I am awfully nervous and as a result I stand way too early outside the building of my apartment. This is quite an achievement considering it took me ages to decide for an outfit since I still do not know what we will really be doing and I changed my mind several times when I already was on my way to the door. In the end I settled for loose khaki pants and a pink tank top. I threw a gray sweater over, too, because the air is still fresh. It conceals my curves but showing them off is not really my aim here, right? So that is probably for the better.
I told Marcus I am going to meet a friend from work who needs help deciding on decorations for her wedding. I suspect Marcus knows that I am avoiding his family, but he only told me to have fun. I guess I will.
A huge black Jeep stops at my side. I don’t even look up and already made half a step backward when I recognize the driver. It is Jacob. I did not expect that, somehow I watched out for a run-down middle-sized city car like my own. Not a monster of an off-road car. I goggle at Jacob bewildered and the window lowers.
"Good morning, Cait." His grin is wide and easy and throws me completely off-guard. “Do you intend to take roots here?”
I splutter and feel my cheeks heat up. "Hi... uh... no... that is--"
He chuckles and nods his head to the side. "Just jump in already."
I do as I am told, trying to use the time while I climb up to my seat to get myself back together. I find I very much like the confident version of Jacob.
"Awesome car!" Leather seats and shining armatures aside, the Jeep is most and above all big and powerful, although the engine is just a soft buzz from the interior. I am pressed into the seat every time Jacob accelerates after he had to break at a red light.
My eyes wander over to him. He wears black soft pants and a plain dark red T-shirt. His hair is spikey and damp as if he just came out of the shower. He drives automatic, working the pedals with his right leg. There is a knob on the steering wheel, the only thing slightly out of place. He uses it to steer one-handed while his left arm is tucked at his side, wrist flexed with the fingers forming a fist. Not for the first time I wonder what happened to him. Was he born that way? Asking seems highly inappropriate, though.
Fortunately, Jacob is doing most of the talking. It seems the car is all his pride. He bought it from a friend who required a stronger engine to pull a trailer load of fish up a hill.
"Did never imagine you could get rich from selling fish. But apparently you can." Jacob shoots me a quick side look and grins.
We speed down the highway for an hour. The villages and exits we pass get scarcer till there is nothing but forest to the left and the right. Eventually we get off and the way leads slightly uphill for some time, trees rushing past us. Then the sight clears when we reach the top of the mountain or at least as far as one can go by car. There is a huge transmitter post, jutting into the sky, held by several hundred meter long cables thick as my underarm. It looks out of place among the nature surrounding it, like a faint reminder of the presence of humans.
"Wow! What's that?"
Jacob quickly turns his head to me as we pass the post.
"You‘ve really never been here?"
I shake my head no.
"This is a radio transmitter from the local radio station. It’s not really pretty…"
“I think it’s awesome.”
He chuckles and shakes his head.
We turn into the parking lot and Jacob pulls into one of the last free spots. It seems we are not the only ones who thought about coming here today.
"This is a popular spot for a small weekend family trip," Jacob explains, having turned fully towards me now that the car has stopped. "It is also the highest mountain in this area. Which doesn't mean anything considering everything around here is pretty flat." He smirks. “I would have taken you to someplace more spectacular but... I… uh… don’t like driving too long.”
I try a reassuring smile. It is still cool he brought me to this place.
"Okay... are you ready?"
I nod and we exit the car. He grabs his cane from the backseat and balances it on his knees before he opens the door at his side. I am already outside when I hear the hum indicating his seat is lowering to make it easier for him to exit. He comes around to the back of the car where I am standing. I am unsure of what comes next, watching him limp slowly towards me and wondering how he intends to walk any longer distances.
When he arrives at my side Jacob tucks his cane under his left arm and fiddles for the car keys that he has shoved into the pocket of his pants. The trunk of the jeep unlocks with a click and slowly opens fully automatic. I am a little impressed since the doors on my car are more often than not jammed shut and can only be opened by brutal force.
Inside the huge trunk there is an assortment of blankets, plastic bags, a rescue package, shoes, small backpack and... a wheelchair. That barely answer the hundreds of questions I have, if possible only generates more. Jacob turns and sits in the open car trunk, throws the cane behind, and tries to wrestle the fully assembled wheelchair out of the car one-handed. After a few seconds of nervous hesitation I get a hand on it as well and he thanks me with a smile. Together we place the wheelchair on the ground in front of the car and lock the breaks of the wheels. I step back quickly, self-conscious. The slim chair has no armrests and no handles to push it, which makes me even more curious about how he intends to move.
Jacob again reaches behind himself and brings forth something that to me looks like half a bicycle. It has a single wheel attached to a handlebar and stays upright supported by a kickstand when he places it on the ground next to the wheelchair. Jacob transfers into the wheelchair easily, being able to put full weight on his good leg, and puts his feet on the footrest, helping the left along with his hand. He pulls the half bicycle in front of the wheelchair. Only when he bends down and starts attaching the wheel to the wheelchair I finally understand. Of course he can propel himself forward only with difficulties without the use of two arms and for ‘hiking’ how he calls it, he goes much easier with a hand bike.
I watch as Jacob works on the wheelchair, it takes some time to flip all the latches and screw everything tight, especially on the left side but Jacob’s movements are deft and I keep my distance, knowing that this is not the first time he is doing this and I will be of no practical use. Finally he pulls the lever to himself and the small front wheels of his wheelchair lift off the ground. He puts the backpack that was in the trunk, too, on his lap and pushes himself backward and to the side of the car using his good leg on the gravel. The trunk door of the car closes again with a swooshing sound.
He catches me staring. "There is no backwards gear. But all the rest is pretty amazing. Most of the time it takes me less than two hours for the whole round-trip. But don’t worry, I will go slower for you." He grins.
I blush, a little irked, but that dissolves when I see his eyes dart away from mine. Now, outside of his monstrous car, he is clearly nervous.
He clears his throat and hands the backpack to me. "I guess the man is usually supposed to carry the gear up the mountain but would you mind?"
I do not although I wonder what is in there when I swing the surprisingly heavy bag over my shoulder. With both feet on the footrest now Jacob grips the right pedal in front of him and starts moving it back and forth. It takes some time until he gains speed but as soon as he is on the pavement, the hand bike is indeed fast and I need to lengthen my steps to follow.
A family crosses our way as we exit the car parking, the children staring unabashed at Jacob and even the adults glancing sideways quickly as they pass us. When we are almost out of earshot but not quite so, the shrill voice of a child can be heard. “Mum! What is the man doing?” Jacob's shoulders tense and he intensifies the grip around the handle for a moment but, fortunately, we do not hear the parents’ answer anymore.
We pass a large sign with a map on it on our way leading to the edge of the forest and Jacob nods at it. “This is the only officially accessible hiking trail I know around here. It’s actually pretty nice; they have done a very good job with it.” His voice is his usual, centered one.
We enter the forest and when the temperature drops immediately, I am glad for my sweater. The trail slightly winds its way upwards, but the slope is minimal. It is indeed nice, paved and wide enough for two wheelchairs, but other than that looking like an ordinary hiking trail. I walk at Jacob’s side whenever it is possible, trying to keep enough space between us to not accidentally bump into his wheels. I can watch him out of the corner of my eyes, being much taller standing than he is sitting down, and I see the muscles in his back playing under his T-shirt while he moves the lever. Suddenly the air does not seem to be so cold anymore.
Jacob is setting a reasonable pace and keeps being the one leading the conversation. He tells me about his week, work at the tech support and plans he has for his garden.
“I’d like to grow salad and carrots, you know. Think that would be nice.”
“Sounds great… good idea.” I have never had a garden in my whole life and I would not have taken Jacob for the gardening type either. But then it occurs to me that this has probably been one of his doctor’s suggestions. He seems to have picked up on it though, judging from his enthusiastic descriptions.
Half an hour later I realize Jacob is not talking that much anymore. The path has grown steeper, only slightly though and without me realizing it but I can see the muscles bulge under his T-shirt as he continues pulling on the hand bike, his breathing accelerating. After a few minutes and with the heavy backpack on my back I feel the effect, too, and I have to remove my sweater. I wrap it around my hips before I shoulder the backpack again.
Jacob has stopped a few meters ahead and cranes his neck to look back at me. “Are you okay?”
I brush away the strands of my hair that have fallen over my face. “Yes… yes. I am fine. Just starting to get a little warm.”
I blush when I feel his eyes resting on me, self-consciously tuck at a string of my tank top, and even more when I realize that he is already drenched in sweat, despite of only wearing a shirt. The way uphill is challenging him a lot more than me, apparently.
We continue in silence for about an hour, occupied with the steeper trail, a little bit slower than before but neither of us comments on it. Once a jogger with a dog on a leash overtakes us; the dog sniffing in Jacob’s direction before it is yanked away from the wheelchair by its owner. Apart from that we are alone, only the sound of my footsteps, the tread of his wheels, the small rattling of the bicycle part and our breathing can be heard. I try not to glance at Jacob too often, at the shirt that clings to his body now, the pearls of sweat forming at the tip of his hair in his neck.
It takes us a little bit more than one hour and a half to reach the top. Here, the trees are scarce and small. There is a sightseeing point ahead where a few people are standing looking out over the landscape, but Jacob steers directly towards the next bench set a little apart and I follow. When he lines the chair up with the bench I see his face is contorted with pain. He presses the heel of his right hand into his left thigh, the leg jiggling a little on the footrest.
“Need to… stretch out,” he groans between clenched teeth.
I freeze, not knowing what is going on.
His hand trembles slightly when he shoves his feet from the footrest and grabs the bench to transfer. He closes his eyes before he attempts the move, quickly sliding over to sit on the bench, biting on his lip to prevent any sound from coming out. Sweat is trickling from his forehead, forming small beads in his drawn browns and his breath comes in rapid gasps as he struggles to pull his left leg out of the hand bike.
I finally wake up from my stupor and hurry towards him to help him extract the foot that has gotten wedged in between the rods attaching the wheel to the chair, feeling the muscles in his calf spasm against my fingers. Jacob is half leaning against the backrest of the bench, eyes screwed shut, the fingers of his right hand digging into his left thigh, his leg propped up halfway on the bench.
“Tell me what to do! Please, Jacob…” The shock as I realize how helpless I am hits me unprepared and panic rises in acid bubbles as my eyes dart from the agony washing over his face toward the people standing a short distance away, oblivious to what is going on. I should get someone for help. I cannot do this alone. I have already risen from where I had crouched down when he speaks, his voice low and pressed from the pain.
“Don’t… please… It will pass.” He sucks in his breath and tries to keep his trembling leg down.
I hesitate, caught between the urge to run away – to get help I try to convince myself – and stay, respecting his wish against everything my common sense tells me to do. But then I place my hands hesitantly down on his knee, watching him, trying to gauge if I am doing the right thing. The voice in my head keeps telling me to bolt, that I should not be here, what if I hurt him, I am doing it all wrong, this will be ending in a disaster before it began. My fingers start trembling, too, and I gently press a little harder, feeling protesting muscles underneath.
Jacob slumps back against the bench, he seems to concentrate on breathing with his eyes still closed and – gradually – I feel the twitching of his leg against my hands lessen. It takes a few more minutes in which people pass us, throwing us curious looks but no one stops to address us, until Jacob opens his eyes again, gaze directed away from me.
Relief washes over me, making my hands shake even more than before.
“Thanks.” His voice is hoarse but his breathing seems okay and his leg is merely shivering a little.
I pull my hands away, forming fists at my side. I can hear my heartbeat in my head, barely slowing down. “Are you… okay?”
He chuckles drily and pulls himself into a full sitting position, lowering his left foot down to rest beside his right on the ground. “Obviously I’m not. But… it’s okay for now.” He looks up at me and his expression is defeated, his eyes somehow cloudy. “I- I’m sorry you had to see that… It… it doesn’t occur often. Honestly, it never happened here… I don’t know what-” He draws a hand through his sweaty black hair, making it stick up in all directions.
I feel a little dizzy from the adrenaline rush.
He shakes his head, pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry,” he repeats lowly.
“Really… don’t.” I am still standing next to the bench, still ready to run, ready to step closer should it be necessary. I take a deep breath to calm down.
Jacob looks into nothing, fingers clenched around the wooden edge of the bench, not moving a single muscle. I fear this might end like it did that day when he stormed from my apartment after repairing my router. He might vanish and leave me alone up here. I would have to hitchhike to get home. I fucked up after all. “Jacob?”
Jacob blinks and clears his throat. “Okay… so, I guess we both need a break. What about sandwiches and drinks?” His faked smile is aching to look at but he seems determined to act as if the last minutes had not happened.
My hands fall to my side. “Oh… yeah… that would be great.” Surprisingly, although I am not hungry when I say that, just relieved and feeling strangely lightheaded, my stomach rumbles at the thought of food. I wonder where we might get food up here, however.
Jacob seems a little amused by my obvious confusion and the lines above his brows soften out some. “The backpack... I would suggest taking a look into that.” His feeble smile makes my stomach flip.
I finally manage to sit down next to him and put the backpack between us, opening it with only slightly trembling fingers. One after the other I bring forth the most deliciously looking items, among others even two bottles of beer and two bottles of water. That at least explains the weight. The beer is non-alcoholic, I notice as I pop off the cap of mine with the opener I found in the backpack as well and then do the same with the bottle Jacob holds in his hand without meeting his eyes. We drink beer and eat baguette with tiny pieces of cut salami and goat cheese piled between us on the bench seat. Slowly I start to calm down, positive Jacob's body will not start a new assault anytime soon.
I pop a cherry tomato in my mouth and lean back against the bench, turning my face into the sun. “It’s… beautiful here.” Indeed, it is. We are alone, for the moment, and nothing can be heard except for a few birds singing. The air smells of flowers and spring, still lacking the moist and heat of the summer.
I hear Jacob chuckle but I don’t turn away from the warmth caressing my skin. “What are you laughing at?”
“Nothing. Just… yeah… beautiful.”
I look at him and my stomach jolts when I catch him staring at me instead of somewhere else. His eyes are still kind of dim, a sadness lingering deep within. I swallow when he does not turn his gaze away. “Uh... I think I might have a look down from over there. What about you?”
Jacob blinks and clears his throat before answering. “Yes… of course. That’s why we came here, right?”
We pack the leftovers and empty bottles in the backpack again and Jacob transfers back to the hand bike, more carefully than before. His left leg gives a feeble angry jitter when he lifts it up and over the construction and places the foot on the footrest. The way to the view point is even and the fence around it has enough space between the pickets to look through from a sitting position. We can see over all the lower hills around us, a wide green sea of soft ups and downs. Some small villages are strewn in the lower parts. There is a lake directly below us, glittering in the sun.
Jacob points to somewhere close to the lake. “Sometimes, depending on weather conditions, you can see smoke. The mountain is still burning.”
“The mountain is burning?”
I must have sounded incredulous because a smile tucks at the edge of his lips. Beautiful, full lips. “This is a volcano, we are standing on. Like most of the other hills you can see from here. All inactive, so no worries. But this one still has some fire in itself.”
The accessible hiking trail leads downwards from then on. While Jacob mostly breaks – there are hand breaks next to the handles – I have to speed up to keep up with him. But luckily the backpack is much lighter now and I have a delicious lunch in my stomach. Like that, we reach the parking lot in a little more than half an hour and without any further incidents. I cannot keep my eyes from Jacob’s back until we arrive at the car.
Jacob disassembles the bicycle wheel and transfers from the wheelchair to the open car trunk again. I pick up the chair before he can reach for it and place it behind him in the trunk while he stores the wheel. He thanks me with a nod and picks up his cane, making his way around the car. The incident earlier seems to have taken its toll and he is moving carefully and slowly, barely putting weight on his left leg as he hobbles towards the driver’s door. Midway he leans against the side of the car to rest a second.
I am long seated when Jacob heaves himself on the driver’s seat after throwing his cane in the back, his right hand grabbing the handle at the ceiling, his right leg pushing him up. His seat rises to position as soon as he puts the key in the ignition and he arranges his left leg, closes the door and fastens his seat belt.
We drive back mostly in silence, Jacob concentrates on the traffic with his brows in a tense line again and I am starting to feel tired from the walk and fight not to fall asleep. Thirty minutes into the drive my phone rings and I see Marcus' name blinking on the screen and pick up after a second of hesitation.
“Ciao, bella!” He greets me, more singing than speaking and I can see the huge beam in his face in front of me. There is clanking and music in the background. “I miss you.”
“Miss you, too.”
“When I come home, will there be a surprise for me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I would take a look into your wardrobe, if I were you, bella.”
He probably bought me the gorgeous lingerie that I had admired during our last shopping tour together, but could not afford. Excitement starts bubbling in me.
“Sure,” I purr lowly, sending a worried glance at Jacob. “Don’t get too drunk, honey.”
“I can withhold when I know the prize that is waiting for me, beautiful.”
Gosh, he knows how to talk to me.
“Okay, I’ll be waiting for you.”
“I’m dying to get out of here. See you.”
Jacob’s eyes have not left the road but if possible he has fallen even more silent than before, building it like a wall between us. I am so sorry that he is still hurting but he knew what he bargained for when we agreed on a friendship. I still feel like trash.
Jacob drops me in front of my apartment.
“I… uhm… hope you had a nice day.” His smile is tired and the ghost of pain flickers over his face before he manages to hide it.
I know better than to ask him again if he is okay, he is not, I can see that in the lingering hardness of his eyes. Instead I smile back at him through the open door. “Yes, I had. It was wonderful. Have a good evening and... take care,” I say, barely more than a whisper.
“You too.” His expression is an odd mixture of relief and regret.
I close the door and watch the Jeep until it rounds a corner, guilt pooling in my stomach.
--> Chapter 7
--> Chapter 7