Authors: Shana Norris
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #love, #family, #contemporary, #romance, #high school, #friends
I got out of the car and walked to the trunk, popping it open to inspect the spare tire. It was still there, securely latched in the little molded well under the carpet.
Okay, so I needed tools.
I found a black pouch tucked into the side of the trunk and opened it to find what looked like a crowbar, another metal rod, and a folded metal square thing.
Gravel crunched on the asphalt behind me. An old pickup truck slowed as it came close. It was painted a dull gray color with white splotches randomly placed across the hood. I could see a guy in the driver’s seat, but the glare of the sun on the window made it impossible to make out a face.
Girl alone on a backwoods road with a flat tire. Guy in a creaky old pickup truck stops to help. Why did this sound like the start of a horror movie?
I quickly slipped back into the driver’s seat and shut the door. I watched in the rearview mirror as the guy got out of the truck and started walking toward my car. He was tall and lean, dressed in faded jeans and a white T-shirt. Brown hair hung around his shoulders.
This was definitely a horror movie in the making. I discreetly hit the lock button on my door and then squeezed my fists until my nails dug into my palms.
I jumped at the tap on the window next to my head. The guy leaned down to look in at me, his wide gray eyes studying me. He looked young, probably around my age. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen at the most.
Need some help?” he called through the window.
Rule #4: Never ask for help.
I shook my head. “No, thank you. Someone will be along any minute, I’m sure.”
He looked around the quiet, empty street. “I guess I’m someone. You got a spare tire?”
You don't have to do that,” I called to him. “Really. I'll call roadside assistance.” I fumbled for my phone. He didn’t know that I couldn’t get a signal.
Unfortunately, I managed to knock the phone into the tiny crevice between the console and the passenger seat.
It’ll only take a minute,” the guy said. “No need to call for help.”
Before I could stop him, he walked to the back of my car and disappeared behind the open trunk door. I could hear him rattling around back there and the car shook back and forth. After a moment, he pulled the spare tire out and rolled it over to the front of the car.
I’ll need you to get out while I jack the car up,” the guy called.
Get out? Of the car? I stared at him for a long moment, but he made no movement to leave. I crawled over the console and climbed out of the passenger side, keeping the car as a barrier between us.
Stranger guy didn’t comment on my weird behavior. I watched as he worked, though I tried not to look like I was watching. The sun shone a glowing halo on the top of his hair. His shirt sleeves rode up as he moved, revealing nicely muscled arms and the black edges of a tattoo hidden on the skin underneath.
My mother’s voice sang out in my head, “Tattoos are for bikers and prostitutes, Hannah.”
After a few moments, the guy eased the car back down, removed the jack, and then rolled the flat tire to the trunk. He shut the trunk door and returned to the front of the car, wiping his hands on his jeans.
You ran over something big,” he said. “Not sure what it was, maybe a piece of metal in the road.”
I stared stupidly at him for a moment, before I was able to croak out, “Okay.”
The guy nodded to me and then straightened, turning around and walking toward his truck, like that was it. Like he hadn’t just done me a huge favor.
Wait,” I said as I hurried after him. He stopped and I skidded to a halt a safe distance away.
Thank you,” I said.
He nodded again. “No problem.” He started walking toward his truck, reaching for the handle.
People didn’t just do things for other people without getting something in return. My dad had always taught me to never be indebted to someone. Rule #21: Even the score as soon as possible.
Do you want money?” I blurted out.
He looked at me, crinkling his nose. “Money?”
I held up a finger to him and then dashed back to my car, reaching in for my purse. I found my checkbook and then walked to my trunk as I opened the little book.
How much do I owe you?” I asked, clicking my pen.
He raised one eyebrow. “For what?”
I shrugged. “For my changing my tire. Isn’t that how this usually works? There are people out there who get paid to change tires every day.”
He shook his head and opened his door. “You don’t owe me anything. Just doing my good deed for the day.”
You’ve got to want something.”
You’ve already said thank you, that’s enough.” He pulled the truck’s driver side door open, which squeaked in protest.
I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” I said.
He wrinkled his nose. “Neither am I.”
My neck flushed hot. “I mean, I’m not going out with you for changing my tire. Just so you know.”
That’s a little presumptuous,” he said. “What makes you think I’d want to go out with you?”
I sucked in a breath, stung. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He looked me up and down. “Maybe you’re not my type.”
Maybe you’re no one’s type,” I snapped back. I realized I sounded like I was five years old, but I was unable to keep my mouth shut. How had I gotten into this argument?
The guy smirked and then climbed into the truck. He turned the ignition and the truck groaned, but didn’t start.
I edged closer to the unpainted truck. There were dents and scratches along the side and the back window was cracked all the way across.
Let me just pay you,” I said. “You look like you could use the money.”
Now his easygoing expression disappeared, replaced by a deep scowl. “Keep your money,” he snarled at me as he slammed his door shut.
I jumped back, blinking at the sudden change in his demeanor. The truck sputtered to life and the tires squealed as the guy put it into drive and pulled back onto the road, kicking up dirt and rocks toward me. I coughed, watching as he disappeared down the dip in the road.
Maybe Natalie was right about hillbillies.
I tossed my checkbook into the passenger seat as I got back into my car. I would probably never see the guy again, so it didn’t matter if I hadn’t settled the debt.
Leaning over the console, I shoved my hand into the tiny space next to the seat and managed to fish my phone out. I drove until a signal bar finally appeared on the screen. I scrolled through my contacts, looking for the number I had stored there but had never called. Before now, all of our contact had been through a couple of short emails.
She picked up on the second ring.
Aunt Lydia?” I said, feeling butterflies erupt in my stomach. “It’s Hannah. I think I’m lost.”
Aunt Lydia had downsized in the last four years. The beautiful Victorian home she had owned in Willowbrook had been replaced with a small, red brick home. It was all one floor and sat nestled at the edge of the steep hill that rose behind it. Pine trees stood over the house, providing a little privacy from the neighbors.
Aunt Lydia sat in a swing on the front porch, her feet propped up on the cracked wooden railing, as I slowly pulled into the driveway. I cut the engine off, but didn’t move from the car. I studied her through my windshield. She was older than my mom, but something about her looked younger. Aunt Lydia’s blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, with strands escaping from the sides. She wore a pink tank top and old jeans, but no shoes on her dirty feet.
This wasn’t the Aunt Lydia I remembered in the stylish business suits she wore to run the museum.
She stood and stepped toward the edge of the porch, giving me a hesitant smile, and I realized I looked ridiculous just sitting in the car. So I opened the door and climbed out, then made my way across the yard, my footsteps crunching on the layer of pine needles.
Hannah,” Aunt Lydia said, smiling warmly at me. She opened her arms and I stepped into them for a hug. I closed my eyes and inhaled. There it was, the familiar scent of the cocoa butter lotion she always used. At least one thing hadn't changed.
Do you have a lot of bags?”
I followed Aunt Lydia back to my car and she opened the back door to retrieve two red suitcases, stitched with my initials in white.
Let me guess,” Aunt Lydia said as she looked at the bags. “Your mother bought these.”
I grinned. “Of course.”
Inside, the house looked even smaller than the outside did. The living room was tiny and I bumped into a table as I tried to maneuver past the couch. The walls were a soothing sage green, with paintings of mountain scenery hung on them.
Sorry, it’s much smaller than what you’re used to,” Aunt Lydia said as she carried my bags toward the hallway. “It’s definitely not a big house in a gated community.”
My parents and I used to live in a smaller house, in the suburbs, where most of the people I went to school with lived. But then my dad’s bank went national and made him into a big corporate president and CEO. My parents decided our new lives in the upper class required a new house that reflected our status, with a tall iron gate to keep out the people who didn’t fit in.
It’s fine,” I told Aunt Lydia. She led me to a tiny bedroom in the back corner of the house. It was dark because of the trees clustered around this end of the house and so Aunt Lydia had to turn on the light even though it was two o’clock in the afternoon. The room contained just a narrow bed, with a pink and green striped blanket on it, and a door opened to reveal the tiniest closet I had ever seen.
I haven’t gotten around to decorating this room," Aunt Lydia said as she looked at the empty white walls. “No one ever uses it, so...” She shrugged and set my bags on the bed.
You hungry?” she asked as she turned back to me.
I shook my head. “I’m fine. Just a little tired from the drive.” It was about five hours from Willowbrook to Asheville, and I had gotten stuck in a traffic jam near Raleigh, which added another forty-five minutes.
Take a nap,” Aunt Lydia said. She backed toward the door, looking around as if this reunion was as awkward for her as it was for me. Things had changed in the last four years, and the close relationship we’d once had was long gone. What did she think when she looked at me? Did she think I was too much like my mother, too prim and put together? Was she disappointed in how I had turned out?
We can go out for dinner later. I know a great local place you’ll love.”
Okay,” I agreed.
Aunt Lydia gave me a smile before she stepped into the hall and shut the door.
I sat down on the edge of my bed, folding my hands in my lap. I tried to remember what Mark had said. This trip would be a good opportunity for me to get away from everything that held me back. A chance to clear my head and not think about all the things my parents wanted and expected of me. A chance to forget about the application for Yale that I hadn’t yet filled out despite my mom’s insistence on early admission. This summer was my chance to not be the Hannah Cohen everyone back home expected me to be.
Most of all, it was my escape once the news about my dad finally leaked to the media.
You like Italian food, right?” Aunt Lydia sat close to the steering wheel of her old Land Rover, which rumbled and vibrated so much I felt it through the seat under me. The car sputtered a bit as it pulled itself up the hill away from her neighborhood.
Yes,” I said. “We went to Florence last summer.”
Aunt Lydia smirked. “I’m not talking quite that Italian. This is a little mom and pop place. Spaghetti mostly, but they do have really good ravioli. It’s not even from a can!”
She laughed, glancing over at me, and I made myself laugh too. I had changed into a white sundress and red espadrilles, and pulled my hair back with a white headband. Aunt Lydia had raised her eyebrows at my outfit when I came into the living room just before we left. She’d looked down at her ratty jeans and old tank top, then said, “Oh, I guess I’ll change.”
Mom always insisted we look nice for dinner. Even before Dad’s bank went big, Mom made a big production out of dinner. We had to be dressed nicely, hands freshly washed, and shoes on our feet even when we were eating at home. It was one of Mom’s rules (number seventeen, in fact).
No, you don’t have to,” I’d told Aunt Lydia, feeling suddenly embarrassed to be so overdressed. I’d tried to go change, but she wouldn’t let me. And so we’d left just as we were: me looking like I was going on a date, and her looking like she was getting ready to dig in a garden.
I rested my head against the cool glass of the passenger window, watching as the world passed outside. We still hadn’t gotten onto the highway, so we were driving slowly through the houses around Aunt Lydia’s neighborhood. I hadn’t been too far away from her house when I got the flat tire earlier, just a few blocks over in the opposite direction. I still wasn’t sure about my bearings though, since most of the houses looked the same: red brick and small, with grass that was drying out under the summer sun.
A bright flash of red caught my eye as we turned a corner. A huge tree stood on the corner of a lot belonging to yet another red brick house. It looked like all the other houses around it, except for the piles of old tires leaning against the house and the bright red plaid shirt that hung from one of the lowest tree branches. The shirt swayed back and forth in the breeze, the sleeves flapping like an invisible man waving his arms.