I don't know what I expected him to drive, but this beast of a truck wasn't it. Despite his size, I figured he'd drive something small and sleek, not this old blue thing with rust circling the wheel well. That's the problem with pretending, people's real lives are never like you imagine. The license plate was your typical Georgia plate, the one with peaches and the cheesy slogan. Clayton County printed across the bottom. I had no idea where that was. I wondered if he was pissed that he joined the Army and somehow ended up in his home state.
He was Elodie's friend, so it was only right that I made sure he got into his truck okay. I didn't want him to have to trek three miles back to my house if he couldn't get it to start. I knew all about cars not starting. I watched as he stuck his hand under the metal sheet just above his front tire and felt along the surface. He repeated this with all four tires before he pulled his phone from his pocket.
His expression changed from concern to upset. He wiped one hand over his face; the other still held his phone. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but I avoided the temptation to roll down my window to hear. There was just something about him that I needed to figure out.
The more I watched him, standing there in the dark, pacing around with his iPhone going back and forth from his pocket to his cheek, the more I needed to know who he was.
I was just about to Google Clayton County, Georgia when he opened the car door and leaned down.
"You can go," he told me.
Almost rude. If he wasn't locked out of his car, I would have been snarky back, but I couldn't find it in me.
I looked at his truck and back to him. "Are you sure? Can you not get in?"
He sighed heavily and shook his head. "My keys are supposed to here. I'll find my way back, it's cool."
"I'm so late to this thing I have to do."
"The dinner," he told me.
So he was paying attention.
"Yeah, the dinner. I can't take you back before . . . but maybe I can call my dad and just cancel. It's not like—"
Kale interrupted me. "It's cool, for real."
I couldn't just leave him there. I told him so.
I opened my door and got out of the car. "I don't know?" I replied honestly.
"It's a long walk back. Do you have another set of keys somewhere? Or a friend who can come help you?"
"All my friends are in Afghanistan," he said.
My chest burned.
"Sorry," I said, leaning my back against my car.
We kept eye contact until he blinked. I quickly looked away.
"I don't know? The war?" It sounded so stupid coming from my mouth. An Army brat apologizing to a soldier for a war that started before either of them were born. "Most people wouldn't have asked me why just now."
Kale's tongue grazed his bottom lip; he tucked it between his teeth. The parking lot lights above us clacked on, buzzing, breaking our silence.
"I'm not most people."
"I can tell."
The lights shone through the windows of the barracks across the street, but it didn't seem like he lived there. That meant he was either married, or higher ranking than his age would suggest. Soldiers below a certain rank can only live off post if they're married, but I couldn't imagine that a married man would be sleeping on my chair right after a deployment. Besides, he wasn't wearing a ring.
I was checking out his ACU jacket to see his rank patch when I saw his eyes on me.
"Are you coming with me, Sergeant, or are you going to make me stand in this parking lot until you call a locksmith for your car?" I looked at the patch on his chest, his last name stitched in capital letters: Martin. He was so young to be a sergeant.
"Come on." I put my hands up, begging. "You don't know me but this is what will happen if I leave you here knowing you will walk back to my house. I'll leave you here and two seconds later I'll feel guilty and I'll obsess over it the entire drive to my dad's, the entire dinner," I explained.
"I'm talking apology texts to Elodie, then she'll be stressed because she worries about everyone and then I'll feel even more guilty about stressing out a pregnant woman, so I'll have to drive around trying to find you if you haven't made it back yet. It's messy, Kale, and honestly easier if you just—"
"Okay, okay." He held up his hands in mock defeat. I nodded, smiling in my victory, and you know what? He almost smiled back.