[This is a multi-part story. Lexi Brown is trying to escape her past and create a new life for herself in Otter Village, 500 miles from where a traumatic event occurred 6 months ago. In our last episode, we read that Lexi was trying to distract herself from thinking about Kevin all day when she received another disturbing message from her sister regarding Dan’s intention to talk to her.
Here are the posts in order so far:
Dan knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, so he didn’t bother to try. Instead, he flung on a jacket, grabbed his car keys, and left his apartment. He drove north, thinking about his conversation this afternoon with Vicky and Nick. Restraining order! That arrogant cop had the nerve to threaten him! What the hell was wrong with that whole family anyway? You’d think they’d offer him sympathy, not threats. If they’d trained cops properly, Jim would still be around. They should have been able to tell Jim was just bluffing. He would never have hurt anyone. Maybe himself. He’d attempted that a couple times. Why hadn’t anyone called Dan? He knew his brother, knew his history. Nope. The cops had just reacted. Sure, OK, there’d been hostages. But they weren’t really hostages. Jim had simply been trying to talk Alexandra out of the divorce. If only they had called Dan.
After he’d driven a few hundred miles, the gas light came on. Dan took the next exit off the freeway that offered an open service station. As he waited for his tank to fill up, he noticed a 24-hour restaurant and lounge on the other side of the freeway. It was 2am and Dan realized he had skipped dinner. Not eating, not sleeping, his career in limbo… Dan knew he was on the verge of falling apart. He didn’t want to lose his mind like Jim had–that was not going to happen! He just needed more time to process this.
Dan pored over the scant news from that hick town Otter Village as he waited at the bar for his cheeseburger and fries. The waitress plunked down his beer and he looked up from his phone and thanked her. A pretty blonde smiled at him at the end of the bar. He smiled back, but he wasn’t interested in women now. His girlfriend had dumped him a month after Jim died. Apparently he’d been too moody, go figure.
“Hey.” The blonde moved over to the seat next to Dan’s. “I’m Angela. You want the ketchup for your fries?”
Dan shook his head. “No thanks.”
“Late dinner, huh? Where you headed?”
The waitress came by with Dan’s plate. “Anything else?” she said, glancing at Angela. “For the lady?”
“Coffee, please,” Angela said. “Regular. Cream and sugar.”
“That sounds good,” Dan said. “Make it two please.”
“You’ve hardly touched your beer,” Angela observed. “Not a big drinker?”
“No. And I’m driving.” Dan picked up his burger, thinking he should be annoyed at this gabby woman, but strangely he wasn’t. “I’m Dan.”
“Well, hey Dan!” Angela grinned. “Nice to meet ya! If you’re headed to the city, it would be great if I could get a ride. I’m a bit stranded here.”
Dan chewed and swallowed. “How’d that happen?”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t even ask. Long, ridiculous story. Involving a mean, ridiculous man. No worries, he won’t be back around.”
“That’s good. Want some fries?” Dan pushed his plate toward her.
“Thanks!” She picked up a fry. “I’m not actually a mooch, but I do love fries. And it’s been a while since lunch.”
Knowing she was taking advantage of him, yet playing along regardless, Dan asked her if she wanted to order a sandwich. He discovered that it was enjoyable to talk to someone, anyone, who wasn’t being a jerk and bugging him about work deadlines or threatening him with restraining orders.
“So kind of you, Dan. But no thanks. A couple fries and coffee will be a nice snack. But about that ride…”
Dan stirred cream and sugar into his coffee. “I just came from the city and am heading north. You could ride along if you want. It might be nice to have company. But I have something I need to do up north, and then I guess I’ll turn around and head back to the city eventually. I have to return to work at some point. I took a leave from my job.”
“You took a leave?” Angela picked up another fry and munched on it. “To drive up north for an errand? Doesn’t sound like a vacation.”
“It’s not a vacation,” Dan told her. “I need to talk to someone up there, just talk for a bit. Have a conversation. And then, that’s all.”
Dan wondered if he sounded like a weirdo. But he didn’t care. In fact, it felt freeing to tell this stranger his feelings. He couldn’t tell his coworkers he was driving to Otter Village to announce to Alexandra she was a crappy human being. He couldn’t discuss it with his neighbors, or the guys he played poker with. Couldn’t talk to the people at the gym. Nope. There was no one, no one but Angela. If that was even her name. Maybe she was a fake like Alexandra, but who cared?
Nodding, Angela said, “I get it. It’s a woman. She left town. Didn’t leave a new number or contact info. You guys have unfinished business as they say. You need to square things away. She leave you for another man?”
“It’s not like that.” Dan took a bite of his cheeseburger, chewed, swallowed. “She wasn’t my girl. She was my brother’s wife and he died. They were having a lot of problems and had separated. He wanted her back, but she just blew him off. No for better or for worse for that gal. He was going through some mental stuff, needed help, lost his job, and she was all, no way, I’m outta this mess, you’re on your own.”
“Aw, that sucks.” Angela’s blue eyes shone with sympathy over her coffee cup.
“It really did. But OK. That’s fine.” Dan took a deep breath. “Then some bad stuff went down, involving the cops, and my brother got shot and killed.”
“Oh no!” Angela put her hand on his arm. “I’m so sorry!”
“Thanks.” He gave her a tight smile. “It’s been really rough.”
“But Alexandra… er Lexi, she calls herself now. Well, she took off. I kept trying to talk to her and she wouldn’t.” Dan pushed his plate away. “Not just me. It was a big story. People kept wanting to interview her. She’d get her photo snapped whenever. I get that it was uncomfortable for her. But she was alive, dammit! Then she just… left.”
“Right. You never got closure.”
“No. I didn’t.” Dan turned on his barstool so they were facing each other. “I only wanted a conversation one on one. Why didn’t she get Jim some help? She knew he was spiraling down. Since she left, I’ve tried to talk to her sister, but I just get the same cold shoulder, like I’m an annoying bug.”
Angela shook her head. “They don’t sound like very caring people, Dan. Are you sure it would even help to talk to Lexi?”
“Good point.” Dan nodded for coffee refills. “I don’t know. But I feel I should try. For Jim’s sake. She knew him better than I did that last year, even though they were separated. He and I weren’t close at that point. He shut me out over a stupid misunderstanding. I do feel guilt over that. Just a dumb argument over sports. To be honest, my brother was always a hothead. But you marry someone you commit to help them, right? Taking those vows means something. I just need to talk to her. She totally avoided me at the funeral.”
Angela was quiet as Dan paid the bill. “Thanks for getting my coffee, Dan. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem.” He waved that away. “So, do you want to drive north with me for a bit?”
“I don’t have anything else going on.” She laughed and took his arm as they walked into the cold dark night. “Brrrr!”
“Yeah, it’s really cooled off.” Dan unlocked the doors. “I’ll blast the heat.”
He fiddled with the heat and radio stations as Angela chattered away, heading back on the northbound freeway, never noticing the black pickup truck that pulled out from the diner behind him.
[to be continued]
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