This story is by Ruth Hochstetler and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jeb hated being pushed to accelerate anything. Today would take him well beyond the threshold of his comfort range.
Life was too god-awful busy these days. He resisted rushing. The small hardware store where he was employed, suited his style for a simple, easy pace. The owner had a reliable reputation in the community. He never overpromised products to the customer and never paid extra mail expense to ship things fast delivery. Jeb’s paycheck every week was the same steady compensation he received for his regular, weekly 40 hours. There had been a raise or two in the last 20 years, but Jeb never expected them. He and Martha had enough for basic needs and a yearly vacation to the family-owned cabin where he could fish on the lake, sleep some days until noon and enjoy love making with Martha in the slow, easy manner he preferred. He was content. This was Jeb’s idea of living happily now and more of the same after retirement.
“Hey, Jeb, I need you to run into town and pick up a case of bug spray for me. The customer wants it here by this afternoon, so you’ll have to get a move on it.”
Jeb groaned inside. The boss’ request would throw off his whole day. Rather than the usual relaxed work of restocking shelves and answering the occasional questions from customers, he would be fighting city traffic on the long drive to the recently erected large hardware store in the new shopping center. On occasion, customers needed items more quickly than his store could order them.
His anxiety mounted. Not only was the chain store’s vastness intimidating, but the young, inexperienced clerks at the large counter inside the front door, would likely not know how to find his order. Jeb, also, had trouble remembering the correct lanes to turn from on the highway. He’d probably have to park his modest car between vehicles larger than his, and then remember where he had parked in the enormous lot when he came out of the store.
The request came with unusual urgency, so Jeb knew he needed to violate his personal commitment to a leisurely pace. He picked up his phone.
“Martha, I have to hurry and pick up an order in town today. I should be home usual time, but I just wanted you to know.”
“My dear Jeb. I know you hate these trips, babe. Just take some deep breaths, stay focused and you’ll do just fine. I’ll be all ears to hear how your day goes. I love you.”
She could always calm him down. Her comforting words helped soothe him as he began the trip. He arrived without incident, but the knot of tension inside wouldn’t go away. He parked next to a truck; custom-lifted with oversized tires. Normally, he avoided parking beside such a monster, but the spot was close to the entrance, and the errand demanded a quick in and out. Inside, he found the carton of bug spray actually waiting for him on the counter, and the cute girl’s sincere friendliness while serving him, teased out a smile of his own.
Jeb walked out to his car, glad to find the giant truck gone. He slid the carton onto the front seat, pushing it over to the passenger side door. He got in, and for a few seconds, felt a bit disoriented. As usual the keys were in the ignition, but he didn’t remember the seat being positioned this far forward. In his uncustomary rush to finish this assigned mission, he must have overlooked the seat’s placement when he left his workplace earlier. The brief thought that he hadn’t noticed the change when he had left his house that morning, either was unsettling. He brushed it off, hoping Martha had used the car last and had changed the position. His thoughts returned to the looming task of getting back to a safer environment. That was the thing about rushing. It made room for distractions that could throw off a day before even realizing it. Thankful that he didn’t have to inch his way backwards from between vehicles that towered over his, he drove out of the parking lot.
As he eased into traffic, it wasn’t long before he heard a rattle near the back left rear well. Having just had the car inspected, he was surprised at the sound. Jeb tried to calculate what it might be and what it might cost to make a repair. Then an uncanny feeling that there was another presence in the car, skyrocketed his anxiety. He had glanced into the rear-view mirror repeatedly, but never specifically into the back seat. Did he dare look there now? Managing these thoughts, while keeping an eye on the traffic surrounding him, was unbearable. His exit was approaching, and as he funneled into the single lane, he found the courage to peer backwards. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to question his sanity.
Seated with his head even with the top of the back seat, was a grinning face. He then laughed in relief, as he recognized a giant teddy bear riding unbelted in the seat behind him. But only for a second was it funny.
“How did you get into my car, big fella?”
Was the bear any connection to an out-of-place front seat and the noise he had been hearing? Jeb pulled over and stopped the vehicle. The car was the right make and color. The key had been in the ignition where he usually left it. Then he noticed what he had been too distracted to observe before. One of the overhead visors had a photo of a young couple attached to the top. There was an empty French fry paper boat half crumpled on the floor below the passenger seat. Peeking out from under the carton of bug spray, he now saw a flyer. He pulled out the brochure to find that it was advertising kitchen remodels. Beside the bear in the back seat, there were other gimmicky items that he definitely would never have bought or wanted. Puzzled, but certain he was not in his own car, he turned around and drove back to the giant retailer.
A police car was in the parking lot, lights flashing. A much younger man than Jeb was gesturing and pointing to a car several parking spots away, that looked identical to the one Jeb was driving. He chided himself for allowing his rushed trip to pick up bug spray to turn into a complicated mix-up. He pulled up next to the police car, fearing the consequences of his hastiness.
After answering a bunch of questions from the officer, Jeb wondered what the younger man was thinking. Would he press theft charges? Jeb glanced at Ryan as the policeman introduced them. Ryan didn’t appear to be angry. The officer gave a thumbs up as he slid into his car and drove away.
Ryan turned towards Jeb. “Hey man! I’m not upset now that I have my car back.” He noticed Jeb’s questioning expression. “I have a lot of stuff in my car that probably isn’t very valuable to anyone else, but it definitely holds meaning for me.”
Jeb nodded. Things were beginning to make some sense. “I bet you were at the fair last night.” He pictured Ryan shooting darts at balloons or laying bets on the gaming table. The trinkets and teddy bear must have been prizes he won.
“Yes, my wife, Chelsea loves the carnival. Last night was a reminder of our dating days. Winning big with the bear was a first for me. The other stuff we picked up at the commercial exhibits. Did you happen to see a kitchen remodeling flyer in there?
“I’m hoping to build an island for Chelsea in our little kitchen. The table and chair set we have in there now, crowds the space. I figured an island would give us seating on one side and some cupboards on the other.”
Jeb smiled but didn’t comment. He wanted to get back to familiar surroundings and prolonged conversations made him nervous. Plus, his emotions were centering on the trip back home.
“I guess we’ll both have to lock our doors after this, right? I’m sorry for the confusion, man.”
As Jeb turned to leave, Ryan held out his hand. Jeb shook it gingerly, still feeling unsettled about the blunder. He got into his vehicle and breathed a sigh of relief. The car’s feel of rightness helped ease his anxiety. Jeb called his boss and said he would drop off the cans of bug spray and then go home for the day. He had to first get through this traffic again, and he’d soon be with Martha. He’d tell her how a dreaded errand had turned into such an adventure. Martha, dear Martha, would laugh with him and make it all feel ok. She held the happiness he was ever after.