Trey Zavala noticed a change in the air. At first, he checked the climate controls, but everything was still set at a comfortable 70 degrees. He looked at his supply of bottled water and wondered if he should offer another to his riders. Airplanes tended to dry people out and it sounded like these two were on a long flight from the UK. But when he peeked into the rearview, he saw the distance between the men had changed. When they first hopped in, they were tired, ready to nap, the tall one leaning his head on the other’s shoulder. Trey turned the music off and put in his headphones. He let them be.
Now they looked wide awake but turned away from each other looking out their respective windows. Trey had heard a conversation, but his podcast blurred all the details. He saw all the characteristics of a disagreement, or a fight, and he hoped like hell it didn’t affect his review. He checked the remaining time in the trip, not liking the thought of that silence filling the car. He pulled out an earpiece.
“We only have about 30 minutes left, but there are a few convenience stores up ahead. Would you like to stop?”
The young one answered first. “Thanks for the offer, but unless you want to stop, I’m good.” His hair stuck up all over his head and Trey sensed that the discussion had interrupted a pretty good nap. The man turned to his partner, who sighed.
“No thank you. I just want to be home.”
The road stretched out ahead, a typical Pennsylvania highway in its mediocre scenery but surprising in its lack of lane closures. There are two seasons in Pennsylvania, Trey thought to himself, “winter” and “construction.” He felt lucky to have an airport run slipping in between the two. Without much else to do but drive straight ahead, he reached for his earpiece, but stopped and looked in the mirror.
“Look, Baron. I think it could be important.” The silver-haired man looked worried, but kind, like he was making a conciliatory offer. He leaned forward but hadn’t moved closer. Trey thought his name was Sykes. He wasn’t completely sure about the accent, it was subtle, like it had been exiled.
“I know my father was a bit rash, but his heart is in the right place.”
“You have no idea what this feels like. You’ve always had that massive family.” Baron was just out of frame of the rearview, but from the direction of his voice, Trey could tell he wasn’t facing Sykes.
“That’s exactly why I want to help you,” he moved into the center of the backseat. “Let me do this for you.”
The sharpness of the reply startled Trey. The one called Baron had an easy-going nature and wouldn’t let Trey load the luggage into the SUV, even though he was bigger and the driver. He’d chalked it up to a bit of class guilt, which usually happens when the passenger isn’t born into wealth.
“You think because I didn’t have your experience that I’m lacking. You think because I didn’t have money or a permanent home that there’s something incomplete about me.”
Trey noticed the weight shift behind him and Baron’s face came into the mirror’s frame. “You seem to think I need fixing? Why?” He moved closer to Sykes, pointing a finger in his face. “I have been good enough for you up until now? What changed?”
The driver felt a bit of the shock that registered on Sykes face. The silver hair, from a distance, gave the illusion of an older man, but his kind and smooth face suggested he was much closer in age to his partner. He looked forward again, eyeing the thankfully empty road that stretched ahead.
“Never say you’re not good enough for me. You know it’s the other way around.” Sykes’s attempt to sooth his partner sounded more hurt than calming. “This is all my father’s doing.”
“Knock it off,” Baron replied and Trey looked back in time to see the man gently smack Sykes on the forehead. “Stop trying to be the black sheep of your family while wearing those clothes and spending that money.”
Trey leaned away from the rearview, hoping to hide the smirk on his face. To look at them, they seemed like a mismatched pair, like some romance trope. Sykes was elegant, obviously from money and kind in that detached way that suggested he appreciated all your work and had no intention of interfering. He was the better kind of rich folk, but still very much rich folk.
Baron looked like what Trey’s auntie called a “kept man,” coddled and catered to for his looks and companionship, but mostly for his looks. Guys that look like Baron rarely offered much conversation above, “do you mind if I take off my shirt?” His friendliness could easily be written off as someone enjoying their privilege. Yet if you listened to them together, you understood that these two were equals, maybe not in their backgrounds, but certainly their present. And, it seemed to Trey as he coasted the SUV into the exit lane, maybe this conversation is about being that way in the future.
“Let me start the search. Let me try. I don’t think you’re incomplete, but there are practical reasons to find out.”
Trey pulled off the main highway onto a two-lane road. The last part of the journey would take him through the suburbs, then farmland, then the countryside with its large homes hidden down long driveways, behind generational trees. He enjoyed the winding roads, with their sudden cow crossings and dips. It gave the driver something to do other than eavesdropping on his passengers. As the light turned green, he took another look at the couple. Sykes had his forehead on Baron’s shoulder waiting for an answer. Baron was silent. Trey drove on.
The damn kid was out of the back of the SUV and hauling the luggage before Trey got the parking brake on. He grabbed the last two bags and nearly made it to the porch steps before Baron bounded back out of the house to take them from him. “No worries guy. I love this.” He hefted the bags like they were empty. Trey’s first thought when they approached the house was that it was like a movie set, detailed but empty. The numerous turrets only enhanced the haunted feeling about the place.
“Thank you for the ride, Mr. Zavala. Would it be appropriate if I asked your supervisor for you specifically next time?”
Trey was pleased with himself and, had he been a younger man, he may have even blushed. “That would be fine, sir. I appreciate your confidence in me.”
“Please, call me Sykes.” The kindness in the man’s face couldn’t completely dispel his concern. “Most drivers completely ignore their passengers.”
Trey held his breath. He thought his curiosity wasn’t noticed or was of an acceptable level. Had he been too nosey? Had he made them uncomfortable? Why would Sykes want to request him specifically then?
“I am no better than cargo if the driver ignores me. You treated us like people. People who are having a bit of a…” he trailed off and looked down at his phone.
Trey’s confidence returned and he remembered the 20 years he had on these two. They were kids to him basically, and he couldn’t stop himself from offering some guidance.
“If you don’t mind me saying, it seems you two have a lot to discuss. And while I’m glad you liked my service today, I think talking to me is just stalling that conversation.” The tall man looked down at Trey, who, at five-eleven was no slouch. He made up for it in muscle and earnestness, his mother said. He smiled up at his former and future passenger. He took a gamble.
“Mr. Sykes, that boy seems to see you clearly. Give him the same courtesy.”
The screen door slammed open and Baron stomped out onto the porch holding a beer. He called out to them. “Whatever you’re tipping him, double it. He tried to take the luggage from me.” He held up the beer and tilted it to his forehead in the “dude salute.” Trey laughed and waved back.
“Done,” Sykes said, putting away his phone. “Have a safe drive back, Mr. Zavala, and thank you.”
Sykes walked toward the house. He stood at the bottom of the steps, looking up at his partner. A few words passed between them. Trey watched Baron’s smile fade and heard an exasperated “fine” before holding out his hand to Sykes. He suspected a tentative agreement had been reached. For the first time in a while, Trey was genuinely curious about his passengers’ lives. In his own small way, he was rooting for them.
The two men entered the house, the lights in the downstairs warming the place as much as the presence of its owners