It’s been just over twelve hours and I’m still trying to wrap my head around this one: what kind of situation prompts someone to leave home the week of Christmas with no idea where she’s headed? Actually, I have some idea of the prompting situation but can’t fully fathom how it ended up—literally—at our doorstep.
Randa and I were returning home from an afternoon excursion on a sunny but chilly December afternoon. Just before we got to our driveway on Highway 36 in Blair, Kansas, I saw a big black SUV parked in one of Fleek’s Market’s four gravel entrances. The hood was raised, the driver’s door was open, and a woman stood there smoking a cigarette. I briefly considered stopping to offer assistance but quickly reckoned she’d already called for help.
A few hundred feet past Fleek’s I turned off and stopped our little Ranger pickup beside the mailbox so Randa could get the mail. By the time we’d driven up the slope to our house, I’d quit thinking about the stranded SUV.
A half-hour later, Randa looked out the porch window and said, “There’s a dog out there chasing the horses.” Sure enough, I saw a black dog about the size of a German Shepherd in the horse pasture. Then, I saw a woman walking up the driveway. “That’s the woman from that SUV that’s parked over there at Fleek’s,” I told Randa.
The woman called the dog away from the horses and kept walking up our five-hundred-foot-long driveway. Every twenty or thirty steps, she’d stop and turn back toward the highway. She’d stare at the road for several seconds, then turn back and walk on toward the house. I kept watching her from inside the back porch. Her dog left the horse pasture and kept running around, sniffing out this new territory. The woman, tightly clutching a small bag, kept stopping and looking back toward the road. Actually, it was more like hugging than clutching.
Once she’d made it up close to the house, I went out to greet her. Two things immediately stood out to me: she was a small person, and she had a huge black eye.
Standing less than five feet tall, wearing jeans, low boots, and a medium weight winter jacket, she seemed just barely wrapped warmly enough for the chilly day. She had a scarf wrapped around her head but it would have taken a hockey mask to cover up the shiner she’d caught on her left eye. It was the size of a man’s fist and looked to be pretty fresh.
“What happened to your eye?!” I exclaimed and then caught myself, “It’s probably a long story that you don’t want to get into.”
“That’s why I’m out here,” she admitted, “trying to get away from this.”
I’ve never been directly confronted with a more pathetic figure. Everything about her facial features and expressions spoke of pain. And fear.
“Where are you headed?”
“I don’t know… Is there a hotel near here?”
I’d later think how perfectly the line from an old Guy Clark song fit her: “She ain’t going nowhere; she’s just leavin’.”
“Mary” asked to borrow my phone, then told me the number to dial. I punched in the number and handed her the phone.
My efforts to comprehend her situation faced some challenges. From the conversation she had with “Bill” and then with Randa and me, I tried to piece together what was going on. Between my bad hearing and her less than stellar diction, it seemed that On Star had disabled her vehicle. Something about her having the door open too long or something. Someone that she and Bill both knew, maybe her sister, was supposed to come help her. Bill would call back later.
She and her dog walked back down the hill and then back over to Fleek’s and we went on with our evening. Randa prepped spaghetti in the kitchen while I monitored NFL’s re-scheduled football games in the living room. Nearly an hour later and well after dark, the doorbell rang. Mary asked to borrow my phone again.
This conversation included her crying. “She won’t do it,” she insisted to Bill, “she won’t come.” The “she” was her sister, who allegedly had another key to the SUV, a 2004 Cadillac Escalade. After she got off the phone, a new and improved story emerged by bits and pieces.
Mary told Randa—who later translated for me—that she had PTSD and sometimes a smell associated with her tormentor would trigger nausea and she would have to stop and change clothes. That’s why she was stopped there at Fleek’s. She set her key and coins and other stuff from her pockets on the console between the two front seats. While she was changing clothes in the back seat, her dog had jumped up front and knocked everything off the console. She hadn’t been able to find the key.
Randa turned off the stove, I collected a flashlight and heavy magnet with a long handle, and we all three went back over to Fleek’s. In spite of our equipment, my optimism, and our diligence, we could not find a key. I swept the magnet underneath the vehicle, underneath all four seats. Randa and I took turns with the flashlight. Inside every crevice we could look, inside the door pockets, the seat slots, under the floor mats. We did find several little partially empty Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey bottles, which explained the non-PTSD trigger odor I’d been smelling ever since I’d walked out to greet Mary two hours earlier.
Eventually, we all gave up on the key and she gave up on getting away from Saint Joseph, at least for the ending of this long day. She’d made it exactly nine miles west of the Missouri River.
She called Bill one last time, who apparently tried yet again to convince her that the sister would bring the other key. I finally decided to ask, “Is your sister really the kind of person who would tell Bill she’d bring you the key but then not do it?”
“Yes, she is,” she said, and an even deeper sadness crossed her face.
Mary had one final request, that we call a wrecker. I asked, “Have you got money to pay for that?”
She clutched the little bag even closer to her chest and insisted, “I’ve got plenty of money.” We called the wrecker service she requested, and the guy showed up from Saint Joe within twenty minutes. So far as we know, he hauled her Escalade back across the river to Bill’s house. Maybe her sister will actually show up with the extra key in another day or two.
I have no idea if Mary will make good her escape. I’ve seen way too many movies and TV shows to be very optimistic, but we will keep praying. I do know that I have much to be thankful for this holiday season. Not the least of which is a warm, safe, and loving home.
I doubt that Mary has any greater wish than that she could have the same.