Links to parts 1-3 can be found here.
The ride back to the parking lot where Betty and Ben had left their cars began in silence, but not an uncomfortable one. Betty watched Shepard drive from the corner of her eye, unsure of what to say. It had been quite an experience opening the storage unit, more than any of them had expected.
Eventually, Betty tried to break the silence. “So what do you boys feel like having for dinner tonight? My treat,” she added, pivoting to look from Shepard to Ben.
Shepard took a deep, cleansing breath. “I’ll have whatever Ben decides, but I refuse to let a lady pick up the tab on the first date.”
Betty smiled at his wink.
“Um, that’s a lot of pressure,” Ben said. “How about the Perkins on Fourth? Everybody likes Perkins.”
Shepard nodded his assent as Betty glanced over at him to make sure that Perkins was an acceptable dinner destination. “I like Perkins as much as the next guy.”
“Sounds good to me, too,” said Betty.
“Um, I guess that’s settled, then,” Ben gulped, impressed that he had so easily and quickly made a pair of new friends.
Betty turned again to face Ben. “We’ll have you out of your shell in no time,” she grinned at him.
Ben’s offering was a nervous chuckle, but its authenticity rang true. Shepard smiled in response.
“We’re almost there,” Shepard announced as he rounded a corner. “Only a few more blocks. So, what’s the plan? Meet at Perkins at five?” He checked his mirror. “I know that’s a little early, but I’m already getting hungry, and it’s nearly four now.”
“That works for me,” Betty agreed. “Ben?”
“Um, I think I can do five,” Ben said. “I’m starting to get hungry, too.”
“Do you want to eat now, then?” Betty asked. “I was going to change first, but if you guys are hungry, now would be fine by me.”
“That sounds even better than five. I was going to head there now, anyway. I don’t live close enough to make a trip home and back worth it,” said Shepard.
Ben’s stomach growled in response. He might have seemed a little uncomfortable, had Betty been looking, but she wasn’t. “I think we have Ben’s answer!” she laughed.
“And we’re here,” said Shepard.
“Okay, I’ll see you there,” said Betty as she got out of Shepard’s car and started digging in her purse for her own keys. “Bye for now, guys.”
“Thanks for um, driving,” Ben said, loudly enough for Shepard to hear him clearly.
“See ya!” Shepard threw a hand up as he circled around to exit the parking lot. He saw Betty behind him, but he’d lost track of Ben. He chalked it up to traffic, and headed towards the Perkins on Fourth.
Betty slowed when she saw Ben tugging what looked like a bundle from beneath the shrubbery separating this parking lot from the next. Hadn’t Ben said his car was here? she wondered. When he set off on foot towards Fourth Street, Betty made a quick loop to intercept him.
Ben paused when he saw her behind the wheel, the expression on his face a mixture of surprise and shame.
Betty leaned her head out of the window. “Benjamin, if you don’t have a car, come around and hop in right this instant.”
After a brief moment of wavering, Ben came around and sat in the passenger seat. “Um, I could have sworn I saw you get in a different car. I thought you were gone already.”
“Ben, I know we only met a couple hours ago, but I thought you would know me well enough by now to know that I would never let you walk all the way to Perkins. I also would have hoped that if you needed a place to stay that desperately then you also would have known that I would do anything I could to help you out.”
Ben’s fingers fidgeted with the broken zipper pull on the backpack he held in his lap, the thing that Betty had seen him pull from his hiding place in the bushes.
“Um, it’s not something I’m proud of,” he began.
“I’m so sorry,” Betty interrupted, contrite. “I’m not trying to order you around or tell you how to live your life. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. Do you have money for dinner?”
Ben looked up at Betty, weighing his options. He settled on the truth. “Um, I have some money left, but I was only going to order some eggs,” he said. “I’d rather spend a dollar on a loaf of bread than ten on just one meal.”
Betty fished in her purse for her wallet and handed Ben the twenty dollar bill that she removed from it. “If you didn’t want me to know, you don’t want Shepard to know. You can tell him when you’re ready,” she said. “Have a real meal and feel like it’s better days for an hour, at least. And my dog won’t mind you crashing on my couch if I tell him you’re okay.”
She reached over with her left hand and wrapped Ben’s fingers around the twenty dollars that he hadn’t yet taken from her. “You can pay me back,” she said. “And I’ll tell you a story later so you’ll understand why I would do this.”
Ben held the money when she took her hands away. He could tell that Betty somehow had at least a slight understanding of what his life was like.
“Thank you,” he said, and he tucked the money into his pocket.
“Let’s go,” said Betty. “We’ll just have to tell Shepard your car wouldn’t start, and you flagged me down for a ride. Sound good?”
Ben nodded his agreement.
“You can put your bag in the backseat,” Betty gestured with her chin.
Ben put his battered backpack behind him, as Betty had suggested. When he faced forward again he pulled the seatbelt across his body and buckled himself in. He saw Betty twisting her hands on the steering wheel from the corner of his eye.
“It gets better,” she whispered. Ben wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or not, so he turned his head to look out the window.
“It gets better,” she whispered again.
This time Ben was certain that she wasn’t talking to him, so he looked over to make sure that Betty was okay. The first tear fell from her eye, and she lifted her right hand to her face to wipe it away. She sniffed hard, and gave Ben a rueful half-smile.
“I’m okay. I’ll tell you about it later, okay?”
Ben nodded. “Okay.” He wasn’t going to push for any answers. He felt that he didn’t deserve any, after how he’d acted today. The rest of the short trip went by in silence.
The Perkins was not far, and Betty caught all the lights green; they arrived only minutes after Shepard, who was waiting leaned against his car.
Shepard drew his eyebrows close together in a frown when he saw Ben in Betty’s car. Ben thought Shepard looked a little overprotective.
Shepard opened Betty’s door for her. “Fancy seeing you two together,” he said. “Is there something I should know about?”
He’s jealous, Ben realized.
Betty took the hand Shepard offered to help her up. “Ben’s car wouldn’t start, so he rode with me,” she lied so gracefully, Ben almost believed her.
“Oh,” Shepard almost seemed disappointed. “I can have a look at it for you, Ben, if you want.”
“Um, no, thank you,” said Ben. “I know it needs a new starter, so I’ll just hit it a few times when I get back, and, um, it’ll be good.”
“Alright then.” Shepard was completely at ease again, much to Ben’s relief.
Shepard escorted Betty to the door, Ben trailing behind. Ben remembered the money and quickly, surreptitiously checked his pocket; it was still there.
They sat together at a table.
“I feel trapped in a booth,” Shepard explained his aversion.
Inspired by TBP.