THE GAS gauge on Bellamy Alexander’s hand-me-down Chevy Malibu had been broken for years. Sometime between his brother getting married and passing it off to his sister and his sister driving it back to college for her senior year, the gauge gave up the ghost, and no one had told their mother, so it had never gotten fixed. Bell knew that—had known it since he borrowed it from Emily and got stranded during rush hour when he thought he had half a tank. That sort of thing only needed to happen to Bell once to make an impression.
Or so he thought.
When the car sputtered to a halt, he didn’t even know what town he was in. He didn’t have a map and he hadn’t been paying attention. He’d just gotten in his car and pointed it east, and now here he was, somewhere in the foothills of the Appalachians.
More specifically, apparently, he was at Antonio’s Pizza—or more accurately in the parking space outside Antonio’s Pizza, which sat on a moderately busy street in what otherwise seemed a quiet town. Bell was lucky: he’d been parallel parking, so he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of blocking traffic. He simply put the car in neutral, opened his door, and gave it a little shove to coax it the last few inches into the space.
When he turned off the highway, he’d only been thinking about lunch. When he signaled to pull into the parking spot, he was thinking about pizza.
He looked at the Help Wanted sign in the front window and thought his parents didn’t believe in fate. “A real man makes his own destiny,” Bell’s father always said.
Bell didn’t see why a real man couldn’t take a hint. But first, pizza.
Inside, Antonio’s featured a few booths with cracking vinyl, a long, polished bar top starring six beer taps and many a condensation ring, and a smell that reminded Bell he’d only eaten a banana and half a stale granola bar for breakfast. Behind the counter, a woman in her midtwenties was drawing a beer for a fiftysomething guy in a plaid shirt and a trucker hat. The woman smiled at Bell. “Welcome to Antonio’s. Have a seat wherever and I’ll be right with you!”
Bell figured she was the one to talk to about employment, so he sat at the corner of the bar, a few seats away from any other customer, and scanned the laminated menu taped to the surface. When the woman approached a moment later, she smiled again. “I’m Jenny. What can I get you?”
Bell could play it cool. The past two years had taught him more than he ever wanted to know about playing “the game.” But he’d quit because it turned out he hated the rat race, hated the game, hated nineteen-hour workdays and lemon cleanses and bullshit. “I’d like the calzone with mushrooms and peppers, a pint of whatever local brew you have on tap, and the job you have advertised in the window, but I’ll settle for the first two.”
Jenny studied him for a moment. Bell knew what he looked like. He’d banished his work shirts to the backseat of his car, so he was wearing a ratty polo from his college days, a pair of shorts that could use a wash, and the flip-flops his mother always told him not to drive in. He’d showered in the motel that morning, but he hadn’t bothered with gel because he planned to be in the car all day anyway. And he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, not that he had much to shave in the first place. “Let’s see your license,” Jenny said finally and held out her hand.
Bell dug in his pocket. “You’re carding me?” he asked incredulously. He knew he had a baby face, but—
“I’m screening your job application,” Jenny said as he handed over his ID. He’d had to renew his license a few years before, so instead of a skinny, pimple-faced teenager, the photo showed him almost as he was—blond, high cheekbones, deep-set blue eyes. In the picture he was pale except for the dark circles, because he’d been up until two working the entire week before. Now, after a few days with real sleep and normal exposure to the sun, he actually had a pretty good tan. “The job’s for a delivery driver.”
“Oh.” Bell probably should have asked before he said he wanted the job. Well, it was too late to withdraw his interest, but he certainly wasn’t going to offer a résumé filled with fancy useless internships and two years as a junior consultant.
“This says you live in Rhode Island,” Jenny said and handed his license back. “Hell of a commute.”
“I’m new in town,” Bell said earnestly, pulling his most sincere good-citizen face.
Apparently not fooled, Jenny snorted. “I bet you are.” Then she shook her head. “Job’s Monday to Thursday, noon till ten. Might send you home early if it’s slow, and it can be slow during the week. Weekend shifts as needed, but we have a guy, he has seniority for the busier days. Pay’s minimum wage plus tips.”
“Wow, you’re really selling this,” Bell said admiringly. He wondered how many college kids had applied and then run out the door after this spiel.
Jenny grinned a shark’s grin. “I hate wasting time.”
Bell could respect that. And truth be told, at least for the time being, he needed occupation more than he needed money. “What happened to your last delivery guy? He find a better job?”
“On that salary!” Bell whistled. “How’d he manage it?”
“He was eighty-seven.”
Still, Bell needed a reason to stick around someplace or he was going to drive off the edge of the world. “When can I start?”
Jenny skipped the beer and brought him his calzone to go.
BELL’S FIRST delivery was a small pizza with mushrooms, peppers, and Italian sausage. Jenny handed him the keys to the Volkswagen Rabbit parked out back, smirked, and clapped him on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
The Rabbit didn’t have GPS, so Bell put the warming bag on the front seat and plugged the address into his phone.
Then he frowned, sighed, and got out of the car.
25A Main Street West, read Jenny’s precise looping handwriting. Bell looked at the front of Antonio’s: 24 Main Street West.
When traffic cleared, he crossed the street.
25 was a two-story building with dusty front windows. A big sign above the door proclaimed it to be the home of Good Wood—or actually Good Wood Furniture, but furniture was written in small letters underneath the main legend.
Bell raised his hand to knock and then stopped himself. Did you knock on a business’s door to deliver a pizza? He didn’t see a sign saying Open, but there wasn’t one saying Closed either, so he tried the door. Chimes tinkled when he opened it—real ones, not an automated buzzer. He looked over his shoulder to see a cluster of small, copper-colored bells hanging from a piece of twine over the doorway. It was an oddly homey touch, and as Bell entered the room, he saw it was far from the only one.
Good Wood didn’t look anything like the sleek high-end furniture stores near his former office. There wasn’t a hint of chrome or shiny lacquer, but not surprisingly, there was a lot of wood. The space was full almost to the point of being cluttered with all kinds of furniture—dining sets with long or round tables and matching chairs, head and footboards for beds, dressers and armoires. Some of the pieces were definitely antiques or at least made to look that way, heavy and ornately carved, but others were smooth and modern-looking, with simple lines and sinuous curves. Bell had never thought much about furniture other than whether it kept his stuff or his ass off the floor, but the pieces were really something.
A flash of movement caught the corner of his eye, so Bell turned around to see. His own reflection stared back at him from a mirror set in a large, ornate frame. He looked ridiculous standing in his slightly grubby clothes, surrounded by custom furniture, holding a pizza box.
Which was what he was doing there. Not gawking, but delivering pizza. Only no one had come out when the bells rang, so there was no one to give the pizza to.
Bell set the box down on the least-cluttered part of the counter—dark wood polished to a gleaming shine—and looked at the curtained doorway behind. He cleared his throat and rapped on the counter a few times, but before he could say anything, he heard a voice from behind the curtain.
“Sorry! Hands are a bit full, but you can leave it on the counter, Fred. Money’s under the ashtray.”
Bell looked down, and sure enough, a foot or so down the counter was a ceramic ashtray full of odds and ends. Thankfully they didn’t include cigarette butts. The corners of a few folded bills stuck out from underneath. Either the guy was really trusting or small-town living was even more different from the city than he thought.
“But what if I’m not Fred?” Bell reached for the bills, but before he could tug them free, he heard a thunk from behind the curtain and then a few coughs. “You okay?”
“Fine,” his customer said as he came through the curtain. He was a shade shorter than Bell’s six-one and seemed to be mostly yellow, until Bell realized that was sawdust and woodchips. Black plastic glasses framed kind blue eyes, and a set of safety glasses pushed up on his head made his hair stick up everywhere. He wiped his hands with a mostly clean towel as he moved toward the counter. “Sanding makes dust. Where’s Fred?”
“I don’t know,” Bell said, trying not to stare at the guy’s forearms. “Jenny took away my beer and gave me the keys to the Rabbit, along with your pizza, delivery of which did not actually involve driving. But all she said was that there was someone who gets priority for weekends. I assume that’s Fred.”
“Yep. Fred’s the young guy. He’s in his sixties.”
“I think I can beat that,” Bell said and held out his hand, wondering if he could ask why someone across the street from a pizza place would bother with delivery. “I’m Bell, by the way. Nice place.”
“Chris McGregor—and that’s kind of you, but it’s a mess and I know it.” He shook Bell’s hand. He had nice hands, big and warm and calloused. “You up at the college or something? You’re new around here if you don’t know Fred.”
“Nope, just running away from home. I stopped for lunch and got a job instead.” Bell frowned, suddenly sidetracked. “Hey, is Fred why the Rabbit smells like Icy Hot?”
Chris laughed as he leaned against the counter, arms crossed. Bell didn’t know whether to look at his laugh lines or the biceps straining the fabric of his purple T-shirt. “Menthol is Fred’s signature scent. He’s the easiest man to find in town. Nice guy, but I know way more about his back pain than is strictly necessary for a pizza-based relationship.”
“I didn’t realize pizza delivery had such strict rules.”
“Definitely,” Chris said. “For example, no comments on the customer’s preferred topping combinations, just like tipping with pennies is rude.”
“Quarters, though? Helps a guy out with laundry issues, which in turn helps out with not smelling so much like Icy Hot and oregano.”
“See, you understand. You’ll go a long way in this business, kid.” Chris grinned at him, wide and easy. “As you’ve probably figured out, pizza delivery in this town can be a lifelong career.”
“Sounds like it,” Bell said after a moment. Wow, he needed to get a grip. Since when was he incapable of carrying on a conversation with a hot guy without lag time?
“You okay?” Chris’s brow furrowed.
“Yeah.” Bell blinked and shook himself out of his distraction. “It’s—you’ve got sawdust in your beard.”
“Oh.” Chris reached under the counter and produced another small towel, presumably cleaner than the first, and scrubbed at the short, neatly trimmed reddish hairs. “Occupational hazard, and the source of a lot of sneezing. Better?”
It wasn’t exactly unattractive before. “I just wanted to make sure you get the full Antonio’s Pizza experience, unmarred by any environmental pollutants.”
“Good sell,” Chris said. He tapped the pizza box absently. “Glad to see Antonio’s is shifting back to its artisan roots. Does your dark, hidden past contain marketing experience?”
“Maybe,” Bell said, “but that usually works against me, so I keep my mouth shut about the degree.”
They smiled at each other, but Bell couldn’t figure out what to say next. He’d already embarrassed himself with the sawdust comment, though he thought it was forgivable—the light catching on Chris’s beard, mixed with the dark flecks of wood, had interrupted whatever Bell was thinking.
The sharp ring of Chris’s phone saved the silence from becoming too awkward.
“Hello?” Chris laughed as a stream of words poured through the receiver. “Yes, he’s here. No, he didn’t get lost. We were talking about Fred.” He held the phone out to Bell. “Your boss wants to talk to you.”
Bell took the phone. It was warm from Chris’s hand. “Hi, Jenny.”
“Come on back, kid. Got a delivery to one of the sorority houses. Good chance for tips, so hurry the hell up.”
THE AROMA from the stack of pizzas made Bell look wistfully at his own forlorn calzone in its to-go box, but he thought better of trying to eat and drive. Probably a good call, as the Rabbit began to sputter a bit as he drove up the steep hill to Sorority Row. He really didn’t want to hike the rest of the way to the house and show up dripping sweat on Zeta Pi’s dinner. That would not lead to a good tip.
When he pulled up to the house, he took a quick look at himself in the Rabbit’s rearview. He still looked as sloppy as he had in the mirror at Good Wood. Bell squinted at his reflection. Sloppy, maybe, but not scary. At least he didn’t have any obvious zits and his second-day stubble looked charmingly scruffy—he hoped—instead of borderline disreputable.
Bell just wanted to hand over the pizzas so he could eat his calzone on the way back to the pizzeria. But the sorority president, a tall, pretty girl with corn rows and short shorts, seemed eager to chat.
After the first minute, Bell figured out she was flirting. He racked his memory for the name from the delivery slip. “Hey, uh, Mikayla?”
Mikayla smiled and leaned against the doorjamb as though she was expecting a dinner invitation. “Yeah?”
God, Bell hoped this didn’t backfire. Though he supposed he could always buy some gas and hit the road again. “Do you like sausage on your pizza?” he asked, in blatant disregard of Chris McGregor’s Pizza Delivery Etiquette.
She gave him a strange look and cocked her head to one side. “Yes…?”
“Yeah, me too,” Bell said meaningfully and handed her the pizza boxes.
For a few long seconds, Mikayla stared at him, and he was afraid she wasn’t going to get it.
Then she laughed and put the boxes down to reach for her wallet. “Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.”
Bell earned a good tip and got to eat his calzone, so he was calling it a win.
THE REST of the afternoon was slowish. Bell got a couple more deliveries, but mostly he sat in the back of the restaurant and filled out paperwork. While he dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, he chatted with Antonio, who said Bell might as well learn to make himself useful in the kitchen if he was going to stick around, since afternoons tended to feature a lull in deliveries. Bell ended up with dough everywhere and a few more stains on his shirt, but he’d learned a skill, so that was okay.
Bell apologized for the mess, but Antonio only laughed at him. “Your mess!” he chuckled. “My son, he grew up in this kitchen, you know? We kept his playpen in the corner, back before health codes were so strict. You want to see a mess in the kitchen?” He grinned. “Let Joey at the sauce. Hopeless. You? You’ll learn.”
When they finished with the dough and sauce and there was still nothing to deliver, Bell took his break time to amble down the street to the gas station and pick up a can of gas for the Chevy.
At the end of the night, after Jenny finished counting the till, she glanced at his paperwork. “This address is also in Rhode Island.”
Bell nodded tiredly and knuckled sleep out of the corners of his eyes. Ten-hour days beat nineteen all around the bush, but learning new routines wore him out. “Yeah, and it’s not even mine.” He’d put down his parents’ address out of sheer desperation. He didn’t want to admit on his job application that he’d given up his apartment and was essentially homeless. “Is there a good long-stay motel in town? I need to look for a place, but I don’t think I’m going to find one tonight.”
Jenny looked like she might be about to offer to let him crash on her couch, but then her phone pinged. She picked it up and glanced at it before returning her attention to Bell. “There’s a place back up by the college,” she said. “I’ll give you the address. You’ll probably be making more than a few deliveries there, anyway. It’s not fancy, but it’s close, and they won’t extort you.”
“And here,” she said as she handed him a pizza box. At first Bell thought she was about to send him on the last run of the night, but then she said, “Dad made the wrong order. Guy asked for no mushrooms. So it’s yours if you want it.”
As if on cue, Bell’s stomach growled. If he weren’t careful, this job could be bad for his cholesterol. “The motel doesn’t have a gym, by any chance?”
Jenny laughed. “We can keep you on your feet enough to make up for no gym, as long as you don’t subsist entirely on mistake pizzas.” She scribbled the motel’s address on the back of a menu, then counted out a few bills and handed them to Bell. “I’ll start cutting you checks in the next pay cycle, but this should cover tonight. See you at noon, unless you wise up and leave town before you get stuck here like everyone else.”
“You’re local, though.”
“Fourth-generation Pinevillian,” she said, “through my mom’s side. Dad’s from away. Came here for college and never left.”
“Sounds nice,” Bell said. “We moved around a lot for my dad’s job. I’m used to the hit-it-and-quit-it school of relocation.” The social-ladder relocating stopped the year Bell started high school, when his dad opened his own practice.
“A lot of people get here because of that, but some of them put down roots. Your first delivery tonight, Chris? We all thought he’d escaped. He had some fancy tie-wearing kind of job for a while. But he came back to settle things when his grandfather died, and never left again. No one stays away for long.” She shook her head. “I make it sound like a Stephen King novel. But Pineville’s a good place to pull off the road for a while, and I’ll keep you busy as long as you want to be here. Meanwhile you look like you’re about to fall over. Go on and let me lock up behind you.”
Bell put the cash she’d given him into his wallet, then picked up the pizza and the menu with the address of the motel. “Thanks for giving me a chance, Jenny.”
“You’re cute, charming, and capable of making change—pretty much the ideal pizza guy.” Jenny followed him to the door. “Now go get some sleep.”
The motel Jenny recommended was only a few miles away from Antonio’s. It was set back from the road, behind a row of whitewashed truck tires turned into planters, though there was nothing growing in them. It was less the kind of motel Bell was familiar with, and more a collection of ramshackle cottages that needed a paint job. Bell pulled into the circular drive and went through the door marked Office, where an unshaven man in a tank top was watching a cheerful man selling radar fishfinders on a shopping channel.
“Um,” Bell said, “Jenny from the pizza place said that you might have a room available.”
The man sighed but didn’t turn away from the television. “Got one cottage left. One bed, kitchenette, if you stay a month it’s 10 percent off. Law says I can’t tell you not to bring girls over, but no parties, no smoking indoors.”
“No problem with any of that,” Bell said as he pulled out his wallet. “I guess night-to-night, to start. I should know pretty soon whether I’m staying in town.”
“It’s your money,” the man said, taking the lone set of keys from a pegboard behind the counter and slapping them down next to a pad of registration forms. “Fill that out while I run your card. Blue key’s for laundry, silver key’s to your cottage. Take a right from where you’re parked and it’s the third one on the left. Got a blue door and some artsy glass mobile or whatever hanging from the porch. Last tenant was an art major.”
“Thanks,” Bell said.
“Welcome to fucking Pineville, kid.” The man handed Bell his credit card and the receipt and then went back to his fishfinder infomercial.
Bell parked his car in front of his cottage, grabbed his backpack and pizza, and then let himself in. Even before the door was completely open, he could smell the distinctive scent of roach spray and damp.
The cottage was divided into four tiny rooms—a living room with a brown plaid couch; a bedroom with a twin-size bed and a three-drawer dresser; a bathroom with a small shower, in which the sink was so close to the toilet that Bell was afraid he’d pull both off the wall in the night; and a kitchen with a two-burner stove, a small refrigerator, and a table that was attached to the wall with a hinge. The living room and bedroom had green textured carpet, while the bed and bath had cracked vinyl flooring.
It was the most depressing place Bell had ever paid to sleep in—and probably in the top ten for depressing places he hadn’t paid to sleep in—including that unregistered hostel in Cornwall, but he was exhausted and smelled like tomato sauce. It would do for now.
Bell wore his flip-flops in the shower, used his own towel, and put on a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt. He curled up on the couch and promised himself he’d go sleep in the car if he heard anything skitter across the floor.