The apartment was dark when I walked in. No one had answered my knock, but there was a car in the driveway. Inside the air was heavy with incense. I pulled my shirt over my mouth and nose until I got used to the cloying scent.
"Jacob?" I called, standing in the kitchen. "You home?"
A groan answered me. Frowning, I pushed open the door to the living room. Jacob was sitting in the middle of the floor, a bottle of Vicadin and a fifth of rum in front of him. A half-spent incense stick sat in its holder on top of the stereo. I crushed it out, then knelt down and picked up the Vicadin bottle. It was still full, to my relief.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm too depressed to kill myself." Jacob let out a broken laugh. "Isn't that sad?"
"Lily left me." Lily was Jacob's on-again, off-again girlfriend. They had been dating and not dating since high school. Every few months there would be a screaming fight and Lily would storm out. She always came back, though.
"So?" I asked. "You know she'll be back."
Jacob shook his head, his brown hair brushing against his shoulders. Normally it was pulled back in a ponytail, but today it hung down, shading his eyes.
"She's gone for good this time," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, she's gone." Jacob spread open his arms. "Left, disappeared, no longer present."
"Okay, okay. Calm down."
"Fuck calm. Lily's gone, Miles. G-o-n-e, gone."
"Congratulations, you just won the spelling bee."
Jacob glanced up at me. "Don't try to make me laugh," he said. I shrugged.
"All right, then. What happened? Did you have a fight?"
"No. Yes. Not at first." He sighed. "She got an offer to study in London for a year. I didn't want her to go. She said she was going anyway. I shouted. She shouted. Then she left."
"Maybe you can talk to her—"
"No." He practically yelled the word. "It's over." With a thud, he flopped backwards, and stared up at the ceiling. "There's another guy."
"Um." I picked at a scab on the back of my hand. It was an open secret that Lily cheated on Jacob. Sometimes it seemed like even he knew, although this was the first time he ever mentioned it.
"He's going to England, too," Jacob said. "Cocksucker."
I didn't know what to say. I mean, I thought Lily was a skank, but Jacob loved her. What could I say? Everything that came to mind sounded hollow; just empty, meaningless words.
"Hey," I stood. "Come on." Jacob sat up.
"Come on, Jake. You can't mope around here. It'll be fun," I wheedled. "We'll listen to good music, smoke some cigarettes, speed like mad."
"I gave up cigarettes."
I rolled my eyes. Jacob smoked more than anyone else I knew.
"Get your ass off the damn floor," I said. Jacob just moaned. Shaking my head, I leaned over and grabbed his wrists. "Get up!" I grunted. I outweighed Jacob by at least thirty pounds, but a hundred-fifty pounds of reluctant deadweight is still hard to drag across a carpeted floor. After a minute of my ineffectual yanking, Jacob caved.
"Okay, I'll go. Christ, you're going to rip my arms out of their sockets." He rubbed his shoulders.
"If you had just gotten up when I asked," I replied. Jacob shot me a glare through his screen of hair. I glared back. We spent another ten minutes looking for Jacob's sneakers. One was underneath a mountain of dirty clothes. The other was in the bathroom sink. Why, I didn't ask. Sometimes, with Jacob, it was better that way.
"Don't go on the highway," he said once we were in my car.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Whatever." I cranked the radio and pulled out into traffic. It was a Tuesday night, just after rush hour ended. The moon was full, over-shining the few stars that bothered to come out. AC/DC's Highway to Hell came on, and I hummed along as I slammed on the clutch and shifted into fifth gear. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the spark of a lighter.
"Light me one, will you?" I tossed my half-empty pack of cigarettes to Jacob. He made a derisive noise in the back of his throat.
"Lights," he muttered, pulling one out of the pack. "Nothing but air." Jacob smoked Marlboro 100's, sucking on the tip like an inhaler. He passed me my cigarette as I zoomed past a cop car.
"Shit," I swore, twisting around to see if he was going to follow me. A flash of blue appeared and I swore again.
"Great," Jacob folded his arms over his chest. "Just great."
"Shut up," I snapped. "I'm the one who's getting a ticket, not you." I scanned the road and spotted a turn-off. "Hang on," I said. Slamming on my brakes, I spun the wheel.
"Holy Mary, mother of God!" Jacob pushed the hair out of his eyes. "Are you crazy?"
"Not now," I said. There was another road coming up. Without slowing, I took a left. There was a heart-pounding second when the car teetered on two wheels, but it righted itself.
"I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die," Jacob kept repeating. He put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled, drawing in enough smoke to knock out a horse. The road we were on now was pitted and full of potholes. We bounced around, hitting the doors, the roof, and each other. I slowed to a reasonable speed, and glanced in my rearview mirror.
"I don't think he followed us," I said.
"You need to be locked up," Jacob said. "How do you still have your license?"
"I don't," I answered. "It's been suspended."
Jacob stared at me, then began to laugh. He braced himself on the dashboard with both hands, his whole body shaking.
"Hey," I said, poking him in the shoulder. "Hey!" The bastard just laughed harder. I turned my gaze back to the road, just in time to see a pothole big enough to hide an elephant in. "Shit!" I yelled, slamming on the brakes. I wasn't quick enough. The car jolted, then stalled.
"What happened?" Jacob asked. I didn't answer. Instead, I put on the parking brake and climbed out of the car. My bumper was dented and one tire had popped. The other was letting out a steady stream of air. I only had one spare. Jacob opened the door and peered out. He let out a low whistle.
"You're fucked," he said.
"What do you mean, 'you're fucked'?" I retorted. "You're stuck here too."
"I knew I shouldn't have come."
"Oh, shut up and help me push."
Grumbling and complaining, Jacob got out of the car.
"I'll steer," I said.
"Hell, no. It's your car. You push it."
"Fine." I went round to the back, while Jacob slid into the driver's seat.
"Ready?" he yelled.
"Yeah." He released the emergency brake and the car began rolling. Backwards.
"Brake! Brake!" I shouted. The car jerked to a halt. "Well," I said, sticking my hands in my back pockets. "This sucks."
"That's the understatement of the year." Jacob lit another cigarette. He blew out a stream of smoke and glanced around. "I think there's a house over there. We could go ask to borrow their phone."
"What happened to your cell phone?" I asked.
"Lily threw it at me, and it broke."
"Brilliant." I sighed. "Let's go, then." I grabbed my coat out of the car and locked up. The road was narrow, but there was enough room for someone to squeeze by if they needed to. It didn't look like a lot of people traveled this way. The trees were close to the road, and the shoulder was rough and broken. I was surprised Jacob was able to see the light from the house.
"It's kind of creepy out here," Jacob said after we had walked for about five minutes.
"I guess." I had grown up in the country, so woods didn't bother me. Jacob was a city boy, though. This was the smallest town he had lived in. He still didn't understand why everything closed at nine o'clock. The brush rustled and Jacob inched closer to me.
"What was that?" he demanded.
"A bear," I replied. "With big, pointy teeth and claws the size of zucchinis."
"Fuck you." Jacob wrapped his jacket tighter around his chest. He jumped as a blur shot out in front of us.
"Relax," I said, grinning. "It's just a dog."
"A dog," Jacob echoed in disbelief. "If that's a dog, then I'm a giraffe."
"Kind of small for a giraffe."
We stopped and turned. A woman had appeared, a dog leash in one hand. She was our age, with blonde hair pulled back in a messy bun. Her clothes were covered with burrs and leaves. A twig was sticking out above her ear.
"He's a mastiff," she continued. The dog loped over to her, his pink tongue dripping drool over her shoes. The woman didn't seem to notice. She clicked the leash onto the dog's collar, without needing to bend over.
"Your car break down?" she asked. "Or are you guys just out for a stroll?" Laughter danced in her eyes.
"We hit a pothole," I answered.
"Ah." She nodded. "The Big Dipper." You could hear the capital letters in her tone. "We've been begging the town to fix it for years, but since there's only three houses on this road, it's not exactly a priority, you know?" She stuck out a hand. "I'm Josie," she said.
"Miles," I replied. I glanced over at Jacob. He was gaping at either the woman or the dog, I couldn't tell which. "This is Jacob," I added, giving him a not so subtle elbow in the gut.
"Uh, hi," he said.
"Hi." Josie tilted her head to the side and looked at me. I shrugged.
"Do you have a phone we could borrow? Two of my tires are flat and I only have one spare."
"Sure. Just follow me and Fluffy." She plunged back to the woods.
"Fluffy?" Jacob muttered.
"It's more encouraging than Killer."
We scrambled through the brush, with Jacob cursing with every other breath. After a little bit, we arrived on a rough path.
"It's faster to cut through the woods," Josie said. "Our house is pretty far back from the road." Fluffy barked and darted up ahead. The leash was the retractable kind that could extend up to a hundred feet.
"You live with roommates?" Jacob asked, pulling out another cigarette.
"My family." Josie wrinkled her nose. "You shouldn't smoke in the woods. It's dry out and the leaves catch easily."
With an expression of indescribable agony, Jacob tucked the pack into his jacket pocket. "No problem," he said with a forced smile. I coughed to hide the laugh that threatened to burst out.
"It's not that far," Josie said, as she was wrenched forward. "Oops. Fluffy! Heel!"
Fluffy stopped and looked back at us with a forlorn expression.
"He knows dinner's waiting for him," she said. As if on cue, Jacob's stomach growled. Josie laughed. "Don't worry," she said. "We have people food too."
Jacob's cheeks turned pink. "Thanks," he mumbled.
Josie smiled. There was a dimple at the corner of her mouth. "It's not every day I get to rescue handsome strangers." Jacob's blush deepened.
'God help me,' I thought. The path wasn't wide enough for three people, so Josie walked ahead, and Jacob and I trailed behind.
"She's nice," I said.
"Not really your type, though."
"What do you mean?" Jacob demanded.
"Well, Lily's not the kind of girl to go tramping around the woods in a flannel shirt, is she?"
"No," Jacob answered, his eyes on Josie's slim silhouette.
"Josie probably doesn't even own a tube of lipstick."
"So? What's wrong with that? She doesn't need any." Jacob's strides lengthened until he was beside Josie. I smiled and began humming to myself.
The walk was quick once we were on the path. After a bit, the woods opened up into a wide clearing. A farmhouse sat in the center, its paint shining white in the moonlight. There was a screened in porch that wrapped around the house. A row of fire-bushes had planted along the side. I only recognized them because my mother had some too. In the fall, the leaves would turn a bright crimson.
"My dad's on duty right now," Josie said. "But my brother's home." She led us up the front steps and into a tiny mud-room. We slipped off our shoes, which by now, were coated with dirt. "Mike!"
"What?" A boy shouted back. He sounded like he wasn't more than fourteen.
A scrawny boy in an over-sized Black Sabbath shirt and shorts wandered into the room. "What?"
"Can you show them where the phone is while I start dinner?" Josie pulled off the flannel shirt she was wearing. Underneath she had on a University of Massachusetts t-shirt. Mike's eyes turned to us.
"Why do I have to do it?" he whined.
"Because I said so. Now go." Josie pointed towards an open doorway.
"Fine," Mike grumbled. He stomped off.
"And take Fluffy with you," Josie called after him.
"If it's okay, I'll stay and keep you company," Jacob said, edging out of the way as Fluffy shot past him.
"Sure." Jacob followed Josie through the second doorway, while I went with my reluctant guide.
The phone was in the living room. It was the chunky kind with a rotary dial that you see in old TV shows.
"Thanks," I said. Mike scowled at me, then threw himself down onto the couch. He was in the middle of a Nintendo game, one of the original ones. I saw a new Playstation 2 sitting beside the ancient console. Clearly, Mike was a kid who appreciated the old school.
I sat down in a flowered wing-backed chair and lifted the phone into my lap. I dialed the number for AAA from memory. I have a lot of car problems. It took me a little longer to get hold of an actual person since I wasn't calling from a touch-tone phone.
"Don't break that block," I said, holding the receiver away from my mouth. I was on hold, God's little preview of hell.
"If you jump on top of it, and then shoot a shell to the right, there's a hidden vine that will take you to a secret—yes, my account number is 56482693." A lot of car troubles.
"Hey, thanks!" Mike grinned at me. Apparently, I was now deemed acceptable.
"Yes," I said into the phone. "Two flats. Yes. Uh, hang on." I pressed the receiver to my chest. "Mike, what's the name of the road?"
"Doesn't have one," he said. "Just tell 'em its rural route one in Pittsfield."
"Okay." I relayed the information. "Okay. Two hours? Thanks." I hung up the phone. "Uh, where's the kitchen?" I asked.
"Through the door to the right," Mike said without peeling his eyes off the screen.
I could hear giggles from behind the swinging door. I pushed it open and looked in. Jacob was sitting on the counter, while Josie was chopping up some lettuce. She kept glancing up at Jacob while he talked. I coughed. They turned around with guilty expressions, like I was a teacher who caught them talking in class.
"It's going to be a couple of hours," I said.
"Then you have time to stay for dinner. We're having tacos." Josie dumped the lettuce into a colander and stuck it under the faucet. "Jacob said they were his favorite."
I raised my eyebrows. "Really?" I knew for a fact that Jacob hated Mexican food. "Lucky him."
Jacob shot me a look that said if I opened my mouth one more time, he was going to beat me senseless. I gave him a sadistic smile, and ambled back into the living room.
"Mind if I watch?" I asked Mike.
"You can play if you want," he said. "I have another controller."
"If that's okay with you." I sat cross-legged on the floor. My Mario skills were rusty, but after ten or so premature deaths I got the hang of it. Mike still kicked my ass.
After half an hour, Josie poked her head into the room. "Dinner's ready," she announced.
"Just a sec," Mike replied. He saved his game, then stood up. I followed him in the kitchen. Jacob was already sitting at the table. I slipped into the seat next to him. The table had been set for five. Someone else must have been expected. Fluffy lay snoring the corner of the room. He resembled not so much a dog as a great lump of fur.
"Dad's not home yet," Mike said, sitting down opposite Jacob.
"I know," Josie replied. "He must have been caught up at work."
I was on my third taco when there was the sound of an engine outside. Jacob glanced up, glad to be distracted from the sloppy mess on his plate. He had already forced down two tacos, and Josie kept urging him to take more. His pain at eating refried beans and sour cream amused me. At one point I met Josie's gaze and she winked at me. No fool was Josie.
"Dad's home," Mike said, his mouth full of half-chewed taco. A tall, dark-haired man strode into the room. He topped me by at least four inches and I was six foot.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Uh…." Josie's dad was dressed in the dark blue uniform of a police officer. You could have mashed Jacob and me together, and he still would have outweighed us. And none of the weight was fat. Josie and Mike must have taken after their mother, because they were both pretty small.
"This is Miles, and that's Jacob."
"What are you doing in my house?"
"Eating," I said. Jacob kicked me under the table. "I'm sorry. Our car got a couple of flats and Josie rescued us."
"You!" he boomed. "You're the assholes who ran when I tried to pull you over. I knew I recognized that plate number."
There was utter silence.
"Shiiiiiiiiiit," Mike drew out the word. "You're in trouble."
"Mike, don't swear," Josie said calmly. "Dad, sit down. The food is going to get cold."
"I should arrest you right now."
"No one's arresting anybody," Josie said. "You're off duty anyway."
"It's the principle of the thing," he grumbled.
"We're really very sorry," Jacob began. "It's just that Miles—"
This time I kicked him.
"Ow. Miles, that hurt."
I kicked him again.
"Maybe we should be going," I said, standing up. "I'm sorry for intruding. Sir." Sir…I hadn't called anyone sir in my entire life.
"Sit," Josie ordered. "I said, sit!"
"Now, we are going to finish dinner. And then, I am going to walk Jacob and Miles back to their car. You, Dad, are going to stay here. There will be no arrests. Mike, keep him away from the phone."
"Aye, aye." Mike saluted.
"Miles, you are not to speed on your way home."
"Jacob, make sure he doesn't."
"Um, all right."
"Everyone clear? Good." Josie took another taco shell and began filling it. The rest of us watched her as if she were a geyser threatening to blow. It was amazing how one petit blonde could terrify four (almost) adult males. Fluffy let out a loud snort, and I jumped.
"Nervous?" Josie's dad leered at me.
"Wouldn't you be?" I shot back. He blinked twice, then threw his head back and laughed.
"In your shoes, yeah, I would be." He rested his elbows on the table. "You're lucky Josie likes you."
"Believe me, if kissing her toes would make her happy, I'd get down on my hands and knees."
"God, can't you just keep your mouth shut for once?" Jacob stabbed at a chunk of tomato.
"Shut up and eat your tacos," I replied. "Since they're your favorite and all."
Jacob mumbled something under his breath. I didn't ask him to repeat it, since it probably wasn't very complimentary towards me.
Mike finished first, having inhaled no less than six tacos. Hollow leg syndrome, I guess. Jacob gave up after three and just ate the lettuce and tomatoes. Josie's dad spent the rest of dinner questioning me and Jacob about everything under the sun. I couldn't tell if he was interrogating us or if he was just curious.
"It's Mike's turn to do the dishes," Josie said, beginning to clear the table. "He's probably in front of the TV."
"I'll fetch him," Josie's dad rumbled, pushing back in his chair. "Michael Joseph!" He yelled, walking into the living room. From the kitchen, I could hear Mike's strangled yelp as his father unplugged the television.
"Dad! I was almost to the boss!"
Josie filled the sink with soapy water, then dried her hands on her pants.
"Ready?" she asked us. I nodded.
"Fluffy! Come!" Instantly, the dog was up. Josie took the leash off its hanging place on the wall and hooked it to Fluffy's collar. In the time we had spent indoors, the sky had darkened to true night. Josie brought along a heavy-duty flashlight. It cast an oval of yellow light on the path in front of us. Jacob took out his lighter, and kept flicking it until Josie told him to stop. I was amazed. Two hours and not one cigarette.
The car was still in the same place. A tow truck had pulled up behind it.
"Are you Miles?" the driver asked me.
"Yeah." I went over to talk to him, leaving Josie and Jacob alone. It only took a few minutes to change the tires. I would have to get two new ones, since my spare and the one the tow truck guy brought were only donut tires.
"There goes my next paycheck," I muttered, turning the key in the ignition. I stuck my head out the window. "Jacob! The bus is leaving!"
"Coming, coming." He climbed in and slammed the door. Josie waved goodbye before disappearing into the trees. "Goddamn, I need a cigarette." He lit one, then stared down at the glowing tip. "Josie doesn't like smokers," he said.
"You'll have to quit, then," I replied. There wasn't enough room to turn around, so I just went backwards until we hit the turn-off.
"She gave me her phone number." I could hear the smile in his voice. "And a kiss."
"What about Lily?" I asked.
"Fuck Lily. She's in England with the cocksucker."
"Aw, how romantic."
"Glad I dragged you out of the house?"
"Mildly," Jacob answered. I snorted. "All right, you win. Thank you."
"You should pay for one of the tires."
"Why? It was your idiotic driving that popped them."
"But without my idiotic driving you would still be pining after Lily." I glanced over at him. "How unfair is this? You get the girl and I'm stuck with the two hundred dollar bill."
"Suck it up, sparky. And slow down. Do you want to get arrested?"