“No, no, no…”
Smoke billows from under the hood of my old beat-up Land Cruiser that has certainly seen better days. With a groan, I navigate it onto the shoulder, and just as I get the last tire off the main road, the car dies completely.
Dread sinks into my gut.
I’m more capable of handling a hockey stick than a wrench, but even I know smoke like this isn’t a good sign.
I sigh and yank up the emergency brake, then slam my hand against the steering wheel in frustration. I’ve already been stranded in a podunk town for two days while I had to wait on new tires to be delivered to replace my two popped ones.
Now, less than four hours from home, I’m fucked again.
I knew driving the old beater vehicle across the country probably wasn’t the best idea. I should have listened to my pops when he suggested I flatbed it. He knew the car wouldn’t make the trek from the middle of nowhere Kansas all the way to North Carolina.
I was determined to have the last few days of my break to myself though. Just me and the open road, nothing but my thoughts to keep me company.
Turns out that was a bad idea too because my thoughts suck as much as this car does.
The end of last season has been on perpetual repeat in my brain, and I’ve spent the entire drive thinking of all the things I could have done differently to not cost us the Stanley Cup.
Such as not taking a penalty just moments before the end of the tied regulation, which led to a goal and the loss of Game Six in overtime. After we won Game One, we were feeling good, ready to take it to the end. But after losing Games Two, Three, and Four—in overtime, no less—we were feeling defeated. We rallied for Game Five and barely scraped by with a win, but that spark was back. Then Game Six happened and we folded like a house of cards at the last minute, blowing the series.
It was a total punch to the heart.
I wish I could say that was the worst of it for me.
A car speeds by, shaking the SUV and pulling me from recalling one of the worst moments of my life.
I don’t need to take a trip down memory lane. Right now, I need to figure out what the hell I’m going to do to get back home. Coach expects the team to report tomorrow at 8 AM, and after letting him down last season, I can’t be late. This year has to go better than last. I have a contract on the line. I need to get my shit together, prove I’m worth the time and money. I want to stay with the Comets, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.
I pop the hood and hop out of the car to take a look at the damage.
When I peer in at the engine, it’s obvious I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. There’s errant fluid, and a low hiss echoes on the otherwise quiet road; it’s coming from around where the smoke is rising.
A tow is definitely in order.
I wipe my hands off on my jeans—something my mom would kill me for if she saw me—and round the car to grab my phone from the cup holder.
I search for the nearest mechanic and hit GO on the results.
And I wait.
Then wait some more.
There’s not enough service to get the results to load.
I walk up and down the road, but it’s no use. I’m in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing for miles.
With my frustration growing, I trek back to my car and survey the area. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. A rescue maybe? I didn’t pass many cars when driving, so I’m not expecting anyone to come flying down the road anytime soon.
I’m about an hour and a half from sunset, maybe less, and I think there was an exit about five or so miles back. If I hustle, I can probably make it before it gets too dark out.
“Fuck it,” I mutter to nobody but myself. “I’ll walk.”
Hell, maybe it’ll be good for me. Help clear my head.
I grab my wallet from the center console and a flashlight out of the glovebox just in case I need it, then lock up the car.
I shoot off a text to Rhodes, the one guy on the team who doesn’t want to choke the shit out of me, hoping it’ll go through eventually and he can send someone to help.
I slip my phone into my back pocket and, somehow—despite having done it a hundred times before—I miss.
The overpriced hunk of metal crashes to the ground. I don’t even have to pick it up to know the screen is shattered because that’s just the kind of luck I have lately.
Not that I give a shit about the phone being broken. I can buy another with no problem.
My issue is that everything that could possibly go wrong since blowing the Cup has gone wrong.
The week after we lost, a few guys from the team—the ones still talking to me—got together at a local bar to drown our sorrows. After one too many drinks were slung around, a brawl ensued after I witnessed some asshole manhandling a woman.
I did the right thing. I stepped in and handled shit.
But guess who got slapped with the cuffs after it was all said and done?
Me. That’s fucking who.
Luckily the asshole ended up dropping the charges when the truth about what started the fight came out.
The damage was done though. I was branded a hothead when the press began digging into my past, and a file that should have been clean suddenly wasn’t.
Two arrests for assault? Not a good look on the team.
With my name and face being splashed across headlines and social media, Coach suggested I lie low for the summer, get my head on straight before the upcoming season. So, I packed my bag and headed out west to my parents’ farm.
The flight out to my parents’ house? Rescheduled…twice. To top it off, my luggage was lost, and I ended up having to wear my brother’s too-small clothes the first three days I was there.
Mom forgot to mention she turned my old bedroom into an office, so I crashed on the same lumpy, uncomfortable couch we’ve had since I was in middle school. At six foot three, the couch is the last place I need to be sleeping. That first week home was spent with a kink in my neck, and I swear it’s still fucked up.
That was just the beginning of the shitstorm that would follow.
I thought going back home for the summer would be good for me, thought being away from the city I let down would be for the best. I could put the loss and the gossip behind me and get my mind right. But everything that could go wrong did, and the more shit went wrong, the more I couldn’t help but think it was all my fault somehow.
I pinch my nose between my fingers, inhaling and exhaling slowly to remain calm.
Figuring shit out under pressure isn’t typically a problem for me. You don’t become a first-round draft pick in the NHL by not being able to handle the heat.
But today, my ability to stay cool is being tested beyond belief.
First my car, now my phone.
“Can’t just one thing go right for a change?”
With a huff, I snatch my phone off the ground to assess the damage.
As expected, the screen is toast. But the real kick in the nuts?
It won’t turn on.
“Just fucking great.” Now if my text did somehow go through to Rhodes, he’s not going to have any way to get ahold of me.
Fury races through me and I want nothing more than to smash the useless device against a tree, but I refrain.
Instead, I set off down the road again, keeping my head down, making sure to stay far away from the two-lane highway. The sky grows darker a lot faster than I anticipated, and I’ve misjudged either how long I have until sundown or how far back this exit is.
I walk about a mile before I see headlights pop over a hill in the distance. Whoever it is, they’re flying.
And that worries me because the closer they creep to the edge of the road, the closer they’re getting to me.
Does the universe hate me so much that I’m about to get mowed down in the middle of nowhere with nobody to witness it? Where they likely wouldn’t find my body for days?
The driver isn’t showing any sign of slowing or moving over.
I slow my gait as they approach, ready to jump out of the way if I have to. And I really fucking think I’m going to have to.
Just when I’m sure I’m going to have to dive into the ditch for safety, a loud squeal pierces the air as they slam on their brakes, fishtailing all over the road.
The car skids another thirty yards or so before coming to a complete stop.
I can’t move. Can’t look away from the car that’s now just sitting in the middle of the road.
What the hell just happened?
The sky is still bright enough that I can see the driver’s form in the car. Can see them sitting there unmoving, likely in the same state of shock I’m in.
Finally, they shake their head and ease their foot off the brake.
Are they just going to drive away? After they almost hit me? Just like fucking that?
I take two steps toward the vehicle, ready to—fuck, I don’t even know what I’m going to do. Yell at them? Chase them down? That’d be stupid. Plus, I don’t need to get in any more trouble than I’m already in.
But I’m pissed. Who almost hits a person, then just drives off like it’s nothing?
I stop walking when the car slowly eases onto the shoulder and the driver kills the engine.
Guess they are going to stop after all.
I wait for whoever it is to make the first move. To roll down the window and ask if I’m okay. To get out and apologize. To do anything other than sit there. It’s too dark to see into the car completely, but I can feel them staring at me in the rearview mirror.
I stare back, my anger growing by the second.
I swear it’s hours before the door finally pops open.
“What the hell is your problem?” I lay into them the moment the door is ajar. “Do you have any idea how close you were to hitting me? You could have kil—”
I try to rein in my surprise when a woman who can’t be more than five foot five steps out of the car and turns to face me.
She shoves long, wavy strands of hair out of her face. She’s still a good twenty feet away, but I can see the shock in her eyes from here. Her jaw is dropped, hands shaking at her sides.
She takes a step toward me. Then another.
She stops at the back of her car and stares at me with wide eyes.
But it’s not the same wide-eyed stare I get from fans. There’s no sign of recognition on her face.
She looks terrified out of her mind. Like she’s scared of me.
Ridiculous considering I’m the one who almost got dead.
We stare at one another for several beats, not saying a peep. It’s calm out here, not much of a breeze. Nothing to fill the silence between us except her quiet breaths.
I don’t know what the etiquette is here. Just moments ago I was ready to lay into her, but the look she’s giving me…
Ten seconds pass.
“I…” She tries again, her tongue darting out to wet her lips. She pulls the bottom one between her teeth, trapping it there while she mulls over what she’s going to say next.
And finally, “Are you okay?”
Her voice is soft. Timid.
“I…I didn’t see you. And then I did. But I thought…I thought you weren’t real.”
I tilt my head. “Not real?”
My voice comes out gruffer than I intend, probably from not talking to anyone for so long. She looks as surprised as I do by the sound of it.
“You know, the stories about this road. I thought you were the Ghostly Drifter.”
I have no fucking clue why I’m just repeating the ends of her sentences.
She doesn’t seem to mind.
“You haven’t heard the stories?”
I shake my head.
She wrings her hands, eyes darting around, taking in the heavily wooded area around us. “Well, supposedly, along this stretch of highway, a drifter roams. He’s said to show up around dusk, and he only appears to people who are alone. He flags you down, claiming his car broke down, and asks for a ride. If you let him into your car, you’re giving him permission.”
“Permission for what?”
“To eat your soul. It’s said he absorbs all the good parts of you, leaving all the bad behind. Everyone who has reported picking him up has committed a horrific crime in the weeks following.”
“That…sounds like a load of shit.”
She huffs out a laugh. “But I’ve never seen anyone wandering these roads before tonight, and well…” She lifts her shoulders. “Freaked me out. Probably because I was listening to Strange, Dark, and Mysterious.”
“You listen to Johnny?”
Her eyes widen with shock and she grins. “You’re a fan of the podcast?”
“I listen to him all the time during…” I pause, not wanting to reveal too much about who I am. I have no idea who this woman is. She’s not showing any signs of recognizing me, but she could be playing me. It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened. “When I’m on a plane,” I finish.
“Fly a lot?”
“Sometimes more than I’d like.”
Silence falls between us again, and she’s back to wringing her hands. She’s nervous, but I can’t tell if it’s me making her feel that way or that we both just almost experienced a life-altering thing.
“I…I really am sorry,” she says quietly. Her voice is barely above a whisper, but it carries over to me with ease.
I’m just now realizing how quiet this stretch of the road really is. And after her story—even though it’s total bullshit—it’s kind of creepy being out here.
“What are you doing out here?”
“My car broke down.”
A soft squeak leaves her lips, and I can’t help but chuckle.
“I’m not the drifter guy, I promise.”
Her eyes narrow. “That sounds exactly like what he’d say.”
“Well, I guess the only way you’ll know is to let me into your car.”
Her face falls, and she takes a step back from me.
“Fuck.” I lift the backward cap on my head, running a hand through my hair before replacing it. “That sounded creepy as shit, didn’t it?”
“Look,” I say, taking a step toward her. She steps back again, and I pause, realizing I’m likely scaring the crap out of her right now. “I’ve been on the road since six this morning, and now my car is broken down. I tried calling for a tow truck but lost signal. Then I dropped my phone, and because nothing these days is made like it once was, it’s broken. So now I’m stranded. I saw an exit a couple of miles back and was walking that way when I almost got run over.”
She grimaces, her face telling me she’s sorry for that.
“It’s just been a long day,” I tell her. “I’m tired and frustrated and just want to get where I’m going so I can crash. So thanks for not hitting me. I’m fine. You’re fine.” I toss my thumb over my shoulder. “I’m going to get going before I lose any more light.”
I turn on my heel and shove my hands into my pockets, keeping my head up just in case someone else decides to come barreling down the hill and almost kill me.
What a fucking day.
And now I’m going to be out here in the pitch dark.
Fuck do I hope my flashlight doesn’t give out on me.
I hear the crunch of gravel under her shoes as she gets closer.
I spin back around, waiting.
“I…” She sighs. “That exit you saw? That’s at least fifteen miles back.”
“What? Are you sure?” I could have sworn it wasn’t more than two miles.
But everything out here does look the same…
She nods. “I’ve driven this road a hundred times. It’s the exit for Springsville. The next exit that way”—she points the way she was heading—“is another ten miles.” She drops her hand, tucking it into her back pocket and rocking back on her heels. “We’re in a really rural area, and the cell service is notorious for being nonexistent. You picked a really bad place to break down.”
Awesome. Good to know I was walking in the wrong direction.
“Where are you headed?”
It’s on the tip of my tongue to tell her, but I don’t think that would be the smartest thing to do. For all I know, she could be the Ghostly Drifter.
Don’t be an idiot, Col. There’s no such thing as ghosts.
“Near Jonesville,” I say instead. It’s not exactly where I’m going, but it’s a town over.
“I’m headed to Bartlett. That’s on my way…”
Is she… “Are you offering to give me a ride all the way there?”
She shrugs. “I did almost run you over. It only seems right.”
“I could be dangerous.”
She tips her head to the side, watching me closely.
I can’t clearly see the color of her eyes from here, but I’m betting it’s something brilliant.
“I don’t think you are.”
I’m not, but… “You don’t know me.”
“Are you trying to convince me that you are dangerous?”
“No. I just think that since—”
“I’m a woman, I’m helpless and incapable of handling myself?” She crosses her arms over her chest, cocking her hip out. She stares at me with hard eyes. “I have a gun in my glovebox.”
She looks so tough right now, like she isn’t going to take this from me. I like that she’s standing up for herself, but still… “I wasn’t going to say that. But also, you shouldn’t tell me where you keep your weapon.”
She tucks her lips together. “That’s fair. Though I could be lying about it…”
I get the feeling she’s not.
“Do you want a ride or not?”
I really hate that she’s offering a ride to a complete stranger, but I’m glad the complete stranger is me.
“It’s a Sunday,” she says. “Repair shops are going to be closed. What are you going to do? Try to hang around some place until someone can come get you?”
Hanging around in public for hours doesn’t sound appealing. I have no fucking clue where I am and now no phone to get ahold of someone.
“All right,” I agree. “A ride would be great. I can call for a tow later.”
She gives me a single nod and heads for the car.
We make it four steps before she whirls around again.
This time I’m much closer to her, the closest I’ve been yet.
Her eyes are bright blue, so bright they’re almost white. Her lips are pouty and full, the bottom one just slightly larger than the top. Her nose is small and upturned at the end, but not in a distracting way. It’s…cute.
“What’s your name?”
“Huh?” I draw my eyes away from her mouth, back to her eyes that are trained on me with caution.
“Why didn’t you sound sure of that? Is that a fake name?”
“It’s not.” I’m just not entirely used to someone not knowing who I am. “My name is Collin. My friends call me Col.” I leave out my last name on purpose.
“Collin.” She tests my name on her lips, like she’s trying to decide if she likes it or not. She sticks her hand out to me. “Harper.”
“Nice to meet you, Harper.” I take her hand in mine, noting how small it is compared to my giant paws. Her skin is soft too. “Thank you for not running me over.”
A grin pulls at the corner of her lips. “Come on. We still have about a four-hour drive ahead of us.”
“Uh, should I drive? I’m not entirely sure I trust your night vision.”
Those white-blue eyes narrow. “Gun, remember?”
“Right, in the glovebox. I remember.”
She turns on her heel, making her way to the driver’s side of the little white Honda.
That’s when I spot it.
A Carolina Comets bumper sticker.
She really didn’t seem like she recognized me at all, but maybe she’s just a really good actress? I have nothing to base that on. I don’t know her. Which makes me even more of an idiot for willingly getting into the car with her.
She must notice me hesitating.
“Are you memorizing my license plate?”
I already did. “No. I, uh, noticed the sticker. Hockey fan?”
She lets out a single laugh. “No. Not into sports at all. It came with the car.” She lifts her shoulders. “Are you?”
“You could say I’m a fan.”
“Oh great.” She rolls her eyes as I make my way to the passenger door. “Just please don’t talk my ear off about it the entire drive or I’m likely to fall asleep at the wheel.”
This is going to be a long four hours.