Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cross Country Christmas Chapter 2

Chapter Two of my on-going Christmas story. Chapter one is available here. Happy Reading!


Thirty minutes later, they were arguing over the radio station.

“I said I wouldn’t talk.” Kale punched one of the presets. “I didn’t say you could control the noise.”

Gracie swatted his hand away. “Watch the road,” she said and switched the station back to the holiday channel she found minutes after leaving the airport. She sighed in contentment as “Silver Bells” wafted out of the stereo. “I think they have country versions on this channel.”

“I like other types of music, you know.”

“No, I didn’t. And surprise, I don’t care.”

She was really starting to regret this whole idea and that made her crabby.

What she really should have done, starting from the moment she realized her relationship, and her life as she knew it was over, was hopped a plane south. Two days ago, standing in their living room watching Tony destroy what was left of her pride, there wasn’t an ice storm. She should’ve gone upstairs, packed her things and jumped a plane to Mexico. Instead, she’d gone to Shelly’s and called her mother. And that, Gracie thought, was that. As soon as her mom said, “Oh Grace baby, come home for Christmas,” she couldn’t do anything else.

“Hey now.” Kale’s voice dragged her back to the overheated Mini. “No regrets.”

Gracie tugged off her wool red and white striped scarf, and attempted to do that with her bad mood. “Yeah. No going back now, right?”

As answer, he merged smoothly into the left lane and stomped the gas. They shot forward around a semi and quickly back into the right lane and onto the exit ramp for 1-75 that would take them into Tennessee. Before leaving the lot, they’d checked it on the map and calculated it would take them two and a half days to hit up Billings where Kale’s “chick” Jessica was waiting. From there, she’d go it alone another day to Seattle. Which would put her there right before Christmas Eve. If everything went smoothly. From the way Kale was driving, she wouldn’t be surprised to see signs for Montana tomorrow. The roads, thankfully, were clear although power lines all along the interstate drooped close to the ground, a mantle of ice sparkling in the murky sunlight.

“You always drive so fast?”

He shot her a cute grin. The sort that shot shivers sparking down her spine and melted away the rest of her crabbiness. Damn it.

“It’s the only way to go.”

“I bet you don’t get to drive a lot, huh?”

Kale grunted and shook his head.

“You must miss it,” she tried again. Despite his pledge to remain silent, Gracie reasoned she really couldn’t endure three plus days of silence. Besides which, she was insanely curious about the life of an honest-to-goodness star. It couldn’t be all goodness and light but neither could it be all that horrible.

“A little,” he allowed but she observed how his eyes cut left and right across the road and forgave him the white lie. She was a stranger after all. There was nothing stopping her from calling up People right then and there to give them an up close and personal interview.

Except that wasn’t her style and she should tell him that up front or else the miles would ride slow. She took a deep breath.

“Listen, I’m just trying to make conversation but I get it. You’ve been through the wringer with—well, your son—”

“Not mine,” he growled.

“Right,” she said quickly. “Sorry. Anyway, I’m not going to ask you about that and I’m not going to go running to the tabloids. O.K.? I just want to get home to my family. For Christmas.” And to her absolute horror, her voice broke on the last word. It was just as well though because his hands—really great hands too—relaxed on the wheel.

“O.K.,” he said then reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a silver handkerchief.

My God, the man carried around a handkerchief! He handed it to her without a word and she took it, pressed it to her nose and turned to look out the window. And then he reached over and turned up the radio as “White Christmas” flowed from the speakers.

“I thought you didn’t want to listen to holiday music.”

“You do,” he said, “and its my favorite.”

She nodded and continued to look out the foggy window. Oddly enough, it was her favorite too.

As they traveled further north, the landscape around them grew whiter, and the little Mini clung to the road as the wind battered it back and forth. Small lines appeared on Kale’s forehead. Gracie really hated to tell him they needed to stop. She shifted back and forth in her seat, trying to find a comfortable position. The digital clock read 3:03 pm. The next big stop on the map was Chattanooga but she didn’t think she’d make it. They passed a sign for Dalton. Gracie bit her lip, hard but it was no use.

“We have to stop.”

“So soon, huh?” he asked and chuckled.

Gracie gaped at him. Tony would’ve grumbled about high maintenance women and try to talk her out of it but Kale took the exit without further comment.

They came into Dalton and as Kale directed the car toward a McDonalds, Gracie waved him on to a Rite Aid on the corner. He put the car in park as it began to sleet. The only other vehicle in the lot was a rusted Ford pickup.

“Do you need anything?”

Little pellets of frozen snow tinned off the roof and windshield of their car. She opened the car door.

“Chocolate covered cherries.”

Gracie closed the door. “Really?”

He shrugged. “It’s a weakness. Can’t wait for Christmas to come around every year so I can stock up.”

He reached into his back pocket of those ridiculously tight jeans—God she loved a man who could pull that off—and handed her a twenty. Gracie considered giving it back to him for about three seconds but in the end, she knew she needed what he could give her. Somehow she’d find a way to pay him back. In the meantime, he needed chocolate covered cherries and she needed more than the three ounces of shampoo and conditioner the FAA allowed.

“Be back,” she called and hopped out of the car.

Once inside, she found the bathroom then grabbed a basket and cruised the aisles. On an end cap she hit the jackpot with holiday-themed beauty products. She threw in some peppermint scented moisturizer, vanilla and caramel shampoo/conditioner combo pack, and Burt’s Bees lip balm. She rounded the corner, passed a woman loading up on eggnog, and landed in the candy aisle. She dropped in three boxes of Queen Anne’s chocolate covered cherries. The kid running the checkout lane offered her a braces-filled smile and wished her a Merry Christmas.

“Merry Christmas to you, too.”

She stuffed the receipt into her wallet to calculate later. The change jiggled in her hand and she dropped it into the Salvation Army bucket. The collector waved his bell at her.

“Thank ya kindly, miss.”

Gracie felt almost close to normal as she picked her way back across the lot. But then she spotted the driver of the pickup and stopped short. She caught a glimpse of Kale frowning at her through the windshield but she didn’t have time to explain. She had to stop that man.

In the bed of the truck crouched a dog, its hair matted with red Georgia mud. From this distance she couldn’t tell the breed only that the dog was mid-sized and trembling. The man, tan Carhartt pulled over dirty overalls, stood on the back wheel. He leaned over the side of the truck and whacked the dog on the side of the head. The dog yelped.

“Hey! You can’t do that!” Gracie yelled and started toward the truck.

Kale was out of the car in no time. He reached her before she reached the dog.

“What are you doing?” he muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

“I have to stop that guy,” she said and pushed around him. “I said stop!” she screamed as the man drew back for another whack. He did stop then but only to spit tobacco to one side before delivering the next blow.

Kale’s hand wrapped around her upper arm. She tugged.

“I’m gonna kill him.”

She needed to stop him. She needed to save the dog.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

That made her pause. “You’ll kill him?” she asked.

Kale raised his eyebrows at her and she flushed. “Right. You know what I mean.”

The dog whined, and Gracie’s poor battered heart twisted in her chest.

“Stop him,” she pleaded. Her voice sounded strange, as if coming from a long distance away.

Kale put his arm across her shoulders and forced her to slow down. “Follow my lead,” he muttered and she relaxed a little under his arm.

“Afternoon,” he said to the man.

“Whadaya want?” He leered at Gracie and bared his tobacco stained teeth. “I ain’t giving you no money. My old lady gave that Salvation fella all my change when she went it for my eggnog.”

“We’re not collecting.” Kale turned his body slightly to block her from view. “My sister here, she’s been wanting a dog.”

“Can’t have ‘em,” Tobacco Teeth spat. “Ain’t mine ta give. My wife’s and she’s sorta attached to ‘em.”

“I’m not talking about giving.”

Tobacco Teeth straightened and jumped down. Gracie swore she heard the dog sigh in relief.

“What’re talking about then?” He squinted at them. “She sure don’t look like no sister of yours.”

“Half.” Kale grinned at Tobacco Teeth all chummy like, and Gracie had to give him props. She couldn’t muster up anything that didn’t look like a punch straight to the guy’s rotting teeth. “Her mother married my dad. She’s older.”

Gracie elbowed Kale’s ribs. He winced but didn’t take his eyes of the guy. “I want to buy your dog,” he said, cutting to the chase. “What’ll you take for him?”

Tobacco Teeth rubbed a grease-coated hand over his sagging jaw line. He eyed the dog, then Kale. “Fifty’ll do it.”

If Kale thought it was too much, he didn’t quibble. He simply handed over a few bills and told Gracie to get the dog. She gave Tobacco Teeth a wide berth, not liking the look in his squinty eyes, and climbed the tail gate.

“Come here, sweetie,” she whispered to the dog. The sleet pounded harder. The dog turned its head toward her and she saw its eyes were all but frozen shut. “Come on, baby. You can do it.”

The dog didn’t move but its tail did thump half-heartedly against the truck bed.

“What’s its name?” she called over her shoulder.

Tobacco Teeth tore his gaze off her butt. “Toby.”

“Boy? Girl?”

“You ever hear a girl called Toby?”

Gracie ignored him and climbed gingerly over the side.

“Gracie, be careful,” Kale warned. “He might bite.”

“He won’t,” she said, eyes only for the dog. Up close he looked to be a golden lab. His paws were huge though his legs were short. He was young then, maybe no more than a year.

“Toby,” she crooned and laid a hand over his ears. He let out a pathetic dog-sigh and pushed his head into the warmth of her palm. Gracie fell in love. She gathered him close and handed him over the side into Kale’s waiting arms.

“Hurry up,” he said. “It’s cold.”

“Nice doin’ business with ya,” Tobacco Teeth called and chuckling, hopped into his truck, presumably to wait for his old lady and eggnog.

With Kale’s help, Gracie laid Toby in the back seat. They shuffled Kale’s guitar around to make enough room.

“Hurry,” Kale said again and she looked at him. “It wasn’t fifty. It was forty. All I got.”

Gracie couldn’t help it, she beamed at him and worked faster. When Toby looked mostly comfortable, Kale gunned the engine and peeled out of the lot. Their back tires spun for a second before catching and they made it to the interstate in less than two minutes.

She laid her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “My hero.”

His mouth flattened in a straight line. “Nope. Just doing what anyone would.”

A little bit of her jubilance faded at that. She looked back at the dog so she wouldn’t have to see that look on Kale’s face. Bitterness set heavily on him, dimming the mood inside the little car.

Toby stood, turned in two complete circles and settled himself. Gracie reached back, smoothed her hand over his soft head.

“He’ll need food,” she said. “And we’ll have to find a motel that allows animals.”

Kale glanced in the rearview mirror and some of the tension slid from his face. “Or sneak him in. He’s gonna need a bath. The boy stinks.”

Toby barked.

Gracie smiled. “I think he likes the idea.”

“You ever wash a dog before? They like it all right. But you won’t.”

She aimed a cheeky grin at him. “As a matter of fact, I’m—was dog groomer.”

Kale sputtered out a laugh. “You don’t say.”

“Yup. Back in Atlanta I was considered the best in the biz.” She paused for a minute so he would look at her. “At Petsmart.”

That earned her a full laugh and she allowed herself a little giggle too. It felt good to laugh. She hadn’t done a lot of that lately.

“Petsmart, huh?"

“Part-time. I did clerical stuff the other half of the time at Tony’s place.” She shrugged. “I quit the dog grooming thing while I was in the airport.”


Gracie’s stomach dropped a little. She did not want to talk about Tony. So she punched him lightly in the arm.

“I don’t know you well enough for that, bro. Anyway, leaving Atlanta for good seems like a really good idea.”

He didn’t ask her what she meant by that and she as grateful. She just wanted to concentrate on getting to the next stop and not waste any time looking back.

“We got a lot of miles before Billings, girl.” He winked at her. “I’ll get it out of you. Sounds like a whopping good story.”

1 comment:

Anne said...

My God, the man carried around a handkerchief!

Her mother is going to love him! Can't wait for the next installment.