Chapter 3: Tempting Fate
A faded green sign at the base of the off ramp informed the travelers that they were at Shackner Road, a narrow strip of asphalt that would take them to Chauncey, Kansas. It stretched arrow-straight to the horizon, forcing them to take the sign on faith. No gas station or fast food joint greeted them and for a moment Nate thought about just getting back on the highway. It occurred to him that the next stop might be the same, so he turned left and headed off towards the horizon.
Every once in a while a dirt and gravel track intersected the road before meandering off into the distance. Buildings popped up every once in a while, but they were always off the road and distant enough to almost seem like a mirage. There were no other cars and for all he knew the entire world had stopped, leaving him alone in an alien world.
About ten miles off the highway he stopped to let Molly out. He opened the door and let her out without a leash. He’d made sure to train her but rarely got a chance to let her out off-leash back in Chicago.
She startled a rabbit almost immediately after getting out of the car. The little brown creature leapt from a little scrub brush and shot off into a field. Molly charged after it but obviously had no chance of catching up. Nate let her get about twenty feet before calling her back. She stopped and stared after her retreating quarry for a moment before turning and heading back to the car with her tongue lolling out and what looked like a big grin on her face.
Nate scratched her head when she got back. “Good try, girl,” he said. “You’ll get ‘em next time.”
She did her business and they got back in the car to continue on.
He finally reached Chauncey about three miles after he’d convinced himself the town didn’t actually exist. It was nearly 20 miles off the highway. In the absence of the usual highway gas station he’d started to worry the town wouldn’t even be big enough for a restaurant. He was pleasantly surprised when he finally reached the city limits and found a decent collection of houses. A sign next to the road proclaimed a population of 1,137.
As he pulled up to a road labeled Main Street he saw a movie theater to his left. A bowling alley stood next to that and a bank was across the street. A decent sized cluster of houses spread out in in neat rows to the right of Shackner Road.
The size of the town meant he would definitely find a restaurant of some sort. It also meant he would find actual people, which suddenly seemed like a very big deal. Spirits buoyed, he found himself humming “Home on the Range” as he turned right on to Main Street and drove into the two block long huddle of shops that made up the optimistically named Chauncey Business District.
He pulled into a parking spot in front of a small cafe. Leaving the windows open and Molly in the car, he walked into the cool darkness of the restaurant and sat down at the lunch counter.
Two people were in the main room when he walked in. A waitress who looked like she’d just been sent from central casting stood behind the counter. She sized him up as he walked in and Nate felt suddenly felt like he had just walked in somewhere he didn’t belong. A woman who appeared to be in her late 20s or early 30s sat on one of the stools accompanied by a cup of coffee and a stack of papers. She didn’t look up.
Nate sat down a couple of stools from the end, making sure to leave a couple spaces between him and the other patron. He figured going a little into the room would be a good idea, but didn’t want to go too far. He smiled nervously at the waitress as she walked over.
She scanned his face. “You aren’t from around here,” she said, dropping a menu in front of him.
“No, ma’am.” Nate affirmed. “Just passing through. I left Chicago two days ago.”
“Hm.” She appeared nonplussed. “Coffee?”
She turned to the coffee maker and picked up a pot. While filling his cup she pointed at the menu. “Name’s Betty. You want anything, you call me.” Not waiting for an answer she turned to the young woman. “Want more coffee, hon?”
She checked her cup. “N-no thanks, Betty.”
“Call me if you do.”
“I will, Betty.”
Nate scanned the menu. After a couple minutes he decided and called Betty over. “Can I order breakfast?” he asked.
“Just as easy to make now as in the morning.”
“Alright. I’ll take scrambled eggs, bacon and…wheat toast.”
She took the menu and walked away. Nate stared into the coffee cup. He hadn’t brought his phone in with him. It hadn’t occurred to him just how much of his life he spent fiddling with the damn thing until he suddenly needed to kill time and he didn’t have it. After what seemed like an hour of staring at his coffee he got bored and started looking around the room.
The diner kind of reminded him of a little place his father used to take him on Saturday mornings as a child. It was a little Greek restaurant on a corner a few blocks away from their house. The cook made some of the best eggs and hash browns he’d ever eaten. For just a moment he felt like he was at home.
“So where are you going?” the woman at the counter asked.
Nate looked turned to his left and found her looking at him. He hadn’t even thought she’d noticed his entrance, so he was completely unprepared for conversation. “Huh?” he asked.
“It’s a simple question. Where are you going?” She paused. “You told Betty you’re from Chicago and that you were passing through, but you didn’t really get around to giving her a destination.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t say because I don’t know. I’m just out on the road at the moment.” He tried to come up with a way to elaborate, but couldn’t find the words. She held him in a steady gaze, apparently content to wait for him to figure something out. “I guess you could say I decided to run away from home,” he finally said.
She smiled and let out a chuckle. Her eyes twinkled. “Aren’t you a little old to do that sort of thing?”
“Probably,” Nate did his best to look sheepish. “I never really tried to run away when I was a kid, so I figured I should try it now.”
Betty’s return left any response hanging in the air. “Want anything else?” she asked, dropping his plate on the counter.
Nate checked the plate. “Not at the moment,” he said once he was confident that the food before him was what he had ordered.
When Betty walked away he turned back to the conversation. He half expected to find she’d lost interest, but she was still looking at him, a hint of a smile on her face and that same steady gaze.
“I’m Emma Kent, by the way,” she finally introduced herself, “I live here in town and teach at the school.”
“I’m Nate Lassiter,” he said, feeling a little out of his depth, “On Monday I was a banker, now I’m just driving.”
“Just driving through Kansas for the sake of driving? Don’t hear that very often, at least not from people who live in Chicago.”
“It’s a long story,” he said, trying to move her to a more benign topic. Explaining the situation probably wasn’t possible, given that he didn’t know what to tell her.
“I’ve found,” she responded, seeming to pick her words carefully, “That whenever someone says there’s a long story behind something that the story isn’t really all that long.”
“Oh, really?” he asked.
“It usually means the story makes that person feel stupid and they don’t want to tell anyone.”
“Maybe it just means that I think you don’t want to hear,” he shot back, instantly regretting the note of petulance in his voice.
“If I didn’t want to hear I wouldn’t have asked. But I guess you’re a typical man, not willing to talk about your problems.”
He sighed. “Fine. You’re right.” He pointed down at his plate. “But I have to eat.”
“You can do both,” she shrugged, “I don’t mind.”
Between bites of egg he told her about his dreams and how his life had not been measuring up to them. He told her how his job was sucking his will to live. He told her about Julia and how he had been thinking of proposing. He told her about Molly and how he’d have to give her up if he and Julia moved in together.
She soaked in his story, occasionally offering little noises of encouragement. It did not take long for him to get to the end of his tale. It didn’t take as long as he thought it would. Eventually he realized there wasn’t anything else to add.
“So, um, I guess that’s it,” he said.
“Told you it wouldn’t take long,” she said, raising her eyebrows in a brief celebration of her victory.
“I suppose not.”
“So you want to know what I think?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“I think you got scared,” she said. “I think you really are running away from home.
He took a deep breath. “You don’t pull any punches, do you?”
He hadn’t been prepared for her to be so brutal or so immediate in her assessment. He also couldn’t help but think she was right. His decision to leave wasn’t based on anything rational and he knew it. Hearing it from someone else was a bit of a shock. “So you probably think I’m an idiot, right?”
She shook her head. “I think you’re honest. I think you’re scared. I think you didn’t know what to do with that combination. Running away might not be logical, but it also might have been the only sane thing you could have done.”
“Huh?” he raised an eyebrow. “How can this be sane?”
“Henry David Thoreau once said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, resigned to their fate. You chose not to resign.”
“But I left an entire life behind.”
She smiled. “You left an entire life you didn’t want to live behind.”
“That’s…” he stopped, thinking. “That’s actually true,” he finally said. “It was a good life, though. I was comfortable. I had a good career. I was going to get married to a great woman.”
“I think,” she spoke slowly, choosing her words, “That you were complacent. Or maybe it’s that you had what other people told you was a good career and the right future wife but they weren’t right for you and you didn’t know how to tell anyone how you really felt.”
“So what should I do now?”
“That’s up to you.”
“I haven’t exactly had a good track record of making sensible decisions. I got myself a job I hated and a life of desperation, after all.” He laughed. “And then I up and ran away from home.”
“Maybe that’s not a bad decision,” she shrugged. “Maybe it’s your first good decision.”
“It doesn’t feel like that right now.”
“Take some time. Figure it out.”
“Where? I can’t go back to Chicago now and I don’t exactly relish spending the rest of my life in my car.”
“You know,” she smiled, “I just so happen to have a little place out on the edge of town if you’re interested.”
* * *
Twenty minutes later Nate found himself guiding the Acura down a dirt track optimistically named Leonard Road. Emma sat in the passenger seat, her short brown curls bouncing as the bumpy road overtaxed the car’s suspension. Emma’s Aunt Ruth sat in the back seat scratching Molly’s ear.
It seemed like just another crazy decision in a string of crazy decisions. Still, something inside of Nate had leapt at the offer as soon as Emma made it. He didn’t know if it was because there was something about her or he would have taken anyone’s offer of a place to stop and think for a while.
He had paid his bill and left the diner with Emma. They had stopped a few doors down at Ruth’s store. After introductions and an explanation from Emma that it wasn’t actually her house, but she’d lived there a few years ago Ruth locked the front door and the three had piled into the luxury car. The older woman seemed a little annoyed by the whole thing, but she was playing along.
“So, what makes you think I’m not some sort of psycho who wants to drag you off to kill you or something?” Nate asked.
“For one thing,” she answered, her eyes sparkling, “I’m dragging you off. You should be scared of me.”
“Don’t worry,” he told her, only half joking. “I am.”
“You just don’t know how to deal with strong women.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” he got defensive, “I’m just out of my element, here.”
“You’ll get the hang of it.”
After a brief, uncomfortable silence, Aunt Ruth began divulging the local gossip. Not recognizing names or places, he tuned her out, attempting instead to answer the questions he had left unresolved since leaving Chicago. If nothing else the strange afternoon and seemingly clairvoyant woman had forced him to deal with the question of his purpose.
He’d been right to decide it was time for a change. Of that he was absolutely sure. Packing up and leaving home was a bit melodramatic, but he was beginning to think that the only way he could make changes was by doing something completely drastic. Everything in his previous life was on autopilot and no one seemed willing to hear him out about his discomfort.
Her hand was warm as she took hold of his arm. Surprised, he looked over, wondering what would compel her to touch him. He turned and, it seemed, saw Emma for the first time. The sun streaking into the car through the open sunroof made her light brown hair shimmer and brought out subtle hints of blonde streaks. Loose, natural, bouncy curls framed her round face. Entrancing, large, wide-set dark brown eyes sparkled and laughed, at once joyous, penetrating and mysterious. They also carried something else, a pain distant and unremarked, seemingly miles away in the bright afternoon sun. He hadn’t noticed it in the diner, but there was a tension in her expression now that they were out on the road.
Below the eyes her smallish, upturned nose gave her an impish look that perfectly complemented her quick wit, especially in the way she reinforced it with quick smiles and flashes of bright white teeth framed by thin, pink lips.
Nate suddenly realized how pretty she was. When he added her obvious intelligence and quick wit to the equation, it suddenly dawned on Nate that she was an incredibly beautiful woman, both inside and out. He couldn’t, for the life of him, figure out what she was doing in some little town in the middle of nowhere.
And yet here she was, dragging him out to see some house for rent outside of town. For a moment he was flattered to get her attention, sure that the hand on his arm was a sign of some deep need this beautiful, strong, but vulnerable woman saw something in him, something to make it worth her time and effort to make him stay in that little town. His lips opened slightly as his brain raced for the words to say, searching for the right way to handle the situation, to let her down easily. He was way too mired in his own thing and would probably do her way more harm than good, after all.
She spoke before the right words magically appeared. “Are you going to turn around and go back to the house, or do you want to keep driving until we end up in Chicago?”
Startled by the question, Nate blinked several times before hitting the brakes. His jaw worked up and down a few times before his mind returned to reality and provided it with words. “How far did I go past it?” he asked slowly.
“Far enough,” she responded, smiling brightly and laughing.
“And…how many times did you tell me to turn?”
“Oh. Shit.” Nate cranked the wheel to the left and turned the car around. “I’m so sorry. I got a little lost in my own head there I guess.”
“Try not to do that too often, especially when I’m in the car,” Ruth said from the back. “It’s on the right up here.
Nate made the turn and pulled up to a garage several feet to the right of a white, two-story farmhouse. With a start he realized he hadn’t even seen the house his first time past.
Aunt Ruth had her door open before he could even turn the car off. Molly vaulted over her and hit the ground running. She charged up the front steps to the wide, open porch and began barking.
“I’ve never heard Molly bark like that,” Nate commented.
“Smart dog, then,” Ruth said. “She knows it’s a good house.”
“Either that or its haunted,” he retorted.
“Nah,” Emma said, “Dogs tend to run away from haunted houses.”
“More than one way to haunt a house,” Ruth said. “It doesn’t always result in ghosts.” She headed towards the porch. Nate followed, trying to figure out the cryptic comment.
The house looked old and the paint was faded, but the steps up to the porch were strong and the porch itself was sturdy. The wood creaked slightly under his feet, but the boards themselves didn’t seem to have any give.
Ruth opened the door. Molly took the lead and the three humans piled in after her. Nate found himself in a bright, recently painted parlor. An overlarge, worn sofa flanked by a pair of rocking chairs reminded him of his grandmother’s house, an image only reinforced by the afghan spread over the couch and the doilies decorating the chairs and end tables.
“Earl and I lived out here back when we farmed,” Ruth said. “When he died I couldn’t take being all alone out here, so I moved into town and opened the store.”
She led him on a tour of the rest of the rooms on the first floor. Behind the parlor a kitchen opened out to a smaller back porch and the vast expanse of the Great Plains that was the house’s back yard. She pointed out the ancient oak tree casting its shade on the ground behind the house. “We built here because of that tree,” she said. “It was a perfect spot and the only shade for miles.”
“It looks lovely,” Nate agreed.
Then she pointed out the satellite dish attached to the corner of the back porch. “When Emma and Charlie moved back here from Texas he decided he needed to watch a lot of television, so he put that thing up. Should still work.”
Nate turned to look at Emma. “Charlie?”
“My ex-husband,” she shrugged off the question, “It’s been over for a while.” The pain he had seen in her eyes seemed to grow and a piece of the mystery fell into place. Nate decided not to press.
Ruth led Nate out of the kitchen and past a bathroom. Looking through the open door, Nate noticed it still had an old style footed tub. It had been modernized, however. A shower head stuck out of the wall above the white porcelain fixture. He followed the two women into the next room.
Slightly narrower, but running the length of the house, the sitting room looked very much like the parlor through which they had entered the house. The fireplace and dusty TV were the only distinguishing features he saw, as the furniture in both rooms was very similar. A small section of the back of the room had been converted into an office, but dust was the only thing covering the sturdy mahogany desk.
A creaky, narrow staircase separated the parlor from the sitting room. The party filed up the flight to see the bedrooms that comprised the second story of the house. Equal in size, both rooms ran from the front of the house to the back, the slant of their ceilings betraying their proximity to the roof. The room to the right sat empty. The other room, however, was dominated by a four post bed. A large oak dresser, small TV on a stand and a vanity completed the room’s decor. The floor’s bathroom was at the top of the staircase, right between the rooms. Modern fixtures told Nate that this bathroom had been used more often in recent years than the one downstairs.
Ruth lead them back down to the parlor, where Molly looked up from sniffing the floor long enough to acknowledge she was not alone. Turning to face him, she got right to the point. “So what do you think?”
Nate looked around the room. “It’s nice,” he concluded after a momentary pause. “And Molly seems to like it,” he informed her, allowing the dog’s approval to mask how much he liked the house. It brought to mind trips to see his grandparents as a child. A particularly pleasant memory of a Christmas at their old Ohio farmhouse brought a smile to his face, so he decided to admit the truth. “I like it, too. Reminds me of my grandparents’ house,” he told the older woman. “How much?”
“Oh, how’s two hundred a month sound?” she asked him.
Nate’s jaw dropped. “Two hundred a month?”
“Is that too much?” she asked with a knowing smile.
“Are you kidding?” he asked, sure the other shoe was about to drop. “Where I come from a studio apartment runs four times that much. At least.”
“Well, son, you’re not in Chicago anymore.”
* * *
It took Nate a few hours to fully realize just how far he was from Chicago. After the tour of the house he had taken the two women back into town. Since he was in town anyway he had decided to stop at the store to pick up some groceries before returning to the house alone. Unpacking his suitcases only took a few minutes and he made the bed with some linens he found in the bedroom closet.
A survey of the contents of the small garage revealed an old charcoal grill and a bag of briquettes. Excited to have his first chance to cook out in a long time he had warmed up the old grill and cooked up two steaks and a potato. After a leisurely dinner on the back porch with Molly he had toyed with the idea of finding out if the satellite really did work.
* * *
The sight of the moon shining over the plains nixed that thought. Instead he went outside and looked up at the stars. The view was breathtaking. He had rarely lived far from Chicago and was accustomed to seeing only the few stars bright enough to cut through the light pollution. He laid down in the grass and studied the sky for what seemed like hours.
Eventually the silence unnerved him, however. No cars passed on the road in front of the house. Airplanes passed by overhead, but so high in the stratosphere that their sound did not reach his ears. The lack of familiar noises from busy streets and jets bound for O’Hare Airport began to put him on edge. There were no other houses around, either, which meant there were no sounds from TVs or stereos wafting across the night sky, no conversations or raucous parties disturbing the peace. Only the passage of an occasional bird and the chirping of night insects broke the silence. Uneasy at the eerie sense of calm, Nate went back into the house and went to bed.
Throughout the long and strange day his dreams from the previous night had seemed distant and stripped of their power. In the oppressive silence of the empty house far from anyone he knew the dreams returned. As morning broke and the little house outside Chauncey, Kansas greeted a new morning Nate discovered that being awake was becoming more refreshing than sleep.