Ransom was so small that the state highway department noted its existence only by the SPEED LIMIT 25 sign on the way into town and the SPEED LIMIT 55 sign on the way out. Lacey was on her way out, and she had no intention of keeping any speed limits. It was a summer’s morning just after dawn, the road was empty, and her windows were rolled down. She wanted to feel the wind on her face as she left Ransom, a small place for small people. She wanted to fly.
Why she hadn’t left sooner was a mystery that would take years for her to unravel; when she finally did, Brett would undoubtedly be there, a charming grin on his face even as he clenched his fists behind his back. Now, though, Brett was probably still passed out on the couch, sleeping off last night. Smelling of booze and cologne and his own vomit.
She punched the accelerator, and her ’97 Buick LeSabre surged powerfully, like one of those barn swallows swooping and skating low over the dappled fields, ecstatic.
And then, unbelievably, it quit, coughing and shuddering as it rolled to a stop on the graveled shoulder just short of the SPEED LIMIT 55 sign. The sign regarded Lacey accusingly, its single imperative urging her onward. Beyond it, the road rolled through a sea of green corn and pastures, disappearing into a hazy horizon.
She stared over the hood of the car in disbelief as the traitorous engine ticked and sighed. Slamming the palms of her hands against the steering wheel, she began weeping. Then her nose began running, and she had to practically excavate the footwell below the passenger seat to find any tissues, the car was such a mess. So was she, judging by her reflection in the rearview mirror: tangled hair, sad red eyes, a purplish bruise.
She stared sullenly out the window at the damn swallows, who still sang and danced their greeting to the dawn. What did they care? She needed to think, which obviously required a cigarette. Although she’d quit last week, she found half a pack of cigarettes shoved under the passenger seat (Brett’s, probably), and a lighter in the glove compartment.
She turned to look, and there was Brett’s monster of a tow truck roaring up the road, yellow lights flashing.
As she was fumbling with the lighter, a glint of something in the rearview mirror caught her eye. She turned to look, and there was Brett’s monster of a tow truck roaring up the road, yellow lights flashing.
“Dear God,” she whispered. Dropping the cigarette and lighter, she frantically turned the key in the ignition. The engine cranked but didn’t fire. He was coming up behind her really fast and for a moment she wondered if he would ram her, but the truck flashed by with just inches to spare before swerving to a stop crookedly in the gravel.
Lacey rolled up the windows and locked the doors.
Brett climbed out of the truck and slammed the door, leaving the yellow lights flashing. He was a beefy man with red, peeling skin and close-cropped hair covered by a cap that read Brett Whistler Auto Service. Cocky as ever, he sauntered back to the Buick, grinning, arms spread wide in a why-what-a-surprise sort of gesture. When he rapped on the window glass, Lacey jumped.
“Hey,” he shouted. She lowered the window a crack. “Good thing I was passing by. Looks like she quit on you again, huh?”
Lacey swallowed, looking straight ahead at the speed limit sign. “I’m fine, Brett,” she said.
He lost the grin. “That’s not the way it looks, honey. Looks like you’re stranded. Looks like I need to haul you back to town. Again.” He smirked. When she made no move, he went on. “Your knight in shining armor. Huh. Remember you called me that the first time? You rolled into town with nothing but the clothes on your back, a dollar’s worth of gas, and a flat tire. Remember?” He laughed and kicked at the gravel.
Lacey bowed her head and stared blankly at the dashboard, remembering. She’d been eighteen then, almost two years ago, and a whole lot more naïve.
“Eighteen and pretty as a new penny,” Brett said, turning to lean against the car. “Still are.” He glanced down the road.
Lacey frowned. He’d always called her pretty, hadn’t he? But pretty wasn’t the right word. Pretty was for a little girl, or something small and delicate; a flower, maybe. It was a small word. It made her think of the old woman in the pew ahead of her at church last Sunday. How she had turned and reached out to Lacey with both hands during the sign of peace. They were strong, calloused hands, a lifetime of hard work in them. The old woman had looked directly into her eyes as she took Lacey’s hands into her own, squeezing them hard for a long moment, as if to impart that strength.
“Peace be with you,” she had said, and then, leaning forward, she added, “You are so beautiful!”
Lacey had been so taken aback that she hadn’t remembered to reciprocate the blessing until the woman was turning away, and then the words died on her lips.
“Well,” said Brett, “get in the cab while I hitch her up.” He turned to walk back to the truck.
The memory of what the woman had said slapped Lacey awake. She’d been staring at the dash all this time, but only now did she notice the fuel gauge, which read empty. She was out of gas, even though she had filled the tank the previous night. No wonder Brett had arrived so fast; sometime in the night, after their fight but before coming home drunk, he’d siphoned off the gas.
Lacey got out of the car, but she didn’t follow Brett to the truck. Instead, she went around to the Buick’s trunk, popped it, and pulled out a five-gallon gas can.
Brett was backing up the tow truck before he noticed her fueling the car. He leaned out the window. “What are you doing?” he hollered.
“Leaving,” she yelled back. She raised the gas can, as if toasting him. “Daddy always said it was good to have some backup on a long trip.”
By the time he slammed the truck door and started stalking toward her, she was in the car again, its engine roaring. Brett planted his feet in the road as if to stop her, then lunged for his truck, plastering his body flat against it.
The look on his face as the Buick sailed past made Lacey laugh out loud. No, pretty is not the right word at all, she thought. Beautiful is stronger, because beauty is not small enough to be tamed and claimed. You can’t make yourself beautiful, the way you can make yourself pretty; it’s a gift, the same as the wild wind the swallows ride.
She only realized all this a long time later. For now, she returned the old woman’s blessing. “Peace be with you,” she called; and then, to her surprise, she blessed Brett, too.
The green horizon unfolded before her as the speedometer passed fifty-five; she was flying. She took one last look in the rearview mirror. The tow truck already seemed small, sitting on the road back there, and it grew smaller all the time.