When I moved back to mid-coast Maine, my life seemed perfect. I’d slammed the door on my not-so-recent past and left my troubles behind. Or so I thought until my mechanic shattered that illusion with news about my Jeep’s hitch hiker. Apparently someone was tracking me with a global positioning device. Suddenly the strange things that had happened to me over the past few days—and that I’d dismissed as coincidence or just plain bad luck—didn’t seem so random.
The GPS was intentional and personal.
In retrospect I can say my current troubles started with a slashed tire. On the day in question, I was high on the sounds and smells of Casco Bay as I hiked along the nearly deserted bay loop of Wolf Neck Woods State Park. My little hound Sprite followed at my heels as I climbed down the wooden steps to the wet rocks below. We sat side-by-side on the bottom step.
I lost track of time, mesmerized by the bay’s rise and fall and the rhythm of water surging against the rocks. When I glanced at my watch, I saw it was 4 pm. Nightfall was looming. The towering white pines cast deepening shadows across the trail as I hurried back to my Jeep at the park entrance. I savored the last hint of sunlight.
When I was close enough to read my “GOT-MUD” license plate, I drew a sharp breath. I stopped short, almost jerking Sprite off her feet. The Jeep was skewed forward and to the right at a sharper angle than the down tilt of the sandy shoulder warranted. I squinted along the side of the vehicle. My right front tire was totally flat and resting on its rim. How could that be? It was fine just a short time ago.
I stared at the Jeep, momentarily frozen in place. Then I took one step backward. I stopped and listened. A branch snapped in the distance. I felt Sprite tense at my side. Was someone there? I looked around but saw no one.
I stood still for another second or two, listening, barely breathing. All I heard was the beating of my own pulse and the stuttering in-and-out of my breath. No more branches snapped. Satisfied that no one lurked in the shadows, I checked the left side of my Jeep with a quick glance. Nothing else seemed amiss.
Tears of frustration formed against my will and my throat constricted. My feelings of serenity and a larger connection with the universe were replaced with the reality that Sprite and I were alone at dusk in what now felt like the middle of nowhere. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. What would my students think if they could see me quaking over a flat tire and a snapping branch? I took one more calming breath and muttered, “Get a grip.”
I considered my situation. I’d changed tires before when I’d had to, and there was a usable spare in the Jeep’s hatch. However, the sandy shoulder was far from stable. Therefore, it would be foolish to try to change the tire by myself. I frowned at the idea of asking for help, but really what were my options?
I gritted my teeth, punched my speed dial for AAA, and connected with the emergency 24-hour towing service. The voice on the other end of the line estimated the wait to be thirty to forty-five minutes. I sighed, impatient with the anticipated wait. Then I reminded myself that being able to actually complete the call from the park was a stroke of good fortune and the wait was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Sprite followed me as I walked around to the front passenger door and opened it. I clicked my tongue. “Come on, girl.” She jumped up onto the seat. I hugged her and said, “Good girl.” I closed the door and walked around the front to the driver’s side. I couldn’t resist giving the offending tire a swift kick in passing.
I slid into the driver’s seat and rummaged in my clutch purse for a stick of sugar-free gum. I folded the stick into my mouth and relaxed into the first burst of spearmint. As a child I’d hated it when Mom chewed and snapped Wrigley’s gum while braiding my hair. How ironic that something so annoying about my mother was now a part of who I was as an adult.
I pulled out the James Patterson novel stashed in the glove compartment and settled in for the wait. I barely read a page before I heard an engine rev on the road behind me. I glanced up.
The driver’s face was a blur as he gunned by in a burst of speed, tick-tacking my Jeep with loose gravel in passing. I’d taken my glasses off to read, and I squinted to focus on what looked like a dark green insignia with some kind of gold design in the center of the black truck’s rear window.
Sprite raised her nose and rumbled, and I rested a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, girl. I guess we’re both kind of edgy today.” I appreciated Sprite’s thirty-five pounds of protective energy.
My focus was on snapping twigs, flat tires, and revving motors now. It was useless to try reading, so I returned my book to the glove compartment. I put my glasses back on and stared out into the gathering gloom, shivering. I started the engine and blasted the heater to chase the cold. But still I felt chilled.
It was nearing full dark when the tow truck arrived. The driver did a U-turn at the park entrance and pulled up in front of the Jeep. I walked over to greet him and discovered that he was a she in the form of a tall, lean woman with spiked black hair and a right ear jazzed up with a string of studs and hoops.
I flipped my wallet open to show Ms. Mechanic a.k.a. Barb Beribeau my auto club membership card.
Barb handed me a work sheet on a clip board to sign. Then she knelt down beside my right front bumper and inspected the flat tire. She shook her head and stood back up. “This tire isn’t just flat. It’s slashed.”
I stared at her. “What? You think someone did this?”
“That’s right.” Arms akimbo, Barb looked at the tire for a moment longer before saying, “Well, let’s getcha outta here.” She winched the Jeep’s front end onto her flatbed.
I boosted Sprite up into the passenger seat of the truck cab and slid in beside her. Barb and I covered the usual civilities before she ventured to say, “Y’know, when you’re talking about a slashed tire, you really outta fill out a police report.”
I squinted at her. “I appreciate your concern, but it’s just one slashed tire. I’m sure the police have bigger crimes to pursue.”
“At the very least, the police would have a report on file in case something else happens.” Barb hesitated for a moment before adding, “This kind of deliberate act is usually personal.”
I frowned. “Well that’s a scary thought.” That’s not what I wanted to hear, and I dismissed the idea without further consideration. “I think it more likely some kids were just driving around looking for trouble and saw my Jeep as an easy mark.”
We were quiet on the rest of the drive through Castle Cove. When we pulled up behind Pluard’s garage, Barb said, “It may seem like I’m overreacting to you. However, you coulda been in a bad spot if you hadn’t found a tow.”
I realized I may have hurt her feelings, and I was eager to make amends. After all, she was just trying to be helpful. “You’re right. I’m not sure what I’d have done if you hadn’t responded to my call. I appreciate your help and your advice.”
“I’ll bet,” Barb said half jokingly. She opened her door.
I reached over and put my hand on her arm. “No, really, I do appreciate it. I apologize for being argumentative. I sincerely do mean ‘thank you’.”
As she climbed out of the truck, Barb said, “In that case, I sincerely mean ‘you’re welcome’.” She unlocked the side garage door and turned on the lights. She rubbed her hands together. “Brr-rr-rr. It’s a mite chilly in here.” She said she’d check for loaner vehicle availability as she sat down at her desk and logged onto her computer. “Will a ’94 Ford Ranger do?”
I smiled, eager to seem cooperative at this point. “Perfect.”
Barb drew up the contract. When she finished, she said, “Our daytime mechanic will check for signs of other possible tamperin’ the first thing tomorrow. You should be able to pick up your Jeep by lunchtime.”
“Thank you, Barb … for everything.”
Barb hit me with the classic guilt trip as I opened the front door of the office to leave. She said, “P’raps this was a random act. However if you ignore it, whoever did it might strike again. Maybe you could save someone else from this kinda grief.”
Later that evening, I started to type an email to my friend Alice Curtis to tell her about the slashed tire. Alice was a minister, but I never had a sense of being judged by her. And she usually nudged me back into a reasonable perspective regardless of my issue.
We had been friends since grade school, and like an old married couple, we pretty much knew everything about each other. She was the one person with whom I could be totally—well, almost totally—forthright. Wasn’t everybody entitled to a secret or two?
I decided against using email for the slashed tire message. Alice would read too much into it, and it would only make her worry. I’d tell her about it in person when we met for our weekly walk.
I started to review some notes from my morning appointments with students, but I wasn’t productive. My thoughts kept wandering back to Barb’s warnings. I knew she was right, at least as far as the idea that I could have been in a bad spot if I hadn’t found a tow. And I certainly didn’t want anyone else to suffer the same grief. However, I still didn’t think the incident warranted a police report.
As I was logging off my computer, I could almost hear Dad saying, “Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill now.” At that point Velcro jumped up on the desk and nudged my arm. I picked up the purring cat and hugged her close, holding onto the thought of Dad and his Down East philosophy.
My muscles were tense and I felt the onset of a headache. Perhaps a few minutes of meditation would help me relax. I sat on the bedroom carpet with my eyes closed, my back straight, and my legs crossed right over left. I shrugged my shoulders to loosen their tension. I consciously slowed my breathing and focused on the in-and-out sensation. Next I opened my eyes and shifted my attention to a picture of Reid State Park I’d hung on the wall as a prop. I imagined the sound of the surf, hoping to trigger feelings of harmony and tranquility.
I was physically relaxed when I climbed into bed, but sleep still did not come easily. I tossed and turned and toyed with troubling thoughts. Was the slashed tire merely a random act of meanness or was there more to it than that? Could it be personal?
At that point it seemed likely I’d simply been unlucky.
I awoke from a dream with a start. It was the middle of the night. My bedding was in a tangle. The room was pitch-black. The only sounds were Sprite’s soft snoring and the pounding in my ears. I sat up and turned on the bedside lamp. The light chased the shadows, but the voice from my dream lingered. It always did.
If you wake up in the middle of the night and you hear something that makes you jump, be afraid. Be very afraid.