WELCOME TO AUSTENVILLE
Blurb: Alice Parks accidentally stumbles upon Austenville, a little New England town where all the townspeople are characters from Austen novels.
Rated T for some physical violence, unwelcome flirtation, welcome smooching, mental health issues, non-hetero characters/relationship, interracial relationship. (I added the last two warnings after publishing chapter 5 in case those are deal breakers.)
1: In the Middle of Nowhere
Alice drove along the backroads of New England, music blaring out of the stereo, her eyes peeled for signs and markers. Forty minutes ago, she had passed by a sign announcing Sanditon County, which was good, but she hadn't seen another car since then and she estimated she was ten minutes late for her next turn.
The GPS in her phone didn't work this far from civilization which was something she expected. She had copied down the directions this morning in her hotel room and had sketched a map on the back of the paper, but she had grown too accustomed to technology. She missed the comforting voice telling her that she needed to bear left in 1.5 miles.
At last she passed a green sign letting her know that a town called Austenville was ahead. It wasn't where she wanted to be but at least she could get out, stretch her legs, maybe grab a bite to eat, and ask for directions.
As if on cue, the engine began to sputter. She looked down at the dashboard and saw the low fuel light blinking at her. Alice groaned in frustration. She had filled up the tank before leaving her hotel this morning but it was nearly lunch now. She had made a note to stop for gas about 90 minutes ago, but she hadn't seen a gas station since then and now it was too late.
She guided the car to the side of the road where it wouldn't pose an obstacle to other drivers. As she rummaged in her trunk for a gas can, she mentally berated her brother Dean for getting her into this mess. It was his plea for help that had her leaving D.C. immediately after her dissertation. She had missed a number of parties to see what was bothering him in Maine, spent a night in a cheap hotel, eaten questionable food, gotten lost, and now run out of gas. The only bright spot was that she knew there was a town nearby.
Locking her car and pocketing her wallet and phone, she started walking on the shoulder of the road.
Twenty minutes later, she finally saw signs of life. A car drove by, then a golf cart; the driver waved at her in the instinctively friendly manner associated with small towns where everybody knows everybody but he still didn't stop to offer assistance. Buildings appeared, first one or two at a time, then in greater numbers and order. Alice started walking on the sidewalk. Other pedestrians were out, and bicyclists, but no one was on the same side of the street as her and while they seemed friendly, they were not outgoing; they smiled at her then turned their heads before the contact could encourage her to ask for help.
At last she approached the heart of town. Two-story or three-story buildings on either side of the street were for local businesses that implied Austenville stood practically dormant for three-quarters of the year, only coming alive when tourists flooded the town in the summer months. There were antique stores, ice cream "shoppes," a few restaurants, a bar, and a laundromat. The center of the downtown was a grassy square with a statue in the center, flanked by flagpoles. The statue - some revolutionary war hero no doubt - stared down some ornate, columned building that was probably the city hall.
There were no gas stations to be found, but there were a few cars parked on the streets, so they must get their fuel from somewhere. There were, unfortunately, a lot more golf carts and bicycles parked everywhere, implying a gas station was not close at hand.
Alice was just about to duck into a coffee shop-slash-bakery named "Sweet Nothings" to ask for directions and refuel herself, when she heard a man shouting at her.
"Hey! Hey you!" he yelled angrily, crossing the street at a run to accost her at close range. "What are you doing here?"
She had her hand on the door, pulling it open, when he reached her and pushed the door shut. Bells on the inside meant to alert the staff of arriving customers jangled discordantly.
"What are you doing here?" the stranger demanded. "How did you get here?" He was not exactly dirty but he was unkempt and he smelled like he had rolled around in whatever might have been spilt behind a bar.
Too late Alice remembered that she had left her mace in the car but she had gone through a couple training sessions in her college dorm, as well as having one or two episodes of real-life experience.
"Back away from me," she said levelly. She made eye contact with him, looking severe.
Before he could respond, the door to the shop was pushed open and an older woman came out holding a disposable cup of coffee. "Tripp, is everything alright out here?" she inquired lightly. She stepped forward, crowding the man so that he had to move back.
Tripp blinked slightly at this newcomer and struggled briefly for words. "There's a stranger in town," he said at last.
The woman looked at Alice and smiled warmly. "Yes," she agreed, "but I don't think she means us any harm."
"Of course not!" declared Tripp indignantly. "But how did she get here? That's what I want to know, Anne. Where is she from?" He turned to Alice. "Where are you from?"
"Why don't you let me talk to her," suggested Anne. "Let Jenny make you a cup of coffee while I talk to this nice woman here." She opened the door to the shop and shooed him inside. Alice thought the last thing he needed was caffeine but when the door shut behind him, she could have sworn that the bells sounded soothing to her.
The woman sighed and shook her head. "Sorry about that," she apologized. "Tripp can be a little intense and he needs his routine. We're not due for tourists for another two weeks." She held out her hand. "I'm Anne, by the way. Anne Darby."
"Alice," Alice rejoined, shaking hands. "Alice Parks. Who was that?"
"That was Tripp. He's really quite harmless. But I understand he can be intimidating if you don't know him."
"You can say that again," Alice agreed, watching the man through the coffee shop's large front window. He was talking with the barista who was laughing comfortably at whatever he was saying.
"So," Anne continued with a small gesture to Alice's gas can, "did you have some car trouble?"
"Yes," Alice said, relieved to be getting back to the task at hand. "Yes, I ran out of gas about a mile or so down the road, and I walked into town. Where's the nearest gas station?"
The question momentarily stumped Anne Darby. "Hmm. The closest one I can think of is 15 miles away."
"Are you serious?" Alice asked before she could stop herself.
Anne looked apologetic. "Sorry. I'm not much help. I don't drive a car, myself; I get vertigo. And if I ever do need to go somewhere, I get my cousin Gerry to take me. Maybe Public Safety can help you."
Ms. Darby then offered to walk Alice to the public safety office which housed the town's police, fire, and emergency medical responders. Along the way, she asked politely how it was again that Alice had come to town.
"I'm on my way to see my brother," she explained. "I had gotten lost and wasn't paying attention to the gas gauge until it was too late."
Alice looked up as they passed by a placard. "Longbourn Bed and Breakfast, Agnes Bennet Proprietress," she read aloud. It had been a few years since she had last read iPride and Prejudice/i, but she couldn't forget the name of the heroine's home or her family. Something clicked in her head, reminding her of a few towns she had heard of that have an annual Shakespeare festival, or the time in her childhood when her parents had taken her to a live-action Dickens village for Christmas.
She stopped to ask Ms. Darby if Austenville was similar but the bells to Sweet Nothings jangled again and Tripp came dashing out to chase after them, his cup of coffee in hand.
"Anne!" he called out as he ran past a few storefronts. "Did you find out about her yet?"
"Let me handle him," Anne offered Alice quietly before turning to the young man. "Her name is Miss Parks and she's on her way to see her brother. She'll be gone as soon as she can."
"How did she even get here?" he asked. "We never get visitors."
"That's not true, Tripp," Anne corrected him gently. "In another two weeks, this place will be packed with tourists."
"In another two weeks, the world is going to end," Tripp offered up his own interpretation.
"So do you celebrate the works of Austen every year?" Alice asked, figuring it was as good a segue as she could find. She wanted to get to her brother as soon as possible, but maybe she could stop here on the way back to D.C.
Tripp gasped and dropped his cup. The coffee splattered all over the sidewalk and his shoes. "What did you say?"
"I'm sorry," she stuttered. "I just thought with a name like Austenville, and a bed and breakfast named Longbourn, that you've got some literary festival." It sounded far-fetched when she voiced it aloud.
"A-ha!" Tripp crowed. "What have I been telling you, Anne? Austen! And what is Austen's first name?" He posed the question to Alice in an accusing tone.
"J-Jane," stuttered Alice before she remembered not to let him intimidate her.
"A-ha!" he crowed again. "This proves what I've been saying for years. What are you going to do about it now, Anne?"
Anne could see how visibly uncomfortable Alice had become. The young woman clearly expected the man to do something wild at any moment, and she was not half-wrong.
"You need to calm down, Tripp," she said calmly yet firmly. "You're not making a good impression on our visitor. I think you need to back away and give her some space."
Tripp scowled but then he looked at Alice who looked sincerely terrified. He seemed to tone down his intensity. "I didn't mean to frighten you," he said in an almost normal tone of voice. "It's just that no one else seems to understand what I'm talking about. Eventually, it makes a man feel like he's going insane. But you understand. Austen! Jane Austen! There can be no order without it. Finally, a voice of reason has arrived. What did you say your name was?"
"Alice Parks," she answered numbly.
"Alice… Alice? Are you sure it isn't Elizabeth?" This detail seemed important to him, and disappointing. When she nodded, he signed with deep regret. "Well then it's hopeless," he concluded and bid them a good day.
Alice stood with Anne and watched him go. When he disappeared down a side street, she turned to the other woman. "What was that?" she whispered, afraid he would come back.
Anne just shrugged. "He's never been quite right since his sister died, I'm afraid. He's not all there all the time, but when he is, he's great. You've just caught him on an off day. We handle grief in our own private ways."
Alice thought it sounded tragic. Tripp didn't look old, maybe her brother's age; what would Dean act like if she had died? What would it take to push him over the edge and end up like Tripp? She didn't want to dwell on that question, and Anne was kind enough to start moving again.
The public safety office was right next to the city hall, with a clear view of the statue in the center of the square. Anne took her to the front door and then apologized that she couldn't stay but she had errands of her own to run. Alice thanked her warmly and let her go.
Alice hadn't been in a police station before. She had been a well-behaved child and had not developed any wild tendencies as she grew older. She approached the front kiosk the way she might at a museum or library, and tapped a bell to alert the local law enforcement of her presence.
A minute later, a man came to the window. He was dressed in a dark blue uniform with close cut hair and a few tattoos on one arm. He asked if he could be of assistance and Alice again explained about her car.
"Ma'am, you need an auto club," he informed her, "not public safety. Call Thorpe's Towing." He moved away as if to dismiss her.
"Wait!" Alice stopped him. "I brought a gas can. All I need is enough gas to drive to the nearest gas station. Where is that? Can you at least tell me where it is? If it's close enough to walk to, I won't need a tow. Please?"
She felt herself getting close to tears. Not that she was worried about her brother, but he had never needed her help before and he wouldn't have asked for her to come unless it was serious. And the stress of traveling alone, combined with getting stuck in a strange place, surrounded by even stranger people, was quickly wearing her out. She didn't want to be the sort of female that dissolved into tears, but fate was toying past her endurance.
The police officer looked like the last thing he wanted to see was a crying woman but before he could complete his retreat another figure approached.
"Who's this, Fred?" asked the older officer.
Officer Fred gave a quick summary of the situation, then offered to cede control of the situation to his superior.
"Naw, Fred, I think you've got it in hand," said the other man. "Just give her a couple gallons and drive her out to her car and let her be on her way. Serve and protect, son."
Alice gushed with gratitude. "Thank you, sir! Your honor!" She didn't really know how to address this man.
"Chris Brandon, Chief of Public Safety," he supplied with a smile that made his face suddenly resemble a bloodhound.
"Thank you, Chief," Alice amended. "And thank you, Officer Fred. You have no idea how much this means to me."
The younger officer winced at the name but said nothing at the time. It was only later, when Alice was climbing into the squad car, still blurting out thank-yous, that he put a stop to her unwelcome familiarity. "Thank you, Officer Fred," she said again.
"That's Officer Wentworth to you," he corrected grumpily.
This brought on a round of apologies from Alice until the name suddenly clicked. "So your name is Fred Wentworth?"
The officer sighed his assent.
Alice fought the urge to giggle. "I'm sure you're tired of hearing about your name, I'm sorry." She really oughtn't antagonize the man who was helping her.
"What's wrong with my name?" he asked testily.
Alice smiled. "Well, Fred Wentworth is a very famous name. At least in some circles." She supposed not everyone read period romances. "I mean, Fred Wentworth, Navy captain -"
"Coast Guard," blurted the officer.
Alice furrowed her brow. Was he trying to mansplain Jane Austen to her? "I'm pretty sure it was the Navy."
"I'm absolutely certain I was in the Coast Guard." To emphasize his statement, he pointed to a tattoo on his lower arm.
Her mouth hung open for a little bit then she muttered a quiet, "Oh," and fell silent. Her mind tried to make sense of this. Here was a real-life Fred Wentworth who knew nothing of his literary namesake, who had managed to serve in the Coast Guard rather than the Navy. The odds were pretty high against that, in her estimation. When she factored in that he lived in a town named after the writer that had made his name and military service famous, she couldn't imagine this actually happening. Then she tried to figure out how the bed and breakfast and Tripp's bizarre behavior placed in the overall scene when Officer Wentworth slowed his vehicle.
Alice's car was almost but not quite where she had left it. It remained on the side of the road but someone had obviously moved it. It hadn't gone a great distance but it had traveled with great force and was, in the common parlance, wrapped around a tree. She was going to need more than a few gallons of fuel to escape Austenville.
I'm posting this in P&P even though I try to bring in someone from each of Austen's works. #sorryNotSorry but I just don't like the way FFN does crossovers.