Spring had finally come. Storms had pelted the area, turning the hills a verdant green. Flowers were in bloom and grasses were growing ever taller by the day. The air was crisp, albeit somewhat cool, and the sky was deep blue with a scattering of wispy clouds.
Perfect weather for taking pictures, so Mara picked up her camera bag and purse. “I’m leaving,” she said. “I probably won’t be back until late afternoon.”
Her husband Mark waved his right hand, holding it high over his shoulder, never turning his head from the baseball game on the television. “Have fun. Get lots of good shots.”
“You don’t want to come along?” Mara asked. “I’d love the company.”
“No,” he said. “I’m going to run over to my mom’s house in a bit to make sure the roof didn’t leak in that last storm.”
“Okay. Then I guess I’ll leave.”
“See you later.”
“Oh, I should tell you where I’m going. Up Niles Canyon and into the hills. Maybe go to Sunol and then wind my way over to Clayton Valley.”
With that Mara left. She loved Niles Canyon. It was a two-lane narrow road that would its way along a small river, which was a dry creek bed in late summer, but a roiling mass of water in spring and fall. Both sides of the river were lined with trees. In spring they were covered with buds of leaves that would soon burst forth, and in fall they showcased a variety of colors, ranging from yellows to burgundy reds.
There were no formal parking areas, but dirt pull offs left plenty to room to leave her car. As she drove along, Mara looked for such a place. Within a mile she found one, pulled over and parked. She picked up her camera bag and hiked down to the water’s edge. It was picture-perfect, just as she hoped it would be.
Mara took out her camera, removed the lens cover and snapped a series of shots from the hillside and along the river bank. Satisfied, she returned to her car and headed off to the next available spot.
It didn’t take long to find one. This one offered a fantastic view of a railroad bridge that crossed the river. On both sides stood tall trees, and with the blue sky as a backdrop, the image was striking.
Two miles later she pulled over again. There was one car already there and so Mara almost didn’t get out. What if these people were up to no good? What if they were down there smoking pot or doing drugs? This area was known to be a haven for the homeless and ne’er-do-wells. She didn’t want to stumble upon a scene that might cause her harm, so she would donw her window and listened.
Sounds of children’s voices floated in the air. High-pitched screams and giggles resounded off the canyon walls. Mara nodded, smiled and got out. If it was safe enough for families, then it was safe enough for her.
She followed a dirt trail through the thick trees that took her down to the river. To her right, children splashed in the water while a couple of moms sat on a log that ran parallel to the ground. Nothing unsavory going on there, so Mara turned and headed east, slowly moving away from the families.
She found wildflowers in bloom, so got down on one knee to get a close up of the petals. Golds contrasted with the deep greens of the forest grass. Beautiful.
Mara moved along, stopping to capture anything that interested her. Crows cawing as they circled high overhead. A bird’s nest in the crook of a branch. A log floating down the river. Leaves nestled around wild mushrooms.
Snapping away, Mara soon lost track of time and place. Immersed in her art, in the pictures she was composing with her lens, she forgot to keep an ear tuned to the sounds around her. She forgot to pay attention to where she was and how far she had strayed from her parking place.
After kneeling along the bank of the river to focus closely on a tiny bud breaking through, Mara heard a noise that sounded out of place. It wasn’t a whistle or a screech of a bird. It wasn’t a train chugging along the tracks. It was a crackling. A rustling. And it frightened her.
Mara stood and looked about. There was nothing in her field of vision that stood out as being foreign. Nothing that screamed of danger, yet she could not deny the hairs standing up, full attention, on the back of her neck and along her arms.
She capped her lens and shoved her camera in the bag. Just as it clicked shut, she saw them. Two roughly dressed men sliding down the hill behind her. One had long messy hair that looked like at hadn’t seen a comb in days. The other wore jeans with huge holes in the knees and a flannel shirt that was clearly way too big. Both were staring at her.
Mara took off. She scrambled up the hillside, grabbing a hold of bushes to help her move faster. The men were moving too. It seemed as if their footsteps were getting closer, so Mara bent over and dug her hands into the dirt, trying to find purchase. But instead of moving faster, it slowed her down.
“Hey, pretty lady,” one of the men called. “Where ya going?” His voice was high-pitched and a bit squeaky, out of sorts with his size.
Mara ducked behind a tree, hoping it hid her from their view.
“I saw your hair. It’s pretty. And your clothes. You look like a nice lady.”
To Mara, it seemed as if the voice was getting closer and clearer. She looked about, hoping to find a friendly soul coming down the hill, but there was no one but her and the men.
“Come out and talk to me,” a man called. This voice was different. A bass with a bit of a rumble. It gave her chills. There was something about it that seemed ominous.
Steps moved closer as the men came up the hill. Mara dared a peak and jumped when she saw that one of the men was touching the tree right below where she was hiding.
“I see you, pretty lady,” he said. He giggled like a school girl, an unexpected sound from someone so large.
Mara turned to her right and saw the other man’s hand reaching for her arm. She screamed, “Leave me alone,” and bending over as far as she could, scrambled further up the hill.
Footsteps followed. Grunts and wheezes told Mara how close they were to her. The sounds also let her know that both men were out of shape and that the climb was wearing them out. So Mara moved faster and faster, relying on her strength and youth to get to the top of the hill.
When she stepped into the clearing, she knew she wasn’t safe. She had to get to her car and lock herself inside before the men could get her. But her car was nowhere to be seen. She guessed that it was to her left, and so she took off in that direction, all the while praying for a friend to rescue her. A passing motorist maybe, or the families finished with their play. But she saw no one.
The footsteps followed her. The men yelled and taunted her. They laughed and offered her money, drugs, booze, good times. Mara did not turn back, did not respond, but kept running.
Finally, after going around a bend in the road, she saw her car. Her keys were buried in her jeans’ pocket. She stuck her hand down inside and used her fingers to pull them out. The effort slowed her down, causing her to stumble in the loose gravel of the parking area.
When she fell, her first thought was that now the men could catch her. That her husband would never know where she was and that her body would never be found.
The realization energized her. Just as fingers ran down her hair, Mara pushed off the ground and ran to her car. She beeped it unlocked and fell inside, and just as one of the men grabbed the door handle, Mara locked it shut.
She put the key in the ignition despite the protest of the men. They continued to call her pretty lady, to offer her a good time, all the while pounding on her windows and leaning against the side of her car.
As soon as the ignition engaged, Mara turned the steering wheel away from the men and stepped on the gas. She felt the car slide to the left and so turned into the spin. Then the wheels found purchase and the car flew away. Mara pulled onto the road without stopping to look for oncoming traffic. Thankfully there was none.
She drove east, constantly checking her rearview mirror to see if she was being followed, but there was no one there. Eventually she came to the freeway, hopped on heading north, then worked her way west and home.
When she saw Mark, she walked up to him and hugged him.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“For being who you are. My rock.”
He stroked her hair and pulled her even tighter to his chest. “Tell me what happened.”
Mara spared no words in describing her joy when she first arrived in Niles Canyon, her abandonment of caution, her fear when she was being hunted. “I’ll never go back,” she said.
“You will,” her husband replied, “but with me. From now on I go with you. Nothing bad will happen as long as we’re together.”
Mara sighed. She knew it was true and that was all that mattered.