She was driving to Raleigh for Christmas. Her two kids were in the backseat. Larry, the black Lab, was riding shotgun.
She’d been on the road five hours.
Her children were quiet. Larry made powerful smells in the front seat. Foul smells which only hardened war criminals are strong enough to endure without suffering nasal trauma.
And even though it was snowing in North Carolina, they rolled the windows down.
She was scared—though she wouldn’t admit it. Only four years earlier, her husband died by his own hands. It was ugly. Very ugly.
He’d been staying at his friend’s hunting camp. His friends found him.
Life was supposed to go on. Somehow. But it didn’t. She blamed herself. She cried with her bedroom door shut. She was hollow inside. Loneliness can be crippling.
People were kind to her, but they were too kind. A body can only stand so much sympathy.
So, she left her hometown for a fresh start. She sold her house. Her kids packed the car. And apparently, Larry had eaten a dead chipmunk for breakfast.
Five hours later, she wasn’t sure she’d done the right thing. Moving terrified her. It was unlike her.
And maybe that’s why she stopped for a hitchhiker—which was also not like her. Three hitchhikers to be exact. A man and two children.
She pulled to the shoulder and waved. The man and kids piled into her car. Red cheeks, breathing heavy.
He was a large man with a happy face. His kids were young.
“Sorry about the smell,” she said. “Larry has an upset tummy.”
The man’s car had broken down. His three-person family had been walking toward the nearest gas station when weather got bad. He thanked her until he couldn’t.
“Nobody stopped for us,” he said. “We’ve been walking for half an hour, trying to wave folks down.”
She parked beside his dead vehicle and waited for the wrecker. While they waited, they talked. They laughed.
It had been a long time since she’d done either.
He asked about her husband.
“He’s gone,” was all she said.
Then, he told her about his late wife. He talked about how she’d overdosed on pills and alcohol, and how he felt responsible. He talked about how lonely he’d felt in years that followed.
The hair on her neck stood.
His simple words made her feel less alone. And when he finished, she told her story from the beginning. He didn’t interrupt, not once.
After the wrecker arrived, they ate pizzas from a supermarket. Larry begged for scraps. She drove the family home, said goodnight, and that was that.
She was riding toward Raleigh again. Only this time, her face was ten shades brighter than before.
It had taken only five hours on the road. Five hours for an empty car to feel full. Five hours to end a laughing drought. To feel less alone—even if only for a moment.
Five hours for a stranger with a happy face to ask if he could call her sometime. Five hours to find love.
I’ve heard it said that life can change in a moment.
I’m damn grateful it can.
Happy twenty-third anniversary Linda and Gray.