“I really hope I am not lost. Please don’t let me be lost.”
I was talking to myself. I was doing that a lot lately.
Talking to myself had become a habit over the last couple of weeks and that was because I was more often than not alone.
I’d recently quit, or as I prefer to think of it, self-terminated my employment, at a high-end restaurant in Seattle called Paradigm, for reasons following a disastrous appearance on a televised baking competition called No Whisk, No Reward.
As it turns out, I have a pretty epic case of camera shyness and/stage fright.
Information that would have been useful to me prior to allowing myself to be goaded into auditioning, but I digress.
Long story short, I quit my job and was heading east to Boston where my best friend and fellow Culinary Institute of America graduate Anna was going to be opening up her own bakery which she planned to call Yeast Affection. I thought it was hilarious and suited Anna’s irreverent personality perfectly, but I had doubts about whether Bostonians would find it as punny as we did.
Either way, with three months left on an employment contract with a restaurant in Back Bay, Anna didn’t need me until the new year, so I decided to take a cross country sabbatical, stopping at many culinary points of interest along the way.
I thought that I would spend a lot more time weaving in and around any state with a bakery or restaurant with enough of a reputation to make me curious enough to stop in, but as it turned out, I hated driving in the dark. Also, gas, food, and lodging were more expensive than I had initially anticipated, and after just two weeks on the road, I realized that I was becoming quite lonely.
As a social person, I quickly learned that solitary travel was not for me and fleeting encounters with locals in small towns was not enough to sustain my need for human interaction.
Sometimes when I felt especially forlorn, and I had exhausted my vocal cords singing along to one of my many carefully curated playlists, I would talk to Paul Newman.
Or more precisely a laminated picture of him that I took with me everywhere as a good luck charm of sorts.
He kept me company, gave me advice, and sometimes when I really needed cheering up, he’d indulge me by running lines from his movies with me. My favorite movie to quote was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
For ten or so minutes, I forgot my troubles and I was Maggie the Cat, imploring Brick Politt to impregnate me.
Some people drink, some people do drugs, but my port of choice in a storm of loneliness was having an imaginary back and forth with a silver screen legend of yesteryear, and I’d be damned if I would apologize for it.
As I started to come to grips with the almost certain possibility that I had no idea how to get off the road I was on, I tried not to panic or engage my blue-eyed guardian angel just yet.
It felt as though I’d been winding down a never-ending mountain road for almost an hour, though in reality, it had probably only been fifteen minutes.
I kept a conservative speed so that I would not miss any possible turn offs or gaps through the trees that might reveal a hint of civilization out in the distance. Then I’d at least know if I was going in the right direction!
It was dusk now, getting close to dark and I needed to at least find my way back onto the highway.
I gripped the steering wheel firmly and leaned toward the windshield watching the thick canopy of trees pass by for what seemed like an age as George Michael cordially requested that I rouse him from slumber before I go-go’ed.
Had I not been so concerned about my whereabouts, I might have taken a moment to appreciate the beauty of the fire-hued, fall foliage.
Red, yellow, and orange leaves made the woods look like dying summer embers, and as I affixed a watchful eye on the road ahead, leaves fell like fiery rain and scattered across the asphalt like sparks.
The steering wheel seemed like it had been permanently hooked to the right as the car descended along the mountain road in what felt like a never-ending spiral.
Every so often I would cast my eyes to the phone in its dashboard mount to see if cell reception had been restored so I could use GPS to track where the hell I was. Each shift in the dimming light made me more and more anxious to find my way off this road.
Up ahead an old, gnarled tree arched its branches across the road only to realize I had already passed beneath that distinctive bit of forestry already.
“Oh wonderful,” I squeaked, my voice straining through my tight throat. “I’m going in circles. How is that even possible? That’s it. I’m gone, I’m dead. This is the Hotel California of forests. I’m in the Blair Witch woods, just point me to the corner and get it over with,” I moaned, peering down momentarily at the radio to turn off the music as though the quiet might help me see better.
When my eyes flickered back to the road, it had straightened out ahead of me and the blinding brightness of approaching headlights alerted me to the fact that I had veered on the wrong side of it.
“Shit!” I yanked the steering wheel fully to the right as a big, black truck came into view and time seemed to slow down as the moment played out before me with the kind of clarity that only a near-death experience can bring.
The driver laid on their horn and both of our tires screeched as we simultaneously slammed on our brakes, maneuvering our cars away from each other and narrowly escaping a crash, which was just as well because that truck would have easily leveled my ’95 Honda Civic with me inside it.
My car stopped abruptly, causing me to lurch forward and then reel back against my seat from the sharp stop. Then silence.
A horror reel of all the possible ways it could have ended differently played in my mind as my white knuckles clutched at the steering wheel.
I forced thoughts of my gruesome demise from my mind and shifted my eyes up to glance in the rearview mirror and saw that the other car had also stopped.
Shock immediately gave way to embarrassment and I knew I should get out of the car and make sure that whoever was in the truck was okay and apologize for my lapse in focus.
I also briefly considered that being a female and alone on a remote mountain road, it might be wiser for me to just put the car in drive and take off without opening myself up to the possibility of being abducted.
Society told me not to generalize but I honestly doubted that I’d find a woman driving a big, honking truck like that.
My eyes lowered to beneath the truck’s back tires and I told myself that if it was sporting a pair of those truck testicles that seemed to be so popular amongst young redneck men then I would be absolutely justified in making a run for it.
Nothing untoward dangled between the back “legs” of the truck but it still did little to ease my nerves about confronting the driver.
I acknowledged and fully accepted that I deserved to be scolded and if that was their intention then I’d dutifully take it on the chin, promise that it would not happen again, reiterate my regret, and then be on my way.
But the longer the moment dragged on, the more my imagination began to run away with all manner of horrific scenarios that involved more sadistic means of punishment.
“I really need to stop listening to true crime podcasts,” I told myself trying desperately to find enough rationality and aplomb to get out of my car and express my repentance to the other driver.
I was still shaking, though I tried to convince myself that it was from the shock of the near head-on collision I’d narrowly avoided, and not the fact that any moment a mountain man wielding a chainsaw in one hand and the head of his last victim in the other might exit the cabin of his vehicle and come lumbering toward me with the inhuman speed of the T-1000.
My eyes flickered to my phone again.
No reception still.
I swallowed and looked up at the laminated picture of Paul Newman clasped to a nylon lanyard that hung from my rearview mirror the way rosary beads hung from other people’s mirrors.
“Mr. Newman, if you’re up there …” I began, my voice small and breathless as I appealed to the spirit of Paul Newman the way that others appealed to God. “If you get me out of this, I swear I will go back to your Sockarooni sauce, chocolate sandwich cookies, and microwave popcorn. It’s just that … well, the other brands were discounted, and I needed to watch my spending,” I explained trying to justify my lapse in brand loyalty. “I see now that everything has a price, but if you please get me out of this next ten minutes unscathed, I swear I won’t stray again. I mean, not that I can commit to feeding myself exclusively with your products, but … you know what I mean. Amen.”
I lowered my chin from my “prayer” in reverence for a moment and then sighed, lifting my eyes back to the rearview mirror.
The driver’s side door of the truck swung open and my shoulders immediately knotted with tension.
I took a long, deep inhalation and held it watching as a pair of jean-clad legs with brown boots stepped out onto the road.
His body exited facing away from me and in the low light, I struggled to make out any level of detail other than the fact that he didn’t seem to be holding a gun or chainsaw.
“It’s fine. This is fine. Everything is fine,” I babbled nervously to myself.
His muted, olive-green T-shirt clad back straightened and his long arm grasped the driver’s side door as he rose to his full height.
He was big, broad, and imposing even from a distance and I made a strangled whimpering sound as I watched him start to turn around.
Tension made my eyes water and I choked out an exhalation; unable to hold in my breath any longer as I mentally weighed the merits of contrition and asking for forgiveness against not being kidnapped, driven to a house with a hidden torture bunker, and killed in backwater nowhere.
“Oh God, he’s massive,” I said as his six-foot-three-ish frame turned around and my eyes involuntarily lowered from the rearview mirror as I reached to unclasp my seatbelt.
My heart thundered with a concerning amount of force within my chest cavity.
I liked to credit myself as being quite a brave person, but I was brave in the sense that I was down for bungee jumping, approaching an attractive man at a club and asking him to dance, or even confronting people in public who were harassing others or being obnoxious or distasteful.
At that moment however, my bravery cup runneth bone ass dry and I wrestled only with my sense of self-preservation.
And then he started walking. Toward me!
“You know what, buddy, you’re not going to get the chance to kill me because I am going to have a heart attack,” I declared as though I were somehow one-upping him by beating him to his murderous punch.
I unfastened the clasp of my seatbelt and it retreated with a zip as I looked in the mirror again, the heat rising in my cheeks and neck as I watched him get closer.
“Please don’t be a murderer, please don’t be a murderer,” I chanted as I reached to my left with shaking hands to release the latch on my door.
I hesitated before pushing it out slowly, not in any hurry for a lambasting, nor my imminent demise.
The first sound that filtered through the air outside the car—other than my own heartbeat—was crickets chirping and the crunching of his boots along the gravel as he approached.
His pace was purposeful and steady, but not necessarily urgent or hard against the road.
I tried to swallow as I twisted my body to lift my legs out of the car and place them down on the road.
My Converse sneakers met the dirt and I leaned my weight onto them feeling my knees shake as I exited the cabin.
As I stood upright, I heard the man’s crunching steps come to a stop behind me some ten to fifteen feet behind where my car had screeched to a halt.
Unable to prolong the inevitable any further, I spun on my feet and turned to face the music.
The first thing I noticed was his scowl.
His eyebrows were low and furrowed, with two parallel lines etched between his eyes as he glared at me. My chest tightened.
It was too dark to make out what color his eyes were and his lips encircled by a thick, full beard were pressed into a straight, flat line.
The way his hands gripped his narrow hips emphasized the broadness of his chest and strapping width of his shoulders in contrast, and his chest rose and fell with his measured breathing.
“You alright?” he barked, his voice firm and gravelly, sounding harsh like his concern was merely a formality before getting to what he really wanted to say.
His shirt fit him well enough that his stomach muscles drew inwards and tensed at his words which did not escape my attention. Were it not for the deep frown on his face and displeased demeanor, I would have thought him incredibly attractive.
Again, I went through the motions of swallowing, but my mouth was too dry to have the desired effect.
All the moisture in my body seemed to pool in my palms as I wiped them against my jeans.
“I-I’m fine … are you? Okay, I mean?”
I struggled through a clumsy response and his eyes narrowed at me.
There was a quality about the way they glinted, even in that darkness that told me his eyes were light colored, though I couldn’t tell if they were blue or green.
The more I looked at him, the more I struggled to keep a grasp on the circumstances that had brought us to this moment.
“You been drinkin’?” he asked sternly.
I started at his directness and suddenly I remembered.
Oh yeah, I almost killed us.
He had every reason to believe I was driving incapacitated and I let the surprise of his brusqueness pass before shaking my head.
“Fall asleep at the wheel?” he interrupted me tersely and immediately my cheeks, neck, and ears erupted into flames of embarrassment.
Through my mortification, my ears picked up the drawn-out syllables of a southern drawl. Possibly from years of watching movies, I had a slight tendency to romanticize anyone with a southern accent. This absurd facet of my subconscious decided right then and there that I wanted this accented giant to like me and I rushed to defend my actions.
“No, I swear it was nothing like that, I just … I’m not from around here and …”
I saw his chin tilt upward as he regarded me with something akin to cautious curiosity from under his heavy-lidded eyes, so I forged on with my weak excuse.
“I have been driving perfectly for like seven hours, then the one second I veer off to the left, there’s another car coming right toward me!” I explained ending with a nervous, shaky laugh, my arm lifting from my side and falling back against my thigh with a slap.
He didn’t laugh, but the severity of his expression downgraded from arctic to glacial as he continued to stare at me.
I cleared my throat and looked down at the road between us repentantly.
“I’m really sorry, I’ll be more attentive from now on, I promise it won’t happen again,” I said crossing my heart and hoping the sincerity I tried to impart in my tone and expression would be enough to unlock myself from the pit bull-like grip of his castigation.
His glower held for a few more seconds and I held my breath as I waited until finally his chin lowered and his eyes dropped to the ground as he sighed.
“Don’t worry about it, just … be more careful,” he grumbled, as though he was disappointed that I’d not been more indignant and combative.
He glanced back at me for a moment and my heart rate picked up again for a different reason.
He was really gorgeous. And that southern accent? Oh God, yes.
He turned to go back to his truck and it was then that I remembered that I was still lost, and it was now completely dark.
“Uh … sir … before you go,” I called after him and he stopped and glanced at me over his shoulder.
He then turned his body fully around and brushed his palm across his bearded jaw.
Holy shit, he is otherworldly attractive, I thought, noticing how even the voice inside my head sounded breathless.
His hands were back on his hips and his knee was cocked to the side in a stance that translated universally as, I don’t have time for this.
Carrying on because I didn’t have a choice, I cleared my throat and drew my eyebrows together pleadingly.
“So … not that you owe me your help given that I almost just killed you, but … I think I’ve just spent the better part of an hour driving in a circle so if you could please just tell me how to get off this mountain or somewhere with cell reception, I would be really, really grateful,” I said clasping my fingers together pleadingly.
His expression was inscrutable as he stood there staring at me for what seemed like forever. I didn’t get the sense that he was considering my question so much as he was considering me, and what to make of me.
Once again finding myself in the vise-like hold of his stare, I shifted on my feet uneasily and was about to tell him to forget it when he finally spoke.
“Where are you headed?” he asked, his question still concise but softer and without the same brusqueness as before.
“Well, for now … anywhere there’s a hotel, motel, bed and breakfast, or guest house for rent would be nice, but … if you can get me out of here, I am sure I’ll come across something.”
His eyebrows furrowed again like my answer confused him.
“Where specifically were you trying to get to?” he asked again, his voice re-adopting the directness from earlier.
I cleared my throat. He was intimidating.
“Boston,” I replied realizing how ridiculous that sounded considering where I was.
“Might I suggest you delay any further traveling until tomorrow,” he stated prosaically. “You’re not going to make that trip tonight,” he said looking at me with something akin to condescension.
I lifted my chin and squared my shoulders finding some gumption before responding. “Well, sir, that is exactly why I asked after accommodations,” I replied with a slight edge in my tone.
He observed me for a moment longer before nudging his chin in the direction I’d been traveling in.
“I’m going to turn my truck around and pull out ahead of you, follow me until I’ve stopped.”
“Where are you leading me?” I asked my tone laced with a hint of cautious reticence.
“I know a place you can stay the night. It’s in town so you won’t have to go out of your way to find breakfast in the morning, there’s a supermarket if you need supplies, and it’s pretty much a straight shot back onto the highway.”
I paused at his words and stared at him in surprise, not sure why he was suddenly being so helpful since I seemed to have done nothing but annoy him for the past five minutes.
Ultimately though, I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and quickly reminded myself to be grateful for the abetting shift in his mood.
“Thank you! That sounds …” I struggled to find an adequate superlative to finish the thought and his lips hitched up at the corner of his mouth as though it took some effort on his part to do it.
“You’re welcome,” he said with a nod and then turned and headed back to his truck.
I watched him and took a moment to observe his gait as he walked away from me.
He had a physical kind of confidence that made his stride more like a saunter.
His hips shifted from left to right in an easy swagger some men wield effortlessly yet it was obvious from the tightness of his shoulders that he was still frustrated from our exchange.
“Good Lord … you sir, are going straight into the spank bank,” I muttered under my breath before the sound of his truck door slamming shut shook me from my objectifying thoughts.
I got back into my car and put it in drive, waiting and watching in my rearview mirror as he easily maneuvered his huge truck through a perfect three-point-turn and pulled out ahead of me.
He stopped for a beat as though signaling to me that he was ready to proceed, and I lowered my handbrake and pressed my foot on the gas to follow as he started to drive away.
Ten minutes later, he veered right onto what I thought was a runaway truck ramp and then made a sharp right at the end of it onto an unpaved road obscured by overgrown trees.
I tensed a little as the branches scraped the sides of my car and thought of my kidneys as my poor, mature-aged vehicle jostled roughly down the jagged road for about a quarter mile.
As we rounded a bend, I caught a glimpse up ahead where the road smoothed out and joined back up to what looked like a highway and my shoulders relaxed as I sighed with relief.
I glanced over to my cell phone and saw the signal indicator flash back to life letting me know that I was now once again back in the land of cell reception.
I glanced up at the lanyard on my rearview mirror and smiled.
“Thank you,” I whispered to my blue-eyed guardian angel.
Mr. Frowny Brows wasn’t unfriendly per se, but neither was the wall of a squash court and as such, my attempts to engage him in conversation kept bouncing off his cool exterior while I was left running from one end of the metaphoric court to the other, trying to keep a rally going.
Maybe the energy that had accumulated in my body over the past eight hours of driving was responsible for the projectile of interrogational vomit that I proceeded to subject him to as we walked along the street toward a cluster of low-rise buildings in what looked like the town center. I was a woman and he was an unnervingly attractive man, so naturally, I wanted to become better acquainted with him, despite the sentiment not feeling entirely mutual.
He took my inquiries in stride and didn’t expressly request that I stop from asking them so my compulsion to unrelentingly question him went unchecked.
“So, have you lived here long?”
“You work nearby?”
“What do you do for work?”
“A few different things,” he replied vaguely, which only served to further pique my curiosity.
“Like a handyman?” I asked conjuring an image of him in my mind wearing a tool belt which I did not hate.
‘Sometimes?’ What the hell does ‘sometimes’ mean?
“So, where’s the place where you said the breakfast was good?” I asked, looking around for an eatery of some kind but not spotting anything nearby.
“I don’t recall recommending anything, but you’ll probably want to head to Daisy’s Nut House.”
“Do you go there?”
“What do you recommend?”
“Anything on the breakfast menu is pretty good, I guess, but they’re known for their doughnuts and pie.”
“Ooh! I like doughnuts and pie. You have a favorite?”
“I don’t have much of a sweet tooth,” he stated, which I didn’t personally understand given my profession, but I wasn’t about to judge him too harshly on it.
“Ah, so you’re a breakfast guy?”
“I’m an everything guy,” he said casting me a brief sideways smile at the mention of food. Finally! Something that prompted a reaction from him that registered at the detectible end of enthusiastic.
Seeing the quick upturn of his lips made my feet tingle and my response was to immediately giggle. I was going for warmth, but it more likely came across as awkwardly flirtatious. I was obviously out of practice when it came to interacting with people I considered attractive.
“Yeah, me too. Food’s great.”
Food’s great? Smooth.
I shook my head at myself and did a little gallop to catch up when I noticed I’d fallen behind.
By the light of the irregularly spaced street lights we were passing, I could make out his features a little more clearly.
He was even better up close which most certainly contributed to my ungainly manner.
He had dark brown hair which was short, straight, and all messed up as though he only brushed it with his fingers when someone pissed him off, and flecks of either gray or blond through his beard, which turned silvery when it caught the light.
His eyes were somewhere between blue and green and I had a hunch that they became more of one or the other depending on what he was wearing or what mood he was in. They were framed by thick, expressive brows and his skin looked like it was holding onto the summer just passed, all golden brown and sun-kissed.
“So, what do people do around here? For fun I mean,” I asked when I was done ogling him, hoping he hadn’t noticed me doing it.
“Hmm.” He shrugged. “The usual stuff, I guess. Go to bars, eat, go dancing.”
I saw an opportunity at the mention of “dancing” to try and wedge a conversational crow-bar between the metal doors of this guys’ personality elevator, jump inside his cabin, and push the top floor button.
People’s responses to dancing usually elicited some kind of response one way or the other and I figured since I’d earned myself a smile, maybe he was a little more comfortable around me now.
“Do you dance?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him as though I had a suspicion he did.
“No,” he scoffed, hanging his head bashfully as though the mere thought of being associated with having ever moved to the sound of music was just crazy. I pressed on, undeterred.
“I love to dance!”
“No kidding,” he responded, making little effort to keep the sarcasm from his response, but I got another smile, wry as it was.
I had to gallop beside him in an effort to keep up with his long strides and simply let his detachedness roll off my shoulders.
“Yeah! I did a flash mob one time,” I volunteered, thinking that was a neat little tidbit to share with a stranger who surely already thought I was a sandwich short of a picnic.
“A what?” he asked as we came to a stop on the sidewalk and turned to face me, giving me my first opportunity to really take in the details of his face, which up until now had been obscured by darkness or blurred by the motion of trying to keep up with him.
Once again pinned by that stare, I noticed a scar on the left side of his top lip and just how red his lips were as his tongue came out to brush across the scar before he rolled his lips back into his mouth.
“A flash mob,” I explained as he continued to frown at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about. “You know, when a group of people do a surprise dance routine in a public place, like a mall, a park, or a crosswalk?”
His expression turned nonplussed and practically screamed “why the hell would anyone do that?”
“Right,” he said instead, placing his hands on his hips and cocking his knee again.
I cleared my throat, hitching my backpack strap back up onto my shoulder as I fidgeted under his scrutiny.
“So … what song was the dance routine to?”
My eyes shot up from the ground, surprised by his question.
I wasn’t sure if his expression suggested that he was especially interested, however, he seemed like the kind of guy who couldn’t abide by only knowing half the story.
Despite my awareness of his level of interest, I still somehow managed to overcompensate in my response.
“I know its cliché, but it was Halloween and we did Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”… you know with the …” I proceeded to claw my fingers and sway them from left to right through the air to exhibit one of the more recognizable moves in choreography.
He held up a staying hand. “Yeah I know the dance, you don’t have to demonstrate,” he remarked, the smile threating to make a reappearance once again as he tried to keep his amusement in check.
I cleared my throat and decided a swift change of topic was in order.
“What’s your name by the way?” I asked, holding out my hand between us and his eyes glanced down at it as though he would be making some kind of commitment by shaking it.
“Joel,” he replied eventually, and then proceeded to engulf my entire hand with his, prompting what I swear was a second sexual awakening. It reminded me vaguely of the time in my life that I started to appreciate how different a man’s hand felt compared to a woman’s.
When I began to recognize how solid and strong they were and how it made me feel weird in my tummy, but I wasn’t sure how or why.
Now that I was older, I knew why.
Yep. I was attracted to this guy.
“Hi Joel, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Sophie,” I managed to reply, trying to look less mesmerized by his eyes than I was, and more like I was simply maintaining polite eye contact.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” he drawled in that luscious accent as he returned my gaze, albeit through a much cooler filter than I most assuredly viewed him through.
I could have sworn we had a moment where the handshake went on for one pump too many but before I could think too much about it, he dropped my hand and gestured behind me with a quick point of his finger.
“You can stay here for the night. Room’s not taken.”
I turned to look over my shoulder to where he’d indicated but only saw a shopfront for a used bookstore.
“In the bookstore?” I asked, confused.
“No, above it,” he explained. “The top floor is split into two studio apartments. I live in one, and the other is a rental. It’s available right now. Come on,” he said cocking his head for me to follow and immediately began walking toward a blue door that sat nestled between the entrance of the book shop and the conjoined hair salon beside it.
I had questions, but he walked fast and was already fishing a set of keys out of the pocket of his jeans to unlock the door before I had time to ask them.
“Hey, wait,” I called out after him as he got to work unlocking two deadlocks that were inches apart from one another on the door.
“What kind of rate are we talking for the room? I don’t have a lot of mon—”
“Don’t worry about it,” he interjected, pushing on the door so that it swung open on its hinges to where I could see nothing but an ascending flight of wooden steps.
I peered up the steps and caught sight of the landing at the top which broke off into opposite directions, before turning my attention back to him.
“What do you mean, ‘don’t worry about it?’ I can’t stay in your rental for nothing,” I insisted folding my arms across my chest and frowning with disapproval.
“Look, you’re going to be on your way in the morning, so it’s hardly worth my time and effort to go through the whole booking process for the amount of money I would end up charging. You need a place to stay, I have one, and I’m late to be somewhere. Do you want it or don’t you?” he replied, hitting on only the main points of his argument which were frankly hard to argue with, in my current predicament.
I should have been annoyed at his impatience, but he’d just said so many words in that sweet, sweet southern drawl that I needed a moment to collect myself.
I considered his offer for a moment, regarding him with a scrutinizing glower as though I wasn’t sure whether or not I could trust his too-good-to-be-true offer.
He returned my glare with a practiced look of indifference, but I swear he was fighting a smile.
“Can I see the room first?” I inquired finally, still probably sounding unsure, but in reality, after eight hours on the road, I would have settled for anything so long as it was safe, clean, and not the back seat of my car.
It was also possible that I was just delaying the inevitable because I didn’t want this interaction to end yet. I didn’t know where he was going but I wasn’t making any apologies for making him late. Joel wasn’t giving me much, I admit, but every little smile that threatened to pull at those lips left me wanting to see the real thing, if only to confirm my suspicions that it would be spectacular.
Without a verbal response, he pushed himself off the doorjamb and proceeded to cross the threshold inside the building to start making his way up the narrow wooden stairs.
When he was an appropriate distance ahead of me I followed, keeping my eyes fixed on his back as he climbed each step and the way his hips swung as he did.
His footfalls were heavy in the narrow passageway of the stairs and his large frame took up almost the entire width of space between the two walls.
When we reached the landing at the top, I saw one door to the left and another to the right.
“Wait here,” he instructed, turning to the door on the right and using his keys to unlock it before disappearing inside the apartment and closing the door before I could try to subtly peek inside.
I stood on the dimly lit landing and glanced around trying to make deductive observations about what I could potentially expect inside the rental apartment.
There was little to glean from the wooden staircase and landing that was losing its polish but otherwise unremarkable. The absence of staining or blood was a relief, I figured.
There was no mold or rising smell, which also boded well; even though the cream colored, embossed wallpaper was beginning to bubble and peel off and every now and then the dim light that emanated from the singular sconce on the wall would flicker off and on.
There was a green, locked metal box mounted to the wall outside his door and a welcome mat at the doorway of the rental, but not outside his own.
Shortly after I had made that observation, his door opened, and he reappeared, closing it quickly behind him before taking long strides past me to the rental suite.
He quickly unlocked it and nudged it open on its hinges, reaching inside to feel around on the wall for the light switch.
When he found it, the lights inside flickered on and he gestured for me to precede him as we made our way inside the apartment, so I could inspect it.
At first glance, it was nothing special and it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to surmise that it had been furnished by a man.
It was a small space with only three distinct rooms that I could immediately see, but as I walked around, I noticed that it had some really nice structural points of interest, like the exposed brick wall in the living room and the wooden beams that crisscrossed along the ceiling up above.
The wooden flooring on the inside was much better maintained than out in the hall, and the few pieces of furniture that there were looked modern and clean.
In the bedroom which was also the living room, there was a big bed pressed up against the wall, with a window that looked out onto the street. The dark gray sheets it was covered in were neat and pulled tightly across the surface of the mattress.
There was a navy blue, two-seat sofa in front of the entertainment unit which consisted of a modest sized flat screen TV, a cable box, wireless router, and modem.
The walls were devoid of any artwork, but there was a palm in the corner of the room parallel to the bed adding some much-needed life to the space.
The room smelled pleasant and all the surfaces were clean, so I turned back to him and started to attempt to negotiate a deal that I would have felt more comfortable with.
“This is great, but I need to insist that you at least let me give you—”
I was instantly silenced as he tossed the keys through the air, shutting down my speech function abruptly in order to fully engage the hand-eye coordination required to catch them.
“Tomorrow morning, when you leave, strip the bed and leave any used towels on the floor of the bathroom. You can leave the suite keys in the green box beside my door on your way out. If any urgent matters should arise that require my immediate attention, there’s a number you can reach me at by the phone in the kitchen on an info sheet which also includes the Wi-Fi password. You have yourself a pleasant evening, Miss Sophie.”
Before I could comprehend and absorb his instructions, the front door shut and he was gone, leaving me slack-jawed with my fist balled, frozen in place where I’d caught the apartment keys.
“O … kaaay,” I said to nobody, frowning and looking around the now empty apartment, wondering what the catch was.
I lowered my arm and looked around the space, which felt much larger now that Joel was no longer in it.
My first thoughts naturally veered into true crime territory because I’d spent countless hours listening to podcasts on the road. My most recent one involved a very detailed recounting of a serial killer at the World’s Fair, so I promptly began a search for trap doors, hidden passages and since technology had progressed since the World’s Fair, I also included hidden cameras in my search.
After finding none and deciding I was paranoid, I decided that I had two choices. I could stay up all night worrying that I had been lured into an H.H. Holmes style murder house and get zero rest, or I could just relax, eat something, have a shower, and get a good night’s sleep before heading back out on the road the following morning.
In the end, the allure of cooking myself a real meal was a prospect too tempting to resist, so I brushed all my serial killer thoughts aside, gathered up my purse, and went in search of the nearest supermarket.
After a quick search on my phone, I acquired directions to the nearest supermarket called the Piggly Wiggly and headed there for provisions.
As I meandered through the mostly deserted aisles, trying to decide what I was in the mood for, I felt my cell phone vibrating from within my pocket.
I fished it out, inspected the screen and immediately groaned aloud because it was a number I didn’t recognize, which meant that I knew exactly who it was.
John Moxie was the executive producer of No Whisk, No Reward and he had been calling me multiple times a day, every day, for the past two weeks.
I had answered his calls the first few times and indulged his initial attempts to entice me to participate in what he liked to refer to as, “the perfect opportunity to restore your reputation,” which was actually a best-of-the-worst episode where contestants who had bombed out of previous seasons were given another chance to compete against each other for redemption.
After my polite declinations to participate eventually devolved into not-so-polite refusals, I started to realize that people who worked in the entertainment industry had a particular aversion to taking no for an answer. Nothing I said or did seemed to deter him from haranguing me about it.
At my wits end, I stopped answering the phone, but then he started calling from different numbers, which I fell for the first couple of times, before quickly growing wise to his game.
Normally, I wouldn’t have answered but I still had some residual adrenaline from getting lost and the subsequent near-death experience that followed, and he was the perfect punching bag to let out my pent-up anxiety.
“Mr. Moxie,” I answered, allowing my tone to express how I felt about his call.
“Did you miss me?” he asked with that disingenuous, salesman-like quality to his voice that I had grown accustomed to when conversing with him.
“I miss the time in my life where you didn’t have my cell number.”
“You don’t mean thaaaaat,” he said as though he refused to believe it, and I cocked an eyebrow as though he could see my expression.
“Oh, I do, I really, really do. Like from the bottom, top, and both sides of my beating heart.”
“Look I don’t blame you after how things went down on the show, but I think you’ll change your mind when I tell you about what the network is willing to do to entice you to come back for the Double the Whisk, Double the Reward episode.”
“We’ve gone over this ad nauseam,” I sighed wearily, rubbing my forehead as I walked along the aisle.
“Just let me pitch you the incentive and then you tell me that you don’t want to participate.”
“And if I don’t, you’ll leave me alone?” My tone implying that his response would be a promise.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he replied evening out his tone enough to make it clear that he wasn’t prepared to give up on me any time soon.
Though I couldn’t imagine anything would be enticing enough to convince me to embarrass myself on national television for a second time, I would have been lying if I said I wasn’t curious to see what was on the table.
The potential to make $300,000, which was almost double the show’s regular winnings, was tempting, but all I had to do was remember the fallout from my last disastrous appearance to feel secure in the knowledge that nothing John Moxie said or did would convince me to agree to any terms.
My mind flashed with memories of how things had changed for me at the restaurant I worked at, post-show.
Paradigm was a high-end restaurant in Seattle, Washington where musicians, actors, sports personalities, and politicians frequented, and despite its pretentiousness, being able to have such a prestigious establishment on my resumé, gave me some serious clout. At least it used to.
Until one day John Moxie came to Paradigmfor dinner and created a buzz amongst my co-workers in the kitchen by actively recruiting some of the staff to participate on his popular, prime time television show No Whisk, No Reward.
Most of the buzz in the kitchen amongst the predominantly male staff was little more than braggadocios peacocking about how they’d “smash the competition,” but when I was singled out by John Moxie for a dessert he’d ordered that I had made, I naïvely let myself get talked into signing up for the show.
Suffice it to say, I did not do well. More precisely I was knocked out of the first round for fucking up a simple crème pâtissière that I had scrambled in a flustered stupor.
After the show, I started noticing the head chef Julian Lefebvre loitering around my work station more than usual and suddenly nothing I did was good enough.
“Your crème pâtissière is too tick.”
“Your crème pâtissière is too tin.”
“What temperature did you temper ze shock-lat? It’s not shiny. MORE SHINY!”
“More height on ze soufflé, it’s flat. IT’S FLAT!”
Up until my appearance on the show, I had a good working relationship with Julian, which was to say he left me alone to do my work.
I understood that he felt like my performance on the show reflected poorly on the reputation of the restaurant, but his sudden vigilance over my work, and determination to find fault in everything I did, only served to make me doubt that I had ever done anything right in the first place.
My confidence was shaken and a commercial kitchen environment in the competitive upscale market was not exactly conducive to fostering the kind of team spirit where people stood up for one another. I was essentially left to the wolves until eventually, I couldn’t even crack an egg without worrying that I had done it wrong.
Over time, the bright lighting in the restaurant during rush hour made me nervous and forget the most basic techniques. I tried to force myself to be rational and tell myself that I wasn’t in a studio, I was in the same restaurant I had worked in for years, but the thought of people watching me all the time made me feel incredibly anxious.
Eventually, I decided that it was no way to live, and after a fortuitously timed conversation where my best friend Anna broke the news to me that she was finally ready to open her own bakery, I quit my job at Paradigm, broke my lease, and hit the road bound for Boston to help her develop her products in a less stressful environment.
“Well go on then, but I have to warn you, you’re wasting your time,” I sighed into the phone while perusing items that were appropriate for feeding a single person for one night only.
“Come on, Sophie! What’s my motto?”
“Pester people to within an inch of their sanity?”
“Just cut to the chase, John, I have shit to do,” I lied, just wanting this phone call to be over.
“Okay, okay. Here it is. If you agree to come back for the Double the Whisk, Double the Reward episode, not only has the studio increased the prize money, but they have also agreed to let each contestant bring along a friend or family member. Additionally, they are also organizing to have a celebrity mentor of your choosing, subject to availability, there to help guide you through the competition. Doesn’t that sound neat?”
I came to a stop by the potato chips and briefly considered John’s proposal.
“Neat? That doesn’t sound neat, it sounds like a nightmare!”
“What?” John hollered incredulously into the phone as though he couldn’t believe I didn’t immediately agree to participate.
“You remember why I did so badly in the first place right?”
“Yeah, yeah so you had a smidge of stage fright, the studio has already agreed to having a coach present—”
“Oh good, so after I burn, scramble, or split something, and Gordon Ramsay tells me what an incompetent twat I am, a counselor will be there to stop me from sticking my head in the oven. Sounds like a party, what time should I be there?” I asked sarcastically.
“Sophie, honey! This is your shot at redemption! Don’t you know what this could do for your career if you nail this? I mean the prize money bumped up to three hundred thousand dollars alone should be enough of an incentive, you could open your own bakery!”
I felt a twinge inside at the mention of opening my own bakery. It had been a goal of mine ever since I graduated from culinary school and three hundred grand would certainly clear the path for such a goal.
Despite the sweetened pot, the tension that had built up in my body just thinking about getting back in front of those cameras was enough to make me double down on my position and stick to my guns.
“Sure, sure, to the victor go the spoils, while the rest of us are left to salvage what’s left of our tattered reputations, which by the way, in this industry is much harder for a woman to do than a man.”
“I agree. Really, I’m on your side, but, Sophie, just like the show says, n—”
“Don’t. You. Dare!” I interrupted, preempting his next words. “I know what you’re about to say, and if you do, I’m gonna hang up on y—”
“No risk, no reward!”
I growled and stabbed at my phone with my finger, ending the call before cocking my arm as though I were about to pitch the device right down the snack aisle, until I caught sight of an employee stacking bags of pretzels and looking at me wide-eyed.
I took a moment to regain my composure, relaxed my stance, and lowered my arm. As I glided by, I smiled and affixed a mask of equanimity to counter the embarrassed flush that was quickly rising in my cheeks.
“Good evening.” I nodded courteously as I passed by, making as cool and efficient an exit from the aisle as I could manage while feeling their eyes on me until I was out of sight.
From the safety of the baking aisle, I leaned against one of the shelves and sighed deeply, rubbing my tired, stinging eyes and losing the motivation to cook more every passing moment.
Needing to hear a familiar voice and seeking guidance, I dialed Anna’s number, thinking it had been a couple of days since we’d last spoken and I should probably check in to let her know I was alive and well.
“Who is this?” she asked immediately after answering the phone and instantly I smiled because I knew what she was doing.
“It’s Sophie, you jackass,” I replied my voice full of affection for her.
“Sorry, I don’t know anyone by that name. I used to, but that was a long time ago. I thought we were friends but … she stopped calling and writing, so I have learned to move on and forget about her. God, it’s almost too painful to talk about.”
“It’s been two days.”
“Which is the equivalent of five friendship years. Where are you? Who’s seen you? What has become of you?”
“I’m in Tennessee,” I replied attempting to adopt the local drawl in my response and immediately cringed at how awful it sounded.
“Was that your southern accent?” she asked sounding equal parts quizzical and appalled.
“It’s actually harder to emulate that I thought,” I admitted thoughtfully.
“Well, don’t let any locals hear you attempting it or you’ll be run out of town.”
I laughed, but it lacked enthusiasm and she could immediately tell.
“What is it? What’s wrong? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just getting sick of being on the road. It’s lonely,” I admitted, even though that wasn’t the sole source of my gloomy mood.
“Aw, if only there were a solution to your problem,” she cooed, feigning sympathy. “Oh yeah! There is. Hurry up and get your keister to Boston already.”
“I know, I am,” I assured her, “but it’s not just that … John Moxie called me again.”
“Ugh. Still trying to up the ante? What’s he offering now?”
There was no sense in lying or playing down my conflicting emotions, I knew I could be honest with Anna.
“They doubled the prize money and there’s a bunch of other stuff too. I’m not gonna lie, I could use three hundred thousand dollars right now,” I lamented, thinking of my depleted finances. Just because I had worked at a high-end restaurant, didn’t mean I had been paid accordingly.
“So, what’s holding you back?” she asked recognizing that there was an impending “but.”
“I should have nailed it. I could have nailed it. Even now, after everything that happened, I still think I can. Baking and creating is not the issue. The problem is finding a way to make sure that I don’t get completely paralyzed by the sight of lights and huge cameras. Everyone keeps telling me that I just need to learn to block it all out, but I can’t, and I just … I can’t screw this up twice. I’ll never be able to look myself in the mirror again.”
“You are so hard on yourself,” Anna stated, her soft voice full of pity and frustration on my behalf.
It was not the first time I’d heard that. From her or others. I was not good at bouncing back from the sting of a mistake.
“Because I know what I can do,” I responded, getting to the heart of the matter as succinctly as possible. “I’m just too chickenshit to try and prove it.”
I heard Anna sigh on the other end of the phone.
“You know I support you no matter what you decide right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And you also know that you have a job waiting for you the second I am ready to open the doors to Yeast Affection, right?”
“But I really would love to see you take a second crack at that show. I am glad to hear you say you’re confident in your abilities, because, honey, you are an amazing pastry chef. Let me ask you this. What do you think you need in order to get to a place where the studio environment doesn’t freak you out?”
I took a moment to ponder the question and the only solution I could come up with was impractical and not feasible.
“I don’t know, spend a week or two working in a studio. Like I can make that happen,” I scoffed.
“Oh Sophie,” she murmured sympathetically. “You know I’m working on marrying Chris Hemsworth so I can make that happen for you, right?”
“I know.” I laughed softly. ‘You’re the best friend money can buy, you know that?” I joked absentmindedly rolling a jar around in my hand.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Now put the Nutella back, you know it gives you underground chin zits,” Anna said causing me to freeze in place, for a moment before whirling around to look for her and wonder how she could possibly know what I was doing in that moment.
“Dude! What the fuck? Are you watching me right now?”
“Dude,” she replied echoing my tone. “What kind of friend would I be if I didn’t know that every time you get down about something, you bury your feelings under half a pound of chocolate hazelnut spread?”
“I know, but—” I started to say, still floored by her innate understanding of my emotional eating habits.
“Put the jar back, you always regret it,” she interrupted with the all-knowing wisdom of a mother. “Now, go find the pasta sauce aisle, get yourself a jar of that sweet, sweet Sockarooni sauce and come up with a new recipe for your as yet unpublished cookbook entitled 101 Recipes using Sockarooni Sauce.”
“Okay, now you’re making fun of me,” I said shifting my weight to my right leg and placing my hand on my hip just in case she really was able to see me somehow.
“No! I swear! As Paul Newman is our god and witness, I have never in my life met anyone more dedicated to finding as many possible uses for a singular food product as you are with Sockarooni Sauce. I tip my hat to you,” she insisted though I still detected a hint of amused sarcasm in her tone.
“It’s a good sauce,” I insisted, still sounding slightly defensive, but taking her advice and returning the Nutella to the shelf before starting to make my way over to the pasta aisle. “And as a matter of fact, I do actually really need to pick up a jar,” I explained, finding renewed purpose as I began making my way to the pasta aisle.
“You only say that when he gets you out of a jam, what happened?” she asked, her voice adopting a knowing tone once more.
“It was no big deal, I almost got into a little accident tonight, but it’s fine, no harm done.”
“No big deal? Soph, your car is held together by duct tape, hope, and the sticky remnants of spilled coffee, I don’t like you driving around in that thing. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my car, she might not be pretty, but she does a bang-up job.”
The line went quiet until I realized that I might not have inspired much confidence with my turn of phrase. “Okay that was the wrong expression to use, but she runs fine, honestly. When I get to Boston and I’ve settled in, I’ll think about trading her in, I promise.”
“For what? A cup of coffee at the car dealership?”
“Hey,” I cautioned, stung by her hostility toward my so far reliable steel steed.
“And not even a latte, like … shitty drip coffee.”
“You want to buy me a Camaro?” I challenged.
“Only if you promise to make out with me in the back seat,” she responded with a smile in her voice.
I laughed despite her insults toward my car, which I felt compelled to defend the same way some people are compelled to defend a family member in spite of bad behavior.
“Alright, enough bashing my car,” I chuckled, finding the familiar jar of bright, red sauce and placing it in my shopping basket.
“So where are you staying tonight? Somewhere luxe, I suppose because you’re so fabulous.”
Right as she said that, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a glass door passing by the frozen food section.
My long dark hair was scraped indelicately into a pile on top of my head, and not in an effortless, cute kind of way. No, I had more of a does she have a place to stay and food to eat, kind of aesthetic going on, which was accentuated by the tired, purple rings and reddened whites surrounding my hazel eyes, brought on from the many long hours of staring out of the windshield and into the glare of the fall sun.
I looked so haggard as I tried in vain to at least smooth the flyaways from sticking out at the sides of my head.
“Well,” I began, “it’s a funny story, actually. The guy I almost caused an accident with, he has a rental suite in the town,” I explained. “He’s letting me stay there for the night. For free.”
“Mm-hmm,” Anna said, her hummed response dripping with distrust.
“I already checked every square inch of the place, it seems legit. Besides, he didn’t really seem like a weirdo.”
“Yeah, that’s what people said about Ted Bundy,” she responded prosaically.
“No, really. He was actually really good looking.”
“Yeah. That’s what people said about Ted Bundy.”
“Knock it off! I’m already too scared to drive alone at night.”
“Sorry, I just hate you being out there by yourself, I know you’re a full-grown adult and all but … wait, exactly how hot was he?”
“Like … probably the most attractive guy I have seen in a long time.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Yes. I did all the talking,” I replied, recalling our basically one-sided exchange as I reached for a package of cookies bearing the likeness of none other than Mr. Newman.
Nearby, the same store employee from earlier was now stacking snacks just a few feet away.
“That’s okay, you don’t need him to talk, you’re just passing through town. There for one night only, you know what I’m saying?” she offered suggestively followed by a flirtatious laugh.
Anna’s allusion prompted a momentary explicit visual in my brain that despite it only lasting a second, was enough to cause a temporary seizure of my motor function, which sent the package of cookies tumbling out of my hands and onto the floor at my feet.
The sound of the cookies being obliterated inside the plastic packaging made the store clerk stop what they were doing and turn toward me.
Our eyes met in a wordless stand-off.
You dropped the Newman-O’s.
Yes. Sorry. It was an accident.
You broke it, you bought it, lady.
Yes. Of course. You’re right.
Without a word, the store clerk and I nodded at each other in mutual understanding and I slowly bent over, retrieved the crushed package of cookies and placed them in my basket before once again escaping over to the next aisle which was blessedly empty.
“Hey! You still there?” Anna asked after I’d been silent for too long.
“Yes. Sorry. What were you saying?”
“I was just saying, you should invite him over for a little southern hospitality. Bow chicka—”
“Please don’t finish, you know I hate that stupid onomatopoeia. I don’t know why, but it just makes me cringe,” I said with a shudder, hoping for a swift change of subject.
“Maybe it’s because you need some bow chika wow—”
“Okay,” I interrupted shaking my head and trying not to laugh. “This conversation is over, I’m hanging up now.”
“Alright, alright,” Anna chuckled as though she had accomplished her goal of riling me up. “I’ll let you go, but you have to promise me that you’ll text me tomorrow morning and let me know you’re okay. Promise?”
“I promise, I promise,” I assured her.
After hanging up I felt as though the desire to make something homemade had abandoned me and all I had to show for the last thirty minutes in the supermarket was a package full of cookie shards and a jar of sacrificial pasta sauce in exchange for the protection afforded to me by my self-appointed guardian angel.
My indecision resulted in me purchasing a jar of sauce that would be luggage for the rest of the trip, the cookies, and a can of chicken noodle soup.
I paid for my items, left the Piggly Wiggly, and made my way back to the apartment for a quiet night in.
** END SNEAK PEEK **
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