Laura gnawed on her bottom lip. She knew better than to take the creepy, pothole-riddled, old highway. But she was already late getting home, and the dark, empty road would cut ten minutes off her travel time.
Alone in her car, she could still hear her mother's voice rasping in her ear. "Come straight home after work. No dilly-dallying! And stay off that highway, young lady. That way leads to trouble."
In truth, the old highway eventually led to the city, with its trendy bistros, clubs, bright lights, music, and laughing, happy people—all the things her mother had warned her to avoid. Before it reached the city, though, it led past the skeletal remains of abandoned houses slated for demolition. Dead Town, everyone called this stretch of bad memories.
As though to prove her mother's dire warning right, the car's headlights slid around a curve in the highway, away from a looming hulk of half-burnt timbers and rotting, caved-in walls, to illuminate an unexpected scene.
A car lurked by the side of the road. A man leaned over behind it, his back to her, rummaging through the trunk. Lit up by the high beams like an actor in a play, the man straightened, turned, and shielded his eyes with one arm.
His other hand beckoned frantically for her to stop.
Laura's hands grew white-knuckled and damp on the steering wheel. She could pretend she hadn't seen him. She could keep driving, get home only a little late, and face less of her mother's wrath than she would if she stopped. No one would blame her for ignoring a strange man on a dark night in a questionable part of town.
For all she knew, this could be a set-up. Maybe the man waited here every night for stupid girls to stop and offer to help, only to meet whatever doom he had planned for them. Maybe he went so far as to smear grease and dirt on one rolled-up shirtsleeve. The shredded tire, like a gaping wound, was a nice touch.
She wasn't brave.
She didn't have what it took to tell her mother that at twenty-six years of age, it was past time for her to move out and build a life of her own. She couldn't ask for a raise or better hours. She couldn't even correct her coworkers who still called her "Laurie" or "Lauren" after two years at the diner.
The coppery taste of blood spread across her tongue from where she'd bitten her lip too hard. Startled by its sudden tang, she slowed her car without realizing it, and loosened her tense hands on the steering wheel.
Glancing in her rear view mirror, she was surprised to find her own eyes looking back at her, not with terror, but with calm strength.
"I wanna see you be brave," she said to her reflection.
She might not be able to do those other things, but she could do this.
Pulling in behind the crippled car, she dimmed the high beams, then grasped the comforting solidity of the pepper spray her mother insisted she carry with her everywhere. She got out and walked toward the light-dazzled man, saying, "Looks like you could use some help."
"Laura?" Lowering his arm, Eric blinked a few times in her car's glaring light. Great. Just what he needed. Not only had he taken a wrong turn when his phone's battery died, leaving him without navigational aid, but then he had shredded one of his car's tires on the multitude of potholes plaguing the godforsaken, unfamiliar road. Then he'd discovered, horrified, the empty pit in the trunk where his car's spare tire was supposed to be. No telling where it had gone. Probably the same place as his extra phone charger, wherever that was.
And now? Now he was being rescued by a woman. Not that he was the least bit anti-feminist. He truly believed that a woman could, and should, do whatever she wanted to. But to be found like this, helpless, in the middle of nowhere, with no clue how he was going to get his tire fixed or ability to call anyone to help.... It was just so... humiliating.
To make matters worse, this wasn't just any woman, stopping to be his knight in shining armor. This was that radiant vision with the incandescent smile who had him returning to the same diner, night after night, even though the atmosphere was cracked and dismal and the food was lukewarm garbage. Two months now, ever since he'd moved to this no-name town to put his shiny new CPA license to work. Thirty-five terrible dinners alone, and he'd barely spoken a word to her, beyond ordering his food. Did she even know his name?
His hands wavered between wanting to smooth his undoubtedly unkempt hair and straighten his loosened tie. Wonderful – when had he gotten that huge smudge on the sleeve of his new shirt? Finally, he dropped his hands ineffectually by his sides without doing either.
"Uh, yeah... Help. Help would be good," he stammered.
"Do you have a spare?"
"A spare...?" he echoed, too caught up in the play of the headlights' glow across her lips to take in what she was saying.
"Tire," she clarified.
"Oh. Well. I thought I did..." He finished his shrug with a silent, inward groan. He was much better with images than he was with words. If he could bring his camera into the diner without seeming like a freak, he could capture the ethereal beauty that shone beyond her uniform and apron. As things stood, though, he could barely put a sentence together in her presence. She must think him an idiot.
With a quick smile that made his heart ache, she vanished into the darkness behind her car. He heard her shifting things around. Moments later, she returned with a small tire, what looked like a jack, and a crowbar. No. Tire tool. They were called tire tools. He reached to take them from her, but she was already approaching his car with the same damage-assessing frown he gave unbalanced digital spreadsheets.
Suddenly she turned to him, still frowning. "Do I know you? You seem familiar."
"Ah... I... sometimes come into the diner. You know, for dinner." Eric wanted to drop something very heavy on his foot, to make himself stop babbling inanities. For dinner? Really??? What else would he go into the diner for, lawn fertilizer?
"Of course," she said, smiling now. "Turkey and cheese melt. Honestly, I don't know how you can eat that stuff."
A momentary flash of boldness pushed him to return her smile and say, "Maybe I come in for the view."
He cringed, very aware that they were alone together in the night, with no one else around for miles. Could he sound any creepier?
She didn't seem to notice, or to pick up on his meaning. Laughing with a hint of derision, she said, "Right, because Big Bob's Garage parking lot is beautiful this time of year."
Positioning the jack, she set to work. He watched in awe as she quickly, efficiently returned his vehicle to road-worthiness.
He had never learned to change a tire. Cars had always seemed like big, loud, dangerous machines to be driven and garaged, not worked on. He had become an accountant because being a photographer seemed like too much of a financial risk. And he had certainly never taken a chance on a beautiful woman like Laura. Seeing the number of divorce settlements his father and older brother had gone through, beautiful women always seemed like trouble. Until now.
He looked upward, asking for divine assistance.
Catching his reflection in his car's side view mirror, he took in his defeated slump and expression of wistful hopelessness. Something about the stars overhead seemed to ask if this dejected man was who he really wanted to be. He surprised himself by telling his reflection silently, "I wanna see you be brave."
Abruptly, he straightened his shoulders and forced his mouth into a smile. Turning toward Laura, he said, "Look, I know you don't really know me—"
"Sure I do, Eric," she cut him off with a friendly smile. There was a small smudge of grease on her cheek that he longed to wipe off with his bare hand.
Heartened, he rushed on in an attempt to outrace his nervous babbling, "Could I maybe... take you to dinner? Somewhere other than the diner? A nice place, in the city? You know, as thanks for helping me."
"I—" she began, frowning sorrowfully. A ringtone sounded from her open car window, interrupting her. She started toward her car. Suddenly, as though arriving at a momentous decision, she stopped and faced him. Her eyes twinkled in the starlight. "I'd like that."
Her phone went silent, then began ringing again.
"Do you need to get that?" he asked. "It might be important."
Shrugging, she said, "It's just my mother, reminding me to stay off this highway because it can lead to trouble."
Taking a deep breath of the night air, Eric smiled, and said, "I certainly hope so."