“Miss, do you know how fast you were going?”
As a matter of fact, I did. At 118 mph, this was going to be one expensive ticket. I wondered briefly about the penalties for reckless driving in the state of Michigan, and who I could call for bail money.
“Are you aware of the speed limit in this area?”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied quietly, my mouth suddenly dry. “I believe it’s 65 mph.”
“That’s right,” he nodded. “Is there an emergency?”
I removed my sunglasses and looked straight into his mirrored lenses. He had me dead to rights, so there was no point in delaying the inevitable. And it’s not like you can explain to a cop that you’re trying to outrun the entire last year of your life. Best just admit it and get it over with.
“No, Officer.” My shoulders sagged slightly and with shaking hands I handed him my license and registration. He accepted them without a glance, his attention still on my face.
“Any compelling circumstances?”
I shrugged and shook my head, trying to shake off the darkness that had become virtually a second skin. Smiling slightly, I hoped I looked self-deprecating and not smug. I was out of practice and couldn’t tell the difference. “Is a 392 6.4-liter V8-Hemi with 474 horses compelling enough?”
He glanced approvingly at my 2014 Challenger, then back at his own bright blue Charger, a slow smile emerging. I continued, pressing my advantage. “Is that the new Pursuit? 370 horsepower V8? Eight-speed automatic? Nice. But I’m pretty sure I could have outrun you.”
“Not from a standing start! Give you a 118 mph advantage, though, and yeah, I think you could outrun anything on the road. But why would you want to do a thing like that?”
I smiled wider and it felt genuine. I replied, “Standing start? That sounds like a dare. Now why would you want to do a thing like that?”
He laughed and raised his mirrored aviators. I wasn’t a skilled flirt, but his gold-flecked green eyes sent an unexpected whoosh! of a spark through me. He was almost tall, just at the 6-foot mark, with broad, square shoulders and a trim waist. I couldn’t really see his hair–it was covered by his hat–but his almost-black eyebrows told me what I wanted to know. This was one seriously attractive man.
His face was more angles than curves, with well-defined cheekbones and a straight nose. I glanced at his lips; not too thin, not too full–perfectly proportioned for his masculine face. I inhaled discreetly, trying to catch a whiff of his scent. I imagined a combination of clean soap and woodsy cologne but couldn’t tell. All I could smell was the freshly-mown late-spring grass along the roadside, and that brought me back to reality: 120 miles per hour wasn’t going to solve any of my problems.
Flipping his citation pad shut with an audible snap, he pointed at me with his folded glasses and gave me a very serious look. “Too fast. Much too fast. You may think these roads are empty, but you can’t see what’s over the next rise, and you’re moving too fast to react. You do realize that 118 mph is...” he paused for a moment, in thought. “...almost 175 feet per second, did you know that? You’d be a hundred feet down the road before you could even get a foot on the brake. Next time...well, you be sure there is no next time.” He glanced briefly at my driver’s license before handing it back, without a traffic ticket attached.
“Thank you, Officer,” I nodded meekly, mentally checking his unit conversion and realizing that he was right–175 feet per second sounded much more terrifying than 118 mph. “I was thoughtless, and I’ll keep it under the limit from here on.”
He said nothing, but like a gentleman, he nodded and touched the brim of his hat respectfully. Slipping his aviators back on, he was back in his Charger almost before I could take another breath. I sat still for a minute, noticing that my hands on the wheel were still shaking slightly, and my heart was racing. What was I thinking? Driving almost twice the speed limit and smart-mouthing a cop? I didn’t recognize myself.
I glanced in the rearview and saw my cheeks flushed and brown eyes brightened by the adrenalin surge. For a brief moment I had forgotten myself, but the ever-present dark circles below my eyes belied my chronic exhaustion. I hadn’t washed my hair in three days, and my ponytail was lank and dull. I glanced down and noticed a large coffee stain near the hem of the tank top I had been wearing since yesterday morning. Closing my eyes, I rolled my shoulders, stretched my neck, and tried calming my heart rate with deep breathing: in through my nose, out through my mouth, slow and regular.
It was just past 6 AM when I woke this morning, still in my clothes and sprawled on the couch in my cramped, shabby apartment. The television had long since powered itself off, and I couldn’t recall if I had fallen asleep during the fifth or sixth episode of my Firefly marathon. My contact lenses itched, and my breath could defeat dragons. Open cartons of half-eaten malai kofta, bhindi masala, and chicken biryani littered the coffee table. A lidless pint of ‘diet’ mint chip ice cream sat empty on the arm of the sofa, spoon nowhere in sight.
You can’t keep doing this, I had scolded myself silently. The semester was over, and I had kept my shit together for fifteen long weeks. But I hadn’t willingly left my apartment since I turned in my grades twelve days ago. The delivery man from Ambar Indian was the only living person I had seen in a week, and I had seen him the past three nights running. We were practically engaged. I winced at the sharp pain of the joke at my own expense.
Impulsively, I ran to the bedroom and pulled the suitcases from the closet. It was a luxurious, multi-piece designer set. Honeymoon luggage. All the clothes I owned fit easily in the cases and my personal items barely half-filled the expansive toiletry bag. I threw away my leftovers and pitched the trash bag into the dumpster. By seven, I hit the road rolling, estimating that it would take about seven hours to drive from Urbana, Illinois to the middle of nowhere in western Michigan.
With one last deep breath, I opened my eyes, re-started the car and eased into first gear. Putting the pedal to the metal, I skipped second and shifted straight into third. I skipped fourth and shifted smoothly into fifth gear before I remembered that I was not supposed to take it right back up to 120 mph five minutes after being pulled over by the Michigan State Police. Easing back on the throttle, I kept it at 70 mph and finally slid into sixth. There wasn’t another car on the road in either direction, save the trooper still parked on the shoulder. I wondered what he was waiting for.
“It’s just you and me, Violet,” I said, addressing the car and giving the shift knob a reassuring pat. “That was a close one.”
I turned up the music, completely unashamed to sing MMMbop along with Hanson at the top of my lungs, trying to trick my brain into thinking I was a teenager again and the world was a safe and happy place. My mind wandered, and for no logical reason it depressed me a little, thinking that I would never see the handsome trooper again. I began imagining a 90s rom-com movie montage, where the lawman and the lady went from bickering adversaries to bantering lovebirds in 3 acts or 96 minutes, whichever came first. When I started debating who I should cast as the handsome-but-no-nonsense trooper, I giggled.
“You have lost your damned mind,” I whispered out loud.
That car. It was certainly the most beautiful thing on the road for 200 miles in any direction. Plum Crazy, a true Mopar original. I knew Dodge had brought back their classic muscle car color from the 1970s, but I hadn’t seen a live one on the road. I recalled a vintage 1970 Plum Crazy Challenger I had seen as a kid, wandering the grounds of a classic car show with my Dad. He patiently explained all about its 425-horsepower dual 4-barrel Hemi and the A833 4-speed transmission, but my 13-year-old self had been mesmerized by the shifter, made from a pistol grip.
The highways of western Michigan were far more traveled by Ford F150s or Chevy SUVs. Muscle cars and sports cars were typically a bright spot in an otherwise dull day. I liked speed as much as the next guy and tried not to be a hard-ass if a ’Vette or a Mustang was pushing 90; mostly I was a little envious. But a 4400-lb muscle car moving at almost 120 mph? That was just a little too much kinetic energy flying down the road.
I never saw anything so purple move so fast. The guy blew past me in a blur, and I reacted instantly, shifting into gear and hitting the accelerator. I was a little surprised when he slowed and pulled over at the first flash of my blue lights. He could have outdistanced me easily, before I even had time to run the plate. I noticed the SRT badge on the matte black rear spoiler as I approached the vehicle. Red Brembo brake calipers? Nice. That was one hot Challenger, and the guy driving it had to know he owned something special. It wasn’t the 707-horsepower Hellcat, but it was awesome enough.
That girl? Well, that was a surprise. Call me a chauvinist, but I was not expecting a woman behind the wheel, and I definitely did not expect her to be young and attractive. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her wide brown eyes had mile-long lashes. Her golden skin seemed a little pale, as though she hungered for sunlight. Wearing no makeup, she looked young and old all at once. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles the color of bruises. I scanned carefully for signs of abuse; no, those weren’t black eyes. She hadn’t slept properly for a long damn time, giving her the appearance of age. Her hair should have been lush and shiny but hadn’t been washed or brushed. After an 18-hour nap and a 40-minute shower, though, she’d look like a teenager with a few faint freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose.
She wore a green and white Michigan State tank top, and I tried ignoring (without success) how well the snug shirt accented her distractingly curvy figure. I cleared my throat and focused on the faded and frayed green baseball cap with the white S that had been tossed carelessly on her passenger seat.
Something about her face seemed familiar, but no one I knew drove a purple Challenger with Illinois plates. She wasn’t a famous model or a movie star. Had I seen her on television? Maybe, but I chalked it up to ten years as a trooper; after a while, everybody looks like somebody you’ve seen before. She handed over her license and registration without comment. I didn’t recognize the name on the DL, which also told me she had just turned 32. This woman was decidedly not a teenager.
And that attitude! I did not expect a woman to be driving that car and I did not expect her to flat out admit with a grin to driving almost 120 mph. I certainly didn’t expect her to know that she could have outrun me. I admired her confidence: no excuses, no tears, no pleading. She was ready to take the consequences, and that would have been one really expensive ticket. Thankfully, it was a deserted straight stretch, so...no harm/no foul. I hoped I wouldn’t regret walking away without writing her a citation.
I took off my Ray Bans, looking directly into her eyes and showing her that I meant it when I said it. “Too fast.”
She nodded, averting her gaze and biting her lip. Was she flirting with me? Nah, that was nervousness, and she drummed her long fingers on the steering wheel. She was keeping cool, but I could sense an underlying tension that wasn’t fear but still gave her an adrenalin rush. In a car like that, I marveled that she wasn’t accustomed to getting pulled over for speeding. I tipped my hat politely and returned to my vehicle.
It took her several minutes to regain her composure, and I observed from my Charger as she sat motionless in her gorgeous car. Finally, she pulled away, and I watched that impressive vehicle until it disappeared over the crest of a low hill. Suddenly it hit me: the plates! I ran the license plate before I forgot the numbers. No surprises: 2014 Challenger SRT, registered in Illinois to one Heather Harris, matching the name on the driver’s license. Then I ran the DL; remembering a string of digits comes pretty easily to me, but if I waited much longer it would be gone. No outstanding warrants, no priors, nothing at all. That’s my girl, I thought. Thank you for not being a criminal.
I pulled out my phone and tapped the Google icon. What did the all-knowing internet have on record about Miss Heather Harris? Okay, amend that: Dr. Heather Harris, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Physics, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Wow. I don’t know what I expected, but that wasn’t it. Her official faculty website was nothing more than some links to course syllabi (three sections of Physics II) and a page with a long list of publications (unfamiliar technical journals). The next few hits linked to some professional meetings and conferences (nothing since last May).
Following the academic hits were multiple news articles from about a year ago. Most of the articles referenced a plane crash in the Pacific Northwest. I clicked on the first article, an Associated Press brief which gave few details and no pictures. A small private plane carrying a pilot and three passengers crashed on a sightseeing tour of Mount Rainier. There were no survivors. The passengers were Dr. and Mrs. Paul Harris, and Dr. Jake McLaren. A second click on a different article filled in a few of the gaps. Heather Harris was listed as the daughter of the Dr. and Mrs., and the fiancé of Dr. McLaren.
My next search focused on the parents; nothing but a defunct FaceSpace link for the Mrs., but I found cached pages for the Dr. linking to expired electrical engineering courses at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Like father, like daughter.
My last search showed the street view of the address listed on her DL. It was a huge, classic home in what looked like a well-established upscale neighborhood. I switched apps, opening the real estate listings and finding the house tagged as a recent sale. I scrolled through the pictures, noting that the elegant home with its undeniably expensive furnishings appeared un-lived in, with empty closets and a bare pantry. No photos or personal effects were visible anywhere, in any photo.
“Well Professor Hellcat,” I said out loud in the empty squad car, “aren’t you just full of surprises.”
An hour later, I was calm again. I hadn’t hurt anyone and I hadn’t wrecked Violet. I hadn’t been issued an expensive speeding ticket and I hadn’t had lunch.
It had been years since I last thought about Molly’s Diner. When I was a girl, my grandparents always stopped at Molly’s, every trip. Located at almost exactly the halfway point between my parents’ Chicago bungalow and my grandparents’ lakeside cabin deep in the woods of western Michigan, it was the perfect place to pause, stretch your legs, and order a sandwich. I wondered if it was still there–and if I could still find it.
Slowing down on the exit ramp, I recognized an ancient and faded billboard for a motel that had been closed down and boarded up when I kid twenty years ago, and I knew I had taken the right turn. The restaurant was up ahead on the left, with a bright new sign, fresh paint, and a paved parking lot. Molly was doing better than all right for herself all these years later. Everything had changed, but I was happy that at least this one thing had stayed the same.
Parking Violet carefully at the far end of a row, I hoped no one would park near me. I was a little obsessive about keeping her perfect–no scratches, nicks, or dings. Sparkling clean, inside and out. No Coke, no food inside the cabin. High-octane premium fuel and service like religion every 3000 miles. She was already two years old but looked fresh off the showroom floor–and I intended to keep her that way.
The bell on the door clinked as I stepped into the cool air-conditioned entrance. I picked up a copy of the local arts & events newspaper from the rack at the door. I craved a distraction during lunch, and my phone was intentionally tucked in the console of the car. No one would be texting or calling, and I didn’t need to stare at the tiny screen, scrolling through random celebrity gossip or alarming news headlines.
Entering the diner was like stepping back into my childhood. The red swivel stools at the lunch counter had been reupholstered, but with the same retro-looking glitter-flake vinyl. The booths had been updated with modern fabric, but the Formica tabletops were unchanged. A revolving glass case showcased a mouth-watering selection of pies and cakes freshly baked from scratch that day.
“Sit anywhere you like. I’ll be with you in a minute.” Molly herself still stood behind the register, as tall and sturdy as I remembered from my childhood, but her fiery red hair had faded to a warm strawberry blonde heavily threaded with cool silvery strands. Her trademark light blue dress and yellow apron were exactly as I recalled from my childhood.
I chose a booth by the window, sliding in facing the door. A tall teenage girl with hair as red as Molly’s had once been set a glass of water and paper placemat down in front of me, then handed me a menu. I smiled to see that, although it had plainly been recently printed, it was the identical menu that I remembered from years ago.
“Welcome to Molly’s. May I bring you a drink while you decide?” the girl asked politely.
“I’d like a Coke, please,” I smiled up at her, thinking she must be Molly’s granddaughter. Even if she hadn’t been dressed in the same light blue uniform, the resemblance would have been uncanny. Her name tag also read Molly.
“Is Pepsi okay?”
I gave her a panicked look. “Just kidding,” she grinned and winked. “Don’t worry, it’s Coke.”
I chuckled and turned my attention back to the menu, remembering the years of casual summer lunches. I could see my Gran, her hair neatly styled, wearing a crisp sundress with a matching cardigan. She would always order a club sandwich and an iced tea. Pop–dressed in khaki pants and a knit shirt, usually in a color complementing Gran’s dress–would say he was getting the fried chicken, or maybe a meatloaf sandwich, and then inevitably order a patty melt and a cup of coffee.
As a kid, I wore thick glasses and carried a few extra pounds of baby fat. I would order every kid’s favorite meal: grilled cheese, French fries, and chocolate milk. When I turned thirteen, I abruptly switched to tuna on toast and a Diet Coke—chocolate milk was for babies. Contact lenses had replaced my heavy glasses, and my mother’s subtle portion control had gradually helped melt away the extra puppy fat. I laughed at the recollection of how sophisticated my ungainly teenage self thought she was. I wanted to go back in time and tell her to savor every moment and remember every detail.
A tall, icy glass of Coke appeared on the table, and the younger Molly looked at me expectantly. “Are you ready to order? The pot roast sandwich is delicious today.”
“Can I have a little more time?” I glanced at the menu, still deciding. “I’m not in any rush.”
“Absolutely!” she nodded. “Take all the time you need. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I was so absorbed in my memories that I didn’t even hear the bell clink or notice the door open.
“How are you this fine afternoon, Miss Molly?” I recognized that deep baritone voice and hazarded a glance toward the door. The same trooper who had let me off with a warning now stood in the doorway of the diner. I noticed instantly how the deep navy-blue uniform shirt pulled snugly across his wide shoulders, and rather than looking dorky, the short sleeves simply revealed his well-developed forearms, corded with muscle and dusted with dark hair. He wasn’t hugely built–but appeared secure in his strength.
“Why Sergeant Daniels,” she drawled from behind the cash register. “I haven’t seen you in at least a month! We’re good as ever, knock wood. Speaking of wood, how’s that house coming along?”
He leaned against the counter casually, giving her a wry look. “Oh, you know, it’s one thing after another. I think I’ll have it done by Christmas.”
“This Christmas or next?”
He laughed, and I liked the warm, rich sound of it. The sudden and unexpected zing! through my belly wasn’t hunger. At least, not hunger for lunch. It was there and gone in an instant, but it was a spark of desire, so raw and physical–and unfamiliar–that it stole my breath. I waited for it to happen again, wishing that it would and afraid that it wouldn’t.
“Oh, it might even be the Christmas after that! I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” he answered Molly with a non-committal shrug.
By this time, the almost-tall officer had walked over to my table, and I pretended to be absorbed in my newspaper. He nodded at the empty seat across from me.
“May I join you?”
© 2018 Tinsley Sellers
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