The paper was still warm to the touch from the printer. It trembled ever so slightly in his hands as he folded the letter and placed it in the envelope. Rather than simply seal it, he took the fold and tucked it in the back. On the front, in somewhat shaky script, it was addressed to the congregational president. He was resigning. Actually, he had already resigned; this letter was simply a formality – the last “i” to be dotted or “t” to be crossed. Still, seeing the finality of it all there in crisp black letters was hard. Far harder than he thought it would be.
He had finished clearing out his office the day before. The large desk, once covered in piles of papers and books, was now neat and clean. The numerous shelves stood barren – dusty sentinels of his failure. A quick look around revealed that a simple pass with a vacuum by the janitor was all that remained to make the room ready for his replacement. Leaning back for one last time in what used to be his chair, the man slowly turned to look out the window, the soft tones of a Chopin piano nocturne floating in the background. He was glad it would be John. The laid-back retired pastor would be just what these people needed after this mess.
A quick rap on the door frame snapped him out of his reverie. “Pastor Andy?”
He glanced back and quickly rose from the chair. It was Charlene Hansen, his now former church secretary. She stood anxiously in the doorway, her short gray hair neatly coifed and her eyes obviously red from tears. Andy was truly going to miss this wonderful lady who had become a second mother to him. Charlene’s husband, Nils, hovered in the hallway behind her. Andy walked around the desk to greet them.
“We saw your truck...” she started to say, as they entered the mostly vacant room, but couldn’t finish. Tears fell unbidden upon her cheeks. Nils placed his large calloused hand on his wife’s shoulder as she began to sob. Deeply moved, Andy looked up to see the old farmer’s blue eyes as watery as his own. You would have to search far and wide to find as good and solid a man as Nils, he thought to himself.
“Pastor, you will be sorely missed.” Nils was a man of few words but when he did speak, it was with a deep, gravelly voice. He reached out his hand and took Andy’s in a firm grip. They used to be jokingly competitive with the handshake, but not today.
Charlene sniffed and then reached up to caress Andy’s face. “You are such a good man.” Smoothing away a tear she found there, she continued. “This was not your fault.”
She shushed him with a fierce look. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare blame yourself for her walking away and taking your babies with her!” Poking him in the chest, her voice descended to a whisper. “Don’t you dare. I know as well as you how long and hard you fought to hold that marriage together. While she ... the floozy ... damn her!” The last came like an explosion.
Charlene’s vehemence surprised Andy and a smile flashed across his face. She responded with a watery one of her own, followed by a giggle. She tried raising a hand to her mouth to stop it, but it was no use. Nils let out a low gruff chuckle and soon all three were laughing.
“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t feel that way, Pastor, but I do,” Charlene finally got out as she wiped tears from her face.
“I know.” Andy drew her in for a warm embrace. Though he wasn’t nearly as tall as her husband, Charlene still only came up to his shoulder. Andy gave her a gentle squeeze and affectionately kissed the top of her head.
Stepping back after a moment, she made as to straighten her dress. Her sniffles, however, gave her away.
Nils gazed tenderly down at his wife and then back to Andy. “Are you all packed?”
Andy nodded bleakly. “Pretty much. There’s just a few things left over at the parsonage.” He glanced at his watch. “I should be on the road by three or so.”
“Oh, that won’t do at all. That’s much too late to get started,” Charlene objected. With a look to her husband, who gave her a simple nod, she continued. “When you finish up, just bring your truck and trailer over and park it at our place tonight. We’ve got plenty of room, as you well know.”
Andy started to object but thought better of it. The determined expression on Charlene’s face meant there was to be no discussion. Almost two years of working with her had taught him that, at least.
“Besides,” Nils interjected with a grin, “there are a couple of cold ones in the fridge and a chair on the porch with your name on them.”
“Well, then, how can I refuse?” Andy just shook his head and smiled.
They chatted just a little while longer before the Hansens left to wait for him at their home. Andy followed behind a few minutes later, after turning off the music and gathering up the last few odds and ends. He paused momentarily in the doorway, his eyes taking in the now empty office one last time. With a sigh, he turned off the lights and closed the door.
The darkening sky was starting to make him nervous. The weather had been beautiful the day before, heading out of northern Minnesota. Clear skies and mild temperatures in the 70s, it had been a spectacular June day. He couldn’t have asked for better driving conditions. Even the traffic around the Twin Cities wasn’t too bad, enabling him to pull into Madison, Wisconsin, at a decent time.
At first glance, it seemed he would have more of the same today, but the folks on the Weather Channel said otherwise. A fierce line of thunderstorms had been predicted to erupt and cross his path in southern Illinois. It now appeared that he had found them – or they him – just a bit further north than the forecasters had anticipated. With Chris Martin’s haunting melody and soulful lyric filling the truck cab, Andy watched as the ominous dark clouds loomed ever closer. The battle would soon be joined.
Glancing over at the passenger seat, Andy smiled to himself. At least he wouldn’t be going hungry any time soon. Charlene had loaded his truck up with an unbelievable amount of snacks and goodies, most of which she made herself. Not to mention the cooler filled with pop, milk and other drinks her husband stashed in the back seat. All he could do was shake his head. She and Nils were something else. Here he was supposed to have been their pastor, but in the twenty-two months he had been at St. Peter’s they had ministered to him far more than he them.
And then there were Darren and Shelley. As a green Toyota flew past him in the passing lane, Andy wondered how bad things would have been for him without those two. He chuckled out loud at the thought of Darren and him back at the seminary. Man, what a couple of knuckleheads they were! But Darren turned out just fine, with him and Shelley heading up a vibrant campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin. Andy couldn’t bring himself to feel jealous. The simple truth was that some guys are cut out to be pastors ... and others aren’t.
Andy’s thoughts were interrupted by a slow moving tractor trailer. A strap had obviously either come loose or broken, as nearly a third of the tarp covering the load was whipping violently about in the wind. He shifted over to the left lane as the trucker slowed his rig to a stop on the shoulder. A very light mist was starting to fall and it was obvious the driver needed to fix that before the weather got worse.
Darren was meant to be a pastor and Andy knew he was truly blessed to have him as a friend. All those late night phone calls as the marriage finally fell apart. Not to mention he and Shelley coming up to stay with him for a few days back in March, when Helen took the girls and left. Now, when they heard he would be passing through on his way to his sister’s, they insisted he stop in.
Actually, they insisted he stay a few days but Andy felt he’d imposed on them enough. Still, it had been good to hang out with them and their three kids, even if only for an evening. It had been hard to leave in the morning. He knew, however, it would be good to finally get to Rod and Izzy’s by nightfall. Looking at the clouds, though, he was beginning to have his doubts.
Light mist gave way to a steady drizzle. Andy flipped on the wipers, turned off Coldplay, and then began to scan the radio for a local weather report. He’d hoped to make it all the way to his sister’s tonight but that was appearing less and less likely. If he could hold out for at least a couple more hours, that would put him in Mt. Vernon. Thankfully the traffic on I-57 had been fairly light so far. With the declining light and the worsening weather, he had more than enough to contend with for the time being.
Adjusting his grip on the steering wheel, he was going with the highway as it banked to the left when his lights flashed upon a lone figure up ahead, walking along the right shoulder. With but a matter of seconds for a decision, Andy took in all the information he had. Steady rain ... worse weather coming ... a slight figure in a hood with thumb outstretched, carrying a backpack and a guitar ... and visions of a knife-wielding serial killer.
With a low chuckle and a quick prayer, he slowed and pulled off just a little ways past the soggy hitchhiker.
In his side mirror, Andy could see the figure run to meet up with his truck and trailer. He quickly flipped on the dome light in his cab and placed both his hands on the wheel to put the traveler at ease. Smiling, he glanced over just in time to see a waterlogged girl – she looked young – with what could best be described as a look of cautious relief on her face. Opening the passenger door, her ice blue eyes darted about the cab and then locked on to his.
She glanced angrily up at the sky as the heavens began to open up in a steady drizzle. Muttering a string of expletives, she tightened her grip on her guitar case and kept walking. “You have seriously got to hate me,” she grumbled to whatever deity decided to open up the faucet on her.
“Oh, come on!” she shouted as the rain started to come down harder. “As if my day hasn’t been shitty enough!”
She’d been walking for a while now. The straps of her pack were slowly cutting into her shoulders, while the guitar case hung like a lead weight in her left hand. Soaked to the bone, her mood turned even more foul as another car failed to even slow down, let alone stop. Finally, when a semi flew by and showered her with spray, she lost it.
“Goddammit, that’s it! I’ve had it!” she sputtered as she wiped muddy water from her face. “First, that shit, Jimmy, skips out in my car ... my car! With all my stuff! Oh, but that’s not enough, is it?! No! Turns out he ran off with all the money from last night’s gig, too. But who does the band blame? Not just good ole Jimmy! No, it must have been me! I must have been involved, too! So they take off. But is that all? Hell, no! They all skipped out without paying the motel bill. So who’s stuck with that? Me!”
Fury engulfed the increasingly soaked girl, her free right hand gesturing wildly. “Oh, but You ... You weren’t finished there, were you?” she accused the heavens. “No! Turns out that ‘Your gift to women’ Jimmy stole my checks and maxed out my credit cards, too!”
She stopped and let out a loud, guttural scream that seemed to come from her toes. “All my money ... it took all my money to get out of there!” Reaching into her waterlogged jeans pockets with her right hand, she pulled out the few coins that were in there. She squeezed them tight in her palm and raised her clenched fist to the sky. “Seventy-two cents! Seventy-two cents!”
The anger faded as quickly as it came. Dejected, her arms fell to her side. The guitar case clattered to the gravel below, tipping over. She began to weep. “Sarah said I could stay with her if I could make it to Nashville,” she said between sobs. “But all You left me with was seventy-two cents.” Her own tears mingled with the rain falling upon her cheeks.
“Why?” The question came out as a hoarse whisper. Her face upturned. Her arms partially outstretched. “Why? And why that trucker? Why get my hopes up for a ride in his rig, only to have him dump me here on the side of the road ... when I wouldn’t... ?”
The steady rhythm of the rain on the cooling asphalt was her only reply.
She shrugged her shoulders in resignation. Stuffing the meager coins back in her pocket, she picked up the fallen case and resumed her journey. “The man was a pig but I guess I learned my lesson, didn’t I?”
Peering through the falling rain, she could just make out the road sign up ahead. The next exit – number 197 for Hatchery Road – was three miles further. She smiled grimly as she looked around at the rain soaked landscape. “Good thing the backpack’s waterproof.” She was steeling herself with the thought of three more miles until dry clothes, when she heard the unmistakable sound of a vehicle approaching behind her.
With little hope, she turned to face it. Walking backward she stuck her right thumb out, the guitar case hanging lifelessly from her other hand. Coming towards her was a large extended cab pickup truck towing a rental trailer. As it passed, her stomach fluttered when she saw the brake lights come on and it pulled off onto the shoulder.
“You’re not just yanking my chain again, are you?” she asked skyward as the truck and trailer slowed to a stop just ahead of her. Without waiting for an answer, she broke into a run, half afraid that her would-be rescuer would simply vanish when she reached the door. The handle, however, stayed solid in her grasp and opened easily.
The interior of the truck cab was warm and inviting but, more importantly, it was dry. She glanced around but saw nothing to alarm her. Then she looked at the driver. He appeared to be about her age or a little older, but not by much. He had short, dark blonde hair, what looked to be a nice tan, and he was smiling at her. It was his eyes, however, that caught her attention. Maybe it was the angle but they were very dark, probably brown. And they weren’t threatening at all – just the opposite, really. She had been fooled before but ... he had kind eyes.
It was in those few seconds their eyes met that her decision was made. In a flash, her gear was stowed in the back seat, she was seated in the front, and the passenger door was pulled closed with a loud thud. For just a moment she closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Please ... please, don’t be messing with me, okay?” she prayed silently.
“Hi, I’m Andy.”
Her eyes flew open. He was still smiling at her. Pulling her hood back, her wet dark hair plastered to her head, she gave him a faint smile. “I’m so sorry. I’m not usually this rude. Thank you so much for stopping to pick me up. I’m not sure what I would have done if you hadn’t. Today has been a really bad day. It started awful and has only gotten worse. But maybe my luck is going to change? I’m just so glad to be out of the rain! My name is Jaycee, by the way. It is so good to meet you Andy.”
It all came out in a bit of a rush, prompting a low chuckle from her benefactor. “Hey, not a problem. Glad I could help.” He met her outstretched hand and shook it.
“There is one more thing, though,” she continued quickly as she dug around in her soggy jacket pocket for her cheap cell phone. “Would you mind too terribly if I could see your driver’s license?” Sensing his confusion, she explained. “It’s just a safety thing, really. I only want it so I can let my friend Sarah know who I’m riding with ... please?”
“Hey, that’s a pretty good idea, actually.” He reached back, pulled out his wallet, and moments later handed her his Minnesota driver’s license. “Here you go.”
Phone to her ear, she took the card and began to look at it. “Hi, Sarah, it’s me, Jaycee.”
“Hey, girl! Where’re you at? Are you still with that trucker from Michigan?”
“No, I’m not with him anymore but that’s a whole other story. Listen, I’ve got a new ride.”
“That didn’t last long. I thought that guy was supposed to bring you as far as Clarksville. You’re okay, though, right?”
“Yeah, soaking wet but I’m fine. Let me go ahead and give you this guy’s info.” She glanced over at Andy, who was moving what looked like bags of cookies and snacks to the back seat.
“Okay, sure. Fire away.”
“Alright, here goes. His name is Soren Anders Martin Erickson,” she said as she read his name on the card. A look of confusion crossed her face and she turned back to the driver. “But you said your name was ... oh, I get it ... Anders ... Andy. Okay, now that makes sense.” She smiled apologetically at him. “You don’t look much like an ‘Andy’, though,” she quipped, almost as an afterthought, before returning to her phone conversation.
“What was that?”
“Oh, sorry, Sarah, that was me just talking. You got the name, though, right?”
“Not a problem. Got the name ... so where’s he from?”
“Um, let me see. It’s a Minnesota license.” She then rattled off the number and the expiration date.
“So how old’s this guy?”
“How old? Let me see.” She pulled the card closer to her eyes. Finding the birth date, she did a quick calculation in her head. “He’s ... um... 31.” Surprised, since he looked younger than that, Jaycee glanced back over at Andy. “Really?”
When Andy raised an eyebrow and nodded at her with a gentle smile on his face, Jaycee couldn’t help but giggle a little. It was a pretty silly question, what with her holding his driver’s license and all.
“Judging from that laugh, I’d bet he’s kind of cute, isn’t he?”
Jaycee’s face got a bit flush. “Well...”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” Sarah laughed. “So where’s he headed?”
“You know, I was just so glad to get out of the rain, I forgot to ask.” She turned to Andy but before she could pass along Sarah’s question, he answered it.
“Tell her I’m headed down to Nashville to see my sister.”
Jaycee’s eyes grew as wide as saucers as she handed him back his license. “Seriously?”
“Yeah,” Andy nodded. “Why? Is that where you’re headed?”
Jaycee’s voice caught in her throat and her eyes began to water. She nodded mutely.
Seeing her struggle, Andy motioned for her to hand him the phone, which she did.
“Hi, Sarah? This is Andy. Your friend here seems to have had a pretty traumatic time of it, as of late. She’s also pretty well waterlogged from walking a while in the rain, so I’m going to get her to the nearest gas station where she can dry off and get changed. After that, I’m on my way to Nashville to visit my sister and it looks like I’ll be bringing Jaycee with me, as well.”
It seemed Andy and Sarah chatted for a little while longer, exchanging information and what not, but Jaycee wasn’t paying much attention at all. Instead, she just watched the water flow in waves and rivulets down the windshield, only to be pushed aside by the wipers. Well, that and thinking about how silly she felt for crying. The tears, however, wouldn’t stop.
“It was good talking to you, too, Sarah. Take care. We’ll hopefully see you soon. Bye.”
Looking over, Andy set her phone on the seat by her and motioned for Jaycee to fasten her seat belt. “Now, how about we get you someplace where you can get cleaned up and dried off?”
Jaycee silently nodded again, wiping tears from her cheeks. “He must think I’m a complete basket case,” she thought to herself. “And right now, I’d have to agree with him.” That last thought brought a brief but sad smile to her face as she stared blankly out the side window.
Putting the truck into drive, Andy flipped on the left blinker and merged back onto the interstate. The next few miles passed in silence. The truck’s heater felt wonderful on Jaycee’s cold hands and feet. She hadn’t realized how chilled she’d gotten out there in the rain. Before long they were at the next exit. As they pulled off onto Hatchery Road, she could see the lights of a truck stop shining like a beacon in the strengthening storm.
Andy pulled up to one of the gas pumps and hopped out of the truck, disappearing around the back of the trailer. She could hear him rattling around back there but didn’t think anything of it. Instead, Jaycee let out a deep sigh and grabbed for her backpack in the back seat. Just as she was about to get out of the truck, however, her rescuer was suddenly there to open the door. Once out, he handed her two large bath towels he’d evidently scavenged from his trailer.
“Here, you can use these to dry off.” He gazed at her with gentle concern and then nodded in the direction of the station.
She shyly smiled back at him. “Thank you.” With her pack over her right shoulder, she clasped the towels tightly to her chest and made her way into the truck stop to change.
“Hey, Rob ... thanks for the info. I appreciate it.”
“Sure thing, Andy. Hey, you stay safe out there, okay?”
It appeared the weather conditions were deteriorating rapidly. The cashier, Rob, let Andy know, while he was checking out his purchases, that the National Weather Service had just issued some new advisories in the last few minutes – including nearby tornado warnings to the south and west. Making it to Mt. Vernon, let alone Nashville, was becoming less likely by the minute. Andy would need to call his sister and let her know. Rob, nice guy that he was, even provided him with a list of places to stay, should they have to stop before then.
Andy mulled the word over as he lifted his bag off the counter and looked around for a place to sit and wait. He now had a companion to think about. Looking off to the left, he could see that there were seats over in a lounge area, but unfortunately they were out of sight of the restrooms. He didn’t want his new passenger to think he’d already abandoned her. She’d had a rough enough time of it, as it was. So, instead, Andy opted to sit at the blood pressure self-screening booth over by the t-shirt racks. Sure, it was a bit uncomfortable but, while he waited, he was able to make a few calls as well as see if he had a hypertension problem, all at the same time.
In between calls, Andy’s thoughts couldn’t help but turn to his hitchhiker. He genuinely felt bad for the girl. From the little bit her friend Sarah was able to pass along, Jaycee really had been through the wringer as of late. And then, on top of it all, to be stuck walking on the side of the interstate in the pouring rain? “I think I would cry, too,” he conceded. Actually, he was impressed she’d held it together as well as she had. And apart from the coincidence that, like her, he was headed to Nashville, she probably still would have. She seemed like a good kid who could use a break.
Andy was looking through his purchases again for the fifth time, when he finally heard the door to the ladies room open and close. Looking up, he almost didn’t recognize her. Gone was the waterlogged little girl. Standing before him was a beautiful young woman in jeans and a t-shirt. Young, of course, being the operative word, at least for him, anyway. She had to be, what... 17, 18?
“Don’t even go there!” he chided himself. “Still,” Andy silently noted, “she does clean up pretty well.” Her black hair was longer than he thought. Her eyes seemed much bluer with only a hint that she’d been crying. And she seemed a bit taller than he remembered. That is, until he looked down at her feet.
Jaycee saw the direction of his gaze as she walked over to him and smiled. “They’re the only dry shoes I have,” she said with a slight giggle. Referring, of course, to the four inch red pumps she was presently wearing.
“Well, I have nothing but admiration for any woman who can actually walk in those things,” Andy admitted with a grin, as he took back the now soaked towels he had given her earlier. “You ready to go?”
She nodded. Glancing down, she noticed him holding a plastic shopping bag and thought of the asshole trucker and his glove compartment full of condoms. Half afraid of what he might have bought while he was waiting for her and the expectations that come with those, she lightly inquired, “So, what’s in the sack?”
“What?” It took a second for him to catch on to the question. “Oh. Just a few CDs for me and a silly t-shirt for my sister. She hates those!” he admitted with a snicker.
Jaycee looked down at the bag and then peeked up at him with a raised eyebrow. “Just a few CDs and a t-shirt?” There was obviously more in it than that. She nervously ran her fingers through her long, dark hair, pushing it away from her face.
“Okay, okay,” Andy threw up his hands in mock surrender. “So there are a lot of CDs and a t-shirt. What can I say? They’ve got a nice selection to choose from here that’s pretty cheap, really – some way cheaper than iTunes or Amazon, actually. And then I was forced to wait a really, really long time for this woman I picked up to get changed. And the longer I waited, the more CDs I picked up. Seriously, look at how heavy this bag is! I mean, I had to wait a really, really, really long ... hey!”
Jaycee playfully pushed him away. “You’re terrible!”
“Guilty as charged!” Andy conceded with an enormous smile. He was about to say something else but caught himself. His smile faltered.
For Jaycee it was as if a shadow crossed his face, darkening his eyes and aging him right in front of her. It was then that she noticed, for the first time, the faint indentation on his finger of where a ring once had been. She wondered if the two might be related.
Thinking this was not the time to ask about that, however, she gestured towards the exit. “I suppose we should get going.”
He nodded. “Oh, Jaycee,” Andy called out before she got too far. He picked up a white windbreaker that had been laying on the nearby medical literature rack and offered it to her. “Since your other jacket is probably still soaked, I got one of mine out for you to use. It’ll probably be a little big on you, though.”
Taking it from him, she put it on. He was right about the size, but she could make it work. Head bowed, she ran her fingers over the orange University of Texas marching band logo on the front. Looking up, she smiled at him. “You’re not trying to make me cry again, are you?” she said, her damp eyes belying the lighthearted tone in her voice.
He laughed with a low, rumbling chuckle. “Not at all,” he told her with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m just trying to avoid further water damage to the upholstery.”
She giggled and lightly whacked him on the arm.
When they reached the glass double doors, they could see the wind had really picked up, whipping the swirling rain underneath the station’s awning. Andy pressed the unlock button on his key fob. The truck’s lights flashed in response. “Ready?” he asked with a grin and a wiggle of his eyebrows.
With a laugh and a shriek, Jaycee was out the door first.
Andy just shook his head as he watched Jaycee climb into the truck. He had to admit, watching her run for the truck in those high heels was something he enjoyed far more that he should have.
“But you love me anyway.”
Those were the words that died on his lips earlier. The playful banter with Jaycee unwittingly prompted the phrase he’d once used with his wife seemingly a lifetime ago. With a grimace, he shoved the deep ache to the side. No time for that now, he had a passenger to deliver. And so, with a yell, he charged out into the wind and rain, after her.