OKAY I DID NOT INTEND A PART THREE but I'm just so intrigued by the idea of these lettersssss…
When the bartenders had announced last call at Cotter Pin, Lightning was surprised, noting it was barely past midnight. He didn't want to admit, but he was enjoying himself listening to the older racers retell stories from their racing days with Doc. It was a side of him he hadn't really gotten to see much of.
Smokey stood with a grin. "It's a weeknight in a small town, boy. Just the way things work around here."
"I got some shine in the trunk of my car if anyone wants to move this party," Junior muttered conspiratorially as they stepped out of the bar and into the gravel parking lot.
River eyed him as the group came to a halt next to Smokey's truck. "What's it gonna take for you to stop hauling that stuff around all the time? If I'd known it was back there I would have driven myself."
Junior waved him away. "I haven't made it myself in years." He turned to look at Smokey, who only glanced at Lightning.
Lightning shrugged and looked at Cruz, who was engrossed in a story Louise was telling her still. Lightning smiled at how much of a fangirl Cruz could be sometimes. He looked back to Smokey. "I would love to continue talking, but if it's too late we can maybe meet up sometime later—"
Smokey waved him off and pulled a cigarette out of a pack. Lightning found himself frowning as Smokey stuck it between his lips and lit it, seeing a flash of Doc in this older brother. "I ain't got anything going on tomorrow morning." He raised an eyebrow at River and Louise.
"Aw, hell, I'm up for it," Louise grinned. "Can't let a girl down." She winked at Cruz, eliciting a grin from the dark haired girl. River sighed in defeat and, not to be the one left out, walked around to the passenger side of Smokey's truck.
"My car is the other way," Junior joked.
"Call me bitter," River called back as Smokey slid into the truck and leaned across the seat to unlock the other door. "But I am not getting arrested for you again."
Junior snickered and motioned for the others to follow him back to his Ford. Lightning got into the back seat next to Cruz, letting Louise take the passenger seat.
"So, Hud's Boy probably has a lot more recent stories about him than Smokey does," Louise muttered as if Lightning wasn't sitting right there behind them. Junior started the car with a chuckle.
"What was your first impression of him?" he asked with a glance to him in the rearview mirror. He pulled out onto the main road and followed Smokey down back the way Lightning remembered they had come.
"He was a mean, grumpy old man," Lightning muttered. "We didn't meet under the best circumstances."
Junior laughed, but Cruz looked at him, confused.
"How's that?" Louise asked, but Lightning just shook his head.
"Let's just say I found myself in a lot of trouble and Doc sentenced me to some community service."
"Doc," Junior repeated, letting the C click. He glanced at Louise. "That's gonna take some getting used to."
"I prefer Hud." She shrugged.
"Kid had too many nicknames," Junior grumbled.
"He ever get himself a girl?" Louise asked, casting a ridiculous grin over her shoulder.
"Not that I'm aware of," Lightning laughed. Louise hummed thoughtfully as she turned back around in her seat.
"What did he even do in that little town of yours?"
"He got his doctorate and was the general practitioner for the town," Lightning mused. "We talked about how he ended up there once, but he never went into a lot of details. Didn't even know he had family still until he died."
Louise crossed her arms. "You know, that doesn't even surprise me," she mused aloud.
Junior frowned. "That he was a doctor or that he didn't talk about Smokey or us?"
Louise just shrugged.
"He also ended up being the judge of sorts. I wasn't a huge fan of that one."
The two continued to grill Lightning on the parts of Doc's life that they missed out on, taking turns asking little questions about the most mundane of things, like if he had still talked to his car—Lightning had caught him doing so on a few occasions. Cruz even jumped in to ask a few questions of her own, mostly elaborating on small snippets that had been posted in the Rust-Eze Racing Center.
Junior turned off the road finally onto another gravel path that wound down to a house nestled behind the trees in the dark. There was a single light shining next to the door on the porch, and Lightning could see even in the limited light how dated the house was.
"Welcome to the Hudson family home," Smokey muttered as Lightning approached the bottom of the porch steps.
"This is where he grew up?" Lightning asked quietly, stopping to take it all in, trying to imagine Doc in this place—on these steps, in the doorway, the yard…
"Till the day he left."
Smokey led them through the house to a little table on the back porch. The three older racers immediately walked around the table and grabbed chairs Lightning assumed were "theirs" while Smokey disappeared back into the house, emerging with two more for Lightning and Cruz.
Junior placed a large glass mason jar on the tabletop and stood, mumbling about needing cups if he was going to share.
"Drive him home later, please," Smokey sighed to Louise who let out a laugh and nodded.
"It's crazy thinking about him here," Lightning murmured, looking out across the darkened yard. He could see the silhouette of a barn and some unkempt gardens.
"He used to steal vegetables out of that garden there before they could be canned," Smokey muttered lowly, looking over his shoulder to where Lightning was staring. "Used to drive his sister mad."
"Sister?" Lightning perked up, eyes flicking back to Smokey. Doc had never mentioned siblings before he died, but this was the first time Smokey had mentioned another sibling.
"Ruth," Louise added quietly, staring down at her hands in her lap.
"Gone," Smokey interrupted. "When we were young."
"Oh," Lightning breathed, suddenly uncomfortable. "I'm sorry."
"Hud took it the hardest," he murmured. "She was his twin."
Lightning's eyebrows rose in surprise, but he otherwise remained silent.
The screen door behind them slammed shut, gaining everyone's attention as Junior returned with a stack of plastic cups. He hesitated before sitting, taking in the heavy air.
"Does anyone else remember," Louise began softly before vaulting them all into tales of Doc, silly stories of when he was new to the racing scene. Lightning couldn't help but get caught up in the older crew's stories. It felt like the person they were talking about was foreign, like a whole other person. Yet something about the person was familiar.
Smokey eyed Lightning. "He ever tell you how he got that car?"
Lightning shook his head slowly, mentally preparing himself for another story as a wide grin slowly grew across Smokey's face and he adjusted himself in his chair. He wasn't sure whether he was shocked or completely unsurprised as Smokey told him about his one-way-ticket trip. He only wished he'd thought to ask Doc about the history of the car before he'd died.
"I still can't believe Hud rebuilt that car after the wreck," Junior mumbled, pouring a little more shine into his cup—the only one being used out of all the cups he'd brought from the house. Louise slapped his hand and he screwed the cap back on the jar, placing it on the ground by his chair.
"It looked just like it did the day he brought it home," River agreed.
"You'd never be able to tell he was in a wreck at all," Lightning commented, slouching in his chair. "Still runs really well, too."
Smokey scoffed. "Boy, your car was fixed just as well. We all saw that race, and looking at your car earlier," he said, "Hud clearly taught you more than just racing."
"I built that car in the first place," Lightning argued.
"I'm surprised it can still race, it's so old," Cruz murmured, chin in her hands and elbows on the table. Lightning threw her a glare.
"What's wrong with old cars?" River challenged jocularly.
"I think she's saying we're too old to race," Junior joined.
"If you were all to race now, who do you think would win?" Cruz asked curiously, leaning further on the table.
The three exchanged looks for a moment, considering this.
"Hud's Boy," Junior and Louise replied at the same time.
River leaned forward on the table with his hand up, clearly a little offended. "Now, wait a minute—"
"Why do you guys keep referring to me as Hud's Boy?" Lightning huffed, a little irritated with the nickname they'd given him.
The three older racers shared a look before turning to Smokey. The man rolled his eyes and stuck his cigarette between his teeth, grunting as he pushed himself out of the chair. They all watched in silence as he went into the house, the screen door smacking the frame.
"Well," Junior drawled, looking around the ground for the jar of moonshine, but Louise kicked his chair and he sat back upright, staring down into his empty cup silently. An uncomfortable silence fell over them and Lightning glanced at Cruz, who only shrugged. A couple minutes later Smokey returned and held out an opened envelope to him.
"Wasn't gonna let you read any of his letters," Smokey murmured around his cigarette as he returned to his chair, "they were more like frickin' diary pages sometimes. But I think you deserve to read that one."
Lightning's eyes drifted down to the addressed envelope in his hands, recognizing Doc's slanted, all-capitals writing. With a last glance up at Smokey, who only took a drag on his cigarette and raised his eyebrows expectantly, Lightning pulled the paper out and carefully unfolded it.
The first two paragraphs were summarizing his second season, his first Piston Cup win. It must have been just after the final race, because he could feel Doc's excitement and pride through the ink. He couldn't help the smirk as he read the words. Not that Doc had never congratulated him or told him he was proud, but this was raw and unfiltered. Smokey's point was immediately apparent when Lightning read the paragraph that followed.
That boy is the closest thing I've ever had to a son in this life. And if that's my karma for everything I put you and the others through, if he's all I get, then so be it. I wouldn't change a damned thing if it meant getting the kid.
Lightning let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and shut his mouth quickly, teeth clicking.
"I already told you," Smokey muttered, reaching across the table to take the letter back, folding it carefully and tucking it back into the envelope before dropping it unceremoniously on the table. "You were the best part of his life."
"But I…" Lightning struggled to voice a thought, any of the millions of thoughts flying through his mind. It was one thing to see the wall Smokey had, every article cut up and pinned to the cork, some of the letters stuck behind them. It was a whole other level of difficult to see those words in Doc's handwriting.
"We could all see it," River grunted, propping one leg up on the knee of the other. "Just from watching the races."
Smokey pressed his hand over the envelope flat on the table for a few seconds before sliding it across to Lightning in a moment of decision. "Keep that one. He made a lot of mistakes in his life, and maybe not telling you he thought of you—"
"He didn't have to," Lightning sighed, taking the envelope into his hands again. "I always knew. I never knew my dad, but Doc was the closest thing I've ever had…"
This time, Junior did pick up the jar of moonshine and after pouring himself some, poured an amount into a second cup and pushed it towards Lightning silently.