The alleyway looked deserted. It was like everyone had cleared out in the last hour, which I suppose they had. Kale buckled his seatbelt across his chest. I ignored the little ding my car gave, the one that reminded me to put my seatbelt on, like I always did. Luckily it was an old car so it would only ding once, sometimes twice.
I thought about starting a conversation, but from what little I knew about this guy it wasn't really his thing. I glanced over at him and quickly turned on the radio. I had never been around anyone who made me feel this prickly awkwardness before. I couldn't explain what it was like—couldn't even be sure that I disliked it—but I just felt like I should talk. What was that, the urge to pierce the air, the need to fill the space with words? Maybe Kale had it right and the rest of us had it wrong.
The radio was playing a song I hadn't heard before, but I recognized Shawn Mendes' voice. I turned the music up a little and we drove in silence until we got close to the post.
I hoped his company was as close as I thought it was. I tried not to come on post unless I had to or to go to the doctor. Which was often one and the same.
My gas indicator light was on, a bright reminder of how irresponsible I was. The Shawn Mendes song was over and now it was time for a commercial break. I listened to the ads: a testimonial for a weight loss clinic, an offer for low interest car loans. "Huge Military discounts!" the voice promised with a borderline shout.
"You can change the station if you like," I told him. "What kind of music do you like?" I asked, ever the cordial host.
"This is fine."
I exited the highway and was glad to see there wasn't a line to enter the base. I loved living on my side of town, close enough to the post, but far enough from my dad that I could breathe.
"Here we are," I said, as if he couldn't see the bright lights ahead of us.
He shifted his hips and pulled out a dog-eared wallet from the pocket of his ACU pants. He dropped his military ID into my open hand. The tips of his warm fingers grazed my skin and I jerked my hand away. His ID fell between the seats.
"Damn it." I shoved my fingers into the slim slot and managed to grab the card just as it was my turn to approach the guards.
"Welcome to the great place," the soldier working the gate said.
"Really?" I couldn't help but tease him.
Ever since the soldiers were required to recite that ridiculous motto, I gave them shit about it. I couldn't help it.
"Yes, really," he said, his tone neutral. He inspected our ID cards and the standard decal stuck to my windshield.
"Have a good night," the soldier told us, though I knew he didn't care about our night.
He probably thought we were together, that I was some barracks whore driving us to this guy's small room where we'd have sex while his roommate slept in the other bed.
"I don't know where I'm going," I told Kale.
He switched off the radio. "Turn right," he mumbled, just as I was passing a street on the right.
"Right now?" I jerked the wheel to make the turn in time.
"Next light. Turn left there. There!"
As if It wasn't bad enough that I would get to my dad's late as hell and that the car was running on empty. I could feel my palms getting clammy on the steering wheel. Kale looked over just in time to see me wipe them on my jeans.
"They're up here on the right. It's a big brown building," he told me.
The buildings were all nearly identical. The only thing differentiating one from the other was the number painted on the side.
"Yeah, they're all big brown buildings here at The Great Place."
I swear I heard the tiniest hint of a laugh, just a small puff of smoke, enough to show that he was at least mildly amused by my comment. Sure enough, when I looked over there it was—a sliver of a smile spread across his lips.
"Just here." He pointed to a massive parking lot. Kale kept his finger pointed at a navy blue truck parked in the back of the mostly empty lot. I pulled up next to the truck, about a car's length away.
"Thanks . . ." He looked at me like he was searching for something.
"Karina," I told him and he nodded.
My stomach flipped a little and I told myself it was just nerves, that it didn't have anything to do with the way he said my name. I tried to calm the swarm of bees in my stomach as he climbed out of my car without another word.