Christmas in a Small Town

By: Kristina Knight

CHAPTER ONE

SHE SHOULD HAVE changed before she got on the highway. Or off the highway onto the two-lane road leading into town. Or at any of the rest areas between Kansas City and Slippery Rock County line—she had to have passed at least twenty during the trip south.

Camden Harris eyed the stained parking lot and the layers of bodily fluids, oil, gasoline and whatever else that covered the pavement. She swiped a hand over the miles of tulle covering her hips, creating what her mother had described as “bridal perfection” in the dress shop a few weeks earlier. She eyed the stained parking lot once again. Nothing about this gas station was bridal perfection, but then, what small-town gas station ever promised perfection? Gas stations were about utility. Getting to the next stop on whatever journey a person was taking. Camden sighed.

She could chance that whatever gas was left in the tank of her car would get her where she was going—although the red needle was precariously close to the E marker—or she could get out.

Knuckles rapped sharply against the window beside her, causing Camden to jump in her seat. An older man wearing a faded Slippery Rock Sailors ball cap and an old gray hoodie with grease-stained jeans stood beside her car.

“Fill it up?” he asked. His voice held the gentle twang of the Ozarks that she remembered from childhood summers spent at her grandparents’ dog school just outside Slippery Rock. “I’m guessing you want the high-octane stuff,” he said, not waiting for her to answer as he grabbed the nozzle from the machine at his back.

Camden rolled down her window. “Thank you. I didn’t realize gas stations still offered full service fill-ups.”

“Most people do it themselves. You had the look of a desperate woman, though, and I’m guessing that dress and my concrete wouldn’t mix well.”

The older man pulled a squeegee and a bottle of window washer fluid from a receptacle on the side of the gas pump and began washing her windows. In the stark lighting from the overhead bulbs, she realized she’d hit about a million insects on the drive down, and that the light rain storm she’d passed through around Springfield had left a thin coating of dust and spots on her windshield.

“Thanks, again,” she said, and opened her phone. She’d gotten this far on her own, but now that she was in town, she would need help finding the old farm. She knew it was vaguely west of town, but other than that, she had no clue how to get to her grandparents’ place. How ridiculous was that?

She was a twenty-seven-year-old woman, had been successfully navigating the Kansas City streets since she was sixteen, had managed to find her way around both Chicago and Atlanta on her own. But she had no idea how to get to her grandparents’ farm in a town tinier than the neighborhood surrounding her parents’ Mission Hills mansion.

Camden entered the address from her phone into the car’s navigation system and waited.

“We don’t get many cars like this one around Slippery Rock. Not even in the summer when the tourists come to town,” the older man was saying as he finished cleaning the windshield. The gas pump clicked off, and he plopped the squeegee and bottle of cleaning fluid back into the side bin. “Passing through?”

Camden handed the man her credit card and shook her head. “Visiting for a while.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said and hurried inside to ring up her purchase.

“Address not found,” said the voice of the Australian man she’d chosen for her car’s navigation system. Usually she liked the voice she’d dubbed Thor, but this time she didn’t like what he had to say.

Camden entered the address again, and while she waited, looked up her grandparents using one of those online address finders. The same address she had in her phone popped up on her screen just as Thor told her, again, that the address didn’t exist.

“You’re just messing with me now, aren’t you?” she said.

“Nope, it really is thirty bucks on the nose,” the gas station attendant replied, passing her card and the receipt slip through the window.

Camden cringed. “Sorry. I was just talking to Th—uh, my navigation system. It says my destination is an unknown address.”

The older man shook his head. “Happens all the time down here. Those computer maps focus a lot on the big cities, but you get into the rural routes and they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Where are you?”

Camden blinked. “Where am I what?” She was in her car. At the gas station. Unless she’d fallen asleep at the wheel and was dreaming all of this while in some weird comatose state in a hospital. She pinched the back of her hand. Nope, that hurt. She was awake, all right. Awake and wearing her wedding dress at what was probably the last full-service gas station in the entire world.

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