This short story is the result of the second annual Bet (hereinafter referred to as “The Bet”) with Catherine Ryan Hyde, Brian Farrey, and Andrew Smith. Basically, we all bet on a horse running in the Derby. Whoever has the highest placing horse wins and doesn’t have to write a story. The rest of us get given a title by whoever came in ahead of us. This year I came in second, which is far better than the dead last (in every respect) that I came in last year. My title was given to me by Andrew. You can read last year’s story, Uncle Mo’s Gastrointestinal Tract, if you dare. Warning: there’s a bit of off-color language in this one. Nothing you wouldn’t hear in the hallways of pretty much any school, but hey.
Most people don’t pay any attention to their tires until it’s too late, after they’ve already blown, leaving them stranded and inventing new curse words by the side of the road. Molly King wasn’t one of those people, though she did employ a few choice words when her car started the tell-tale fwump fwump fwump that could only mean one thing.
Molly had gotten her love of cars from her dad, who dabbled in engines the way some fathers dabbled in the stock market. He’d taught her how to change spark plugs by the time she was six, how to completely strip an engine down by the time she was out of middle school, and five ways to coax a recalcitrant lemon into just a few more miles when she was a terminally broke college student.
These days, she normally drove a sweet little Mercedes Benz SLK 320 hardtop convertible (bright red) that she’d bought used and with hardly any miles on it from a guy who had woken up from his mid-life crisis to discover that a two-seater didn’t work well with a family of six. But Betsy, as she liked to call her car (because all the best cars had names, just like boats), was back home in Florida where it was still relatively warm and sunny. And Molly was staring bitterly at the flat tire on her miserable little rental car, blowing on her fingers to try and keep them warm. She never should have let her mom talk her into an upstate Vermont family reunion, not during late January. Only insane people went north this time of year.
She’d had a bad feeling about the rental car as soon as she’d seen it, with it’s placid every-car look, chipped paint, and the sprayed-in fake new car smell that only barely masked the pervasive odor of the previous renter’s cheap cologne. But she’d had no choice. It had been the Hyundai or nothing. Apparently, there were other insane people in need of cars in the dead of winter.
So there she was, in the middle of absolute nowhere Vermont on some small road named only with a number. She’d already tried her cell phone, but there wasn’t even the tiniest hint of reception. It was at least ten miles to the nearest anything and there was no way she was going to walk it. Not in this weather.
Molly kicked the offending tire and stomped to the back of the car. It took her stiff fingers three tries to open the trunk. She let out a relieved puff of breath once she got it open and saw that there was, indeed, a spare tire. A minispare, in fact. A total piece of crap donut tire more suitable for a toy car than a real one. It would be a wonder if she made it to her uncle’s on the thing. She grabbed it anyway and the faux leather bag with the jack and tools in it, and slammed the trunk shut.
And nearly had a heart attack. An older man in a shapeless off-white jacket stood silently by the side of her car, hands stuffed deep inside his pockets. Staring at her. Snowflakes dotted the gunmetal grey of his sparse beard.
“Holy shit!” she said. “Where did you come from?”
He worked his jaw for a moment, like he’d forgotten how to talk or his mouth had frozen shut, which wasn’t altogether impossible considering the temperature. She half expected to hear the sound of cracking ice when he finally managed to pry it open.
“I can take care of that,” he said, not answering her question. He had a raspy voice with overtones of phlegm. She upped her age guess by a few years. Fifty? Sixty? Older? What was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere freezing his balls off? She looked around. No car. He couldn’t possibly be out walking in this weather, could he? She had always been told old Vermonters were tough, but this was ridiculous.
“It’s just a flat,” she said. “Damn rental car.” She resisted kicking at it again. Maybe she had frostbite already and her toes would shatter. Hopefully he wasn’t one of those old guys that got offended by women swearing. She was too cold and annoyed to care.
He didn’t react to her words at all. He just held out an un-gloved hand towards her. His fingertips seemed faintly blue. “I can take care of that,” he said.
“No thanks, I’ve got it.” Molly didn’t want the old geezer croaking on her in the middle of a snowstorm. He might be tough enough to be out in the cold, but it was just her kind of luck for him to keel over on her. A flat tire was bad enough. Besides, she could change a tire in her sleep.
She hefted the wimpy little donut tire with one hand and the bag of tools in the other and walked around him since he didn’t seem to want to get out of her way. The snow had already started to pile up around the tire, the snowdrift she’d driven into not helping. She kicked at the snow but barely made a dent. Sighing, she sank down onto her knees. Could you get frostbite on your knees? She hoped not. She probably should have just left the car in the middle of the road instead of pulling off to the side. No one else was out driving. At least they’d heavily salted it at some point and it was still relatively clear of snow.
“Hey,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the man. He’d followed her over to the tire as silently as he’d appeared in the first place. Creepy. “Where’d you come from, anyway? You live around here?”
“I am the Flat-Tire Man,” he said in that gurgly voice. It reminded her of this one homeless man that she had given coffee to once a week until his lung cancer had claimed him.
“Ah,” she said and kept on unpacking the jack. Flat-Tire Man. The sooner she got out of here, the better. Vermont kook. They grew them weird up here. Just look at her uncles. They made this guy seem normal, Uncle Mo in particular. The man had no shame—and no body hair. At least she seemed to take after her dad’s side of the family. They were mostly normal.
“I can take care of that,” the man said again.
“No, really, I’m good,” she said, doing her best to keep the bite out of her tone. He was just trying to help. Probably. He seemed too old to have any other ulterior motive in mind. She slipped the jack in place, making sure it was touching metal and not plastic. It was a cheap car, but with the way rental companies worked, it would probably cost more than her own car if she broke a chunk off of it.
The man moved closer, standing right behind her back. She didn’t really like hoverers. Or mouth breathers. Maybe it was her imagination, but she felt like she could feel his phlegmy breath on the back of her neck like a damp swampy wind.
She tried to ignore him as she dug the wrench out of the bag. At least he was acting like a windbreaker.
She took off the hubcap and set it to the side. The first two lug nuts came off easily, but the third wouldn’t budge. Molly hammered at the wrench with her fist; she was sure she was going to get a bruise. It didn’t move. She went to stand up so she could get a foot on it when the man – the Flat-Tire Man – reached over her shoulder and gave the wrench one sharp hit with his fist. It spun around, the wrench and the lug nut twirling off. She barely caught them before they dropped into the snow.
“Um, thanks,” she said. He was a strong old guy. She put the nut in her pocket along with the others and went on to the next one.
“I can take care of that for you,” he said once again. Same tone. No “you’re welcome” or anything conversational like that.
“No need,” she said. “Really.” She could have gotten that nut off, once she had all her body weight behind it. Surely he knew that. Maybe he was one of those guys that thought women shouldn’t be doing “man’s work.” Uncle Mo was like that. She set her jaw and went to work on the last lug nut, determined she would get it off without any help. It spun off after a few sharp tugs on the wrench. “Aha!” she couldn’t resist gloating, but there was no response from the guy.
She grabbed the jack and began pumping it up and down, hoping her flailing elbows would make him step back. They didn’t. She gritted her teeth and got the car jacked up enough so she could wrestle the tire off. She took a good look at it before shoving it under the car so it would act as a failsafe in case the jack slipped in all the snow. Wouldn’t do to be crushed out here in the middle of nowhere with no witness other than the kook.
“A crappy retread,” she said. “Can you believe that?” She glanced over her shoulder at the man. He nodded and took a small step back. Finally. “How cheap can they be?”
She stood up so she could get a good grip on the spare donut tire and get it into place. The snow was falling faster now, with real urgency behind it and her hands were freezing. Why hadn’t she bought gloves at the airport? Living in Florida, she didn’t own any.
“I can take—”
“I’ve got it!” she said, not really bothering to cover up her annoyance this time. “Seriously! I can do this by myself.” She glared up at him as she bent over the tire. A few flakes of snow fell in her eye, making her blink and aggravating her even more.
“Look, I appreciate that you’re trying to help and all, but it isn’t necessary.” She spun the nuts on to the spare one by one, tightening them by hand and then with the wrench. “I am perfectly capable of doing this on my own. I don’t need anyone to take care of me.” She lowered the jack, taking care to do it slowly even though she really wanted to let the thing fall to the ground with a bang for emphasis. But that wouldn’t prove that she could do it, only that she could lose her temper. Time enough for that later when she was with her family.
“And I’m sorry if I don’t sound grateful, but first I wound up with this crap rental car and I knew it was going to suck, because I have this feeling about cars, you know? But there wasn’t anything else I could take that was any better, just some three cylinder piece of junk that was even worse than this lemon—” She couldn’t resist whacking the car here, but it was back on the ground now so there was no chance of the jack coming loose. “—so I took it and then it turns out the cheap-ass rental company put a stupid retread on it, which of course blows a flat in the middle of freaking nowhere—no offense—and then the spare tire is just some donut that I wouldn’t even put on a kid’s wagon and it’s probably going to blow before I even make it to the next town, but what choice do I have?” She took a breath and gave one last vicious tug on the wrench as she made sure all the lug nuts were tight.
“And then there’s you!” She turned and looked up at him. He had backed away even more, his pale bluish hands held out like he was trying to shut her up, but she couldn’t be stopped now. “I tell you and tell you that I don’t need any help and you keep insisting and, quite frankly you’re just creepy with all the mouth-breathing and the only saying the same thing over and over. Can you even talk like a normal person? And what the hell are you doing out here without a car? It’s like a bazillion below zero.”
She grabbed the jack, collapsed it, and stuffed it into the bag. She stood up and faced him. He backed away another few steps, snow swirling around him, making him seem somehow smaller. She took another breath and rubbed the back of her wrist against her forehead. She knew from experience that her face was bright red now. Another thing she’d inherited from her father. She probably looked like Rudolph out here in the snow. Like a crazy person. Maybe she did belong in Vermont.
She leaned over and picked up the flat tire. She wanted nothing more than to pitch it into the field or whatever the vast snowy white expanse next to her was. To watch it sail into the air, a black dot growing smaller and smaller until it vanished in a flurry of white. But that would be stupid.
“Hey,” she said to the guy. He was only a dark outline in the snow now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean the creepy part.” Not entirely true, but she shouldn’t have said it. “I’m just…you know, frustrated.”
Watch him be a neighbor of someone in her family. Probably her Uncle Mo’s best friend. Hell, he was probably related. Third cousin twice removed or something. In a few hours he was going to show up at the family reunion and tell everyone about how he’d tried to help some girl change a tire and she’d gone postal on him. Her mom was going to kill her. She’d let her mouth get away from her again.
“Do you need a ride or something? I’m not always such a…you know.” She shrugged.
“No,” he said, finally saying something different. She almost smiled. She took a step toward him but he moved away from her at the same time. A big gust of wind sprang up and she stumbled back into the car, all of her exposed skin stinging from the onslaught of coldness. When she could see again, he was gone. She called out a few times, but there was no answer. She shook her head and put the flat tire in the trunk, slamming it shut with a satisfying thunk.
She climbed into the car and turned it on, letting it warm up for a few minutes while she rubbed her hands together. She waited a few more to see if he’d knock on her window for a ride but all was quiet, still, and white. She pulled back onto the road and drove slowly and carefully straight to her uncle’s house since it seemed like the spare was holding. And, honestly, she didn’t feel like dealing with the rental company until after she’d made it through the festivities. One annoyance at a time.
She knocked at the door and was immediately enveloped into the bosom of her mother’s family. She endured rounds of squishy hugs, exclamations of “Look how you’ve grown!” and “Look at that Florida tan!,” followed by the inevitable questions about her lack of a serious boyfriend. It wasn’t until a late arriving cousin came in that she even thought about the rental car or the flat tire.
“Who owns that piece of junk with the donut tire on it?” asked Andrew, one of the few of her Vermont relatives she could stand. He understood cars too and had a beautiful old Ford that he’d restored and only drove around on Sundays.
“Mine,” she admitted. “Well, my rental, anyway. I got a flat tire on the way here. Had to change it in the snow in the middle of nowhere.” She caught herself before swearing. Her mother was listening.
“What?” said Uncle Mo. He bustled up, his baldhead gleaming. “You got a flat tire? Where? What road?”
“Route whatever-it-is,” she said, waving vaguely off in the distance. “The one I always take whenever I come up here. Is there any other way?”
There was a moment of silence and then everyone spoke at once until Uncle Mo yelled for silence.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Did you see anyone?”
“I’m fine,” she said. Obviously. “Some old guy offered to help, but I told him I could do it.”
“Thank goodness you’re okay,” said her mother.
“What are you all talking about?” Molly looked around the room. Everyone was quiet and somber, like they were all suddenly sober, even Uncle Mo and he was never sober.
“Five girls have disappeared on that road in the last year,” he said. “The only things left behind were their cars. They all had flat tires. Never have found their bodies or any clues, other than two sets of footprints. Nothing stolen out of them, either.”
“Yeah,” said Andrew, “they think it might be a serial killer. The papers have been calling him The Flat-Tire Man. They figure he gets close to them by offering to help with the flat. Most girls can’t change one, you know, not like you can. Good thing that wasn’t the guy who stopped to help you.”