Anthrocide

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

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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