The sun is at its peak. And Russell is sweating.
“The car’s turning into a hotbox, Jake.” He says. “Even with these windows down. How much longer do you think?”
His friend peaks from behind the open hood of the car. Even that little sliver of image through a dusty windshield, is like looking at a mirror. Short curls, defined jaw, beady eyes. The only difference is the glasses. Even after all of this time, these two friends still look exactly like each other. Last night, the bartender kept doing double-takes because Jake was wearing contacts.
“I’m doing the best I can, Russ.” He taps on the car’s side. The ting sound creates an itch in Russell’s brain and makes him wince. “I don’t know much, but I think I know the prob.”
“And that would be… what exactly?” He asks. “You still didn’t really tell me what happened.”
There’s a pause, and then the hood slams closed. Jake walks to the passenger door and throws it open, leans on its frame and looks warmly at Russell.
“I told you, man. Don’t worry about it.” His hands are covered in grease as he waves them about. “I got it. If you’re getting hot, then come out here and enjoy some of the fresh air! Certainly beats waiting it out in my dirty ass car.”
Russell takes a big breath and sighs, gets out of the car. He stretches his legs and looks out over the valley. Abandoned shacks on a forgotten highway. Dust and clay and dirt spiraling into the sky at the whim of a breeze. Miles from any kind of help. What the hell was he thinking agreeing to this? He should have left his hometown the day before, get a hotel closer to town. He knew Jake’s place was too remote to cut it so close to his flight.
“See, isn’t that better, Russ?” Jake pulls his phone out and holds it to the sky. “Taking in the air? It’s a beautiful day! Albeit, a little hot.”
“Don’t say words like ‘albeit’.”
“Still no service.” Jake mumbles to himself, placing his phone back in his pocket. “And you know, buddy, I’m doing you favor. You could at least chill out a bit. There will still be plenty of time before your flight.”
“Chill out?” Russell looks at him exacerbated. “I should have left your place yesterday. This flight is too important to have left it up to fate. But you insisted.”
“I insisted,” Jake approaches his friend and places a dirty hand on his shoulder. “that two guys who haven’t seen much of each other spend one extra night partying. And yeah, I insisted I take you to the airport. Because we had the time. And trust me, we still have enough time. So sue me.”
“Your place is too far.” Russell walks away from the car, continuing to look out. “I knew it then and I shouldn’t have let you insist.” He fumbles for his phone in his pocket and looks at the lack of signal bars. For a second he told himself that Jake could have been lying. But that would be ridiculous. His friend is dumb, not malicious.
Jake frowns and walks up behind him.
“You know, you’d think that before you go off and realize your dreams, you’d be grateful for one more night in your old town with your old friend.” He says. “I’m sorry I got a garbage car. I’m going to do my best to fix it and get you to the airport.”
Russell looks back and his energy softens. His friend’s right. It’s not Jake’s fault. If anything, his insistence was friendship. Selfish maybe, but friendship nonetheless. Russell knows he needed one last night. And it was good to connect with his old life again, a life that would continue to fly further and further behind as he pursued his ‘dreams’, as Jake said.
Jake walks back to the car and opens the hood again. Russell follows him and looks at the messy tangle of machinery.
“But Jake.” He says, holding back a smile. “You don’t have any clue what you’re doing.”
Jake begins chuckling, motioning his hands over the car’s insides.
“… I don’t have any clue what I’m doing.”
Starting as a little chuckle, the laughter grows and grows until it gains that out-of-body quality, becomes part of the atmosphere. It’s the laughter of nostalgia, of a forgotten time. Of hot summer days in abandoned buildings with stolen bottles of cheap booze. Of simmering dusks on bicycles playing superhero and wishing. Of two friends who used to consider themselves brothers, and would undoubtedly have continued to do so if life didn’t take its splitting course.
Eventually it dies down, and Russell and Jake take a seat on the road on the shaded side of the car.
“I guess I’m just anxious.” Russell says through post-laughter sniffles. “I’m so anxious, Jake. What if I don’t get it?”
“You say that, but you don’t believe it, Russ.” Jake looks at the sky. “You’ve always gotten it. Ever since we were kids.”
“I guess.” Russell nods and then stops. Then a quick glance over. “Wait, what do you mean?”
There’s a bloated silence. The tumbling wind whistles around the car’s frame. They can hear the sunshine.
“I just mean that you always get what you want.” Jake stands up. “I’m saying that this time will be no different. You’re going to get the role. You know it.” He turns to face the valley and mumbles, “What the hell do you have to be anxious for?”
But Russell hears it. He bottles up words in his throat as he breathes heavily, sweat forming on his brow. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the delay. Maybe it’s the annihilation of his future showing itself before him in this desolation. The laughter before between two friends was certainly short-lived. Dramatic or not, he lets the words fly.
“Just because I didn’t stay in that broken town of ours doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to be anxious for.” Russell stands now. “Just because I’m building something with my life and you’re still bullshitting here doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to be anxious for.”
“And there it is, buddy.” Jake holds his hands out. “I’m the martyr. I’m the failure.”
“I didn’t say you were a failure!” Russell shouts. “I’m saying don’t project your shit onto me!”
“Big ol’ Russ and his big ol’ dreams.” Jake spins sarcastically. “Seeing the world, being a big shot! I could have done that too! I could have been somebody! But I didn’t have everything handed to me!”
“You know, I don’t need this.” Russell turns and walks around the car to the driver’s side door. “And I didn’t need you insisting you take me to the airport.”
“I didn’t have a family that stuck with me!” Jake continues yelling, his voice rising and rising. “I didn’t have the relationships, the connections, the money. I had to stay in this broken town! I had to! And always in your shadow. Why, because we look so similar? The Russell-lite? I’m over it!”
“You could have done whatever you wanted!” Russell has his hand on the door handle. He looks at Jake over the car’s shimmering roof. “You were too scared! You always were! And I’m not going to sit here and let you berate me for getting out when I did. You always wanted to be me. Even when we were dumb little kids you wanted to be me.”
“Excuse me?” Jake begins shuffling back to the car.
“Don’t think you don’t know what I’m talking about.” Russell moves to the hood and continues shouting. “You always did. You wanted my clothes. You wanted my haircut. You wanted my girlfriend. You wanted to act. You wanted to be me! Even right now! It’s like I’m talking to myself! You say something like ‘Russell-lite’ and it just proves it. You want to be me.”
“God, it all makes so much sense!” Russell puts his hands to his head and chuckles. “You’re jealous!”
There’s nothing but a car and heat in between them.
“You’re jealous, and you know what?” Russell walks back the door. “I’m out of here. I’ll figure it out myself.”
He opens the door and clambers in, slamming the door behind. Expecting nothing but sputtering, he turns Jake’s keys, still in the ignition from before, and the car wakes to life as if nothing was wrong.
“What the -“
A sharp pain stings through Russell’s neck. He begins gasping for air, throwing his hands to his esophagus, but Jake’s chicken wire is too tight. Russell convulses, bangs the car horn with his elbow, reaches back at Jake’s shoulder and pulls on his shirt. But he’s not strong enough. His words are a garbled mess.
“Maybe I will be something, now.” Jake whispers in his friend’s ear as he pulls tighter. “I’m sorry.”
Russell’s vision fades out as his heart slows, his movements become less erratic, and his head slumps forward. With continuously heaving breaths, Jake eases his grip on the wire and then stands back. Jake’s head lulls back, his jaw slightly agape, his eyes distant.
“I will be something now.”
He pulls Jake out of the car and lays him gently on the ground. The road is still empty and will be for some time. Russell’s phone and wallet are peaking out of his pants, and Jake takes them. It’s still too easy, Jake thinks. The driver’s license is his ticket out. He holds the face recognition up to Russell’s stunned face and proceeds to reset the password. He opens the confirmation flight emails and takes the information in. He finds the message for the audition call and can feel himself morphing into what he always wanted to be: somebody.
Now, if he doesn’t hurry, he really will miss the flight. He goes to the trunk and grabs his shovel, ignoring the fact that he has to move Russell’s suitcase to get to it. Digging a shallow hole in the desert proves more difficult than he thought, but he finishes swiftly. Dragging his friend by the ankles over the dust and rocks, rolling him into the ground, and covering him up, he can’t help but cry. He told himself he wouldn’t, but there he goes. Nobody wants this. But it’s more than Jake has ever done in his entire life. Taken a risk. Followed a dream.
“I love you.”
Nothing but road ahead. Nothing but Russell’s bright future ahead. Jake’s a new man. He drives off to the airport.