She was standing by the side of the road, wearing cutoffs and a tank top, thumb in the air. She appeared no older than sixteen.
Steve slowed the car, eased by her and braked to a stop a few feet ahead. She picked up the knapsack and hurried to the driver’s side of the car.
“Where you headed, Mister?”
She flashed a big smile. “Me, too.”
“Hop in,” Steve said.
She ran around to the other side, opened the door and slid into the seat next to him.
“Sure appreciate this,” she said.
Steve eased the car out onto the road. It was free of traffic.
“It’s dangerous for young girls like yourself to be hitchhiking.”
She made a face and shrugged. “I can take care of myself. I’ve been around.”
She glanced at him. “I know people pretty well. You’re OK.”
Steve grunted. Looking straight ahead, he pressed down on the accelerator until he was a few miles over the speed limit.
“What’s your name?” he asked
“Lisa. What’s yours?”
Steve grunted again. Suddenly he made a sharp turn onto a dirt road. Lisa sat up straight and put her hands on the dashboard.
“Where are you going?” she asked, a note of alarm in her voice.
Steve eased the car to a stop in a small clearing, not visible from the main road. He turned off the ignition, leaned over across Lisa and opened the door on the passenger side.
“Out,” he said.
Lisa’s face registered alarm. She didn’t move.
Steve opened his door, walked around the car and took Lisa by the arm.
“Out, I said.”
Lisa started to protest, thought better of it, and eased out of the car. She stood facing Steve, her hands crossed in front of her body.
“Please,” she said in a hoarse voice.
Steve spun her around.
“Get over by that tree,” he said.
She looked at him in appeal, then in small, babylike steps, she walked over to the oak tree that stood at the edge of the clearing.
“Take off your shirt.”
Lisa stiffened but made no move to comply.
“Off!” Steve shouted.
Slowly, Lisa drew the tank top over her head and let it fall to the ground.
She was braless.
“Now the shorts.”
“No,” Lisa whispered.
Her trembling hands fumbled with the zipper. The shorts fell around her ankles. She folded her hands in front of her in a vain attempt to cover herself. She was crying now, her naked body shivering in spite of the warm day.
“Do you know what I want?” Steve asked.
She nodded, tears streaming down her face.
“What are you going to do about it? Scream? Bite?”
“Please,” Lisa said. “I won’t fight you. Just don’t hurt me.”
Steve gave dry humorless laugh and dropped his hands to his side.
“Turn around,” he said. “Take a good look at that tree.”
“What…why…?” Lisa mumbled.
“Look at it!”
Lisa turned slowly until she was facing the tree.
“Six months ago a young lady, not much older than you, died under that tree. She had been raped and strangled.”
“Did you…?” Lisa started
“Did I rape her? Is that what you want to know?”
“The young lady. Her name was Melanie. She left home that morning to go to San Francisco. She was going to hitch a ride. Her parents objected strongly. It was not safe for a young lady traveling alone, especially one who would be hitchhiking.”
Steve paused, sighed deeply and waved a hand in the air.
“She laughed it off. ‘I can take care of myself.’” Another wave of his hand. “Sound familiar?”
Pointing to Lisa’s clothes, he said, “get dressed.”
Lisa looked at him in disbelief. “Aren’t you…”
Steve picked up the tank top and threw it to her.
“Put it on.”
Lisa took it, drew it over her head, her face registering bewilderment.
“I…I don’t understand.”
Steve cut her off. “You asked if I raped her.” A pause as he looked over the landscape, his eyes half closed. “No. No, I didn’t rape her. They’re still looking for the bastard who did.”
Lisa was crying as she drew on her cutoffs and zipped them up.
“That was cruel,” she said.
“Cruel? Maybe. But if you learned from it, I make no apologies.”
He stared at the ground. “This is the fourth time I’ve brought someone up here,” he said. “If I save one life it will be worth it.”
Lisa eyed him quizzically. “The girl? What’s her name? Melanie?”
Steve sighed. “Melanie was my daughter.”
He straightened up and walked over to the car.
Motioning to Lisa, he said, “Get in. I’ll take you home.”
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