Thanks to Lorelai, I’m used to the diner phone ringing and the female voice on the other end bubbling out enthusiastic words six times too fast for the human ear to follow. But this time, as I deliver a cheeseburger with one hand and answer the phone with the other, the voice is younger, sweeter and more hesitant.
“…I mean, I know how to change a tire, but the bolts on the wheels are frozen or stuck or something and they won’t come off. Dean is so so mad at me and I can’t call him after all that. I was going to call Mom, but she would just call you and so I thought maybe it would be okay if I just called you.” She pauses about two milliseconds, enough for her mom to get in a whole sentence but not enough for me to even take a breath. “I’m sorry, I know you’re working. I can wait until the diner closes.”
“It’s no big deal. Tell me where you are. I’ll be right there.”
I hang up, take the half-eaten patty melt from the trucker at the counter, and slap a scribbled ticket in front of him. “Closing up. Move it along, buddy.”
Lane lives three blocks away and no way am I waiting for her to walk over here, not with Rory alone on the side of the icy highway. The roads are bad tonight.
Did she spin out when the tire went flat? Why didn’t I ask that? I like to think she would have told me if she were hurt. Except knowing Rory, she’d probably bleed out with nothing more than a fast-food napkin for a bandage, apologizing the whole time for the inconvenience.
The trucker is taking half my lifetime to select a credit card. “You know what, it’s on the house.” I grab my coat from behind the counter and shove my sputtering customer and his open wallet out the front door, locking the door because I don’t have the time to hit the lights or flip the “Open” sign. If people can’t figure out from the locked door that I’m closed, they deserve to go hungry.
I find Rory easily. She’s got her flashers on, though no flares behind her car. I lay on the horn and shake my fist at a car that doesn’t move away from her to the other lane. “Morons.”
Parking behind her car, I throw on my flashers, pull a flare out of the glove box and toss it a good twenty feet behind my truck. I don’t want to take the time to walk back and place it until I’ve checked on Rory. If that’s not enough warning to get the idiots to move over and give her some space, a tire iron to their passenger window will be their second reminder.
She walks back to meet me, her thin arms hugged around herself while she bounces on her toes to stay warm. “Th-th-thanks for coming Lu-u-u—”
“You’re freezing.” I scowl, guiding her further away from the busy highway. “Why didn’t you wait in the car?”
“I didn’t know if it was safe to get in when it was jacked up. I already did that part on my own and I didn’t want to un-jack it because that would be just one more thing you’d have to do when you got here.” She looks up at me with wide blue eyes slightly watering from the cold. The chill has nipped her cheeks to a bright red, her lipstick all nibbled off to reveal the slight purple tinge to her lips beneath.
“Go wait in the truck where it’s warm.”
“No, I want to help. You came all the way out here, the least I can do is suffer in sol-sol-solidarity,” she chatters, her teeth rattling with the force of her shivers.
“Rory,” I half-growl, trying not to bark at a child three-quarters of the way to frostbite. “Go.”
That must have been all the excuse she needed because she trots off toward the truck, her arms still hugged around herself. Her shoe slips on the icy pavement and my heart torques in my chest, but then she regains her balance and dashes around the passenger seat, hopping a little to get in because it’s a tall truck and she’s on the downhill side.
The tires of the passing cars splatter slushy snow at me, and the knees of my jeans are soaked through within seconds. I get the tire off without any trouble, but the spare in the trunk is flat, too. I glare at it. A flat spare? What if she’d blown a tire in one of the billion places around here where the valleys are too deep or the trees too tall for good cell reception?
But of course neither Lorelai and Rory would think to check to make sure their spare was in working order, unless they wanted to use it to float across a pool drinking something with an umbrella in it. Clearly I need to start checking their spares regularly, probably when I come over every six months to change the filters in Lorelai’s furnace. I scowl, because if I’d been doing that years ago, this never would have happened.
A passing semi hoses me with gritty slush from boots to hairline. The brim of my backwards cap wards off the worst of it, but ice drips down my collar from where it got in the side. I lock Rory’s car and grab both flat tires, carrying them back to the bed of the truck. It takes me three tries to work the latch on the truck door because even with my fingerless gloves, I’m numb to the elbow.
I hop inside, glancing over at Rory. “You okay?”
Her lips are less blue, and she unbuttoned her coat, so I actually believe her when she nods vigorously. Also, it’s hot enough in here that the air stings on my skin like getting in a hot tub straight out of a snowstorm.
“Spare’s flat, too. I’ll get them fixed in the morning. I can give you a ride back, but that car’s not going anywhere tonight.”
Her shoulders slump. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you come all the way out here if it couldn’t even be fixed.”
“No trouble. You hungry? You want me to take you to get something to eat?” She didn’t say what time the tire went flat, but judging by the frozen layers of slush sprayed onto her jack, it’s been a while.
She shakes her head. “No, it’s okay. Just back to the dorm.”
I nod, scrubbing my hands together in hopes of getting some feeling back into them before I trust them to steer my truck on the icy pavement with Lorelai’s only daughter in the passenger seat.
I put the truck in gear while I’m still shivering, not wanting to make her wait. Rory reaches out and cranks the heater to the highest setting. It burns like hell on my chilled skin, and I don’t say a thing. Especially not when her small fingers quietly turn both her heater vents my way.
When I pull up to her dorm, she groans and slumps in her seatbelt. “Seriously? Tonight?”
“What?” I slow, barely coasting as I glance between her and the dorm.
The silhouette of a man paces beneath the streetlight in front of her door. I grind my molars together and let the truck creep closer to get a better look at this bozo. If it’s Dean, I’m taking his arm off. If it’s Jess, come all the way from his New York roach hotel, I’ll take off both arms.
Instead, it’s…her father. It takes me a couple of extra blinks to put a name to the face because I’ve seen him so infrequently. Guilt jolts through me and I tap the brakes, like I don’t have the right to be chauffeuring the girl buckled into my passenger seat. But right on its heels is fury, because while she was turning into a human ice sculpture, alone alongside the highway, he was here. Useless. And worse than useless because whatever he’s doing made her groan on sight.
I stop the truck, far enough back from the dorm to keep us in the shadows. “Is he giving you trouble? I can get rid of him.” I don’t know if it’s the tropical blast Rory’s set the heater at or how mad I suddenly am, but I’m starting to sweat under my coat.
“No.” She’s half-pouting half-glaring, her eyes fixed on him through the windshield. He carries something under his arm as he paces, but I can’t see what. It looks like it has a bow on top, so maybe a present? “He’s just having one of his guilty phases. As soon as I forgive him, he’ll forget I exist again until he wants to suck up to Mom and feel like a good guy. I just…don’t feel like forgiving him anymore.”
Her smooth hair catches and tangles against the headrest as she sinks a little further into her seat. She looks too tired to be only nineteen.
“So don’t,” I say. “Nothing says you have to be nice to the guy if he hasn’t earned it.”
Christopher catches sight of the truck and takes a few steps out of the streetlight, his head up like he’s squinting our direction. The truck’s been parked outside the diner since Rory was a kid, so he might know it. Hoping to buy Rory more time to make a decision, I shift into reverse and let softly off the clutch. As soon as she sees him headed our way, she ducks. Caged by the seatbelt, she has to lay sideways on the seat to hide below the level of the dashboard. Her forehead bumps my leg and I scoot over to give her more space.
“Just take me to Mom’s,” she whispers. “Please?”
I look down at her, and for just a second I have a flash of what she would have looked like as a little girl, sprawled bonelessly asleep across the bench seat of the truck as I drove, her feet tucked into her mom’s lap in the passenger side. My throat tightens. Christopher might be the stupidest man I’ve ever known.
“Sure. Whatever you want, Rory.”
She looks so small and sad curled on the seat, and I want to squeeze her shoulder since her mom’s not here to hug her. But I don’t, because that’s not really part of our routine.
However, I do put it in second and pop the clutch for a faster start so I can roar through a puddle and spray Christopher as he hurries out toward the truck. With Rory safely hidden, I keep my chin up so the streetlight will show who is driving. I doubt he remembers me, but if he remembers the truck, he might. I want him to think long and hard about what would bring me to his daughter’s dorm at eight o’clock on a Saturday.
Because I know she called me for help before him, and a really small, mean part of me wants him to know it, too.
I pull up behind Lorelai’s Jeep, checking to make sure she didn’t leave the headlights on again, even though I changed her porch bulb so she wouldn’t have to.
“You coming in?” Rory asks, popping the door and hopping out.
“Nah, your mom’s not expecting me. She’s probably doing her thing and I don’t want to interrupt.”
“Uh, okay.” She gives me a weird look but doesn’t argue. “Thanks for picking me up and getting my tire off. Sorry the spare was broken.”
“No big deal. Just a tire.”
She waves and starts to shut the door.
“Hmm?” She pokes her head back in.
“You don’t have to call your mom to call me. If you need something, you can just call me. It’s okay.”
She smiles, like this is not exactly news to her. “Okay. See you tomorrow?”
I nod, and wait until she gets inside before I pull away, both my girls tucked safely away in their house so I can go back to mine.