Monday, May 25, 2015
Never Too Late
"Happy birthday to me," Sandra sang bitterly to herself while she cruised her aging Toyota up Route 15. Today, at precisely 5:14 p.m., she would turn thirty-six. She had a career of sorts—manager of one of the chain motels at the Talbot's Peak exit—and a comfortable if uneventful life. All she lacked was someone to share it with.
Countless blind dates set up by well-meaning friends, an endless circuit of the limited bar scene, and one disastrous incident stemming from an online dating site had finally convinced Sandra her personal Prince Charming must have taken a different ramp off the interstate. Once a girl passed thirty, statistics said she stood a better chance of being shot by terrorists than she did of finding a man. No handsome stranger was going to ride up on a white horse and sweep her off her feet.
So screw it. Screw the bars, screw the catfish-infested waters of InstaDate.com, screw that loser cousin of Franny's and that arrogant asshat Betsy had sort of known back in high school. This birthday was the end of the line.
To celebrate her climbing out of the dating pool, she resolved to do something different. Something daring. Something completely on her own. After living in the area for four dry years, she was finally going to visit Talbot's Peak.
She'd been warned against this, of course. "The people are weird out there," all the locals told her. What kind of weird, she wanted to know. Here the stories conflicted. Some said survivalists. Some said back-to-nature hipsters. Franny was convinced they were vampires. Sandra knew for sure they had an ice cream shop, a bakery, and a town square. If she could find a park bench to sit on with ice cream and cake, maybe even a Memorial Day parade, she was willing to give the town a shot.
So what if a mammoth had charged up this very road last year, straight for the town? How often did things like that happen? Just stay away from the biker bar, Sandra told herself. Everything was going to be fine. Maybe even fun.
The sight of colorful balloon animals tethered to the lampposts around the square immediately got her hopes up. That the animals depicted by the contorted balloons were mostly representations of predators didn't strike her mind until later. Rather than fight the foot, hooved and wheeled traffic circling the square—as always, the cars stalking unwary parking spaces reminded her of buzzards—Sandra took advantage of the Parking $2 Benefits the Beavers opportunity set up at City Hall. She handed over a pair of ones to an eight-year-old with huge buck teeth, while wondering who the Beavers were. Probably the local Scout troop.
By the time she'd strolled the block to the square she was definitely feeling much better. What a lovely little town! And the quaint storefronts! Not a chain store or corporate logo in sight. After four years working at the commercialized exit strip, her heart was hungry for small-town America.
Although, given the number of hips and shoulders she bumped on the jam-packed sidewalks, she had to wonder just how "small" the Peak was. And what was in the water. More than one man, and every single woman, growled at her over each inadvertent collision. Literally growled. Except for the tall blonde in the cowboy hat and the snakeskin boots, who hissed. It was like they could smell she was a stranger here, and resented her invasion of their turf.
Screw 'em. She was celebrating.
Sandra found the ice cream shop with no trouble, and patiently stood in line to get her dish of mint chocolate chip. With sprinkles. Today was her birthday. Live large.
While she stood on the sidewalk, back pressed against brick and spooning the delicious ice cream into her mouth, she gazed around and over all the sheepskin coats and Stetsons in search of the bakery. Get a cupcake? Oh hell, get a slice. Chocolate cake with peanut butter icing. Might as well go for it. Would they stick a candle in it? Wouldn't hurt to ask.
Ah. There was the bakery, across the square. Sandra dumped her empty plastic dish in a trash bin and stepped off the curb, her full attention trained on her destination. The thud of hoofbeats on blacktop was so common here in Montana she didn't pay any attention to it.
The yells and the whinnies, however, that she heard.
One moment she was crossing the street and anticipating moist chocolate cake on her tongue. The next, people were screaming, "Watch it! Look out! Somebody help the monkey!"
Monkey? Sandra stared about and finally noticed, not monkeys, but three horses pounding toward her, in spite of a lot of rough hauling on reins from their desperate riders. She froze in the middle of the street, too stunned to move.
One of the three abruptly changed tactics. He urged his mount forward, ahead of the other two. Before she could react, or even make a sound, he reached out, caught her around the waist, and lifted her easily into his saddle. He never even slowed. Sandra clung to him, her mind a blank, while he maneuvered the horse out of the square.
Once they'd reached a relatively clear stretch the cowboy eased his horse into a canter, then a jolting trot, and finally to a standstill. Sandra stared dizzily into his face. Cowboy? Given his dark skin, long raven's-wing hair, and chiseled cheekbones and chin, better make that Indian. My God he's handsome were the first words that popped into her brain. She nearly said them aloud.
Just then the horse gave a little buck, no doubt in protest of its suddenly-doubled load. A yelp blurted out of her instead.
The man said something in a lilting foreign tongue. Then he corrected himself, with a brilliant smile full of white, powerful teeth. "Ah. Must remember. English here. This is America. Are you all right? Have you been injured?"
Sandra's whirling mind made a hasty re-assessment. Indian, yes, but not Native American. "I'm … " she started, then halted, unsure how to finish. Okay? In shock? Sitting on a strange man's lap on horseback in public? He smiled at her patiently. She became aware that something else was growing, and it wasn't the saddle horn.
All at once it occurred to her a handsome prince of a stranger on horseback had just swept her off her feet. She said the only words her tongue would form. "Happy birthday?"