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Missing Forever: A Chandler County Novel by C. E. Granger (1)


Chapter One

 

"He was like a dream; a dream that seemed unattainable. But then our eyes connected. It was magical." Megan Richland

 

You could feel the excitement in the air. The stands were packed, crowded with eagerly excited fans, waiting for the start of the big race. On the track, the stock cars, marked by number and signature color, flagged with sponsorships and benefactor’s logos, hummed in idle. Every now and then an anxious driver would press on the accelerator causing their engine to roar. Other more seasoned drivers did the same, but for different reasons. Intimidation was their purpose. But for many of the drivers sat, anxiously waiting for the green light to illuminate, they prepared for what was, for some, the biggest race of their career.

This was the big time. The drivers were lined up at the ready. This was the stock car race semifinals leading to the national event. The first three drivers to post qualifying times would be automatic advancers. Every race prior to leading up to this one. If a driver had performed well during the season, posting a good time today might just be enough to move to the next round. Some drivers would be satisfied with that. Jax Sutton, one of the season’s hottest drivers, was not interested in just posting a qualifying time. Jax Sutton wanted to win. Winning the race meant that he took a spot from someone else who thought their times over the course of the season were better. Winning this race meant that all the naysayers would have to finally shut the hell up and accept that Jax Sutton, the no-name from Chandler County, was indeed a force to be reckoned with. Jax would settle for nothing less than the win.

 When it came to drag racing, Jax Sutton wouldn’t call it a hobby. For Jax, drag racing was life. His fascination with cars started at an early age. It made sense because his dad was a mechanic and ran one of the local mechanic shops in Chandler County. Jax dad was a hardworking man and always dreamed of passing the family business down to his sons. Being around the shop was a part of Jax daily routine from as early as he could remember. His mother said, the first time Jax walked, he walked right into the auto shop. The smell of grease and oil was what Jax knew.

Like any other kid, fascinated with cars, Jax couldn’t wait to start driving. More than that, he couldn’t wait to start racing. There was something about the purr of a finely tuned motor and the power of having a souped-up Chevy, with a torque-rich V-8 engine under your control. He couldn’t wait to get on the track, race against whoever thought they had the fastest car, gun the engine until he reached the checkered flag and then take his victory lap with all the guys mad and all the girls grinning from ear to ear.

Although Jax family owned a car shop and Jax loved to race, his mother was not a fan. She wanted so much more for Jax than speeding around a dirt track, chasing dreams and spinning wheels. She always said he was too smart just to race cars. Of course, Jax didn’t listen. Although he loved his mother, Jax loved racing. As soon as Jax could, he started competing officially to earn enough points to be considered for professional driving. Jax turned his hobby into a lucrative profession. And although she protested vigorously, Jax mother, Carole, along with his dad Big Jax, and his two brothers, Pete and Tommy were all there rooting for him.

Although this was a major race with electronic starting and an electronic checkered flag, there was a nod to the ‘good ole days’ in that there as a flag girl who paraded onto the track, dressed in skimpy shorts and a shit that revealed her cleavage, to ceremoniously wave the green flag. All eyes fell on the buxom blonde beauty as she teetered on four-inch stilettos onto the asphalt track, smiling from ear to ear, with her shoulder-length tresses blowing in the wind. The crowd roared, especially the men, and the eye of every driver watched the flag girl make her entrance and wave to the thunderous crowd. Jax caught the beauty in his periphery. And although her looks were enough to stop traffic on any major thoroughfare, her good looks weren’t enough for Jax to lose focus. He was already chanting his mantra, pumping himself up.

It’s just me and the road. No distractions, no interference. Nothing and nobody can stand in the way of me and the road. This is my race to win or lose. This is my race to win or lose…

Jax was in the zone and even when the flag girl twirled and extended the green flag overhead, Jax paid her no mind. Everything else for Jax faded to black. He could no longer hear the roar of the crowd or the rumbling of the car next to him. Jax could no longer see the girl standing in the idle of the track, waving to her adoring fans. He couldn’t hear anything but the purr of his own engine, responding in milliseconds to the touch of his foot against the pedals. He could only see right in front of him, the road he intended to travel, resulting in victory.

The ceremony was finally over, and just for a split second, the girl caught Jax attention as she left the track. This was not the time and definitely not the place to be thinking about pretty girls. The announcer’s booming baritone voice cracked in on the loudspeaker announcing the start of the race. He directed everyone to focus their attention on the lights that would trail down from red, to yellow to green. Jax’s eyes lifted to the lights.

Time practically stood still as the lights moved from red to yellow to green. And then everything moved fast. All the cars seemed to move in a pack initially. Tires peeled, and smoke trailed behind them as the engines roared to life and the drivers jockeyed for position. Jax was laser focused; maneuvering his car between drivers, as he accelerated from zero to sixty and beyond in record time. The announcer called the race, announcing leaders as the divers circled the one-mile track. They would do that multiple times before this race was over. Several drivers would lose control, and some would even crash. The drivers who remained had to remain ever vigilante in driving offensively and defensively to avoid being derailed from their goal.

By about midway, three drivers had separated themselves from the pack. Jax was a part of that trio. They continued to jockey for position, at speeds upwards of 160 miles per hour, and only slightly less in the curve. This was as much about ego as it was about the prize. The three drivers, fought hard for the lead position; their cars coming so close together that it didn’t look like a sheet of paper could pass between them. Jax continued to chant, keeping his eyes on the two drivers that were now in front of him doing their best to box him in.

And then it was the final lap. It was due or die. Jax had to make his move if he was going to win this thing. But he had to be careful and strategic. He had to bide his time and not tip off what his next move would be. They fought hard to keep him in the back, moving and swerving to block Jax’s access. They neared the final quarter mile. The people in the stands were on pins and needles. It was down to the wire and the drivers were clawing tooth and nail for the win. Jax’s family were glued to the action, with the exception of his mother who prayed silently with her eyes closed. She couldn’t bear to watch. All the cars disable from blown out tires and those that physically crashed right in front of her as too much for Carole. She knew her son wanted to win more than anything. But her prayer was to keep him safe.

Each of the three drivers leading the pack had their eyes peeled for the checkered flag. They had one more curve and the flag would be in view. Where the two had earlier teamed up to keep Jax out of the running, now it as every man for himself. That’s all Jax needed. He made his move, swinging is stock car hard to the outside, accelerating to the point that the car lurched. He had to hold the wheel steady to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction. The other drivers were caught off guard. They thought they saw something move in their periphery but when they realized what it was, Jax was gone, leaving the two drivers in a trail of smoke as he pushed his car to the brink. The checkered flag was just ahead, but Jax refused to let up off the gas. His mantra continued.

This race is mine to win or lose, mine alone.

His dad held his chest. It felt like he would have a heart attack, the tension was so high. The crowd collectively leaned toward the checkered flag, holding back their cheers until the first car crossed the finish line and then the place erupted. Hats were tossed into the air, hugs were shared amongst friends and family members. Carole finally opened her eyes after sealing her prayer with a ‘thank you Lord,’ And then the announcement was made, for anyone left wondering.

And the winner is, Jax Sutton!!!

The flag girl was back, this time with a checkered flag for Jax to take his victory lap with. As he waved the checkered flag through the open driver’s side window, memories of times spent in Chandler County, when things seemed simpler, flooded his thoughts. Once again, the sounds from the stadium faded. He could see the crowd waving and applauding but the sound seemed so far away. They were cheering for him, Jax Sutton, the winner. Jax smiled and waved the flag and thought about her. There was a tremendous amount of celebration as Jax strode up to the winner’s circle, received his cash prize and a huge trophy. There were women clapping and winking and smiling. His family was there too, oh so proud of what Jax had accomplished. He’d done what he set out to do. He was proud of himself, he truly was.

Everybody wanted a piece of Jax. Dozens of cameras flashed. Microphones were shoved in his face with media personnel asking questions one after the other from how he felt, to what his next objective was. Jax worked incredibly hard for this moment and he soaked it in.

But there was someone missing from the celebration; something Jax didn’t fully realize was missing. He didn’t have that special someone to share it with.

 

Just the day before, Megan Richland waved goodbye to the twenty-five students that represented her fourth-grade class. It was the end of a long week and although Megan loved teaching and loved he students more, she was glad the week was finally over. It was Saturday, the weekend. More importantly, it was race day and Megan was all ready to watch the semi-finals of the stock car race on TV. Some might wonder why a twenty-something, single, young lady would spend her Saturday afternoon glued to the television set watching men drive in circles around a racing track.  While other girls her age may be spending their Saturday shopping or hanging out with friends, Megan was perfectly content watching the race. Besides, there was a hometown hero competing for the big prize and she wouldn’t miss this race for the world.

Megan had been a fan of Jax Sutton’s for a long time; even before he became a rich and famous professional driver. Sitting cross-legged on the couch in her favorite PJ bottoms and floral tee-shirt, Megan had to laugh at herself. She was not a sports fan, per say; well, she was really not a sports fan at all, except for racing. She laughed again as that wasn’t true either. Prior to her hometown hotties involvement in the sport, Megan wasn’t a fan of racing or any other sport for that matter. She was an educator by trade, was consumed by her job which she actually loved, and watched racing competitions when Jax Sutton was on the track. It was something about Jax Sutton that drew her; just like he did back in high school.

Chandler County was classic small-town America and that made Chandler County high, about the same. Everybody knew everybody because, for the most part, they all matriculated together from junior high, and some from elementary school. The awkwardness in the earlier days was a happily forgotten memory by the time most entered high school. It was that way for Megan too. She was a gangly girl, with limbs that seemed too long for her thin frame. There was certainly nothing spectacular about her. But by the time Megan entered high school, she started to come into her own, like most kids her age. But who was always a bit handsome, even when he was younger and even shorter than she was at one point was Jax Sutton. She noticed him then, but it was nothing like when they were both seniors in high school. By that time, Jax had certainly grown in height and in build. But, what Megan found most attractive about him outside of his ruggedly handsome good looks was the fact that he didn’t strive to fit in. Sure, you had your quarterback for the football team that all the other girls swooned over; you had your good guys that made the girls smile. But that was not Jax. He proudly stood right on the edge of being a notoriously bad boy. He was quiet and mysterious, and Megan thought he was to die for.

And that part hadn’t changed. Jax was still that same guy, even more handsome then he’d ever been, even more bad ass, and he wouldn’t know Megan Richland from a can of drying paint. Then, Jax wasn’t really seen with any one girl. There was always wild speculation as to who he was dating or if he even dated, but none of the information could be verified by any credible source. Who would be considered a credible source in high school, though? The most popular kids, the nerds? But, now, rich and famous Jax, had women fawning over him and falling at his feet. And there was still rampant speculation if there was someone special in his life. Megan could only dream of being that someone. And there was that chastisement again; concocted in her own mind, taunting her but having a crush as a grown woman.

Quit pining for a man you’ll never have.

Yeah, she’d heard that voice before, and sometimes she gave into it. But not today. Megan was totally in fangirl mode and she didn’t care what anybody thought about it. She, like those in the stands, waited anxiously for the race to start. Megan cheered as though she was right there and prayed her next-door neighbors wouldn’t bang on the wall, demanding she shut up. And when the cameras focused in on her heartthrob, Megan swooned like a school girl; her cheeks flushing hot, adding color where there had been none.

By the middle of the race, Megan was on the edge of the couch; encouraging Jax to hang in there and not give up. Near the end of the race, she was on her feet, cringing every time the other drivers blocked him out, and worrying when his tires smoked unnaturally. All the good energy Megan could send through the television set, she sent, hoping that Jax would get the win. He deserved it. When the warning bell came for the last lap, Megan was fit to be tied; pacing back and forth in short steps to keep her eyes on the television and pounding one of her couch pillows to deal with the nervous energy.

“Come on Jax, you got this!” She yelled at the screen and when he won, she celebrated with him; doing a little jig and falling back on the couch kicking her feet up, thrilled with his victory. As she sat up, still smiling, the camera zoomed in on Jax as he strolled to the winner’s circle. Megan sighed. Everything about Jax Sutton was beautiful; from his piercing blue eyes, to the cut of his jawline, to his brilliant smile that was never full on but more like a sexy smirk. Swoon-worthy…

And for the briefest moment, Megan wished she was one of the women on the stage, hugging Jax and posing for pictures with him; his thickly corded arm wrapped tightly around her cinched waist; his gaze from above capturing her; rendering Megan speechless in his presence.

Ah, Jax…

Falling back onto the couch, Megan kicked up her legs in celebration of Jax’s win. She watched every interview and watched as he responded to all the questions, about his professional life and especially the ones about Jax’s personal life. Sitting on the edge of the couch eating popcorn and drinking a diet Coke, Megan thought about the fact that when a question was raised about his personal life, Jax smiled, he was elusive, he was charming, but he never gave a direct answer. He never committed to the idea that he had someone special in his life.

Maybe he didn’t, Megan mused, fancying what it would be like to be that one special someone in Jax’s life.

But after all the interviews were over, and the late-night news reports that featured the race and showed snippets of the interviews, Megan sighed heavily. Jax Sutton was a dream, just a dream and nothing more.

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