Xander had just blown past a sign for Ivory River on the side of the highway when the engine on his truck started to emit a menacing screech. Not having much experience with cars at all, mechanical problems were one of Xander’s worst nightmares. He could barely change his own oil, for chrissakes.
Fear compelled him to hit the brakes. He pulled over onto the shoulder in a panic. The tall trees lining either side of the road shrouded both Xander and his truck in shadow while the warm red glow of the setting sun lay at his back.
Xander popped the hood and stared down miserably at the mess of intricate machinery that lay before him. He had a sneaking suspicion just from the sound that something was wrong with the transmission, but if that was truly the case, he didn’t have a clue how to fix it. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, feeling exhaustion starting to set in. Guess he was walking those two miles to Ivory River, then.
Xander stuffed all the essentials into his backpack, sifting through the disorganized mess in the truck bed that was a telltale sign to anyone who caught a glimpse that he’d been living out of his car for longer than was considered socially acceptable. It had taken him two weeks to get from New York to central Texas: a trip that under other circumstances should have taken a quarter of the time. But Xander wasn’t in any hurry.
He wasn’t in a rush as he ambled down the side of the backwoods farm-to-market road either, with not a single car passing him as he trudged through the eclectic mix of dirt and gravel. He scanned the trees for any sign of civilization and found nothing.
Then, sooner than he’d expected, Xander suddenly spotted the dim lights of a gas station up ahead, and he quickened his pace. Surely, he hadn’t already walked a whole two miles? The sun was low on the horizon in the west, but still just barely visible if he glanced over his shoulder. The flickering overhead fluorescents illuminating the rural gas station were the only beacons on the path ahead.
As Xander made his approach, he could see the vague outlines of other buildings further down the road, but all seemed uncharacteristically dark for so early in the evening. From this distance, not even a single car was visible out on the street where the highway morphed into a small-town avenue. Xander began to feel uneasy as he drew closer to the gas station, starting to worry now that the whole place was actually just a ghost town despite the lights, and that he’d find himself stranded there with his broken-down truck for the night.
He stretched his hand out for the handle on the door of the adjacent convenience store without much hope for what he might find inside. The door opened with a jingle to reveal a dark head of hair propped up against the front counter. Xander breathed out a sigh of relief and stepped inside.
Behind what he presumed was the cashier, Xander could see a laptop wedged between the chewing gum display and a locked glass case filled with cigarettes. He couldn’t tell what exactly was playing, but the two people on screen were locked in a passionate kiss that didn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
Xander coughed, trying to get the cashier’s attention before the scene transitioned into something more embarrassing for the both of them. When the woman didn’t respond, Xander rapped his knuckles against the counter, sending the girl spinning around in her chair with a graceless curse as she ripped her headphones out of the computer. Xander grimaced as the couple’s loud moans suddenly permeated the empty convenience store.
“It’s not porn!” the woman said immediately, before Xander even had a chance to open his mouth. “It won an Oscar!”
Xander just gaped at her.
“Um, anyway, if you’re on another pump you’re gonna have to switch to two,” she added quickly, trying to gloss over the awkwardness of their situation with little luck as she hastily closed out of the tab that was blasting symphonic music over the sound of breathy moans. Xander didn’t dare glance up to see what was happening on screen. “And we only take cash, so. Sorry. Card reader’s all out of whack.”
“No—” Xander said before pausing to gather his thoughts. He took a large step back from the counter before continuing. “No, I mean, I’m not here for gas; my car broke down a couple miles outside of Ivory River and I’m just trying to find someone who can take a look at it.”
The woman narrowed her eyes at him in confusion. “Outside the river?” she questioned.
“Isn’t that…the sign said it was two miles to Ivory River,” Xander replied uncertainly, now wondering in the face of this woman’s scrutiny that he had somehow gotten it wrong.
She laughed, which was less than comforting. “Oh, no, that’s not the name of the town,” she said. “There’s a trail at the other end of Main Street that leads you to a historical marker overlooking the falls. So you’re less than a mile from here if you broke down near the sign.”
Xander felt himself go a bit pink at being corrected so thoroughly, but he was grateful he hadn’t had to walk quite as far as he’d expected. “Yeah, so um, can you help me out, maybe?” He crossed his arms over his chest self-consciously. He knew what this looked like, and he knew how he sounded, asking for help with his broken-down car from some woman working by herself at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. He fully expected her to say no, accuse him of being a serial killer trying to bait her out, and then threaten to call the police.
Instead she grabbed a flashlight from under the counter without so much as hesitating, and then hopped up and over to stand in front of Xander, her free hand outstretched for him to take. “I’m Clare, by the way,” she said, giving his hand a vigorous shake.
“Xander,” he replied.
“Cool, cool. Well, my car’s out back, so just follow me.”
He was careful to trail several feet behind her, wishing he’d put on his jacket even though it was far too warm out for that. He felt oddly vulnerable in just his grease-stained white shirt and ripped jeans, his knuckles torn up and bruised from a bar fight he’d gotten into in Colorado three days ago.
Xander was surprised Clare didn’t seem more intimidated by him. He fit the visual profile of a drifter to a tee. He was practically a serial killer waiting to happen. And he was fairly certain he didn’t smell too nice either, between the heat inside the truck cab and the lack of showering out on the road.
As promised, there was a small sedan parked behind the building that looked that it might have at one point been painted white, but the thing was so weathered and rusted that Xander couldn’t even hazard a guess as to the make or model. Clare got in on the passenger side before Xander had a chance to. He stopped to watch as she clambered over the center console and folded herself into the driver’s seat. She rolled down the driver’s side window and gazed up at him with a bashful smile.
“The handle snapped off,” she said by way of explanation as the engine started up with a coughing sputter.
Xander carefully squeezed into the miniscule amount of space afforded him on the passenger side, thankful he didn’t have to climb over the middle like Clare had, and closed the door. The entire car rattled with the force of the bare metal plates roughly clanging into each other. Xander winced. He couldn’t help but wonder how this piece of junk was still running, while his truck—barely five years old at this point—had given up less than halfway across the country.
“So, I’m guessing you aren’t from around here,” Clare said conversationally as they slowly pulled out of the lot and onto the main road. She kept tapping the fingernails on her right hand against the side of the steering wheel. It was distracting. “Where are you headed?”
“San Antonio. For now, I guess.”
Clare made a face Xander couldn’t hope to interpret. “Wouldn’t have pegged you for it, to be honest. You look Austin-bound, if anything.”
Xander gave her a questioning look in the brief second that her eyes met his, but she turned back to the road without addressing it.
“So what’s the town called?” Xander asked when she didn’t elaborate further.
Clare huffed out a little laugh. “It’s German,” she explained. “Spelled like ‘junker’, but whatever you do, don’t call it that in front of anyone over the age of forty unless you’re looking for a fight.”
Xander wondered if she had noticed his knuckles and had made her own assumptions about the type of guy he was. He worried at his lower lip with the tip of his tongue. “I’m not exactly planning on staying any longer than I have to,” he remarked bluntly. They were nearing the spot where he’d left his truck now, if he had to guess. “I just want to get my truck fixed and get back on the road.”
“Oh yeah, of course,” Clare replied absently, having clearly forgotten what he’d just told her. “Sorry, we just don’t exactly have a lot of tourists coming through. Got a little overexcited.” She was still tapping her fingers frantically against the wheel. Xander didn’t think she sounded excited at all; he could feel the anxiety billowing off of her in waves. “Is that your car?” she asked a few seconds later, finally ripping her hand away from the steering wheel to gesture out into the dark.
The red paint of his truck reflected the dim glow from her headlights back at them. Xander nodded. “Yeah. That’s it.”
Clare angled sharply to the left and coasted up the shoulder until her sedan was practically bumper to bumper with Xander’s truck. She left the engine running, took off her seatbelt, and gave Xander a meaningful look. He scrambled to open his door and nearly slammed his head into the roof of the vehicle twice while trying to extract himself.
Clare, who had ostensibly more practice at it, almost made the action look graceful as she used the frame of the door to pull herself out. Xander handed her his keys once she had two feet planted firmly on the ground and watched from afar as she sauntered over to his truck, the gravel crunching loudly under her scuffed leather boots in the still summer air.
She climbed in and started the engine. Xander could hear the squeal from where he was standing as she tested her foot on the accelerator. Apparently satisfied with the results of her examination, the headlights flicked back off again and the engine went silent.
Clare hopped out and walked around to lift the hood. She wedged her bulky flashlight into the crook of her neck, and Xander wondered how she wasn’t blind when the bright LED beam suddenly illuminated the innards of his truck like she was wielding the power of the sun itself.
She didn’t ask for his help once as she dug around under the hood, and Xander didn’t offer it. He was content to let her work uninterrupted.
A few minutes later, the flashlight clicked off. Xander heard Clare emit a loud sigh before she trudged over to him, the sudden transition to darkness making it damn near impossible to see.
“The good news is that your car isn’t gonna blow up anytime soon,” she told him. “The bad news is that the only way you’re getting to San Antonio is if you drive it in first gear the whole way there, and even then, there’s no guarantee it won’t break down completely on you.”
“So you can’t fix it,” Xander surmised with a grimace.
“Me? Hell no. But there’s a mechanic in town. He might be able to patch it up, or he might not, but that’s really your only option right now.”
Xander squeezed his eyes shut, drawing in a few deep breaths through his nose. He barely had enough money left for gas. There was no fucking way he was going to be able to afford to pay some small-town mechanic who probably charged through the nose just to get by in between the occasional job.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Can you please take me to the shop then, so I can talk to this mechanic?”
“Um,” Clare replied hesitantly, now tapping her fingers against her left bicep in lieu of a steering wheel to fidget with. “Well, everyone’s actually over at the ranch right now for the summer festival, so….” She eyed him up and down, clearly trying to assess whether she could get away with bringing along a total stranger to this party, or whatever it was. “Screw it,” she said with a sigh. “I wasn’t even supposed to leave the gas station at all, technically, so it’s not like I can get in any more trouble than I already have.”
“Sorry,” Xander said automatically, though it wasn’t like he’d had any idea she was endangering her employment by helping him.
“It’s fine,” Clare replied easily. She climbed back into the sedan without another word.
Xander watched through the scratched and dusty window as they rumbled down Junker’s Main Street, taking in the antique shop fronts that looked like they’d been pulled straight out of a spaghetti western. Between that and the utter lack of any sign of life, the place certainly looked the part of a stereotypical Texan ghost town, only the electric streetlights and the odd payphone here and there to dispel the illusion.
Before long they were driving beyond the small slice of civilization and back into the wilderness. Xander could see the vague suggestions of houses through the trees, but not nearly enough to get an actual sense of how many people belonged to the town. And then after a short while, there was nothing at all to see but blackness.
A few minutes and several turns later, a lit-up sign on a dirt drive appeared seemingly from nowhere, proudly proclaiming that they had arrived at the Twist Ranch.
The narrow path leading up the hill was lined with dogwood, an entire lane’s worth wrapped in fairy lights. At the very end, Xander could see a large house with clean contemporary lines that seemed vastly at odds with the simplistic square buildings on Main Street. It looked almost as if someone had plucked a modern ranch home out of an architectural design magazine and had plopped it down right in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.
Up near the house there was a large flat clearing, where Xander could see a smattering of cars parked as neatly as could be expected with no pavement markings in the dirt as a guide. Xander waited patiently, without saying a word, as Clare made a nine-point turn so she could squeeze her little sedan between a rusted old pickup and a large tree.
After carefully extricating himself from the car once more, and waiting for Clare to do the same, Xander followed her through the scattered vehicles up to the front door, which was surrounded by a wreath of the same fairy lights that had been used to decorate the tree-lined drive. There was a kitschy banner hanging over the threshold that had ‘WELCOME’ painted across it in large rainbow letters.
Xander hunched his shoulders down as Clare pushed open the door, trying futilely to appear smaller than he really was as a large throng of people crowded into the foyer were revealed, all juggling food and drink in their hands as they stood around chatting to each other.
Xander did his best to stick close to Clare as she weaved expertly through the crowd, all smiles and friendly waves even while each person they passed stared curiously at Xander, who suddenly felt like the new kid on the lacrosse team again, too quiet and gentle-natured for his peers to effectively tolerate.
Once they emerged from the foyer, the layout of the house remained fairly open, with a staircase to one side and a sprawling great room on the other. The kitchen was separated from the living area by a breakfast bar, and Xander could see a frazzled middle-aged woman filling enormous kegs of lemon water standing behind it, while simultaneously trying to maintain conversations with each of the people standing around waiting on her.
Clare seemed to spot the woman at the same time as Xander and made a beeline for her, still slipping through the mass of partygoers with relative ease. The woman’s pinched face brightened considerably as they approached, and she—unlike the rest—didn’t seem fazed in the slightest by Xander’s presence.
“I thought you were working tonight,” the woman said mildly once they were within earshot—which was practically standing on top of each other with the amount of noise surrounding them.
“Hey to you too,” Clare said, leaning forward to give the woman a hug. “There was a slight hiccup. I’m sure Adam will understand, right?”
The older woman rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to him. What happened? Who’s your friend?”
Xander shifted uncomfortable and offered her his hand. “I’m Xander. Clare’s just helping me out.”
The woman nodded and shook his hand politely. “I’m Anne. Nice to meet you.”
Clare laughed. “You won’t catch anyone in town calling her anything but Mama Twist though,” she explained to Xander. “Except for Mitch, who is actually the person we’re looking for.” She looked hopefully at Mama Twist, who sighed as she began wiping up a spill from around the bottom of one of the kegs.
“Car trouble?” she guessed. Clare nodded. “Well, you’ll have to wait, unfortunately. He went out riding with Harry and some of the kids. They should be back soon. Do y’all want a drink while you wait?”
Xander accepted graciously and followed Clare to the back of the kitchen, where they stood with their backs to the cupboards, quietly sipping their glasses of water. Xander had to consciously keep from making a face at the slight tang that accompanied every swallow. He hated flavored water.
He could tell that he was still attracting curious looks from the partygoers around them, and found himself wishing he had a jacket he could hide in. Everyone there with the exception of Clare looked like your average god-fearing Texan, and Xander stuck out like a sore thumb in his skinny-fit jeans and too-tight t-shirt. He scanned the bearded faces and the sea of blue denim surrounding him. He was starting to understand why Clare had pegged him for an urban hipster earlier.
“I don’t really have any money,” Xander blurted out suddenly.
Clare was slow to react. “What?” she said, taking another sip of her water. “Oh, you mean for the car? Mitch is a good guy, he won’t charge you for the labor if it’s that desperate.”
At this point, labor wasn’t what Xander was worried about.
They stood there for a few more minutes, and then the front door opened and in flooded a gaggle of elementary school-aged children, closely followed by two men who couldn’t have looked more different.
The first—bearded, scruffy—was wearing a baseball cap and had a kid sitting on his shoulders who was clinging onto the visor like reins. The man ducked down to avoid bashing the kid’s head on the doorframe as they walked in, and then leaned down so his companion— just as tall but unremarkable except for his long hair, dressed in a baggy gray hoodie—could help him the kid get down to join the others.
Xander watched as Mama Twist waved them over, but only the man in the baseball cap headed toward the kitchen.
“What’s up?” he asked, his eyes flickering over to Xander for the briefest of seconds before meeting Mama Twist’s.
“Can you have a look at a car in the morning?” she asked, getting straight to the point. “Clare’s friend here—Xander, right?—needs some help.”
“Sure,” the man replied. Mitch, Xander thought, if he was remembering correctly. “Where’d you leave it?” he asked, turning to address Xander.
“Uh, out on the main road,” Xander told him, hoping that was okay with him. Xander couldn’t get a read on the man’s impression of him so far in the slightest. “But I don’t have, like, a motel room or anything….”
He could see Clare out of the corner of his eye making some sort of meaningful gesture toward Mama Twist, who merely nodded in response.
“We have a guest house out back,” Mama Twist interjected. “You’re welcome to stay there until we get things figured out.”
“Are you sure that’s okay?” he asked hesitantly. “I mean, you don’t know me at all.”
“Southern hospitality and all that,” she replied easily. “Mitch, please be a dear and go save your wife from Adam before she breaks something over his head.”
Mitch straightened his cap and did an immediate one-eighty, heading straight through the crowd into the living room where a slender brunette was very clearly just tolerating the giant of a man swaying next to her with an entire bottle of wine clutched in his right hand.
“Clare, if you can get back to the gas station soon, there’s a chance Adam will be too drunk to even remember anyone telling him you were here,” Mama Twist said measuredly. “I’ll just have Gemma show Xander to the guest house.” She made a shooing motion and Clare hurried away with an apologetic shrug as she passed Xander. “Just give me a second,” Mama Twist told him as she pulled out a newer-looking smartphone and pecking at the screen with her index finger.
Less than a minute later a girl with cropped platinum-blonde hair walked up to them. There was a telltale hitch in her step that told Xander she’d had plenty to drink, but not so much that she couldn’t function so long as she remained focused on the task at hand. Her eyes positively lit up when she noticed Xander, and she raked her eyes unapologetically over his body as she drew closer.
“We taking in strays now, Mama?” she asked.
Xander assumed the question was supposed to be a joke, but he was so caught off guard by the girl’s open appraisal of him that he didn’t even think to laugh along.
“Gemma, Xander; Xander, Gemma,” Mama Twist said instead of answering. “Gemma is my only daughter,” she told Xander meaningfully.
“I hate when you say that,” Gemma said with a pout.
Mama Twist snorted. “Then blame your brother for not being another girl. Now show the poor boy to the guest house, and try not to get lost on the way there, okay sweetie?”
Gemma rolled her eyes, but beckoned for Xander to follow her without any further protest. He tightened his grip on the backpack slung over his shoulder and traced her footsteps through the crowd, careful not to bump into anyone as they moved through the packed space.
They cut through the living room, back into the foyer, and past the staircase, down a darkened hallway that led to a sitting room walled off by a large glass door. Gemma unlocked it and slid it open in one fluid movement, waiting for Xander to pass before she went through. The door closed with a loud thud behind them, and Xander jumped.
“So,” Gemma said, her voice cutting through the low hum of natural ambiance surrounding them. “On the run, car trouble, or faking your death?”
She raised an eyebrow as Xander turned to face her. “Drifters usually fall into one of those categories. You look a little too much like a frat boy to be the first or the last though, so I’m guessing car trouble?”
Xander smiled weakly. “You guessed it.”
“That’s a shame,” she said before suddenly skipping ahead of him.
Xander took a straight course through the grass behind her as she zigged and zagged along the flagstone path that meandered from the main house to the smaller building located in the rear. From the looks of the exterior, the guest house alone was probably twice the size of the apartment he’d shared with Tori in New York
“Why’s that?” Xander asked, letting his curiosity get the better of him as they walked up the porch steps side by side.
Gemma unlocked the door and flicked on the lights with a drunken giggle. “Well, because guys with car trouble never stay for very long. You got a phone?”
Xander stared at her in open confusion for a moment before pulling out the battered remains of his phone from his back pocket. Gemma snatched it out of his hand before he could say anything at all and began typing her number into his list of contacts.
“You’re cute,” she told him as she sidled even closer to slip the phone back into his pocket. “I hope you stick around.”
Gemma spun around with a playful smile and skipped back down the path toward the main house, leaving Xander still standing there, shell-shocked, in the doorway.