Anthrocide

Anthrocide.net is the official website for D.L. Hamilton, author of several Christian novels and essays.

Archive for August, 2019

The Hitch

Though she had no way of knowing for sure, Mia guessed that it had been at least three hours since she had been left there. The broiling sun had moved enough that the small overhang in the front of the time-ravaged building no longer provided any shade, no matter where she positioned herself.

Shawn was not coming back. She was convinced of that now. She should have known better than to accompany him. Actually, she had known better. The squabbling, bickering, and fighting had become not merely a daily occurrence, but pretty much continuous in the weeks leading up to the trip. She had decided against going and was even looking forward to a couple weeks of peace while he was away. But in one of their rare quiet moments he had convinced her that he needed her with him and that a change of scenery would breathe fresh life into their crumbling relationship. At the last minute she had given-in, thrown some clothes in a bag, and gone along. Now that bag, as well as her purse and cell phone, were halfway to who-knew-where.

The trip had started out okay, but by day two they were back to their old ways. It was out on these deserted back roads that their latest raging quarrel had reached such hysteria that, upon spotting a gas station, she had demanded at the top of her lungs that he let her out. She had even grabbed the steering wheel, receiving a backhand in response. She could not remember ever being so furious. When he had jammed on his brakes she had immediately jumped out. But before she could reach back in to get her stuff, he had squealed off, nearly dragging her along. After she had regained her balance, she had seen him slow the car after about 100 yards to reach over and pull her door completely shut, and then squeal off again, disappearing into the distance. Tears formed in her eyes as she once again rued the day she let herself get mixed up with such a self-centered jerk. He hadn’t even had the decency to throw her purse out the window. Her dad had warned her that she should stay away from Shawn; that he was bad news. Much as she hated to admit it, Dad had been spot-on.

So here she sat on the ground, arms around her knees, back against the dingy, once-white stucco wall: no purse, no personal items, no ID, no credit cards, no money, no phone; nothing. In her rage she had failed to notice that this “gas station” was long-abandoned. Given that she had only seen four vehicles—a pickup, a semi, and two cars—go by all the while she had been there, it was no wonder that it had gone out of business. As each of those vehicles had approached, she had hidden behind the decaying remains of what had been the tiny station, fearing that someone creepy might see her and stop. But, as the hours crawled by in the stifling heat, she was reconsidering that strategy. There was nothing else around, no other buildings of any kind from horizon to horizon; only treeless open space and the straight, lone, gray strip of two-lane highway. Each end of it shimmered in a silent heat mirage in the distance with no cars approaching in either direction.

Maybe I should have hailed one of those cars, she thought. She knew the incredible dangers of anyone, especially a young woman, hitching a ride out on a lonesome highway. But now she was pondering the dangers of staying put. Since no one except that lunatic, Shawn, knew that she, or that anyone, was out here, logically no one would ever look here for her. The sun was baking her and there was no shelter, no food, not even any water as far as she could tell. The only respite from the unbearable heat would be nightfall. But that would be hours from now and would introduce a whole new set of dangers. What kinds of beasties might prowl around this godforsaken wilderness in the dark?

Sweat dripped off the tip of her nose and she, for the third time, walked over to the door and the lone window in the front of the building. The steel door was solidly padlocked. The window had originally consisted of 12 small panes in a wood framework that only gave the slightest hint that it had once been painted. All of the panes had been broken inward and she could see some sort of ledge inside that was covered with the shattered glass. The frames themselves still retained shards protruding like sharks’ teeth, warning her against any thought of trying to get in through them. Besides, from what she could see, the building was just an empty shell. While getting inside would get her out of the sun, it would amount to little more than moving from burner to oven. There were the remnants of two gas pumps out front and a retracted awning along one side of the building that she guessed was the closest the place had come to having a garage. She figured the proprietor had probably done minor repairs and tire changes under it, but extending it required some kind of crank, which she did not see anywhere. When looking around out back earlier she had seen a six-foot-tall by four-foot-square outbuilding that contained a vertical tank and what was probably a well-water pump, from which some wires ran up to an insulator. But the wires were no longer connected to the utility pole beside the road. Around the front of the station next to the door was the only other fixture: a gutted, old-fashioned, chest-style Coke machine almost totally devoid of red paint.

Noticing it reminded her of her raging thirst and, ironically, her need to pee. There were restrooms around back: the women’s was padlocked shut, but the door to the men’s had been broken open with a huge rock—by some desperate person who had been in the car too long since the last outpost of civilization, no doubt. She had ignored it during her earlier exploratory trips around the building, but now it took on renewed importance.

The restroom door was jammed partially open providing barely enough room to squeeze in, which she did, and barely enough light to see once inside. There were no fixtures, only pipes with nothing attached. In the stool’s place was just a hole in the floor. It had been covered with a piece of plywood but someone, probably Mr. Desperate, had somehow torn it off. There was an unpleasant odor emanating from what now amounted to a “squatty potty,” similar to those she had seen in a documentary about rural areas in Asia, but she decided something was better than nothing. As her eyes adjusted to the tiny, darkened room, she could see various bugs and spiders reacting to her intrusion. It gave her the willies so, hoping that speed would be her friend, she unfastened her jeans in record time. Even so, she could not help but imagine all sorts of crawlies skydiving from the ceiling onto her tee shirt or into her long, brown hair as she squatted motionless, pleading with her bladder to hurry-up and empty. Movement in the corner, where the sink had been, caught her eye. It was a small lizard scurrying after an insect, making her heart pound as she frantically pulled her jeans back on and ran outside. Only then did her mind have the misfortune to wonder what might have crawled into her pants while she was in such a vulnerable position. Despite the oppressive heat, she shuddered.

That was it; she could not stay here. No matter what vehicle came along or which direction it was heading, she would hail the next one down and ask for a ride—somewhere, anywhere. Maybe fortune would smile upon her and the next vehicle would be driven by a silver-haired grandmother who, along with her two kindhearted daughters, would take Mia to their home, lend her a phone to call for her dad to come get her, and treat her like royalty. Or maybe a police car would come by.

Or perhaps Shawn would have had a change of heart and come back to get her. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be such a good thing. What kind of scum leaves his girlfriend abandoned alongside a road, even if he does come back three hours later? In three hours she could have been savaged by some animal, ravaged by a gang of rapists, or abducted by some serial killer. Then a cold fear gripped her: any of those things might happen yet.

She again plopped her slim, 5’7” frame down and leaned back against the building. Then she began to cry. Her perspiration along with her thirst prevented an excessive amount of tears, but she sobbed aloud for a good five minutes. As she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, she realized she was starting to feel light-headed in the smothering heat. What a horrible place, she thought. Not even a single tree in sight to provide a little shade. I can’t believe hell is much worse than this. She wondered if she should get the rock that Mr. Desperate had crashed-in the restroom door with and see if she could break some of the front window frames. At least inside she might avoid heatstroke.

With great effort she got to her feet and, for no real reason, dusted-off the back of her pants. Although she assumed it was futile, she first staggered out to the edge of the road and looked down it, first west, then east. She blinked and shook her head to ensure her mind wasn’t playing tricks. Some object was shimmering in the distance to the east end of the highway. She compared it to the west horizon and when she looked back again, sure enough, something was approaching. It appeared to be a silver vehicle. She remembered reading somewhere that women preferred silver cars more than men. That was a hopeful sign. She stepped one foot onto the pavement and began waving her arms as a person having car trouble would do. To her great relief, the silver sedan slowed way down and then stopped beside her. The person inside was wearing a stained John Deere baseball cap, and leaned over to crank-down the passenger window.

“Need some help?” asked a 30-ish man with a brown stubble beard.

Mia gulped. This was not the grandmotherly type she had hoped for. “Um, yeah,” she said hesitantly.

The man looked all around her. “Car break down?”

“No. I don’t have a car. Um, could I maybe just use your phone?”

“Well, I mean, you could, except I don’t have it with me. I let my mom borrow it this morning and drove off without it. Sorry. I don’t usually do that. Could I give you a ride somewhere? I’m headed to Bald Rock.”

Her nostrils flared as she felt like she might start crying again. “Um, no offense, sir, but could I maybe ride in back?”

“Well, I mean, unfortunately it’s all full of stuff. See?” He pointed and, as he had said, the rear seat and floorboard were covered with boxes, books, some sort of shelving, a lamp, and various other garage-sale type items. “It’s my mom’s stuff. I’m moving her in with me and had to get everything out of her apartment by today. This is the last load. But you can sit up front. I mean, I don’t bite, and don’t have rabies or nothin’ even if I did.” He gave a quick laugh.

Mia bit her lip and wrung her hands with indecision. There was something about this guy she didn’t like. One of those women’s intuition things. He didn’t leer at her or anything, and had not done or said anything particularly creepy. Except that unlikely-sounding story about his phone. Her stomach tightened with fear and her lower lip began to tremble. “Sir, could you maybe just go somewhere and call 9-1-1 and tell them I’m out here and need help? It’s nothing against you or anything, it’s just that I’m really frightened.”

“I mean, I could do that, but Bald Rock’s a good 45 minutes away; ‘n then by the time I got there, made the call and someone got back here… How long have you been out here?”

“I don’t know; two, three, maybe four hours.”

“Ma’am, it’s almost a hundred degrees out here and getting hotter every minute. I mean, I know you’re reluctant, what with me being a stranger and all, but judging by the perspiration and how red you are in the face, I really think you need to get out of this heat. This old car has a lot of miles on her, but the air conditioning works fine. Look, I can take you to my place—my mother will be there—and you can use my phone, or, I mean, if you’d rather to go someplace public, I can take you to the truck stop out on the Interstate. I mean, we’d pass right by my house, but if that’s what you’d prefer, that’s what we’ll do.”

He keeps mentioning his mother, she thought. That might mean he’s okay. Finally, she nodded, took a deep breath and pulled the door open. The gust of air conditioning that hit her as she sat down caused her to close her eyes, loll her head back against the headrest, and blow out her cheeks with relief.

As she buckled-in and the car started moving, the man said, “Y’know, that air will work a lot better if you close up your window. This car don’t have no fancy push button windows, you gotta crank it shut.” She nodded and did so. “You can readjust them vents any way you need to so’s you can cool off.”

She gave him a quick half-hearted smile. “They’re fine, but thank you.”

Then she noticed the large plastic fast-food cup in the console cupholder. He saw her look at it and said, “I expect you’re probably thirsty, huh? That’s still half full. It’s just root beer. I mean, if you want you can just take off the lid and straw and drink it straight from the cup. That way it won’t have too many of my germs.”

Her mind raced with thoughts not unlike those she’d had about bugs having crawled into her pants but, desperate times… “Maybe just a sip,” she said. With great hesitation she removed the lid, set it aside and sipped-in a tiny amount of the potentially germ-riddled liquid. But its icy, sweet wetness was so wonderful that her mouth would not allow her to stop until she had taken four large gulps. She pulled the cup away and again closed her eyes as she caught her breath. When she opened them, the man was smiling. She didn’t like his smile. Not that there was anything sinister in it, she somehow just didn’t like that he was smiling.

“Go on ahead,” he said. “Have some more. Drink it all if you want. I don’t need it.”

Having already doomed herself by ingesting God-knew-what kind of diseases, she decided to just go for it. “Thank you,” she said quietly as she tipped the cup up and took a half dozen more swallows.

“By the way,” he said, “my name’s Lenny; Lenny Buckweiler. I live up here in Bald Rock.”

“I’m Mia,” she said. She stared out the windshield as if hoping it would curtail further conversation.

“Mia?” he said. She nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Mia.” She gave a slight smile and nodded again. They rode in silence for few minutes and then Lenny said, “You live around here somewhere?”

“No, I’m from—” Then she caught herself. Maybe letting him know that help was a long way away was not a good idea. He looked over at her with knitted brows, waiting for her to finish. She cleared her throat. “I’m… from out of state.” As soon as she said it she realized how foolish it was. Given the size of this state and where they were, that automatically meant her “people” were hours away at best, no matter where she was from. Irritated with herself, she decided that there was no use trying to be circumspect about it. She sighed and said, “Oklahoma. I’m from Oklahoma.”

“Ah,” said Lenny. “I got a cousin lives in Oklahoma; Miami. It’s spelled like Miami in Florida, but they insist people pronounce it Miam-uh. Don’t know why.” There was another long pause as he waited for her to pick up the conversation, which she did not. He tried again. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you end-up stranded way out here all by yourself with no car or nothin’? I mean, it doesn’t look like you even have a purse or anything. It’s pretty rare nowadays for a person, especially someone young, to not at least have a phone with her.”

She sighed. She didn’t owe this guy her life history. But then, he was helping her by giving her a ride; he wouldn’t have had to. She decided to give him the condensed version. “I was traveling with my boyfriend—make that my ex-boyfriend—to Las Vegas. We’ve been doing a lot of fighting lately and we got into another one. It turned out to be a doozy and when I saw that gas station, I demanded that he let me out. He did and then took off with all my stuff. Only after he left did I realize the station was all closed up.”

“Yeah,” said Lenny, “that place has been shut down as long as I can remember. So, your boy—ex-boyfriend just drove off and left you? Out in the middle of nowhere? I mean, that ain’t right; I don’t care how upset a guy gets, you just can’t treat a lady that way.”

She smiled slightly and the tension in her stomach eased a bit. Still, she thought, that could just be him trying to get on my good side so that I’ll let my guard down.

“I’m curious,” said Lenny. “If you’re headed to Las Vegas, what were you doing on this road? I mean, the Interstate isn’t that far away and would get you there a whole lot faster.”

“I know. That was one of the many things we were arguing about. Shawn had this screwy idea that he could make better time by avoiding all the road construction on the Interstate. I tried to tell him we were going way too far out of the way, but he just shut me down. Like he always did.”

“Yeah, far as I know the only road construction in these parts just slows you to 55 for five or six miles. Coming this way must have added quite a bit of time to your trip.”

“Not to mention that there aren’t any places to stop going this way,” said Mia. “We didn’t even get breakfast.”

“Wow, and here it is almost 2:30. Well, don’t worry about that. We’ll get you something to eat. Now, once you get to a phone, I mean, is there somebody that can come help you?”

“Yeah, my dad.”

“He in Oklahoma?”

“Yeah, Tulsa.”

“Hmm,” said Lenny, “once you call him, even if he left immediately, he wouldn’t get here till three, four tomorrow morning. You’re gonna need someplace to stay.”

She gulped. “Is—is there a hotel nearby? My dad might be able to reserve a room for me with his credit card.”

Lenny paused for a bit. “I mean, there’s not anything in Bald Rock. It ain’t much more than a spot in the road. The Long-Haul Truck Stop is the only business there to speak of. There’s a Super-8 about 30 miles on down the Interstate. But, now that Mom’s moved into my place, her old sofa’s in the spare room. I mean, you could sleep there till your dad got here.”

Mia was still suspicious and did not particularly like the idea of even going to Lenny’s house, let alone sleeping there. But at least they were progressing toward something resembling civilization, so she would deal with the specifics when the time came. She decided to try getting a better read on this Lenny character. “So, you say you’re moving your mother in with you?”

“Yeah. I mean, she’s not really that old; only 58. But she’s been hit hard by arthritis sort of all over her body. She has to use a walker to get around. She’s always been pretty independent, but it’s gotten so bad that even she had to admit she can’t live by herself anymore. So, I fixed her up a place in my house where she can be comfortable and I can look after her. Also, her sister, my Aunt Lorene, recently moved to Bald Rock, so that helps. I work for the county doing inspections, so I end up driving around a lot. Having my aunt nearby helps ensure my mom is taken care of. Fact is, Aunt Lorene would have had Mom move in with her, but the only place she could afford wasn’t big enough.”

“I think it’s very kind of you to take care of your mom that way.”

“Well, a guy has to take care of his mother, right? What could be more important than that?”

Mia suddenly had the fruit cellar scene from the movie Psycho flash through her mind.

Lenny asked, “You’d take care of your mom if she was not able to do for herself, wouldn’t you?”

“I assume so. My mom passed away a few years back.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, it was tough. So, you married?”

He cleared his throat. “Naw. I was once, but she cheated on me—several times before I found out—so I ended it then and there. I mean, that is one thing I just will not tolerate.”

There was nothing wrong with what he said, but the sternness with which he spoke gave Mia the chills. She tried to lighten the mood. “Um, how about pets? You have any?”

He gave a quick laugh. “I do now! Mom has a cat, Queenie, that pretty much rules the roost wherever she is. It’s taking some gettin’ used-to. I mean, I’m okay with animals and all, but not when they get up on the kitchen counter or the dining table. That is something I simply will not abide: an animal around my food and dishes! I told Mom, ‘Keep that cat off the counter and the table.’”

His heightened agitation caused Mia shrink from him a bit. “Has she been able to do that?” she asked.

“Well, it’s only been a few days, but between Mom and me keepin’ after her, I think Queenie’s getting the message.”

“Lenny, you mentioned a truck stop just past where you live. Does it have a restaurant?”

“Yeah. Food’s pretty decent.”

“Then I assume it’s open all night. Maybe after I call my dad I could just wait there until he comes.”

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I mean, you could, but I wouldn’t advise it.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, see, Bald Rock and the Long-Haul Truck Stop and all are pretty far out in the sticks. Not much of what you’d call police presence. A lot of truckers park their trucks there overnight and, I mean, there’s this woman named Ruth that has a group of girls that provide, I guess you might say, a service to the truckers, if you get my meaning. The county sheriff’s office has tried to bust Ruth a couple of times, but they’re spread pretty thin and didn’t make no arrests or nothin’. Anyway, a pretty young woman like you sittin’ all by herself at the Long-Haul in the wee hours, well, people—including the truckers—might just assume… Y’know, what I mean?”

“Yes, I suppose so.” Mia was disconcerted at how Lenny thwarted every effort she made to avoid going to his house with him. I better be greeted by his silver-haired mother in a walker when I get there, that’s all I’ve got to say, she thought.

They traveled for a good half hour before the first house appeared off in the distance to their left. Then, a few miles further, another appeared, nestled in a small grove of trees off to their right. Then houses dotted the landscape until, at last, a 35-mph speed limit sign appeared accompanied by a tiny green “Bald Rock” sign amidst a little knot of houses and a couple of cross streets. Lenny had been correct; the town did not amount to much.

Lenny pointed to a miniscule light-green, shingle-sided cottage on their right that could not have been more than one bedroom. “That’s my Aunt Lorene’s house.” As they approached an intersection, he pointed down it to the left. “That road takes you to the Interstate and the Long-Haul.” Then he pointed to a house on the immediate right. “This is my place.” Compared to most of the other houses in the town, his was much newer and better kept up. He pulled well into the driveway, opposite the house’s back door. Mia breathed a slight sigh of relief that at least he hadn’t taken her out to some spooky old farmhouse miles from the nearest neighbor. Still, in the deep recesses of her mind she could not help fearing that the house had a basement full of shackles, meat hooks, and torture devices.

Lenny shut the car off, got out, and headed to the back door of the house. Mia considered waiting in the car and asking him to just bring her his phone, but the car interior began to heat up the instant the air conditioning stopped. He opened the door to the house and then looked back to her, his raised eyebrows beckoning her to come with him. She reluctantly opened the car door and was reminded of the scorching heat as soon as she got out. There was a small ramp in lieu of steps up to the back door. Her stomach was tight as he held the door for her and she entered first a laundry room and then the kitchen.

The kitchen seemed clean and the appliances were reasonably nice; nothing to immediately suggest he was an axe murderer. It was a modest-sized kitchen, but had a long counter separating it from the dining room which made it feel larger. She only took a few steps in and stood there as he closed both doors behind them.

“Mom?” he called as he headed into the interior of the house. Mia heard him call out twice more. She nervously took stock of her surroundings. Although there was a dishwasher next to the stainless-steel sink, a dish drainer on the counter held a coffee mug, a plate, and a fork. Hmm, only one of each, she thought. But aren’t two people supposed to live here? Behind the plate was also a skillet, a spatula, and a butcher knife.

Lenny returned from the back part of the house. “Humph,” he said, “she must’ve gone someplace; don’t know where, though.” He started to come back around the end of the counter.

Mia’s heart pounded with fear as she grabbed the butcher knife and held it out front of her. “I thought you said she could barely walk! How could she just go off someplace?”

Lenny stopped short and backed up putting the counter between him and her, his hands up in front of him. “Now, just take it easy, Mia.”

She was on the verge of tears. “I want your phone. Right now!”

“Mia,” he said gently, “I already told you, I don’t have it. My mom has it.”

“What mom? I don’t see any mom. You’ve been lying to me this whole time!”

“No, Mia, I haven’t lied to you.” He was using tones one would use around a frightened child. “It’s true, she couldn’t have gone anywhere by herself. Aunt Lorene probably came and took her over to her house; y’know, the one I showed you on the way. Now, why don’t you just put that knife down and I’ll take you over to Aunt Lorene’s.”

“No! No more strange houses.” She held the knife up and pointed it at him threateningly. “I—I want to go to that truck stop; if it even really exists.”

“It does, Mia, and, if that’s what you want, I’ll take you there, right now. Only let me leave a note for my mom and aunt, okay?” Still holding the knife out front of her like a sword, she nodded for him to do so. He dug into a small pile of junk mail and found an ad with a blank back side. He wrote:

Mom/Aunt Lorene,
Please come to the Long-Haul ASAP and bring my phone.
– Lenny

He pulled out a push pin that held a small calendar on the wall. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll take you there, but I want you to walk out to the car ahead of me and put that knife in the passenger-side door pocket before you get in. I know you’ve been through a lot and I’m just a stranger to you, but you’re a little too jumpy with that thing for my liking. Okay?”

She nodded and went back out to the car, looking back every few steps to see if he was up to anything. She opened the car door and saw that he was attaching his note to the back door with the pin. If this is all a ruse, he’s making quite a show of it, she thought. It relaxed her enough that she put the knife in the pocket like he had asked. He opened the driver’s side, but before he got in, he said, “No knife?” She shook her head and held up her empty hands. “Okay, good,” he said with a sigh of relief and got in.

He turned left at the nearest corner, and within a few minutes the sign for the Long-Haul Truck Stop came into view. When he parked, he said, “Now, if you’ll leave that knife in the car, I’ll take you in and buy us some dinner while we wait for my mom to arrive. That okay?” He smiled, but she still did not like his smile. She nodded and they went into the restaurant and sat in a booth, with Mia making sure she had a view of the door.

A middle-aged Latina waitress appeared as soon as they sat and handed them menus. “Anything to drink?” she asked.

“I’ll have a root beer,” said Lenny.

“Just water,” said Mia.

“Very good,” said the waitress, “I’ll be right back with those and get your orders.”

Lenny studied the menu for a few seconds. “I’m partial to the country fried steak here.”

“That sounds good,” said Mia absently. She was watching a table right near the door. A matronly, silver-haired woman, nicely dressed, was at a table with two young women who, Mia thought, just could be her daughters. Mia began formulating a plan; then she saw the waitress hand the older woman some money and a receipt before heading back over toward Mia’s booth. The women at the table all stood up, preparing to leave.

“Lenny,” Mia said quickly, “I need to use the restroom. Um, just order me what you have.” She got up just as the waitress arrived.

“We’ll both have country fried steak,” he said.

“I’ll have that right out for you,” said the waitress.

The three women had already exited. Mia took a few steps toward the restrooms and then pivoted and hurried for the door of the restaurant. The three women were just getting into a car as she came up to them.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I hate to bother you, but I’m stranded here, and I really need to use a phone. Could I borrow one of yours?”

The older woman said, “Of course, hon.” She turned to one of the younger women. “Serena, you drive.” Then opening the back door, she said to Mia. “Let’s get in the car out of this heat. You can use my phone.” Mia got in and the woman closed the door, then hurried around and got in the other side.

“Where should I go?” said the driver.

“My place,” said the woman.

“N-no,” said Mia, her voice shaking, “I don’t need to go anywhere, I just want to use a phone.”

“Yes, I understand,” said the woman. The car backed out of the parking place and Mia heard a click in the door. The car started forward and Mia’s stomach was doing flips. “No, no I just—”

Suddenly the car halted as a man had run out directly in front of it, waving his hands for them to stop. It was Lenny.

“Hold it!” he yelled. “Let her out of there!”

The driver said, “Ruth, what should I do?”

“Ruth?” said Mia, her eyes wide. She tried to open, then unlock, then open the door, but it would not open. “Let me out of here!”

The driver lowered her window and, after a string of expletives, told him to get out of the way.

“Just run him over,” said Ruth. “When he feels the car moving, he’ll get out of the way.”

Lenny shouted, “The sheriff just pulled-in at the side of the building. You better let that girl out of there!”

Ruth let out her own stream of expletives, then added, “Unlock the doors, Serena, and let her out.”

As soon as she heard the click in the door, Mia escaped. Lenny came over to her and the car peeled out of the parking lot. Mia turned and ran toward the side of the truck stop, with Lenny behind her calling, “Mia! Mia, wait.”

She came around the side of the building, but did not see a police car of any kind. “Where’s the sheriff?” she cried. “You said the sheriff was here.”

“He’s not. I just said that so they’d let you out.”

A small SUV pulled into a handicap parking space right in front of them.

Mia burst into tears and began backing away from him. “You lied! I knew it! It’s all been lies!”

“No, Mia, I never lied to you.

The door of the SUV opened, and an older woman got out. “Leonard Buckweiler, what on earth is going on? And what are you doing to that young woman?”

“Nothin’, Aunt Lorene. She was abandoned on Bald Rock highway and I’m just trying to help her.”

“Well, it looks like you’re scaring her half to death. Get your mother’s walker and help her out of the car.” Lorene approached Mia sympathetically. “You okay?”

Mia gulped in surprise and wiped her eyes. “You mean you really are Lenny’s aunt?”

“Yes. I’m Lorene.”

Lenny had extricated the walker out of the back and helped the car’s other occupant out. He stationed her behind it as he closed the car doors. “Lenny, what’s going on and who is this?” said the woman.

“Mom,” he said as he guided her and the walker toward Mia, “this here is Mia. She was stranded out on Bald Rock highway and I gave her a ride. She needs to use my phone to call her dad to come help her, but you have it.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry, Lenny. I completely forgot to give it back to you.”

She reached into her purse and handed a phone to Lenny. He, in turn, handed it to Mia. “Here you are,” he said. “Now you can make that call.”

Mia took it slowly and stared at it as if it were the Hope Diamond. “So, you’re Lenny’s mom?”

“Yes, I’m Eileen Buckweiler.”

Inexplicably Mia stepped forward, put her arms around Eileen, and wept on her shoulder for half a minute.

“What is it, dear? What’s wrong?” She directed her attention to Lenny and said sternly, “Lenny, why is she so upset?”

Before he could speak Mia released Eileen and said, “Oh, it’s nothing about Lenny. He’s—he’s been a perfect gentleman. It’s just that I don’t have any purse or ID or phone or anything and I’m just really scared.”

“Aw, I understand,” said Eileen. She reached up and embraced the taller, slenderer Mia again.

“Oh,” said Mia, wiping her eyes again, “I’m not hurting you, am I? Lenny told me about your arthritis…”

“No, dear, hugs never hurt.”

Lenny spoke up, “She needs to call her dad to come get her, but he lives in Tulsa. So, I told her she could sleep on your sofa we put in the spare room till he gets here.”

“Leonard Ray Buckweiler!” snapped Eileen. “She will do no such thing! What’s the matter with you?” Mia released her and wore a look of grave concern. Eileen’s countenance softened and she said to Mia, “Lenny will put clean, fresh linens on his bed, and you can sleep there. Lenny, you can sleep on my old sofa. For heaven’s sakes, I thought I taught you better manners than that.”

“Oh, no,” objected Mia. “I couldn’t do that.” She smiled at Lenny. “He’s been very kind to me this whole time, even when I wasn’t very nice to him. I couldn’t make him have to give up his own bed.”

“No,” said Lenny, “Mom’s right. I mean, I don’t know what I was thinking. Anyway, why don’t we go inside out of this heat and you can make your phone call. Besides, I think our dinner’s probably ready. Mom, Lorene, come on in with us and I’ll buy yours, too. And as soon as you’re done with the phone, Mia, I’m gonna call the sheriff’s office about that Ruth. Something has got to be done about her.”

“Ruth?” said Lorene. “You mean that—that—”

“Yes!” said Mia. “Oh, you should have seen it. They tried to abduct me, and then Lenny, well, he was so brave. He risked his life to save me. He was wonderful.”

“Okay, okay,” said Lenny. “Let’s don’t overdo it, now. I mean, I’m just glad you’re safe and—” he gave a short laugh— “not threatening me with that butcher knife no more.”

“Butcher knife?” said Eileen. Mia cringed with embarrassment.

“It’s a long story,” said Lenny, “but let’s tell it inside out of this heat.” He held out his arm to Mia. “Shall we?”

“I’d be delighted, Mr. Buckweiler.” She took his arm and, looking up at his smiling face, smiled in return. She liked his smile.

A Short Circuit

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Oh, What a Night

This had to be the worst night of Randy’s life. He flung himself onto an empty seat midway of the bus although he would have preferred riding home in the luggage bin underneath. He did not want to sit at the back where the guys whispered about girls and told jokes. He was in no joking mood. He certainly did not want to sit near the front where the coaches and cheerleaders were. He turned his face toward the window and hoped no one would sit next to him. The bus had not been full so there was no need for anybody to do so. He did not want to talk to anyone—not about the game, not about Del Monte High’s now-ended season, not about basketball in general, and most of all he did not want anyone trying to console him. He wanted to be left alone to wallow in his own misery. When the bus started rolling, the seat beside him was still empty. At least something had finally gone right on this wretched night.

One lousy free throw, he thought. Two shots and all I had to do was make at least one stinking free throw. Down by one point with two seconds left, if he had made both he could have been a hero; make one and at least the game could have gone into overtime. I’m a freakin’ 68% free throw shooter for crying out loud. He used his 4.0 GPA math aptitude to do a quick calculation. That means the odds of me making at least one of them was just a hair under 90%. Ninety stinking percent! When he had bricked the second one in a row off the back rim, Jackson had gone over the back of Crockett High’s big oaf of a center in a desperate attempt to get the rebound. Then, with the Del Monte supporters heading for the exits, Randy had been forced to watch that lummox with the 40% free throw average sink both ends of a one-and-one. Talk about in-your-face.

Randy usually only played four or five minutes per game to give Donovan, a legitimate star, a breather. But when Donovan had rolled his ankle with eight minutes left, it was up to Randy to get the job done. He averaged about two points per game, but he had actually played pretty well. He had scored seven points, had two assists and a steal that led to them being only down by one. But he knew what everyone on the bus—and everyone else driving home from the tournament—was thinking. If that had been Donovan at the line, Del Monte would be on its way to its first trip to the state quarterfinals in nine years.

“Mind if I sit here?” came a voice from the aisle. He turned, ready with his prepared, “I’d rather be by myself if you don’t mind” reply when he saw who it was and stopped short. It was Megan Sanchez. He barely knew her, but she was just about the only person on earth he would not send away. She had caught Randy’s eye last year when she was a freshman even though none of the other guys ever mentioned her when listing the cutest girls in school—something they did often. This year they had begun to notice her, especially when she joined the song-girls pep squad. Randy had been wracking his brain for weeks to come up with some way to strike up a conversation with her. Now, here she was with that gorgeous smile and those dark, captivating eyes. And she apparently had decided to move from where she had been sitting with the other girls to sit with him.

He sat up straight. “Sure, feel free. Only I’m afraid I won’t be much company.”

“Yeah, tough loss,” she said as she swung into the seat. “But at least you played well.”

Randy stared at her in shock. “You’re kidding, right?”

She frowned one eyebrow in honest confusion. “No, not at all. You came in for one of the league’s best players and did him proud. You scored, what, seven points? Plus a couple of assists and that steal, wow, that got us close enough to at least have a chance to win.”

“Humph. Yeah, a chance I blew at the free throw line.”

Ran-dy,” she scolded. He had not been sure she even knew his name. He liked that she did. “Until you drove for the basket with three seconds left, everyone else was just standing around looking confused. You drove in, got fouled, and got to the line.”

“Yeah, but…”

She leaned close to him and looked right into his eyes. “There are no ‘buts’ about it. Tell me honestly, if you could go back and replay the last two minutes of that game, would you have done anything differently?”

Her closeness was so intoxicating he nearly forgot the question. Megan, I think you might just be the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, he thought. Then he forced himself to snap out of his reverie.

“Differently? Well, yeah—I’d make those blasted free throws!” he said laughing. A short time ago he had been certain he would never laugh again.

She leaned back and slapped his arm playfully. “You know what I mean, silly. You did exactly the right things and up until then had not missed a shot. Who else on the team went three-for-three plus a free throw in eight minutes?”

Now it was Randy who moved closer. “Megan, I’m noticing two things about you.”

“Oh?” she said with a demure smile. “What might those be?”

“First, you really know a lot about basketball. I mean, you’re talking about assists and driving to the basket and all. I hate to sound sexist, but most girls aren’t that into it.”

She laughed. “I love basketball; have since I was a little kid. I’m pretty good at it, too, if I may say so. But, at five-three and not likely to grow much more, I’m pretty much left to watching and an occasional game of HORSE.”

“Oh, then we have got to play,” he said. “I must have played a million games of HORSE in my life. The gym is open on Saturday mornings; we could play on one of the practice courts. You free this Saturday? I’ll pick you up.”

She flashed a delighted grin at him. “I’d like that very much.

“Anyway,” she continued, “that’s one reason I joined the song-girl squad—so I could attend all the games.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. And you look great in that outfit.”

“Thanks,” she said, beaming. “So, what’s the second thing you noticed about me?”

He cleared his throat, and then spoke slowly and quietly. “You seem to have followed me pretty closely. I mean, I doubt if even my mom and dad know I had seven points and two assists. So, either you are a walking sports statistics reference or…” He did not quite know how to finish the sentence.

“Or,” she said nervously, looking down at her hands, “I’m very interested in you.”

He gulped audibly to keep his pounding heart from exiting his throat. The bus was pulling into the Del Monte High parking lot. “Megan, could I take you home? I’ll need to know where you live anyway if I’m going to pick you up on Saturday.”

“Sure. I’ll just need to tell Lindsay I won’t need to ride with her.”

As they exited the bus, she pointed toward her older sister who was one of the cheerleaders. “There she is. Linds!” she called out. She took Randy’s hand and hurried over to her.

“Randy’s taking me home, so I won’t need a ride.”

Lindsay eyed the two of them standing hand-in-hand and smirked. “Okay, but don’t be long or Mom will freak. Oh, and Randy, great game. Thanks to you we at least had a chance to win. I hope you’re not all upset. You have no reason to be.”

“Well I was.” Impulsively he put his arm around Megan’s shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “But things have taken a definite turn for the better.”

As he took Megan to his car, her arm looped through his, he could not help thinking this had to be the best night of his life.

A Short Circuit

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Till It’s Gone

Jan felt fortunate to spot what appeared to be the lone unoccupied seat in the entire Gate 32 waiting area. Her carry-on was not that heavy, but lugging it all the way from the security screening area had been hard on her 63-year-old knees. The seat was on the end, next to a woman of similar age. Unlike Jan, whose dark hair had streaks of gray, this woman’s was snow white. She was sitting next to another woman whose obviously-dyed pinkish hair could not disguise the fact that she, too, was easily in her 60’s. A lean, elderly man sat on the other side of her, his foot in a medical walking boot, a metal cane across his lap. Jan heaved a sigh of relief as she sat down and put her carry-on and her purse at her feet. She smiled at the white-haired woman next to her and received one in return. The man leaned over toward the pink-haired woman, apparently his wife, and spoke softly.

His wife responded loudly enough for everyone nearby to hear. “Harvey, I told you to do that when we were on our way to the gate. Now you’re going to have to walk all that way back down to the restroom.”

The husband again said something quietly.

“Of course there’s time,” she announced with great exasperation. “They won’t even start boarding for another half hour. But you won’t have time if you just sit there.” The man struggled to his feet and hobbled off slowly down the main concourse. His wife shook her head and then turned to the white-haired woman and rolled her eyes. “Honestly, he never listens to a word I say. By the way, my name’s Margie.” She held out her hand.

The white-haired woman took it, smiled, and said, “Barbara. And I know what you mean. My husband is exactly the same way.”

First Margie, then Barbara turned and focused their attention on Jan. She smiled gently and said, “Jan,” as she took each woman’s hand briefly.

Margie nodded and then began again. “I told him that he should stop off at the restroom on the way here, but he insisted we find seats first. Now he’s having to limp all the way there and back.”

“Well there weren’t very many seats here,” said Jan. “I was lucky to get one. What happened to his foot?”

Margie tightened the corners of her mouth and shook her head again. “Oh, he was putting Christmas lights up on our house. I told him to find some neighborhood kid to do it for him, but he wouldn’t listen. Then he thought he was on the last rung of the ladder but was on the next-to-last and stepped off and rolled his ankle. I found him on his hands and knees trying to get up. I told him that’s what he deserves for not listening to me. Now he has to wear that boot for two more weeks. Men, honestly.”

“Oh,” said Barbara, “and they’re such babies when they’re not well. My husband got the flu last month and you’d have thought he had malaria along with the bubonic plague. I mean, it wasn’t stomach flu or anything, just headache, chills and fever, that sort of thing. He’d lay there and call out for me to bring him something to drink, or to adjust his pillows, or bring him a headache pill. He even asked me to make him chicken soup, for heaven’s sakes.”

“Well, you know,” said Margie, “it wasn’t so bad when Harvey was working and gone most of the day, but now that he’s retired he drives me crazy. He is constantly underfoot. At least he used to go golfing but now, with his foot, he—well, listen to this: just before we left to spend Christmas with our kids, I found him out in the garage, still in that boot mind you, sitting on one of my nice kitchen counter stools sawing wood. I asked him what in heaven’s name he thought he was doing and he said he was making a picture frame for me to put our grandkids’ latest picture in. I told him that for heaven’s sakes I could buy a picture frame at a yard sale if I wanted one and for him to get back in the house while I cleaned up the stool and put it back inside where it belonged. I can’t imagine how he even got it out there.”

Barbara sighed and shook her head. “I know. I used to be able to go to the grocery store and just get what I wanted. Now my husband tags along and he’s always asking if we really need this or if we should get the cheaper brand of that. The last time we went, I had to leave him for two minutes to use the restroom and when I got back he had put a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream in the cart. I asked him what he thought he was doing since the doctor had said he needed to watch how many sweets he ate. You know what he said? ‘I like mint chocolate chip.’ Just like a little kid. ‘Well, you’re just going to have to get over it,’ I said and put it right back in the freezer. And speaking of kids, he’s just as bad as my son was when he was a teenager about leaving stuff strewn all over the place. Every night while we’re watching TV he kicks his shoes off and leaves them right in the middle of the living room floor where anybody can stumble over them. And do you think he’d be the one to pick them up? Ha!” She looked at Jan. “What about you, Jan? Your husband ever leave clothes and shoes scattered around?”

Jan nodded and said, “Yes.”

Just then an announcement came over the PA. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. At this time we are ready to begin pre-boarding for Flight 1521 to Phoenix for families with young children and those who need assistance in boarding. Our regular boarding groups will begin in just a few minutes.”

Margie half stood and looked around. “Tsk, where is Harvey? I told him he needed to hurry because our flight would be leaving any minute. Now he’s going to make us late.” She sat back down and shook her head. Then she looked at Barbara. “You know what else drives me crazy about him? The toilet seat. I must have told him a hundred times to put it down when he finishes his business and every single time I go in the bathroom, there it is sticking right straight up in the air.”

Barbara laughed. “It’s the same way at my house.” Then she turned to Jan. “What about your husband, Jan? You’ve been pretty quiet.”

“If I got home to find my husband had left his things all over the place, I’d be the happiest woman in the world. You see, my husband of 39 years died seven months ago. I would give anything to be able to pick up after him and to loop my arm though his and walk by his side at the supermarket. And he could buy all the mint chocolate chip ice cream he wanted. If he were here to make me a picture frame, I’d put it in the most prominent place in the house, even if the corners didn’t match up. What I would give to, just one more time, hear his voice calling to me to bring him a drink or fluff his pillows. And if he wanted chicken soup, I’d run to bring him the best bowl of chicken soup he’d ever had. Oh, how I wish he were underfoot, as you put it, and that I could once again go in my bathroom and find he had left the toilet seat up. It’s… not so much trouble to lower it, after all.

“I’ve just been at my daughter’s and she keeps telling me it’s time to move on; that I need to seek companionship and maybe even romance so I won’t be lonely. But I’m not lonely for companionship or romance. I’m lonely for the man I loved so very much for 39 years.”

“All right, ladies and gentlemen, we are now ready for Group A to proceed to the boarding area and line up according to the number on your boarding pass. That’s Flight 1521 Boarding Group A.”

“Oh,” said Jan. “That’s me.” She gathered her purse and carry-on, stood up, and said to Margie and Barbara as she hurried away, “Nice meeting you.” After lining up to board, she checked back over her shoulder and saw that Barbara was on her phone and dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. She then caught a quick glimpse of Margie hurrying toward Harvey limping along some 20 yards up the concourse.

The gate attendant scanned Jan’s boarding pass and she headed down the gantry. I’ll take a window seat, she thought, just in case there’s a couple that would like to sit together.

A Short Circuit

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Hail! Hail!

Oh brother, an entire week of misery. Keith forced himself not to react to his mom’s announcement. He knew that if he expressed what he was thinking, his parents would get hyper about how his attitude was going to ruin their trip. He did not want to start anything with them. It would get him nowhere anyway. His mom so looked forward to time with her sister, Keith’s Aunt Jessica, she would not take any negativity well, which in turn would anger his dad.

Aunt Jessica had married a divorced man with a daughter Keith’s age 11 years ago and moved a 12-hour drive away. The families tried to get together every couple of years, usually just for a weekend. That was tolerable. But now they had cooked up a full week at a lakeside mountain cabin out in the middle of nowhere. It was the lake his folks had taken him to on a day-trip last summer. Keith was in maximum dread. The lake was nice. He liked his Aunt Jessica well enough. His Uncle Brad—with whom his dad was good friends—was okay. It was the daughter that put Keith under.

Coleen was not a horrible person. At least, not in the classic sense. She was pretty—not gorgeous, but attractive: slender, shapely, athletic, blue-eyed with light brown hair. In fact, she would have been more tolerable if she were homely or something. But, no, not Ms. Perfect. At only 16 she was already one of those valedictorians-in-waiting: Straight-A college-prep student permanently affixed to the Honor Roll, elite choir ensemble member and frequent soloist, leading lady in two school plays and a community theater production, French Club president, Scholarship Federation vice-president, honorable mention all-star regional tennis player, Sunday School teacher for 4- and 5-year-olds, and on and on it went. She was everything Keith was not. Not only was she a model daughter, but a charter-member of the “in” crowd. Actually that was not quite true. She was not a member; the in-crowd formed around her.

Keith, in contrast, was completely ordinary. His GPA hovered between a C+ and a B-, he was a bench-warmer on the JV Football team, and had no special talents of note except as a passable rookie guitar-player. He was not a bad kid—never gave his parents any worry; at least nothing they knew about. He was not part of any clubs and such; he and his buddies just hung out. Listening to a steady stream of how Coleen got another award for a speech at the Lion’s Club, or about her organizing the collection of shoes for orphans in Mexico, wore him slick.

Then there was Coleen herself. She did not behave snobbishly. Nor was she overtly conceited. But neither did she shun or renounce all the awards and accolades that came her way. She just accepted them with grace and gratitude. To be truthful, he had to admit she was sort of in a no-win situation. If she had put-on a bunch of false humility about how she was so undeserving, everyone would have gagged at how phony she was. Still, between her and her parents no one could be around long without getting an earful of her latest achievements, even if spoken in a non-boastful, matter-of-fact way.

As for how she treated Keith, she was courteous and nice around him but it was about a millimeter deep. Thinly disguised just below the surface was, he felt sure, her disdain for him. She never said or did anything condescending toward him but, to him, it was unmistakable. He had tried now and again to strike up a friendship with her, but she remained cool and aloof to him, although to all external appearances, i.e. their respective parents, pleasant. If he talked about his school’s league tournament victory, she talked about hers’ State Championship. If he mentioned a movie he liked, she had read the book—autographed by the author, of course. If he expressed like for a particular song, she had seen it performed live at a concert.

Thus he now faced the prospect of an entire week of his summer spent in stiffly uncomfortable close proximity with Miss Teen America. He had tried numerous angles to get one of his buddies to come along but the few not already committed elsewhere could not devote an entire week to the trip. Besides, bringing one of them along would probably have been a tough sell to his parents anyway. “Coleen will be there, and it would be impolite to ignore her,” they would have said.

Keith was sure that by the end of the week he would be on the brink of insanity, or terminal boredom, or nausea, or perhaps all three. Yet, for the sake of peace in the family, he pretended to be fine with it. Not that he showed any enthusiasm; he was not that good an actor. But he gave no external evidence of discontent and his parents were more than willing to read that as approval of the vacation. The one silver lining was that there was a chance that “the guys” (his dad, his uncle, and he) might go fishing by themselves leaving the gals to occupy themselves separately. This would afford a lengthy reprieve from dealing with Her Excellency. His one fear was that she would tag along. Visions of her hauling-in a record-setting trophy catch while he drowned worms to no avail kept playing over and over in his mind.

The first night at the cabin went okay. There was enough commotion with getting rooms and bedding sorted out that little else happened. As for Coleen, she was much the same except that she had become prettier and shapelier than the last time he had seen her. It bugged him that the ice queen was now even more physically attractive to him.

The next morning the fishing plans got derailed when the boat motor was found to have a problem. His dad and uncle would need to head to the closest (which was not close) sizable town to get it repaired. The only thing Keith could imagine more boring than sitting around with the insufferable Coleen was sitting around watching some shade-tree mechanic trying to fix an outboard motor.

Unfortunately, shortly after the men left he discovered that this lake was in the only location in the state that had no mobile device access—no texts, no email, no social media, no videos, no way to download games, nothing. There was also no TV—by design; this was to be a place to “get away from it all.” Before the guys had left, Keith had found a battered acoustic guitar in a closet but it was missing the D-string. He had asked his dad to see if he could get one while they were in town but that was iffy and for now it was useless to him. So he put his earphones in and listened to music while playing solitaire with an old ratty deck of cards and silently lamenting not having gone with the guys.

There was an old radio in the cabin and while his mom and aunt yakked with each other they had it on some local talk station. He only knew that because he took his earphones off to go to the bathroom. The radio people were going on and on about some wealthy local woman named Farrah Dunhill having disappeared the day before with only an unfinished ransom note left behind. It caught his ear because of the name. Keith remembered seeing an ancient poster among his dad’s memorabilia of some big-haired hottie actress named Farrah-something. Odd name. He returned to the couch, the earphones, and the deck of cards to go stir-crazy while the women blabbed on incessantly and The Princess, also wearing earphones, was absorbed in a New York Times bestseller.

His mom was perceptive enough that after a half-hour or so of listening to him shuffle cards she piped up with a suggestion.

“Keith, honey?”

He cringed. Did she have to say it that way? “Mmph?”

“Brad and Jessica brought two mountain bikes with them. Why don’t you and Coleen ride some of the trails around here?”

Keith noticed Coleen look up from her reading. She raised her eyebrows with a pleasant little “You want to?” look.

Boredom can cause desperate behavior. Before he realized what he was doing he heard himself saying, “Sure. Good idea.”

Coleen put her reading down and seemed so delighted with the idea that he immediately began to worry. I’ll bet she’s in training for the Tour de France, he thought cynically, amid images of him being left in the dust.

“Mom, are the helmets in the van?” said Coleen. Her use of the term “mom” reminded Keith of her situation. Her biological mom had abandoned her husband and daughter and run off with some loser when Coleen was not quite four years old. He did not know for sure, but had the impression that she had not seen the mother since. About 18 months later Coleen’s dad had married Aunt Jessica and it would be hard to imagine a more doting stepmother. To Coleen she was “mom” in every sense of the word. Still, Keith had to admit that it was pretty impressive for Coleen to be as together as she was with something like that in her background.

“Yes, sweetie, under the blanket on the left side,” said Aunt Jessica. Keith hated bicycle helmets, believing that it was impossible not to look like a dork wearing one. It was not as if they would be in danger of being hit by a car; most of the trip around the lake was hiking trails. What did they need helmets for? Rogue pinecones? And who would turn them in for not wearing one out here in the sticks? Still, as he walked out of the cabin Coleen handed him one and began to strap hers on so he just went with the flow and followed suit.

“Just be careful and don’t get lost,” called Aunt Jessica.

“We won’t,” said Keith. “I hiked the whole trail last summer.”

The two women stood at the door and waved good-bye. “Considering they’re the same age,” Keith overheard his mom say under her breath to Jessica, “those two don’t really seem to get along very well, do they?”

“Oh they’ll be fine,” she answered.

“Which way?” asked Coleen as they got the bikes.

Keith pointed off to the right. “We follow the road for about a quarter mile then there’s a hiking and bike trail that follows the shoreline all the way around the lake.”

“Great, let’s go,” she said climbing onto hers. Her energetic enthusiasm reminded Keith of his “Ms. Tour-de-France” concerns.

“Okay, but since there might be hikers, we really shouldn’t go too fast.”

“Oh, no problem. Nice and easy is fine with me. I just love being out in the woods like this.”

They rode in silence until they turned onto the trail at which point it became uncomfortable silence. The trail, though twisty, was wide enough for them to ride side-by-side. Finally Coleen tried some conversation.

“So, got your license yet?”

“Nah. Just my permit still. Every time I plan to go take the test my parents are unavailable or something else comes up. Like, I was going to do it this week but, well, now I’m stuck here.” He immediately felt embarrassed at how that sounded—like he hated being with Coleen. She seemed not to notice.

“I totally get it,” she said. “I had hoped to get mine when things slowed down this summer but I’m still waiting for that slow-down to happen.”

“It makes it rough, not being able to drive. I mean, like, how can a guy ask a girl to a movie or anything if he can’t drive?” He suddenly felt awkward talking about dating to Coleen.

“Keith, mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“Go ahead,” he said nervously.

“Do you have a girlfriend? Y’know, someone you especially like?”

He cleared his throat. “No. I mean, I did; her name was Lesley, but it didn’t work out. How about you?” Then he shook his head. “Oh, never mind, dumb question.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, I mean, you’re Ms. Popularity. You’ve probably got guys lining up for a chance to, y’know, go out with you.”

“Humph, you’d be surprised. Truth is, guys all seem to avoid me.”

“What? No way! You’re, like, perfect.”

She slowed her bike to a stop and so did he. She glared at him and said with deep sincerity, “I’m not perfect, Keith. Not even close. I guess that’s part of the problem, though. I get recognition and achievements and stuff and people think I’m stuck-up.” She cast her eyes downward and looked as if she might cry. “Maybe even you have thought that at times.”

Stung with guilt, Keith evaded the question, speaking very gently. “Funny thing about that. I was just thinking the other day how all the honors and awards and accolades puts you in a no-win situation. I mean, you can’t very well refuse them, and if you put-on a bunch of fake ‘Oh, I’m so unworthy’ baloney everyone would know it wasn’t true. So about all you can do is what you do. Accept it graciously and just be your sweet self. Anyway, I don’t think you’re stuck up.” He left off the last part of the sentence, “…like I did earlier this morning.”

She beamed a beautiful smile. “Thank you Keith. Coming from you that really means a lot to me.” As she spoke she reached over and gave his hand a little squeeze.

That did it. He was hooked. He had now completed the warp-speed journey from grudgingly tolerating her, to genuinely liking her.

As if from some telepathic signal they both mounted their bikes again simultaneously and continued down the trail.

“I’m really not conceited,” she said. “I don’t consider myself any better than anybody else.”

“Of course not,” agreed Keith sincerely, his opinion on the matter having taken a rapid and dramatic shift.

“Want to know why I’m involved in so many activities and stuff?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“This is not something I’ve told hardly anyone else.” That she was getting ready to bare her soul to him caused a lump in his throat. “You know how my mom—my birth mom—left when I was three, right?”

“Yeah. That must have been horrible for you, Coleen.”

She nodded and it took her a minute before she could continue. “Well, when I was about ten my mom—that is, your aunt—and dad told me she had died and took me to the funeral. They later told me they had tried several times before that to get her to just see me but she refused. So this was the first time I had seen her since she left. Despite what morticians try to do to make someone look their best, she looked horrible. She looked 80 but she was barely 40. Hardly anyone else was there.

“On the way home I remember Dad and Jessica talking to each other about how she had totally wasted her life drugged-out on crystal meth and that she had been no good to anyone. I made up my mind then and there that no one would say that about me. I was going to make a difference in the world.

“Keith, do you believe in something being a ‘God thing’? You know, something that God arranges in just a certain way?”

“I don’t know. Can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like that happen.”

“Well I did. That very Sunday the minister at our church preached on Ecclesiastes 9:10 that says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom’ and Colossians 3:23 that says, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.’ He said we only have a short time on this earth and we need to not waste it but make the world a better place for our having been here. I felt like God was talking directly to me and I never forgot it. So ever since then I’ve gotten involved in as many things as I can handle and when I do I give it everything I’ve got. I want to experience as much of life as I can. If there’s a book I like, I want to meet—or at least text—the author. If there’s a singer I like, I want to see her live.” She gave a little chuckle. “Of course, sometimes my dad complains that one of these days I’m going to bankrupt him with that kind of stuff.

“Anyway, that’s what motivates me. I want to be as involved in my life as I can be and not just be a spectator watching my life pass me by.”

Keith rode in silent contemplation for a bit, then said, “Wow. Yeah I see what you mean. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that you’re fantastic at everything you try.”

She laughed. “Not hardly! I took up violin a while back and after six months of listening to me screeching on that thing my parents practically begged me to take it back to the rental store. I can sing, but musical instruments are not my thing.”

Keith laughed, then rode for a while before finally breaking the silence. “You know what, Coleen? You have inspired me. I hadn’t really ever thought about life that way before. I think I’m going to stop just hanging out and wasting time on video games and stuff. I’m going to push myself to make a difference, too.”

She slowed to a stop. “You really mean that Keith? I mean, seriously? I’m—I’m an inspiration to you?”

He looked deeply into her, what he now considered, gorgeous blue eyes. “I really, really mean it. You are an inspiration.” Now he reached over and took her soft, dainty hand. “You’re pretty terrific, you know that?” Her smile of delight made his heart skip and he would have tried to hug her if not for their stupid bikes being in the way.

With a huge grin she began riding again, and as he again took his place beside her she beamed a look at him that took his breath away. He was no longer merely hooked; she had landed him and brought him into the boat. But what added fuel to the growing fires of infatuation was that, from what he could tell, she was experiencing the exact same feelings toward him.

They rode on for quite some time deep in thought, punctuating their contemplations with occasional glances and smiles at each other. At length he was able to pick the conversation back up.

“Y’know, you talked about musical instruments. There’s an old guitar at the cabin and I asked my dad to get the missing string for it. I know you’re an awesome singer. Maybe when we get back we could—”

His words were cut short by a loud, deep rumbling very nearby that went on for almost a full minute. Eyes wide, they both stopped and looked behind them.

“Keith, look at that sky!” It was the color of charcoal and ahead of them where the sun had been was now also dark gray. “I guess we were so busy talking we didn’t even notice how dark it was getting.”

There was a brilliant flash behind the trees to their right. Keith counted, “One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three—” The ground shook from the ferocious boom. “It’s not even a mile away; I didn’t get to five.” A sudden gust of wind came up from behind them. “Uh oh, that means it’s going to start pouring any second now. We better find some shelter quick.”

“How far from the cabin are we?”

He looked through the trees to their left out across the lake. He pointed to a section of the shoreline far ahead and to the right. “See that building way off over there? That’s the boat ramp area. Our cabin is maybe another half mile on around the lake from there. I’d say we’re a little more than halfway around the lake from where we started.”

A huge raindrop splashed on his hand where he was pointing while two others landed on Coleen’s back and shoulder. The sky lit up with an even closer bolt of lightning.

“We’ll never make it back,” said Coleen. “We better get moving and hope we find something…” Whatever else she said Keith could not make out amid the deafening thunder.

Just as they got underway a torrential downpour began in earnest. They rode as fast as they could, although it was hard to see through the driving rain. They managed to spot a side-trail forking off from the main one they were on. No use wandering around unfamiliar trails, thought Keith. Apparently Coleen felt the same way as she raced past it scarcely slowing at all.

He was convinced he could not have gotten any wetter if he had been riding through the lake instead of around it. He was beginning to think it was useless looking for shelter when he noticed that the raindrops were beginning to sting. Hail! he thought and at that instant saw another side trail, but as he passed it he noticed the silhouette of a small building a short distance up it. It wasn’t a trail; it was a path to a cabin of some sort.

“Coleen! Wait! This way.”

She stopped and turned around, as did he. At that moment the slushy rain turned to pea-sized hail. He led her to the little pathway as the hail now turned to marble-sized. As he got to the cabin he jumped off his bike. As she was getting off hers he draped himself over her back to protect her from the now-golf-ball-sized hailstones. They rushed up the steps to a tiny two-foot-wide porch over the door and one window. At least they were out of the pounding hailstones. The cabin looked abandoned and had a large padlock on the front door. The upper half of the window had a sizable triangular piece broken out of it large enough for him to reach in and unlock the lower half. He opened it and they both climbed through.

Coleen removed her helmet and he did likewise. “Good thing we had these,” he said. Then, putting his hands on her shoulders he looked at her with great concern. “You okay, Coleen?”

“Yes,” she said, wrapping her arms around him and laying her head on his shoulder. “You were wonderful, shielding me like that.”

He squeezed her tightly, loving her softness despite her being sopping wet. “I’m just so glad you’re okay,” he said, looking into her face and tenderly brushing a wet lock of hair from her eyes.

“I must look a fright,” she said.

“I think you’re beautiful.” Impulsively he gave her a quick, but to him heart-pounding, kiss. Then he felt sudden shock that he had been so bold. A guy could get belted for something like that.

But to his relief she smiled with delight and then spun around toward the interior of the cabin, taking his hand. Their eyes were adjusting to the cabin’s darkness. “Looks like it’s completely empty,” she said.

Keith nodded then noticed something under the small window on the far wall. “Except for this.” He led her over to a small wooden bench, on which he noticed the dust had been wiped away by two people’s bottoms. “Someone has sat here recently.”

Coleen shrugged. “At least it’ll give us someplace to sit while we wait for the storm to pass.” She tried to look out the window but it was mostly covered by overgrown shrubbery. “From the sound of it, it’s just rain now.”

As they sat on the bench Coleen’s foot kicked something. She reached down and picked up an old fishing rod with a severely tangled line that had a couple of lead-shot sinkers but no hook. She tossed it aside and sat down next to Keith.

“Wow,” he said. “I don’t think we could get any wetter. Are you cold at all?”

“Maybe a little.” He put his arm around her and pulled her close.

“Better?” he asked. She smiled sweetly and nodded.

“You know,” he said, his speech somewhat halting, “you had asked me back there if I had a girlfriend, someone I especially liked. Well, I do. Want me to tell you about her?”

“Sure.”

“Well, for one thing she’s totally gorgeous.”

“Oh?” she said with a sly grin.

“Oh yeah, even when her hair’s all wet. And smart? She’s like an A+++ student. She’s going to have scholarship offers from every university in the country begging her to attend their school.”

“Real-ly?”

“And did I mention how cute she is?”

“You might have.”

“Well she’s absolutely beautiful. And she’s really talented. She sings like an angel, gets all kinds of awards in speech and debate, is a terrific tennis player, and is the best actress around.”

“Have you actually seen her in one of her plays?”

“Well, no, but I’m going to see her next one, no matter what it takes to get there.”

“Wow, sounds like you’re pretty stuck on her,” she teased.

“Oh, you have no idea. In fact, neither did I till today. But now, I’m just nuts about her.”

“I don’t know; a lot of people think she’s pretty snooty.”

“No, no, no. You misunderstood. Pretty, not pretty snooty, just pretty. I did tell you what a hot babe she was, didn’t I?”

“Mm, now that you mention it… So what’s this chick’s name?”

“Coleen. Coleen Michaels. Surely you’ve heard of her. She’s practically famous.”

“Oh yeah, her. Well, I hate to break it to you, mister, but she’s already taken.”

He gulped, unsure whether she was still teasing with him or not. “Oh?”

“Yep,” she said. “She’s becoming hooked on some guy named Keith.”

A big grin bloomed on his face. “Yeah? Where does she know him from? I’m gonna punch his lights out.”

“Well he’s her—” Suddenly she stopped and pulled away, a look of grave concern on her face. “Keith?”

“What is it?”

“Are we, you know, related? I mean, we’re like step-cousins or something aren’t we? Is that a problem?”

He thought for a minute and then frowned. “Nah, it’s not a problem at all. For one thing I don’t think there even is such a thing as a step-cousin. And for another, we’re not blood related in any way. Your dad happened to marry my aunt, long after you were already on the scene. Look at it this way. Suppose we had fallen for each other first, maybe went together for years and even gotten married.” Her eyes widened. “Just an example,” he added quickly. “Suppose then your dad and my aunt got married. Would that mean something that was perfectly okay would suddenly be wrong?”

She shook her head.

“So see? We’re fine.”

Satisfied, she smiled. Then she said, “Still, what do you think our parents will say about you and me?”

“Well, my mom thinks you practically walk on water. I think she’ll be fine with it. Will yours?”

“Hard to say. Just in case, I guess we better keep any displays of affection to a minimum when we get back—give them time to warm up to the idea.

“Speaking of getting back,” she added, “looks like the rain has stopped. The sun is even coming out.”

The sunshine brightened the cabin enough that they could see more of it. Not far from where she sat Coleen saw something sticking up between the floor boards. “Hey look,” she said. It was paper of some kind and when she tugged on it the board next to it moved. She lifted the board and pulled out a spiral ring binder. Or, at least, the front and back cover of one. All the paper inside was gone. The back was gray pasteboard and the cover was red on the outside and white on the inside. As she sat back on the bench she saw that something was scrawled on the white section.

“Look,” she said holding it under the light from the window. “Looks like a kid wrote something; it’s so light and the printing is so bad it’s hard to make out.”

Keith, who at first had not shown much interest, looked at it more intently.

Coleen tried reading it aloud. “The first word is definitely ‘Help.’ But I can’t make out that second one. Looks like ‘Houston-something?’”

“No,” said Keith, “there’s an ‘E’ and a ‘B’ in there; House-something.”

“Houseboat?” said Coleen.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Then this at the bottom, fuh-RAH or something.”

Keith’s eyes got big. “Farrah! It’s the name, Farrah!”

“Farrah?” said Coleen, not comprehending.

“The missing woman! I heard it on the news on that radio this morning. A rich lady named Farrah was kidnapped around here yesterday and whoever did it left an incomplete ransom note. Her name was Farrah; Farrah Dunhill, I think.”

“That would explain the bad writing,” said Coleen. “She was probably tied up.”

“And probably used one of the lead-shot sinkers to write with.”

Coleen grabbed the fishing pole and inspected the sinkers. “Look, Keith.” Sure enough one of them had a shiny worn spot.

“We’ve got to contact the police and get this to them right away,” said Keith.

“But there’s no reception up here,” said Coleen, frustrated. After a moment she grabbed Keith’s shirtsleeve. “Where are there houseboats?”

“Remember where I pointed-out the boat ramp? I remember a couple of ramshackle houseboats just this side of it.”

“We have to go that direction anyway,” said Coleen. “Maybe we can find her and help her somehow. If not we’ll just have to send our parents for the police when we get back to the cabin.”

They both hustled back out through the front window and onto their bikes. They rode in silence a long while until they caught a glimpse of two houseboats about thirty yards apart moored a short distance ahead of them. Between the two was a small inflatable raft with oars and a tiny trolling motor. Keith pulled off the trail and they hid their bikes in some bushes. They stayed behind trees and brush until they came to the closest one. It was clearly not in use; one could see clear through the windows. It was just a hollow shell.

Suddenly a loud engine noise like a chain saw got their attention off past the second one. They worked their way around and saw a gaunt, unkempt man in boots and overalls using a leaf-blower inside a pickup. Its windshield had been broken, probably in the hailstorm, and the guy was apparently trying to blow the glass out of the cab with the leaf-blower. This worked to Keith and Coleen’s advantage in two ways. One, it made a lot of racket. Two, he had both pickup doors open and, since the truck was facing the second houseboat, he was less likely to see them. One thing gave Keith a chill, though. There was a rifle in the back window of the pickup.

“We have to go on board and see if she’s in there,” said Coleen. Keith nodded and they crept toward the water under as much cover of foliage as they could until there was nothing left but ten yards of open space between them and the second houseboat.

“One at a time,” he whispered. Coleen did not hesitate but started to go immediately. Keith wanted to argue about who should go first but there was no time. “If he spots you, I’ll create a diversion.” She nodded and quickly took off.

Without taking her eyes off the pickup she hurried across the clearing, onto the pier, and boarded the boat. She quickly got to the opposite side from the pickup and pressed herself up against the wall like in the movies. Good! thought Keith. Now she’s out of his sight. She nodded for him to come and Keith exactly duplicated her movements. They both crept up to a window and looked in. The interior was a reeking mass of filth but amid all the clutter sat an elegant-looking woman tied to a chair and with duct tape across her mouth. When she saw them her eyes got wide and pleading.

“Farrah?” mouthed Coleen. The woman nodded frantically. Coleen placed her finger on her lips although telling the woman to be quiet was unnecessary given her situation. Coleen and Keith ducked down and headed back to the stern of the boat.

“How are we going to get her out of there and past that guy?” whispered Keith. “He’s not going to run that thing forever.”

Coleen looked at the inflatable boat. “Maybe we won’t have to. I’ve got an idea. Go get those oars from that raft while I untie the houseboat. We’re not going to separate her from the boat, we’re going to separate the boat from him.”

Keith zipped off the boat and grabbed the two oars, one under each arm. He put them on the houseboat and helped Coleen unhitch the last mooring line. She put her hands on the stern of the boat and her feet against the pier. Keith followed suit. “Now push!” she said. They did with all their might and the boat began moving out into the lake. She jumped aboard, grabbed an oar and lay down on the starboard side so she could reach the water with it. She started paddling for all she was worth. Meanwhile Keith dug his feet into the sandy lake bottom and kept pushing the stern of the boat till he could not reach bottom anymore. Then he climbed aboard and did the same as Coleen on the port side. The pontoon houseboat was anything but streamlined and making progress was slow going.

Suddenly there was silence. The leaf-blower had stopped. A few seconds later the air was blue as the kidnapper used every cuss word imaginable to say, in essence, “Hey, come back here.” They were about 50 yards from shore as he sloshed in and began swimming after them. The combination of him being only a mediocre swimmer plus overalls and boots left him unable to catch up as Keith and Coleen paddled for all they were worth. By the time he made 50 yards they were yet another 30 yards away from him and he was tiring. He turned and headed back to shore.

Coleen ran over to Keith’s position. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, I’m all right.”

“If you can, keep at it while I untie Farrah, okay?”

“Okay, but it will make the boat turn.”

“Well, isn’t our cabin off to the right a ways?”

“True enough,” he answered. “Okay, go turn her loose.”

********************

Coleen entered the nasty houseboat cabin and quickly removed the duct tape from the woman’s mouth. “Oh, thank God,” said Farrah. “Who are you and how did you get here?”

Coleen was trying to undo the Gordian knot of ropes that bound her to the chair. “I’m Coleen and that’s my—my boyfriend Keith out there supplying the muscle to keep us moving. We found your note in the cabin.”

“Oh, then there really is a God. That has to be a miracle. I didn’t think that had any chance of working, but I had to do something.”

“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” said Coleen.

“I think you’ll find a large knife in the sink over there; that is, if you can find the sink.” Coleen looked for a few seconds then held it up. She came back and started cutting Farrah’s arms loose.

********************

Just as she finished and they both began working on freeing her legs, Keith, near exhaustion, came to the door. “He’s in the raft. He’s only got a trolling motor but he’s gaining on us. And he’s got a rifle!”

Farrah’s legs were at last free and she stood up. “If you two will just keep rowing for a bit,” she said, “I’ll take care of him!”

“How can you do that?” asked Coleen.

“Because my captor is an idiot.” With that she opened a cabinet and pulled out a large caliber revolver. She ran out of the cabin and up a ladder to the roof.

Coleen and Keith resumed their paddling stations. Just as Keith did so he caught a glimpse of the kidnapper, now less than 50 yards behind, trying to draw a bead on him with his rifle. The earlier storm had made the lake a bit choppy so that was no easy task. As he lay down to paddle he heard a shot as a bullet tore into the wall less than two feet above him. He did not know whether to run to the other side of the boat or stay where he was.

Just then he heard four shots ring out right above him. It was Farrah Dunhill. Keith looked back and saw the kidnapper spinning his boat around to head back to shore but in seconds it sank beneath him. He discarded the rifle and began swimming back toward the pier. Keith let out a whoop.

“Great shooting, Ms. Dunhill!”

“Well, I didn’t have to be too good, just needed to hit the boat. And it’s Farrah. And you’re Keith, right?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said as she descended the ladder and Coleen joined them.

“I cannot thank you and Coleen enough. You—” Suddenly she burst into tears. “You risked your lives to save me.” She hugged them both and wept as all the terror she had experienced the last two days washed over her.

“Look,” said Coleen pointing ahead of them. A motor boat was speeding toward them from the rough vicinity of their cabin.

“It’s a water patrol boat,” said Keith. In less than a minute it approached them; two officers on deck had their weapons drawn.

“We heard shots,” said one. “Prepare to be boarded.”

“I’m Farrah Dunhill. These two wonderful people just rescued me.”

“Farrah Dunhill? The kidnap victim?”

“Yes, that Farrah Dunhill.”

They put their weapons away as one of them boarded the houseboat. “You okay, Ms. Dunhill?”

“Yes, thanks to these two brave souls. Oh and, by the way, my captor is back at the houseboat landing, assuming he didn’t drown trying to get back to shore.” The officer barked some orders about calling dispatch.

“You Keith Wagner? Coleen Michaels?” The two nodded. He got a look of relief.

“We’ve been looking for you, too.” He tossed a line from the houseboat to the patrol boat. “We’ll tow you back to your cabin.”

As the houseboat was towed across the lake, Keith and Coleen slipped away to the stern and stared into each other’s eyes.

“So I’m thinking we make a pretty good team of detectives, huh?” said Keith.

She took both his hands and put her face up close to his and spoke softly. “I’m thinking we make a pretty good couple,” she said. Then she kissed him, longer, softer, and sweeter than his impulsive kiss at the cabin.

Someone directly behind Keith cleared her throat loudly. He whirled around to see Farrah standing there with a smirk on her face.

“If you two love birds can tear yourselves away from each other, we need to switch over to the patrol boat.”

In the confusion that occurred once they got ashore, it took quite a while for everyone to get a clear picture of what had happened. When the two moms finally understood the dangers their loved ones had faced they both wept openly. Meanwhile the police took statements and asked redundant questions for what seemed an eternity. When they finally prepared to go, and to take Ms. Dunhill home, she once again told the parents how proud they should be of their brave teens.

“And, I have to say, they make the cutest couple,” she added. This caused them all to look at Keith and Coleen walking slowly side-by-side toward the cabin, arms around waists.

“Don’t they though,” said Keith’s mom as the others exchanged glances, wry grins, and raised eyebrows. “And to think, I was wondering if there was a way to get them to talk to each other.”

A Short Circuit

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