Hailstones slapped the roof and sides of the car with sounds that would put a History major in mind of archaic stonings. Wesley Branning had dropped out of school before he could learn to understand the word 'major' in that context, but he had seen the Passion of the Christ by accident once. The thought added a morbid nausea to his already bubbling emotions.
He tugged on the seatbelt so that he could lean against the car door, then scratched his head with the hand that wasn't gripping the seatbelt. "Turn off the radio," he grumbled, audibly irritated. His head really itched. Even with one side of his face pressed against the icy window, he could hear his nails digging among skin and hair over the sounds of the insane precipitation outside.
Jeremy Barr, Wes's best friend since the tender and mutual age of what they generally agreed had been 'zero', maintained an unhealthy grip on the steering wheel and didn't move his eyes even to blink. "The game is on."
"There's always a game on."
"Not one like this."
Sighing, Wes forced himself to stop scratching. He wasn't normally prone to dandruff, but logic told him the flakes of dead skin would show up in his charcoal-esque hair like snow on the blacktop. "How much do you have riding on this one?" Sudden scalp irriation was supposed to be blamed on new shampoo, he figured, but since he still used the same baby brand of shower products he'd always used, there had to be something else causing the itch.
For all that the car wasn't actually moving, Jeremy was still keeping up the posture and small behavioral ticks that spoke as if he were driving. As soon as the storm had gotten scary enough even to peak what their mutual friend Zane jokingly called Jeremy's risk-o-meter, Jeremy had pulled over. But his fingers were still tightly wrapped around the wheel, as if he were soaking comfort out of the cracked and peeling leather.
"How much?" Wes tried again, certain that neither of them wanted to know the answer. The itch was getting worse, but he knew that if he fussed over it much more, it would either bleed or just burn the next time he took a shower. When the silence on the other side of the radio's crackling became too much yet again, he asked the question multitudinous times in quick succession.
Jeremy shifted out of his rigid position to toss an empty coffee cup at Wes's head. "Too much, okay?"
There was something brown and crusty in the cup. Wes made a face and tossed it into the backseat. "Not okay. You have to stop--"
"I don't wanna talk about this with you."
Wes sighed and unbuckled the seatbelt so he could slump properly and without choking himself. The itch had subsided a little but he could feel it migrating to a different part of his head. Nearer the back and almost on his neck. He ignored it.
Like any self-respecting man among men, Wes knew and enjoyed sports. Playing them, anyhow. He didn't have the patience or fanaticism to enjoy the spectator end. But Jeremy had it like a sickness, and took it further by betting on the games. Small bets on small games, mostly, but every time the Superbowl or worse, the playoffs, rolled around, things like this happened.
"Could you at least say which team you want to win? I could... I dunno, pray or something." Zane's influence, there. Wes had never been the praying kind before becoming friends with Zane. Those things sounded virutous and uplifting when Zane said them, but Wes suspected that even if he used the same words, they would come out wrong.
Apparently it didn't matter how anything came out. Jeremy had abandoned the steering wheel entirely and pushed his chair back to the limit. It was a small car, and he had long legs, but with the driver's seat pushed back flush against the backseat, he was able to put his feet up on the dash. For a moment it seemed he would be content to listen to the announcer's incessant puns, but then he looked over at Wes and gave him a grim smile. "Bad luck."
Wes tried to keep his face from twisting into a confused frown. Feeling certain he'd failed straight off, he turned to look down at his calloused fingers and pick at the filth of dirt and dead skin under his nails. "Praying is bad luck...?"
The sharp laugh tore through a level of stubborn silence in the quiet din, making Wes look up suddenly at his friend. Jeremy slid his legs off the dashboard and held his stomach, still laughing, although it was drifting off into a painful-sounding cough. A quick check with the radio and Wes sighed through a commercial for tampons. Commercials meant that Jeremy would be himself for the duration.
Clinging to that fact, Wes forced the jingles and testimonials into white noise, with some difficulty, and focused on his friend's face. There had been creases in Jeremy's forehead when he'd been coughing, but now that it had settled into a wheeze, they mapped his skin like faded lines on an atlas. A pale, crack-thin scar from an old bar fight cut across one of the lines over his eye, seeming to waver into surreal life as Jeremy's normally expressive face went into overdrive.
"It seemed like a sure thing at the time..." He was working his fingers feverishly, futzing with his over-burdened keyring as if he were trying to find a particular one of them. The storm raged on like a biblical soundtrack set to Noah; Wes couldn't imagine why Jeremy would want any of his keys.
He probably just needed a cigarette. Last week Zane's girlfriend Celesse had come home with a true horror story about secondhand smoke and cancer. Impressionable as anything, Jeremy hadn't quit, but had refused to smoke unless he was completely alone. And since he'd been spending the entire day with Wes... "I thought you said you didn't believe in sure things."
"I thought you didn't pray."
"People change." It was just a fashionable thing to say. Wes meant nothing by it. He looked out the window only to be met with gray metamorphosing into ever-moving blobs of clear rainbows. Never mind that it was the middle of the afternoon, the sun had obviously admitted defeat.
The nasally voice of the sports announcer returned to the atmosphere and Wes kept his gaze on the gloomy windowpane. It had been a while since he'd had a chance to play baseball, but it wasn't like he could forget the rules. One of the teams was taking a brutal beating, and it was a fair guess that it was the one Jeremy needed to win.
Which meant Wes would have to pull double shifts. He picked at the artfully knotted collection of hemp and brown beads on his wrist, contemplating. He was already working most of the week, taking whatever jobs he could get, but with the current trend of freezing wet weather, things were pretty limited. People only needed so many basements. The best he could hope for would be a flood of people needing roofers when the rain stopped. Flood. He pinched himself for the unintentional pun.
After glancing at Jeremy long enough to see him chewing on his already much-abused thumbnail, Wes pressed a slender hand to the window's tempered glass. The blues and purples of his bruised forefingers contrasted with the world's grayness in a way that made him think of finger paints.
A joyous shout went up from Jeremy's side of the car, cutting through a just-as-sudden shot of lightning. Through the hearing equivalent of a squint, Wes realized that the underdog team's last batter had hit a grand slam. The score was still against them, but it was a sizeable change in luck for Jeremy.
It showed, because the next break for commercials wrought what Wes could only describe as a chair dance. "See! A sure thing."
Wes focused his attention on his injured hand, counting the spots of red where blood hadn't yet scabbed over. The itch was getting worse. He wondered if it was psychological. An invisible rash that broke out whenever he sensed his best friend was careening towards a new wall.
That would probably sound even dumber out loud, so he kept it to himself and prayed that the game would be over soon.
"Do you want to go find some ice for your hand?"
Gambler's euphoria, Wes thought bitterly to himself. Jeremy's team was winning, so he was invincible. If the weather didn't cause them to crash, then the first bad turn the game took would do it. Best not to tell Jeremy that, though. Wes shook his head. "The glass is cold enough."
He was smart enough and skilled enough that he didn't often get hurt on a job, but this one had been unavoidable. The day before, he'd been behind the wrong guy on a ladder. A guy named Martinez who weighed as much as a house and had big feet. Wes still felt continuous gratitude that he had good lungs and a powerful voice.
Jeremy was still giving him a worried look, so Wes took his hand off of the window and let it lie limply in his lap. There to mingle with the white stains of primer on his shirt. Between the radio and the rain, and even the stubborn layer of silence, Wes was finding it hard to think. If he could have, he would have opened the door and walked home, leaving Jeremy with his wins and losses. They weren't that far from the apartment, and he could have used the time to clear his head.
The sound of the car starting nearly gave him a heart attack. "What are you doing?"
"Getting you home. This storm isn't gonna get much better, and if I know Celesse, she's probably already gone upstairs to beat our door down."
In spite of her own reputation and the inevitable traits shared among bartenders the globe over, Celesse was kind and easily worried, especially about Zane and the two of them. Wes gripped the affectionately named "Save Me God" bar screwed to the car roof and tried not to give in to anxiety. "What about the game?"
Jeremy chuckled as he warred with the rain. The hail had stopped, but there was so much water on the ground that Wes could feel it sloshing under his feet, right through the metal and whatever else was down there. "I can sit in the parking lot just as easily as I can sit here."
That was true. But it was a little disheartening. Wes gripped the bar tighter as they swerved past an eighteen-wheeler. It was a good thing that he didn't have asthma, he told himself. Sad that it wasn't the first time he'd told himself that.
Streaks of water streamed across the window, while the game picked up a bit. Wes found himself actually listening now that he knew which team to actually care about. The grand slam had apparently been the catalyst for a 180 degree turnabout. They were only one run behind, and Jeremy was getting complacent. Wes scratched his head for a moment before telling himself to cut it out.
The gray world changed to include blobby new colors, which, according to the slightly clearer windshield, meant that they'd reached the apartment complex. Jeremy parked in their regular spot and turned the key, but didn't take it out of the ignition. His thumb was back in his mouth, and Wes was torn between wanting to grab it or just wondering if Jeremy would worry it into bleeding.
Wes didn't stay to find out or grab anything. They were in the parking lot, the car was no longer moving, and the itching was too much to just ignore. He wanted a shower.