Dorthea glanced over at Kim and gasped. "Hey, are you okay?" she asked reaching out and placing her hand on Kim's arm in concern.
"I think I may be having a panic attack," Kim answered in a shaky voice, her fingers wrapped tightly around the steering wheel.
"Let's get off this freeway. Take the next off ramp," Dorthea ordered.
"I, uh… I don't know where that goes."
"I don't care. Pull over."
Kim directed the station toward the off ramp and slowing as the pavement led to the right. She braked to a stop where traffic exiting the freeway was to merge onto a busy city street.
"Honey," Dorthea spoke gently when the car remained in place, prohibiting the cars behind from proceeding. "We can't stop here." She pointed to large open area next to a department store at the next corner, "Pull into that parking lot." A horn honked from one of the cars behind them, its driver impatient to get moving. "Come on, just a little further."
Kim lifted her foot off the brake and steered onto the street pressing her foot lightly against the accelerator. When another horn blared behind them, she slammed her foot to the floorboard and the station wagon leaped forward.
Dorthea screamed in alarm as Kim yanked the steering wheel over and the car spun sideways into the parking lot before skidding to an abrupt stop when the brakes were jammed on. After a moment to recover her senses, she reached over and turned the key, shutting off the engine. Then she gently pried Kim's fingers off the steering wheel and eased her back against the seat. "I'm going to get the water jug." She got out of the car then opened the back door and crawled inside to retrieve the plastic container that had fallen over and rolled to the rear of the car. With jug in hand, she scooted back out. "Here, drink some of this," she said after returning to the front seat and holding the jug out to Kim.
Dorthea laughed nervously, still a little shaken by the recent events. "I guess that would be easier, wouldn't it?" She grabbed one of the empty cups off the seat between them and filled it half full with water. "Here," she said handing it to Kim.
Kim took the cup and raised it to her lips. Her trembling hands made it difficult but she managed to swallow some of the liquid. "Sorry," she said weakly staring sightlessly out the windshield.
"Honey, what happened?" Dorthea asked softly.
Kim remained silent for several minutes while Dorthea waited patiently, content to give her friend all the time she needed to regain her composure.
"I think…" Kim started then stopped to take another drink. Her hands had stopped shaking by the time she continued. "I think I got freaked out by all the cars." She gazed at Dorthea with a mixture of amazement and utter terror. "Never in all my life have I seen this many cars. Oh, hell, this many of everything." The more she talked, the faster the words tumbled from her. "Can you believe all of this? Look… more cars have gone by on that street since we've been here than we see all day back home. All these people. All these cars. It's too much. I can't deal with it," she exclaimed, her voice having risen to a high fearful pitch.
Dorthea nodded in sympathy. "It is a lot but-"
"A lot?" Kim shrieked. "A lot? Dorthea, they're like ants. Everywhere you look are people and cars and houses and-"
Dorthea reached over to cover Kim's mouth with her hand. "I know, honey. I know. But you have to calm down before you blow a cork." She softened her tone when she saw Kim's eyes imploring her to grasp the reason for her panic. "Honey, I understand… I do. But we can't stay here in this parking lot. And we're too close to just turn around and go home. You can do this, I know you can," she said removing her hand from Kim's mouth.
"I don't know. It's all so… different."
Dorthea laughed. "That's quite the understatement. But, you're right, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore."
"Kansas?" Kim asked confused.
"It was a joke. We're not in Iowa just doesn't have the same ring to it."
Kim laid her head against the seat back and groaned. "My nerves are shot." She rolled her head to study Dorthea. "How can you be so calm?"
Dorthea smiled leaning against the seat and resting her head on Kim's shoulder. She released a long stream of air between her pursed lips. "I may seem calm but in here," she patted her stomach, "I'm wrapped up so tight I don't think I'll ever feel normal again." She watched the passing cars for several minutes. "I can't imagine all these people wanting to live in the same place."
Kim rolled her head to gaze out the window at the street and grimaced. It had been almost an hour since they had crested the steep Cajon Pass then dropped down off the San Bernardino Mountains to skirt the foothills and picked up Interstate 10. Her anxiety had risen with each passing mile as they traveled through increasingly populated communities on their way to Los Angeles and, eventually, to Gardena. "I never expected Los Angeles would be like this," she murmured in trepidation but with a trace of wonder.
"I knew it would be different," Dorthea said with a chuckle. "But it sure isn't what I expected either." She reached for Kim's hand and squeezed it lovingly. "And I thought, if anything, I'd be the one to freak out." When Kim turned back to face her, she added softly, "You've always been my rock."
Kim smiled tensely. "Looks like your rock crumbled into pea gravel today."
"Nah." Dorthea lifted Kim's hand to her lips and tenderly kissed her fingers. "We probably should have stopped sooner so we both could have adjusted."
"I'm not sure I'll ever adjust. I'm not sure I want to adjust."
Dorthea kissed Kim's cheek. "You're just a country girl at heart, aren't you?"
"I feel more like a dish of melted Jello right now."
Dorthea grinned. "Speaking of food, want to try to find a place to get something to eat? It will keep us off the road for a while."
Kim shook her head. "I wasn't speaking of food," she groused. "And, sorry, but the thought of eating anything right now makes my stomach do flips. How much further to Gardena?"
"I'm not sure." Keeping hold of Kim's hand with her right one, Dorthea reached for the map with her left.
Kim laughed, pulling her hand free. "You're going to twist yourself into knots doing that."
Dorthea smiled appreciatively as she unfolded the appropriate map. "Where are we?"
"I think the last sign I saw before I freaked out said Pomona."
"Then we must be around here," Dorthea said pointing to the map and smiling at Kim. "That means we're less than an hour from Gardena."
Kim sighed gratefully. "How about we try to make it there?"
"Are you sure?" When Kim nodded hesitantly, Dorthea turned back to the map. "Let me see if I can figure out a way to get there without having to get back on the freeway."
Kim reached over and covered the area of the map Dorthea was studying with her hand. "That will only take longer and probably freak me out more. Let's just get there as fast as possible. If I have any problems, I'll pull over."
"If you're sure."
"I won't go that far, but sitting here isn't helping. I'm just going to get out and stretch my legs then we'll go."
"Okay," Dorthea agreed as she re-folded the map.
"Think that store has a bathroom we could use?"
"Let's go find out."
With a minimum of hyperventilating, Kim managed to maneuver through two major interchanges and was progressing through a third as they circumvented the downtown area of Los Angeles.
"Vermont Avenue should be close," Dorthea informed the nervous driver. Then it's a straight shot down to Gardena." She looked up from the map to study the directional signs that seemed to be pointing in all directions. "There," she pointed excitedly. "Half a mile. We want to go south."
Kim nodded, keeping her attention on the cars whizzing past them. With a sigh of relief, she flipped on the turn signal and eased onto the off ramp. "South?"
"Turn left at the bottom of the ramp and go under the freeway."
"We stay on Vermont for about fifteen miles. We're almost there," she said cheerfully.
Kim waited at the bottom of the ramp for the signal to change to green before steering onto the wide street. "Maybe we should look for a motel when we get close. I need to collapse someplace that doesn't have cars."
Dorthea laughed. "You're doing fine, honey. Move into the right lane when it's safe, we'll need to turn when we get to Redondo Beach Boulevard."
"Redondo Beach?" Kim asked looking in the rearview mirror to judge the traffic flow behind them. "Are we near a beach?"
Dorthea shrugged. "I don't think so." She thought for a moment. "Have you ever seen the ocean? I mean in real life."
"No." Kim chuckled. "But maybe that's a good thing."
"What do you mean?"
"If it's like everything else out here, it's probably so big it'll scare the pants off me."
Dorthea laughed as Kim changed lanes.
"We're in Gardena," Dorthea suddenly announced.
"How the heck do you know what town we're in?" Kim asked in frustration. They had made the turn off Vermont Avenue and were driving west past endless blocks of commercial buildings and apartment complexes. "We've been in one continuous town since we came over the mountains this morning."
"I think they call them cities here, hon," Dorthea said absently as she peered curiously at the passing buildings.
"Cities, towns, what does it matter? It's all just one big mass of humanity. Don't they believe in signs out here?"
"Seems to me they have plenty of signs, so many it's hard to read all of them. Makes Iowa seem not so bad, doesn't it?"
Kim glared as another driver tried to force his way into the flow of traffic from a side street. "Sure makes me want to get back there," she muttered easing off the throttle to allow the impatient driver to merge into traffic.
"That's was nice of you," Dorthea praised the gesture even if the other driver didn't acknowledge it.
"I don't think Thomas would like it much if we brought his car back with dents in it."
"No, I doubt he'd be happy very with that. Where are you going? Dorthea asked when Kim abruptly turned into a parking lot.
"We're in Gardena?"
"I think so."
"Then we can stop driving?"
"Dorthea, if this is Gardena then we're here… right?"
"Um… I guess… yeah, we're here." Dorthea smiled. "We are here, aren't we?"
"Finally." Kim pulled into an empty parking slot and turned off the engine. "Now, let's get a room for the night and get out of this damn car."
Dorthea peered out the windshield at the building adjoining the lot. "Can we afford this place?" she asked spotting the name of a large hotel chain on the side of the structure.
Kim pulled the key out of the ignition then turned to face Dorthea. "I can't go any further."
Dorthea nodded. "You stay here; I'll go check on a room. And requests?"
"Quiet… very quiet."
Dorthea grabbed her purse then pushed open the car door and climbed out. She took a few moments to stretch out her tired muscles before walking toward the hotel's lobby.
Kim slumped back against the seat and watched Dorthea disappear inside the building. She closed her eyes, hoping to block out the sounds of constant activity surrounding her but the cars passing on the nearby street was a continual reminder of exactly where she was. "I'll never complain about Rapid Falls again," she muttered.
"It was a bit more than we've paid for other rooms," Dorthea said fretfully as the elevator reached the floor where they room was located. "I'm sure we could find someplace less expensive."
Kim waited for the doors to open then carried their suitcases out into the carpeted hallway. "Did you spend everything we had?"
Dorthea followed Kim, carrying an overnight bag that contained notebooks and other information she had acquired over the past few months. "Oh, no, I wouldn't have paid that much," she assured Kim.
"Then don't worry about it. I'm sure we can afford a nice hotel for a night or two." Kim was reading the numbers on the doors that lined both sides of the hallway and stopped in front of a door almost to the end of the floor. She waited for Dorthea to unlock the door.
"Oh, wow," Dorthea exclaimed when she pushed the door inward.
"Nice," Kim agreed as she carried the suitcases into the room. "Very nice."
Dorthea shut the door then turned to join Kim who had set the suitcases on the floor before walking toward the room's windows. She dropped the overnight case on the first of two queen size beds.
"Nice view," Kim said when Dorthea stood beside her. "We can see over all the buildings to the mountains. At least, I think those are mountain peaks above the layer of smog."
Dorthea slipped her arm around Kim's waist. "You said quiet and the clerk said the top floor would be best for that."
"Good thing they have an elevator. I would have hated to have to lug those suitcases up twelve flights of stairs."
"I would have helped and," Dorthea grinned, "we would have rested on every floor."
Kim laughed. "That's for sure."
"There's a restaurant just off the lobby. The clerk said the food was good and not to expensive."
"I'm still not ready to eat just yet."
"That's okay. And there's a swimming pool in the basement."
"That's what he said."
"Wow." Kim said then looked over her shoulder into the room. "You know what I would like to do right now?" Dorthea shook her head. "I want to crawl into one of those beds and just lay there as my brain stops spinning. Want to join me?"
Dorthea smiled. "With pleasure."
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