— 2004 —
Only two hours after she eased her truck off the highway and onto increasingly more secluded backroads, Nicole began to question why she’d gone so far out of her way just to pass through her hometown. There was something sentimental in this whole journey, and it only seemed right to detour through here and take the same route she had taken the first time.
She drove through the heart of town, fingers twitching on the wheel as she fought the urge to turn down the street to her childhood home. But what good would it do to see if her last name was still on the mailbox? Or if the paint color had changed? Or if her dad’s old Suburban was still in the driveway? Or would the spot be empty with only the stain from the oil that had slowly dripped underneath?
She frowned at the image of a rusted-out truck she hadn’t thought about in years. She was wrong for scrimping and saving every penny to get her Bronco, money that could’ve helped the family. Nevermind that he sunk money into an endless number of projects that never got done.
But before she could indulge her curiosity, the street sign for Maple Street was in her rearview mirror. She shook her head, surprised by the depth of the nostalgia and old feelings coursing through her.
Instead, she steered her truck down some different memory lanes: driving around her high school, eyeing the cars, much newer than her own, that filled the student lot, and then to the rear parking lot of Pressman’s 24-hour Laundromat. She couldn’t bring herself to stop, slowing as she approached the spot where she had usually parked. Her eyes roamed from the storefront to her piled up belongings at the back of her 1986 Bronco. In spite of the ten years that had passed, some things would never change.
Merely the sight of that cracked grey asphalt bordered by two white lines caused Nicole’s throat to tighten, as a wave of fear she hadn’t felt since she was 17 washed over her. Fear for her safety. Fear of her biggest secrets coming to light. But most of all, fear of being found and returned to her parents.
Nicole pushed down on the gas pedal, the engine of her old truck whining for a split second before it revved, the momentum pushing her back into the weathered velour seat. Without conscious direction, her left arm, which had been lazily hanging out the window, darted inside, hand wrapping around the leather steering wheel. She left her old anxieties behind in smoking rubber on the road.
Only once she knew her old “home” was well behind her, not even visible in her mirrors, did she ease up, allowing her truck to slow to a pace less likely to draw the attention of red and blue lights. Her arm slid back out the window, the breeze cooling the warm sweat that had built at the crease of her elbow.
The gas station on the outskirts of town came into view, an upside-down “2” filling in for a “7” on the price board for diesel. After a glance at her gauges and another surprising wave of nostalgic longing, she flicked on her turn signal, easing her truck into the parking lot. She pulled up to a pump and shifted into park.
Nicole grabbed her wallet from the cup holder before climbing out of her truck, the muscles in her legs and back aching in protest after so much time in the driver’s seat.
Everything looked just as she remembered it, from the faded paint on the awning above the pumps to the flickering neon “GAS” sign twirling lazily over the convenience store and diner.
But it was the graffitied payphone that caught her eye, and her feet automatically carried her towards it. She spared a glance over her shoulder, making sure there were other empty pumps so she wouldn’t hog one. If she made a phone call.
The resident at her destination didn’t have the faintest idea she was en route, and that seemed awfully rude in hindsight, but wouldn’t it bring it all full circle if Nicole called from here to let her know that she was on her way?
She pulled a coin from her pocket and had it halfway into the slot
You’re going, Nicole! This isn’t up for debate. I’m not having this conversation again.
At the ghost that echoed in her ears, Nicole abruptly pulled her hand away and turned on her heel.
Because if she had come all this way for nothing, she didn’t think she could bear it. Kicking at the dirt, she shook her head and backed away.
No, Nicole had to at least hear that “no” with her own ears. Not over the static of the call. Not without seeing it in the lines on her face.
The bell above the door rang as Nicole pushed it open and made a beeline to the counter, a bill already in hand to pay for her gas. She forced herself to remain focused on the cashier and the task at hand, no more distractions, as she handed over her cash before storming back to her truck.
— 1994 —
Nicole paced down the aisles of the gas station, hands deep in the pockets of her jeans. She glanced out the window, internally cursing the trucker hogging the one pay phone before absentmindedly scanning the assortment of gum and mints in front of her. She picked up a roll of Lifesavers, rolling it between her restless fingers.
The newspaper clipping in her back pocket seemed to have absorbed her body heat, burning through the denim as an ever-present reminder of what she was waiting for.
At last the trucker hung up and strolled back to his idling big rig. Nicole dropped the mints back into their box and hurried outside, the bell above the door chiming cheerily to announce her departure.
But Nicole barely registered it, instead searching her pockets, first for a coin, then to gently pry the paper from her pocket, careful not to tear it. After a deep breath and a glance at the phone number, she shoved the coin into the slot before she could lose her nerve and dialed, double checking the smudged ink on the newprint, already staining her shaking, sweaty hands, to make sure she dialed the correct combination of numbers.
It took two rings and one slow bead of sweat dripping down Nicole’s ear until she heard the static of the other end of the line being picked up.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” Nicole began, voice shaking away the lower note she had tried to force into her voice; the many times she had rehearsed this speech quickly became a wasted effort. “I’m looking for a W. Earp?”
“Speaking,” the woman responded breezily, but with a hint of intrigue in her tone. “Are you calling about the ad?”
“Yes, ma’am. My name’s Nicole, Nicole Haught.”
Nicole learned the “W” stood for Waverly. And over the course of four more coins worth of easy-flowing conversation, Waverly outlined her property and the work she was looking for between now and mid-August. It was fairly straightforward: after the sudden passing of her husband, Waverly just needed a hand to help her keep the farm running smoothly through summer, until her sister and brother-in-law could make their way there to help Waverly long-term.
With the odd parts of most of her youth spent lending a hand on her aunt and uncle’s farm, being shipped off whenever those extra hands were needed, regardless of their size and the time of school year, Nicole felt she could handle everything. But there was a nagging feeling at the back of her mind that she was missing something, since she’d be gone before Waverly’s wheat was ready for harvest, particularly when Waverly suddenly asked how soon she could start.
“I could be there in a week,” Nicole answered, leaving out that she needed to finish up her last few days of school before she could hit the road. “But…”
Nicole trailed off, unsure how to ask the questions that lingered in her consciousness.
“Ma’am, would it be too forward of me to ask a question? About your advertisement?”
“Not at all,” Waverly replied immediately.
“I’ve seen this ad, every week for...well an awful while. Is there...is there a reason you haven’t found someone suitable sooner?”
“A little bit.” Waverly sighed. “I’ve spoken with many capable candidates, but...it’s important to me to find the right fit. And, as we discussed, whomever I employ will have to live with me in the house...and I wanted to make sure it was someone I was... comfortable with. I’ve been holding out because I’m an excellent judge of character...and I’m glad I waited. I’ve got a good feeling about you.”
Nicole flushed at the warmth in the words from a woman she didn’t even know. She tipped down the brim of her hat, hiding the smile on her lips.
“I won’t let you down, Waverly. Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity.”
“No need to thank me. I’ll see you in a week, Nicole.”
The line clicked dead before Nicole could say good-bye.
Hot, dry air swirled around Nicole as she eased off the gas pedal and rattled down the dirt driveway, a small one-story house with a wraparound porch coming into view. With dust kicking up in her rearview mirror, she forced her stiff muscles to move, shifting herself upright in her seat, eager to make a good impression on her new employer, when she was startled by the front door opening abruptly.
A brunette woman in a flowing dress stomped out of the house, sawed off shotgun in hand and aimed in her direction.
Nicole slammed on the brakes, hand flailing for the gearshift to downshift. Her body jerked forward from the abrupt change in speed.
She briefly worried that she had made a wrong turn, ended up on the wrong farm; the “no trespassing” sign, framed in barbed wire she had passed suddenly seemed a lot more ominous in her mind’s eye. Instinct told her to raise her hands, but the truck skidded wildly in the loose, dry dirt driveway as her brakes locked up. Nicole hauled desperately at the steering wheel until the truck fully stopped, rocking in a cloud of dust.
Though she was still 30 yards from the house, the screen door smacking against its frame was audible even over the rumble of the engine.
Nicole’s hands immediately rose from the wheel as if the leather burned her skin, as she finally locked eyes with the woman on the porch. The gun lowered slowly, the woman seeming to realize that Nicole wasn’t a threat.
With a sheepish smile, the woman beckoned Nicole forward.
Heart racing, Nicole lowered her hands, one back to the wheel, the other to the gear shift.
Her pulse only seemed to pick up as she eased her truck closer to the porch.
She’s awfully pretty, Nicole thought, pulling the park brake and noting the woman’s bare feet. And that those feet were moving.
“I’m so sorry, Nicole!” the woman exclaimed, slinging the shotgun over her shoulder and hurrying off the porch, jumping from the steps down onto the driveway. “I thought it’d be dark til you got here.”
With a deep breath, Nicole reached for her hat on the passenger seat.
“You get a lot of unfriendly faces out here, Mrs. Earp?” Nicole called through the open window as she eased the door open, rusty hinges groaning, and stepped out, making sure to hug close to the truck.
Waverly grimaced, and Nicole’s heart skipped a beat, worried at the response. As Waverly pushed her hair out of her face, the light caught just right to highlight a few distinct gray strands that stood out in contrast to Waverly’s light brunette hair.
“None of this Mrs. nonsense, Nicole. Earp is my maiden name anyway. Just call me Waverly, please.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole nodded, tipping her old straw hat before placing it on her head.
—only to freeze, hand still curled around the front of her hat, at the glare Waverly sent her way.
“Yes...Waverly?” Nicole stammered, tipping her hat once more for good measure.
“That’s better,” Waverly beamed, her appreciation warming Nicole. “I’ve got to check on dinner, but grab your stuff. I’ll meet you inside and give you a tour.”
With a nod at the door and another smile, Waverly turned, hopping back up the stairs and back inside.
Nicole watched her go until the shotgun slipped from sight, absentmindedly adjusting her hat with a huff.
She never did answer my question.
Expelling her unease with a deep breath, Nicole turned back to her truck.
It only took one trip for Nicole to grab all her worldly belongings, her duffel bag, jacket, and backpack, hastily shoving the greasy paper bag from her lunch into the front pocket. She had already shut the door to her truck before a thought occurred to her.
Dropping her bag onto the dirt, she opened the door again and reached across the seat, fumbling for the latch to the glove compartment. She grabbed her pistol and tucked it into her waistband before slamming the door shut again.
Nicole hurried up the stairs and onto the porch, briefly pausing to count the rotted boards that needed replaced before continuing inside. She blinked, eyes adjusting to the dim entry and spied a bench to her left, with an assortment of shoes scattered around it. Setting her belongings on the floor, she sat on the bench and pried off her boots, sitting them neatly among the collection.
Waverly breezed through the open door frame that presumably led to the rest of the house, picking up Nicole’s jacket and plucking Nicole’s hat off her head and hanging both on an empty hook.
“Are you a cowboy or something, with this hat?” Waverly teased.
Getting to her feet, Nicole ran a hand through her likely disheveled hair, hoping to push down the many strands she knew were probably sticking up in all directions. She fought a grimace, hoping the three-day build up of grease and oil wasn’t as obvious as it felt on her fingers.
Nicole answered, “Just tryin' to make an honest living.”
“Is this everything?” Waverly asked, picking up Nicole’s bag for her.
“Yes, ma—I mean, Waverly. I can take it though.”
“I’ve got it,” Waverly smiled kindly, hefting the bag higher on the shoulder. “Let me show you your room first.”