THANKSGIVING BREAK
By Clay Jacobsen



The wind was picking up, sending sheets of rain across the darkened road and blanketing the car’s windshield. Still several hours from home, Tracy Williams decided she’d better pull off the road.

She was exhausted, having already driven halfway across Tennessee from the state university in Knoxville. It was Thanksgiving break and the rigorous nursing program had taken its toll--Tracy was in great need of a few days off.

Through the slapping windshield wipers she spotted a blurred neon sign that read “Waffle House”.

Perfect.

“What can I get for ya, miss?”

Tracy smiled at the waitress and turned the mug in front of her right-side-up. “Just some coffee, please.”

“You’ve got it. I’ll be right back.”

Tracy stretched, then leaned against the back of the booth. She rubbed her eyes. Making it home was going to be tough. She caught her refelction in the mirror on the other side of the booth-it wasn’t a pretty sight. Her eyes were puffy and beet red, hiding their normally vibrant blue. her bonde hair was flat and greasy, her make-up definitely in need of a touch-up.

“Here you go,” the waitress offered, pouring the steaming black liquid into Tracy’s cup.

“Thanks.” Tracy grabbed a packet of sugar, pouring it into the cup and stirring it slowly with her spoon. She picked up the mug and brought it to her lips, blowing gently over the top.

The door in the cafe’ opened, sending a rush of cold air into the restaurant. Tracy looked up, catching a glimpse of a man as she took a small sip. He had to fight the wind to close the door behind him.

He was tall: Tracy guessed about six foot tow, with short dark hair-about her age. She rated him a seven, not bad-looking but nothing to write home about. His nose seemed a bit large for his face.

The stranger looked intently across the near-empty restaurant. Tracy looked down before his eyes landed on her.

She took a sip of coffee and what began as a warm sensation gliding down her throat turned into a chill when the stranger stepped toward her. Tracy kept her eyes on the table and began praying under her breath.

“I’m glad you came.”

He had stopped right beside her. Tracy looked up, “Excuse me?”

Without invitation, he sat down across from her and smiled. “You know wit the storm and all, I’m glad you’re here.”

Tracy tilted her head, “I think you have me confused with somebody else.”
“No, don’t say that,” He blinked rapidly. “We’ve planned this meeting for weeks.”

Tracy didn’t more.

He smiled, “I’m Thornberry Seven.”

She shook her head, “I don’t know what that means.”

His face darkened for an instant, then hi smile returned. “Oh, I get it. Your’re playing with me.”

Her pulse quickened. She looked around the empty restaurant to see who might be able to help her if this guy went nuts.

“So, what’ll it be, Ladybug?” the stranger continued. “You want me to introduce myself properly/“

“like I said,” Tracy said, “I’m not who you think I am. I’m just driving through town trying to make my way home for Thanksgiving.”

“No!”

His hand came down swiftly, landing open-palmed on the table. The silverware rattled and Tracy jumped.

She gulped in a breath of air and looked right at him. His eyes bore into her, the friendly glint replaced by an anger that was palpable. He blinked slowly and tilted his head. When he looked back up, his expression had softened.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Look, I think…”

“Please,” he interrupted. “Let me start over. My name’s Rich, Rich Graham.”

Tracy hesitated, looking toward the kitchen. Where was the waitress?

“Rich,” Tracy turned back, “it’s nice to meet you. But I really am a college student. I’ve got several hours still to drive. I just want to drink my coffee and get back on the road as soon as this storm settles.”

Rich sat like a statue for several seconds, then sat back into the booth and cleared his throat. His brow creased and his eyes turned black as he spread out his hands and spoke.

“So what is it?”

Tracy didn’t answer.

“Expecting Brad Pitt and now you don’t like what you see, is that it?”

“No,” Tracy responded firmly. “I’m not expecting anyone.”

Rich leaned in close to Tracy, speaking in a harsh yet softened voice, “Liar.”

Her heart skipped. She looked around for anyone that could help her. No one appeared. “I’d like to be left alone, please.”

“Alone!” Rich blurted out, the anger returning like flames in his eyes. “You’re Ladybug. We met in a chat room, several months ago.”

Tracy shook her head slowly, sinking into the booth as he rambled on.

“You’re a waitress at Applebees. Your name is Sally and you’re twenty-five years old. You love movies—your favorite is Steel Magnolias…”

“Rich,” Tracy interrupted. “I’m not Sally. I’ve never…”

“Yes you are. You emailed me your picture!”

“No I didn’t.” Tracy stated flatly. She thought for a second. “Do you have it with you?”

“No—Yes!” He brightened. “It’s in my truck. You’ll see.”

Rich bolted from the booth and headed for the door. Tracy sighed heavily and scanned the diner. The only other occupants were an elderly couple sharing a piece of pie at a table in the corner.

She grabbed her purse and quickly placed a couple of dollars on the tabletop before heading to the door. She looked out to the parking lot, spotting a white pick-up truck but no sign of Rich. She pulled her keys out of her purse and held them in her hand—ready.

Through the downpour she could see the pick-up’s interior lights illuminate. Tracy didn’t hesitate. She quickly opened the café’ door and ran straight for her Honda Civic.

She stopped beside the driver’s door and crouched low, keeping her eyes on the entrance to the restaurant.

The rain pelted her, soaking through her jeans and bouncing off her jacket. When she wiped the water away from her eyes, she spotted him.

He was heading back toward the café. Tracy hit the button on her key chain that unlocked her car then opened the door and climbed in. She closed the door beside her as quickly as she could—cursing Honda’s feature that left the interior lights on for five seconds before fading slowly.

She kept her eyes trained on Rich’s back, waiting for him to enter the restaurant before starting the car.

He stopped suddenly and turned around. Tracy ducked, but the dome light was still on—shining brightly over her blonde hair.

Rich spotted her as she turned the key. The Honda fired to life.

He began running straight at her. Tracy screamed, slammed the gearshift into reverse and pushed down on the gas pedal. The tires spun on the wet pavement as Rich reached the front hood. Tracy couldn’t help but look straight into his eyes—they were inflamed, the distortion of the wet windshield making him look like a wild wolf locked onto his prey.

Finally the tires took hold and the car lurched backward throwing Rich facedown onto the pavement. Tracy reached over to hit the power door lock; her hand was shaking so badly it took two tries before she heard the comforting sound of the locks clamping into place.

Suddenly her body was slammed into the back of the seat, her head snapping back hard. She looked at the rearview mirror filled with the image of Rich’s white pick-up.
She’d smashed his truck!

Tracy found herself gulping in small breaths—too quickly. She was on the verge of hyperventilating.

No time to think—Rich was up again, heading toward her and screaming.

She forced the gearshift into drive and pounced on the gas again. She swerved to the right, just missing Rich as he leaped out of the way.

“Sally, wait!” Tracy heard faintly, but she kept her focus on swinging the steering wheel back to the left to keep the car under control. She kept accelerating, hitting the main road and speeding off into the night. The rain came down in such torrents that it was impossible to keep track of the white line marking the middle of the road.

Tracy was shaking. She forced herself to take a deep breath, trying to stay off the effects of oxygen depravation.

“Lord, don’t let him follow me. Please God!” Her voice trembled. She didn’t dare take her eyes off the road to look into the rearview mirror. She didn’t need to. The reflection of a pair of headlights flashed across her eyes.

She turned right at the first road, passing a large sign: “Welcome to The Hermitage—the home of Andrew Jackson.”

Great, she thought. There’ll be nobody there at this hour. God, I could use a little help here!

The road turned. She managed the first curve but halfway into the second the car skidded sideways. She couldn’t correct it on the wet surface and the car flew off the road.

The Honda landed sideways on two wheels in a drainage creek. Tracy sat wide-eyed, slipping into shock. Then water started rushing into the car around her feet—forcing Tracy into action.

Reaching for the latch on her seatbelt, she realized that half the front windshield was under a five-foot high torrent of muddy water. Fighting the surge of panic rising from her gut, Tracy pushed herself out from under the steering wheel and reached up toward the passenger door.

It was locked.

The water was at her waist—the engine had stalled. The lights of the car piercing the rushing waters cast an eerie glow around her. She flipped up the power lock switch—nothing happened. She frantically pushed against the window switch, trying to roll the window down and crawl out—still nothing. Fighting back the nightmare of drowning inside her own car, Tracy pushed against the window, praying for intervention. Then she noticed the lock on the right side of the door and almost laughed at her stupidity. Reaching out, she pulled up on the knob.

The door was unlocked, yet it wouldn’t budge. She pushed straight up with all her might, groaning like a weightlifter until the door finally popped open. Fighting through the pouring rain she made her way out and sat on top of the right front panel. The dirty water rushed around her, any slip and she’d be swept downstream with little hope of survival. All she had to do was jump to the shore, just a few feet away.

“Sally, “ Tracy heard, “Hold on, I’m coming!”

Tracy looked up as a flash of lightning struck overhead. There stood Rich, arms outstretched as if he would be her savior.

Not today.

He started down the embankment. A second bolt of lightning slashed across the sky and Rich came to an abrupt halt.

Tracy didn’t hesitate. She turned and jumped over the car’s hood into the rushing water.

“Noooo!” She heard from behind her, but she didn’t give it a second thought. The water was even more powerful than she’d expected and Tracy found it impossible to keep her head above water.

She had to get to shore, and quickly. She pointed her body toward the side of the creek and stroked furiously. For every inch she gained sideways, she moved twenty yards downstream. At least she was that much farther away from Rich.

As she gulped for air, a flash of lightning lit up the bank ahead where the stream took a turn. She reached hard with her right hand and pulled at the water trying to break free when it turned. When she was a few feet from shore, her chest smashed into a large boulder.

Her breath left her and her head sunk under the water. Panic washed over her; she gasped for air that wasn’t there. Her hand reached out one last time but found nothing.

Her vision began to collapse inward as the darkness overwhelming her. She couldn’t fight anymore. She just wanted to rest, to succumb to the inviting blackness. Tracy imagined a hand grasping onto hers and in the deep recesses of her mind envisioned holding on like a mad pit bull.

* * *

Rich stood entrenched on the side of the creek—staring ahead. He hadn’t noticed the sheriff’s car that pulled up behind him, the lights flashing. His eyes stayed glued in front of him, reacting to what he’d seen when the second flash of lightning struck. Standing on either side of Tracy’s car, half submerged in the water were two huge men staring directly at Rich with their arms crossed. When the lightning had faded, it seemed to Rich as if the men continued to glow. Their eyes were like fire, challenging him to continue his chase. He dared not move until their images faded...which happened at the same instant the sheriff deputy behind him yelled, “Don’t move!”

* * *

Tracy heaved—coughing up what seemed like a gallon of muddy floodwater. She gasped, savoring the intake of air. Her lungs ached. Her chest felt like a sledgehammer had slammed into it.

Tracy rolled over on her back and moaned, letting the rain wash over her. She was alive—barely. A strong hand reached out and pushed her hair away from her face.

She opened her eyes.

“Are you feeling better miss?”

Kneeling above her was the smiling face of the sheriff’s deputy who had pulled her from the raging creek. Behind him was the café’ where it had all started.

“How…” Tracy sputtered.

“Cindy, your waitress, called us as soon as you left the Waffle House,” the officer explained. “Another deputy is up the creak where your car went into the wash. He radioed that you had jumped in the creek—I got here just as you floated by.”

“What about…”

“The man that chased you? We ran a check on him—turns out he’s wanted for questioning in connection with a string of date rapes of young women he’s met online and lured into meeting him.”

Tracy sighed in relief and looked back toward the rushing water. “Thank you, so much.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad you’re OK. But if you ask me,” the deputy continued, “to come out of that creek alive, you should be thanking the good Lord above.”

So that’s exactly what she did.