Dogsbody returned to the great brick building and reentered the revolving glass doors. The same receptionist sat at the same front desk, and she greeted him with the same warmth.
“Mr. Walker, right? Seventeen, sir.”
He nodded sheepishly in her general direction and tugged the collar of his coat up the tiniest bit. The smudge on the up button from his previous visit had been carefully wiped away, and Dogsbody stared at the button for a moment before touching it, wondering at how quickly even an entire person could also be wiped away, as if that person had never existed.
Again as before, Dogsbody was the only person in the elevator, but this time he appreciated the matte finish of the interior, dropping his coat collar for a brief moment of normalcy. He watched the numbers light up sequentially.
The elevator dinged, and Dogsbody exited to the hallway with the lone door and the sign calmly and quietly declaring Mr Walker. When Dogsbody stepped up to the door, it fell open before him before he had a chance to knock his raised knuckles against it, and there sat Mr. Walker himself, in the same position at the same desk, in the same suit of clothes.
Fora moment Dogsbody wondered if Mr. Walker were human at all, or instead a robot or maybe even a cleverly designed hologram.
“Sit down, my good man, sit down. You have satisfactorily completed the assignment that I have given you, and that’s good. That’s very good. It would have been quite the disappointment had you not done so, and when I’m disappointed, well, sometimes bad things happen.” Mr. Walker made the same gesture at the empty chair before his desk, and Dogsbody slid to it as thought magnetized.
“Yes sir.” The only words Dogsbody could manage to scrounge up from his blankly frenzied mind dropped from his scarred lips like rocks.
“No need to talk. You have one step left before we can reinstate you into the human race. But as I told you before, it isn’t a quick sort of thing; it’ll take you several months of surgery and rehabilitation. Once again, are you up to the task? You can nod.”
“Very good. I have three more letters that must be mailed for a very important client. A very important client. As before, they must all be mailed from different zip codes, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you, should it? It’s not like you have anything better to do with your time.” Mr. Walker laughed, and the harsh sound echoed against the plain walls of the warehouse-sized office.
Dogsbody didn’t move a muscle.
“Well then.” Mr. Walked opened the top right-hand drawer of his desk and removed three innocuous enough letters. “Here is your precious cargo.” He slid the envelopes across the desk toward Dogsbody. “Go ahead. Get up and take them and be on your way. I’ll be in touch.”
Dogsbody blinked twice, slowly, and rose from the chair, pressing down on the arms with such force that his fingers turned white. He took the three steps forward to Mr. Walker’s desk and tentatively reached out a hand to pick up the letters. He looked as though he was afraid that Mr. Walker would suddenly snap at him and take a hand off, leaving him to bleed out on the floor.
In fact, this was exactly what Dogsbody was afraid of, in the visceral depths of his mind, those places that he wasn’t fond of going but was somehow forced to visit far too often.
Mr. Walker regarded him expressionlessly. Dogsbody slid his fingers across the paper and picked them up, reflexively reaching to his breast pocket to tuck them safely away. Mr. Walker nodded his approval and looked down at the papers he shuffled across his desk, dismissing Dogsbody without another word.
Dogsbody didn’t realize that he had been holding his breath until the elevator doors slid closed behind him and he staggered, nearly falling. He took great, heaving breaths of the air untainted by Mr. Walker’s aura, and thought he felt a tear slip from his eye. He reached up to wipe his face, but felt nothing.
When the elevator reached the ground floor, Dogsbody exited, nodding a goodbye to the receptionist, whose smile remained bright as ever. Fifteen blocks away, he came to the nearest post office. He pulled out the first letter his questing fingers came to, and glanced at it before dropping it into the box. It was addressed to Shepard Strom. The name didn’t ring a bell.
Links to parts 1-6 can be found here.
“Oh, no!” Betty exclaimed, startling Oscar from his snooze on her lap. “Ben, would you pass me my purse, please? I’ve forgotten to text Shepard.”
Ben leaned forward to pick up Betty’s deceptively heavy handbag from the coffee table and handed it to her. “I’d better wait a while before texting him myself, then, so he won’t suspect that we have something going on.”
Betty stared at him, her jaw practically on her chest. “Ben, is that joke? Yes sir, you are definitely coming out of your shell. I like it. I really do, Ben.” she said, her voice softening toward the end as she realized that she might sound a little too harsh on him.
Oscar had enough of the ruckus and hopped to the floor from Betty’s lap with a soft chuffing sound. He sauntered off down the hall, giving one glance back over his shoulder to make sure Betty was feeling appropriately guilty for disturbing his slumber. Unfortunately for him, she wasn’t.
Betty hadn’t even looked up from her phone where she was still typing a text to Shepard and struggling to save his number in her contacts. Ben squirmed awkwardly on the couch, trying to be quiet, but Betty heard his movement. She looked up.
“I’m sorry, Ben, did I forget to tell you where the bathroom is? Come on, I’ll point it out to you while I grab some blankets for that couch.”
Ben followed Betty down the hall and closed the bathroom door behind him after she pointed him in the right direction. Betty was rummaging through her linen closet when she heard her phone vibrating insistently on the coffee table, back in the living room. She grabbed the top two blankets and rushed to grab her phone.
It was Shepard. Thought I’d never hear from you! These kids are a handful! Get some rest and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.
Betty quickly typed a reply. Sounds great!
Ben came back from the bathroom as Betty was shaking out the two blankets she’d retrieved for him. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing for me, Betty. I mean it,” he said.
“Don’t you worry about it,” Betty replied. “And don’t you forget that I said you could stay as long as you like. this world would be a much better place if people would just take a little care of each other.”
Ben couldn’t argue that. He rifled through his backpack for his toothbrush.
“You probably don’t watch a lot of TV anymore, do you?” Betty asked.
Ben shook his head. “Not a lot of cable in the places I stay most nights.”
Betty picked up the remote and turned on the tube, changing the channel to the programming guide. “Go ahead and pick something for us to watch, then. It’s been a long day for both of us, and you probably want to just veg out as much as I do, am I right?”
Ben grinned at her, and began scanning the channels for a title that he recognized. “How about a movie? Splash has always been one of my favorites.”
“Sounds great!” Betty quickly agreed. She flipped to the correct channel, and the pair settled back to watch the movie in companionable silence.
…to be continued.
Links to parts 1-6 can be found here.
Shepard stared into space, ignorant of the antics Jasper and little Anissa were perpetrating. He’d left the restaurant nearly an hour ago, and Betty hadn’t texted him yet, as she promised she would. He finally looked up when the cat, Beowulf, jumped into his lap in a plea for protection. Jasper had found a scarf, and Anissa was trying to wrap it around poor Beowulf’s neck, in spite of his mewling protests.
“Hey there, girl, that’s enough. He doesn’t like it, sweetie,” Shepard held out an arm to Anissa. “How about you wear the pretty scarf?”
Shepard was just realizing that suggesting a toddler put a scarf on herself was a bad idea when the front door opened. The kids rushed to greet their Aunt Bea, and Shepard rose to reassure her that her sister–in-law would be fine and that he was sure it was all just a false alarm.
But his heart wasn’t in it; he couldn’t stop thinking about Betty, and the fact that she seemed to have forgotten about him.
Meanwhile, at Betty’s house, she gasped and put her hand to her mouth. “I forgot to text Shepard!” She shooed Oscar down so she could get up from her chair and rummaged through her purse, looking for her phone and the shred of napkin that hosted Shepard’s number. She finally came up with her phone, but still hadn’t found the number that she needed.
“It’s 743-6054, Betty,” said Ben. “Oof!” Oscar decided to hop on the couch next to him and flop over onto Ben’s lap.
She turned to look at him, surprised.
Ben shrugged. “I saw it, so I know it. It’s pretty easy for me to remember numbers–that’s the reason I got into accounting in the first place.”
“That’s impressive, Ben!” Betty tried to type the number in her phone. “Wait, did you say 783?”
Ben chuckled and corrected her. “743-6054. It would probably be a fun party trick if I ever went to parties, but it’s actually not as practical as it sounds. I mean, you can google anything you want in seconds, so remembering a number is sort of, well, old-fashioned.”
“What a day, Ben, what a day.” Betty shook her head as she quickly composed a text to Shepard. “And you just topped it off with the realization that brainpower has become old-fashioned. There. I hope he doesn’t hate me for forgetting.”
“Betty, you’d have to do a lot more than forget a text for Shepard to hate you. He’s got a huge crush on you,” said Ben.
Betty blushed, and smiled a smidgen too widely to be able to hide it.
Shepard was on his way home when his phone chirped on the seat next to him. He heart leapt when he didn’t recognize the number–and he was right! It was Betty.
So sorry I forgot to text you! Hope everything’s well with your friend. -Betty
He didn’t respond immediately; he was driving, and it was enough to know that she wasn’t just blowing him off–maybe to hang out with Ben. A few minutes later, he pulled into his driveway and picked up this phone to text her back.
Thanks, I thought I’d have to give up on ya!
He put the phone in his pocket as he got out of the car and tried to put thoughts of Betty out of his mind. He’d see her again soon enough.
“Ben, you know, you’re really good at cheering me up,” Betty declared. “Like I said, I never told anyone the whole story before, but I just knew it’d be one heck of a lot harder than it was. Thank you for that.”
“Um, you’re welcome,” Ben ducked his head in embarrassment. “Hey, did you bring that box of old pictures in? Do you want to have a look at them?”
“Oh!” Betty exclaimed. “No, it’s still in my trunk from earlier. I’ll go get it.”
“I don’t think Oscar wants me to help.”
“No, he’s decided you’re furniture. I’ll be right back.”
The box was crumbling even more when Betty made it back into the living room, and she carefully placed it on the coffee table. Oscar hopped down to investigate, but a stern no from Betty sent him to his bed on the other side of the room.
“I didn’t get much of a look at these while we were at the storage unit,” said Betty. “So I’m not really sure what all we have in here. Not that either of us is likely to recognize anyone, though.”
“Let’s have a look and find out,” said Ben.
Betty grabbed a short stack of photos and returned to her chair; Ben took a similarly sized stack and leaned back on the couch to examine them. They flipped through in silence for a few minutes before Betty spoke.
“I have a lot here with the same three people, two men and a woman.” She held one up for Ben to see. “How about you?”
“Yeah, I’ve got them, too. I wonder who they are?”
“Wait a second, can–oh my, I think this is my uncle that Mr. Talmon was talking about! Hold on.” Betty got up and disappeared for a moment before returning with a large photo album. “It has to be him–look, this is a picture of my dad when he was around the same age as this guy.”
Ben agreed that the two men did look remarkably similar. “But wouldn’t that mean that this is Mr. Robinson? Was he married? I know Talmon didn’t say, but what do you think?”
Betty shook her head. “I don’t know, Ben. You’re as familiar with the man as I am. I wonder how many of our questions Mr. Talmon is likely to answer.”
“I wouldn’t think too many of them. He seemed pretty set that we’d never see him again after this afternoon. I guess we blew our chance to ask questions.”
“But we didn’t know enough about anything to have any questions to ask!”
“I know that, Betty, but still, he did give us the opportunity to ask, and we all declined. He probably thinks that’s enough. He is a lawyer, after all. That’s how they think.”
Betty looked back and forth between the two photographs of her father and his possible brother. “It just makes less and less sense the more we find out,” she muttered, mostly to herself. She looked up to see Ben tapping on a smartphone. “Ben, I don’t mean to pry, but how do you have a phone at all?”
“It’s okay. It’s a reasonable question. And the short answer is that I budgeted for it. It’s the one luxury I left myself, and to make sure I wouldn’t lose it, I prepaid two years. I’m kind of screwed if I break this one, but I try to be careful. And it’s old enough now that no one wants to steal it, so I don’t have to worry about that, at least.”
“Oh. I guess that’s fair enough. Anyway, looking at more of these photos, I don’t think the woman is Mrs. Robinson. If anything, she’s more likely to be Mrs. Mystery Uncle,” said Ben.
“That’s just what I was thinking. In group photos, she’s always a little closer to him than Mr. Robinson. And the candid shots show her smiling like she means it when they catch her looking his way,” Betty pointed out.
Betty left her chair behind to sit on the floor in front of the coffee table for easier access to the box of photographs. Ben slid off the couch to sit across from her, and Oscar trotted over to flop underneath.
Betty had switched the sound off on her phone, and didn’t notice it lighting up with a text from Shepard.
…to be continued.
Inspired by TBP.
Links to parts 1-5 can be found here.
“I’ll take care of dinner, so you keep that twenty in your pocket, young man,” Betty mock-sternly admonished Ben, pulling her wallet from her purse. “I know you need it more than I do.”
“Thanks,” Ben offered, reassured once again by her genuine tone.
After the bill was settled, they walked together to Betty’s car. When they got in, Ben spoke up. “You know, you don’t have to explain anything to me, Betty. I understand that you’ve been through some hard times yourself, or know someone who has. You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“I know that, Ben,” she answered. “But it’s just–have you ever had a story that you never told anybody, and then you finally met someone who you knew would understand if you told them? This is that story for me, and you’re that person. I mean, I’m not going to force you to suffer through it if you don’t want to hear it, but I’d really like to just explain to you.”
“I do know what you mean, and I’d be honored to hear your story. I wasn’t trying to make you think I didn’t want to, but we’re still virtually strangers, is all. Even though…” Ben trailed off into silence.
“Yes, exactly! Even though. I knew you felt the same way! The three of us have this connection, and it isn’t just Mr. Robinson and his crazy will. I can’t explain it, but it’s there. I’m glad that you feel it too.”
Ben didn’t know how to answer; Betty was absolutely right. It was so strange. He had never had any brush with the paranormal, supernatural, or whatever you want to call it before, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to come up with any kind of logical, rational explanation. It was hard to let it go, and he was like a dog with a bone, constantly, in the back of his mind.
Betty took Ben’s silence for agreement, and focused on the drive home. After about twenty minutes, she turned into the driveway of a tidy little house that somehow exactly matched her bubbly personality. From the neat beds of wildflowers to the ample floral wreath on the front door, it just screamed Betty.
Ben got out and followed her to the side door, and he heard barking from within.
“Um, what kind of dog is Oscar, anyway?”
“He’s an English bulldog, but don’t worry. He loves everybody, I promise, in spite of any threats I made about him” Betty laughed.
Ben breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and Betty unlocked and opened the door. Oscar came merrily bounding out, obviously ecstatic to see her after a long day of dogdom all by himself. Betty rubbed his head before he scooted off to enthusiastically sniff Ben’s feet and legs. Nose inspection done, he trotted back inside behind Betty.
“Well, come on in, Ben, Oscar says you’ll do fine,” said Betty, stepping into the kitchen.
Ben followed her in, feeling mildly uncomfortable, the usual discomfort people feel when visiting the home of someone they barely know.
“You can put your backpack on the table if you want, or in there on the couch.”
“Thanks,” said Ben, continuing to follow Betty into the living room, where he took off his backpack and set it on one end of the couch. He sat on the other end. Betty lowered herself into a recliner and kicked the footrest up, then patted her lap to invite Oscar up. Ben was surprised to see that he fit on Betty’s lap–she was so small.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ben, did you want some water or anything? I just made myself comfortable like I usually do without even thinking about you!” Betty was a bit ashamed of her manners, but Ben declined any refreshment for now. “Okay. Well, I don’t have a spare bed, but you can sleep on my couch for as long as you need to, Ben. I’ll get you some blankets in a little bit.”
“Thank you again, Betty, so much. I really appreciate your generosity. Really.”
Betty smiled at Ben’s gratitude. “Really, it’s okay. I’m happy to help. Let me tell you about the reason I understand, okay? And just, please let me talk, especially during the hard parts, or I won’t be able to talk at all, I’ll cry.” Ben nodded, settling himself a little more deeply into the couch cushions, and Betty began her story.
“When I was fifteen, my dad had a heart attack. My mom was at work, and I was at cheerleading practice. When I got home, he was on the kitchen floor. I called 911, but it was far too late. He was gone. They took him to the hospital, I guess procedures, and that’s where I called my mom. I was crying, and I just told her Dad was at the hospital, but somehow she knew. And she never showed up. The last I saw of her was that morning before school, when I kissed her goodbye.
“I don’t know if she just lost it and couldn’t handle coming back to her life without Dad, or what. for all I know she was kidnapped on her way to her car to come to the hospital.
“I didn’t file a missing persons report. One of my best friends grew up in foster care because her mom was a drug addict, and I knew that with no other family, I’d end up in the system. I took care of all of my father’s funeral arrangements by myself, at fifteen years old. I had to tell everyone that my mom had a breakdown and couldn’t handle anything, and that’s why she couldn’t pick out his casket or come to the funeral. Fifteen years old. I even quit my mom’s job for her, so they wouldn’t find out. If they did, that would mean she was back, and my troubles would have been over.
“But I did it. I took care of everything, and nobody ever knew any better. Even the insurance company. But it turned out that my dad had canceled his life insurance the year before. I don’t know if my mom knew about that, but I didn’t. And without my parents’ incomes, without my dad’s life insurance, I didn’t have more than two thousand dollars to live the next three years of my life. I knew I would lose the house I grew up in eventually, so I never made a single mortgage payment. I mean, I couldn’t even get a real job yet, since I didn’t have any parents to fill out the forms.
“So I waited for foreclosure. I kept the other monthly bills as low as I could so the money would last longer, and I quit cheerleading so I could work under the table at this crap diner, Sue’s, close enough that I could walk to it. But it was a crap diner, I didn’t make much money. And eventually, the bank foreclosed and auctioned off the house. It probably would have taken longer if they had been able to get in touch with my mom, but I always put them off when they called or came by. I had two bags that I packed, and I left.
“The only person who knew that my mom was gone was my friend Kay, the one in foster care. Her foster parents let me sleep over sometimes, but mostly, I was on the street. In my hometown. I was sixteen by then, and I really, really wanted to be able to at least finish high school. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started working nights at Sue’s and sleeping after school in public restrooms at gas stations. I don’t know how I made it two years living like that. But I did it. I graduated high school. I even got into some colleges.
“Two days after I graduated, I turned eighteen, and I thought about going to the police to report my mother missing. But I was scared. I didn’t know how much trouble I would be in for waiting so long, I didn’t know how much trouble I’d be in for not having an address or phone number to give them aside from Sue’s. Mostly, I didn’t want to have to admit that she’d abandoned me, and I didn’t know how much trouble she’d get in for that, if and when they found her.
“See? I still say when. I can’t help it. I still believe she’s out there somewhere.” Betty finally paused to shake her head, and she looked up to meet Ben’s gaze.
“Betty, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else to say, but I truly am sorry.”
Inspired by TBP.
Links to parts 1-4 can be found here.
“I’m partial to booths, myself,” said Betty. “Sitting at a table, I always feel so exposed. No, don’t get up.” She put a hand out to stop Shepard. “It’s just something I grew up feeling. I’m used to it now and can function like any other adult in polite company.” Betty laughed at herself, and Shepard dropped his uneasy smile to join in. Even Ben gave a bit of a grin.
“Um, I don’t mind either way,” added Ben. “It’s actually kind of nice to be out to dinner with–with friends.”
Betty reached over to pat Ben’s hand. “We are friends now, aren’t we?” she beamed. She stretched out her other hand to reach for Shepard’s, and clasped it tightly. “We’re all friends on a grand adventure!”
“Um, maybe we should tone it down. People are staring,” said Ben, looking down at the placemat in front of him.
“Let em stare! They haven’t had half the day we have!” Shepard’s good cheer was back, in full effect.
Betty giggled softly and patted Shepard’s hand as she relinquished it. “Let’s tell the lady what we’re having before they kick us out.”
Fortunately, their waitress was tolerant; she checked on them at just the right time to catch the tail end of their conversation. She leaned in conspiratorially to whisper, “We never kick anyone out for being happy, just drunk.”
The trio laughed, and began to order.
Betty selected the Mediterranean omelet with a Sprite, Shepard a classic cheeseburger, hold the tomato, with onion rings and a Coke, and Ben picked a Big Country Smasher and a side of pancakes, with orange juice and coffee.
Shepard raised his eyebrows. “You gonna be able to put all of that away, big guy?”
Ben nodded. “I’m hungrier than I though I was.”
Betty winked at Ben while Shepard was handing his menu to the waitress. He smiled back in gratitude.
“Well!” Shepard rubbed his hands together. “Let’s get started!”
“I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, Shepard. Maybe we should recap first to make sure we’re all on the same page with priorities. We opened up more than one can of worms in that storage unit,” said Betty.
“Good point,” Shepard agreed. “We found a bunch of junk, but we also found some interesting stuff.” He paused to make sure Ben and Betty were with him so far. “The by-far most interesting in the jail keys. I vote we go check out that lead ASAP.”
“Shepard!” Betty nearly spit out a mouthful of Sprite at him. “What happened to the recap?”
Ben had cracked a smile, too. “He’s right, though, Betty. It’d be really, um, interesting to have a look around an old jail and try out those keys. The only thing is, it’s a museum now. And not just a regular museum; they have Halloween attractions nearly every night in October.”
Betty turned a stern eye on Ben this time. “I didn’t know we were planning on picking up and going right now, Benjamin. And it sounds a bit to me like you’re advocating sneaking in or something.”
“Um, no, not at all, I just–okay, maybe a little bit, but with, you know, with approval of whoever approves that kind of thing.”
“Now, I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I’ve never heard of a museum director who gives permission to people to stumble around his museum after closing time!” argued Betty. “I don’t–”
“Calm it down a notch, Bets!” Shepard interrupted her before she got too heated. “I’m sure Ben has the best of intentions here.” Ben nodded his agreement. “You see? But come on, you only have one life. let’s have an adventure! Ben’s on the right track, mostly, but wouldn’t it be so much more fun to just go out there and figure it out along the way?”
Ben seemed perfectly fine with this idea, but Betty was absolutely horrified. “Just pick up and go? I know that coincidentally, none of us are truly tied down, but I do happen to have a rather large dog. As much as he likes car rides, I’m not so sure he could handle a road trip that long. And I’m sure he’s not welcome in the prison museum. There’s your first bump in the road, mister know-it-all.”
Shepard mulled the problem over for a brief moment. “We can research doggy boarding in Philly on the way there. And if Oscar doesn’t like riding all that way, we’ll have to take more breaks. We can do this, Betty, come on!”
The waitress arrived with their dinner, and Betty was granted a momentary reprieve from coming up with a counter argument.
She sighed through a mouthful of omelet and rolled her eyes in pleasure. “This is so good!” Her garbled words came out muffled by egg and spinach.
Ben nodded as he shoveled the food in his face.
Shepard inspected his burger from every side before deciding on the perfect bite, but before he took it, he egged Betty on. “So did you want to leave tomorrow?”
“Shepard! I do have to give my employer a bit of notice before taking off and leaving the state for who knows how long!”
His eyes lit up. “So you do want to go?” He sounded a bit incredulous, but highly excited at her words.
Ben kept his eyes on Betty, fork poised above his plate, awaiting her answer.
“Yes, I do,” she sighed. “I can’t help it. I’ve never done anything like this before, but it feels so right. How about in a couple of weeks?”
“All right!” Ben cheered, with a slight spray of sausage in Shepard’s direction. “Um, sorry, Shepard.”
Shepard hadn’t even noticed.
“But,” Betty continued, “we are bringing those letters and photos along for the ride, that’s final.”
Shepard let out a sigh of relief. “I can agree to that condition.”
“Then chow down, boys, and we’ll work out the details later!”
As Betty finished eating she wondered how she would be able to give Ben a ride. She’d noticed that Shepard was interested in her and seemed jealous–he would probably try to take Ben back to his car. Fortunately, fate stepped in.
Shepard’s phone rang from his pocket. After a brief conversation, he announced that he had to leave. “My friend Steve is on his way to the hospital with his wife, and they need someone to hang out with the kids until his sister gets in town. They’re expecting their third, but she’s way early. Oh! Let me write down my number for you.” He quickly jotted it down on a napkin with a pen he pulled from his pocket.
“I hope everything works out,” offered Betty. “I’ll text you so you have my number.”
“Me too,” said Ben. “Good luck to your friends.”
“Thanks, guys. I’ll see you soon?” Shepard looked hopefully at Betty.
“Of course!” she agreed.
With that, Shepard took one more sip of his drink and left a twenty dollar bill on the table. “Just leave my change for the waitress.”
Betty and Ben chimed out “Bye!” in unison as Shepard took off.
“Well, I guess we don’t have to worry about him finding out your secret just yet, Ben.”
Ben let out a breath. “I was pretty worried he was going to insist on taking a look at my car.”
“Me too,” Betty agreed. “Labor ex machina.”
Ben glanced at her, but Betty seemed to be in her own world again. He wondered what she was thinking about. She shook herself back to the present and looked at him.
“Do you have somewhere to stay tonight, Ben?”
“I–no.” he looked down at his hands, toying with the napkin.
“Then you’re coming home with me, no arguments. And if you try to murder me in my sleep, my dog will rip your throat out.”
Ben took a second before he realized that Betty was joking with him.
“Let’s go, Ben. I have a story that I promised to tell you.”
Inspired by TBP.
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.