There sat a dilapidated country store, far back in the sparse woods. Thick brush grew across the dirt-packed road and clusters of white blossoms dotted the leaves. Trees with monstrous trunks reached toward the sky.
An old man came across the time-worn building, stood with his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans, and stared. Hazel eyes twinkled as seventy-eight years of memories came flooding back. He took in the rust-covered metal awning and its ivy that crept up the sides and spilled down the front. The rustic wooden sign creaked and swayed in the slight summer breeze.
The man strolled over to the now antique gas pump and ran his wrinkled fingers over the rough metal surface. Paint chips fractured off in his hands and crumbled between his fingertips. He could still recall the day he helped Mr. Akers give it a fresh coat.
Around the side of the store was a small, red balcony. The nails were bent and the planks were loose, but he remembered standing up there as a young man in his twenties. He used to bring a root beer to relax against the railing during his break and watch the people pass.
The damp, rain-soaked smell of wood was still as pungent as in the days of his first job. No one lived in this tiny Tennessee town anymore, and no one traveled through. Oh, but it used to be busy. A lot of times it was only him, young Thomas Hartley, and Mr. Akers working during rush hour, and Tom himself both ran the counter and pumped gas for the ladies.
“Tommy boy!” the man recalled Mr. Akers yelling from across the store. “Run along and use that pretty-boy charm of yours.” And so Thomas would flash his adventurous eyes and bright smile to get some extra tip from women who needed gasoline.
Although, there was one day when his routine didn’t flow smoothly like always. There was a young woman who pulled up in her dainty, yet practically broken down, Chrysler and stood with her hands folded expectantly. Tom strolled outside, showing off a winning smile.
“Morning, ma’am,” he greeted politely as always. The woman flipped back her long brown curls and nodded.
“You here to pump my gas for me?’ she asked in a rushed tone. “Because I’ve got somewhere to be and I really don’t need your shenanigans to try to get some extra cents out of me.” Thomas picked up the nozzle, stuck it in the car, and looked back at the woman.
“Well, Miss, in these parts we believe in southern hospitality,” he said with a wink. The young lady rolled her eyes and tapped her foot as she impatiently waited for her tank to fill.
“You sure it’s workin’? I don’t hear anything,” she asked intrudingly over Thomas’s shoulder. He bent down next to the pump and narrowed his eyes as the woman sighed heavily.
Tom looked up at her with a smirk. “You’ve got to learn to calm down, you know that? Just stop rushin’ and see where time takes you.”
“I am calm,” she said, her eyes widening dramatically. “I’m always calm.” Thomas chuckled before reaching over for Mr. Akers’s ancient toolbox he kept next to the pump.
“This ol’ rust bucket,” he said, half grunting as he tightened some parts with a well-used wrench. “It needs all new insides, that’s what it needs. And a new paint job wouldn’t be too bad either.” After a few minutes of struggle, he finally stood back up and squeezed the nozzle. The sound of a working machine filled the town.
“You know, you should be an engineer or somethin’ one day. My brother’s real smart and I don’t think he could even make that hot mess of a pump work.”
“I ain’t smart or rich enough for that sort of thing,” Thomas replied over his shoulder.
“A mechanic, then.”
“Ain’t good with cars either.”
“Well,” she huffed, “you can’t work here until the day you die, witty man like you.”
“Watch me, Miss,” Thomas said, and with that he put the nozzle back in its holder. He then wiped his oily hand on his jeans and extended it to the woman.
“The name’s Thomas Hartley.”
“Virginia Mayfield,” she answered, and shook his hand firmly. “I’m sure I’ll catch you around again, seein’ as you’re planning to spend your whole life here and all.”
“I don’t doubt you will.”
And with that, the fiery Virginia Mayfield drove off. But Thomas did see her again, the very next day in fact. One would wonder how every day her gas tank suddenly seemed to empty after only a day of travel, but Thomas didn’t complain.
Coming back to reality, old man Hartley opened the partly broken door and walked inside the store. The floorboards creaked like they would fall through to the cellar at any moment. It was musty and dark except for the light that seeped in through the boarded windows. The familiar countertop’s wood had split and was beginning to sink down.
Back in the day and after a while of taking abnormally long amounts of time to fill up Miss Mayfield’s gas tank, Mr. Akers told Thomas to go on ahead and have her along in the store with him. Virginia would lean on the countertop next to him with her brown curls splayed across the wood as he worked. And whenever he ran out to pump gas for the ladies, she would call after him with a hand cupped around her lips, “Not too much charm, now– I don’t share well with others!”
After years of adventuring around Tennessee, driving for hours until they struggled to find their way back home, and sitting at the bar as Thomas ran his hands through her long hair as Virginia sketched lilies, he finally proposed. The pretty-boy high school dropout got himself a fiancé while walking hand in hand through the backwoods of Tennessee.
He planned to build a house for them there, a wooden cabin just far away enough from small towns, but still close enough to Mr. Akers. Thomas planned for a white picket fence and wide porch swing so she could lay on it and sketch the lilies he would plant every year in the front yard.
Until one day, there was a downpour. Rain turned the gravel and dirt road to mush and Thomas Hartley was manning the country store alone when he heard a car engine’s rumble cut through the sound of wind. A frantic Virginia Mayfield burst through the door, lipstick smeared across her lips and a ghostly look in her eyes.
Thomas went to stand in front of her, worried and confused.
“Virginia…” he tried to get her attention. “Virginia, why are you here in this storm?” He attempted to run his hands through her long brown curls, but her hair was rain-soaked and tangled. He couldn’t get through. He couldn’t calm her.
“Thomas,” she said quietly. Virginia’s eyes shot up to his. “Thomas, you have to promise me something.” The young woman began to shake from the rain and wind. Thomas strained to corral her farther into the store, but she suddenly grabbed his wrist.
“Thomas Hartley, listen to me.”
“Okay. Okay,” he sighed and put a hand to the side of her face. “Okay, what is it?”
“You have to promise me,” her voice trembled, “that we’ll leave this place. We’ll get out of Tennessee and go far, far away and never turn back.”
“Virginia, where is this coming from?” His hand fell aside.
“I can’t stay here anymore, Thomas. My father…” she trailed off into a trance for a few moments. “Thomas, I just can’t bear the memories of this place anymore. Promise me that we’ll buy a house somewhere in a big city and we’ll run away from here.”
Thomas broke away from her and paced around the wooden floorboards. He wiped his hands on his jeans, a nervous habit even without having oily fingers. He stood aback and looked at the distraught girl in the doorway. She’d never mentioned family issues before. She’d never mentioned family at all.
After a long silence he began, “When I told you I would work here ‘til I die so long ago, I meant it.”
“W-what?” Virginia stared at him with wide, intense eyes.
“My family, Virginia. I’ve been bringing in all the income for my mom for years. I have to help her with the house, the kids, putting food on the table. I can’t leave that.” Thomas began pacing again, feeling the anxiety spread through every limb in his body. “And I dropped out of high school for them. I would never get a job anywhere else, ‘specially in a big city.”
“You could be a mechanic,” she mumbled. Virginia seemed to shrink inside of herself and vanish altogether.
“How many times have I told you I don’t know that much about cars?” Eventually, Thomas stopped shuffling about and stood beside her once again. “I’m building us a house, you know. It’s sturdy and warm and it’ll keep you safe. I’ll keep you safe. You don’t have to run.”
Virginia looked up to him and said, “Yes, Thomas, I do.”
She put a cold hand on his shoulder and stared at him for what felt to Thomas like an eternity, and one second rolled into one moment. Then, she turned around as swiftly, as surely, and as unexpectedly as a lightning strike in a rainstorm. Virginia ran to her muddy Chrysler. Thomas reached for her brown curls as she ran, held out his hand through the rain as he followed her. But her hair passed right through his fingertips. She drove away like the thunder, loud and lingering. She followed the path leading north out of town. Out of Tennessee.
“Dad! Hey, Dad!” Hartley opened up the rusted door to see his son jogging up from the truck. “You ready to go? We’ve got to hurry and pick up Cindy if we want to make it to Jack’s graduation on time.”
Tom Hartley took one last look at the old place that he had ran for so many years before selling it off. Turns out Mr. Akers had a fortune in the cellar and gave the place in full to Thomas when he died.
“Yes, son, I’m ready.” Together they walked to the blue pickup truck. Thomas took the toe of his shoes and spread around the gravel to hear the sound. It still reminded him of lilies in a thunderstorm.
“By the way, Dad, when are you going to fix that broken part for me?”
“I’ll get around to it eventually,” Hartley heaved while opening the passenger door.
“C’mon, what kind of mechanic are you?”
“An old one. With a lot of stories, a lot of regrets, and hopefully a lot of time left to make at least some things right.”
Sydney Johnson is a 17-year-old from Indiana suburbia (Avon, IN). When she isn’t playing a piccolo and marching around a football field, you can find her drawing Disney characters, editing pictures, or fantasizing about traveling the world. She is passionate about writing and hopes to always create captivating stories for whomever chooses to listen. Don’t be shy to reach her on Instagram: @sydwaitforitney .