ESCAPE TO TRANQUILITY
My Mustang purred smoothly, the engine not even noticing the hills as it crested them and zoomed around curves.
Until it died.
A cough from beneath the hood was the first indication of trouble and of course it couldn’t happen in a worse place. Miles from the last town and probably more miles from the next one. Civilization, such as it was in that remote area, wasn’t much anyway, towns consisting of a handful of buildings, half of which were empty. The other half were all too often closed.
That first ominous car cough was followed by a couple more that were louder until a last one was followed by silence. Dead, complete silence. My beautiful Mustang, a gift from my parents, was dead.
The sudden, unexpected death of my Mustang reminded me of how I’d got here, and the memory had me fighting tears as I stared at a sparkling lake surrounded by evergreens that was so close to the road I was on that I could be in the water in a few steps.
But I didn’t see those things. Instead I saw every single detail of my recent life as the reason that led to my being here came roaring back.
I remembered the death of my parents in a plane accident, followed by the numbing news that their business – the one that had given me a good education, a lovely life, an expensive sports car, and everything that goes with all of those things – that business was broke. Totally, completely insolvent. I’d inherited no money at all and nothing of value beyond the Mustang.
“There’s enough to pay the bills if we sell everything they owned,” their lawyer said from across his desk. “And I’ll find enough to keep you going briefly.”
“Are you sure?” How could they not be rich? We’d lived as if we were rich, and I’d always thought we were.
“I talked about it with your parents. The money thing. That they should put something aside for a rainy day. But they said they wanted to give their child – you – every advantage so they said the rainy day would just have to wait.”
He reached across that desk and took one of my hands in both of his. “Then the rainy day arrived and it was all they could do to keep afloat.” He shrugged eloquently. “They were poised to come out of it okay. To get back to where they’d been. Except the accident happened. And now I’m afraid you are broke.”
So I sold the house and everything else they’d owned, paid every single bill to keep their memory unsullied, gave most of my personal things to Good Will, stuffed the rest of my things into the trunk of the Mustang and what wouldn’t fit there I dumped into the back seat of my beautiful classic car in a cloud of depression and grief.
Then I took off for parts unknown. Pedal to the metal with no concern for what people I’d once considered my friends might think of my unseemly exit because they weren’t my friends once they learned I wasn’t rich after all. Never mind, I’d thought. I’d make new friends. Somewhere. Somehow.
And here I was. Definitely somewhere unknown, totally alone and on my own, without friends and with a car that had just died without warning, just like my parents had died also without warning, with both deaths leaving me very suddenly in a very bad place.
I couldn’t help what happened next. It was all I could do to let the car drift to the shoulder of the road until it stopped moving. When it was completely stopped, I put on the parking brake, dropped my head to the steering wheel, and cried.
I sobbed. Absolutely wailed. I cried loudly and I didn’t care how loud because I was all alone in the wilderness. No one for a hundred miles at least. No one to listen and judge me. I simply clutched the steering wheel and let the tears fall fast and furious.
“Are you okay, Miss?”
I looked up, stunned. Someone was beyond the open car window, standing close but not too close. A man, tallish and that was all I could tell through the blur of tears. I gulped and tried to stop crying. I finally succeeded as he waited patiently, staying a discreet distance away while I got control of myself.
“Yes, I’m okay.” Except I was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by trees and a lake instead of in a town where my car could be fixed. So I changed my statement. “No I’m not okay.” I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my blouse. “My car died.” No reason to tell him more. Let him think the car was my only cause for tears.
“I thought as much,” he said slowly, moving inches closer but doing so warily, ready to step back instantly if my tears started again. “Want me to take a look?”
“You know about cars?” I hiccupped and hoped I was done crying because he seemed like a nice person and I didn’t want to scare him away. I looked longingly at the lake with water that would nicely wash my face clean of tears if I got a towel from the back seat and ventured out of the Mustang. Which I wouldn’t do because I felt like a fool and being in the Mustang helped me hide that fact.
“I do know about cars.” After another wary look at me, he moved to the front of the car and soon was inspecting my Mustang’s engine. “Nice car.” An admiring tone of voice. “A classic.”
“Can you fix it?”
“Don’t know yet.” He jiggled something. I listened hopefully but there was no answering roar of an engine starting and no request from this stranger for me to do something. Press a button. Wiggle the steering wheel. Turn the key. “There are a couple things I can check.”
“Will it take long?”
He scratched his head. “Possibly.” He looked around, still cautious but not as wary as at first. Had he decided I was done crying? “The lake is nice. There’s a log near the shore that’s comfortable for sitting.”
“How do you know there’s a log?” This was the middle of nowhere, after all.
“I come here a lot and sit on it.” He straightened and took in the lake and the trees. “It’s pretty. A good place for thinking.”
Which was just what I needed – time to think, to adjust – except I’d expected to experience those things in solitude instead of with a man nearby working on my broken car. But I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I’d had I’d a place like this in mind when I set out on my trip to nowhere. A place to sit and think.
It was why I’d headed for nowhere. Because nowhere sounded like what I needed. Peaceful and accepting. With a lake and trees. I’d figured that when I found that place – that nowhere — I’d face what had happened and deal with it. And when that was accomplished, I’d plan for my future. Well, that nowhere was a few peaceful yards away and waiting for me.
“Okay,” I said with only the slightest hiccup as I exited as smoothly as possible under the circumstances and opened the back door and pawed through the piles of things in the back seat for a towel or washcloth. I’d clean up in that lake. After I looked normal, maybe I’d be normal. I’d be done with tears and when the Mustang was fixed I’d be on my way.
Didn’t happen. The lake was perfect, the water cool and clean and soon all trace of tears was wiped away except for my wet blouse and after a while the sun dried that. The log was actually comfortable considering it was a log. So things were good as far as my reason for being there. The Mustang, however, was another matter entirely.
“Sorry,” the stranger said, coming up from the depths of the engine. “You need a part. You’re not going anywhere until it’s replaced.”
“Is it expensive?” I had some money thanks to that considerate lawyer, but not much.
He scratched his head. “Not really. But remember that you have a classic Mustang. Not many places around here carry parts for classic cars because they don’t come along all that often.” He looked over the car again and smiled again because it was a lovely car. “Not even me.”
“You have car parts?”
“I’m a mechanic and I have a car repair business. So, yes, I have a lot of car parts. But there aren’t many classic cars of any kind around here, let alone Mustangs.”
“Oh.” I sagged as the true import of my situation hit. “How long will it take to get a part?”
“Can’t say.” We stared at one another for a long time. “When I get home I can make some calls and find out.”
I looked around. The Mustang was the only vehicle in sight. “How far is that? How’d you get here, anyway?”
“I walked. I do that sometimes. I like to walk.”
“A few miles. Six to be exact.” Then he added, “Come with me and you can listen while I make those calls.”
The log, comfortable as logs go, wouldn’t be comfortable much longer. So I considered my sandals. Lovely and expensive but not made for walking miles on gravel roads.
He followed my look and for some reason that made me finally notice him as a person. A man.
Tallish, blonde and muscular with large hands and feet and a nice, honest and somewhat homely face with eyes that matched the blue sky. But his nicest feature was that he was there and helping when I needed help.
And suddenly, for no reason at all other than that he was a human being, I wanted to walk beside this gangly man to wherever he was going. “I’ll come with you.”
He stared thoughtfully at the sandals I’d just examined. “Are you sure?”
“I have other shoes. Walking shoes. If you can wait while I find them.” I flushed. “They are somewhere in my luggage.”
He nodded and as I pulled one suitcase after another from the trunk and went through them until I found the very expensive hiking shoes I’d bought for a trip along the Appalachian Trail that I never got around to taking, he spoke. “Are you moving? I’m asking because it looks like you have an entire wardrobe there.”
“Yes I am moving.”
“I hope this delay won’t cause problems with your move. Your new home. A new job, perhaps?”
“No new job. No plans. No place in particular.” His brow furrowed because he didn’t know how to reply to that. “I’m running away.” Realizing how that sounded I added, “Not from a person. From bad memories.”
After a long silence, he figured out what to say as I changed my sandals for sneakers that would carry me as many miles as necessary. Then I stood straight and ready to start walking as he said, “If it was me, I’d not run away from something. I’d run to something.”
“Like what? And where”
He shrugged. “This is a nice place.” He took in the scenery with a gesture. “You can make new memories while we walk to replace the old, bad ones.” His expression was tentative because he wasn’t sure he’d said the right thing and I was pretty sure he didn’t want to see me crying again.
“I should make good memories? Here?” I looked about as I grabbed my purse because it had my check book and credit card and one or the other would be needed when he ordered that part. “This is the wilderness.”
“Exactly.” He smiled. “The perfect feel-good place.” Then, as we set off at a modest pace, he added, “But there is a town a couple of miles past my place and it’s nice too.”
“A town?” Another hamlet. “What’s it called?” If it had a name.
The name was so unexpected that it jarred me. Stopped me for a moment and I had to jog to catch up. Because, though I’d not known it until he said the word, tranquility was what I was looking for. What I needed. What I would do anything to find. I wanted tranquility instead of nowhere. “I’d like to see the town.”
“They have a diner.”
I held my rumbling stomach. “Can you tell I’m hungry?”
“I guessed as much.” He turned away so I wouldn’t see him trying not to laugh. “When we reach my place and I’ve made a few calls to see what’s up with a part for the Mustang, what say we head into Tranquility and have lunch?”
He’d laughed. How long had it been since I’d even thought about laughter? But I thought about it now as a hard knot I’d thought was permanent eased somewhat because of that unexpected laugh and then I also considered the fact that I hadn’t had breakfast. Hadn’t thought about it. I’d just stumbled out of the motel after a night of no sleep and climbed into the Mustang and roared out of their parking lot as if the devil was after me. “How long will it take us to reach your place and make those calls?”
My stomach rumbled again and he heard. “Never mind the calls. We’ll eat first. I can make calls any time but I think you need food.” He sent me a concerned look. “You aren’t about to faint from hunger or anything like that are you?”
I laughed. “Nope.” And was amazed that in the space of minutes this man had laughed and then I’d laughed also. Was it the scenery? The situation? Or the man?
The man. It was definitely the man. Because he’d laughed.
I smiled once more but this time it was because I know my Bible. The Biblical Noah dealt with a lot of water and saved his family. I’d met this particular Noah beside water and he was saving me.
I let that smile grow and was amazed that the world looked a little better than before the Mustang died and I knew that it wasn’t the lake that had changed my world, though it was a lovely lake. Nor was it the situation I’d found myself in. It was Noah.
And the town, of course. The town I’d never seen but knew by name. Tranquility. Noah said it was just a few miles ahead. All I had to do was take a rather long walk with him and I’d get there. I’d find tranquility.
So I walked faster. Noah did too.
As we walked, I thought about the town we were heading towards. Even though I’d never seen Tranquility and would most likely be disappointed when I did see it, I realized that I wanted to stay there. I wanted it to be the end of the journey I’d started so precipitously, never mind that the wanting made no sense at all.
I didn’t say so out loud, of course, because I didn’t want Noah to think I was any crazier than he already did and I accepted that he probably did think that because he was keeping a careful distance from me and checking on me every so often with quick, furtive glances. I figured he was afraid I’d come apart again and he’d have to deal with whatever happened.
We walked six miles to his house and place of business. It was clearly an auto repair shop with a neat, white house separated from the shop by a deep green yard that looked inviting after our trek. My feet longed for that cool, soft grass.
“Wait here. I’ll get the truck and we can head into Tranquility for lunch.”
I did as instructed, slipping out of my hiking shoes and stepping onto that grass and it was as wonderful as it looked. Then I climbed into the huge truck that roared out of the repair shop and held my breath all the way to Tranquility because I didn’t know what it would be like.
It was as I’d expected. As I’d feared. Kind of disappointing. As we roared onto the main street, it resembled every other tiny hamlet I’d zoomed through since reaching the wilderness. Maybe a little larger because there were more buildings and all of them were open for business, including the café with a parking lot full of both old and new cars and trucks. Another wilderness town.
On a more thorough examination, I realized there was a picturesque church and a school complete with a bell tower. Plus, of course, the café Noah was taking us to. I examined it as we approached. At least Tranquility had a cafe. Most of the tiny towns I’d passed through didn’t. I was hungry. It looked wonderful. “It looks busy. Will we have to wait long for a table?”
“Angie will make room for us. She’s nice that way.”
Angie. He knew the person behind the Tranquil Diner. Of course he did. He probably knew everyone within a fifty mile radius of Tranquility and they knew him because that’s the way tiny towns work and that thought made me even more sure that this was where I wanted to be even if the houses didn’t all have white picket fences and apple trees with tire swings.
Because, even if it wasn’t perfect I wanted to live in Tranquility because during that long walk between trees I’d decided that this town was where I would become my future self. Whoever that self would be. Someone different than if tragedy hadn’t happened.
Which might be a good thing. The world has enough rich people.
As we headed into the café I decided that perhaps what I needed was to appreciate the value of work because with limited funds work was definitely in my future. Which was why the small hand-written ‘help wanted’ sign taped to the window caught my eye.
A middle-aged woman with a short haircut and a no-nonsense air about her approached us. “Noah.” She tipped her head towards me. “And friend.” She looked around and when she saw that all the tables were full, she frowned. Momentarily. Then she moved. “I’ll get a table. There are just two of you so it’ll be easy.” Then she was gone.
She reappeared a few moments later with a table just large enough for two that she plonked against the wall, after which she unearthed two chairs. And we were seated. Noah’s look said ‘I told you so.’
“What can I get you two?” She kept her face as expressionless as possible but I was sure that a stranger appearing in a small town made it a difficult feat.
I cleared my throat. Might as well get it over with. “Have you hired help yet?” I pointed to the window. “I saw your sign.”
“Nope.” Her eyes rolled. “Not many people looking for work around here.”
“I am. I’d like to apply. If you have a form, I‘ll fill it out now.”
Her eyes went wide as saucers and so did Noah’s. Then they narrowed as she took in my salon haircut, designer clothes and obvious city everything. “You been a waitress before?”
I wilted. Then I stiffened and sat up straight. “No bit I’m eager to learn.”
“Ever worked before?” Another inspection of my entire being. “At anything at all?”
“I sold clothes in a boutique.” Not exactly the right prerequisite for waitressing in a small town.
She was quiet a moment as Noah listened without speaking. “Waitressing will be harder on your body than selling upscale dresses. Hours on your feet. Are you up to that?”
Noah spoke. “She just walked six miles and is fresh as a daisy and if you need someone to vouch for her, I will.”
Angie’s glance went from Noah to my expensive hiking shoes and she thought long and hard. “Okay. Maybe I’m crazy but I need the help and maybe it’ll work.” Then she added, “On the other hand, maybe it won’t so you’ll be on trial for a while.”
I had a job. My new life was beginning. “On trial will be fine.” Then I remembered. “But I need a place to live.” I flushed. “I’m new in town.”
“So I noticed,” Angie replied dryly before saying, “Try across the street. Len has a room he rents out now and then. It’s empty. You might talk to him.”
After lunch, I learned that Len would be happy to rent me a room. “How much?” I asked.
“Depends on what you get paid.” When he saw my expression, he added, “Don’t want to charge so much that you can’t afford it.” He tipped his head back a bit to see me better through his bifocals. “You look like a nice lady. Good addition to Tranquility. I’ll do my part to keep you here.”
Oddly enough, it worked out. Angie hired me, I learned how to waitress and was glad for my walking shoes, Len rented me his room, and Noah got the Mustang operational.
Of course not everything went smoothly. The Mustang part arrived a full month after my beautiful car died. By then, of course, I’d been waitressing long enough that everyone in Tranquility knew my story and I knew everyone in the area. Waitressing at the only café in a fifty mile radius was the equivalent of working for a newspaper.
Most people were sympathetic and I found myself surrounded by the new friends I’d hoped to find but hadn’t actually expected to have. A few people simply sniffed at my story and told each other privately that it must be nice to have gone to private schools and drive a sports car. I knew what they said because, like everyone else in Tranquility, I soon knew everything about everyone.
When the part for the Mustang finally arrived, Noah got it running ASAP. “I knew parts would be hard to get but I didn’t expect them to be this rare,” he explained ruefully as we sat beside the pretty lake where the Mustang had died because we’d made a celebratory run back to the place where everything started.
We sat on the very log he’d pointed out on that fateful day. After the required contemplation of the always awesome scenery and comments on how fortunate I was that the Mustang broke down where it did just as he happened along, a smile appeared on his face that was as wide as the Mississippi River and just as mysterious. “But can’t say I’m sorry it took as long as it did.”
“What are you saying? I had no car for a month.” I stuck out one foot and examined what was still an expensive pair of walking shoes that didn’t look so special after a month of being worn daily. And used hard because, as Angie said, waitressing is physical. “You’re smiling about the delay.”
“Yep.” He leaned back on his hands and smiled some more. A self-satisfied smile. “Because your non-functional car is what kept you in Tranquility.”
I slumped, unsure whether to punch him or laugh along with him. After a moment’s thought I did both and he curled protectively against my fist and continued to laugh because, as I’d figured out during our time together, laughter was a Noah thing.
“So you wanted me to stick around?” I asked as I punched him again because by then we were the kind of friends who get together every evening that we aren’t otherwise occupied and just kind of hang out and enjoy each other’s company. “You wanted me to stay in Tranquility? You actually wanted me here?”
He uncurled and stared straight into my eyes, sticking out his lower lip before answering in what instantly became a totally serious, non-laughing voice, “Yep.” He took a deep breath and continued. “Think about it, Emily. Not many people around here, especially if you’re looking ahead to getting married sometime in the future.” He pulled his hat low over his forehead. “The pickings were pretty slim until you came to town.”
I stopped breathing. This was new, this man-woman thing. Different than friends. Disquieting, scary, and life-affirming, all at the same time. But I made myself breathe as if it was nothing special as I asked, “Just what are you trying to say?”
He rose, pulling me up until we stood together, so close a piece of paper couldn’t fit between us. Then he pulled me to the newly renovated Mustang and deposited me in the passenger seat while he climbed into the driver’s seat. Turned the key and listened in satisfaction as the Mustang revved to its full potential. “You own this Mustang. If you leave town, the Mustang goes with you and when will I have another chance to drive a classic like this beauty?”
So not a man-woman thing. A man-car thing. I felt deflated. “So the Mustang is the attraction?” And I wasn’t.
He turned off the engine once more and the silence was deafening. And beautiful. And tranquil as was everything about the place. “It was partly the Mustang. Also the Mustang’s owner. Maybe mostly the owner.”
He looked embarrassed, the first time that had happened since we’d met a month earlier. “I’m hoping it’s a package deal.” But he managed to look me in the eye and there was something new in the depths of his eyes that was deep and unreadable that turned me warm inside and made me want to explore. But as I looked into those eyes I decided that I wanted to learn about Noah on Tranquility time. No stress, no hurry, with tons of positive emotion beneath the placid surface.
He wiggled a bit. Actually wiggled! “Is that okay with you? Car and car’s owner? A two-fer?”
My response was instant. “Yes.”
I thought about teasing him, telling him how much I appreciated his excellent mechanic’s skills. But I knew he’d understand my answer just as I understood his questions.
He did. He reached over and took one of my hands in one of his. Then he dropped my hand, started the Mustang, listened to it roar, smiled appreciatively, and we headed home. To Tranquility.
And at that moment I knew that my decision to stay in this small town had been the right one. Right for many reasons though only time would tell wither the man beside me would turn out to be the most important reason of all.
I suspected he would be.