Fiction Friendship Funny

I jumped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door closed. I put on my seatbelt and turned on the headlights. I had left the engine running because the battery in my old car was going bad. I pulled the cell phone out of my jacket pocket and unlocked the screen. I started up the navigation app and typed in my cousin Steve’s address. When I realized the situation, I looked at my passenger in the front seat and said, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The app had responded with the dreaded word OFFLINE.

We were both panting after running back to the car. We had stopped for a break at a rest area. It was just a small dirt parking area with an old picnic table and a garbage can. Great view of mountains in the distance, but no bathrooms or even portable toilets. Near the garbage can, there was a dented and rusting brown metal sign indicating the start of a hiking trail. The sign was nailed onto a wooden pole that was starting to rot.

It couldn’t have been a very popular trail. The weeds hugging the sign were growing tall. Just above the weeds, a faded yellow cardboard sign, or what was left of it, had been stapled to the pole. The cardboard sign was torn, and only the very top part remained. It was the part that had staples on top of the word BEWARE.

The surface of the trail was becoming overgrown, but it still looked passable. At least the first hundred yards or so looked just fine. I didn’t need to go that far. All I needed to do was to get out of sight of the highway so I could relieve myself. We hadn’t seen anyone on the road for a while, and it was starting to get dark, but I wanted to be discreet. My passenger needed a nature break, too, but he didn’t have my inhibitions. He went when he found a spot he liked.

The trail hooked to the right through bushes, and I lost sight of the road after about thirty yards. The bushes were berry bushes. The berries were dark in color. I couldn’t tell what type they were. But they were the type of berries embedded in the animal droppings I saw on the trail next to the animal tracks. Bear scat, I thought. It made me nervous.

I stopped, unzipped, and started watering the bushes on the left side of the trail. In the two hours before we stopped, I drank a large coffee and two bottles of water. I really needed to go. I was just about finished when I heard rustling in the bushes not too far down the trail.

Stay cool, I told myself. 

I took a deep breath, finished, and zipped up. Carefully. I didn’t want a repeat of the zipper accident I had when I was ten. Thinking about it still makes me cringe.

Then I started walking back to the car. I walked slowly at first, to keep as quiet as possible. But my passenger started coming my way, making noise. I pointed to the car, and started running. He was confused at first, but he got the idea when he saw me leaving the passenger door open for him. He sprinted after me and jumped in.

I put the car in gear, accelerated and his door swung closed. I decided to drive for a few miles before trying to call Steve to get directions. I needed to calm down.

Five minutes later, I remembered the things that Steve had told me about driving to his place in Montana:

1.     Put gas in your car when you can. You might not be able to find a gas station as easily or as often as you’re used to.

2.     Download maps for your navigation app if you use one on your cell phone. You might not get a signal when you need one, especially when you’re getting close. You might want an old school paper map, too.

3.     Buy bear spray.

We had stopped to fill up in a small town right after we got off the interstate. There was a small convenience store with a single pump outside. The store was closed, but the self-serve pump worked if you used a credit card. There hadn’t been any other gas stations since.

One out of three ain’t bad, I told myself.

I should have prepared better for the drive, but my mind wasn’t in a good place. I rushed to get my bags packed, and I got on the road as soon as my bags and my passenger were in the car. I rushed because I really needed to get on the road. I really needed to get out of Seattle, to put some distance between me and Maggie.

Getting involved with a co-worker has its pitfalls.

We were friends at first, working on the same development team. At that time, Maggie was dating Charlie, one of my three housemates. Maggie liked to run, and so did I. Charlie liked to watch the Sounders and the Seahawks. Maggie and I would sometimes do long runs on Sunday mornings. Then she would come over later to join Charlie in front of the television.

She had been working at our company for two years longer than me, and had started with an advanced degree. Maggie was considered a senior technical person when I started. She had the experience and the people skills to make her a candidate for management.

We came from different places. She was from Pennsylvania and went to an Ivy League school. I grew up in the Sunshine State and went to a state school. Her school loans were huge compared to mine. Seattle was neutral ground, but maybe it was more foreign to a Floridian, despite being next to the ocean. Different ocean.

Our work environment was cooperative and competitive at the same time. People had to cooperate to develop products, but tried to outshine each other to get better raises. More and more often, we needed to outperform others just to keep from getting fired. 

After a few months, Maggie and I became running spouses. We started training and running races together. It was rare to see one of us running without the other.

It was not a perfect relationship, but we could and would talk about things. We talked about work things and personal things. We talked about her not liking something about code I had written. I complained about her withholding approval for my code release and causing it to be late. I talked about my meager love life, and she offered encouragement. Maggie talked about Charlie, and I tried to listen. It made me uncomfortable and it made me feel a little disloyal, but I tried to be a good listener and a good friend. Especially when things between them started falling apart.

We continued running together after the two of them broke up, but it was different. We met at her place or in a park to start our runs, not where Charlie and I lived. One Saturday, three months after their breakup, Maggie invited me to go out to brunch at the waterfront after our Sunday morning run. She told me to bring clothes so I could shower and change at her place after the run.

We had problems settling on a pace that Sunday. Maggie seemed to speed up whenever I tried to match her pace. When I told her about it after the run, she said she was trying to match my pace and that I was the one that was speeding up. Weird how that can happen.

After the run, Maggie suggested that I shower first. She had some things to straighten out in the kitchen and would wait until I was done. She gave me a towel, pointed me to the master bathroom, and told me where I could find some shampoo.

I hung my clothes on the back of the bathroom door, and turned on the shower. The shower had a glass door, which fogged up as the water got hot. I took off my running shoes and my sweaty running clothes and went into the shower, adjusting the water temperature so I wouldn’t get scalded. I found the shampoo and started washing my hair when I heard the bathroom door open. Maggie walked in, naked, and got into the shower with me.

We skipped brunch and had Thai food delivered for a late lunch. We realized that there was more between us than just running, but there is something to be said about two people, both with lots of stamina, getting together.

The week that followed was a hectic week. I started thinking of moving. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to spend time with Maggie while living in the same house with Charlie. I thought I could get serious with her. We got along so well and had known each other for a while. I thought we could be happy together for a while, maybe a long while.

Maggie smiled a lot at work that week. The management team informed her that she was going to be promoted to management soon, something that she said she wanted. She told me about the upcoming promotion, making me promise not to let anyone else know. She told me that it would be a problem if she became my manager. She told me we could cross that bridge when we got to it. I might have to transfer to another group if we wanted to see each other.

The management team didn’t tell Maggie about the layoffs until Wednesday. She was going to become the manager of our group, and she, along with a specialist from Human Resources, was going to tell the people who were being laid off of their fate. 

I was one of those people.

I was called to a conference room on Friday morning. Maggie was there with Frank, the specialist from HR. Maggie introduced Frank, and told me that they had bad news. Frank gave me a prepared speech informing me that I was being laid off, and handed me a packet with information about severance pay, how long medical benefits would last, and resources to support the transition. Maggie was visibly upset, apologized, and left the room before I looked over the packet and before I had a chance to ask questions.

Frank asked me if I understood the situation, and suggested the names of two counselors if I wanted some professional help. I simply asked if there was anything that I could do to keep my job. He told me that there was nothing I could do. He told me that the boss, Maggie, chose to keep two people who were candidates for being laid off.

I was not one of those people.

I went to my desk to collect my things. Before lunchtime, I joined dozens of others who walked out of the building after being laid off, most carrying boxes with a few personal items. I called Maggie multiple times. My calls went to voicemail. Before I left, she called me back telling me we would have to talk later. She was too busy with the layoff process.

We talked that night. She told me she was sorry, but she couldn’t really have picked me to stay. There were guidelines she had to follow. Her hands were tied. She hoped I would understand, and that she would help me find another job if I wanted her to.

Then Maggie told me that what happened on Sunday was a mistake. That she needed to devote herself to work, now that she was management.

My cousin Steve has invited me to come visit his place in Montana every year during the last five years. Steve always talked a lot about fly fishing. He told me that I have to visit when the rivers are running high. He told me we could pay a guide to take us on a river for a full day of fishing. Steve could show me the basics before we get on the boat. On Monday, I let him know we were coming. We left Seattle the next day.

Time to call Steve for directions, I thought.

“Hi, Steve, it’s me.”

“Hey. Where are you? Are you close?”

“Not sure. I took the route 43 exit off I-15, went west and stopped after about half an hour. Then the navigation app on my cell phone went offline.”

“You’re not too far. Maybe forty minutes. Keep going west on 43 until you get to Wisdom. Then take route 278 to Jackson. My place is off 278 about two miles past Jackson.”

“What’s the address, again?”

“Just look for the sign that says Serenity Ranch on the right side of the road.”

Forty-five minutes later we pulled into the two-lane packed dirt road next to the Serenity Ranch sign. At the end of the road was Steve’s ranch house, a two-story log house next to a small stream.

I walked over to the passenger side and opened the door.

“Ok, we’re here,” I said to my passenger. “Welcome to Serenity.”

I grabbed the leash from the back seat and attached it to his collar.

“Let’s go, Houston,” I told him, and he jumped out of the passenger seat, tail wagging.

February 11, 2023 02:42

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