by Susan James
God, I hate this car. And costume parties. Why can't adults simply sip beverages and have witty conversation? Why do we need to wear idiotic costumes to party? And when did I start sounding like a grumpy middle-aged woman?
It comes with the hangover, I suppose. And the car overheating, again. And the big bottle of antifreeze I carry in the trunk being empty after driving out to that party last night, but me not remembering that when I woke up in the pool house with a sledge hammer banging inside my head and the arm of some guy I didn’t know thrown across my bare stomach. So, now, I’m walking down the highway in a Jedi robe. The hood is nice for hiding beneath, but it does add to the sweltering heat.
As I stumble along through the weeds, a car slows behind me. I don’t even look. What kind of a weirdo would pick up a Jedi at 8 a.m. on a country road?
"Ah, my young Padawan," says a deep, male voice, "it seems you are in need of a lift back to Coruscant."
I still don't look up. Better to savor a fantasy for later, than to be axed-murdered now by a delicious sounding stranger.
"Seriously," says the voice, "you're going to pass out from heat exhaustion or dehydration from that hangover you have."
I stop. "How can you tell I have a hangover?"
"I was at Mike’s party too."
I turn to stare straight into the soulful gray eyes. No way, I’d have remembered him.
As if he read my mind, he reaches over on the seat and holds up a Batman costume. "I was hiding too. Behind a mask."
I did remember Batman or at least the body that filled the costume without need of padded abs and chest. "Weren’t you with Scarlett?"
"Yes. She invited me and I’d run out of excuses. I tried to get over to introduce myself to you. Especially after you, Vader, and Dumbledore threw off your robes and jumped in the pool, but Scarlett’s crinolines were always in the way."
"Yea, and the silicone leaping out of her bodice."
"Well, yes. That too."
"And the circle of men admiring them."
"Seems some guys get turned on by cantaloupes with nipples."
Headache or not, I laughed.
"Come on," he says. "I'm not an axe-murderer."
"No, just a mindreader."
He looked down pushing the Batman costume aside. "It’s just common sense, isn’t it? I’ve got AC, but you prefer to walk, in that robe, which is trailing way too close to that fire ant colony. Just let me take you to the truck stop up the road. You can get a coffee, a Gatorade, whatever, and some more antifreeze."
"Antifreeze? How’d you know that?"
"That was really easy. The big bottle of antifreeze, uncapped, and thrown, or maybe kicked, into the road beside your car." He smiled, slow and sweet. "Seriously, if I do anything funny, you can always hit me with your light saber."
Suddenly, I didn't hate my car so much or costume parties.
I got in, but I did hold the lightsaber firmly in my hand. Silly, really. What would a plastic toy really do? Even if it was a deluxe collectors’ edition. I kept my eyes on the road ahead though I continued to fidget with the switch on the saber.
"You must be a big fan," he says. "So, who’s your favorite Jedi?"
"It’s not mine. It’s my son’s."
I watched his face, waiting for the acknowledgment in his eyes. A kid? Oh, no. Better back off before I get stuck with some other guy’s annoying brat.
He smiled. "So, who’s his favorite Jedi?"
I blinked, but not because I didn’t know the answer. "Yoda."
"Good pick. How old is your son?"
He smiled, again. "A great age. Old enough to understand almost all the story while young enough to still believe it’s possible."
"Yea." A smile tugged at my mouth. "He…asked me the other day, if he could get tested for medi-chlorians. And, by the way…my favorite Jedi is Luminara."
He nodded approval. "She’s pretty kick ass in that scene at the secret temple. Or is it just," he waved a hand around his head, "that headdress she wears."
"I like her heightened awareness, her keen sense of danger."
"Or lack there of."
He said it humbly enough that I took his original hint and pushed back my hood.
The AC felt good on my face. The sledge hammer in my head downsized to a gavel, lightly struck. If only I had my toothbrush…
"Would you like some gum?" he asks. "Spearmint." He reached into the console and pulled out a pack, offering it to me.
"It’s strange…how you seem to know what I’m thinking."
He took a piece, opened it one-handed and chewed it with relish. "Well, it’s just common sense, again. There’s nothing like minty gum to give you a new lease on life."
I took a piece. "I take it you didn’t make it home last night either."
"No, I did. I live on the next property, back by the river. I was on my way into town when I saw you. My name’s Mark Smith, by the way."
He was already pulling into the truck stop. "I needed gas, so I’ll be here after you get what you need. I’ll be happy to drive you to your car. In fact, I can get what you need when I pay for the gas, if you…don’t want to go inside."
I pull the hood back up. "I’m OK, but thanks for offering. And for the lift. And the gum."
Walking into the store, I felt his eyes on me and was glad, once again, for the costume. I didn’t have to worry whether my butt looked big or my hair ratty.
I got the antifreeze and a bottle of chilled water taking a big swig immediately. It was nirvana. I’m felt so much better, already. But maybe, just maybe, I could let Mark give me a ride back. I’ve never gelled so quickly with anyone before.
The heavily made up woman behind the counter didn’t seem one bit fazed by the costume. Guess she’s seen it all. But, I turn slightly to the side as I reach into the neck of the robe and down into my sport’s bra for the twenty I’d slipped there before I’d left for the party.
It was gone. Panicked, I felt the other side. Nothing.
"If you’re done with that, lady, I need you to pay now. Another customer’s coming."
I glanced at the door. Mark was pulling it open with his bright grey eyes fixed on my hand still stuck down the neck of my robe.
The flush on my face spread to the roots of my dull brown hair.
He walked to the counter. "Are you all right?"
"I had some money…but, it’s gone. It must’ve fallen out last night."
"No problem. I’ve got it."
"But it’s not just the water—"
"I got the antifreeze too."
"I feel so stupid."
"No need to. I’m glad to help." He put the money on the counter.
I picked up the antifreeze. I would carry that myself. Damsel in distress! How’d I fall into that stupid role? I retreated away from the counter, from the smirk on the clerk’s face, and stared out the glass door at his truck, not new, nicely broken in as if he actually uses it for hauling and working land.
His hand appeared on the door and begins to push it open. A nice hand, not too big, not delicate and not particularly calloused for one owning such a work truck. He smiled that sweet smile. "I’d have had to follow you, anyway. You left the lightsaber on the seat."
"God!" I cried choking on a mouthful of water. "I am out of it today."
He nodded, walking along beside me. "Luke would not have been happy with you."
I stopped dead still several yards from the truck. Goose bumps rippled my skin despite the heat radiating off the pavement. "I didn’t tell you my son’s name was Luke."
He’d stopped too, turning toward me as though worried I wasn’t coming. Or that I might faint, for God’s sake, like the feeble heroines in so many fantasies.
I could see his eyes when he took in my words. I saw them shift to the side, and I’d seen no surprise at the coincidence, no amusement to go along with a line such as Well, you know, I just picked the first Jedi name to come to mind.
He’d registered real surprise, at himself, at me, for catching him. And remorse that he’d let me. I take a big step back.
He smiled, sadly. "I know I sound like a creep. But, I was attracted to you. I eavesdropped on you last night. When you called your son to say good night before he went to bed. He’s staying with your mom, right? You told her you were having an OK time. It sounded like she had to convince you to stay. That’s was before Dumbledore and Vader showed up. Listen, I know I sound like a stalker, but I won’t hurt you…at least, come and get the lightsaber."
I stayed where I was. "I took the phone into that small room off the kitchen. I closed the door. There wasn’t anyone in there. Not you. Not anyone. And if you were listening outside, why didn’t you stick around, if you were trying to meet me. And what’s up with that? I’m clean. I’m healthy. I keep fit—I’m a brown belt in Taek Won Do."
Mark chuckled, but I continued undaunted. "But I’m no head turner. I’m average. Average height. Average weight. Average brown hair--"
"Your mind’s not average, Willa."
"You overheard one phone conversation. I hardly talked to anyone else, until I had enough margaritas. I’m sure I sounded really intelligent after that. Were you looking for a drunk, a loner, a loser without a cell phone to call for help?"
The smile was gone, but the eyes were more soulful than ever. "I was looking for someone like you.” He took a big breath, “I heard your mind, Willa."
"You jog Willa, eat well, but you don’t take martial arts. Luke does. You can’t afford a cell phone because you’d rather pay for his classes and lightsabers." Mark was smiling again. "You’re a wonderful mother. You’re thoughts of him are…so warm and full. That’s why I could read them. The rest of your mind isn’t so easy, branching here and there. Unlike Scarlett. Not much there and what is—boring."
I took another step back, frantically wondering how I was going to get the lightsaber. The antifreeze I still held clutched to my chest. If I cracked him on the head with it.
"No need to do that, Willa. Look at the truck."
My goosebumps multiplied as the light saber floated out the window and into my hand. He was smiling, sadly. "It was really nice meeting you. I’d hoped…I’d thought with an imagination like yours, you might believe it isn't all fiction...that a person could crash into another world, be stranded and lonely. Tell Luke it’s not about some chemical in your blood that you’re born with or without. It’s how you use your mind, what you read, learn and try. We can’t all be Jedi, but we can be something."
At the turn to the highway, he looked back. I hadn’t moved. I’d hardly blinked. The switch on the lightsaber shifted and the light came on, a clear purple, shimmering from my hand, a bright spot lighting the drab, dirty pavement below.
I raise it, motioning for him to come back.
An interview with Susan James:
LL: Tell us about you.
SJ: Currently, I'm a mom who sneaks time to write in between washing soccer uniforms and walking Frodo, the dog. Before kids, I taught history. I've always loved stories from the past especially the long past where facts get blurred and imagination can take over.
LL: Tell us about your story.
SJ: My story idea came from my lit group. The prompt: write about hot sun and costumes. I grew up in South Texas and actually had a car that overheated regularly. I really did carry a large jug of antifreeze in the trunk and had to stop in the midst of weeds and fire anthills in order to fill it up. My son is a huge Star Wars fan, and so am I. After that, the facts blur and imagination takes over.
LL: Tell us about your future.
SJ: I hope my future includes an agent and a contract for my female-oriented fantasy, Beneath The Trees, but if that never happens, I sure had a lot of fun writing it. As my beta reader said, "It was a great ride." I'm really excited to be in this Anthology. I've also got a new story started, something completely different: modern day and rather grim.
Susan, thank you so much for this wonderful story!