, the speedometer needle quickly ascending, bypassing 80 then 90 and continuing to climb. The noise from the copter grew even louder. Jeff worked his finger into his ear.
“California Highway Patrol,” the words thundered. “Stop your vehicle.”
“Keep going!” Jeff’s voice screamed. He pointed forward, working his hand back and forth at the window in case I hadn’t heard.
“Stop your vehicle or we will shoot!”
I doubted that, but even still, I found myself panicking again. What if they had the wrong car? What if they were talking to us? Would they shoot us? Do they have the ability to aim at our tires? If they did shoot the tires, what would happen? Would I lose control of the car? Would it flip over, crushing us to death? Would I die instantly or slowly? Would it be painful?
The thunder began to wane as we continued driving at a speed of over 120 miles per hour.
I couldn’t help my next thought: “Good thing I hadn’t eaten, I would have been crapping my pants.”
“Okay, okay!” Jeff screamed so loud I thought the windows would shatter. “Slow down!”
I pulled my foot off the gas just as the orange low fuel lamp flickered on.
“Now what?” I flexed my fingers. He held his index finger up.
“We have a low fuel light,” I could barely hear him, my head whining as if it was submerged in water with a motor boat’s engine churning several feet away.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Perfect timing. I’ll relay…hang on,” he turned to me. “Think we can try getting to town?”
“I haven’t a clue where I am or how far it is or how much further I can go,” my irritation flared like a stab of arthritic pain.
“We’re not sure,” he began. Before he could continue, I waved for the phone. “Hang on again.”
I was too cranky to keep up with the banter without pitching Jeff out of the car. Without the pressure of keeping safely ahead of the mystery chase vehicle I could afford to hold the phone as I steered the car back towards town. And truthfully? I was starting to feel a bit underappreciated and talking to my comrades in the air made me feel a bit more… well, heroic.
“So far you’re batting a thousand helping us out, but let me throw a curve ball—how am I going to pay for gas and food given I don’t’ have any money or even my wallet and credit card?”
“I suppose next you’ll want me to give you the formula for world peace, too, right?” The cop on the other end of the line up in the helicopter teased.
“What? Helping you catch the bad guys wasn’t enough?” I glanced over to Jeff to flash him a grin, but saw he was asleep. Not good. There was no way his adrenaline from our chase had slipped away that quick.
“I need a bus,” I said, my stomach tightening as I tried to juggle the phone and steering wheel as I tried to reach over to see if Jeff was still breathing. I came close to hitting a mailbox and gave up. “Jeff suffered a head injury and isn’t conscious.”