They clear the town, roll down a road so dark that the headlights on the car hardly make a dent. A mile or so along, they come across a clapboard house, sitting canted on the hillside, busted up staircase no wider than a ladder leading up to a porch that's on its last legs.
Jensen pulls over and cuts the engine. “Looks like the place.”
A single flame is lit in one of the front windows. Some things are universal, it turns out. Light a candle in the window; come one, come all.
“Do you think they’ll have a telephone?” Jared asks. He’s thinking about Jim and Misha, Lily and Kate, and how no one knows where he is or that his homecoming is going to be delayed.
“Hell, kiddo. Most of the houses around here don’t even have any running water. Ma Bell hasn’t paid any of these people a visit.” After the initial riser lists and makes him pinwheel his arms to regain his balance, Jensen says, "First step's a real doozy." He knocks on the door and a shadow of a face peeks through the window.
The door opens and they're greeted with the business end of a shotgun pointed at chest level. Immediately, they both shuffle a step backward and throw their hands up, palms forward.
"Just accepting your invitation," Jared says quickly, putting on his most disarming smile. "No harm intended." He tracks the line of the barrel to get a good look at the man behind it. He might have been tall once, maybe even as tall as Jared, but his back is bent now. His face is deeply lined, and at first Jared thinks that he's somewhat older, perhaps creeping up on sixty or better, but the sandy colored hair taken over by only a small amount of grey at the temples tells the truth. He's probably not a day over thirty-five. Coal dust has crept into the lines on his face, etched across his forehead and around his mouth. A deeper stain of it has collected right underneath his nose, and Jared feels a pang of sadness so deep it's downright staggering. If this is what the man looks like on the outside, there's no telling what he might look like on the inside.
As if to prove his point, the man turns and hacks into the bend of his elbow, produces a filthy rag from his back pocket and spits into it.
"Sorry, gentlemen," he says, propping the shotgun beside the door jamb. "Can't be too careful nowadays."
"Understandable," Jensen says, then reaches down to pat the strawberry blonde hair of a young girl who's sneaking around her father’s leg, small hand clutching at his pant leg.
“We ran into some trouble up in the hills,” Jared says. It’s not the truth, but it’s not entirely a lie either. Before Jared is even partially through his internal moral compromise, the man is ushering them inside and toward the table.
“The less I know, the better,” he says, then introduces himself as Henry, Hank if you’re of a mind. His wife’s name is Sally and the best damn cook on this side of the mountain as well as the other.
The house is one room big, a pot bellied stove used for cooking and heat tucked into one corner. A single wide bed sits in the corner opposite, uneven and lumpy mattress covered with a stack of patchwork quilts. In a flash Jared feels a sort of shame that runs bone deep, over the self-pity he feels every time he thinks about how little Jim pays him, or the way that he’d been so angry back when he found out that he’d be sharing a room with another student at the university when he’d been guaranteed a single dormitory.
Everything is homemade or homespun, with only a few exceptions, from the blocky table that the men are shown toward, to the curtains on the windows and the rag rug beneath their feet. Jensen starts to pull his flask out of his pocket to offer to Hank and Jared stops him with an elbow to the ribs, silently indicating the rough hewn cross above the bed.
Instead, Hank pours water for them from a ceramic pitcher into canning jars with the company store stamp on the bottom.
“Please, if there’s anyway that I can repay you,” Jared says when Sally places a large bowl of stew in front of each of them. The broth is watery and thin, root vegetables float to the surface and it’s flavored with some stringy, gamey meat. The corn bread is exceptional though, thick and moist. Hank pushes a tub of soft white cheese over toward, and it makes Jared’s mouth flood with saliva and his stomach grumble happily.
The rest of the family joins them, Hank tapping his son’s arms when the kid puts his elbows up on the table with a muttered, “We have guests. Straighten up and act right.”
“No need to repay us,” Sally tells them. “We’re just doing our part. Things are rough all over.”
“We do alright for ourselves,” Hank agrees. “We got a few chickens out back, sell the eggs when ends don’t quite meet, or my little girl there wants a new ribbon from the Sears catalog. Couple of goats out there, too,” he says, and Jared now knows where the cheese comes from. “Sally picks up some mending from time to time. It all adds up.”
Jared takes Sally up on her offer of a second bowl of stew, but turns down a third. Jensen has done little more than pick at his food, silent and sullen at Jared's elbow, but he's quick to stand when everyone is done, carry the plates and bowls over to the wash basin, roll his sleeves up and get to work.
Jared watches Jensen's back as he helps Sally with the dishes, stacks them neatly and takes a dish towel to them. His head is bent toward her in quiet conversation, and the oldest girl keeps sneaking surreptitious, flirty glances in Jensen's direction. Hank pulls out a pipe and some tobacco, hacks his way through getting the thing lit, then sits back, fragrant smoke filling the room.
The littlest kid has a cough like his daddy. Jared’s seen this before. It’s not only the miner that pays the price from breathing in coal dust day in and day out. They carry it home on their clothes, and when he was at school, he saw a lot of cases of children with the black lung, whole families coming down with the stuff. Sally scoots the kid over to the bed, lifts him up with her hands tucked underneath his arms and digs around in a tin cupboard to produce a small bottle and a spoon.
“Wait a minute,” Jared says, crossing the room and taking the bottle from her. He holds it up in front of a lit candle, ignoring the label and swirling it.
“A man came through the town,” Sally says, “selling this to all the mining families. Said it’s supposed to help with the cough.” Out of the side of her mouth she continues, “I can’t get Hank to take it, he says it’s snake oil, but I have to do something.”
Jared opens the small bottle and sniffs at it, puts a drop of it on his finger and tastes it. Patent medicine, and from experience Jared knows that a lot of these contain alarmingly high percentages of mercury, poisonous if taken over a long period of time. He crosses the room and opens her pantry. “How old is he?” Jared asks.
“He’ll be three soon, the week before Thanksgiving,” Sally tells him.
Jared nods, digging through her cupboard and inspecting labels. “So no honey,” he says, mostly to himself. “Molasses will do, though.” He comes across some oil, safflower by the the dark yellow tint that it holds, and puts it on the counter beside him. A string of peppers hangs in front of one of the windows in the westward facing wall, skinny little red fingers that are wrinkled and dry. “Do you have a mortar and pestle?” Jared asks.
The woman shakes her head, so Jared grabs a rolling pin instead, crumples up a couple of the peppers and carefully removes the seeds. Jensen stays close to his back, a somewhat suspicious but mostly curious look on his face. “Make yourself useful,” Jared says. “Crush these with the rolling pin. Try and make it as powdery as you can.”
“What’s all this?” Jensen asks, but he takes the pin and leans his weight into it, rolling it back and forth until he’s ground it into a fine powder, less than a teaspoon full, but plenty enough to suit Jared’s purposes.
“Kitchen medicine,” Jared says with a wink, and then he pours a generous amount of molasses into a thick copper-bottomed pan, checks the fire in the stove and adds another length of wood to get it nice and hot. He adds the oil, stirs it until the molasses starts to spit up small bubbles and the oil gets incorporated. The concoction needs an acid, and Jared casts around the kitchen. There’s no citrus to be found, but he does turn up with a bottle of vinegar. “Apple vinegar?” he asks Sally and she nods, says she made it herself. A couple of spoonfuls of that go in as well, a bitter smelling steam erupting from that pot and making Jared’s eyes water for a second. He tests the crushed peppers, working a pinch of them between his fingers to check the consistency, and satisfied, puts a few pinches of that into the syrup, then takes the wooden spoon, coats it and watches the slow stream of it run back into the pot. Finding a mason jar, he lets the stuff run slowly from the pot to the jar, letting it cool on the way down. The final product is a deep red color, thick and viscous.
“You can skip the snake oil next time,” Jared says. “This stuff is cheaper to make. It’ll probably work better, too.”
As if on cue, the kid begins coughing again, tiny fist held in front of his mouth just like his momma taught him, and Jared takes a spoon and measures some out, testing the temperature and taste of it with his pinky finger. He feeds the boy a spoonful and the cough is immediately quieted.
“When you run out of this, skip the vinegar and see if you can get some lemons instead. Lemon juice would be best, helps the tickle in his throat, and the kid would probably like it more that way.”
“Are you a doctor?” Sally asks, taking the bottle from Jared’s hand and sniffing at it.
“No, ma’am. Not exactly.”
That earns him a sharp look from Jensen, but he ignores it. Instead, Jared finds a pencil and a slip of paper to write the recipe down for the cough syrup, while Jensen and Hank talk about his work at the mine, groan over the wicked ways of the foreman, and the increasingly tricky schemes of the big bosses.
It's curious. Jensen seems just as at home here in the middle of nowhere as he would be in some fancy hotel restaurant, confident movements as he takes a bucket out to the pump outside and fills it with water, then heats it to steaming on top of the rounded, pot belly stove. He's a dichotomy; so forthcoming in a lot of ways, and lord knows get him on a roll and he won't shut up, but he's awfully closemouthed in a lot of ways too. Seeing how he acts right now makes Jared wonder where he grew up, and more so, how he grew up.
Jared's a city boy through and through, doesn't know the first thing about priming a pump or the twisted way that mining companies work, doesn’t think that he’d make it through a week without electricity. Hell, he gets more than a little irritable if he doesn't get a bath at least every other day. His feet are built for city streets, paved sidewalks and everything he could possibly need or want or have to have within a few blocks or a quick ride on the trolley.
"Morning comes early around here," Hank says, finishing his pipe and tapping it out onto the plank floor. He crushes out the cinder with the heel of one blocky boot. "We've got a shed out back, and you two are welcome to stay. Might not be what you’re used to,” Hank says, “but it’ll keep the rain off. Sally, get these boys--"
Jared interrupts him. "We don't want to take advantage of your hospitality. You and your family have done plenty."
Sally comes up behind her husband, puts her hands on his shoulders and gives him a soft squeeze. She smiles, and suddenly Jared can see the young woman she once was, before her lot in life had a chance to take its toll. It makes his heart lurch in his chest. She was beautiful once, still is in a lot of ways.
She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "If we've done plenty, then it wouldn't hurt to do a little more." She snaps her fingers at her eldest daughter. "Honey, grab the lantern and get the blankets out of the chest."
The girl does as she's told, lights a match and sets it to the wick of the lantern, holds it high as she leads them to the back, through the churned dirt of the goat pen. The land rises up steeply behind their property, the slope dotted with evergreen trees that appear black against the dark sky. The moon is not showing, just a faint glow hidden behind the heavy cloud cover, and a stiff cold breeze pulls at Jared’s clothes. Very far up the hill, a spark can be seen, some wayward travelers’ campfire.
“The Ohio railroad runs through those hills,” the girl explains, her features delicate and pale, ghost-like in the shuttered light of the lantern. “A tunnel cuts through the mountain up there, and the train has to slow down some before it goes through, or at least it always does. We get a lot of people who take that chance to jump off. They stick around sometimes. Sometimes stay a few days, and we feed them if they come down this far.”
“The hobo sign, and the candle in the window,” Jensen says.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
The shed clears the ground by a couple of inches, raised up on cinderblocks all around, and the planks beneath their feet creak and give when they enter. The place has a damp, earthy smell to it, underlined by machine oil and rust, but it’s dry. A bunk with a lumpy straw-filled mattress has been built into one corner, big enough for a man if he’s about half a foot shorter than Jared.
“There’s a latch on the inside and another on the outside of the door, if you’re worried about someone walking in on you.” She pauses at the doorway, passes a weighted look from one of them to the other.
“Sweetheart,” Jensen starts, his tone carefully even, “what exactly are you saying?”
“I’m sorry. I thought,” she stutters, eyes as big as saucers. “It's the way you are around each other. Thought you'd known each other for years.”
"Years?" Jensen says. "You're off by a fraction. We've known each other a couple of days is all."
The girl ducks her head, hair falling loose around her face. "Sorry. I...I thought you were used to spending a lot of time just the two of you, is all."
"Don't worry about it," Jared says, trying to put the girl at ease. "No harm done." Rain drops start to fall, pinging on the tin roof of the shack. "You better get to bed. Run along now, before you get too wet."
The glow from her lantern has barely disappeared around the front of the house when the sky opens up, slamming against the roof of the shed in a deafening way, the temperature dropping faster than a stone. A drip starts from the eaves, and quickly turns into a steady stream, running an inch away from Jensen's shoulder and he moves fast, bumping into Jared.
“A little bit of water won’t kill you,” Jared says. There’s a whole bunch of awkward in the room right now, and Jared’s trying to find a way to skate around it.
Jensen grunts his response, asks, "Who gets the bed?"
"We could flip for it."
"Fair enough." Jensen digs around in his pocket for a coin. "I call heads," he says and flips it.
Jared wins the coin toss, and Jensen bargains for the best two out of three.
With a sigh, Jared says, "I'm willing to share if you are."
Jensen eyes the bed doubtfully, seems to consider it, and finally lands on an answer. "Having to fight your knobby knees and sharp elbows all night long?"
"It's still more comfortable than the floor."
Jensen grumbles, something about Jared being smart-mouthed , then takes his hat off, tosses it onto a shelf, and scritches his fingers across his scalp, making his hair stand up in soft whorls. He shrugs out of his suspenders, lets them fall around his thighs, turns his back to Jared and pulls his shirt over his head.
In the dark, the white of Jensen’s undershirt is a sharp contrast to the color of his skin. Jared sits on the edge of the bed, picks open the laces on his shoes, and stares openly at Jensen’s back. He feels nailed down by the sight, stuck on the smooth shift of Jensen’s shoulders as he carefully folds his shirt, and the curl of Jensen’s spine and the graceful arch of his neck as Jensen’s steps out of first his shoes and then his trousers.
The cot is small, barely enough to fit one of them much less both, and there are a few long minutes of compromise as Jared shoves himself as far against wall as he can go and Jensen wriggles in beside him. They fight with blankets and space, and Jared's about to make the argument about whose knees are knobbier and whose elbows are sharper before Jensen shifts and their bodies seem to lock into place, Jensen's shoulder notched under Jared's arm and Jensen's hips slotted against his own.
The rain ends as abruptly as it had started, leaving a huge silence in its wake. A vacuum of noise after the thunderous downpour, punctuated by the lonesome sound of a train whistle wailing in the distance, and the soft, steady rhythm of Jensen’s breath a mere couple of inches away.
"This might be my last run."
The news comes as a surprise to Jared, as does the slowed seriousness of Jensen's tone as he says it. "Why's that?" he asks.
"Well, it's either you or me, and it seems to me that my luck has taken a very southwardly turn as of late. It's a fifty-fifty shot that this will work out the way I want it to, and I'm not too keen on those kinda odds."
"What will you do if you're not doing this?"
It's dark, close, the air heavy with humidity but still chilly. "I think I'll start riding the rails. Become a genuine train-hopping hobo like the folks you were talking about. Stow away on the first train that comes through town and see where I end up."
"What'll you do when you get there?"
Jensen yawns hugely, big enough that Jared can hear his jaw pop. "Catch the next one," he says, the words slurring together.
“And after that?”
“Who am I kidding? I couldn’t quit. It’s the only goddamn thing I know how to do,” Jensen says.
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Jared says, but he knows he’s close to losing Jensen to sleep. Jensen simply hums, mutters something that Jared can’t quite decipher. He squirms a little closer to Jared, and Jared allows it, kinda likes the slow rise and fall of Jensen’s chest against his arm and the soft brush of air on his neck every time Jensen exhales.
Sleep is slow coming. Jared fills up long minutes counting backward from one hundred, and when that doesn’t do the trick, occupies himself with conjugating every Latin verb he can remember, then moves on to naming the bones in the human body, from phalanges to cranium and back down again. He’s half-way through counting the thoracic vertebrae when Jensen reaches out and places his hand in the center of his chest, right over his heart.
“You alright?” Jensen asks, groggy and mostly asleep.
“Yeah, I’m okay. You?”
Jensen doesn’t answer, simply pats Jared’s chest then curls his fingers in Jared’s undershirt.
Jared shifts, snakes an arm around Jensen’s shoulders and pulls him even closer, flush against his body. He doesn’t look too closely at the reasons for it, tells himself it’s to ward off the cold. The cot is too short, ends about mid-calf on Jared and he knows that his feet are going to be numb, no better than blocks of ice come morning, but right now he’s hard pressed to be concerned with that. Jensen is beside him, pliant, an absolute perfect fit in a million different ways, and Jared hasn’t been this comfortable in his skin in a very, very long time.
Morning comes way too early, a peculiar, red-colored dawn slings in through the cracks in the slats that make up the walls of the shed. Jared slits one eye open, and finds himself nose to nose with the splintering wood wall, unable to move. He’s got the mother of all cricks in his neck and his feet are predictably without feeling. It’s freezing, the kind of wet cold that seeps into a person’s bones, and Jared can see small white clouds puff out in front of him with each exhale.
His surroundings reassert themselves gradually; the crossbeam of the cot is digging into his hip so hard he’s probably coming up bruised, and the same can be said for his shin about half way down. Jared is mildly surprised that he and Jensen didn’t jostle each other out of the cot last night, but Jensen is pressed all along his back, knees bent in the same precise angle as Jared’s, one arm slung across Jared’s ribs and his hand is covering Jared’s own, their fingers lightly tangled together. His mouth is pressed along the back of Jared’s neck and when he breathes, it tickles the short hair there.
Jared likes the feel of it, thinks he could get used to waking up every morning exactly like this. Could get used to it real fast, in fact. Waking Jensen up at this moment is the last thing he wants to do, he wants to soak up Jensen’s warmth for just a little while longer, listen to the sounds of the world starting to wake up around him, the chattering of the birds and the scritch-scratch of wildlife in the woods right outside the door.
Perhaps it’s the change in his breathing, or some other sort of sixth sense, but Jensen shifts behind him, sliding his hand from Jared’s own and back to Jared’s hip, palm cupped exactly right over the jut of Jared’s hip bone. His fingers work reflexively, squeeze into Jared’s flesh with a sleepy, sluggish rhythm. He moves slightly, rolls his hips against Jared’s ass, and that’s when Jared realizes that Jensen is hard, rigid line of his cock nudging at him.
There’s nothing purposeful or even vaguely conscious about it, but Jared’s body responds in kind anyway, a slow ribbon of heat building in Jared’s groin, his cock starting to wake up and take note of the proceedings, and Jared closes his eyes and tries to will it back down, slip back into a doze so that he won’t be held accountable for the things his body is doing, just like Jensen isn’t accountable for the way his nose pressing against the back of Jared’s neck is driving Jared slowly crazy, making him shiver and want. It’s been so long. So, so long since he’s felt the scratch of a man’s beard against his skin, since he’s breathed in that particular smell of another man, all sweat with the clean scent of skin underneath.
They’re both under the same stack of blankets, even though they had started out separate last night. Jared vaguely remembers Jensen, groggy and in complete darkness, pulling and tugging at the blankets last night with some instinctive, mammalian drive to be warmer. But now there’s nothing separating them, not space and barely clothes. Jared can feel where his shirt’s come untucked from his trousers, and is excruciatingly aware of the touch of Jensen’s bare stomach to the small of his back.
Jensen moves behind him again, a little closer to consciousness this time. He stretches in his sleep, cold nose nuzzling against Jared’s neck and the slide of his cock along Jared’s ass more insistent now, and Jared resists the drive to push back onto him, or more accurately, roll over and push Jensen onto his back, test his theory about how well he would fit into the vee of Jensen’s legs. Maybe try out a few other theories besides, because Jared’s willing to bet dollars to donuts that Jensen’s lips are as soft as they look, and his hands just as rough as his mouth is soft. Jared can imagine the way he’d flex and squirm under Jared, grit his teeth until he couldn’t hold back any more, then let Jared’s name stutter off of his tongue.
Slowly, so slowly, Jared skates his hand down his own body, cupping his crotch but not going any further than that, nothing outside of a constant pressure to attempt to soothe the ache. His cock is thick against his thigh, pulse a sonic boom in his ears, and he wants to kiss Jensen more than anything, kiss him until they are both breathless and stupid with it.
He’s about to do something, something drastic that he’ll probably live to regret, rationalizing, trying to convince himself that it wouldn’t matter at all, not one lick, because he never has to see Jensen again if he doesn’t want to, and if Jensen decides to abandon him here, it would be difficult to get home but not impossible, and suddenly a rooster calls so loudly that for one single disorienting instant, Jared actually believes that the thing is sitting on his shoulder and crowing into his ear, like some demented version of Poe’s prophetic raven.
“God,” Jensen says, and Jared shivers at the chill that swoops in to replace the warmth of Jensen all along his back. “Fuck,” he continues in an almost conversational tone. “Ten minutes. I need just ten more minutes.” The rooster calls again. “I’m going to strangle that fucking bird,” he says, still calm and even, “and then I’m going to strangle it again.” He stretches, arches his back into a steep curve, then rubs his nose along Jared’s neck and clings a little tighter to Jared’s hip before he lets go.
“So you’re one of those people,” Jared notes, struggling to flip over and face Jensen. “The kind that ain’t hardly human before noon.”
“No, I’m human alright. I fucking hate roosters is all.” Jensen stretches again, arms above his head and one hand grasping the wrist of the other, then starts a ten second countdown out loud. He reaches one and tosses the blankets off of himself, hops out of bed and starts jumping back and forth from one foot to the other, his bare feet cold on the bare floor. Jared uses the opportunity to gather the covers on top of himself, hides the way he palms at his cock by feigning a stretch.
“Long day ahead of us. We’ll make it to the state line today if we’re lucky.” Jensen tucks his shirt into his pants and makes quick business of his suspenders, and Jared discovers that watching Jensen get dressed is nearly as intimate as watching him get out of his clothes. Jared yawns massively, brushes his fingers through his hair and tries to make something of the knots and pulls his clothes on.
Outside, Sally and the little boy slog through the mud, spreading feed out for the chickens and goats. The hem of Sally's dress is black with mud and her shoes are caked with it, and the little boy has a streak of it on his cheek and a matching one on his forehead. Sally's fresh-faced, however, clean washed shin and a warm smile.
"The medicine worked," she tells Jared as soon as they emerge from the shack. "I can't remember the last time I was able to sleep through the night with him. There aren’t enough thanks in the world."
Jared grins at her, tousles the kid's hair until it's standing in messy corkscrews. "I suppose that goes both ways, ma'am," he says.
Breakfast is bacon and eggs fried in the grease, huge slabs of bread toasted on top of the oven and smothered with strawberry preserves from Sally's pantry. They're given large cups of coffee, strong and black and almost thick as mud, and Jared's not sure if it strips what little hair he has on his chest or adds to it.
"Where you gentlemen off to now?" Hank asks as he pushes himself back from the table and bends himself in half to pull his boots on and lace them up. Jared has a suspicion that he's been in the cough syrup himself, since he seems well rested too, and the hacking seems to have lessened from last night.
"North," Jensen says evasively.
"Like I said last night," Hank says, "the less I know about you two the better."
"We could give you a lift to work if you'd like."
Hank thanks them but waves it off. "I enjoy the walk. That twenty minutes of my day is often the only peace and quiet I'll ever get."
These people have a kindness to them, a generosity that Jared isn’t accustomed to, and he thinks it because they have so little in the first place. Sally sends them off with small pecks to their cheeks and a paper sack containing bacon sandwiches and a couple of bottles of coke that she had squirreled away, and before Jensen rises from the breakfast table, he slides three twenty dollar bills under his plate.
Jared rolls down the window once they’re on the road again. The road is better on the far side of town, even pavement and cut into the hill, straight sheets of slate on either side of the car that rise up to dizzying heights. If Jared looks close enough, he can see the holes that the road workers bored into the solid bedrock of the mountain, map the blasts that took place years ago when these roadways were being constructed.
"I've been wondering something," Jared starts, and Jensen glances at him sideways, one eyebrow raised up in curiosity. "Why didn't they just go around the mountain? You know, when they were building this road?"
"It's a metaphor," Jensen explains. "People have always wanted to show some sort of domination over nature. Show Mother Nature who’s boss, I suppose you could say. So they blast through the mountain. Besides, I think that people like to operate in straight lines."
"You say people like you're not really a part of it. How about you?"
"I like to think that I'm a little bit crooked."
"Or a lot."
They stop, partially because Jared needs to piss and partially because Jensen really likes the view, a drawbridge in the distance and a small creek cut into the land, steep banks at this spot right here where the creek twists. Rocks underneath the surface churn the water and turn it into foam. On the opposite bank, a couple of boys are picking up stones and slinging them into the water. They're out of their shirts, suntanned skinny torsos, wiry muscle stretching and bending as they toss rock after rock into the water. Their competition quickly escalates into a wrestling match, and Jared can hear the faraway sound of their laughter rising above the rush of the water.
Jared and Jensen stand there, hands in their pockets and taking in the view.
It's Jensen who finally breaks the silence. "I was seventeen the first time I left home. Seventeen years old and I'd never been off of that mountain. A relation of my mother came for a visit, some distantly related cousin twice removed or something. And he put me in this car of his. Damn thing rattled so badly I thought it was gonna break loose of its fittings before we ever made it to sea level. Seventeen years old and I'd never had a new pair of shoes." Jensen curls his tongue against his canine tooth thoughtfully. "Never had a shirt that my mother didn't make. You know, one that came from a store?”
"You seem to have turned out alright," Jared says, running his fingers along the neckline of Jensen's vest, testing the soft slip of the silk lining between his thumb and first finger.
"It's mostly for show," Jensen says, knocking his hand away. "Gotta look the part, right? Anyway, here we are and he's gonna take me to the city for the first time. New York," Jensen clarifies. "Never knew there were so many people in the world. Pretty girls everywhere in their fancy clothes and all." Jensen clears his throat before going on. "We came to this bridge, the one right outside Kingston."
Jared nods along, even though he's unfamiliar. A bridge is a bridge, as far as he's concerned, and anyhow, he's pretty sure that isn't the point. He's starting to wonder what exactly Jensen’s point is, and where all of this is coming from.
"And we stopped at the side of the road, some little shack that served oysters, seafood, something. Here I am, just some stupid kid, and we were sitting on this dock eating soft crab sandwiches and looking over the water, and I said the stupidest thing. Water so foggy that you could hardly see across and I asked my cousin if that was the ocean. Goddamn Hudson River and I thought it was the ocean. Never seen so much water in my life."
Jared’s watching Jensen carefully, starting to make a job out of doing exactly that. Some people's worlds are so very small, he knows that, but he’s having trouble reconciling this younger version of Jensen he’s now learning about with the man who is now standing beside him . "Certainly you'd read about the Atlantic. Or maybe known someone who had seen it."
Jensen fixes Jared with a dark look, and immediately Jared wishes he could take it back.
"There never were too many books around the house. We had a bible, sure, but that was just because one of those people from Gideon's made it through the neighborhood, going door to door and giving them away. My mother never was one to turn down something that came for free. She taught me how to read outta old copies of the Sears Roebuck catalog."
"Sorry. I didn’t mean…" Jared trails off, squeezing Jensen’s shoulder. It could be his imagination, some wicked bout of wishful thinking, but it seems like he feels Jensen's muscles relax some under his hand.
"Don't be. Anyway," Jensen continues, "I remember my cousin sat there for a very long time, and he laughed and laughed. Laughed so long that I thought he might never stop, and I made a promise to myself, right then and there. My folks were like Hank and Sally and those poor saps that we saw living in that town, and I made myself a promise that I wasn't going to be like them. That I'd move to some city. That I’d go as far as my two feet and those four wheels would take me."
"Seems to me that you've made good on that."
"Maybe, but then I come back here and..." Jensen trails off.
"And you start to wonder how far you’ve really gotten."
"That about sums it up."
Jensen stoops, knees spread wide to keep his balance. Jared watches as he squints across the water at the boys. They each have a line in the creek now, and one of them makes a whoop as the taller of the two leans back and reels in the fishing line. A silvery flash breaks above the churning surface and then drops back into it, and just as quickly, the other boy grabs a net and scoops it up. They get the hook out and walk a ways up the bank to put it in a wicker basket.
"Good spot," Jensen says, leading the conversation into a hairpin turn. "Wish we had more time. I'd throw a line in myself."
"I've never been fishing," Jared admits, and Jensen stands and spins on him, his chance to be incredulous.
"You're a red-blooded American man and you've never been fishing?"
"My folks always sent me to buy seafood from the docks. And between the drugstore and the bar, it’s not like I really get a day off.” Jared shrugs. “This is the first vacation I’ve had in years."
"This is a vacation?” Jensen says, followed by a harsh bark of laughter. He looks at Jared, eyes wide in disbelief, sunlight sparking gold inside all of the green, and it’s right then that Jared’s sure he’s sinking fast. He doesn’t stand a chance.
“Unbelievable,” Jensen continues. “That's it. If we make it through all of this in one piece, we're going."
They start back to the car, slipping and sliding on the steep bank.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Jared says with a gentle shove to Jensen’s shoulder. "I'm all book learning, clears as day. But you can't learn everything from a book."
It's a real nice place. A quality establishment with white cloth on the table and real napkins forks made of actual silver. Most of the men are wearing suits and ties, the women with feathers stuck in the ribbons in their hair and everything is just so. They’d crossed the border into Virginia on their way to New York an hour ago, and Jensen had convinced Jared that this was a cause for celebration, or at least a cause to stop and get some supper at this joint that Jensen said served the best lobster south of the Mason-Dixon line.
They're served water in cut crystal glasses with lemon wedges floating on the surface, and Jared kind of wishes for something maybe a little bit stronger, but this place is legal, or at least it is on the surface. The bar is empty, barren shelves behind the register, except for a few straggling bottles of seltzer water anyway, dust on their lightning stoppers, and for the first time, Jared feels a small pang of homesickness.
Jared heads toward the back, past the polished dance floor and tiny stage, an abandoned microphone sitting in the middle and the electric lights dark. It's a narrow hallway and a group of people have congregated there, milling around a locked door and Jared can read that as easily as he reads the morning paper. Maybe the place isn’t on the up and up after all.
None of his business, though. He pushes past the door to the men's room and it's an affair to match the rest of the place. Deep basins and chrome fixtures, and a man sitting on a bench, ready to hand over a towel and a fancy selection of toiletries and all you have to do is hand him over a nickel for his time and effort. A racket if Jared's ever seen one, but Jared wants to dig the dirt out from underneath his fingernails, and everybody has a job to do, not this man's fault his is so very strange, so there you have it.
On the way back out, he slides past a woman, a pretty little thing if his tastes were to run in that direction. Curvy hips and her mouth painted a wicked shade of red that matches her dress, all bright and glittering and lit up like a roman candle. Without a thought, he touches her shoulder as she's about to back into him, mutters a quiet, "Pardon me, ma'am," and makes to dodge her
But the woman doesn't stop, and she basically falls against him, which is no surprise since the shoes she has on her feet don't make much sense at all, and then she's gasping and trying contain an embarrassed little squawk as Jared puts a hand to her back to stop this from turning into something that will really turn everyone's face red. Before he can count from one to two, Jared gets yanked violently from behind, hears a pissed off male sound that seems better suited to an ape than a bipedal primate, and a new set of hands is shoving him backward with a harmless punch to Jared's chest that does no damage whatsoever and only serves to piss him off worse.
Jared finds himself with his back against the wall and with a red-faced man looming in front of him, eyes flashing fire and it's almost comical, the way the guy's collar seems to tighten the more pissed off he gets. The music has stopped on a sour note in the background and people are starting to make room, circle around Jared like bullies on a playground.
Here he's a stranger, and that's something that he's unaccustomed to. He's used to people who know him, who wouldn't think twice about a hand on the small of their back, a small peck on the cheek or a little pointless flirting. He's out of his element, and starts to make an excuse, eat crow and make an apology although he knows he's not at fault. But then the woman touches the man's arm, all rational thinking and mollifying expression, and maybe the man doesn't know it's her, or maybe he's a little too close to the bottom of a bottle himself, but he shoves her back roughly, elbow to the center of her skinny, bird-like chest, making her stagger and cough and really shout this time, and then it's on.
Jared's vision narrows down as his heart kicks up a notch. The guy's got his hands up, shifting his weight from foot to foot and almost dancing, like he fancies himself some Irish prizefighter. The one good thing about several years of medical training is that Jared has learned how to inflict maximum damage with minimal effort. He shifts his weight and goes after the guy with a swift kick to the center of his chest that knocks him off balance immediately, sends his arms cartwheeling and his feet tripping over one another. He lands in the arms of another man, who sets him square again and shoves him back into the fray, but the wind must have been knocked out of him, and his bell has clearly been rung because now the guy is blinking hugely like an owl, and Jared wants to laugh.
"I leave you alone for two minutes. Two minutes, Jared." It’s Jensen, stuck like glue to his side, an adrenaline flush riding high on his cheeks and his eyes incredibly bright, glazed over and fixed on the asshole who started all of this.
But now it's two against one, and Jared doesn't really see the fairness in all of that, but he's glad for the company anyway, since this has the makings for a fairly terrible situation. Knock down, drag out barfight notwithstanding, Jared knows where there’s at least one bottle of hooch hidden in the car, and Jensen did say that he always has a back-up plan, and who knows how many other compartments in the car hide booze or cash or any other number of undesirable things, and he doesn’t particularly want to see the cops dragged into any of this.
Jensen tries to say something, something that will throw water on this particular brush fire, but it's already too late. Jensen reaches out a hand to touch the guy's shoulder, and the guy throws a huge roundhouse punch. It sends his jacket flaring out backward and Jared catches a flash, a polished brass badge and the distinct glint of gunmetal, and knows right then that everyone's in over their heads with this. Jared's picked a fight with a cop and this is only going to go from bad to worse. Jensen spins with the impact of the punch, a full pirouette, graceful enough to make even a Vaudeville dancer jealous, finishes the spin with a swift uppercut jab to the man's jaw.
There's a crack, and it could be the guy's face or it could be Jensen's knuckles, but at that moment, Jared's not terribly concerned with that, because there's blood on Jensen's face, bright, bright red against the paleness of his skin, and it is starting to run in slender rivers toward his jaw.
Jensen's last punch has done the trick, though, sending the guy spinning backward toward a break in the crowd, and he lands with a crash and a few startled gasps from the fairly sizeable crowd this whole spectacle has attracted.
A hush follows, stretches out for what feels like an eternity, until the lawman rolls sluggishly to his side, coughing and hacking and spitting on the floor, a bubbly puddle of saliva and vivid blood.
"Ackles," the man says, and Jared feels a shock, thinks that this is what getting electrocuted might be like. "I thought I told you to never show your face here again."
"You know him," Jared says softly, surprised, working to catch his breath and trying to will his heartbeat into something resembling normalcy.
"We've met," Jensen says evasively. The glare he's giving the guy is murderous, the kind of look that could level whole cities. "And I can tell you that it didn't really go his way the last time either."
And in that moment, Jared knows one thing for sure: he can trust Jensen to have his back in a way that is absolute, just like he can trust that the sun will always rise in the east every morning.
At their feet, the guy is struggling to get vertical again. Apparently Jensen doesn't like the idea of that and delivers a boot heel to his side, hard punch to the kidney and down he goes again. Jensen has to wrap his hand around Jared's forearm and start tugging him toward the door.
"What was that for?" Jared asks with a quick backward glance. The circle of people are just now closing in on him, a few people stooping down and trying to sit the guy up.
"It bought us a few minutes. C'mon. Now isn't the time to get all sentimental about it."
Jensen's weaving slightly, keys to the car in a death grip in his hand, but Jared takes him by the wrist and wrestles the keys away from him. The ease with which Jensen gives them up might be worrisome if Jared bothers to take a second to think it through, but he doesn't, only folds Jensen into the passenger seat with a steadying hand on the small of his back and another on the back of his neck. He cups Jensen's face in his hands, thumbs notched below his cheekbones and
Jensen's day old beard rasping against his palms. Jensen grumbles, but lets Jared turn his face toward the light. The gash looks shallow, but it's still bleeding freely enough, streaks running down the side of Jensen’s face like red colored tears, and Jared takes his handkerchief from his back pocket and wads it up below Jensen's eye.
"Hold it there," he says, and circles around the car, gets behind the wheel, pumps the gas pedal twice to prime the pump and then turns the engine over and skids out onto the street.
His adrenaline boost is wearing off, leaving a headache and a vague sort of nausea in its wake. He's all at once exhausted, muscles feeling weak and hands trembling a little. The building has grown very small behind them before Jared says anything. "What was all that about?”
“What if I were to say that I was defending your honor?” Jensen pulls the handkerchief away, frowns at the blood, and Jared reaches over to force his hand back up to the gash below his eye.
“I would tell you that my honor is already a lost cause.”
“Well, then, I suppose we’re quite a bit alike in that regard, you and I.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong. You’re a good man, Jensen.”
“Yeah, sure,” Jensen says, dismissive. “Try telling that to our friend the deputy sheriff back there.”
Jared’s reaction is a visceral thing, and his whole body lurches, his grip so tight on the steering wheel that he thinks his fingers might be leaving some sort of permanent indentation. He might have also kicked out, his feet hitting the brake and the gas at the same time and the car shudders all around them. A turn is coming up, a wicked hairpin that will take them further down the mountain, and Jared’s mind goes through these lunatic cartwheels, believing that all he has to do is get them to a lower elevation and maybe he'll be able to think straight. Get them out of town and away from this godforsaken place and back into his small apartment above the pharmacy and all will be well. All will be very well indeed.
All of this is spinning through his head, a big ferris wheel of doubt and paranoia, and all he can think to say is, "Deputy Sheriff?"
"I hope so,” Jensen says “Didn't get a good look at his badge, I was a little too busy hitting him in the face. Might have gone federal for all I know," Jensen says.
"That about sums it up," Jensen says, and then he does the most amazing thing. He starts to laugh, small titters at first that grow into wheezing, whooping chuckles, high-pitched and hysterical, and next he's wrapping an arm around his stomach and putting his head between his knees.
Jared is left dumbfounded, mouth wide open and working but no sound manages to come out. Vocal chords frozen and maybe they never will work again, until finally, "There's a story behind this, and I betcha it's a good one, and one day very soon you're going to tell me all about it, but at this point we need to find a hole to bury ourselves in. A very deep hole that's very far away. I'm thinking somewhere in the neighborhood of Yemen."
"Yemen?" Jensen says, trying to recover. "Where's that?"
"It's on the other side of the world."
"Fair enough. Turn here." Jensen points out a spot to the left, a near invisible break in the tree line. Jared does as he's ordered and turns down the narrow track, little more than twin wheel ruts that set the car to bouncing, shocks screaming and creaking at the uneven ground and the wheel trying to yank itself out of Jared's hands every few feet.
"The brakes feel slushy to me," Jared says, and he doesn’t like the sound of his own voice right now, the high, panicked edge of it.
Jensen nods. "It's on purpose. A custom job. I altered them as soon as I got the car. Helps on the hairpin turns up here in the hills. The steering's been realigned as well. And I bumped up the engine to give me a little more horsepower. Old rumrunner tricks of the trade. Give me an open road and a straightaway, and the revenuers don't have a car in their entire armada that can keep up."
"And you said you keep her around because she's pretty."
"Form and function, my darling boy. It's all about form and function. Speaking of which, you might want to pull over before you knock the wheels off of the car."