Please enjoy a sneak peek of Be It Ever So Humble below.
Copyright © 2020 Jenifer Jenkins. All rights reserved.
The humidity was stifling as I walked down the rickety metal stairs that had been rolled up to my puddle jumper of a plane. I was relieved to finally be back on land after four hours on a commercial airplane and another hour on this death trap. In my life, I had traveled frequently but had never experienced such extreme turbulence. Of course, I was accustomed to traveling in jumbo jets, lapping it up in first-class luxury. This was the first time I could remember flying without pills or at least some booze to calm my nerves and knock me out for most of the voyage.
This type of de-boarding was something I’d only seen in black-and-white movies. It seemed a tremendous safety hazard as the stairs creaked and rocked back and forth with each step I took. My hands burned as I gripped the sunbaked railing to steady myself. What was even more unusual about the experience was that the alleged airport was nothing more than dirt runways and a grassy field connected to a large barn-like building. In fact, I suspected that it had been a barn at one time. I expected to find chickens and cows roaming around the red-roofed wooden structure, not pilots and engineers. The Midwest was certainly taking the repurposing spaces movement to heart.
As I scraped toward the aero-barn in my poorly chosen suede wedge boots, I surveyed the field of dirt and dead grass that taunted me with each step. My aunt and uncle were nowhere in sight. I hadn’t seen them in a while, but I was sure I’d still recognize her curly locks and his boisterous laugh in any crowd. I must have looked absolutely ridiculous, and possibly suspicious, wandering the field in my fancy boots, oversized sweater, Jackie O sunglasses, and ratty trucker hat. Did people still wear trucker hats? Apart from the boots—which were my favorite—my clothing was chosen to avoid recognition, and I was getting the feeling I’d chosen correctly. The few bystanders on the field were wearing overalls, trucker hats, and flannel. Flannel? In this heat? One man was even wearing a legit cowboy hat. The fact that he wasn’t chewing on a long piece of straw or spitting tobacco as he leaned against his ancient-looking truck amazed me.
The cowboy stared at me expectantly, and it made me uncomfortable. It was like he knew me. I concentrated on walking the unsteady terrain to avoid making direct eye contact with him but attempted a peek over my shoulder to see if he was still looking. He was. I winced and flung my head back around, my naturally wavy auburn hair sticking to the dampness on my face. The mugginess was unbearable, and my clothes and boots had already pasted themselves to my skin just moments after stepping away from the plane’s re-circulated climate. I was embarrassed to be caught looking at him. Continuing toward the makeshift airport, I refrained from taking another glance.
When I entered the building, I was dismayed to find that the renovation did not include a high-tech air conditioning system. I saw a window unit near the door, and there were a few ceiling fans and box fans surrounding a small lobby. Six once-plush chairs encircled a wooden table covered with magazines and newspapers. I went to peruse the selection then thought better of it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to see some of the headlines and photos that might be adorning the covers.
The intoxicating smell of coffee breezed past me as a man who looked like he could be a pilot walked by. Eyeing the direction he came from, I spotted a table with coffee-making odds and ends. I rushed over to it, thanking my lucky stars that something was going well today. I had a minor coffee addiction. Once, I drank three ventis in a day. On the table before me was not the fancy $6 a cup stuff I was used to, however. This was just a Keurig—I was amazed they were current enough to have one of those—with an assortment of coffee flavors, creamers, and sugars. My coffee order typically included coconut milk and agave. Sugar was not in my diet; neither was any of the artificial stuff they used in those chemical-laden creamers. I was going to have to settle for a cup of the most natural-seeming product in the bunch, black French roast.
I reached for a Styrofoam cup and silently wept. Talk about unnatural. Then I popped the K-cup into position and selected the medium option. I would’ve gone for the large, but there was a sticker covering it that read: “Cup will overflow.” Chuckling to myself, I considered the phrase. Cup will overflow. Wasn’t that supposed to be a good thing? When the machine finally sputtered out the last drop of steamy caffeinated bliss, I grabbed the cup and continued the search for my relatives. Not caring that my tongue would burn, I took a sip of the hot coffee. Ah, I’d missed it. It had been two weeks since I was allowed to touch the stuff. I wasn’t entirely sure I was supposed to be drinking it, but I figured that was the least of my concerns. The problem was that a hot drink on a smoldering day was going to raise my internal temperature, and I already felt overheated. Also, I hadn’t eaten anything but a granola bar on the plane. I was definitely going to have the coffee shakes after this. I didn’t care. My body hadn’t felt normal in a long time.
I decided to stand directly in front of a fan while I waited. There was nobody around to be offended by it. Patting my fingers on the foam cup, I wondered where my aunt and uncle could be and if they were coming at all. They were aware of the situation, right? They knew I was coming and that it was today, didn’t they? I hadn’t been a party to any of the plans that brought me here, so I didn’t know the answers to these questions. What if they weren’t coming, and I was stuck here alone? I shook off the idea and headed back out to the field. The instant the sunlight touched my face, I knew my coffee was a goner. There was no way I could manage finishing it now. I tossed the remains into the grass and threw the cup into a trash bin beside the entrance. Sweat was now dripping down the center of my back, and my sunglasses burned the bridge of my nose.
The cowboy from before was still there. Damn. And he was walking toward me. Double damn. He flashed a set of surprisingly white teeth in my direction. Creeper. It took every ounce of maturity I could muster not to stick my tongue out at him as a response. You are nineteen years old, I scolded myself. Get it together. Why should a strange man’s attention spark such a childish reaction in me?
“Chastity?” he asked when he was within earshot.
I cringed. It was the usual reaction I had to a stranger calling my name. Even though I was familiar with the constant attention and scrutiny I received from random people, I was never comfortable with it. Anxiety coursed through my head like it always did in these situations. It was an odd feeling—like I could literally feel the stress chemicals moving around in the space between my brain and skull. The sensation always unnerved me and consequently added to my anxiety. Scenarios began playing out in my head. Would I have to run? Was my cover blown? Had this whole covert relocation been for nothing? I was close to having a full-blown panic attack, so I started my one hundred breaths. One. Two. Three. Four…
“I’m sorry. It’s Sissy, isn’t it?”
I stopped abruptly. My body was ice—which should have been a welcome change. Sissy? Why would he call me Sissy? Only three people in my entire life had ever called me that: my mother and my Aunt Martha and Uncle Kenny.
“What… what did you say?” I stammered.
He seemed to be enjoying my confusion because his grin broadened beneath the wide brim of his hat. As a matter of fact, that’s all I could see—that grin. The only visible feature of his face was his mouth.
“I forgot. They said you might respond better to Sissy.”
“Ken and Martha,” the mouth said.
Again, my imagination went to dark places—a result of working in the story-telling industry almost my entire life. How did he know about my aunt and uncle? Had he kidnapped them? Were they being held for ransom? Was I the ransom? Was that why he knew my nickname? Was that why they weren’t here to greet me? What was going on? Five. Six. Seven.
My voice cracked as I asked, “How do you know them?”
“I’m John.” He held out his hand as if this information should suffice. I stared without moving, unwilling to make contact with the ranch hand.
Slowly I inched backward toward the building. To my stunned brain, it made perfect sense to move at a snail’s pace as if he wouldn’t notice.
“Wait.” Clearly, my movements weren’t inconspicuous enough. “I didn’t mean to scare or confuse you. Your aunt and uncle sent me to come get you. There was a problem on the farm and—”
“Problem? What kind of problem?” Now I was worried that something could be wrong with Kenny and Martha. My mind was on overdrive today. What was this guy doing? Trying to give me a heart condition? “I need to sit down.” I circled in that spot a couple of times, looking like a dog trying to nest, and decided I couldn’t possibly bring myself to sit in the dirt and grass. Eight. Nine. Ten.
I frowned up at him, realizing that we were only about a foot apart now. As I strained my neck to view his hidden face, I felt dwarfed by his height. Granted, my five feet two inches always cowered beneath individuals of normal height. Peering at his face more closely, I noted that he didn’t seem like much of a man at all. He had a young face with crystal blue eyes and dimples and the tiniest bit of scruff on his jawline. From the look of it, that was the most hair he could produce on his face. He was probably around my age. His face was tanned from too much sun exposure. Had he never heard of sunscreen? Did he know that his flawlessly smooth skin was more susceptible to wrinkles in direct sunlight? If he continued in this manner, we wouldn’t look the same age for long, or at least I hoped that was the case. I made a vow to slather my anti-aging masks, serums, and creams liberally over my face and décolletage when I arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house.
“They asked me to pick you up because they had a few technical glitches with some new equipment and had to take care of some things,” he spoke soothingly. Too soothingly. It was borderline condescending.
“Who are you exactly?”
“No, no.” I was annoyed. Obviously, he was going out of his way to make this situation insufferable. “Who are you to my aunt and uncle? Why would they send a stranger to get me?”
His eyebrows wrinkled until they almost touched. “They warned me that you’d be a handful.”
“Wha… They did?”
“They didn’t say it was a bad thing,” he offered, noticing my horror.
We then stared awkwardly at one another, waiting for the other person to speak next. It appeared he wanted to say something. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, but he remained silent. I was the queen of the silent treatment and had never met anyone superior on that score. This could have lasted for hours, and I wouldn’t have minded—apart from melting in the heat and humidity.
He finally broke the silence, as I knew he eventually would. “Ken and Martha are friends of my family. I help them at the farm most days.”
Ugh. The farm. Why did he keep mentioning the farm? It was as though he was rubbing it in. Hey city girl, you’re going to live on a farm. The idea of living in the Midwest for an unknown length of time had been looming over me for the last week, taunting me. This visit was not for pleasure. My mother was basically forcing me to stay with her half-brother and his wife. If I had any say in the matter, I would be on a deserted island with a couple of sexy cabana boys waving palm leaves in my face, hand-feeding me grapes. Or maybe I’d skip the grapes and have them turned into wine instead. Unfortunately, that would be what everyone expected, and I needed to do something totally unexpected to stay under the radar.
When I was very young, I enjoyed holidaying at my aunt and uncle’s Missouri farm. It was like something right out of the movies, but real. Back then, I had a hard time differentiating between real and make-believe since I worked in a fantasy world daily. Here, I was the real-life Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Sans pin curls, of course. The farm was the one place I could go to for sanctuary. I could taste and touch tangible things that wouldn’t disappear the next day when the set changed for a new episode. There was not much constancy in my childhood, but that farm was always there. When I visited, I could be sure that my aunt and uncle would greet me cheerily, and so would the chickens and dogs. I could count on Martha serving her homemade apple pie and Kenny constructing a makeshift hayride just for me. What could have been more fun to a child?
As I got older, it became less fun. The quaintness of it all started to fade. I didn’t like to get dirty, so the hayrides were definitely out. There was nothing to do in the house or in the minuscule town, which felt hours away. Eventually, I stopped visiting altogether. I had no time in my hectic work schedule to be bothered or to enjoy anything. Ten years at least had passed since I’d been to this place.
Suddenly I realized I hadn’t responded to what this John guy had said. How long had I been standing there, daydreaming? How embarrassing. “So you expect me to just hop into that truck with you? A complete stranger who supposedly knows my aunt and uncle? I’ve seen plenty of Lifetime movies.” And starred in them, I thought. “I am not some naïve young girl you can lure so easily. Where’s your proof?”
Earlier, he seemed amused by me; that was clearly fading now. He crossed his arms over his broad chest and stared me down. “I don’t expect you to do anything, and I have no proof other than the proof I thought I’d already given. You can hop into this truck and ride back to Ken and Martha’s with me or stay here on this airfield until you have a better idea. It’s no matter to me, but I do have business to attend to today. Best make your decision quickly.”
Best? Oh yeah, this guy was one-hundred-percent country. I now detected a slight drawl in his words. I’d been too disturbed before to notice his voice. It was smooth yet earthy—like maybe if you’d dropped honey in the dirt. His attitude toward me now was irritating. Was this the guy that had been oddly smiling and staring at me—all but winking, really—only moments before? Why was he so rude now? Strangers didn’t usually talk to me this way. Typically, they greeted me with awe and admiration. This guy had no reason to be snippy with me. It made me doubt his motives even more.
“Well then,” he continued after I hadn’t responded, “I’ll let Ken and Martha know you’re here waiting for them.”
Then he started walking toward his driver’s side door as if he would just leave me there. The nerve!
“Jwold on,” I blurted. My mind hadn’t decided between just, wait, or hold on, and all three spilled out simultaneously. He stopped, and I searched for the proper response. “I have bags. My bags were on the plane, and I need them. I can’t leave without them.”
I sounded ridiculous as I stammered through the words. He wouldn’t really leave me here if they’d sent him, would he? I was more terrified of being left there alone than I was of getting into a strange man’s vehicle. I was sure my therapist would have a good deal to say about that. If I ever told her.
“Your bags? Yeah. I already got them. They’re in the back of the truck.”
“In the back of the truck?” I waited for a laugh or smirk or something to let on that this was some sick joke. “You put my things in the back of that disgusting, old pick-up truck?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Disgusting?”
“Yes. Disgusting,” I fumed. The tan truck could have been an antique. It was rusty and covered in dirt, the wheels caked with mud, and the windshield permanently dusted with pollen. I had a pretty good idea as to the cleanliness of the truck bed. “Do you know how much those suitcases are worth? Not to mention that my entire life lies within the contents of those ‘bags.’” I mimicked his accent with that last word.
His face was now crimson, and he was struggling to maintain his composure through my verbal attack. I wondered if he was more irritated by my mockery of his accent or his ride.
“Look, I am only here as a favor to Ken and Martha. So to put this as nicely as possible, I don’t give a horse’s ass about the spotlessness of your stuff. My job is to come here and take you back to them. That’s it. I am not your valet or your chauffeur or your shrink. You can leave your bags here for all I care.”
Again the frightening thought that I might be left alone in this field gnawed at me. It would get dark, and I didn’t have a cell phone—an unfortunate casualty of recent events. If I did not comply, I would be abandoned for the foreseeable future.
“Well,” I responded, suddenly sheepish, “can’t we put the suitcases in the front? They’ll get dirty.”
He stared incredulously for a moment. “You’re right.” Well, I was glad he could listen to reason. “Listen, I’ll make you a deal. If you can find room in the cabin for your stuff, it can ride up front.” Then his eyes twinkled mischievously. “And you can ride in the back.”
My jaw dropped. Was he serious? He couldn’t possibly be. I glared at him, seething now. What kind of greeting was this anyway? Why would my aunt and uncle choose to send this haughty, obnoxious hick to pick me up when they knew my emotional state? Some welcome committee he was. If I had any other choice, I would have told him exactly where he could steer his truck.
“It seems I have no other option,” I groaned, countering my own thoughts.
And with that, I sauntered deliberately over to the passenger side of the truck, trying hard not to look at the grimy conditions I was sure I’d see in the bed as I passed. The outside looked even dirtier as I got closer. The inside was not much better. There wasn’t any clutter, but leaves and hay covered the floor. “You couldn’t have cleaned it before picking up your dear friends’ special guest,” I scoffed.
He didn’t respond and simply got into the driver’s side while I gawked, debating between getting into the truck with him or hopping on a flight to… anywhere else. He revved the engine, so I quickly threw open the door and slinked into my seat. I carefully locked the seatbelt into place using the sleeve of my sweater. Best not to touch anything. Best? Dammit. One day in Missouri, and I was already thinking like a hick. I hrumpfed as I squeezed my arms into my chest. If I had to suffer through a ride in a dirty car with a rude stranger, I was certainly going to make my displeasure known.
John ignored me and shifted the truck into drive. The ride was rough, and I was hoping it was because of the gravel road and not the vehicle itself. As we hobbled along, I remembered the long trips I’d taken to town with Kenny and Martha as a child.
“Just how long will it take to get to Kenny and Martha’s?” My voice warbled from the vibrations.
He smirked. “About an hour and a half. Better get comfortable.”
An hour and a half in this dump? With this overgrown man-child? I rolled my eyes. Was this Kenny and Martha’s idea of a joke? They must have known that I wouldn’t be happy with the arrangement. What did John say? They said I was a handful? Well, that was a rude estimation to make about someone they hadn’t seen in years. Why would they even allow me to stay with them if I was such a handful?
John leaned over and turned the radio knob. Twangy hillbilly voices immediately filled the cabin with stories of drinking beer and driving trucks. I groaned. Country music was my least favorite. I would rather listen to a garbage disposal chewing a spoon.
“Are you kidding?” I snorted. “What is this music? Are you purposefully going for walking cliché?”
The corner of his mouth turned up by a millimeter. “I thought you’d rather listen to music than sit in silence. Unless you’d prefer we talk?”
“Talk? About what? What could we possibly have to talk about? ‘Oh, look over there at those trees. The leaves are sure green for summertime.’ Or ‘Guess what I heard over at the old waterin’ hole! Bessie’s about to have her first calf!’”
“You are something else.” He shook his head. “I mean, I knew you might be a bit combative… being from the city and all, but I had no idea you were going to be such a—”
“What?” I shrieked.
We both recoiled at the unexpected volume in the tiny space. “Spark plug,” he answered. “I was going to say spark plug.”
“So… we don’t have to talk then,” he said after a beat. “But I need the music. It has been a busy week, and I need something to keep me awake.”
“Wow. They sent a sleepy, obnoxious trucker man-child to pick me up. Unbelievable.”
“Man-child?” he chortled. “Like I said, there was a situation. They wouldn’t have sent me if they could have come themselves. And believe me, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have to. But when either of them asks a favor of me, I do it. So we don’t have to talk, but you do have to listen to this cliché music in my hillbilly truck for the next hour and a half. Might as well get used to the idea.”
“Fine,” he repeated childishly.
“Fine. Play your terrible music. I could use a nap anyway.” I peered around, trying to decide where best to rest my head. The window was moist from humidity-induced condensation. The headrest was in an odd place—too high for my head, yet also too low. I tried to make myself taller by stretching my torso, but that made my legs dangle uncomfortably. I tried shrinking down below the headrest, but this made my back arch in a way that was bound to give me sciatic nerve damage. Twisting to the driver’s side meant that I’d be facing him, while turning to the door meant that my nose would be broken in the inevitable crash. I closed my eyes and threw my head back. “Well, I can’t sleep.”
I looked at him, expecting him to entertain me somehow. He continued driving as if I didn’t exist. When he said and did nothing, I reached over and shut off the radio. “How did you get this truck past airport security?”
“Yes. Airport security. You shouldn’t be able to just drive up to a runway like that. What if you were a terrorist? Or a drug smuggler?”
He gave me a sidelong glance. “In Camden County? I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s kind of isolated here. Pretty sure the biggest event we’ve had in my lifetime was the F3 in ’03.”
“F3? What is that? Code?” It sounded like the name of a fighter jet or an automatic weapon to me.
“Yeah. It’s code for tornado.” He sounded out each syllable of the word tornado as if English was not my first language.
In my defense, I had been living in Los Angeles since birth. Tornadoes were an anomaly there. Of course I’d heard of them, but I didn’t know there was a code for tornadoes. I knew what the Richter scale was, and I knew when an earthquake was really bad accordingly. If I told him that, though, he’d just give me grief. I decided to change the subject. “So, what was all that back there, anyway? Why didn’t you tell me who you were right away? Why did you have to scare me like that?”
“I tried to tell you,” he snickered, “but you were being weird.”
“I was not being weird.”
“You were being weird.” He momentarily glanced my direction with a playful smirk.
“Well, what can I say? I’m weird.” I shrugged. “But you certainly enjoyed yourself, didn’t you?” I stabbed my finger into his right shoulder, which was a bold move considering he was driving this heap.
He laughed heartily. “I did.”
There was something infectious about that laugh, but I stifled any attempts my own traitorous giggle made at joining him.
“You make the strangest faces when you’re confused,” he continued. Now he was guffawing with laughter.
“I do not.”
He cast off his cowboy hat and revealed a shaggy dirty-blond mop atop his head. Then, he crinkled his face so all of his features came together in the center. Next, he stuck his tongue out just past his lips while widening his eyes and sort of bugging them out of his head. Ah ha. I realized he was making the faces. This wasn’t just an attempt to whip out his blonde locks like some young Dazed and Confused Matthew McConaughey.
I pouted. “Well, I’m a very expressive person. I’m sure I looked much better making those faces than you do. You look like a toad.”
This only made him exaggerate the faces more. His mouth contorted, and he flicked his tongue in and out as if he was catching flies. He looked utterly ridiculous, and I let out a small laugh. It was an unusual, almost startling sound. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d laughed genuinely. The laugh must have thrown him off, too, because he stopped making faces and stared at me. Our eyes locked, and I noticed flecks of green in his and… OMG, we were driving off the road. He pivoted forward and flung the wheel to the left. We swerved back and forth for a minute on the bumpy road until he finally regained control.
“Watch where you’re going,” I snapped. I didn’t want tomorrow morning’s headlines to read: “Young starlet found dead in a pile of junk.”
“Well, you wanted to talk,” he retorted.
I wrapped my arms protectively around my chest again. “No, I don’t. Just drive.”
I looked at the clock on the dash and began my countdown. An hour and ten minutes to go.