She was out of his league. 

In fact, she didn’t even belong in his universe. 

His blue-green eyes watched as the girl with the long legs and blonde hair stepped out of the fancy car, looking around at the small town, one lane road.  The only gas station for miles, this shop served as both the local diner and the fueling station because being only one or the other wasn’t enough for George, the owner, to make a living.

Dusty passed the time every day as the town’s chef and gas attendant mainly because it gave him enough cash to ride to Maryville each weekend for drinks and some old fashioned hell-raising. A loner, he didn’t have anyone else to blame for the trouble he caused but himself.  When he was arrested for simple assault, Judge Johnson warned him that if she saw him again in her courtroom, she would not be graceful.  He was sentenced to eight months of probation and ninety two hours of community service.  For that, he was helping George repaint the diner/gas station.

George’s place was a pit stop for all the county residents’ needs, even those beyond fuel and food:  Dusty and his community service, old lady Joan, who claimed she only came every Tuesday for pecan pie,  drove in to catch glimpses of her estranged daughter as she filled up each week before driving to Atlanta, the bored teenagers who came for the handmade ice cream on Saturdays and the young mothers who came just to get an hour’s break from being mothers as they shopped for groceries and gossiped.  Working at George‘s gave Dusty a front row seat to knowing everything about everyone in town. 

And this girl was definitely not from around here. By definition, if you lived in a small town, you knew everyone from that town. If you didn’t know them, they were from either a neighboring small town or Atlanta.  This girl was from the city.  Her fire engine red sports car and high heels were giveaways; her lost expression as she looked both ways down the one lane road and then smoothed her hands down her snug jeans was another.  Her blonde hair pulled back into a pony tail made her look younger than she probably was, but Dusty still guessed her to be just out of school. 

Too young, too rich, just too

Out of his league. 

He shifted his blue green eyes down to the paint bucket and dropped the paint brush in.  Walking out of the diner/service station, he lifted his eyes at her.

“Mornin’.  What can I get you?”

She turned a half circle, put her hands on her slim hips and stared down the road.  “Where am I?”

“You’re in Ginger Belle, about two hours shy of Atlanta.   That where you headed?”

Sighing, she shrugged, arching her brows.  “Well, I don’t really know where I’m headed.  Just somewhere I wasn’t.”

Dusty nodded.

“Where can I find something to eat and a sweet tea?”

“Right here;  George‘s is the diner and service station.  I can get you a plate of something simple and we have sweet tea.”

“Your diner is also your gas station?”

“Ginger Belle has a population of about 475 people. I mean, it’s probably not what you’re used to, but it’ll get food in your belly and real gas in the car.”

She hesitated. “How far am I from a real town?”

“Too far if your car needs gas.”

“Oh, alright. Fine.  Is there a bathroom or should I plan on using leaves?”

Dusty smiled, walking to her car.  “You didn’t land in the Stone Age. Bathroom is inside.”

“What are you doing to my car?”

“We’re full service here, ever heard of that?  We pump the gas for you.”

She watched him for a minute, then took her key fob and clicked, waiting to hear the beep beep that would assure her it was locked. Dusty chuckled, shaking his head, and watched as she walked into the diner, murmuring, “Different league, different planet.”

***** ***** *****

“I’m Dana.”

Dusty inclined his head, putting the plate of chicken fingers and fries in front of the city girl.  “Dusty.” He turned to walk back to the counter, shaking a strand of blonde hair out of his eye. 

“Wait,” the pleading tone in Dana’s voice made him turn.  She sighed, lifting a shoulder.  “It doesn’t look like you’re very busy?  Sit with me?”

Dusty hesitated, frowning. 

“Please?   I’ve been driving a long time;  it’d be nice to have someone to talk to for a few minutes.” 

He scratched his head, then slowly returned to sit across from her in the booth. 

“Are you from around here?” Dana asked, her eyes lighting with curiosity. 

“Born and raised.”

“Ever been outside Ginger Belle?”

Shrugging, his lips pursed down as he shook his head.  “Not really.  Been to Atlanta once or twice, Maryville. But Maryville’s only about forty minutes south of here and she ain’t much bigger.”

“I’m actually from Tennessee. Nashville.”

“You sing?”

She laughed, shaking her head.  “Not at all, no.  But…” glancing down at her plate, she moved some of her food around.  “I just need something different. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“Running from something?”

She frowned, tipping her head as if thinking about it.  “Hmm.  Not really, I don’t guess so, no.  Just the way of life, maybe.  I don’t know, I just…don’t have anybody or anything keeping me in one place.”


She smiled.  “A little, yeah.”

“If Nashville bored you, Ginger Belle’ll kill you.”

She laughed again, the sound musical and light.  “You never know,” she teased. “Maybe Nashville isn’t the place for me because it’s too big.”

Dusty arched his brows, quiet. 

“What about you?  Never wanted to see something else?”

Dusty shook his head.  “No; I’ll stay here. Folks are pretty decent and I have land I own;  it’s got the house I was raised in on it and is paid in full.  So, I got shelter,  a little cash for food and beer every once in awhile…” he shrugged. “No reason to go wandering when you got what you need already.”

“But what if you could have more?”

Dusty slid until he could stretch his legs in the booth. Placing an arm along the back of the booth, he used his thumb to scratch his jawline.  “What more is there?”

“More money, more friends, chance to become something other than a diner chef and gas attendant;  lights and theater and…” she sighed softly, then smiled. “The city never sleeps.  If you can dream it, you can probably either make it, find it or buy it in the city. The downtown area is always easy to find an escape dancing or watching concerts or live sporting events. In person, not on the screen.” 

“Isn’t it exhausting always chasing something you’re  never going to have enough of?  People in the city are trying to get more, be there… so they chase the dollar, thinking it’ll buy them excitement or success.  But it’s never enough, right, I mean, isn’t that why you’re here?  You found the money, probably found the friends and the constant noise…. It was fun until it got to be exhausting, right?  Then you end up in Ginger Belle, Georgia, population less than 500.” 

A moment of silence.  “So what do you do for fun?” 

“Nothing you’d like.”

Thin eyebrows arched and she responded to the challenge.  “Let’s try.”

A moment of silence before Dusty offers, “Ever been four wheelin’?”

Closing the diner an hour early was an easy choice. During the ride in his pick up to his place to get the four wheeler, she peppered him with questions about the local dives:  the town’s one bar that served watered down drinks, the trails out by old Highway, over by where some of the town’s men poured concrete and set up a skateboard park for the boys.  “A movie theater?”

Dusty snickered. ”There’s not a movie theater in Ginger Belle. Nearest one’s in Maryville, but they aren’t usually worth the drive. Pretty small, one screen.”

Dana laughed. ”Wow.”

“What do you usually do for fun in the city?”

Inhaling deeply, Dana looked out the window again. “I mean, love going to the coffee shops and the park. The theater is fun too, but concerts. I love concerts. They are all over the place. Saw some pretty epic ones.”

“You don’t get tired of the noise?”

“Not really no.”

Dusty was quiet, driving along the one-lane road.

When he turned onto the gravel mud-covered drive and parked at the top of a steep hill, Dana tipped her head. “I don’t see a house.”

“House is down the hill. Can’t drive down it,  too steep to drive back up.” he paused, sensing the uncertainty in her. “You can wait here. I’ll drive the four wheeler up the hill.”

Relief flowed visibly through her and he chuckled, opening his door, murmuring about how he might be an axe murderer and what a chance she’d taken riding with a stranger.

When he heard the slamming of a car door, he stopped, glanced over his shoulder, surprised to see her getting out of the truck. Defiance written in her eyes, she smiled. “Ready. Show me this house of yours.”

Together, they made their way down the steep hill. The shack stood in the middle of the ground at the bottom of the gulley; Dana’s eyes took in the outhouse and the shingled roof, the milk jugs with water on the porch and the scent of animals.

“How many animals you have?”

Dusty shrugged “Two goats for milk and dogs mainly.”

Dana’s chatter quieted but she didn’t complain when her high heels nearly made her trip down the hill nor when she realized that one had to ride behind him on the four wheeler.

“Are the shoes going to be a problem?” she asked.

He scowled. “It’s up to you. Might not be real comfy like but probably wouldn’t hurt you either.”

She hesitated but then held out a hand to him. Narrowing his eyes, he took her slender palm in his and watched as she balanced on one leg, leaned down and took off her high heeled shoes.

“Then I’ll go barefoot.”  

Dusty’s admiration of the city girl grew, a new respect showing in his eyes.

When he felt her slender body against his and her arms steal around his waist, a quiet joy filled his heart, one that hadn’t been there in a long time.

“Shouldn’t we have helmets or something?”

“Such a city thing to say,” Dusty teased, then added, as he revved the engine, “Just hold on.”

* * * * * * * * *

Dana found herself shivering in the mid November air. The wind on the back of the four wheeler froze her fingers and her cheeks turned rosy. Dusty flew over the ground, rounding curves like he was a drag racer and jumping tree limbs and hills and stumps. Fear raced down her spine as she held on for dear life, afraid she was to be thrown without a helmet. Oddly, though, in the pit of her stomach, she knew she was safe. The trust she felt in Dusty was both surprising and unwarranted  as she’d only know him for a few hours. Still, she knew, even as he engineered a hair-raising ride on a vehicle she’d never been on, that this was his home: that she could trust his handling of the ride.


The day she’d spent with Dusty, the country boy who worked as a gas attendant slash chef with no other ambitions, made her feel free. Free of the rules, free of the aspirations and expectations to do something grand. What if the something grand was being in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest metro area? What if instead of making money her goal was to learn about the inner lives of the four hundred people who called this town home? What if college and job and money and connections weren’t really opportunities but a chain, an invisible chain, that yanked you back every time you thought you had enough?

If she had a goal that she could never meet- wasn’t she doomed then to fail? Dusty’s goal was to live in peace, make money–not to pay bills and  struggle but to enjoy it as he wished every other weekend. To live a life based on the present instead of the future—wasn’t that freedom?

“You know, I went to Harvard.” The admission was a secret, she almost never admitted her alma mater.  The material learned, after all, was the same and, anyways, most people didn’t care what college you went to. Harvard diploma may have gotten her the career, the fancy office and the paycheck she’d enjoyed in Nashville, but it hadn’t bought her any friends.

Dusty pursed his lips and whistled low. “Fancy. So what do you do with that fancy degree?” He pulled open the glove compartment of his truck and handed her a pair of gloves. She laughed, taking them. “You had gloves all along? Why didn’t you give me these before the ride on the four wheeler?”

He smiled. “Yeah, sorry about that. Don’t have- many visitors. Must have forgot my manners.”

Rolling her eyes, she pulled the gloves on and then inhaled deeply. “Yeah. Harvard. My degree is in English literature.”

“English literature? I thought smart people went to Harvard.”

She laughed again, nodding. “Yeah, yeah. That’s the reaction I get a lot. I wanted to teach at the high school level, maybe even help write textbooks. Kids these days graduate high school having read a few of the classics, maybe, because they were required to, but they don’t understand the context behind the era the books were written. It’s so much more complex and layered than just one book. Usually, the greatest books are more like a dissertation on current social or   economic events of the world. Like ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for example. I went into college wanting to show kids how much they were missing when they skipped reading the book or doing the follow up reading, choosing instead to skim just enough of the cliff notes to pass the tests.”

Dusty pulled back onto the one lane road that lead to the gas station. He arched his brows. “Sounds like I might have missed a lot.”

“You didn’t read any of the books, did you?”


She shook her head, putting a lock of hair behind her ear and rolled her eyes. “I love reading. I love literature.”

“So… why aren’t you in a high school teaching?”

“I am. I mean, I was, until I quit.”

“Why did you quit?”

She took a deep breath and stared out at the trees and the country road. “Just… you have all these big dreams, all these grand ideas… but you work every day, really hard, and still might only meet one kid who really gets it. In the meantime, you’ve given up your life.. the greats, most of them, teach us to create a life of peace and contentment. Most of them encourage us to find a path that doesn’t seek the approval of anyone else.” She shrugged. “I have this degree from a fancy college..but…”

“But… “

“You make me wonder if you aren’t the smarter of the two of us.”

By the time they got back to the diner, the sinking sun turned the sky into a canvas of orange and pink.  It reminded her of the art museum back in Nashville;  it always had at least a few abstract water color paintings that made her wistful. 

Atlanta was another two hours away. When she got there, what would she do? Find a room for the night, wake up… and what? Did she return to Nashville, did she pick a new random town, one in which she didn’t know anyone, and try to start over from scratch?

Her parents did it.

They moved from California to Tennessee with nothing but what would fit in the car and a newborn baby girl. They lived out of that car with her as a baby for three months until her dad landed a job that got them a little house, the one on the outskirts of downtown, where she grew up. The things she missed out on, like a yard to play in or safe streets to ride a bike on, were replaced with chances to go to the best schools, huge libraries to explore, museums and live music. The energy of a vibrant city-she loved. That, the way everybody fit in because there was enough “everybodys” that no one stood out or was alone, that was safe and familiar and comforting.

Only now…

With her parents gone, no siblings and no real  link to the city, all she could think of in Nashville were her parents. Without them, wouldn’t Nashville, that big city of dreams and music and energy, wouldn’t it feel empty?

“For one so chatty, you’ve gotten quiet on me.” Dusty’s voice, gravelly and low, called to her.

“Just thinking about the drive to Atlanta. And tomorrow.” Her oval face closed and she frowned, glancing out the window.

Abruptly the car slowed and, in the middle of the road, Dusty turned it around.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Just trust me.”

***** ***** *****

The truth was, he wasn’t ready to let her go. To see her get into the fancy car and drive away burned a hole in his heart. He needed her to stay a little longer.

His secret spot, the one he’d never shared with anybody, wasn’t far away and might captivate her as much as it did him. The fading sunlight turned the sky to a deeper shade of purple and mauve. The country lane opened to two lanes and they laughed, joking they’d found the big city now. Spontaneously, she reached over and turned the radio on. The first station was static but the second channel she pushed blasted out an old Elvis song.  She grinned, hair falling into her eyes, sliding him a playful look and started singing Heartbreak Hotel. 

Turning the window handle, she rolled the window down, letting the cool November air play with her hair.  Her slender hand stretched out the window, her singing startled the nighttime animals who were settling in.

“I thought you didn’t sing.”

“I don’t!” She exclaimed laughing, leaned her face into the wind, and sang every word.  As the song faded, she shrugged. “But, where I’m from, you sing along.  It doesn’t matter if she can’t sing well or if you don’t know the words—whatever, you just sing.”

He smiled.  “I’ll remember that.”

She turned the radio station a few more times until another song, one whose name he didn’t know, came on.  Again, she sang.  “Don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky heart, I just don’t think it’d understand..”

Without intending to, Dusty joined in, making up lyrics as he went along, “Cause I want you to stay, I just don’t want you to go.”

Dana laughed, leaning her head back against the seat.  Putting her feet, still bare, up on the dash, she took a deep breath, tapped her fingers along the windowsill and sang as if she were on stage. 

“Where are you taking me?”  Her breathless question came at the end of the song and as he pulled off of the two lane highway. The narrow road soon opened into a small meadow off to the right.  A mountain range could be seen on one side and, on the other, a small pond, encircled by a grove of pine trees. 

“Come on,” he said, opening the door. 

Awed, Dana followed.

“That pond is only part of it.  There’s a couple of solid creeks running through these woods and animals too.  My favorite spot of all time is out here.”

Together, they criss crossed through the dirt path, until they came to a small clearing.  Not as open as the meadow, it still felt like they’d stepped out of the forest and into a clearing.  She could hear the babbling of a creek and turned her head until she saw it.  The running water wasn’t all she saw.

Her breath caught as she saw a deer standing at the edge of the water. He glanced up briefly, then resumed drinking. Dusty took her arm and tugged. They sat on the grass and, in the fading light, watched the deer until it slowly wandered off. 

“Look up,” Dusty encouraged, laying back in the grass. Dana crossed her arms over her chest and slowly lowered herself until her head rested against the flat ground.  Her heart fluttered.

Above her were millions of stars.

The air was humid and thick with the sounds of the cicadas and locusts.  Mosquitoes flew around them and, every so often, the sound of some critter rustling the leaves could be heard nearby.

Holding her arm straight above her, Dana pointed to one of the stars.  “That’s the North Star.  I think,” she laughed. “We really don’t see many stars from the city.  Not like this.” 

Before Dusty could answer, he heard her exclaim breathlessly, “A shooting star!”  Together, they looked up and watched as the star fell.  She rolled her head to the side to catch him watching her, a small smile on his face.  Without thinking, he reached out a finger and traced her jawline.

“What was that sound?”  Propping herself up on her elbows, she cocked her head to listen.  “An owl!  I think it’s an owl!”

A strange, closed look crossed Dusty’s face.  “No, I don’t think so.”

When the sound came again, she smiled slowly.  “That is definitely an owl.”

Frustration clouded Dusty’s face but he didn’t speak. 

“Are you afraid of owls?” She asked.

“They are back luck.  Back in the old days, medicine men who practiced bad magic would shape shift into owls, and other animals, before they cursed people. Owls mean death.”

She laughed.  “You don’t really believe that, do you?” 

Silence stretched. 

Dana moved her head to stare back up at the stars. “Hm.  Know any more stories?”

“Legends.  Not stories.  And legends are based on fact.” 

“Okay. Know any more legends? Maybe about the stars?” 

“My people are Cheyenne descendants. I know all the legends.”

“What’s your favorite?”

Staring at the heavens, he paused, silent, contemplating.  “You know the shooting star we saw?”


“That might have been what it was like to see Poia, the grandson of the Moon and Sun, as he returned to earth after going to the Sky Country.” 

As Dana listened to the story, she moved closer to him until he stretched one arm out to his side, inviting her to lay her head on him.  Up close, she could see the slight stubble growth and the way his right front tooth was just a little bit crooked. His eyes were the most beautiful ocean blue and his voice, deep and rich, soothed and excited her.

His fingers stroked up and down her arm as he told of the one legend, then another, drawing her into an imaginative land of animal spirits.  This man was unlike any she’d ever known, elusive and quiet, simple but profound. While still many unknowns, one thing she knew for sure now:  her life was never going to be the same again.