"What do you say? You up for it?" he was saying.
"Up for what?" I asked.
"Now?" I said, glancing at the clock.
"What, you have plans already?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Cool. Pick you up in twenty minutes."
And then he just hung up. I put the phone back on its base, then turned, looking at myself in the mirror over my bureau. Twenty minutes, I thought. Okay.
In nineteen and a half, I'd managed to shower, throw on some clothes, and get out to my front stoop, where I was waiting when Owen pulled into the driveway. Whitney was still asleep, allowing me to forgo an explanation, which was handy since I didn't exactly have one. As I walked over to the car, Rolly, who was in the front passenger seat, pushed open his door and got out, leaving it open for me.
"You remember Rolly, right?" Owen said.
"Yeah," I said, as he nodded at me. "But you don't have to move. I can sit in back."
"It's no problem," he told me, climbing into the backseat. "Besides, I have to make sure I have all my gear for later."
"Gear?" I said as I got in, shutting the door behind me. Owen gestured for me to put on my seat belt, which I did, letting him work the hammer to get it buckled.
"For work. I've got to do a class today," Rolly explained. As I turned around, I saw he was holding the same red helmet he'd been wearing the first time I saw him. Also on the seat were several pads of all sizes: a large one that looked like something an umpire would wear, several that were tube-shaped, and some thick gloves. "It's an intermediate level. Gotta make sure I'm well covered."
"Right," I said as Owen shifted into reverse, backing out of my driveway. "So, how do you end up with a job like that?"
"Same way as most," he replied, putting the pad down. "I
answered an ad. Initially, I was just helping out answering phones and enrolling people for classes. But then one guy got a groin injury and quit, so I got promoted to attacker."
"Or demoted," Owen said. "Depending on how you look at it."
"Oh, no," Rolly told him, shaking his head. He had a really sweet face, I was noticing. Where Owen was big and broad, more the attacker style, Rolly was smaller and wiry, with bright blue eyes. "Attacking is much better than clerical work."
"It is?" I asked.
"Sure. I mean, for one, it's exciting," he said. "And another, you really get to meet people on such a personal level. There's a real bonding in someone beating the crap out of you."
I glanced over at Owen, who was switching gears with one hand and adjusting the stereo with the other. "You can look at me all you want," he said, keeping his eyes on the road. "I am not commenting on that."
"Fighting brings people together," Rolly said. "In fact, a lot of the women who take my classes come up and hug me afterwards. People connect with me. It's happened tons of times."
"But only once," Owen added, "that really mattered."
Rolly sighed. "True," he said. "Very true."
"Meaning what?" I asked.
"Rolly's in love with a girl who punched him in the face," Owen explained.
"Not the face," Rolly corrected him. "The neck."
"Apparently," Owen told me, "she has a mad right hook."
"It was impressive," Rolly agreed. "It was at this expo I worked, at the mall? We had a table, you know, and people could enter a drawing for a free class, and take a hit at me, for fun."
Owen put on his turn signal, shaking his head.
"Anyway," Rolly continued, "she comes up with some friends, and Delores—that's my boss—starts her spiel about the classes and invites them to hit me. Her friends won't do it, but she steps right up. Looks me in the eye. And wham! Right in the collarbone."
"You had your pads on, though, right?" I said.
"Of course!" he said. "I'm a professional. But still, even through the pads, you can tell when someone packs a wallop. And this girl did. Plus, she was gorgeous. Lethal combination. But before I can even say anything, she just smiles at me, says thanks, and walks away. Gone. Just like that. I never even got her name."
We were merging onto the highway now, picking up speed. "Wow," I said. "That is quite a story."
"Yeah," he said, nodding, his expression solemn. He put his hands on top of the helmet in his lap, folding them carefully. "I know."
Owen rolled down his window, letting some air in. Then he took in a deep breath. "Oh, yeah," he said. "We're almost there."
I turned around; all I could see was highway. "Where?"
"Two words," Owen said. "Double bacon."
Five minutes later, we were pulling into the parking lot of the World of Waffles, a twenty-four-hour breakfast place right off the interstate. So they like breakfast, I thought. Then the breeze shifted, and suddenly I smelled it: bacon. The scent was pungent, heavy, and inescapable.
"Oh my God," I said as we headed inside. Owen and Rolly were taking deep, full breaths on either side of me. "That is—"
"Great, I know," Owen said. "It didn't used to be like this. I mean, they had bacon, but not at this level. But then this new place opened up on the other side of the highway—"
"The Morning Cafe," Rolly said, wrinkling his nose. "So subpar. Famously soggy pancakes."
"—and they had to get competitive. So now, every day is Double Bacon Day." He stepped up, pulling the door open for me. "Great, right?"
I nodded, then stepped inside. The first thing I noticed was that the smell was stronger, if that was even possible. The second was that the room, which was small and crammed with tables and booths, was freezing.
"Oh," Owen said once he glanced over and saw I had my arms wrapped around myself. "Forgot to warn you about the cold thing. Here." He shrugged off the jacket he was wearing, handing it to me. I started to protest, but he said, "They keep it cold so people don't stay too long. Believe me, if you're chilly now, you'll be frozen in ten minutes. Take it."
I did, then slipped it on. Of course it was huge on me, the cuffs completely covering my hands. I pulled it tighter around me as we followed a tall, slim waitress whose name tag said DEANN to a booth by the window. Behind us, a woman was quietly nursing a baby, her head ducked down. On our other side, there was a couple about our age eating waffles, both in running clothes: The girl had blonde hair and an elastic around her wrist, while the guy was taller and darker, the bottom part of a tattoo just visible under his shirtsleeve.