Donnie was in the convenience store paying for gas while Maddie sat in the hot car with the windows up. She flipped the visor down, took a look in the mirror, and cringed. Her lips were chapped, her hair limp—and none too clean—and she was starting to get a pimple on her forehead.
She watched the guy at the next pump tend to his Harley. He had filled the tank, making sure not to drip gas on it. He’d wiped the cap and replaced it, folded and stowed the rag, made sure his bag was bungeed, zipped up his navy blue windbreaker, climbed on, and balanced the cycle with his legs. Finally, he was donning his gloves, pushing each finger in mindfully.
Maddie opened the door and stepped out into the noise and confusion of the holiday weekend at the biggest station in town. Vacationers calling to one another, bells dinging, engines revving—eight bays all filled with cars and trucks, gassing up.
There were four springs in this little town, and the cold blue water was beckoning.
All she had with her was a tube of Toms lip balm, her driver license, and a little cash Donnie didn’t know about. Fourteen dollars and some change. She walked up to the Harley and caught the driver’s attention. He looked at her with a question in his light blue eyes. It wasn’t an unkind look at all, just curious.
“Can I come with you?” she asked. What the heck was she doing?
He paused and searched her face. What he saw there must’ve convinced him, because he smiled. It was the sweetest thing she’d seen in ages.
“Sure,” he said, and he reached into the saddle bag and handed her a helmet and a windbreaker like his, only smaller. She put both on, climbed up behind him, and wrapped her arms around his middle. He was small, probably no more than 5’6” and thin, but she could feel his muscles moving as he stepped down on the starter. The machine came to life with a smooth rumble, and its owner guided it effortlessly onto the highway headed south.
She laid her head on his back and let herself cry.
Dave knew his mother was going to have a fit if he showed up with a girl—one he knew nothing about. Hell, not even her name. He’d been divorced for three years now, and it had been at least that long since he’d been home. He was only going there now because his brother insisted. “You better come now or it might be too late,” Mark had said. Maybe just trying to scare him, maybe hoping to borrow some money, knowing Dave wouldn’t say no face-to-face. Not to his little brother.
But, forget his brother. What was the girl’s story? And why him? Dave had noticed the car parked beside him. Nineteen-eighty-eight Mustang convertible. It was a mess. A pretty cool car underneath all the neglect—even a good washing would have helped—but it needed more TLC than that.
Dave hadn’t paid any attention to the passenger until she stepped out of the car. She looked to have been neglected, too, what with her wrinkled clothes and scuffed up sneakers. Even so, there was something in that look, staring at him with those dark, dark eyes. He couldn’t look away.
Maybe that explained why he agreed. Nothing else did. Was she being abused? Was she in danger? Did she need help? Or, more to the point, was she going to murder him some miles down the road when they had to stop to sleep? Hell, she didn’t even know how far he was going. She’d probably want off way before Key West, so no need to worry about Mom’s reaction. The surprise passenger would surely be long gone by then.
The weather report had promised rain, desperately needed, but they'd predicted it before and been wrong. They were right this time. It started with a sprinkle, then increased to a solid, diving rain. No sense in pressing on. She had to be getting drenched with just his ex-wife’s windbreaker covering that thin cotton blouse and her torn jeans. Dave wasn’t doing much better. The all-weather gear was stowed away safely in the saddle bags, and he’d started to shiver.
He pulled off the road into what looked like an ancient motor court—little yellow cottages in a semi-circle, four of them. There was a lighted sign that no doubt boasted a vacancy, but so many of the letters were missing, it just said, “can y.” He rolled under the overhang in front of a door labeled office and shut down the beast.
They both got off, and even though he’d felt the girl’s presence for the last seventy miles, it was the first time since she walked up to him, asking to come along, that he saw her face. Poor kid looked scared. And half-drowned. Probably having second thoughts—thoughts like maybe he was going to kill her instead of the other way around. He pulled a towel out of the saddlebag and handed it to her. She dried her face and handed it back.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Listen, I’m not—"
“How do you know?”
She sighed and looked down as if gathering some information from the gravel on the ground. “I just know.”
It looked like that was going to be the sum total of her wisdom on the subject, but then she looked up. “I watched you.” Her gaze was intense.
“While you were getting ready to take off. You’re careful and a little bit fussy. You want everything to be just right, and you make sure it is. You take care with things. I saw how you looked at Donnie’s car, too. I could see that you felt sorry for it, and you were right. He never took care of anything. Not like you do.”
“You do know that doesn’t clear me as a potential serial killer, don’t you? I heard Ted Bundy was pretty meticulous, too, but he was a bad dude.”
Then she smiled. “Maddie,” she said, and stuck out her hand.
He pulled off his glove. “Dave.” He knew he was in trouble.
That was their story. Dave was the one to tell it, and he never deviated from the script. Their kids had asked them to tell it nearly every year on anniversary—twenty-first this year. Their daughter, the youngest, or sometimes one of the boys, had several times pressed for more details, like did they make it to Key West, was his mother really sick then, did Uncle Mark want to borrow money, stuff like that.
One time the oldest boy asked Maddie to tell them what happened to her family, too, but she said, “You guys are my family. I don’t need any other. Now are you gonna let Daddy tell the story or not?” It was true that they had heard her whispering to their dad about somebody being in rehab—again. Since they didn’t know anyone in rehab they figured it wasn’t part of the story.
They made it to Key West. They took their time. By then Maddie knew just how to make Dave laugh—and blush—and he knew he was never going to let her get away. He introduced her as his fiancée, and his mother—who was nowhere near dying—was thrilled. In fact, she stayed alive long enough for all three of their kids to know her and call her Nana. By the time she passed, both boys were taller than Dave, no huge feat, and their baby girl was in fifth grade.
His brother Mark did want money. Dave gave it to him and never saw a dime of it back, but Maddie said it had been a gift all along. Uncle Mark was godfather to their first born, and by then he was married for the third time. That wife didn’t last either. Mark told them not everyone could find the love of their life—in a gas station or anywhere else.
Donnie the asshole was never seen again, even though Maddie and Dave went back to North Florida and settled on Dave’s fifteen acres. They often got gas at that same station and both of them wondered if they might see the guy. Dave wanted to buy the Mustang, and Maddie thought she maybe owed Donnie an explanation.
When the story got told, Dave and Maddie always warned the kids that no one on God’s earth should ever, ever, do what their mother had done. Or their father either, for that matter. It was foolish and dangerous and could have ended very differently. Tragically, even. But the kids couldn't miss the look their parents gave each other every time they told it.