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Always the Groomsman by Ruebins, Raleigh (1)

1

Zane

The first hour of any road trip feels like freedom.

It’s you and the open road. You’re driving seventy miles an hour away from your life, your routine, your problems, your disappointments. There’s nothing ahead but pavement. Possibility. Every dumb cliché you can imagine actually feels true.

And for once, you don’t think about your goddamn ex-boyfriend. You don’t think about Michael and how great his life probably is now that he’s dumped you for good.

At least that’s how it felt for me early this morning. The sun was just peeking over the horizon ahead as I left Los Angeles behind. I’d made the ultimate escape. I’d never been so glad to leave my beloved city.

My foot sank onto the well-worn pedal of my Jeep as I sped away from the land of celebrities and wannabes and smog, starting the long, slow climb into the open mountains east of the city. Every mile I put between me and LA felt like a straightjacket coming a little looser. The traffic thinned as I drove until I was on a long highway with no one but occasional other road-trippers and eighteen-wheelers and tumbleweeds.

I could start anew on this trip. Find myself again, whatever that meant. Hell, maybe I could even get laid, though that seemed like a far-flung dream. More likely I’d remain on my own.

Alone. It wasn’t a feeling I was used to, and it wasn’t a feeling I knew how to navigate. When a ten-year relationship disintegrates, being alone feels like being an alien in your own life.

But today, safe in my Jeep speeding along the highway, I finally felt the first shred of hope in what being alone could mean. I was finally leaving Michael behind. Leaving behind the last month of alcohol-soaked self-pity and the raw ache that wouldn’t leave my chest. Leaving behind the memory of the night he’d come home, twenty-six days ago now, to tell me that it was really, finally over between us. Leaving behind the stares of sympathy I’d gotten all month from my coworkers—the looks that said, “I’m sorry, Zane. So sorry you couldn’t make things work.

And for those first few glorious hours, as I drove east toward the sunrise, I didn’t think about any of it.

* * *

Of course, now, in the fourth hour of the road trip, it all came crashing down.

I was crossing over the Nevada border, only about an hour away from Las Vegas. My air conditioning struggled at its highest setting, heat baking through the windows. The cubes in my iced coffee had long since turned to water. I’d exhausted the road trip playlist I made, but I’d be damned if I was going to be alone in quiet with my own thoughts. So I brushed a film of dust off the car radio and switched it on. Tinny static filled the air, and as I flipped through, I only came across the occasional worship channel or a fuzzy station playing songs from the sixties.

But then one channel came through, loud and clear. It was 95.3, a number I noted because it was ten degrees lower than the temperature outside.

And playing on my speakers, without a hint of static, was Michael’s voice. That sweet, crooning voice, singing a song I’d been in the room for when he wrote. A song I hadn’t heard in at least two years.

That song may as well have been a huge iron fist, reaching out and grabbing me by the front of my shirt, gripping and pulling me straight back to Los Angeles. Back to Michael, back to the memories of how good it had once been—the way he’d sigh just a little when he kissed me, how we’d laugh together under the covers at midnight, and how we’d planned to build a life together—and how rotten it had ended up. With me, sitting on the floor of our room in silence, listening to Michael list the reasons I was wrong for him. I was too boring, too predictable. I wasn’t the person he thought I was ten years ago.

It had been silly of me to think he’d be happy marrying me someday, maybe even having kids one day, when in the end he just wanted variety.

I still knew every word to the stupid song, of course.

Baby, you know that I’ve been searching

On an endless road, only heading toward you

Didn’t know that up ahead you waited

Walked right into your arms, and I knew

Michael wasn’t the biggest country artist in the world—hell, he wasn’t even that well known in the local circles he played in. But he did have this one minor hit, “I’m Home,” a song that had made it to the low twenties on the Hot 100 Country Music Charts three years ago.

At the time, he’d told me he’d written the song about me.

I wasn’t alone in the car anymore. I was lost in my memory. I whacked my palm against the radio button, filling the car with silence. My hands gripped against the wheel so hard my knuckles hurt. I tried to focus only on the road, but the song played over and over again in my head. The highway started to come in and out of focus, miles of desert and dust stretching out on either side, the piercing blue of the cloudless sky, the sun, the sun, the relentless fucking bright sun—I couldn’t tell if my eyes were watering from the light or if I was really raw enough to be crying right now, just because of this. But something had unraveled in me. I instantly felt out of control again, like this whole trip didn’t matter, that it wasn’t a reset button, that I may as well veer off the road into the desert and never come back again—never talk to anyone again—

A cold, wet nose poked at the skin of my forearm, snapping me from my trance. I jumped at the touch, gasping, my eyes shooting wide.

“Jelly,” I said, remembering all at once I was very much not alone. My heart raced as I looked down at the little pug next to me, staring up at me with her googly wide eyes. The dog—my dog—had been sleeping quietly on the passenger seat for the last three hours. Her gaze was sidelong, as if she knew I’d been falling into a spiral, and she was there to say, “Get over it, Zane.”

Jelly had always been disinterested in me. Michael and I had rescued her from the shelter together last year, but she’d really always liked him better. He was the one she’d always run to when we came home, and his lap was always the place Jelly wanted to sit. But Jelly was just mine now, and I hadn’t gotten used to it. Michael’s posh new apartment didn’t allow dogs—“and besides,” Michael had told me on the day he moved out, “you need someone, Zane. You… need a companion more than I do, right now.”

I would have wanted to slap him if I hadn’t been so dumbfounded and numb. He thought I needed a companion, and yet he was leaving?

Jelly made a sound somewhere between a snort and a whine and reached out to push her paw against my thigh.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “Next rest stop, I’ll pull over, girl.” She panted, eyes darting around, and turned around in circles before lying back down on the seat. I hadn’t stopped once on the trip so far, and my gas tank was getting low. I was going to be on the road for at least another nine hours.

After about three miles and ten more whimpers from Jelly, I finally came to the next rest stop and pulled the Jeep over onto the dirt road.

Stepping outside felt like walking right into an oven. Instantly my T-shirt felt like too much, cloying against my skin. But at least being outside with the sound of cars whipping past at eighty miles per hour on the highway drowned out the sound of Michael’s voice in my head.

I could do this. I could think about something other than him for the first time all month. That was why I’d taken this dumb road trip, anyway. Well, that, and the fact that I had to get to Idaho somehow, and taking Jelly on a plane would have been a challenge, to say the least.

Jelly didn’t seem to mind the heat outside, though, bounding away from me as far as her leash would let her. As I led her over to a small dirt clearing away from the bathrooms, I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

An alert flashed on the screen: 6 New Messages. How was that possible?

I opened the thread of texts, all from one unknown number, furrowing my brow as I read.

>>UNKNOWN: Hi Jeffrey! Or is it Zane? I know Colby calls you Zane, but I don’t know if that’s just for your best friends?

>>UNKNOWN: Anyway, I just wanted to introduce myself. My name is Sebastian, and I’m so excited to get to know you and the other groomsmen. I have a lot of fun things planned for all four of us. It’s my first time being a groomsman, and I couldn’t be more excited!

I took a deep breath in as I scrolled through the barrage of messages. Already I felt a pit growing at the bottom of my stomach. I was going to have to spend the next three weeks with… this person?

>>UNKNOWN: Do you prefer hiking or kayaking? And what’s your favorite summer cocktail?

>>UNKNOWN: We can talk more tomorrow night. Again, can’t wait to meet you, Jeffrey—or Zane.

>>UNKNOWN: Oh, before I forget: did you see the e-mail survey I sent out last Wednesday? Seems like all the other groomsmen have done it, but still waiting for your response. Just a couple questions about the bachelor party.

>>UNKNOWN: Thank you. :-)

I stuffed my phone back into my pocket, not bothering to respond. I hadn’t even met this Sebastian guy, but already he seemed like some sort of hummingbird in human form. A hummingbird that had taken a bath in concentrated, caffeinated adrenaline.

This was going to be bad.

* * *

I guess I should back up a little bit.

The whole reason for this road trip was that I was a groomsman in the wedding of one of my best buddies from college, Colby Danison. He was marrying his longtime girlfriend, Erica, an incredible woman who had turned a passion for winter sports into a career teaching people how to ski. If you took the latest L.L. Bean winter catalog and opened it to any random page, the smiling models with perfect hair and perfect teeth would give you the general idea of what Colby and Erica looked like. They had fallen in love while skiing and later started their own ski shop together, a modern fairy tale if I’d ever heard one. Colby had always had a big heart and more inheritance money than he knew what to do with, and now he was living the dream and marrying the love of his life.

It was great. It was beautiful. It was going to be a union of two of my favorite people, and sure, yeah, I was happy for them.

But why—God, why—did they choose to have their wedding in Podunk, Idaho? I mean, I knew why. It was because Erica was from Podunk, Idaho, and loved the skiing around Podunk, Idaho, and she had somehow convinced Colby to move there a few years ago and make everyone come out to their wedding there this month.

And that meant that I had to go to Podunk. Or, more accurately, Ellisville, Idaho, a tourist town of about ten thousand people, or so I’d heard. It was tucked away in the Rocky Mountains, miles away from any city, and lightyears away from anywhere I’d ever want to be.

But… I cared about Colby, and I cared about his wedding, and I had to get out of Los Angeles. I was set to take a flight, but at the last minute, Colby had convinced me to make the road trip out. He’d said I “needed it.” Seemed like everyone in the world knew what I needed right now better than I did.

The wedding was going to be the biggest wedding Podunk—Ellisville—had ever seen. Colby and Erica both had Rolodexes full of well-connected family and friends, and no one was going to miss their wedding. I had joked that the population of the town was going to double overnight.

I was less excited about the wedding itself, though. When you’ve been to countless weddings in your adult life, so many weddings that they’d begun to blur together, they start to wear thin. Each one seemed like a patchwork of the last, the same quotes and decorations and cake flavors and crying mothers.

And I had been a groomsman in nine weddings. I’m not antisocial, but I would rather be at home with a glass of whiskey than ever have to participate in another group activity. But somehow, I’d ended up a groomsman, again and again. The problem was that I was a reliable person, and everyone seemed to think that meant I’d be a good groomsman. I’d done it for my cousins, for my older sister, for my friends, and even for a coworker.

And now, I was here on a road trip to Idaho, with yet another suit hanging in the back of my car.

This tenth one was going to be the last.

I’d had enough. And all of these text messages from Mr. Hummingbird Who Swam in a Bath of Red Bull were a bad omen about what the next three weeks of my life were going to be.

I could feel the harsh, dry heat of the sun on my back as Jelly finished outside. I headed back over to the Jeep, red-brown dust kicking up under my feet with every step. I grabbed a small plastic bowl from the back seat and filled it with water, setting it on the ground. Jelly lapped it up sloppily and joyously.

But a moment later, she was tugging on the leash again. She pointed herself in the direction of an RV trailer that had parked nearby. A group of about eight joyful twentysomethings had come pouring out of it, laughing and shouting. A young man and woman leaned against its side, embracing each other, gazing at one another like they were in an old movie. They kissed each other, and that’s when Jelly positively lost it.

She barked louder than I even knew was possible for a twenty-pound dog, slobbering everywhere and pulling the leash so hard my wrist got a contact burn.

“Jesus—I’m sorry,” I called over to the couple, trying to give them a polite smile. “Come on, Jell—” I said under my breath, reaching down to pick her up. It only seemed to egg her on further. She squirmed and wrestled in my arms, still barking and grunting.

“Aww!” the woman cried out, coming over toward us. “Your dog is so cute!”

Jelly was wagging her entire body. Seeing someone other than me was probably the most exciting thing she’d ever experienced.

“She’s sweet,” I said. “I’m sorry again—she only barks at people she likes. I promise it’s a good thing. She’s quiet as a mouse with me.”

The woman laughed, reaching out to rub Jelly around the neck. “She sure knows how to make a friend,” she said.

“I could learn from her,” I said.

It was supposed to be a joke, but the look the woman gave me was somewhere between pity and genuine concern. She must have been ten years younger than me—twenty-five, twenty-six at most—and yet I suddenly got a sense she felt sorry for me.

Could she tell that minutes ago, I’d been spiraling, moved to tears in my hot car just because of a song? I looked over at the rest of the people, all wearing sunglasses, chatting and laughing, a pop song blaring from the speakers in their RV.

My life used to be like that. I’d had so many friends, so much endless energy, so much hope. How the hell had I gotten here?

“Well, have a good one,” she said, crossing back over to the RV. I picked Jelly up and carried her back to the passenger seat of the Jeep. She looked longingly out the window, whining softly, paying no attention to me as I hopped into the driver’s side. I turned on the car, starting the air conditioning back up, but didn’t put the car in drive.

I was hit with a wave of guilt. Part of the reason that Michael had left—maybe the most important reason—was that I didn’t do enough. He always wanted to go out to the newest bar, restaurant, club, join a beer brewing class, join a photography club.

And I’d never done enough. I tried, but I couldn’t be what Michael needed. On nights where I’d be cozy in bed with a book, he wanted to be out at a club. Maybe I had deserved it when he’d called me an old man.

Something had to change. Or I really could end up alone for the rest of my life, a shadow of what I used to be.

I took a deep breath, pulling out my phone again.

“Fine,” I said out loud, and Jelly turned to give me a cursory glance. “I won’t be an asshole.”

The rest stop afforded me one bar of cell service and enough internet connection that I was able to load my email in about three minutes. I opened the survey the Hummingbird—Sebastian—had sent out, and I answered every silly question on there, each page taking another minute to load. They were all superfluous questions about the bachelor party and wedding, down to which drinks to buy and what the tone of his wedding speech should be—“funny, quirky, heartfelt, playful, or a mixture of all the above?”

Where was the “I don’t care” option when I needed it?

Finally, I opened my text messages and replied to him.

>>ZANE: Hello, Sebastian. Will be seeing you tomorrow night. I did the survey. And please, call me Zane. The full name is Jeffrey Milzane, but no one calls me that. Thanks.

It was as polite as I could muster. I let out a long breath, surprised at the instant wash of relief sending the text message gave me.

I had done something. I had taken a step. It was something most people would find enormously easy, but when all I wanted to do was shy away from social activities, responding to him had seemed enormous.

I was sliding my phone back into my pocket when it buzzed again. When I checked the screen, I saw that it was Sebastian.

Already?” I said. How on Earth did anyone send a text message that quickly? I opened my messages again and saw that it was taking forever to load, though. Had he written me some sort of essay in the last thirty seconds?

But then an image flashed up on the screen, and I realized why it had taken so long. With the cell service I had out here, I was amazed the photo had arrived at all.

My eyes were glued to the screen as I saw what he had sent me. It was a picture he’d taken of himself, smiling and giving me a thumbs-up. I was stunned.

That’s what he looked like?

The guy looked like a damn angel—an annoying one, of course, but it was undeniable. I almost wanted to call him pretty. His light hair was in a perfect swoop, his cheekbones prominent. His gaze was soft, and he almost looked sweet—not at all the sort of hyperactive, juvenile person like I would have assumed.

His picture gave me a sense of calm, which I couldn’t have ever expected.

And he was not at all who I would have expected to live in Ellisville, Idaho. He’d have seemed more at home in San Francisco. He looked… polished. Distinguished. I was still nine hours away from Idaho, and already I felt like I needed to wash my face and change my shirt to a nicer one before meeting him.

When I looked up and realized the RV of twentysomethings was already driving away, I knew I’d been staring at my phone longer than I should have been. I slipped it away and put the car in drive, heading back out onto the long freeway.

It was hours later, after arriving in Idaho, that I realized I didn’t even think about Michael once after leaving the rest stop.

* * *

I was beyond exhausted when I got to the small lodge Colby had recommended I stay in for the next three weeks. It was… basic, though I’m sure most people would have called it charming. Everything was wooden. The building was only two stories high, and there were framed pictures of snow-capped mountains on seemingly every wall.

When I asked the weathered older woman at the front desk if it was really all right for Jelly to stay in the hotel room with me, she gave me a quizzical look.

“Of course, why wouldn’t it be?” she said, her voice more like a croak. “Hell, we had someone bring their pet pig here last month.”

“Wow,” I replied. “Hope that pig wasn’t staying in the room I’ll be in.”

“No, but I can switch you to that room if you’d like, sir.”

I stared at her. She kept a straight face for a solid five seconds before winking at me, a thin smirk spreading over her face.

“Do as you please, Mr. Milzane. As long as your pup doesn’t make a mess, everything is fine. Welcome to Ellisville.” She slid over a key—an actual, physical key—to my room, number 203.

The room was unremarkable—mainly consisting of just a wooden chair, a wooden bed frame, and an old boxy TV set—but it didn’t matter. All I wanted was a place to sleep.

And as soon as my body sank into the plush bed, I realized it could have been made out of actual hay and I wouldn’t have cared. It felt lush to finally be horizontal.

The image of the open road was still emblazoned on my mind’s eye after seeing it for fourteen straight hours. But as I drifted off, a strange, unfamiliar image kept floating through my brain.

It was Sebastian’s face. His annoying, and somehow comforting, silly picture that he’d sent for no reason.

It was the only face other than Michael’s that my brain had been able to focus on in weeks.