The car Joe got was roughly the size of a pickle jar. He couldn’t make the driver’s seat go back far enough to accommodate his legs and cursed the idiot who had designed such a stupidly small vehicle.
The guy at the counter had told him Austin had one airport, but Houston had two. Joe had instantly concluded that his odds of getting a flight out had to double with two airports. “How long will it take me to get to Houston?” he asked.
“Three and a half hours on a good day,” the man had said.
“Okay. How long on a stupendously bad day?”
The man had laughed. “Have a good trip, sir!” he’d said cheerfully as he handed Joe the keys.
“Too late for that,” Joe had muttered, and had stomped out of the office with the keys in hand.
After he’d wedged himself in the car and started driving—directly into the sun, that was—he was reminded that he had a splitting headache, and after a day of trying to sober up, he was ravenously hungry. In fact, he was surfing his phone for any nearby McDonald’s as traffic crawled along, which resulted in him taking a wrong turn.
When Joe looked up, he realized he had just entered the river of vehicles moving at a snail’s pace into the terminal. “Ah hell,” he muttered, then pounded the steering wheel a few times to let off some frustration.
Traffic into the terminal was barely moving as people drove in to pick up stranded passengers. Joe’s fingers drummed impatiently on the steering wheel. He tried to find a radio station, but everyone was talking about the blizzard and the impending strike. He switched that off, then turned his head slightly to shove fingers through his hair. That’s when he caught sight of pink in his peripheral vision. He sat up; he could see her on the sidewalk, taking up an entire bench with her pink raft and luggage. Kate herself was sitting with her knees together, her elbows braced against them, her head in her hands, her blonde hair spilling around her shoulders.
“Good luck,” he sighed as he inched by. But as he neared the split in the road—right would take him to freedom, away from the terminal, while left would circle back around—he inexplicably went left.
“What are you doing?” he shouted at himself. Yes, okay, he’d taken pity on her. For one thing, she was pretty with those eyes and that hair. He had a thing for silky hair. And in spite of the fact that she had no spatial awareness when it came to shared armrests, she seemed nice. After all, she’d given him a bag of peanuts. Last, he had to acknowledge that she was severely handicapped with that pink thing. The least he could do was give her a ride to Houston.
“Consider it your good deed of the day,” he muttered to himself as he maneuvered into the lane to pick up passengers. “If you do this good deed, you won’t feel too bad when you grab the last seat on some flight to Seattle.”
It took another ten minutes to reach the curb. She was now sitting up, her shapely legs, encased in boots and tights, sprawled before her, her head back on the bench and her eyes closed. Joe rolled down the window. “Hey, Kate!” he called out the window.
She sat up with a start and looked wildly about.
Joe honked his horn. “Kate! Over here!”
She realized where he was and stood up, squinting at him warily. “Joe?”
“I’m going to Houston. Want to come?”
Now she looked completely suspicious, as if she thought it was some sort of joke, as if someone was going to leap out from behind a bush and announce that she’d been punked. So much for good intentions, Joe thought.
“I just thought I’d offer. But you don’t have to go—”
“No!” Kate did a funny little hop. “I mean yes! Yesssss!”
Now Joe was the one who was startled. She was suddenly dragging her things toward the car. He hopped out and hurried around to help her. “Here,” she said, shoving her suitcase at him.
That thing was heavy—what was she carrying, a bunch of bricks? “What is in here?” he asked, lugging it along to the car.
“Shoes,” she said breathlessly. “And books.”
Joe threw it into the trunk and closed it. Kate was trying to get the pink thing in the backseat. He walked around, intending to help her. “Let me help you.”
“Got it!” she said quickly. “It can’t get wrinkled.” She bent into his car, squirming around as she tried to fit the thing in perfectly.
But the only thing Joe could see was her derriere. He didn’t mean to look, but come on, how could her help it? He was a guy, and that was a nice derriere. When she’d finally situated the pink raft as she wanted, she backed out, turned around, and looked up at him, pushing her hair back from her face. There was a slender moment when her gaze flicked over his face, and then her eyes narrowed slightly.
She knew he’d been looking.
“What’s in there, anyway?” he asked.
“In there? In there is the ugliest, most hideous, god-awful poufy piece of peach taffeta in the history of mankind. But I have to wear it or my cousin will die. And I’m not kidding.”
Joe smiled. “Okay, then. Let’s get out of here, huh?”
“Please,” she said primly, and slid very gracefully into the passenger seat of that stupidly small car, and stuffed her shoulder bag in at her feet.
Joe walked around and wedged himself in again, then eased in front of another car.
“I thought we could grab something to eat on the way out,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
“Oh, me too!” she said, sinking back into the passenger seat. “I tried to get some yogurt at the food court, but there is nothing left. Nothing! It’s like zombies went through and ate everything.”
“Zombies don’t eat,” he said absently as he pulled into traffic.
She looked at him as if she thought he was crazy. “What do you mean, they don’t eat?”
“Zombies are dead,” he said. “They don’t eat. Haven’t you ever seen a zombie movie?”
“No?” Joe had never known a single person who hadn’t seen a zombie movie, with the exception of his mother. It was practically a requirement for his generation, which he assumed Kate was part of. “You have to see a zombie movie. Just one. You can’t go an entire lifetime without it,” he said as they began to inch out of the terminal.
She laughed. “I’ve made it twenty-eight years without seeing one.”
Yeah, well, he would keep his opinions about that to himself. “So how are you at navigating?” he asked, and thrust the one-page map the rental counter had given him in her direction.
She snatched it out of his hand and peered closely. “I happen to be pretty fantastic at navigating. Where are we?”
He pointed to the terminal and the highway they’d be entering. Which they did, about fifteen minutes later, and began to zip along at a top speed of sixty-five miles an hour.
They hadn’t gone far when Joe spied the Golden Arches. He veered off the highway and turned into McDonald’s.
Kate looked up. Her mouth dropped open. “Wait—you’re not going here, are you?”
“Yep,” he said, and pulled into a parking spot. “I’m hungry, remember?”
“But not McDonald’s!”
“What’s wrong with Mickey D’s?” Joe asked as he unbuckled his seat belt. He knew full well what was wrong with it—he’d had enough girlfriends to know that the nutritional values of the food were not in the acceptable range for sleek New York women.
“You’re kidding, right?”
She gasped. “Calories! Fat!”
He was too hungry to debate it. “You don’t look like you have to worry about that,” he said gruffly. “And besides, we don’t have time for a fine dining experience, remember? So—are you hungry?”
Kate shifted forward and squinted out the front windshield at the restaurant. “Starving,” she muttered, and unbuckled her seat belt.
A few minutes later, they were in the car again. Kate, Joe noticed, was wolfing down the burger she’d disdained. She happened to come up for breath and noticed his look of amusement. “Don’t judge me,” she warned him, and punctuated that with a big bite of burger.
Joe laughed. He liked a woman who could eat. “Bon appétit,” he said as he started the car up and backed out of the parking space.
Kate had polished off the burger and the fries she’d bought by the time they neared downtown Dallas and a dizzying display of highways in the sky, looping up and over each other. Just as they began to enter that mess, her phone rang.
“Don’t answer it,” Joe said. “I’m not sure what road I’m supposed to take.”
“45,” she said, and bent over, digging through her bag.
“Come on, call them back,” he pleaded, but Kate already had the phone in hand.
“Lisa!” she said cheerfully. “What’s up?”
“I don’t see it. I don’t see 45,” he said.
Kate pointed out the front window. “Left,” she whispered, and Joe wondered if she truly thought that was even remotely helpful.
“Oh, did you hear? Yes, well, not to worry. I’m on my way to Houston right now. Supposedly, planes are still flying out of Houston. Huh? Oh, it’s close. Like an hour or something.”
“It’s at least three hours,” Joe said.
Kate waved her hand at him in a manner that Joe believed meant he was not to talk.
“45,” he said to her. “Where is it?”
“That’s another passenger,” Kate said into the phone. “Lisa, can you hold on one minute?” She covered the phone with her hand. “45 is a left exit. Left! And it says Houston in big white letters.”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic,” he grumbled, and began the arduous task of slipping a tiny little car across five lanes of much faster and much thicker traffic. The sign, he noticed, did not say Houston.
“So I’ll be there in plenty of time—” She paused. She bent her head, rubbed her forehead. “Okay, what did he say?” she asked, and listened attentively. After a few moments, she nodded and said, “Okay, listen, Lisa. Listen to me. Getting married is a big deal. He is probably just a little nervous, right? I mean, he wouldn’t have asked you to marry him if he didn’t love you and didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with you.”
“Not necessarily,” Joe said.
Kate gasped and jerked her wide-eyed gaze to him.
He shrugged. “I’m just saying,” he said casually. “Sometimes, women will put unbelievable pressure on a guy to put a ring on it.”
Kate’s brows suddenly dipped. She pressed a finger to her lips, and said, “He’s kidding. And who is he, anyway? But I know Kiefer, and I know he is crazy about you.” She glared at Joe once more. “What?” she suddenly cried. “God, Lisa, can you please not do anything crazy until I get there? Please? You always do this when you get stressed. You freak out about things that aren’t even real and make a mess! I will be there in less than twelve hours!” she said.
Joe looked at her and winced a little. He thought she might be overselling things a little.
But Kate glared again and pointed at him and mouthed the words, Not a word.
“Okay, thank you,” Kate said into the phone. “Go get a massage or something. Just chill out. Relax. Where is Mom, anyway?”
Kate stayed on the phone another couple of minutes, and finally hung up. When she did, she tossed her phone into her bag, folded her arms, and stared at him.
Joe felt a prickly bit of heat under his collar. “What?”
“You know what.”
“I was just saying—”
“You don’t say that to a bride forty-eight hours before her wedding!” Kate exclaimed, her hands moving wildly. “You don’t know her—she’s nuts. She can make mountains out of tiny little anthills without as much as a match.”
That made absolutely no sense, but Joe wasn’t going to point that out. “So what did the groom say?” he asked.
Kate moaned and sank back in her seat. “That he was feeling antsy,” she said. “Whatever that means.”
Joe knew exactly what it meant. “It means he is feeling antsy. That’s it. I mean, think about it—he has to put on a monkey suit and stand up before a bunch of people and say things he wouldn’t say to his best friend, you know? That would make any guy antsy.” He should know. He once came dangerously close to it himself. Sort of close. He hadn’t actually asked Mona to marry him, but he’d thought about it, and just thinking about it had made him antsy.
“That’s ridiculous. If you love someone, you ought to be able to say it. Like a grown-up.”
“I am sure he can say it,” Joe said. “Like a grown-up. But why does he have to say it in a monkey suit?”
“Ohmi—Forget it. Men are so alike,” she muttered, and looked out her window.
“Oh, and women aren’t?” he asked. “And by the way, while you were convincing your friend with cold feet to go ahead and take the plunge, you were not navigating. The sign we just passed said Tyler. Would you please look and tell me how far to Tyler?”
“Tyler?” she repeated, and dug out the map. She studied it a moment, then glanced at him. “We’re going the wrong way.”
“Wrong way!” he said disbelievingly.
“We should be going south, not east.”
Joe slapped his hand against the wheel. “Holy—”
“You were supposed to get on 45. Why didn’t you get on 45? The sign said Houston; I don’t know how you missed it.”
“I wasn’t the only one who missed it! You said left.”
“Did I?” she said breezily.
Joe sighed and began to look for an exit to turn around.
They found their way onto Interstate 45… along with a million other people who probably had the same idea to catch a flight out of Houston. But at least they were moving. Joe checked the clock. It was almost three. If they could make it by six, they had a decent chance of getting out tonight, before the strike—
“I need a bathroom,” Kate said.
“Oh my god,” Joe muttered. “I thought you went at McDonald’s.”
“I did! I have a small bladder.” She smiled sunnily, as if she were proud of it.
This was going to be the longest drive of his life, Joe thought. No contest. He took the next exit.