The Rules of You and Me by Shana Norris
My mother was imagining things again.
“I swear, Hannah, this vacation will be just the thing we both need,” her voice trilled through the sleek black phone resting in its cradle on my dashboard. “A summer away from everything. Two months of relaxation and freedom!”
The sound of a car horn blared through the speakerphone. Knowing my mother, she was likely paying more attention to the radio or her makeup or any other number of things besides the highway on which she was driving. I gritted my teeth as I glanced in the side mirror and then over my shoulder, searching for an opening in the lane next to me. Still no luck.
“I can’t wait to stretch out and do nothing this summer,” Mom went on.
I bit my tongue to keep from asking how that would be any different than what she did in our normal lives back in Willowbrook. Mom was on her way to the airport, where she would fly to New York and from there take a second flight across the Atlantic to Paris.
The original plan called for me to join my mom in France. She had made all the arrangements without even asking my opinion. But Mom and I could not exist within the same continent for an entire summer without one of us going insane.
Most likely, me.
So now Mom was going with her current best friend, a woman she knew from tennis lessons at the country club. Her name was Tandy or Missy or maybe something else entirely. I hadn’t really paid much attention.
I, on the other hand, was stuck on Interstate 40 West in the North Carolina mountains behind a big, rumbling truck. Which happened to be full of hogs.
Hogs that stunk. The smell had filled my car, making my eyes water. I had turned the air conditioner off to keep from sucking in more of the stench from outside, but since it was late June in North Carolina, the sun shining through my windshield made the car feel like a roasting pan. Rolling down the windows had only made the hog smell worse. Lush green mountains stretched out on each side of the road all around me, but the idyllic countryside did nothing to relax me with the hog smell hanging in the air and my mom’s piercing laughter crackling through the phone.
I searched for exit 53B, trying not to breathe too deeply, and sweated in my own sauna on wheels while my mother went along on another one of her delusions.
“Tess and I are planning to gorge ourselves on crepes and pastries. Isn’t that right, Tess?”
Tess, right, that was her friend’s name. At least I was close.
“Oui!” I heard a shrill voice in the background proclaim. My mother’s overdone laughter filled my car.
Ahead of me, a hog stuck its nose through one of the little holes cut into the back of the trailer.
“Are you sure it’s exit fifty-three B?” I asked, yelling to be heard over Mom’s laughter.
“Of course, dear,” Mom said, sighing. It was probably a huge inconvenience for her to make sure her only daughter actually made it to her sister’s house and not some random stranger’s front door. My friend Natalie Spinelli had told me before I left that she’d heard mountain people were all high on meth and drunk on moonshine constantly. I glanced out the driver’s side window just in time to see a carload of men who looked like they were hoping to be the next ZZ Top speed by.
“I wrote all the directions down that Lydia gave me,” Mom said. “I remember precisely. Exit fifty-three B onto I-240 West…”
I tried to focus on Mom’s directions, but my mind kept wandering. I hadn’t seen my Aunt Lydia in four years, not since she moved away from Willowbrook to the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina. Aunt Lydia had sent us vague invitations to visit her every now and then, but Mom had always had an excuse for not coming.
But with Mom going to Paris this summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to spend some time with my aunt. Besides, I needed to get out of Willowbrook for a while. A long while.
“Have you heard from Daddy today?” I asked, my voice breaking a little.
There was static on the phone and then I heard Mom clear her throat. I had taken her by surprise, and the one thing Marilyn Cohen did not like was to be caught off-guard.
Rule #12: Never let yourself be surprised. Always have the upper hand.
“I spoke with him right before I called you,” Mom said, her voice tight and too high-pitched. “He told me about the people he’s getting to know at the resort. He’s having a great time.”
Resort. Mom always referred to it as “the resort.” As if Keller-Burns Rehabilitation Center was just a spa getaway my dad was on. Rule #8: If reality wasn’t the way you wanted it to be, create your own.
“We’re pulling up to the airport now,” Mom said. “I have to go.”
My jaw ached from how hard I clenched my teeth together. “Fine. Call me when you land.”
“I will,” Mom said. “Behave yourself, Hannah. Kisses!”
The line went dead.
I frowned at the hogs in the truck ahead of me. “Be glad you don’t have to deal with your mothers,” I told them. Exit 53B finally came into sight and I veered off the interstate onto another one that sloped down into the valley between the rolling mountains. In the distance, hazy blue peaks blended into the bright blue sky.
I rolled down the windows and took a deep breath of fresh air. If Mom could live in her fantasy world this summer, maybe I could too.
I smirked at my life coach Mark. It was our last session before the summer and I had already told him about my decision not to go to Paris with Mom and instead head to Asheville to stay with Aunt Lydia.
“Sure,” I said dryly. “Who should I be then?”
Mark pushed the loosely rolled sleeves of his white button up shirt farther up his arms. “Be yourself, but be the you that you could be, not the you that everyone else wants you to be.” He leaned forward in the blue chair he always sat in during our sessions, his elbows propped on his knees. One shoelace was about to come untied, but he didn’t seem to notice. “You rely too much on your rules, Hannah. You use them as a kind of crutch to hold yourself back from new experiences. You’ve let these rules control everything you do in your life.”
I shifted on the plush couch, avoiding Mark’s gaze. “It’s hard to fight against seventeen years of what my parents have drilled into my head.”
“Your parents are your parents, not you.” Mark rolled his chair across the floor until he was back in my line of sight. He never let me get away with not making eye contact. “Your parents do not live your life. They can’t always make your decisions for you. At some point, you have to step outside of their shadow and do your own thing. Take this summer as a test drive. Forget the rules and do what you want to do.”
A chill tickled its way up my spine. The idea of not following the rules filled me with a cold panic. How would I know what to do in different situations if I didn’t obey the list of appropriate responses in my head? One wrong move, and I’d suffer a lifetime of reminders that I had humiliated my parents beyond forgiveness.
“This is your life, Hannah,” Mark said gently. His brown eyes looked honest and confident in my abilities to do this. “What you make of it is up to you. You can hold yourself back forever and keep ending up here in my office when you can’t handle the pressure. Or you can be who you want to be and live a happier life.”
“What if I don’t know who I want to be?” I asked.
The thing I liked best about Mark was that he never laughed at my stupid questions, even the ones I was sure Natalie and my other friends from school would never understand. I was Hannah Cohen. I had everything and knew everything and could do everything. It was the reason I had never been able to tell my friends about my sessions with Mark. The only person who knew about my life coach outside of my parents was my ex-best friend Avery James, and most days I regretted letting her find out about it.
“Then you figure it out,” Mark said. “Push yourself outside your limits and try everything.” After a moment, he added, “Within reason. I don’t want your parents to blame me when they have to bail you out of jail.”
I laughed as I gathered my purse. Mark walked me to the door and I stopped to smile at him.
“Thanks,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you in the fall.”
“I hope not.”
When I gave him a confused look, Mark said, “My job is all about teaching you how to handle your life without me. I hope that after this summer, you won’t need me anymore.”
Earlier that year I had come to him after having a melt down over scoring a B on a midterm. Mom had been all over me about that, insisting I had just blown my chance at being valedictorian next year. The signs of Dad’s problem were just beginning to break through to the surface where they couldn’t be ignored. All of it became too much to deal with. Mom was dead set against anyone who called themselves a therapist, so I found a life coach, which seemed close enough.
Mark had helped me a lot with my stress and had given the courage to make changes. Over the months, I had slowly stripped away all the little things I couldn’t deal with. The boyfriend I never really loved. The extracurriculars I hated.
But I still had a long way to go. If Mark really thought I was ready to handle life without these sessions, maybe he was the one that needed to be in counseling.
I tried to follow Mom’s directions, but I couldn’t remember if it was a right or a left after getting onto Mangrove Park Street. I had taken a right and then a left and then another right. And now nothing looked like anything my aunt would live in.
Back in Willowbrook, Aunt Lydia had lived in a beautifully restored Victorian home. The kind that looked like it had come from a storybook. Aunt Lydia had owned a museum in Willowbrook, which she had started herself. It had worked out well for her, and she was able to sell it for several million when she decided to move away.
I had always loved Aunt Lydia’s old house back home. Aunt Lydia and I used to pretend we were Victorian girls in beautiful dresses as we walked down the stairs. We would play dress up with old clothes she kept in the attic when I spent the night with her.
But that had been years ago. I hadn’t heard anything about a new Victorian home nestled on the outskirts of Asheville, but that was always what I had kind of pictured in my head, as if Aunt Lydia had relocated her old house from Willowbrook and plopped it down in the mountains.
The tiny brick homes I drove by now were so far removed from the restored Victorian in my memory. I leaned over the steering wheel as I drove slowly, inspecting each house as if maybe there was a Victorian home hiding behind it. The houses rose on the sloped land around me as the road dipped down and then back up again in the distance.
Thunk thunk thunk.
What was that?
I drove a few feet more, but the thunking only grew louder. The car felt as if it had dipped down on one side.
I pulled over to the side of the road, flipping the switch for my hazard lights. Then I opened the driver’s door and leaned out. I spotted the problem right away: the front left tire was completely flat and the rubber hung loosely on the wheel.
“Great,” I muttered. “Just freaking great.” I grabbed my phone. I had the number to roadside assistance programmed into my contacts for emergencies like this.
But when I looked at my phone, I saw there was no signal. Not even one bar.
Perfect. I wanted to pound on the steering wheel and let out a cry of frustration, but my mother’s words echoed in my head at all times.
“It’s all about image, Hannah,” the wise Marilyn Cohen always said. “If you look as if you have it all together, you will have it all together. Never lose control. Maintain the image of perfection. That’s rule number one, the most important.”
So I sat in the driver’s seat, my hands gripping the steering wheel as I tried to maintain perfection.
The problem was, I had never changed my own tire before. I had always taken it to the dealer whenever something needed to be done.
But it was okay. I could handle this.
I got out of the car and walked to the trunk, popping it open to inspect the spare tire. It was still there, securely latched in the little molded well under the carpet.
Okay, so I needed tools.
I found a black pouch tucked into the side of the trunk and opened it to find what looked like a crowbar, another metal rod, and a folded metal square thing.
I could not handle this.
Gravel crunched on the asphalt behind me. An old pickup truck slowed as it came close. It was painted a dull gray color with white splotches randomly placed across the hood. I could see a guy in the driver’s seat, but the glare of the sun on the window made it impossible to make out a face.
Girl alone on a backwoods road with a flat tire. Guy in a creaky old pickup truck stops to help. Why did this sound like the start of a horror movie?
I quickly slipped back into the driver’s seat and shut the door. I watched in the rearview mirror as the guy got out of the truck and started walking toward my car. He was tall and lean, dressed in faded jeans and a white T-shirt. Brown hair hung around his shoulders.
This was definitely a horror movie in the making. I discreetly hit the lock button on my door and then squeezed my fists until my nails dug into my palms.
I jumped at the tap on the window next to my head. The guy leaned down to look in at me, his wide gray eyes studying me. He looked young, probably around my age. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen at the most.
“Need some help?” he called through the window.
Rule #4: Never ask for help.
I shook my head. “No, thank you. Someone will be along any minute, I’m sure.”
He looked around the quiet, empty street. “I guess I’m someone. You got a spare tire?”
“You don’t have to do that,” I called to him. “Really. I’ll call roadside assistance.” I fumbled for my phone. He didn’t know that I couldn’t get a signal.
Unfortunately, I managed to knock the phone into the tiny crevice between the console and the passenger seat.
“It’ll only take a minute,” the guy said. “No need to call for help.”
Before I could stop him, he walked to the back of my car and disappeared behind the open trunk door. I could hear him rattling around back there and the car shook back and forth. After a moment, he pulled the spare tire out and rolled it over to the front of the car.
“I’ll need you to get out while I jack the car up,” the guy called.
Get out? Of the car? I stared at him for a long moment, but he made no movement to leave. I crawled over the console and climbed out of the passenger side, keeping the car as a barrier between us.
Stranger guy didn’t comment on my weird behavior. I watched as he worked, though I tried not to look like I was watching. The sun shone a glowing halo on the top of his hair. His shirt sleeves rode up as he moved, revealing nicely muscled arms and the black edges of a tattoo hidden on the skin underneath.
My mother’s voice sang out in my head, “Tattoos are for bikers and prostitutes, Hannah.”
After a few moments, the guy eased the car back down, removed the jack, and then rolled the flat tire to the trunk. He shut the trunk door and returned to the front of the car, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“You ran over something big,” he said. “Not sure what it was, maybe a piece of metal in the road.”
I stared stupidly at him for a moment, before I was able to croak out, “Okay.”
The guy nodded to me and then straightened, turning around and walking toward his truck, like that was it. Like he hadn’t just done me a huge favor.
“Wait,” I said as I hurried after him. He stopped and I skidded to a halt a safe distance away.
“Thank you,” I said.
He nodded again. “No problem.” He started walking toward his truck, reaching for the handle.
People didn’t just do things for other people without getting something in return. My dad had always taught me to never be indebted to someone. Rule #21: Even the score as soon as possible.
“Do you want money?” I blurted out.
He looked at me, crinkling his nose. “Money?”
I held up a finger to him and then dashed back to my car, reaching in for my purse. I found my checkbook and then walked to my trunk as I opened the little book.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked, clicking my pen.
He raised one eyebrow. “For what?”
I shrugged. “For my changing my tire. Isn’t that how this usually works? There are people out there who get paid to change tires every day.”
He shook his head and opened his door. “You don’t owe me anything. Just doing my good deed for the day.”
“You’ve got to want something.”
“You’ve already said thank you, that’s enough.” He pulled the truck’s driver side door open, which squeaked in protest.
“I’m not looking for a boyfriend,” I said.
He wrinkled his nose. “Neither am I.”
My neck flushed hot. “I mean, I’m not going out with you for changing my tire. Just so you know.”
“That’s a little presumptuous,” he said. “What makes you think I’d want to go out with you?”
I sucked in a breath, stung. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He looked me up and down. “Maybe you’re not my type.”
“Maybe you’re no one’s type,” I snapped back. I realized I sounded like I was five years old, but I was unable to keep my mouth shut. How had I gotten into this argument?
The guy smirked and then climbed into the truck. He turned the ignition and the truck groaned, but didn’t start.
I edged closer to the unpainted truck. There were dents and scratches along the side and the back window was cracked all the way across.
“Let me just pay you,” I said. “You look like you could use the money.”
Now his easygoing expression disappeared, replaced by a deep scowl. “Keep your money,” he snarled at me as he slammed his door shut.
I jumped back, blinking at the sudden change in his demeanor. The truck sputtered to life and the tires squealed as the guy put it into drive and pulled back onto the road, kicking up dirt and rocks toward me. I coughed, watching as he disappeared down the dip in the road.
Maybe Natalie was right about hillbillies.
I tossed my checkbook into the passenger seat as I got back into my car. I would probably never see the guy again, so it didn’t matter if I hadn’t settled the debt.
Leaning over the console, I shoved my hand into the tiny space next to the seat and managed to fish my phone out. I drove until a signal bar finally appeared on the screen. I scrolled through my contacts, looking for the number I had stored there but had never called. Before now, all of our contact had been through a couple of short emails.
She picked up on the second ring.
“Aunt Lydia?” I said, feeling butterflies erupt in my stomach. “It’s Hannah. I think I’m lost.”