Exhausted, I put my head on the steering wheel.
The LED clock on the dashboard said 6:15 am.
“We’re already behind schedule,” I laughed.
I glanced at the woman in the passenger seat.
“You ready to do this?”
I love her laugh.
It was one of the 378 things that had brought me back to her, years after we had been high school sweethearts. Scarlet was just intoxicating – both then and now.
Each of us had a kid or two of our own by the time we found each other again, but the magic between us was undeniable.
She reached across the center console to put her hand on my shoulder.
“You OK? We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”
“YEP! I’m GOOOOD…” I exclaimed, and I turned the radio on.
The back of the van erupted in laughter and approval.
I looked in the rearview mirror and saw each of our four beautiful children in their usual places.
In the passenger side backseat was Ian, my oldest. Blonde and handsome, he inherited his mother’s dark and beautiful eyes. As hard as I had tried, I hadn’t been successful in getting Ian’s mother to give me custody. Even getting the opportunity to have regular weekly visits had proved to be a challenge over the years. It was a complete mystery to me about why she suddenly allowed him to go on this cross-country trip with us. He was pleasant with all of us, but somewhat aloof. Perhaps this trip would bring us a little closer.
In the driver’s side backseat was Mia, Scarlet’s daughter, delivered just a few months after my ex and I had Ian, but a few months before Scarlet and I rediscovered each other. Mia had always been responsible, but she also became a rock in our family when it came to cheerfulness and finding a positive spin on everything.
In the passenger side middle row was Maddie, my daughter with a previous wife. I had maintained custody of her since I got out of the Army. Lucky for all of us, the two girls bonded quickly while younger. Maddie looked up to Mia, and Mia took easily to the role being her protector and big-sister-and-best-friend.
And then, right behind me was our baby, Liam, a bit of a testimonial to our successful status as a fully blended family. Darned kid got Scarlet’s eyes, right down to the incredibly long eyelashes. A happy baby, he’d brought a lot of laughter into all of our lives in under a year.
Ian and Mia and Maddie were fully into the music, dancing in their seats. Liam regarded them with wide eyes, and joined in eventually, as only a baby can do, especially with a bottle in his mouth while strapped securely into a car seat.
I laughed and looked again at my beautiful wife, Scarlet.
“I know you never forget anything. Did we forget anything?”
She laughed again, and her beautiful eyes lit up. “I see four kids buckled into their seats…”
I grinned and said, “You’re sure we didn’t forget one?”
“OK, well, I loaded ALLLLLL of the luggage you packed.”
“Good! And you locked up the house and set the alarm?”
“OK! Crank that music up and let’s go, Babe!”
The back of the van erupted in approval.
Driving through the desert, everyone’s faces were in their phones except mine. After all, the scenery gets pretty boring after the first five minutes.
My phone rang, and Scarlet answered it.
“Hello,” said an unfamiliar voice. “This is Jason from Safe At Home Security. Our system indicates that your home has been broken into. First of all, is everyone alright?”
“Yes Ma’am. Again, is everyone safe?”
“Yes, yes, yes. We are. Thank you. We’re just heading out for a vacation. We notified the company. Do you not have that information?”
“Well, Ma’am, I’m sure we do, but my job as a dispatcher when we have a break-in is to ensure that all household residents are safe. So I will repeat, ‘Is everyone who lives in your house currently safe?'”
“Yes. We are all safe.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Ma’am. We have notified the police and they are on the way to your house now.”
“Thank you! Our dogs are home. We have a pet sitter scheduled to watch them. Can you verify that they are safe, too?”
“I will pass that information on, Ma’am.”
Scarlet turned to me with wide eyes.
“It’ll be OK. That’s why we pay for a home security company. Let’s wait to hear back from them and the police. Then we’ll send my mom over to check on everything.”
Scarlet sighed, relieved.
She’d spent the past 90 minutes checking in with the police and the security company, ensuring that everything was OK at home – while I kept the van pointed toward our destination across the country.
“OK. So it looks like the break-in was within minutes of us leaving the driveway this morning. Someone was watching us pack up the van and leave.”
I shook my head in disgust.
“But the dogs are fine. They actually helped scare the intruders away, along with the alarm system going off.”
“It looks like they were after our gaming systems, computers, and wide screen TVs. They didn’t get any of them.”
I held up my hand for a high-five, which she delivered.
I know that this is one of her favorite qualities about me. Small details never deter me from a big plan.
“OK, so my phone’s almost dead. I’ll use yours to call the parents and a couple of friends, OK?”
I nodded. The next 500 miles were pretty much a straight shot, right through Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.
“All good!” I exclaimed, as I cranked the music up again.
After the tension of the quiet during the previous calls, the backseat occupants erupted once more into gratitude.
Scarlet waited until the song ended, turned to the kids and said, “OK, guys. I have to call all the grandparents to let them know what happened. Put your earbuds back in, because I’m going to need to be on the phone for a little while again.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror. All the kids obediently put their headphones on — except for Liam, who was still dancing in his carseat, even though the music was gone.
“He’s got his own party going on,” I said.
Scarlet laughed. “Doesn’t he always? Hmmm, I wonder who he gets that from?”
Some hours later, I glanced at the gas gauge and said, “OK, we’re getting off at the next exit. I’ll get gas while you change Liam’s diaper. You guys hit the bathrooms, and then we’ll get lunch to go.”
Scarlet stretched and nodded. “It will feel so good to get out of these seats, right kids?”
No one answered. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw only the tops of the kids’ heads, since their faces were in their electronics. Well, except for Liam, who was sleeping soundly, his head turned toward the window and his mouth wide open.
About an hour later, Scarlet said the exact words that I’d been thinking.
“Isn’t it kind of weird that there hasn’t been an exit forever?”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Except for the names of the characters, nothing in this story has been altered. The sequence of events is accurate.
The next chapter will also be completely true, although it will leave you somewhat incredulous.
My friends, I invite you to GUESS at the main events in the next chapter. One of these is 100% true.
- A rattlesnake emerged from the luggage compartment in the back of the van.
- The van ran out of gas out in the middle of nowhere, and the family had no way to get help.
- The baby became unusually cranky. After a diaper change, he began vomiting and developed a high fever.
- An 18-wheeler appeared in the oncoming lanes over the median. Without warning, it crossed the median and appeared to be aiming for a head-on collision with the family’s van.
Please use the Comment section to make your guess!
Hint: If you don’t see a place to vote or comment, scroll ALLLLL the way down to the bottom of this page, past other people’s comments. There it is!
Thank you for reading!
Chapter Two will be posted — when I have 20 readers’ guesses!