This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.
Sitting in the car, adjusting her side and rear-view mirrors, Judi couldn’t believe Ben had agreed to let her drive him to the party. Finally, someone was going to give her a chance to correct her errors, improve herself, and best of all she was going to be able to get a small break from Spencer Valley, and all the boredom it had to offer. She connected her phone to the Bluetooth and looked over her playlist while she waited.
All the music on her list might be too wild for Ben. He seemed more reserved. Then again, he needed a little waking up. She picked a favorite band of Molly’s that Ellie had told her about and pushed play. A growling voice and a Southern-rock rhythm filled the car. Not necessarily what she usually listened to, but it would work.
Hopefully Ben wouldn’t mind the music if he ever finished getting ready. He’d told her he’d be grabbing a few things and then he’d be down. He’d already showered and surprised Judi by emerging from his bedroom with wet hair and wearing a pair of jeans and a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. The fact he owned casual clothes was a shock to her, let alone the fac he was actually going to wear them out in public.
She’d texted Ellie and told her what she was doing, leaving out who she was taking Ben to see, only that she needed to take him to see someone in his family. She’d also texted Lonny and told him she wouldn’t be available for her shifts this weekend. Not being at the bar and grill on a weekend would be a relief, since that’s when men seemed to be at their wildest and most grabbing moods.
Most of the men at Lonny’s were good, respectful, and kind. The old saying of it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the bunch didn’t necessarily hold true here, but it did make her less willing to work evenings and weekends.
Ben slid into the passenger seat a few minutes later wearing an unzipped brown leather jacket, a pair of sunglasses, and a frown. He tossed a light-brown messenger bag into the back seat and set a laptop back on the floor in front of him. Judi smirked. She didn’t think he could look any more casual than he had in the apartment, but this leather jacket — wow. It had him looking downright normal.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he mumbled.
Judi snorted a laugh. “You know what I like about you, Oliver? You’re so optimistic and cheerful.” She shifted the car into drive and hit the accelerator before he could change his mind. “Come on. This is going to be fun.”
Ben placed his hands against the dashboard and winced. “Hey! Slow down! I haven’t even buckled in yet.”
Judi turned up the music and cranked up the air conditioner. “You’ll be fine, Boy Scout. Just hook yourself in now.”
She caught Ben’s tightlipped expression out of the corner of her eye. He clicked the seatbelt in and tipped his head back against the headrest.
“Okay, I looked up how to get to Lancaster, and put the directions in my phone,” she said as she turned the car out of town. “I don’t have Angie’s address though.”
“It’s in my phone.” He closed his eyes. “I can look it up when we get closer.”
She glanced at him again. “Headache back?”
“No.” He opened his eyes briefly and closed them again. “Just tired and not looking forward to this.”
“To seeing your daughter?”
He opened his eyes and looked out the front window. “To seeing Angie, actually, but yeah, seeing Amelia worries me too. She doesn’t even know who I am.”
Judi turned the music down. “So, what happened anyhow? Did you bolt as soon as you knew she was pregnant or before?”
Ben took a deep breath. “You don’t really have tact, do you?”
Judi laughed and flipped a strand of hair over her shoulder. “Nope. Ellie got all the tact. It was all gone by the time Mom had me.”
Ben couldn’t help but huff out a small laugh. “Yeah. I can tell.”
Judi glanced in the rearview mirror. “Dude, get off my bumper,” she told the driver behind her. “I’m already going ten miles over the speed limit.” She pushed her foot on the accelerator. “So did Angie go through that pregnancy on her own?”
Ben pushed back against the seat. “Hey, you want to slow down?”
“Oh.” Judi lifted her foot off the accelerator slightly. “Yeah. Sorry.” She flicked the air conditioner on. “So, do you pay child support?”
“Yes.” Ben’s voice was tight. “I do.”
“But you don’t see her?”
Judi winced. “Well, at least you’re paying something, I guess.” The car that had been following them passed them and she made a rude gesture as it slid back into the lane in front of her. “Hope you don’t cause an accident, jerk!” She bit her lower lip and glanced at Ben. “Sorry.”
She sighed, placing both hands at the top of the wheel and leaning back. “Anyhow, I thought my drinking caused problems. Okay, it did, but at least I didn’t abandon a kid.”
Ben slid the sunglasses to the top of his head and scowled. “I’m glad this conversation is helping you realize how much better you are than me.” He narrowed his eyes as he turned to look at her. “Wait a minute. What do you know about my drinking anyhow? I’ve never said anything to you about my past.”
Judi clutched the steering wheel tighter and mentally scrolled through the various ways she could change the subject. There was no way she was going to betray Molly. “I see they’re finally tearing that old building down outside of Spencer. I overheard Liz tell Molly it’s going to be a warehouse of some kind and bring a bunch of jobs to the area.”
Ben slid the sunglasses back down over his eyes again and leaned back. “Yeah, yeah. Nice try. I’m guessing you pieced some things together when I attended the AA meeting.”
Judi rolled the window down and propped her arm on the open window. “So, did you love Angie?”
Ben’s scowl was a full-on glare now. “Not that it’s any of your business but yes, I did love Angie.” He looked back at the road, a muscle working in his jaw as he clinched it briefly. “I still do. Now let’s change the subject. Take that exit up there, it will get us there quicker.”
“The one to the right. It’s right there. Coming up.”
“Judi, there is only one exit in front of — Great. We missed it. Now we’re going to have to take the exit ten miles ahead and that’s going to take us a half an hour out of our way.”
“Well, you didn’t give me directions, so what was I supposed to do?”
Ben groaned in frustration. “Just keep driving. We’ll figure it out at the next exit, but when I say to turn next time, do it.”
Judi stifled a laugh behind her hand. This trip was definitely going to be a lot more fun than sitting at home on the couch eating ice cream and watching reruns of shows she watched in high school.
All Ben had wanted to do was take a brief nap. He had no idea when he woke up, he’d be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, in a car that wasn’t running and without a driver.
He blinked his eyes and lifted his sunglasses, looking in the backseat and then out his window for Judi. Where in the world was she?
This hadn’t all been a dream, right? His secretary coming to his apartment and insisting he let her drive him to the home of his ex-girlfriend and their daughter? He opened the car door and stepped out onto a dirt covered pull off next to a paved road. They were definitely not on the highway anymore.
Was he losing his mind? Maybe he’d woke up in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Had they somehow teleported back to Spencer Valley while he was asleep?
He rubbed his hands over his face and took a deep breath as he scanned the brush and woods around him. “Judi?” He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Judi! Where are you?”
A few birds chirping. A breeze rustling some leaves, but otherwise silence.
A chill shuddered up his spine. He’d read a book like this one time. It hadn’t had a pleasant ending. Maybe he’d actually slipped into a coma and this was his dream. If so, the dream was very boring.
“Judi!” He spun to his right at the sound of twigs breaking and bushes moving. When Judi stumbled out with a leaf in her hair and looking disheveled he blinked in the sunlight and dropped his sunglasses back down over his eyes again. “What is going on?! Where are we?!”
Judi pulled a twig out of her hair. “I was looking for a bathroom.”
“So you drove into the middle of nowhere?”
“No, I drove into the middle of nowhere because my car was making weird noises and steam was pouring out of the hood. I pulled off the first exit I could find and saw a sign for a gas station, so I was trying to get to it.” She brushed the back of her skirt off. “The car stopped and while I was sitting there trying to figure out what to do, I had to tinkle.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “You had to what?”
Judi tossed her hands out to her side like she should understand what she was saying. “I had to tinkle!” She gestured toward the bushes. “In the bushes!”
“Tinkle? Did you really just say tinkle? What are you, three?”
Judi stuck her tongue out briefly. “I’m trying to be polite, okay? But yes, I had to use the bathroom in the bushes, and I might have poison ivy on my bottom and my car is billowing smoke. I’m not exactly having fun either.”
Ben turned to follow her as she walked toward the car. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
She opened the driver’s side door, reaching inside for her phone. “Because you’re grumpy when you first wake up. Also, I realized how bad I had to go when I was about to wake you.” She tapped the screen on her phone. “If I can figure out where we are maybe I can find a mechanic to come figure out what’s wrong with my car.”
Ben scoffed. “I can check out the car.”
Judi laughed without even looking up from the phone. “Okay, Mr. Attorney.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ve seen those hands. You’ve definitely never worked on cars before.”
Ben shoved his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and sighed. “Yeah, but I still might be able to figure something out.” Five minutes later, after looking under the hood, he turned toward her again while she looked at her phone. “What did the exit say when you pulled off?”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember. The car started smoking then and I thought it was going to blow up.”
“Do you have triple a?”
Her finger hovered over the phone screen as she looked up with a confused expression. “Is that like a battery?”
Ben was never sure when Judi was serious or seriously being an airhead. “It’s a roadside service for cars. Your insurance information should say whether you have it or not. Where is your insurance paperwork?”
Judi bit her lower lip. “Um….in the glove compartment? I think?”
Ben slid back into the passenger seat and popped open the glove compartment. Hair scrunchies, a makeup case, and a few pieces of crumpled up paper tumbled toward him. He caught the scrunchies and makeup case and shoved them back in and reached for the papers that had fallen to his feet.
“It’s not here.” He stepped out of the car and walked toward her with the papers in his hands. “These look like your past insurance information and your current registration.”
She snatched the papers from him. “That can’t be right. I always keep my insurance information in —” Her expression morphed from confusion to resignation and then a frown as she tipped her head back with closed eyes. “Oh right. I left my insurance information on my kitchen table after the accident. I never put it back in the car.”
Ben propped a hand on his hip and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “Let’s just do a search online for mechanics in this area. The GPS on my phone should pinpoint where we are so I knew which mechanic is closest to us.”
He leaned back into the car and picked up his phone. The screen was black. There was no way the battery was dead. He’d charged it before he left.
He shook his head slowly. No, actually, he hadn’t had time to charge his phone fully.
He turned toward Judi. “Do you have a car charger?”
She motioned toward the middle console. “Yeah. In there.”
He pushed aside empty gum wrappers, two chocolate bar wrappers, a receipt from a theater, and pulled out the charger. Without the car running, the phone wasn’t going to charge much, but it would some at least.
“Okay, let me use your phone to find out where we are,” he said after he’d plugged his phone in.
Ben scrolled through pages of apps on Judi’s phone as he walked to the front of the car, looking for her GPS feature. “I’m sure we can find a mechanic to come pick us up and fix the car. Where is your GPS app?”
Judi shrugged a shoulder and began inspecting her fingernails. “Dunno. Never use it.”
No surprise there. Ben slid his thumb across her screen and finally found what he needed. “Okay. We’re ninety minutes out of Lancaster. Near Mechanicsburg.” He found the internet browser, thankful that they at least had data service where they were. “Looks like the closest mechanic is thirty minutes away.”
Judi hopped up on the hood and laid across it on her back. “Maybe someone will come by.”
Ben squinted into the sunlight, looking down the cracked paved road at rows of green bushes mixed among pine trees and maples and a group of dead Ash trees. “I haven’t seen a car the entire time we’ve been talking. Did any come by before I woke up?” He dialed the number of the mechanic, not waiting for Judi’s response.
No one answered from the first mechanic shop, so he tried another. It was a Saturday. All the shops were probably closed. It wasn’t until the fourth call that someone picked up.
“You’re where?” the man on the other end of the phone asked. His voice was deep, gruffy, like he’d been up all night.
“We’re on a small back road off Route 81, somewhere near Mechanicsburg.”
“Got a road name?” the man responded.
Ben scanned the road. “No. Not from where I’m standing. I can try to find one.”
“Why don’t you do that?”
Ben didn’t appreciate the man’s sarcasm.
“Where are you going?!” Judi shouted after him as he started down the road. “Don’t leave me alone! I could be kidnapped, killed — eaten by a bear!”
“All of your yelling will scare a bear off, don’t worry,” he called over his shoulder.
The man chuckled through the phone. “Little lady naggin’ you, huh?”
Ben ignored him and looked for a road sign. He’d walked several hundred feet when he found it. “It’s Dempsy Hill Road.”
The man winced. “Never heard of it. I don’t think you’re as close to me as you think. You’re sure you’re near Mechanicsburg?”
Ben started back toward Judi, wishing he’d been awake when all of this had happened so he could have seen what the exit had said. “Let me call you back when I find out for sure where we are.”
“Yep, it’s a good thing to know where you’re at,” the man said with a laugh. Obviously, he thought he was funny, but Ben had lost his sense of humor. He hung up without saying goodbye.
“Are you sure you didn’t see a road sign when you pulled off the exit?” he asked when he reached Judi. “How far did you drive after the exit?”
Judi yawned, still sprawled on the hood, now with her eyes closed and an arm draped over her forehead. “Maybe five miles or so? I kept seeing signs for a gas station.”
He looked at the GPS again, then zoomed in. “Good grief. We’re an hour east of Mechanicsburg. No wonder that guy hadn’t heard of this road. We’re also going in the wrong direction to get to Lancaster.”
He searched for another mechanic while Judi continued to lounge. As the phone rang, he kept his eye on a pickup driving down the road toward them, wondering if the driver was someone who could help them or someone who might kill them. He wasn’t sure if it was good or bad when the truck zoomed past, a man with a cigar in one corner of his mouth watching with narrowed eyes through the open window as he drove by.
“Billy’s Auto.” A deep male voice answered the phone, bringing his attention away from the truck.
“Hey, Billy, my name’s Ben and —”
“I’m not Billy.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. You just said Billy’s Auto so —”
“Billy’s my dad.”
“Oh. Okay. Is your dad there?”
“He’s been dead ten years.”
Ben cleared his throat and resisted the urge to scream. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Listen, I’m broke down on Dempsy Hill Road and I’m wondering —”
“I don’t have a tow truck.”
“Your website says you do.”
“Mine’s in the shop.”
“But you are a shop.”
“It’s in my shop.”
Ben’s jaw tightened and he shook his head. “Okay. I’ll just call someone else.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t help you. I just can’t tow you.” Ben heard the man spit. “I can be there in about 45 minutes. I’ve got a car on the lift for an oil change and tire rotation, then I’ll be down.”
Ben pushed a hand through his hair and clutched it. “How far away are you?”
The man huffed a breath out. “I don’t know. About fifteen minutes?” He spit again. “Give or take.”
“Okay, well, I’m actually on a schedule and —”
The man chuckled in Ben’s ear. “Aren’t we all. See you in 45.”
The loud click that slammed through Ben’s eardrum told him the man answered calls on an old-fashioned rotary phone. He looked at the time on the phone and winced. They definitely weren’t going to make it to the party on time at this rate.
Judi’s voice was drowsy, and she was still in the same position. “Did you find someone?”
Ben rolled his eyes. Nice that she was able to get some rest while he tried to figure out how to get her car fixed. “Yes, but he said it would take him 45 minutes, I’m going to try someone else.”
He sat in the passenger seat while he looked for another mechanic. When the sound of an engine grew louder, he looked up briefly at a large Bic Mack coming up over the hill then kept scrolling. The truck, complete with a trailer, barreled past them, which didn’t surprise him. A truck that big was usually on a schedule of their own and couldn’t easily pull over to help anyone, even if they knew anything about how to fix cars.
The other mechanic shop he called was closed. Apparently, they were going to have to wait for the 45-minute guy. He tossed Judi’s phone onto the driver’s seat and pushed the passenger seat back. His head was starting to throb again, and he was sure the stress hadn’t helped. He reached for the ibuprofen he’d tossed in his bag, popped two, and washed it down with the rest of the water in a bottle he’d brought with him.
Judi had already been more than blunt during this trip. What would come out of her mouth this time?
He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, bracing himself. “Yeah?”
“I used to not like you because you broke up with Molly to go out with Angie.”
He winced without opening his eyes. Oh yeah. Here she went again. “Can’t say I blame you.”
“But maybe you’re not so bad. Everyone makes mistakes. Maybe you went about it the wrong way but maybe you and Angie were meant to be together.” There was a pause, “And maybe you still are.”
He didn’t want to open his eyes when he heard her move, but he opened one and saw her leaning back on her elbows, smiling out into empty space as if a lightbulb had gone off in her head. Oh, that could not be a good thing.
The beep of a text message startled him, and he looked down at his phone.
The text message popped up on the lock screen.
Seline: Hey, did that lawyer call you? I should have given you a heads up. Call me back, okay? I know you don’t want anything to do with anything involving Jeff, but if he did the same thing to this other girl then this might be a chance to make him pay for what he tried to do to you? You know?
Seline? Who was Seline? He didn’t know anyone named — Oh wow. He really must be tired. That wasn’t his phone. It was Judi’s. He looked away from the phone and yawned, closing his eyes again.
He tried to let his thoughts drift away from the frustration of the day, but the idea he should try another mechanic nudged at him. Or maybe he should start walking and find a gas station himself. Or maybe — Wait. His mind drifted back to the text message. Who was Jeff and what had he tried to do to Judi?
The loud roar of an engine opened both of his eyes and when the big truck he’d seen earlier pulled off into the space behind him his heart rate picked up. He had a bad feeling about a large transportation truck, complete with a trailer, pulling up behind their broken-down car in the middle of nowhere.
He pulled the passenger seat up into an upright position and kept his eyes on the driver, sitting up high, behind a darkened window and wearing a pair of sunglasses. This could either end up being good or very, very bad and Ben’s muscles tensed as he waited to see what the outcome would be.