“Shit.” He pulled onto the shoulder and killed the engine. Turning on the cautions, he climbed out and stepped around to the right front tire. Ripped to shreds.
He checked his watch. Seven thirty. Too early to call the office, but AAA might get him going again. He pulled out his phone and thumbed the power button.
Nothing. He held it down, but the screen stubbornly remained blank.
“Of course.” He tossed it in the passenger window. “Shit.”
The road was desolate, save for a rundown gas station and the remnants of a trailer park, its wretched speed bumps the one intact relic. The only sign of life was a blue pickup sitting in the station’s lot surrounded by potholes. It had a few dings, but it looked otherwise well maintained.
Jake approached the pickup slowly, craning his neck to see inside. A pile of old coats covered the passenger seat, but it looked unoccupied. He spotted a full-size tire mounted just behind the passenger door.
He glanced around. The lot was abandoned. The street was more or less unused, save for the odd commuter trying to shave a few minutes off his drive. He was alone.
Satisfied, he peered into the bed in search of a jack and tire iron, but it was empty. Another furtive glance, then he tried the passenger door. It swung open, and the pile of coats billowed out, forcing Jake back. He tripped and landed hard as it emerged and raised to its full height.
A hand appeared from beneath what was actually a single coat and reached towards Jake. It belonged to a large man in a larger coat. A huge smile beamed out from under a fedora.
“Didn’t mean to scare ya, Friend.” The deep, honeyed voice rattled in Jake’s chest. “I thought you were another of those damn kids out to boost Blue.”
Jake hesitated, then took the Coat’s hand, which was more like a bear’s paw. The Coat hoisted Jake to his feet. “No. Definitely not. I actually thought this vehicle was abandoned and was going to take the tire for my Benz.”
The Coat followed Jake’s gaze across the street. When he turned back, his grin was even wider. “So it’s a tire you’d be needing, is it?”
“Yeah, that speed bump ripped one of mine to shreds.” He motioned to the tire. “I’m not even sure it’s the right size, but--”
“Oh, it’ll fit. Don’t worry ‘bout that.”
“That would be fantastic.” He reached for his wallet. “How much do you want for it?”
The Coat laughed a full-throated laugh. “Friend, your money’s no good to me. If the tire’s what’s needed, it’s yours.”
Jake slowly returned his wallet. “There must be something you want.”
The Coat turned and leaned into the truck. “Oh, I do. But it won’t cost you nothin’ but time.” He produced a jack and a tire iron, then kicked the door shut with a large foot.
Glancing at the tire iron, Jake fought the urge to step back. “If it won’t cost me anything, what do you want?”
“Well, some time down the road, you’re probably gonna need something again.” He shrugged as though he were delivering an unfortunate but obvious truth. “Happens to all of us. But next time it happens to you, I want you to call me.” He started to remove the tire from its mount.
He glanced over his shoulder. “So I can come help, a’course.”
Jake’s brow furrowed. His gut was telling him to just go find a pay phone and call AAA, but something kept him where he was.
“We got a deal, friend?” The Coat was holding the tire like it weighed not a thing.
“So you’re lending me this--”
“Giving me this tire, and all you want is to do another favor some time in the future?”
The Coat nodded.
Jake checked his watch. Seven forty-three. “Deal. Can you put the tire on for me?”
The Coat’s grin grew wider. “Look, another favor already!”
“Looks like it.”
“All I ask in return is--”
The Coat winked. “But this one, you’re gonna do for me.”
Jake hesitated. “And that would be?”
Dropping the tire, the Coat spread his arms. “All you gotta do is set me free.”
“Just tell me I’m free, and I’ll be on my way.”
“If you put that tire on in less than five minutes, I’ll tell you anything.”
He picked up the tire and started across the road. “Deal. Two for you ‘n one for me.”
Jake’s gut was screaming now, but he followed him over. When the Coat was finished, Jake checked his watch. Seven forty-seven.
“All finished, Friend.”
“Great. That was fast.” He checked out the tire, then looked back to the Coat whose grin engulfed his whole face. “Oh. Uh, now?”
The Coat raised his paws, suddenly ambivalent. “Only if ya want to, friend. Gotta be your choice.”
Jake shook his head and pulled out his keys. “Whatever. You’re free then.”
The man grinned, then removed his coat and hat. He helped Jake into the coat and placed the hat on his head. Humoring him, Jake appraised his reflection in the tinted window. Something didn’t seem right, but his mind was cloudy. He tried to pick out a clear thought, but they escaped him. The strange man clapped him on the shoulder and grinned. The clothes fit surprisingly well.
Taking the keys, the man walked around to the driver’s side. Jake followed him, his brow furrowed. “What’s happening?”
He winked again, then got into the car and started the engine. “Just remember, no one will set you free after one wish, so get ‘em to agree to two ‘fore you do the first.”
The door shut, and the Benz pulled away.
The moonlight bathed the gas station in silver. The road was empty, but an engine purred somewhere in the dark. Inside a dusty, beat-up blue pickup, a man in a dusty coat stirred. He climbed out and leaned against the hood.
Headlights soon appeared around the corner, and a car went too fast over a speed bump. It pulled over with that familiar dubdubdub sound. The driver got out and swore.
A voice called across the street. “Looks like you need a favor, Mister.”
The man looked towards the pickup. He could just make out in the moonlight where the voice had come from and started towards it.
Jake was grinning.
Written by: Michael Goldstein
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart