Mark took out his phone. The Stormtrooper on his iPhone cover stared at me with black triangle eyes.
“When are you going to get a grownup’s phone case?”
He ignored me, fingers moving deftly over the keyboard. His eyes roamed the display.
“See,” I said, taking a bite of my burger, “It’s a thing.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Mileticolitis is not a thing. If it’s not on Google, it doesn’t exist.”
“Well, how did you spell it?”
“Try it with an I at the end.”
He typed again. “Nope,” he said. “Nothing.” The Stormtrooper went face down on the table. “Sorry,” he said, “not a thing. So, it’s time for you to just get in the car and drive. Don’t even look down at the odometer.”
“I can’t not look at it.”
He sighed, reached over and grabbed up my hands in his. They were warm and slightly calloused. “You’ve got to stop this.”
“Can’t you just roll it back for me one more time?”
“You know, just because you have an old car doesn’t mean rolling back the odometer is easy. I can’t believe I even bothered to do it for you last time.”
“Puh-leeease?” I put on my best puppy dog face.
“That’s not going to work, Ainsley.”
“Come on,” I persisted.
“No, I’m not going to humor you on this anymore.”
I threw away his hands and crossed my arms over my chest. “This is real, Mark. I’m not making this up. Bad things happen every time a palindromic number—”
“Bad things happening have nothing to do with the numbers on your odometer. What is it with you and numbers? This is bat-shit crazy!”
I held up my hand, palm to his exasperated face. “First there was the earthquake at 1,001.” I lowered my hand with a slap. “Then there was the robbery at my sister’s bank at 5,225. Mom lost her job at 34,543. Nana died at 100,001—”
“Your Nana was ninety-two.”
“Just two miles ago, 199,991, the dry cleaner ripped my interview suit, which is why I’m wearing this stupid skirt.”
“I like that skirt better, your suit is—”
“Fuck, Mark, “ I said, undeterred. “Who knows what’s going to happen next?” I threw up my hands and let them fall loudly on the table. The woman at the adjacent table glared. I ignored her and shot Mark a pleading look. “Please? Wouldn’t it just be easier to roll it back, or even forward, I don’t care, one more time, than risk what might happen?”
“No, Ainsley. I can’t. First of all, there’s no time. Can’t do it today.” He popped a limp French fry in his mouth. “And more importantly, I almost got in trouble last time. I can’t have one more incident at the garage, or it’s my job.”
“Oh, you are so much better than that garage anyways. You’re a genius with cars. An automotive master. You can get a job working on cars anywhere…”
“I’ve known you for fucking ten years, and you still think you can butter me up like that?”
I stood. “Fine,” I fished out my wallet from my purse and threw a twenty and a five down on the table. “When the police come knocking at your door to tell you your best friend got into a car crash, then you’ll only have yourself to blame.”
“Don’t joke about that shit, Ainsley.”
“Who says I’m joking?” I finished the last gulp of my beer. “I’ll call you later,” I said shrugging into my coat, “assuming of course that the East coast hasn’t been swallowed by a tsunami or something.”
“Let no one say you don’t have a flair for the dramatic.”
“No one ever has.”
Mark stuck out his face to me. I gave him our usual goodbye kiss on the cheek, despite it all, and walked out of the restaurant.
The wind whipped my hair, strands sticking to my ChapStick-ed lips, as I pulled up the collar of my jacket. Walking towards my car, I dreaded each footstep. Maybe I could just take a bus instead? Take a train? Set the car up on blocks, use a brick to hold down the gas pedal, and let the car drive itself Ferris-Bueller-style? Anything to get past the horrible numbers that would surely bring some sort of disaster.
But the job interview was in three hours. No bus could get me there that quickly, and no train came near enough to Chicopee at the right time. I could rent a car, but I didn’t have the cash. Mom was at work. Dad in DC on a business trip. Mark thought I was bat-shit crazy. Kerry was with the new guy on some mini vacation. Family and friends were otherwise engaged. I was on my own. Well, I thought walking to my car, on my own except for this piece of shit car that was probably going to get someone killed.
I crawled behind the wheel of the Accord gingerly, like if I moved carefully and was sweet to good old Harold—I’d named the Honda Harold on my seventeenth birthday when I got him—would be kind to me in return. “Sorry,” I said, gently rubbing the steering wheel, “you’re not a piece of shit.” I patted the dashboard, patted down my black pencil skirt, and turned the key in the ignition. I stared at the odometer: 199,993. Chicopee was 109 miles from Haverhill. It was inevitable.
So I drove. I pulled onto Route 125, away from downtown and towards 495. I turned on the heat. Turned up the radio. Turned on my blinker. Merged into the left lane. Set my cruise control to a respectable 73. And I tried not to stare at the numbers. I tried to pay attention to the road, as the exit numbers ticked down and down. Only 41 more miles to go to 290. Then the Pike. Then exit 5 for Chicopee. Maybe I could stop at the Dunks and get a coffee first, if I had time. If I made it that far, a dark voice spoke inside my head.
A hawk soared above. A tractor trailer truck swerved into my lane. Someone from Maine crawled by in front of me, and I had to switch off my cruise control, slow down, and go around them in the middle lane.
I swerved around a raccoon carcass, trying not to look at the blood and guts that were smeared all over the highway. I tried not to look. I tried not to look. I tried not to look. And then I was looking. But not at the raccoon. I stared down at the numbers on the odometer. 199,997. I tried not to look.
I refocused on the road, veering to avoid a patch of rough pavement dug up from last year’s frost heaves. The highway and I had a rocky relationship. Jared broke up with me at mile marker 102. I got pulled over going 83 by exit 37 for speeding. And there was the flat tire on the Lawrence overpass. I wondered what would happen next.
The teenage driver in the middle lane drank coffee in typical teenage fashion—looked to be all milk, assumedly all sugar, no coffee—and blew cigarette smoke out the window of her Volvo. I turned up my own radio, tuned to 107.3 FM. I tried to distract myself. I tried not to look. 199,999. I tried not to look. And then it was there. 200,002. What would happen? There was open highway and 5,280 feet of possible torture ahead of me.
Then the highway wasn’t so open anymore. A deer, delicate and spindly legged, leapt out into the road. I swerved. I almost swerved into the Volvo. She almost swerved into the minivan in the right lane. The Volvo hit the deer. The deer fell. I tried to keep driving, breathing heavily, sweat prickling my brow. Maybe that was it. Maybe Mark was right. Maybe I was bat-shit crazy. Maybe—
Then my cell rang.
“Hello?” I said it so softly, I doubted the person on the other end could even hear.
I tried not to look.
I tried not to hear.
“You were right,” said Mark in a shaky voice.