Author: Teresa Mummert
"I know." Jake put his hand on my shoulder. "I'm just glad you found me."
"Yeah, me too." I looked over at May fixing sandwiches in the kitchen. "Go spend some time with her. The kids won't be home from school for a few hours. Some alone time will do you both some good."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm gonna go back to the bar and grab your phone. I could use some time to clear my head."
"You sure you're all right?"
We both nodded and gave each other a quick hug.
I turned to leave with May's keys in hand before anyone could object. My cousin seemingly had a perfect life. They had their troubles and losses like everyone else, but Jake and May had each other. That was something I would kill for.
I slipped into May's old station wagon and pulled out of the dirt driveway, making my way across town. My fingers tapped the steering wheel in beat with the song on the radio as I thought over the events of the day. I couldn't imagine getting to a point that ending my life would even be an option. Jake was one of the few people I could count on in my life, and I never thought that one day I could lose him.
I pulled into the back of the bar and walked up to the wooden top.
"Looking for this?" The bartender held up the phone.
"Thanks, man. You're a lifesaver." I grabbed the phone and made my way back out to the car. Cranking the engine, I slipped the phone into the console.
The trip had only taken a few minutes and I needed to kill some more time. I pulled out of the parking lot to the left and drove across town. The streets were lined with giant trees whose branches hung over the road like a canopy. The sun shot through the branches in bright streaks. My eyes danced across the buildings that lined the road. The town looked like it had been picked up out of the 1800s and placed in the present, with the exception of a few new office buildings sticking out in the skyline. The trees cleared and I made a right turn down an old alleyway that was so narrow I wasn't sure the car would fit.
I pulled out onto an old bridge with cast-iron railings as a flicker of yellow caught my eye just over the railing. I pulled off to the side of the bridge and opened the door, standing on the frame to get a better look. A clump of dark brown hair whipped in between the bars and I jumped, slamming the car door and rushing over to the bridge.
"Hello?" I rounded the front of the station wagon and gripped the bars as I looked over the railing. "Jenn? What are you doing down there? You're going to fall." I tried to keep the panic from my voice.
Jenn spun around, startled by my voice, nearly losing her balance on the ledge of the bridge.
"Shane? What are you doing here?"
"Why are you on the side of a bridge?"
She glanced down at the water and over to the book in her hand.
"Just looking for an escape." She held the book up for me to see. I narrowed my eyes at her as I saw the pink in her cheeks and the swelling under her eyes.
"Me too. Mind if I join you?"
She shrugged her shoulders and looked out over the water. I lifted a leg over the fence and pulled my other over as I lowered my body next to hers. The ledge was narrow and we sat with our shoulders pushed up against each other.
"Odd place to read, don't you think?"
"Good as any." She shrugged her shoulders and kicked her legs. My eyes followed hers out to the ripples of water as I nodded. Her chin began to quiver as she struggled to keep her composure.
"You all right?"
"I'm not strong enough to keep all of these feelings bottled up inside of me any longer. I feel like I am going to explode." She swiped the back of her hand over her cheek. The words from the letter she had just repeated echoed through my mind as everything began to click into place. The look on Jake's face, the concern in his eyes all made sense now. He wasn't trying to keep his secret from May; he thought I really wanted to kill myself. My eyes fell back to Jenn as it dawned on me that she was the one who needed saving. This was none of my business and I didn't need to throw myself into someone else's problems, but I couldn't just walk away.
"So I was thinking a chocolate cake would be good, but not everyone is a fan of chocolate. Maybe marble."
"What are you talking about?"
"We have to have cake. It's not every day someone turns…old enough to know better."
She smiled and laughed as her eyes met mine before she turned back to the water.
"I'm fine, really. You don't need to babysit me."
I shrugged as I looked down at my sneakers and thought of my blood-stained boots.
"I'm not." I glanced over at her and waited for her eyes to connect with mine. "I have low blood sugar." I smiled and she rolled her eyes, bumping me with her shoulder.
"No you don't." She laughed. God, I love that sound.
"I could and I don't know where there is a bakery around here. You could save a life." I raised my eyebrow at her as she sucked her bottom lip between her teeth.
"I like vanilla." She glanced up at me through her lashes and I grinned.
"Let's go." I held out my hand and she placed her fingers in mine. I slowly stood and helped her to her feet. I kept a hand on her as she climbed over the railing, not breathing until she was safely on the other side.
I hopped the fence and walked her to the passenger side of the car. Pulling open the door, I waited for her to slide inside. She smiled as she slowly sank into the seat. I could feel her eyes on me as I moved quickly around the car and got into the driver's seat. I knew I shouldn't be interfering with this girl's life, knowing I would only be around for a few days. I grabbed Jake's phone and sent May a quick text message letting her know I had the phone but I would be out for a while
. I didn't say where, and I didn't let her know who really wrote the note. It was no one else's business.
"Go down the road about two miles."
I nodded and pulled back onto the road and down Livingston Street. I fumbled with the radio until I found a song I liked, tapping my fingers on the wheel. Jenn smiled and began to sing quietly along to the old country love song.
"Wasn't that a bakery?" I pointed to Smith Brother's Bakery as we drove by.
"Yes, but Mama D's is only a few miles further and it is worth the drive." She smiled. "But if you don't want to, we can just go back."
"No, ma'am. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I denied the birthday girl the cake she wants."
"You may not live at all if you don't take care of that low blood sugar." She smirked.
"I have a small confession to make. I may have over dramatized a bit. I don't so much have low blood sugar as much as I just really like cake. I haven't had any for a long time."
"They don't have cake in North Carolina?" She winked. "Turn here!" She pointed to the road off to the left. I turned the wheel and hit the brakes, making the turn at the last second. We travelled a block further, pulling up outside of an old shaker box home with a baker sign hung from the front porch.
"You have no idea. You have just arrived at Heaven's gates." She laughed and pushed open her door and stretched as she stood. I shook my head as I watched her before pulling the key from the ignition.
"Heaven's gates, huh?" I stepped out of the car and waited for her to make her way around the car.
"Come on." She hurried up the front porch steps and opened the old screen door. "Mama D!" she called out as I stepped in behind her, inhaling the scent of baked goods.
"They should bottle that smell."
"You're just in time, Jennifer!" Mama D rounded the corner from her kitchen into the dining room. "This is vanilla with homemade peanut butter frosting." She winked as she sat the pan down on the table.
"Looks amazing!" Jenn smiled as she opened her arms and gave Mama D a big hug.
"Who is your friend, Jennifer?"
"This is Shane." She took a step back to be beside me. "He's a soldier."
"Well, in that case, he gets a free cookie." Mama D smiled and turned back toward the table. "Have your pick. Go on."
"Thank you, ma'am." I stepped forward and looked over the dozens of cookies, grabbing a chocolate chip cookie and breaking it in half, holding out one to Jenn.
"Thanks." She took a big bite of the still-warm cookie as chocolate dripped on her bottom lip. I ran my thumb over her lower lip as time seemingly froze and our eyes met. What the hell am I doing? Am I really that deprived from a woman's touch that I need to take advantage of someone like Jenn?
"I'll just go box this up for you." Mama D smiled and patted Jenn on the arm before picking up the cake and retreating back into the kitchen. I licked the chocolate from my finger, silently cursing myself for overstepping my bounds, and took a bite of my cookie as my eyes danced over the home's old-fashioned décor. Was I that starved for human contact that I would take advantage of a woman who needed someone she could trust?
"You come here a lot?" I asked as I shoved the final bite into my mouth.
"I used to." She shrugged as she finished off her cookie as well. "But I'm trying to take in less calories."
"You're kidding. You're perfect."
"You haven't met my sister." Jenn rolled her eyes as Mama D stepped back into the room.
"Here you go, dear. Ten dollars."
"I got it." I pulled my wallet from my back pocket. It was tattered and falling apart. I grabbed out a twenty-dollar bill and gave it to the elderly woman. "Keep the change."
"Thank you." She smiled and leaned in to give Jenn a kiss on the cheek. "You enjoy that cake," she called out as we turned to leave.
"We certainly will," I replied and pushed open the door so she could carry the cake through.
"Where to?" I asked as I walked down the steps and opened the back door to slide the cake in on the seat.
"I have no idea." She laughed as she glanced around.
I tossed the keys to her and she caught them, looking up to me in surprise.
"Oh, I can't drive."
"Sure you can. May won't mind."
She shook her head and laughed.
"No. I mean, I don't know how to drive."
I cocked my head and furrowed my brow wondering how it was even possible for someone who was…old enough to know better not to know how to drive.
"It's a long story." She laughed as she played with the keys in her hand, flipping over a keychain that had a picture of Jake and his wife and two small boys. They were smiling and looking happier than she had ever seen him look.
"You can tell me along the way." I rounded the back of the car and pulled open the passenger-side door, sliding inside. "What have you got to lose?" I asked out of the cracked window.
"Why are you doing this?" Her face broke into a small smile.
I shrugged my shoulders as I thought about how to answer her. I wasn't sure myself. I could see the sadness that lingered just below the surface in her, reflecting my own. I wanted to make her feel better, wanted her to know there were worse things in life. I had seen them, but I kept those memories locked away. I couldn't save my mother, my relationship, Jake's baby, or the Iraqi soldier, but I could save Jenn, and maybe I could save myself.
"Fine." She sighed as she slid into the driver's seat and pulled her seatbelt over her chest. She stuck the key in the ignition, causing the car to rev to life. "Now what?"