"Fillmore," growled Sarge while the two stood in their usual place under the canopy at Flo's that evening, "usually you're the one who has me confirm whether you're just imagining things, but for once please tell me my eyes are playing tricks on me and I'm not really seeing this." The Jeep scowled in distaste as Mia coasted up to him, a tray on one side of her cab and an absolutely ridiculous camouflage paint scheme in place of her usual red paint. She opened her mouth to take his order, smiling sweetly as though nothing were out of the ordinary, but the apoplectic veteran could take the insult no more.
"Young lady, what business do you think you have wearing those colors like they're the latest fashion statement?" He almost spat, he was so upset. "That camouflage saw our great nation through hard-won battles, it's not there for you to wear until you change your mind and paint yourself namby-pamby pink next week!" He swerved around, leaving a sharp skid on the pavement from his deeply-treaded tires.
"This," he bellowed, gesturing to the chevron on his side, "and this," indicating the star on his hood, "were earned! You can't haphazardly don military insignia and colors, it's utterly disrespectful. Now I suggest that you take your lunch break early and have Ramone restore your look to more fitting colors for a girl who's never set tire on rough terrain." As the words spilled from his mouth, Mia's eyes grew wide and pooled with tears. She hadn't expected this in the least and had spent considerable time and expense on her plan to get the veteran's attention. Surprising even herself, she sniffled and sped off, the tray still clipped to her side and rattling in the breeze.
"That was harsh, man," chided Fillmore. "She might've been wearing those colors to be ironic, you know, the way young radicals did back in our day." The Jeep regarded him with disbelief, and the bus added, "besides, I think she did it to impress you."
"In that case, she failed miserably!" stated Sarge unapologetically. "I've never approved of military colors being worn inappropriately to prove a point, anyway. Why not just burn a flag while she's at it?"
Fillmore shook his cab. "I was also gonna suggest that you didn't have to shoot her down on my account," he said cautiously.
Sarge raised an eyelid. "Oh, so you think you factor in to this?"
Yes, and more than you'd ever be willing to admit, the bus thought.
* * *
A few days later saw Mater and Sally rolling slowly down the corridor of Carburetor County's only hospital, past closed doors to patient rooms. The silence between them was uncomfortable, even if it seemed appropriate for a hushed medical setting. In recent days, neither had done much to acknowledge what had drawn them together in the office, nor what had stopped them from taking their relationship further. For Sally, these hospital visits had become a weekly ritual, though not one that brought her any peace of mind or sense of accomplishment. She had always come alone, but today she had told herself that if Mater was going to be part of her life from this point onward, he should see all aspects of it, including this.
"I don' git it, Sally," Mater finally spoke up. "Them vans came to town once an' made fun of everythin' in it, or at least the Mister did. The Missus just looked like she was skeert to speak up to him. So why are ya keen on visitin' 'em so often?"
"It's not easy to explain," Sally admitted, "but I feel some responsibility for them. They were our first visitors in over six months and we let them down big time."
"As I recollect, they wouldn't accept yer help!" Mater countered, though the Porsche just looked at the black and white tiled floor before knocking skittishly on a sturdy oak door. A feminine voice invited her in, and Minny was up on her tires in bed, looking considerably better than the last time Sally had seen her. There were far fewer tubes and wires running under her hood, and the minivan was clearly a healthier, bubblier car compared to the weak vehicle Sally had last spent a tense half hour with.
"Oh, hello there," she greeted the sports car, as warmly as though she was home in her kitchen and about to offer her guests a tray of homemade cookies. Her eyes strayed to the tow truck behind Sally. "I see you brought a friend this time, didn't you? It's so nice to come and visit me. With my family so far away, I haven't had many visitors." She said the last part for Mater's benefit, as Sally already knew the minivan was struggling with loneliness as well as uncertainty over her condition. Her husband had been forced to travel back home and resume his job so the couple could afford Minny's hospital bill.
Feeling pained, Sally extended a tire and squeezed Minny's wheel in her own. "Has there been any word on improvement? You look better," the Porsche asked cautiously.
A look of concern, for Sally's feelings more than her own, and disappointment crossed the purple van's face as she shook her cab.
"Not much, dear. I'm afraid the doctors are concerned my engine suffered more damage than they thought. My fluid levels were quite low when we were finally discovered." She tugged the blanket tighter around her wheels and gripped Sally's tire tightly. "Please stop blaming yourself, dear. You tried to help us. It's just that Van, Heaven help him, can be so obstinate. He wouldn't have taken that map if you'd pinned it under his windshield wiper."
"Maybe," said Sally, her voice sounding far away. They turned the conversation to lighter topics, but all she could imagine was the sketchy prognosis and its implications for Minny. The optimistic homemaker had dreamed of one day seeing the vastness of America, and now her wanderlust had nearly cost her her life. Van had been released after only a week in the hospital once the medical team had ascertained his engine was solid, but his wife's condition had stagnated and then faltered in recent weeks. Sally knew that Van bore most of the guilt for allowing the pair to become hopelessly lost, but she felt just as responsible.
Late that night, Sally was up late typing a purchase order for new fixtures at the Wheel Well. The door swung open and Mater drove inside, clutching a carafe in his tow hook. Oh, thank goodness. This talk was so overdue.
"I brewed ya some octane if yer gonna be burnin' the midnight oil," he said, taking some mugs from a shelf and setting them down on the desk. Sally smiled even as he splashed some of the beverage on the wooden surface. "Yer workin' too hard, but I really wanted to ask ya why ya've been so quiet since we left the hospital."
Sally's tire shook while she sipped the overly-hot drink. "I'm not sure anymore, Mater. We're being mocked mercilessly by the tabloids like I thought we would, my parents are staying a few doors down and they can't accept us, and do you know what's worst of all? A map costs fifteen cents to print."
"Huh?" inquired Mater, perplexed.
"Fifteen cents." Sally's cab grew heavy and she rested it against Mater's side, one eye on the literature rack nearby stuffed with maps like the one she hadn't seen fit to give the lost vans. "That's all it would have cost me to pass a map to Minny when she gave me that helpless look. Instead, I was so disappointed they brushed us off that I let them go on to their fate. I had no idea."
Mater lifted a tire and held it soothingly against Sally's smooth side, daring to caress her a little. "Aw, it's okay and it ain't yer fault. Ya didn't know she was gonna git lost or ya wouldn't have let her go. I know ya too well." His towing boom lowered a few inches while he lost himself in old memories.
"I once made a purty bad mistake m'self," he offered, gaining the Porsche's attention. "Doreen. Back when we was younger me an' her was the talk of the town, an' everyone thought we'd be together till the end of time. She weren't too keen on stayin' in sleepy ol' Radiator Springs so ya know what I told her? I said if it was meant to be, she'd move on an' see the world, an' I'd wait right here fer her until she'd seen it all an' was ready to come back." He snorted once. "An' she did move on to bigger an' better things, or should I say bigger an' better Al. He was my best friend, a huge guy with monster truck tires that everyone wanted to be just like. I found 'em together right as I was fixin' to ask Doreen to be my wife."
From within his embrace, Sally blinked in disbelief. "So that's what happened. I knew you didn't like to talk about how things ended between you two." She felt him swallow hard.
"That weren't even my biggest error," Mater suddenly spoke up. "After she done left me, I swore I'd have my best friends fer life an' I was sure gonna have me some fun, but I wasn't gonna git that close to a gal all romantic-like ever agin." The Porsche thought she detected a blush under his layers of rust. "Then ya came along an' now I ain't so sure. It's just that it's been so long, an' even if ya had agreed to go out with me long ago, I woulda been too skert to make anythin' of it." Mater shook his cab and hurriedly left for his Cone, hoping that his admission had made Sally understand she was not the only one who had ever made a life-altering mistake.
"Mater…" Her voice stopped the tow truck in the doorway of the office and he turned toward the Porsche once more. "It's not easy making up for what went wrong, but I'm trying. Give me enough time to see Minny leave the hospital and then, if you still feel like your decision was a mistake, let's fix that too."
* * *
Many miles away at the county hospital, Minny watched from her bed as the helicopter bumbled past her window, receding into the night sky as it made its way over the desert sands in search of an ailing vehicle. When its lights were no longer visible she turned her attention back to the scrapbook on the bed before her.
Good old Van. Everyone had told them he should have been called Moving Van, for he had barely been able to settle down in one place long enough to eke out a living and raise his children with her. She imagined it must have been quite hard for him to set aside his road atlases and maps and report instead to work at his office everyday when he'd rather be on the open highway like the company's semi trucks. He had admitted more than once that he envied the haulers that he saw leaving through the gates each day, stocked with goods and bound for adventure.
Minny had always pictured herself surrounded by children, and sure enough by the time she'd hit middle age she had raised three wonderful minivans, each with a separate life and budding career of his or her own. Her house, hundreds of miles away now, was packed with their portraits, trophies and other mementoes of youth that she hadn't had the heart to ship off to them even if it would have given her and Van more space.
A soft knock at the door caught her attention and she called for her visitor to enter. This can't be Sally again tonight, could it be…
"Van!" She caught a brief glimpse of her husband, looking fully recovered and energetic, before his image was flooded by her grateful tears. "You don't know how badly I wanted to see you!" Van lowered on his shocks by her bed so he could be closer to her, and Minny continued. "I'm sorry I was so upset with you the day we got lost." She turned away from him, seemingly taking a sudden interest in the heat register on the wall. "I was pretty mad at you for the whole ordeal until just now," Minny added guiltily, "and I stayed that way until it struck me that you were only following dreams you'd put aside for years."
"I was following them at the expense of our safety," Van corrected her, showing her a small gadget he'd unhooked from behind his sideview mirror. "Never again. I took your words to heart and installed a real working GPS system and I'm determined we're going to get you good and healthy to go out on the road again."
Smiling at each other through eyes that became so watery that both needed to activate their windshield wipers, the two vans talked into the late hours of the night, ignoring entirely the hospital rules regarding visitation hours.
* * *
Clutching the packet of papers tightly to her frame, Tia paused with trepidation just before reaching the registrar's office and looked back at Lightning for confirmation.
"I…I'm just not sure about this," she whimpered, though she wanted nothing more than to slide the papers across the counter and officially enroll at Carburetor County Community College's nursing program. "I'd be enrolling on your dime and then I'd owe you." Strangely, she had never before had had any qualms about allowing a romantic interest to fund her lifestyle if he was willing, but now that she was with McQueen she found herself thinking differently.
"We talked about this," the racecar reminded her. "I'd love to see you chase this dream and succeed. You won't owe me anything, and don't forget your earnings from Flo's are paying for most of this. I just helped out because I could. It's a favor to a friend and nothing more."
Moments later as they shopped for the textbooks her courses would require, Tia felt as though her existence was becoming more legitimate with each passing moment. Had it not been for McQueen's encouragement, which had bordered on insistence that she seriously consider the program, she would not likely have pursued it at this point in her life.
Author's Note: Thanks again to Twilit-Violet for beta-reading this chapter!