BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN
Naturally, she recognizes the road.
How many summer afternoons had they ridden this gravelly margin on Dexter Road, Bonnie and her best friend Lida? With Sheba and Micawber snorting and in canter, they'd swatted at cicadas, shared Cokes -- or joints, when they were older -- and flushed magpies from the milk ditch with side-skipped rocks.
The horses are gone now, a figment of the fifteen seasons of quickening girlhood they shared along this stretch of Nowhere. A stretch yet unimproved by curbs and yellow stripes like all the other country roads in Lake County, Illinois.
Bonnie knows every crack in its asphalt, even here and now, in the dead of night. Like the lines in her hand.
She sighs, groans, rubs the back of her head where a goose egg has taken shape, a reminder that she'd fallen unconscious.
A quick body check finds no signs of assault. Arms and legs remain unscathed, her face is unbruised, there's no pain between her legs when she takes a few test strides across the pavement. Her clothes are not torn, nor have they been removed.
A rustling among cornrows near the milk ditch prickles Bonnie's skin. She tries to believe it's only a jackrabbit, or the yawn and stretch of corn growing. Tall green rods pray grace toward the low July moon with their leafy hands, beaming enough light for her to see by. Moments pass. Nobody walks out of the field. It must have been a rabbit, she decides.
Bonnie wipes her face with the back of her arm, wondering by its dampness how long she'd been out cold on the asphalt. It feels, to her, like four a.m. The hour when the steam of the last day merges with the new morning dew. A double whammy of humidity. The air smells strange, like cooked vegetables.
Pulling her hand away, she notices what is not there.
The engagement solitaire.
The sound of her voice takes ownership of the open space around her. The crickets follow to break the silence in odd patterns, randomly, sometimes in solo and sometimes in chorus.
It's got to be the end of the night, Bonnie imagines, twisting the bare knuckle on her hand. She approaches her car. It's still parked at the side of the road where she'd left it.
"Figures." She laughs this time. Her car is a beater, a rusted charcoal-colored Mazda with a leaking sunroof. Even a gangbanger wouldn't steal that, she smiles wryly, not even for parts.
She was never as enthralled with the now-missing ring Rob had given her, a ring she knows she ought to be more worried about at the moment. Rob will fall apart over its theft, more emotionally invested in it than in their relationship.
Bats wheel overhead, catching last mosquitoes before morning's hibernation. Bonnie crouches to look underneath the car to make sure no one or nothing is hiding underneath.
Not that Bonnie goes in for urban legends, but the one about the gang ritual -- where the gangbanger wannabe hides underneath the car and slits the Achilles tendon of his victim, thereby immobilizing her, thereby making it easy to rape her first before all the others -- has been going around for a while now.
Bonnie's never been one to be needlessly reckless. Even when she saw the guys stopped along the side of the road earlier that night, her first thought had been to pass them by.
There had been five of them. Latinos. Not at all unusual in the rural Northwest suburbs, home to major landscaping businesses outside the industrial wheel of Chicago. Mexican migrants, legal or not, eventually made their way out to the collar counties for work, often installing and maintaining lawns. Latino families clustered in places like Wauconda, Carpentersville, Island Lake, Gages Lake, Winnetka, starting up agricultural businesses, earning great amounts of money which they eventually reinvested in enterprises back in Mexico, where even a few American dollars could buy the most luxurious of things.
But these five weren't Latinos like Bonnie knew them, having lived in Lake County her whole life. She'd had many neighbors who were Mexican, but they were Old World: hardworking, fervently Catholic and meek. Family folk. These new boys were gangbangers. Probably from sprawling suburban Schaumburg, dark-skinned boys in black leather and kerchiefs who swarmed the mall and the Golf Road arterial looking for drugs or guns or girls or things to fence. They hung around theatre parking lots and were hard-edged and aggressive. She'd stopped going to the movies because of them, having grown afraid despite not wanting to.
In recent years, they'd reseeded in Lake County. It made Bonnie mad to see the change, how it ruined it for her neighbors. For everyone.
There's no one under the car. Bonnie whistles a sigh. At least she can eliminate the possibility of an urban legend come true. Now all she has to deal with is Rob.
He would be mad. He would say, you lost the ring! even after being told it was stolen. He would say, why did you let them take it? even after her explanation, that they'd knocked her out. Well, I'm okay otherwise, she would point out. The thought would be lost on Rob. That ring cost him several months' pay down at the Salerno cookie factory, where he worked as a sorter. That would be the focus of his outrage.
"Well, they -- stole -- it," she practices to herself. She knows she'll have to repeat the phrase several times to Rob. He's one of those guys who's perpetually clueless to the obvious.
At one time, she thought it an endearing quality.
The keys dangle in the ignition. She opens the door, missing immediately the ignition bell warning. A quick turn at the keys issues the dreaded, hollow click. At the same time, lightning flickers ahead of her.
Strange. She tries again. No battery, but the atmosphere, super-charged on the outside, matches her effort. More of the electric fingerlings crawl across the sky.
Electrical storm. She tries once more. Dead battery.
The car battery is so dead it doesn't generate enough juice to light the digital clock on the dash.
Dead battery, electrical storm.
Her head aches.
"Lida, Lida, Lida," she utters under her breath, "I've got to get out of here."
Lida had been in a similar predicament.
No, not with gangbangers. She'd not been knocked out by anyone. No one had stolen anything from her. She'd been out of town -- Florida, spring break, cheap rental car -- and had lost her way while driving down the Keys.
Who knows how she did it, but while being lost, Lida ran out of gas. It was the theory, anyway. No one ever found out for sure. All they ever did learn was that Lida had stayed in the car while an electrical storm bullied its way over the islands like a miniature hurricane.
Maybe it was a waterspout. There had been reports. Heavy rain had made visibility next to impossible, so no one could blame the truck driver. He plowed into the rear end of the Alamo rental car a split second after discerning its fading flashers through sheets of rain.
Bonnie and the rest of her friends didn't hear about Lida's death for a week. They'd been hanging out at the Southernmost Point, drinking hurricanes the whole time, eating Cuban chicken and yellow rice, singing karaoke, reading Hemingway, and checking out the local flavor down at Smokey Joe's, wondering lazily when Lida would show up. Her accident didn't make island news, or if it had, they'd not been around to hear about it. They put two and two together only after they found out that the Dolphin museum near Islamorada had been thrashed and would be closed for the rest of the summer.
Lida loved dolphins.
Since Bonnie knows this stretch of road so well, the fact of her being there, stranded between stretches of farmland before the threat of a midwestern downpour, only makes her more anxious. Getting mugged by a bunch of shopping mall gangbangers at the side of a solitary road has already surged enough adrenaline through her for one night.
But she isn't about to join Lida yet, as much as she misses her best girlhood friend. She knows how a wicked and spontaneous summer storm can still be much worse than a fight with Rob over a ring.
Her purse is gone. She rifles through her glove compartment. The trunk. Under the seats.
And then, just as soon as she's decided that it, like her ring, has been stolen, it turns up, completely intact, wedged between the bucket seats. Cash, money, credit cards -- all in place.
Bonnie grabs her purse, writes a note for the dashboard. She collects an umbrella, then promptly puts it back when the next flash illuminates the sky, reminding her of lightning rods.
Stepping out of the car, she starts the hike across this lonely stretch of Dexter, swift frames of ordered memory replaying before her, blurring out the thought hanging like a ghost in the back of her mind:
Maybe they hadn't stolen her ring at all. Maybe she had really only lost it.
The boys had been jacking up a beater truck (even more beater than her Mazda) when she'd passed by. Two of them waved. They were from Schaumburg, she could tell by their black leather and the thin greenish lights glowing from underneath the carriage of the truck. They were cruisers.
But then she thought she'd recognized one of them. The guy at the custard stand. She went there every Friday after work. He was always pulling soft custard for sundaes in the back. He was cute, she remembered his face every time. Kind and smiling. Clean, short hair gelled into spikes. He worked behind the glass, so she hadn't yet been able to find out his name. There had never been a good moment to inquire. After eating her weekly double scoop of chocolate-vanilla swirl, she'd leave for Rob's, for the usual dinner and movie and retreat to his apartment for a romp on his couch by the light of the TV, wondering all the way there how she could be interested in anyone else when she was already engaged.
Not much happened at the scene of the crime.
Even thinking of her situation in those terms disturbed Bonnie a little. It just didn't feel like a crime had been committed.
She'd walked to the rear of the truck where they were jacking it up to replace a tire, and then. . .What? Darkness. Silence. No pain, no stars. Just blank.
Sure someone stole her ring. But they could have done so much more. If they were really bad-ass, they would've.
Anyway, the custard stand guy, if that was who he was, had stayed in the truck's cab the whole time, so she never did find out for sure whether it was him. She doesn't want to think the worst of him, yet. Even if she is engaged.
Bonnie surveys the dim fields. The lights are on way down by the orchards where the Koeppens live, just beyond these cornfields owned by the locally famous Plumhoff clan. That's it. Two miles toward the first sign of harbor. Just hold off, she prays against the storm.
Stagnant air heavy with ozone and the strange cold weight of morning burdens her walk.
"The path of less energy. . ."
She says the words aloud to keep herself company. "The path of irresistance...no..." Her head continues to ache. The storm, moving in, seems to be collecting air as it goes, leaving her tightly wound and out of breath. She snaps her fingers. "That's it," she laughs. "The path of least resistance!"
She jumps into the shallow milk ditch near a concrete drainpipe just as the first leaded drops begin to pelt the earth.
She'd only blacked out twice before in her life. Once, when she was a kid. The paramedics called it a sympathetic response. She'd been running and playing like crazy, then crashed into some bars at the playground. The pain and shock of that, melded with hyperactive excitement, overwhelmed her and she fell to the ground in a faint. Blue lips, eyes rolled back into the head, the whole nine yards. This was before the advent of 9-1-1 services. Before people knew things like CPR.
The other time had been in response to a fear she'd since outgrown, of spiders. Reaching to pick morning glory blossoms for a biology class assignment, she'd grasped the thick, hard body of a resident white spider. Arachnophobia took its toll and she was eventually revived by smelling salts from the neighbors. Old Granny Bettendorf. She said how she often used them to rouse her apneatic husband, Karl, before he died of heatstroke.
But have they really happened only twice, these blackouts? Bonnie wonders. Pools of rainwater crusted with hailstones begin to encroach around the opening of the drainpipe inside which she's found an oasis.
What about all those parties in high school? Had she really been drunk? High? It occurs to her suddenly that maybe she'd passed out those times for other reasons entirely. Epilepsy? Seizures? Brain tumors?
Flickering blue lights interrupt the sleet. Bonnie, after hesitation -- it hasn't thundered in a few minutes, signaling the departure of the storm -- steps out of the drainpipe to get a better look.
A patrol car is lighting up the tail end of her Mazda with its brights. Behind it, she spies a truck. She watches the driver jump out and race up to the squad car with his shirt pulled over his head.
"Hey, I'm down here!" She calls out. And then: "Figures."
No one can hear her for all the rain pounding flat the atmosphere. Her ears pop and though her clothes run slick and tight against her saturated body, a strange new chill sends every hair of her body on end.
The policeman steps out in head-to-toe gear and gestures to the driver. Then he pulls an umbrella from the squad car. The truck's driver accepts the umbrella from the police officer and opens it just as Bonnie is climbing the shallow ditch to the road.
No one notices her. Not until that very last moment, when the reflection of lights on his profile reveals the custard stand guy. Bonnie's eyes connect with his and they exchange a brief smile of puzzled recognition before Bonnie loses her footing and falls down the muddy embankment.
The custard stand guy does what every boy would do, every good boy with an appreciation for damsels in distress -- he chases after her, to lend her a hand. And as he thrusts his right hand out to grab her -- even as he is still twenty feet away -- and as his left arm elevates the umbrella in an involuntary gesture of balance, Bonnie bites her lips in the blinding flash that ensues, then whispers, "I'm so sorry."
Ears ring. Eyes cannot pierce the flash imprinted on them by the lightning that's struck the tip of Pedro Gonzalez's umbrella.
She'll not know his name for a week, not until the death announcement makes it into the Wauconda Leader, not even when she asks around town, at the custard stand. Nobody knows who she's talking about.
Bonnie's outstretched fingers grow keenly aware of the texture of crabgrass and thistles, the strange icy chunks of hail embedded into warm, damp clay, the feeling of torn leaves plastered against her humming skin. Ozone fills her nostrils as she fingers the small, cold circlet with its singular stone, the ring alone in a flash-flooded patch of crown vetch, just two feet off the roadway, where she'd clearly left it last.