Sunday, May 13, 2018

It began with a creepy encounter in a restaurant

"The Van" is a short story a crime story that about a trip from Ohio to Florida that goes horribly wrong, because of two dangerous strangers.

Troy is a divorced father. He is driving his daughter, Ellie, from Ohio to Florida. 

After a summer spent with her dad, Ellie must return to her mother and stepfather for the school year. 

Troy has enjoyed the summer with his daughter. But now he has to protect Ellie (and himself) from an unforeseen menace.

"The Van" is available on Amazon Kindle. (Sample below)

*        *        *

Troy noticed that the two men standing in the adjacent line of the crowded restaurant were eying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ellie. The men were both in their mid-thirties, probably only a few years older than Troy. But unlike Troy, they were big, hard men, dressed like painters or roofers. Both had full beards. One was blond, and the other had black hair. 
Their interest in Ellie was more than simply casual, and they were making little effort to be discreet, let alone secretive. Troy met their stares and neither of them turned away, as grown men would ordinarily do when caught in such an act of impropriety. On the contrary, they were laughing and ribbing each other while they looked at Ellie. 
Troy and Ellie were waiting in line in the Julep’s BBQ, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the evening rush hour. This was one of Troy’s last dinners with his daughter, at least for the summer, and he didn't want it to be spoiled by two random perverts. And there was also the very real possibility that these two men would turn out to be a significant problem, rather than a passing annoyance.
She’s only thirteen, Troy thought. What kind of men look at a thirteen-year-old girl that way? 
Nevertheless, he turned his attention back to his daughter. 
“Do you know what you want?” he asked her. He was somewhat relieved to see that Ellie seemed not to have noticed the men’s attention.
“When we stopped here in June, you had the pulled pork, I think.”
Ellie nodded, after giving the question the full attention that it deserved. “I’ll have the pulled pork again.”
Julep’s was one of those establishments where you place your order at the counter, fast-food style. It was hot and crowded at this hour of the evening. The last week of August in eastern Tennessee. 
Troy was an outsider in this part of the world, even though he had made numerous trips this way since Ellie’s mother had remarried and relocated from Ohio to Florida. Knoxville was one of the logical stopping places along the long southerly trek down I-75, and of course on the way back north. 
“Will you eat here on the way back from Florida?” Ellie asked. They were the next ones in line. 
“No,” Troy said. “Julep’s is our restaurant. I’ll stop at Wendy’s or Hardee’s or Chipotle, but not Julep’s.”
Ellie smiled. “Maybe I can come back with you. Mom doesn't really need me.” 
She said this in a light-hearted manner. They both knew that Kylie loved Ellie. But Kylie loved her daughter in her own way, at a different intensity. Different people had different ways of loving, of expressing their love. This was a matter that Troy and Ellie had discussed at some length over the summer.
 “We can just go down to Gainesville and I can come home with you, then,” Ellie pressed. “I’ll pop in and say hi to Mom—and to Joe, I guess.”
Troy put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t yet acquired that don’t-acknowledge-me-in-public attitude that teenage girls so often adopt toward their parents between the onset of puberty and the end of high school. It gratified Troy when Ellie said things like that, and he was more than a little glad to see that she still loathed Joe, Kylie’s “new” husband of three years—even if Joe wasn’t, on balance, such a bad guy.
“I wish you could,” Troy said. “But we both know how it has to be.”
Troy glanced over at the adjacent line. The two men were still there, still looking at his daughter. They were just out of earshot, given the buzz of the busy restaurant. But there was no doubt about what they were doing, whom they were looking at.
Troy stepped around Ellie and placed himself between his daughter and the leering men. Don’t give them anything to look at, he thought. 
Troy wished he were the sort of man who could simply walk over to the men and tell them to look elsewhere, and be confident that his words would carry the necessary weight. But there were two of them; and the truth was that either one of them would be more than a match for Troy. He wasn't that sort of a guy, but he would protect his daughter however he could. 
He turned back to Ellie and noticed that her cheeks were reddened. She looked up at him knowingly. So she had noticed the two men. 
Troy was also suddenly aware of what Ellie was wearing: shorts and a halter top. It was summer, after all; and they were on a long drive through the South. Moreover, Troy still saw Ellie as the little girl she had been just a few years ago, eating cereal in front of the television in her pajamas on Saturday morning, her smile showing the gap of a missing baby tooth. 
Wanting to freeze time in place, he hadn’t fully acknowledged the changes that had taken place. Had he not made that mistake, he thought, he could have made sure that his daughter dressed more modestly. Then she wouldn't have drawn the attention of these two perverted men in their thirties.
So he had failed to protect her twice: first, preemptively, and now, that these two men were actively making her uncomfortable.
Troy took a deep breath, and put his shoulders back, as if trying to expand his five-foot, nine inches to a brawny six-four. Ridiculous, and probably transparent, even to Ellie.
“Don’t worry about those two,” Troy said. There was no need to specify which two he was talking about. “I’m here.”

Ellie nodded and looked up at the lighted menu board behind the counter. The young woman at the cash register nodded for them to place their order, and they stepped forward together. Troy felt more inadequate than he had in a long time, probably since Ellie’s mother had first left him...

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