Jim walked briskly in the rain, faster than his normal walk, but not quite a jog. He panted even at that. “Go,” he said to Alyson, “I’m just holding you up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Alyson said.
When they came around a corner they could see the truck in the distance. Jim walked faster, then started to run. Alyson jogged, her Army training in gear, so she wasn’t as winded as he was when they got to the truck.
Earl was talking amiably to the state trooper. He turned to Alyson and said with a heavily accented southern voice, “He’ll call us a tow if we don’ git’er started.”
Alyson nodded, not trusting herself to come up with a southern accent, and Jim also nodded, though he was shivering. “Git inside you two, outta th’ rain.”
Jim climbed in first, Alyson next to him. Both of them sat and dripped. Jim hugged himself tightly. “I’m so cold…”
“It’s all right,” Alyson said. “He’ll get us started and put the heat on.”
Earl climbed into the driver’s seat and started the truck. It started fine, so he gave the trooper a thumb’s up. Then he bled out onto the highway.
“The trooper told me there’s a garage three exits up. I’m going to see if they can look at it.”
“You like this truck, don’t you?” Alyson put the heat on, but it was the lukewarm June air, no heat.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” he said. “I like the idea of a moonshiner’s truck.”
Alyson shook her head. “Boys and their toys.”
They drove to the garage, and by the time they got there, Jim was miserable.
The mechanic was a large black man that had a Marines tattoo on his forearm. “Yo, jarhead,” Earl called, and Alyson rolled her eyes.
The man slowly stood up from the car he and another young man were working on. “And who the hell are you?”
“Deck Ape,” said Earl, hunching over.
The man laughed. “So, Knucklehead, what can I do for you?”
“I got a truck that’s overheating. Think you could take a look at it?”
“Sure.” He wiped his hands on a rag and turned to the young man. “I dare you to find that brake leak by the time I get back.”
Earl had parked the truck under a canopy. “Kenny,” said the man, holding his hand out to Earl.
“Earl,” he said, shaking it.
Kenny glanced at the plate. “West Virginia, huh?”
“No, it’s where I bought the truck.”
“Ah. Let’s take a look under the hood here. Go start ‘er up.”
He did, and Kenny kept his head under the hood until his arm shot out and he made a cutting motion. Earl stopped the truck.
While the two discussed what was wrong with the truck, Alyson sat inside the gas station drinking coffee with Jim, who was still huddled and shivering. The woman behind the counter had brought him a jacket, which he held onto for dear life in an attempt to warm up. Alyson was concerned, hoping that he wouldn’t catch anything worse than a head cold.
Earl came back in, and he didn’t look happy. He looked around the store, catching Alyson’s eye and then shaking his head.
“Too far gone?” she asked.
“No. We’re almost out of money. This and probably one full tank of gas will take the last of it.”
“If we can get to Hartford, I know someone.”
Earl said, “Not him.”
“Who else do I know in Hartford.”
“The last time I saw him, I told him I would kill him.”
“Would you still?”
“In his sleep.”
She sighed. “I’ve forgiven him because he’s stupid. You can do the same.”
Earl turned to the coffee machine, poured himself one, black. He sipped it and grimaced. It wasn’t the worst he’d had, but definitely was not Brazilian roast. “As soon as it’s fixed, we have to keep moving.”
Jim looked up. “Saudis coming.”
There was a “ding-ding” as a white limousine pulled up to the pumps outside. The simple-minded kid who had been watching the three of them all this time, got up from his stool and went outside. The passenger side opened, and out, again, came a man in fancy clothes. He was different than the other man, dressed differently, and definitely packing.
“Kid’s gonna rat us out,” said Earl, looking around for the nearest door. It led into the garage. “C’mon,” he said, and opened that door.
Alyson said, “He’s pointed us out.”
Jim, still with the jacket, didn’t move. “I’m sick of this running.” He looked up as the man started coming toward the store. “I want to hear what he has to say.”
Earl’s instincts were to run; they were outnumbered, and there were other people involved. Instead he closed the door and stood next to Jim, while Alyson sat still, drinking coffee. The door to the store opened.
The man seemed as surprised to see Jim as Jim was to see him. He stood in the doorway, blinking, and then turned and ran back to the limo. “Great,” said Earl. “If he gets backup--”
The door opened and a man came out, then the Sheikh, in flowing robes. He walked to the convenience store door, another man held it open. The woman behind the counter looked surprised at the whole thing.
“Ah, Mr. Woods,” said the Sheikh. “What a pleasant surprise to find you here.”
Jim only nodded and stifled a sneeze.
“I see that your guards are taking good care of you.”
“Rain,” said Jim.
“I have heat in my car.”
Earl interrupted, “Say what you want to say and leave.”
The Sheikh glanced up at Earl, and then to Jim. “Mr. Woods. We have need of your services in the Middle East.”
“What will I do there?”
“You will be taken care of in comfort. Treated like a prince. You, and your family.”
“What will I do there?” Jim asked again.
The Sheikh said, “You will work for us, to tell us when terrorists will attack us.”
“And who are the terrorists?”
“Why, anyone who goes against the country.”
“Which country is that?”
Jim looked at Earl and then at Alyson. He lingered on Alyson for a long time, and then turned to the Sheikh. “I’m sorry. I’m an American, and I can’t go against my own country.”
There was a pause. “That is a pity.”
Earl stood ready to pull down the vending machine onto the group of them and take off through the garage. Alyson sat sipping coffee but was also ready to throw the hot liquid at the nearest one who pulled a gun out. Even Jim was ready for a confrontation, sitting on the edge of his seat.
“We will not harm you. We only wished to ask you if you wanted to join us.” The Sheikh nodded to the man next to him, who slowly went into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. He handed it to Jim, who took it.
“A gift, Mr. Woods. A gift that proves your loyalty to your country and your government.”
“Thanks, I think.”
The Sheikh looked up at Earl and Alyson. “We will bother you no more. I cannot say anything about the Jihadists.”
Said Earl, “Just don’t tell them where we are.”
“We do not like terrorists any more than you do, Mr. Packard.” He inclined his head. “Good day.”
Earl also inclined his head in thanks, and they paid for gas and left.
Asked Jim, “Do you believe him?”
“Nope,” said Earl.
“Yes,” said Alyson, and Earl gave her a look. “Yes, because, Earl, they have honor too.”
“Piss on their ‘honor’,” Earl said, and went outside.
Alyson sighed. The lady behind the counter switched to the news, which they watched on a loop.
The truck would not be fixed until tomorrow, so Kenny pointed them to a bed and breakfast down the street that his wife’s aunt owned. With Jim’s money - totalling five thousand dollars - they went there instead of the seedy-looking hotel across the street.
The thin black woman who opened the door for them didn’t seem like the type to run a bed and breakfast, at least in Alyson’s opinion. But she was happy to see them. “I’m Lily,” she said, and hugged Alyson, who flinched from such familiar touches. Lily never hugged her again. “Welcome to my home.”
“Thanks,” said Earl while Jim sneezed.
“Oh, you poor thing, were you out in the rain? I hope you didn’t catch your death. Come on upstairs, I’ll get a bath for you. I got some camphor to help with that stuffy nose - “ She talked all the time she brought Jim upstairs. A slight young man, probably about Alyson’s age, shook his head, smiling, and put his hand out. “I’m Luke. I’m her son.”
“Hi, Luke,” said Earl, shaking his hand.
“Let me show you your rooms.”
They went upstairs, and could still hear Lily talking through the walls, and the water running. Luke showed Earl into a definitely manly room, with a stuffed deer’s head on the wall and an old pair of flintlock rifles crossed over the bed. Earl seemed delighted.
Luke took Alyson to the room next to his. Alyson’s was less manly, but not frilly, with a worn but thick quilt on her bed. She smelled potpourri, a citrusy smell of lemon and oranges. “This is nice,” she said.
“You’ll be sharing a bathroom. I assume that’s all right.”
“Perfect,” she said.
“Do you need us to do any laundry for you? Free of charge.”
“I have nothing to change into.”
“For gas money, I’ll drive up to the K-Mart and pick something up for you if you give me your size.”
Alyson smiled at Luke. “Ask Jim, he’s got the money.”
“So I will,” he said, and left Alyson there. Alyson ducked into the bathroom to see Earl already stripping down for the shower.
“Mind?” she asked, pointing to the toilet.
“Go ahead,” he said, pulling down his shorts and jumping in the shower. Alyson heard him sigh as the hot water hit him. “The best thing known to man.”
Alyson finished and left him alone in the bathroom. She came out to hear a gentle knock on the door. She opened it to see Lily there. “I was just checking to see if you liked your room,” she said, smiling.
“Yes, I do, thank you.”
“I’ll be sending Luke to the store to get some medicine; is there anything you need?”
Alyson ran down the list of things that she wanted, but didn’t necessarily need. “No, I’ll be fine.”
“What about your - “ She motioned to the room next door. “Friend?”
“Oh! Oh, of course. Your brother. Would he need anything?”
“Probably a new change of clothes, but Jim’s paying for this trip, not us.”
Lily leaned in conspiratorially. “I believe he is in a comfortable situation enough to buy you the moon, miss,” she said, and laughed.
Alyson laughed also, and said, “Good, then I’ll need a change of clothes too.”
“I’ll make sure Luke gets you the finest. What’s your size - and your brother’s?”
Alyson told her, and Lily went into the other room where Jim was in. Alyson went back in, and sat on her bed. The water stopped in the shower, and she heard Earl, “Go in.”
She came around the corner to see Earl in only a towel, just leaving the bathroom. She wondered why Earl never seemed to have any women in his life - he was tall, handsome, even with the sleeved tattoo. The last woman she knew he had was the same time that she was living with Paul. She didn’t even remember her name, but she didn’t last long. And by then, she was going through her own issues.
She got into the shower and used up the last of the hot water. She took up the fluffy towel and dried herself off. She heard a knock at the bedroom door, so she wrapped herself up in the towel and went to the door.
She opened it to see Jim, standing in a towel around his waist. He was too skinny for her taste, now that she thought about it, but he looked kind of nerdy cute without the glasses. He smelled of camphor and soap. “I’m sorry, I caught you at a bad time.”
“I just got out of the shower,” she said. “Come on in.”
He stepped inside and shut the door. Alyson finger-combed her short hair as he stood uncomfortably beside the bed. “I was going to ask what your opinion was about whether I should call my wife from here.”
“After what you saw, do you want to?”
“Will they trace it to here? Will these people get in trouble?”
“Probably and if they do, yes.”
Jim frowned and sniffled. “Maybe I’ll use the payphone at the garage.”
“That might get traced as well,” Alyson said.
“I’m so sick of running, of worrying about what’s going to happen to people around me.”
Alyson leaned against the bed. It was too high for her to jump onto and sit without losing half of her towel. “How did you know the government wanted you?”
The bathroom door opened. “Thought I heard you talking,” Earl said, coming in. He also was in only a towel. Alyson looked from one man to the other, and, if she had to choose who to sleep with, and if Earl wasn’t her brother…
Bad, get that thought out of your head.
She blushed. “I think we should hold this conversation until after we get some clothes.”
Earl looked at his sister, his head tilted, then looked at Jim. Jim nodded, and left the room. Earl smiled, and leaned to his sister. “I didn’t know you liked that type,” he whispered, and walked back to his room.
Good thing, because she was as red as the apples that were in the bowl decorating her bureau.
She didn’t remember dozing off, but she heard a knock on her door. “Miss? I have your clothes.”
She found herself lying across the bed, her feet hanging off the edge. The towel was mislaid and she was naked for all the world to see.
“Thanks,” she said sleepily, and got up, rearranging herself. She went to the door and there was a K-Mart sack just outside of it.
He had thought of everything, including a bra, though it had underwire and she hated underwire. The bra was a light pink with a matching pair of cotton underwear. Her shirt was a teal color that brought out the blue of her eyes. He had bought her blue jeans that were comfortable and stretchy, plain black socks and a plain pair of black sneakers.
When she opened the door, she smelled something delightful, like cooking from a grill - pepper and steak and garlic. Her mouth watered as she went downstairs to see what was cooking.
Jim had already gotten there. He wore a simple blue and white striped button-down shirt, jeans and workboots. Earl arrived soon after in another simple black t-shirt, jeans and workboots. His tattoos were easily visible. He saw Luke. “I don’t usually wear t-shirts, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
Alyson’s eye was caught by the large mermaid on his forearm, the mermaid that had a Japanese influence. Supposedly it was patterned on a real woman that Alyson didn’t get the story out of. The mermaid held a thin link of the chain that wrapped around his arm and mixed with the other seaweed, the naval theme of part of a wrecked ship under his forearm, and the Navy and SEAL insignia entwined.
Lily was in the kitchen. “Dinner will be right out. Take a seat. I hope you’re not allergic to anything.”
“No,” they all said, almost in unison.
They all sat down at the table. Luke set the table, using very fine - and very old - china and silverware. Then came the food.
Grilled steaks, mashed potatoes, beef gravy, summer squashes and candied carrots. Earl looked at the food and then saw Lily and Luke head back into the kitchen. “Going to eat with us?” Earl asked, looking to see two places had not been set for them.
“We don’t usually eat with the guests - “
“Sit down,” said Alyson. “Unless you have something better back there.”
Luke laughed, and got two more place settings.
Earl asked, “So how did you start this place?”
“Oh,” said Lily, spooning some potatoes onto her plate, “we rented out the rooms to some people, and then when the big bed and breakfast craze happened, we jumped in.”
“That was the late 80’s. My dad passed away from cancer, so she needed the help,” continued Luke. “We made a lot of money because we were either the first B’n’B on the highway or the last, depending on how you looked at it.”
“Then people stopped doing bed and breakfasts, and then people stopped touring altogether.”
“And you have the hotel right down the street. They serve a continental breakfast, whatever the hell that is,” said Luke disgustedly.
“Usually bagels and some muffins,” said Jim. “Not hearty fare.”
“We’ll send you off with a good breakfast,” said Lily, her eyes glinting. “Do you like grits?”
“No!” everyone said.
“All right, that’s out,” laughed Lily.
“But pancakes, now,” said Jim wistfully, “I love blueberry pancakes.”
“Blueberries aren’t in season,” said Lily, “but I think we can make do.”
“Do you have a TV here?” asked Earl.