Three Cavaliers

Chapter One





Night was Jason's ally, the friend he needed to keep him company.  It didn't ask any questions, and it let him be just who he was no matter what kind of shape he was in.  No matter how pissed off he was, no matter how much of a failure he felt himself to be, no matter how useless he felt, no matter how little hope he allowed to pierce his armor, the night let Jason be, and he appreciated that.  Night was even better in his car on the Interstate, where there in the darkness he felt the safety and comfort of complete isolation, complete anonymity.  And though he wouldn't have voiced it to anyone else except perhaps the closest of friends, he also liked the fact that the darkness and the isolation allowed him to brood, let him turn on the self-pity and the self-righteous anger that he knew wasn't justified, but which made him feel just a little bit better by making him feel so awful.

     The dim light from the car's instrument panel and the passing lights of the cars carrying their drivers and passengers to their destinations somewhere else gave him little comfort—it was the darkness that made him feel that even if nothing could go right, he still could find some solace in the complete lack of light that surrounded him as he drove through the night.

     It surprised him sometimes just how rarely he got tired when he drove at night.  It was almost two in the morning, and though he had been on the road some nine hours he felt just as alert as he had felt when he left Concord the previous afternoon.

     Stopping for gas was the main pain in the ass that night.  If he stopped he knew he'd have to see other people, and he simply wasn't in the mood to do that.  Fortunately he didn't have to spend any time with them—his guess was that the last thing the attendants at the all-night gas stations wanted was to have some sort of in depth tête-à-tête with some stranger whose name they never would know.  Besides, what could some stranger's opinions possibly add to his life, and what good could his thoughts bring to the life of someone who was making minimum wage to spend all night at some sterile convenience store-slash-gas station?  He hated shallow small talk, and he especially hated it when he was in a mood as dark as the one he was feeling now.  And how deep could anyone get in three and a half minutes of talk?

     As unpleasant as it felt to him, his gas gauge left him with little choice—pull off at the next 24-hour station or risk an even longer encounter with someone driving a tow truck and bringing him gas on the auto club's dime.  Ahead in the distance the glow of a huge Mobil sign violated the night with its overpowering presence, and Jason sighed.  In a few minutes he hit his turn signal as he prepared to leave the highway.  There was no one in his rear-view mirror who could benefit from the blinking light, but the force of habit was strong.  He pulled into the new lane of the exit and downshifted to fourth, feeling the power of the engine as it revved up, almost doubling its rpm's.  He felt the engine but he could hardly hear it above the music that he had cranked in the small compartment that had been his reality for the past nine hours.

     He shifted down to third while he was still going faster than he should have been, and the car lurched awkwardly and slowed quickly; he pushed in the clutch again to let the car glide—the off ramp took him up a gentle incline, and he felt the gravity working to rob the car of its inertia, to cause it to come almost to a stop some twenty feet short of the stop sign.  He laughed, but without any humor.  He threw the car into first and let the clutch out quickly and the car jumped forward to cover the rest of the distance to the red-and-white octagon.

     Jason didn't care where he was.  He had no interest at all in knowing the name of the town he was in because he didn't give the slightest damn about it.  He was pretty sure that he was still in Pennsylvania, but he wouldn't have bet any money on it.  He knew where he was going, and he knew that Seattle was still a hell of a lot of miles away.  He knew what he was leaving, and that it was a good nine hours behind him.  It might as well have been twenty years behind him, for all that he felt about it—or didn't feel.  All he had to do right now was fill the tank up with gas to get him a little bit further and buy himself a cup of coffee that might or might not help to keep him awake and keep him from running off the road and killing himself.  He'd take the opportunity to get rid of the coffee from the last stop he had made, too.

     If it weren't for the coffee and the need to use the urinal, he wouldn't have had to see a single person.  He could have just slid his credit card through the slot at the pump, pushed a button to choose his grade of gas, and filled his tank without having to say a single word to a single person.  Then like magic a statement would arrive in the mail weeks later telling him where he had spent his money that night, and then he'd finally actually have to pay for the gas.  He liked the idea of not having to turn over any actual money when he bought stuff, but he hated the statements that reminded him how much he owed to the bank that had sent him the card.

     He pulled up to the pump that was furthest away from the store and got out of the car, wincing as he used his feet and legs again for something other than pushing pedals on the floorboard, and taking a few slow, stiff steps to remind his leg muscles what walking was all about.

     It was quiet at that time of night, save for the sound of crickets and whatever other insects were out in the woods outside of the pool of light that defined the gas station.  He wondered if the insects were confused by the light, not knowing that it was so deep into the night that they should be asleep already.  To them it probably always was daytime, or maybe even dusk on the other side of the trees that surrounded the lot.  There were enough lights on to illuminate several homes, he was sure, and he figured that the bugs there never had the chance to know what real darkness was.

     He glanced into the store and saw a tall middle-aged man peering out in his direction.  He removed his car's gas cap and put the nozzle in and started filling his tank.  Someone had removed the little attachment that would have allowed him to let go of the handle and let it shut itself off automatically, so he couldn't clean the smashed bodies of the bugs off his windshield until after he finished pumping the gas.
  
     "Bastards," he muttered when he noticed it.  There wasn't much more to say about the matter, though, so he just shook his head and looked out into the night, out towards the highway he had just come from, back towards the pavement that he knew stretched from the east coast all the way to the west coast without end.  And he was going to ride that pavement almost as far west as he could.

     When he finished with the gas he replaced the cap and cleaned his windshield.  He had to scrape hard to get rid of some of the remains of insects that had lost their lives by smashing against the glass, innocent victims of human technology, and Jason felt a bit sorry for them.  They never would have had any idea what hit them, he found himself thinking.  But maybe that's the best way to go—quickly and completely, hit so hard that you become nothing more than a dull yellow splotch because your insides are now on the outside.  It would sure as hell be better than dying slowly and painfully, anyway.

     He made his way slowly into the store, heading first for the bathroom.  The guy behind the counter didn't even look up as Jason entered the store, and Jason was glad of that.  It kept alive his illusion of solitude.

     He felt fortunate that he didn't have to spend much time in the bathroom or sit down.  It wasn't the cleanest place in the world, and the smell would have made him sick if he had had to bear it long.  But in just a couple of minutes he was back out in the store, looking for the coffee.  It wasn't hard to find, as the stores at gas stations all were becoming more and more similar and devoting more and more space to coffee.  It was obviously one of the best selling products that they could offer to travelers in the middle of the night, since so many people considered coffee to be the main thing that kept them alive in the middle of the night.

     He glanced over at the guy behind the cash register.  He didn't envy him his job.  All alone in the middle of the night with nothing else around, the guy seemed pretty vulnerable.  He looked tough enough, some six-feet-two and stocky as hell, but how tough can you be when there's no one around to back you up?  He wouldn't want to deal with that kind of stress every night, wondering who would be the next customer to walk in and what he'd want.  He especially wouldn't want it when he was in his fifties, like this guy was.  He would hate to think of himself reaching that age and still having to work a graveyard shift just to make ends meet.  What other reason could there be to work such a shift?  Or maybe the guy worked there to get away from his wife—who knew?

     He finished making his coffee and put on one of the plastic covers with the little hole for drinking through, and he grabbed a muffin from a basket next to the coffee pots and then stopped and looked around to see if there might be something else there that he wanted or needed.  He didn't see anything.  He picked up his coffee and took it to the register.

     "Good morning," the cashier said as he approached.

     "Howdy," Jason said, putting down the coffee and muffin and reaching in his pocket for his money.

     "That be it?"  Jason guessed that the cashier was some sort of retired military—he just had that look about him.  His nametag said that his name was Fred.  That was more than Jason really wanted to know right then—he preferred complete anonymity.  He didn't want to know any names.  He didn't even want to be thinking that this Fred guy probably had a wife at home and maybe even a kid or two living who-knows-where.  He didn't want to know anything about anyone else for a while, not until he had a chance to figure his own life out, and God knew how long that was going to take.  "Two seventy-three," Fred said after he punched a few buttons on the register.  His voice was surprisingly gentle.  He saw the five in Jason's hand and had the change ready before he even took the money; he handed Jason two ones, a quarter and a couple of pennies with his left hand as he took the five with his right.

     "Thanks," Jason said quietly, and picked up the muffin and the cup.

     "You're heading west, aren't you?" Fred asked, but it was more of a statement than a question.

     Jason stopped, taken aback by his words.  "Yeah, I am," he said, suddenly unsure of himself, knowing that something else had to be coming.  "Why?"

     "You know," Fred said quietly, "you could really help someone out tonight if you were up to it."  Fred's eyes were the brightest and clearest blue eyes that Jason had ever seen, and right now they were fixed on Jason's eyes.  Jason knew that he was looking into the eyes of a good person.  How the hell he knew that, he had no idea.  He just did.  And it was something that he didn't want to know, because he was going to turn Fred down, no matter what.  And it was harder turning down favors for people who were good people.  But the last thing that Jason was in the mood for was to be a Good Samaritan.

     "What are you talking about?" he asked, immediately regretting the question.  He should have just said sorry and walked out, he knew.

     Fred nodded his head in the direction of a small table in one corner of the store, where Jason noticed for the first time that he and Fred weren't alone in the store.  An old man was sitting at the table, a very small old man.  "That guy needs a ride, real bad," Fred said.

     "Sorry," Jason said, shaking his head.  "I just can't take the risk.  You never know what's going to happen when you pick up hitchhikers."

     "He's not a hitchhiker," Fred said simply.  "And I can vouch for him.  Ain't nothing gonna happen to you 'cause of him."

     Jason shook his head again.  "Look, man, I'm sorry, but I'm really not in the mood to have a passenger tonight.  I've got a lot on my mind.  He'd hate my company anyway."

     Fred kept looking at him as if he were sparring with him, trying to figure out Jason's weaknesses as they spoke, trying to find just the right argument that would tear down his defenses and cause him to submit.  That made Jason uncomfortable—he hated the idea of being figured out, of someone knowing him so well and discovering some side of him that even he didn't know existed.

     "Look, the guy's harmless, and he really needs to get out west really soon.  Something happened in his family that he won't tell me about, and he needs to go somewhere in Idaho.  And since you're heading west. . . ."  He raised his eyebrows like some kind of dad who was teaching his kid an important lesson and hoping the kid came up with the answer himself, a dad who knew that the kid already knew what to do, but who wanted him to say it.

     "I'm heading west, but I'm heading west alone," Jason said, and he knew that with those words, he should start walking towards the door, leaving behind one more statement to close the conversation.  He was dismayed to discover that his feet stayed planted on the floor below him.  That couldn't be a good sign, he realized with a sinking feeling.  "Besides," he added, "he wouldn't like my music.  Too loud."

     "Then I'll give him some toilet paper to stuff in his ears," Fred said, seemingly aware that he had gained an advantage.  "No big deal.  And he can ride in the back seat and never say a word the whole way.  Just take him as far as you can take him."

     "And take him off your hands."

     Fred smiled.  "He's no bother to me.  Look at how quiet he is.  I just feel bad for him.  I'd like to think that if I ever got myself into a situation like his, someone would help me out.  Where you headin'?"

     "Seattle," Jason muttered, under his breath and against his better judgment.  He didn't want to tell Fred a damned thing, and he was starting to resent Fred's ability to keep him engaged in a conversation that he didn't want to be involved in.  He was wishing that he had waited one more exit to get gas.

     "Then that's perfect!" Fred said enthusiastically.  "You'll be going through Idaho, and you can drop him off on the way.  And if you get to the point where you can't stand him before Idaho, you can drop him off at a bus station somewhere.  You get someone to help keep you awake while you drive, and I don't have to kick some poor old guy out of my store."

     Jason knew that the deal was done, even though he hadn't agreed to anything.  There was even a part inside of him that even told him that he was doing the right thing, the kind thing, the compassionate thing.  That part of himself pissed off the rest of him.  He wanted to get out to his car and take off and never think of the store or Fred or the old man again, but now there was unfinished business that Fred had thrust upon him.  He suddenly had a decision to make, and only then could he get going.

     He wanted to tell Fred to shove it, to tell him that he hadn't had any right to put Jason in such a position.  He wanted to say no and walk out the door, but that same weak part of himself knew that wasn't the right thing to do.  He had been enjoying—in a sick sort of way—feeling sorry for himself, and with someone else in the car his self-pity was bound to be much less satisfying.  He wouldn't be able to feel as good about feeling bad any more.

     He looked over at the old man, who was sitting quietly at the table eating a candy bar and drinking a cup of coffee.  He hadn't even looked over at them, and Jason wondered if he were hard of hearing or just polite enough not to want to pressure him into giving him a ride.

     He could think of tons of reasons why it would be a bad idea to take the guy.  He probably smelled bad, or he smoked.  He could have been one of those old guys who talked on and on, saying the same things over and over again like his stories were something new without ever noticing that the other person had no interest at all in what he was talking about.  He might have been some sort of whack job who was going to talk crazy shit all night long.  Maybe he was just going to fall asleep as soon as he got into the car and pass gas for hours, forcing Jason to drive with the windows open at 70 miles an hour.  Or else he talked super slow and would want to talk all the time, taking forever to finish his sentences and driving Jason up a wall.

     "Maybe," Fred said quietly, somehow reading his mind, "he's just some nice guy who really needs someone's help—help that you're in a perfect position to give him."

     "Shit!" Jason muttered.  "All right, I'll take him.  But he just rides along with me.  I don't have to be friends with him or anything.  I'm not in the mood for any more friends in my life right now."

     Fred cocked his head questioningly, as if he had heard something interesting in Jason's words, but then he turned quickly towards the old man.

     "Hey, Hector!" he called out, fairly loudly.  "Come on over here—we've got you a ride."

     The old man looked over at Fred with a look of disbelief on his face, then at Jason.  His expression spoke of everything that Jason didn't want to see right then—gratitude and appreciation and even surprise.  Jason didn't need for anyone to be grateful to him right then.  Hector picked up his coffee cup, then he stood and made his way slowly over to the two men.

     "You will take me out west?" he asked Jason carefully, as if he were afraid to say the wrong words and have Jason suddenly change his mind.

     "I guess so," Jason muttered.  Hector and Fred exchanged a glance that acknowledged Jason's reluctance, and that look pierced Jason's armor more than any words could have.  He was doing the right thing, he was sure, but he had had to be talked into it and he still wasn't happy about it.  He was the one who always told his friends that life always brings surprises and that they should embrace them and learn from them, and now here he was, wallowing so deeply in his own self-pity that he wasn't even able to do something so simple without making it seem like something wrong.

     "If it is a problem for you," Hector said quietly and humbly, "then you need not give me a ride.  I will understand.  I can wait for someone else who is going in that direction."

     "Just get whatever stuff you've got.  I want to get on the road."

     Hector glanced again at Fred, who nodded almost imperceptibly.  He turned and went back to the table and grabbed a small blue duffel bag that had been lying on the chair opposite him.

     If nothing else, Jason was relieved to note, at least he seemed to be a nice person.  He didn't look like someone who was going to be a complete jerk and talk about his many conquests of women or the times he had kicked so-and-so's ass for looking at him the wrong way.  Hector seemed to be pretty down-to-earth.  He had to be in his late sixties, Jason guessed, and he didn't look like he was out to impress anyone.  Jason couldn't tell if he was Mexican or South American, but he supposed it didn't matter—he was sure he would find out soon enough.  Hector was the same height as Jason, some five feet ten, though he was a good ten pounds lighter than Jason's 170 pounds.

     "Let's go," Jason said quietly when Hector came right back, trying not to sound like a jerk himself.  "I need to get going."

     Fred pushed himself up from where he had been leaning on the counter.  "That's right good of you, man," he said.  "The gas is on me."

     "Thanks," Jason said wryly.  "I paid for the gas at the pump with my credit card."

     "Oh, yeah," Fred said, seeming surprised but unconcerned.  "Guess it isn't on me then.  I'll pick up the tab for the coffee and muffin, then."

     "I already paid for the coffee and muffin."

     "Right."  Fred paused as if he were thinking about what else he might offer.  Then he grinned.  "Have a good trip, then."
   
   

When David agrees to give 70-year-old Hector a ride west, he never thinks that the man will become so important to him.
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