Melissa Alice put her shoulder into it and felt the fury rising in the depths of her soul. Those buggers did this on purpose, she thought as the bolts refused to budge. Sweat rolled down her face and the tire iron slipped a little in her hand so she stepped back and unclenched. They didn’t have to make them so tight!
Traffic was light and what few cars there were flew by her without even thinking of stopping. Who stops to help a lorry driver anyway? They all know how to fix their rigs. They’ve all got mobiles. They’ve got all the tools they need.
Except her mobile was back in her flat, the tools weren’t doing the job and the sexist pigs back at the shop had made sure the nuts were too tight for anyone, woman or not, to loosen on their own. She slid the wrench into position on another one of the nuts, figuring a change might do her good, then threw her weight into it. Nothing. Again. Nothing. A third time. Was that movement? She tried again. No, not movement. Just her imagination.
She looked at her watch. 5:30 in the morning. A lonely, barren road. Only two hours from base and home, her bed waiting for her, the funeral looming on the morrow. But not until she got this flat fixed and the lorry back on the road.
She heard a rustle in the trees behind her and, hefting the tire iron in her right hand like a club, she turned. A man, a grizzled old man, emerged from the underbrush, his bright blue eyes piercing beneath his iron grey hair and wrinkled face.
Melissa Alice unclenched. He must be a hundred years old, she thought to herself, no danger to me. But no help either.
“Hey old timer,” she said, surprised at how loud her voice sounded in the early morning quiet. “What’re ya doin’ out and about in the middle of nowhere?”
He walked slowly up to her and she took in the strangeness of his costume. He wore a long, dark cloak and a cloth hat. His boots looked like leather from a cow that roamed the earth with the dinosaurs. His hair hung ratty from his skull and his thin silver beard came to a point about three inches below his chin. He kept his right hand tucked inside his cloak, out of sight.
But it was his eyes that kept drawing her gaze. Wide and blue as a summer sky, they seemed to x-ray her as she stood there. She found herself blushing.
“I could ask you the same question, young lady,” he said in a gruff, gravelly voice.
“Flat,” she said simply, nodding toward the truck behind her. “Can’t get the nuts loose.”
The man stared at her like she was speaking a foreign language. Then he smiled. “Perhaps I can help,” he said.
“Not ‘less you’re stronger than you look,” Melissa Alice said with a harsh laugh. “If I can’t move them nuts, I doubt you can.”
His smile didn’t waiver. “I am indeed old,” he said after a moment, “and I doubt my physical strength matches yours.”
She nodded, looked into his eyes for a last moment, then turned back to the wheel. She slid the wrench into place one last time, not even bothering to hope, and put her shoulder into it.
The nut turned easily, so easily, in fact, that it nearly threw her off balance. Melissa Alice set herself right, then turned it the rest of the way off.
“Well, that didn’t seem so difficult,” the old man said from behind her.
She didn’t turn. “No, it didn’t, did it?” she said. She slipped the wrench onto the next nut. “The other ones won’t come so easy, I can guarantee you.”
“Oh,” he said complacently, “I don’t know about that.” Then he muttered something under his breath which she didn’t catch.
Melissa Alice went at the next nut with a little less force. It nearly spun beneath the wrench. “Huh,” she said as she twisted it off. “That’s right odd.”
The third nut came off just as easily as did the next and the next. Soon, she had the wheel off and was rolling the spare into position.
The old man stood where he was, watching her with a contented look on his face, not saying a word, his hand still hidden beneath his cloak.
“Stick around, old man,” Melissa Alice said as she hefted the spare into place and began to tighten the nuts again. “You’re a good luck charm or summat.”
He smiled. “Or summat,” he repeated.
With the wheel back in place and the jack and iron properly stowed, Melissa Alice approached the man who still had not moved. He seemed remarkably relaxed, remarkably patient. It made her feel almost uncomfortable. She couldn’t understand why.
“You need a lift someplace, mister?” she asked finally. “I’m just heading into Bradford, about two hours hence, but if you’re heading that way…”
He gazed at her, then up at her truck, then at her again. “In that?” he asked.
She laughed. “Course in that,” she said. “Look, she might’ve had a blowout but she’s in good shape otherwise. She’s completely safe.”
His brilliant blue eyes took her in for some time longer, then he nodded. “Certainly, thank you,” he said. “I am on my way to London by way of Mould-on-the-Wold and Godric’s Hollow but I would appreciate your company for the next part of my journey.”
A cold wind blew across Melissa Alice’s mind. Was he safe? He seemed very strange, as if this was all new to him. Maybe he’s escaped from some kind of a hospital or an asylum.
Maybe he’s got some form of dementia.
She looked him up and down. If he does, she thought, I could still break him in half with my one hand, he’s so old.
“Okay,” she said after a moment, “jump in then.”
Aberforth climbed up onto the great metal vehicle and slid himself into the chair beside Melissa Alice. He touched the smooth, almost slimy-feeling substance that covered the chair, a shiver of repulsion rippling through him, but he kept his face impassive.
The woman twisted something under the round object in front of her, pulled a lever that rose from the floor between them, then with a grunt, pushed the lever forward again. A great noise rose from somewhere in front of them and the vehicle lurched forward.
“Remarkable,” he murmured, too quiet for the woman to hear. “Dirty, noisy but remarkable.”
The lorry began to pick up speed as it rolled down the tarmac ribbon that stretched out between rows of trees in front of them. He watched in fascination as Melissa Alice’s feet and hands worked in practiced rhythm, coaxing more and more speed from the vehicle.
After several moments, the acceleration ended and the woman settled back into her seat, a smile on her face again. “That’s better,” she said with some satisfaction. “The old girl’s got her wind up again.”
Aberforth puzzled over her words for a moment, then decided just to let them slide away. He figured if he were to start talking about broom design and apparation issues, this pleasant Muggle would probably be just as bewildered as he felt now.
The noise settled into a steady hum and soon Aberforth’s ears were able to tune it out. Melissa Alice glanced sideways at him.
“You always this quiet?” she asked.
“Never rode in one of these before,” he said after a pause.
She laughed, a deep resonant laugh that he found quite pleasing. “No, not many people can say they have,” she said. “Sure, this isna the biggest rig on the road – not an 18-wheeler, as they calls’em – but it’s bigger than most have in their yard.”
“Have you been operating such a vehicle long?” Aberforth noted the calm that had come across her handsome, youthful face now that the lorry was back on the road.
“ ‘Bout ten years, I’d say,” she said. “Since me bloke Kevin left me and the kids. Had to find a way to pay the bills, then, didn’t I?”
“You have children, then, have you?”
“Aye. A pair of’em,” she said, her eyes scanning the road ahead. “Boy and a girl. Good kids, really. Now old enough to fend for themselves when I’m off on the road. Gives me a chance to take the longer trips, you know, make better money.”
“How long have you been away?” Aberforth found the feeling of movement quite pleasant, smoother in some ways than the Hogwarts Express, more comfortable than a broom or a thestral.
“Five days this time. Went across to Holland with a load, then picked up another for the trip back,” she said.
“You’ll be happy to see your children again, then?”
She nodded. “Not a happy homecoming, though,” she said after a moment. “Got to bury my old dad tomorrow afternoon. Died while I was away.”
Aberforth peered at her, scanned her dark brown eyes but found no sign of tears. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Been sick for a long time, my dad has,” she said, tossing a glance his way. “Better for him this way, I shant wonder. Past the pain, past the heartache and frustration.”
“So it is not an entirely sad event, then?” Aberforth watched her closely, saw tightness around the corners of her eyes, in the set of her lips. “But it still upsets you.”
“Aye, it does,” she said after a moment. Then she turned and looked at him again, a little longer this time. “You ever lost a parent?”
He smiled. If she knew he was over a hundred years old, she probably wouldn’t have needed to ask the question. Then again, he thought, his parents had died long ago in very strange ways. “Yes, both. Some time ago, actually.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Then you know what I’m talking about. No matter how long you know it’s coming, it’s still a bit of a shock when it finally comes.”
“Both my parents died quite suddenly,” Aberforth said, recalling the stony silence with which he had greeted news of his father’s death in prison, the shock of finding his mother dead on the kitchen floor several years later. “As did, in fact, my brother and my sister.”
“Accident, was it?” she asked, her eyes now narrowed.
“My father died in prison,” he said, his voice flat. “Both my mother and my sister died in separate accidents. My brother…” he sighed, his memory playing back scenes from that fateful night more than a year ago, “my brother was murdered.”
Melissa Alice swallowed once and kept her eyes on the road. “Tough life,” she said.
They rode along in silence for several minutes, each lost in his or her own thoughts, the narrow belt of pavement unwinding beneath their wheels.
“So you’re all alone, then, are you?” Melissa Alice asked finally.
“Aye. Never married, never had any children.” Aberforth cast his mind back over his long life and wondered at the decisions he had made. There had been romances, to be sure, and even some longer term relationships that could have led somewhere, but in the end he’d always backed out. Preferred to be on his own, independent. No one relying on him.
“Must be lonely,” she said after another pause.
He smiled. “I get by,” he said. “I’m off awandering now to get away from things.”
“What things would you be needing to get away from?”
What things, he thought to himself. What things indeed. He wasn’t really sure, if he were honest with himself. But the world had changed and he had felt, deep in the corners of his soul, a need to get out into it, to experience it and see the changes one last time.
That’s an interesting thought: one last time. Am I that old? Am I truly going for one last turn in the world before packing up and heading for the next life?
He looked over and saw Melissa Alice starting at him, her eyes darting to the road ahead for brief seconds, only to return to his face again.
“My, ahh, my brother died last year,” he said, tripping over the words. “We haven’t been close for a long time but still…”
She sighed. “Aye, I know what you mean. Brothers and sisters are strange creatures, if you ask me.” She turned to face the road again, her expression suddenly hard. “Take mine, for example. I got two brothers, both older. Mean spirited wretches, both, petty and always thinking of themselves.
“Oh, we were great mates way back when, you know, growing up. Took care of each other, we did. Wouldn’t take nothing from no one, and backed each other up when we needed to.”
Her expression softened for a moment as she remembered better days. Then the icy stare came back. “But not now. Even with our ol’ dad wasting away in his hospital bed, Sam and Eric would be tearing into each other and me, fighting over what little he was leaving behind.
“Made me not want to go to see the old man, really, in the last days.”
Finally, a tear slid down her cheek.
“Now, it’s just the three of us and we’ll be squabbling over the estate for years. You just can’t go back to the better times, I guess.”