Please Strand By
The Holy Ground Highlander Forum Midweek Challenge
Archivist’s Note: The stories and vignettes offered here from various Forumlanders have not been edited or changed other than having a spell-check performed and being reformatted for this website.
The Challenge by FOM
Commencement by Wain
Dodgers by Palladia
MID-WEEK CHALLENGE: PLEASE STRAND BY
Your challenge, should you decide to participate:
Write a short story or scene featuring an Immortal HL character who has had an automobile breakdown, and is stranded by the roadside. What happens and where is strictly up to the limits of your creativity.
You must incorporate the words "lake" and "ketchup bottle" within your effort.
DISCLAIMER: If you want your entry archived, remember to put "MWC" at the start of your subject line when you post.
The car's engine sounded like it always did, like her mother's hand-held mixer. College and her summer internship were behind her; her degree was packed in the bags that were stuffed in the trunk of the car; and the road stretched out long and empty before her. Radio reception was bad on this side of the ridge, so Michelle scrabbled in the pile of cassette tapes in the seat next to her for some music to keep her company. She searched carefully this time, keeping one eye on the road, for she had already died once from careless driving, and had no desire to linger near death in a twisted and claustrophobic heap of metal and plastic ever again.
The car was much too good to wreck anyway. Before college—and after the intensive year of training in swordsmanship and other essentials of Immortal life—she had pleaded with her teacher, Amanda, for a car. Amanda was immune to Michelle's relentless begging but smiled and placed a call to a softer touch.
The softer touch had already promised to pay for whatever the college scholarship didn't, so why not a car? When Michelle told him she wanted a Volkswagen, he evinced mild surprise that changed to deep approval when she explained why: her mortal mother, lost to her forever., had started college with a Volkswagen Beetle. Duncan had smiled then and hugged her, and bought her a lovingly refurbished 1968 Beetle, even giving in when she asked for it to be repainted.
"The colors on the new Beetles are so cool," Michelle had gushed over lunch in a restaurant. "Like candy."
"Like an invitation to every Immortal in a ten-block radius. You're supposed to blend in, not call attention to yourself."
Duncan had given one argument after another, relying on words like "classic" and "authentic", and Michelle had countered with one loud paint chip after another.
"Lipstick red," she had told him, tapping a shiny paint chip, the lunch long cleared, the coffee cold, the argument into its third or fourth round.
"You'll look like you're riding around in a ketchup bottle. How about this nice, pale blue?"
"No way. I'll take the bus instead."
They had settled finally on a blue paint chip one shade less bright than cobalt—so as not to attract undue attention—but with a metallic luster—to keep Michelle happy. Duncan paid for the paint job and himself delivered the Beetle to Michelle's college by the second week of classes. When he unfolded his long arms and legs from inside the car, he presented her with the registration, made out in her new, borrowed name, Michelle MacLeod. The girls in her dorm soon came to know her benefactor as Uncle Duncan, although Michelle encouraged rumors that he was really much more.
Humming with the music, her engine humming like a mixer, Michelle followed the road as it curved along a river, away from the college that Amanda and Duncan had so carefully selected. It had no fewer than three chapels on campus plus a half a dozen places of worship and a cemetery in the strip of town that bordered the school. There was a competitive fencing team and a first-rate psychology department, where Michelle had examined in depth the human mind, especially her own mind and the question that Amanda had never been able to answer for her. Could she kill another to save her own life?
Four years of study with a cum laude double major in psychology and philosophy hadn't answered Michelle's question, and she was headed off to graduate school now, hoping to find a way to earn a living and maybe, if she was lucky, the answer to her question. The sun began to set, and she caught its orange reflection on a small lake and whispered approval, thinking how easy it would be to repaint the Beetle in just that shade to give it a new life. Blue Beetle, orange Beetle, Michelle Webster, Michelle MacLeod.
She came up to a stoplight, the first she had seen in miles, and took the Beetle out of gear. She jiggled the gearshift in time to the music and revved the engine, enjoying its sound, like George Jetson's spacemobile, a comforting reminder of watching television in her parents' home.
The light turned green. Michelle shifted into first gear and tapped the gas pedal. It fell out from under her foot.
"Ruh-roh, George," she said.
The car was jolted then, and she looked in her rear-view mirror to see a van. The driver got out and walked to her, leaning his hands against the roof and snickering.
"Stall it out, little girl? Be careful you don't flood it, now. Want me to help you start it up again?"
Michelle narrowed her eyes and snapped, "Accelerator cable's snapped. Think you can fix that?"
He got back in his car and drove away, leaving Michelle to push the car to the shoulder by herself, cursing herself and remembering what Amanda and her mother had both always told her: "You can get more flies with honey than vinegar."
She engaged the emergency brake and tied a white plastic bag to the antenna, then pulled out her cell phone, bubble gum pink but with an understated charcoal faceplate to take the place of the pink when she next saw Duncan. She dialed information for the next town on the map, and then called three different garages until one finally took her name, phone, license plate, and approximate location and agreed to tow the Beetle in.
It was dark by the time the tow truck arrived. Michelle's irritation gave way to relief, and within minutes, to wariness. The driver introduced himself with a leer as Big Dave, and he hooked the Beetle to his truck and insisted on helping Michelle into the passenger seat of the truck. She shrank away when he leaned across her replace a heavy wrench in the toolbox at her feet, staring at her halter-top as he did.
Things could be worse, she reminded herself. You've been dead, Michelle, and this is so much better than dead.
The tow truck pulled out on the deserted valley road, and Michelle politely declined a swig of Big Dave's soda. She answered his questions in monosyllables, eyes fixed out the window.
A hard bump shook drew her attention; they were no longer on the road. She pushed the little-girl squeal back down her throat and pitched her voice low and serious, the way Amanda had taught her. "Where are we going?"
Things could be worse, she reminded herself yet again. You've been dead, Michelle, and this is better than dead.
In five minutes' time, Michelle couldn't see the road, and she repeated her question. "Where are we going?"
"We're here," he answered.
He turned off the truck's ignition and turned to her, smiling. "This is my accounts payable office, and I thought you'd like to pay, seeing as I came out to pick you up after hours and all."
He slid across the seat, hooked a finger under the top of her halter-top, and slipped it from side to side, grinning in the faint light cast by his headlights on the vegetation surrounding them. Michelle thought first of her cell phone but found she didn't know whom to call, and then of her sword, packed away and useless in the trunk of her car.
He pinned her against the seat, holding her fragile wrists with one hand. His breath was fetid as he bent to kiss her, smothering any chance she had to talk him out of what he was planning. Her mind raced. What would Amanda do? What would Duncan do? She was dizzy, breathing quickly, frantically devising and discarding solutions, His weight against her made it hard to breathe, and she stopped struggling as her vision clouded over.
Her mind was clearer and her wrists loose as he pushed up from her and gave her a malevolent smile. Her right hand fell hard and painfully against the toolbox. She thought of her first death, trapped in the wrecked interior of a car, and felt certain that there were things worse than dying. When he crushed his torso against hers again, before the dizziness swept over her, she fumbled at the toolbox lid, lifted the first cold, heavy thing she felt, and brought it down on his head.
It took long minutes for Michelle to shift his lifeless body from on top of her, and she was covered with sweat when she finally freed herself. She opened the Beetle, took out her overnight bag and sword case, shouldered them, and headed toward the highway.
Once there, she crossed to the side that headed away from town, walking and killing time until a car came by for her to hitchhike by choosing her next life: a lipstick red car for Michelle Duncan, but no need for graduate school. She had the answer to her question.
Methos grunted, bounced his pack higher on his shoulders, and thought warm thoughts about a hot shower. His last real bath had been at a small lake before the Delaware Water Gap, and between clambering over rocks and bedding down in trailside shelters for a week, he could use one.
He'd set himself to walk the Appalachian Trail, a chunk a year, starting in Maine. This fall he was in Pennsylvania, and in about an hour, he'd get to the rental car, drive to a motel and have unlimited hot water sluicing over him. It was almost dark, and a hot restaurant meal would go well, too.
Yeah, there it was, parked off the road the trail crossed - a silver Neon, just like he'd ordered, with the key (he patted around on top of the right rear tire) right where it was supposed to be. Getting in, he sniffed the new car smell, dumped his pack on the passenger's seat, and relaxed behind the wheel. Shower, here I come!
He turned the key in the ignition, and nothing happened. Again, nothing. Not even a click. His shoulders drooped a little, and he took a deep breath. Again. Nothing. No lights, no horn, either. He muttered an unpleasant word, pawed around in a pocket of the pack to get a flashlight, found the hood latch, and went to check the engine.
Oh, well, that explained it. Where the battery ought to be there was an empty space with - he counted - three worn ten-dollar bills neatly clipped with a clothespin. With a deep sign of resignation, he slammed the hood, pulled his pack out of the car, locked the door, and shrugged himself back into the pack.
He'd only walked about a quarter-mile down the road when he heard a horse clopping along behind him. Well, this was Amish country. He'd planned to stay over in Chambersburg, and get some apples shipped while he was there. He was surprised when the buggy slowed, and a voice asked, "Benighted?"
He turned to see a bearded, black-clothed man, and considered when he had last heard the word used literally.
"Car won't start."
"That is a trouble. I can give you a ride to my farm, if you'd like."
"Could you take me into Chambersburg?"
"I don't have lights. Just the lantern in back. I could take you in the morning. I am Johan Stoltsfuss."
"Adam Pierson. Thank you."
~ ~ ~
The guest room was immaculate, plainly furnished, and a child brought a pitcher of hot water for him to wash before supper. He thanked her, she nodded gravely, and Methos sighed for the lost shower. Tomorrow. The kerosene lamp gave enough light for him to see to wash, but not enough to shave, and it had been several days. He did have a clean pair of jeans in his pack, and a black tee shirt, so he could change that.
In a way, this was a good transition from the trail, he thought. No harsh electric lights, just the golden glow of the kerosene steadily showing the table set for a meal. Dishes of food, biscuits, and a little island of condiment jars in the center. There was a grace, and the child tapped him, handed him a dish of green beans to be passed, followed by roast beef, potatoes, a pickled cabbage dish, other delicious things.
Johan's wife was Waltraut, and he hadn't learned the children's names, but there were five of them, all as hungry as he was, eating with silent determination.
Johan took one of the little condiment pots, dipped in his knife, and the sharp scent of ground horseradish followed it. He offered it to Adam, who smiled, taking it. Exploring the rest of the jars, he found ketchup, a pickle relish, a corn relish, and a sinus-clearing mustard.
"Work hard, eat well," Johan announced, and the children kept at it. Finally, there were both an apple pie and a cake. Adam considered this all well worth missing a shower.
Almost before his mind had taken up the question of what they did for amusement after supper, he found out: The dishes done, they went to bed.
It was daylight that woke him, as it had done on the trail, and by the time he got downstairs, the old Regulator clock told him that it was after eight. There was a serious breakfast, which he ate alone, because everyone else seemed to be gone except Mrs. Stoltsfuss. Then Johan came in, looked visibly pleased that his guest was up and about, fed, and perhaps ready to leave.
"I have to take some white oak over to Asaph's, but it is on the way to Chambersburg. The wood is loaded onto the wagon. Are you ready?"
Methos made his thanks to his hostess, picked up his pack, and went out with Johan to the wagon. It was two horses this time, and a different rig, loaded with fresh-sawn planks of oak, a scent that made Methos smile a little. Seeing it, the other man said, "Barrel wood. Asaph is a woodworker. We felled the trees last winter, and it is ready for him to shape this winter."
Winter always was the time for indoor work, Methos thought, reaching out almost involuntarily to feel the rough surface of the boards. It made sense that someone in the community would be a cooper. He could feel this slower way of life begin to pull him, as if the time on the trail had primed him to take a further sojourn out of the current century.
When they got to the next farm, stacks of air-curing lumber awaited the tools and skills that would turn and shape chairs, barrels, wheels, all the useful things wood could be.
"You have an English friend?" Asaph asked his supplier when the oak was unloaded and stacked.
"His car would not start." Methos noted an odd look pass between the two others, but his own hands were playing with a spokeshave, something he hadn't touched for years. The handles were worn smooth beyond sanding by the hands that had used it.
The words came out before he had really considered them. "Could you use an apprentice?" He asked the woodworker. "I'd work for my keep."
Frowning, the other man reached down and caught up Methos' right hand, felt the calluses on it, nodded approvingly, and said, "We will try it."
~ ~ ~
It was well into January, snowy and cold, but warm in the woodshop because of the pot-bellied stove that ate the chips and scraps of the wood left from the work the men did. The first time Methos had met old Asaph's other apprentice, the warning that preceded him had made Methos reach for a gouge, the nearest thing to a weapon he could see.
The other shook his head, slightly, and it wasn't until they walked out into the night air after working that he found out: The other had been in the community for years, quietly working the wood with Asaph. He was called an apprentice, but only because he hadn't set up his own shop. The plainly elegant furniture he created was a legacy of the years he'd spent as a Shaker before Asaph had been born, but they looked to be contemporary.
He'd probably have to move soon, but he delayed it, always hoping for a few more years of peace. His eyes were pleading as he asked Methos not to challenge, not to destroy his sanctuary. When they shook hands, Carl put his left hand, work-hardened, atop their right hands, as if he could somehow seal in the secret.
Carl whistled as he worked, and had quite a repertoire. Around election day he was in a merry mood, and Methos idly recognized it as Aaron Copland, then, finally, his mind filled in the words to the tune:
Oh, the candidate's a dodger, yes, a well-known dodger.
Oh, the candidate's a dodger, yes: and I'm a dodger, too.
Oh, we're all dodgers. . .
Methos chuckled to himself, thinking of the two of them, working quietly with the wood, avoiding the Game together.
There were two widows in the community who took turns "doing" for the woodworkers, probably in the hopes that they would eventually become indispensable. The food was good, and there was somewhat more conversation over meals at Asaph's table than there had been at Johan's.
"Johan's boy is staying home, these days," Carl said, with a faint smile.
"It's winter," Asaph returned. Everyone is settled. We shall see, come spring."
Methos grinned across the table. "You mean, 'In spring, a young man's fancy. . .'"
"He is not so young. He is a good eight years old."
Asaph wore a very faint grin, hardly visible behind his beard, but his eyes were crinkled with humor. "I should go thank him. He brought me a fine apprentice."
Methos bent to his meal. There was something going on which he didn't understand, but the other men at the table were barely suppressing laughter. Had he somehow become a joke?
In February, just past Groundhog day, they were making a trip out to the smithy to pick up some findings for wagons when he found out what had been so funny. Passing the Stoltsfuss farm, Asaph had drawn up, and smiled into the pasture where a herd bull grazed. "Handsome," he said, nodding toward the bull and turning to Adam with the crinkling around his eyes that showed his amusement.
"But he goes visiting. There are a lot of calves around here that look like him. Johan tried building a pen for him out of pipe, but he bellowed. It kept the family awake. The next farm over is a dairy farm, and they used an Angus bull for their heifers, but this one got there first. There were words. The next farm is not Amish. Johan asked for a meeting with an Elder, and I am closest.
"We finally decided that the bull should be Beachy, although we are Old Order. Then, Johan traded to one of the Beachy Amish for a fence charger, but he still needed a battery. We decided that he should get one, but it would not do to buy one in town.
"It happened that Johan saw the car people leave that one, and put the key on the tire. So the problem was solved. But we could not let someone be stranded because of the loss, so he waited for two days for you, to take care of you. Do you see those cows up in the next field, with their calves? The cows will be in season, and the bull knows it, but he is in his own field. Last year, he would have gone through the fences, to the cows.
"No fence would have stopped him, but the electricity does." The old man shrugged. "It is a small price for a good bull, and his calves. Have you been unhappy?"
Slowly, Methos shook his head. He didn't know how long it would last, this surcease from the Game, but now both his hands carried the same work-worn calluses.