One Stop, Part 1
It’s round robin time! Here’s how it works: one person writes the beginning, the second and third people write the middle two parts, and the fourth finishes the story. If you’re interested in reading some of our earlier round robin stories, click here. So now, without further ado, here’s part one.
The wipers squealed across John Hammond’s windshield, clearing away the persistent drizzle that had been falling all night. He rubbed his hands together to ward off a familiar chill in the air. No matter how pleasant the day, the first night of fall was always like this – miserable, dreary, the exact kind of night no one should have to be in.
Then again, no one else had Luke for a brother.
John sighed and checked his watch for the hundredth time. What did I expect? His phone rang, its glow filling the darkened cabin, and despite his frustration he smiled at the picture on the screen.
“Hi, baby,” Kari’s sweet voice said. “How is he?”
John scowled. “Wouldn’t know, he’s not even in the car yet. And he knows I’m waiting.”
“He’s had a rough day, too,” she said, slow and soothing. “Try to be calm, okay? I can survive without you for another hour.”
She was right. John drew in a deep breath, willing the soft pit-pat of raindrops to relax him. It half worked, but his other half still clung to the principle behind his annoyance. Could she take care of herself for an evening? Of course. Should she have to while he pulls Little Brother’s butt out of the fire yet again? A resounding no.
“I’ll do my best,” he said, knowing it was she needed to hear. “And I’ll be home soon. I miss you.”
As he returned the phone to his shirt pocket, John caught sight of Luke in the headlights. Finally. Luke shuffled toward the car, hunching his shoulders against the damp night but not rushing to get out of it. John suddenly wished he’d brought a towel for the leather seat.
Too late, he knew, as his “little” brother’s muscled six-foot-five frame plopped onto the passenger seat with a sigh. Luke’s door was barely closed before John had the car in gear and swerving onto the two-lane highway. He pointed them east, where they’d spend the next twenty-two miles winding through misty woods toward Luke’s tiny cabin.
“Thanks,” Luke’s deep voice rumbled. “How’s Kari?”
“Pregnant and alone at the moment.”
Luke winced. “I said I was sorry.”
John shook his head. “You always do. I just wish you could explain how you keep getting fired. I I mean, bouncing at dive bars shouldn’t be that hard, should it?”
“Well, we can’t all be overachievers.” Luke grinned, glancing down at him. “Nice suit, by the way.”
“You’re not funny. Not tonight.”
Luke’s grin faded. Turning away, he stared through the passenger window, long brown hair falling out of his giant hoodie. Gently he rocked from side to side, like he always did when he was upset. With the veneer of good humor gone, tension radiated from him.
“Someone came again,” he said. “Asking about her.”
John’s head whipped around. “You mean about…?”
“About Natalie. Kept asking questions.” Luke looked down. “He wouldn’t leave. I got angry, and the next thing I knew…”
John grimaced. “For God’s sake, Luke. Do you not remember what we talked about? That’s the worst way to handle this.”
“I know!” Luke snapped. “I know. It’s just…”
Thirty seconds passed while John waited for the rest of that sentence. With eyes fixed on the winding road, he couldn’t use his customary glare to goad a response. He settled for a firm tap on the shoulder.
“Hey, don’t clam up now. It’s just what?”
Luke stared out his window again, slowly shaking his head. The silence lasted for another two miles before he drew in a breath. John tried to prepare himself for what he might hear.
“I have to take a leak.”
John turned an incredulous stare on his brother. “Seriously?”
Luke drew up defensively. “I didn’t go before I left.”
John made a show of looking around them. “See any rest stops in these woods? Just hold it.”
“I can’t, and the rain’s not helping. Just pull over and I’ll go in the woods.”
“Don’t be such a baby.”
“You want your nice new BMW to smell like pee? Come on, it’s only one stop.”
“Ugh.” John pressed the brake, easing onto the shoulder. “Fine. I’m waiting five minutes and that’s all.”
As they rolled to a stop, Luke leapt out of the car and dashed into the woods. John tried to force in deep breaths again, reaching for calm, but he could feel each extra minute slip through his fingers. Each minute he should be with his wife and soon-to-be son. This would be the last time he put life on hold for anyone, especially hopeless loser relatives. Keeping one eye on the clock, he pulled out his phone and began composing a flirty text to send to the beautiful woman waiting for him at home. In the dark night, it shined like a beacon calling him back to her.
At the three-minute mark, the passenger door opened and a hulking shape slid into the seat again. John noted the time, somewhat impressed despite his mood, and slid back onto the wet highway. He blinked a few times to clear bright spots from his vision.
“You were actually early,” he jibed. “Turning over a new leaf, or is it a special occasion?”
Luke didn’t respond. He’d gone back to staring out the window at who knew what, hoodie pulled tight around him. As he shifted slightly, an unfamiliar scent wafted through the car – earthy, pungent, tinged with decay.
“You forgot to wipe you feet again.” John said, touching his nose. “What’d you step in out there? You smell weird.”
Again, Luke didn’t respond, and John bristled. After he’d left his real family to come and help, he was getting the silent treatment?
“Pouting is for toddlers, you know. Should I tell mom on you like when we were kids, or do you want to be an adult now?”
Still nothing. Setting his jaw, John reached toward his brother. Halfway there, his shirt pocket lit up and his ringtone echoed through the cabin. Thank God, someone else to talk to. He withdrew the device, expecting to hear his lonely wife’s voice again. But the caller ID didn’t say Kari.
It said Luke.
“Lame joke,” John muttered. Tapping Accept, he put the phone to his ear and adopted a sarcastically cheerful tone. “Hello?”
“Dude, come on!” Luke said. “You think that’s funny? I’m getting soaked.”
“Okay, I’ll play along. Yeah, it’s rough out there.”
“And I was only like thirty seconds late! Why did you drive off? Are you twelve?”
John froze inside, his mind split between the road, the phone, and the passenger next to him. He swallowed hard.
“Are you at least going to turn around and come get me?”
His insides reeled, heart pumping a thousand beats per minute. For the first time since pulling over, he really looked at the man in the passenger seat. He sat like a stone, perfectly still and peering through the window. Taking in the scene, a rush of thoughts occurred to John all at once.
Luke didn’t smell like that when I picked him up.
Luke wore a hoodie, not a rubber rain cloak.
Luke has never been THAT big.
And the one that chilled him to the bone…
If Luke is back on the road, then who is in here with me?