I almost didn’t see the note. But then, my vision always tended to narrow when rain clouds started moving in. I barely managed a wave to Ian as I barreled out of the mall proper into the enclosed parking lot. He might have said something about seeing me the next day. Or maybe he told me to be sure to check Jack Stewart’s car. I couldn’t be sure. That’s the problem with not listening—even if you do have a good reason—you miss things that are hard to make up for later.
Lately, it had been a fair trade. Avoiding all conversation with Ian had been key to my sanity. If we never talked, I could pretend I had never seen the hungry looks he gave every time he walked past the Dough or Dye while I was at the registers. Looks that had nothing to do with the store’s brightly colored donuts. I could even pretend that he really did walk past the store when I wasn’t there; that he hadn’t been going out of his way for weeks to see me at work.
Ian and I had worked in the same section of the mall since he’d been hired to hand out fliers at Hot Topic a few months ago. We had a couple of years’ history before that too. He was my friend. And I was his. But lately, when he thought I wouldn’t notice, I’d seen Ian looking at me like I was an answer to something–some deep want he hadn’t even let himself fully acknowledge.
And sometimes, if I let my mind drift too far, it felt like Ian could answer that same thing for me too. If only I could figure out how to move from being friends to that something more.
But I couldn’t.
Not before a weightless feeling a lot like falling pulled me back and made me ignore Ian instead. I told myself that if I didn’t listen for just a little longer everything would stay the same without my ruining anything at all.
Walking out of the mall that day I was keen to get to my bike and get home before the rain started. That immediate concern pushed all thoughts of dealing with Ian out of my mind.
The mall’s parking lot looked the way it always did hours after the five-o-clock rush ended with hours to go before the late-nighters or early risers would come. A few cars sat scattered throughout the lot, forlorn and hinting at the lives inside the building. The cars belonged to all sorts of people: Kids who caught rides from friends after a movie, store managers working strange hours, night-shifters marking time until they could finally close up and go to karaoke or margarita night or whatever it was you did after work when you were perpetually nocturnal.
Then there was Jack Stewart’s car–hardly a surprise since it had been without tires for over a year. Sucked for Jack Stewart. But it made my life a lot easier.
With the car being a fixture in the lot and the color of a particularly nasty sunburn, it made a great landmark to use to park my bike when I worked my shifts at the Dough or Dye. Before Jack Stewart’s car parted ways with its tires and took up residence in the parking lot it could take me a full fifteen minutes to figure out where my bike had gone at the end of the day.
Jack Stewart’s car was old. If it weren’t hideously decrepit with more rust than paint, it would probably be a classic. If Steve McQueen really did need a fast machine the way that song says, chances are he’d want Jack Stewart’s car. Or he would if the car had tires. Obviously. I still wasn’t sure about cars or driving and even I felt a small thrill every time I saw the car’s smooth curves and sleek lines.
Jack Stewart stayed remarkably calm about the whole thing. He never explained what happened to the tires or why the car now lived in the mall parking lot. But he never threw a fit about it either. Jack Stewart didn’t talk much. Lack of information never stopped me from wondering about Jack Stewart’s car and its tires though.
The day I saw the note I was contemplating the possibility of Jack Stewart’s tires being collected to pay an obscure but pressing debt when I stopped to really look at the windshield. Something had changed. Although he never made any effort to move the car or replace its tires, Jack Stewart kept an eye on his car. The windshield always gleamed but that day it looked strangely cloudy. Milky, even.
At first I thought someone leaving from the hardware store had spilled paint. Except only the windshield was obscured. Then I realized it was covered almost completely with writing scraped on with soap the way used cars always have their prices marked in the sales lot.
Except Jack Stewart’s car wasn’t marked for sale or priced to buy. The windshield read: “Every time I say, ‘Let’s get together sometime,’ I secretly hope you’ll say ‘Why not now?’ But you never do.”
I stared at the writing for a long time before I got on my bike and pedaled away. The part of me that watched too many crime dramas every weekend worried about that note being for me. The part of me that secretly pined for Captain Wentworth worried about that note being for anyone else.
Mom was at a comic convention all week and Dad was still at work when I got home. It was hard to fit in school and my job at the mall. Sometimes it felt like I lived alone, perpetually out of sync with everyone else I knew.
The skies opened as I locked the front door, making the house feel especially large and especially empty. I turned on all the lights along my path to the kitchen as the rain made it darker and darker outside.
I ate dinner standing at the kitchen counter and wondered what a TV police detective would do about the note on Jack Stewart’s car. Then I went upstairs and re-read how Anne Elliot reacted to Captain Wentworth’s letter. It felt like a solution to dealing with the note on Jack Stewart’s car might rest somewhere between the two if I could just find it.
My mom always said the definition of narcissism was believing everything was about you or meant for you. In a world so vast, she said, it hardly seemed likely. She never said that about me–she hated that kind of parent. She said it more about characters we saw on TV or in the news. Very rarely about Dad when he got it in his head that he was the only one who could re-catalog the entire audiobook collection at the library on a holiday when the rest of the staff got to be at home with their families.
My mom’s definition of narcissism wasn’t the real definition, of course. But thinking about Jack Stewart’s car I couldn’t help but wonder who else the note could be for. No one else parked near it, as if disappearing tires were contagious.
I was the only one who gave Jack Stewart’s car a second glance. Except that wasn’t true anymore, I guessed. At least one other person had seen it. Maybe they’d seen me too.
The next day I walked by Ian in his usual spot passing out fliers in front of Hot Topic. He always spent the beginning in front of the store. Later, when the last of this stack disappeared, Ian would start walking the mall floor. When he finished with that stack, he’d return to the storefront.
He wore glasses, wire-rimmed not thick black plastic, and his dark hair stopped well before it could get in his eyes. His jeans fit but not tightly. His T-shirt was a solid, cheerful sort of green. Wholesome like an apple or a checkered tablecloth. If anyone but Ian’s sister managed the store he would have never been hired.
Ian waved the pile of fliers at me as I passed. I waved an imaginary stack of papers back at him as he said, “Hey Fiona.”
I smiled back and kept walking as I wondered about Jack Stewart’s car and the note. I didn’t think about how much thought I’d put into my pink top or my grey and pink dotted skirt which I had worn even though biking home from the mall in a skirt is a huge pain. I also did not think about the extra time I’d taken pulling my hair off my face with clips trying to show off the last of the red highlights I’d gotten from the summer sun.
Ian was in the middle of his shift and I was late to my own thanks to the day’s history class running over, so I told myself this didn’t really count as avoiding him.
I didn’t stop to ask what he had said to me yesterday. I didn’t mention Jack Stewart’s car.
I told myself it was because I didn’t have the time, but it probably had more to do with the note being the start of something. As I walked down the long hall to Dough and Dye I pulled the rest of my hair into a ponytail. I felt Ian’s eyes on my back the whole way.
Ian was long gone by the time I left that night. His sister had been known to close the Hot Topic early if the store was dead. Or she had a more pressing engagement.
As I crossed the parking lot to my bicycle, I paid special attention to Jack Stewart’s car. The windshield still looked white but as I retrieved my bike, I saw the note had changed. Now it said: “How I feel about you isn’t likely to change. What are you afraid of Fiona?”
I tapped my fist against the hood of Jack Stewart’s car before I picked up my bike. My hands felt shaky the way they did after I stayed up until four in the morning typing a paper for my AP Lit class. I’d had the exact same jitters the first time I felt Ian’s eyes on me. And the first day I admitted that I saw the way he looked at me now. And it terrified me for reasons I couldn’t even understand.
Now I knew the notes really were for me. It wasn’t narcissism–my mom’s kind or any other. The notes on Jack Stewart’s car had been left for me. I even knew who they were from.
I’d guessed it yesterday. Probably, I should have expected something like this. Ian had always been one for grand gestures and movie moments. Of course he’d written the notes on Jack Stewart’s car.
Though he would never say it, I knew what else the notes meant. I was running out of time. Ian had already waited quite a while for me. The notes had an air of desperation to them as much as grandness. They were his big move.
I had to decide now if I wanted to make a move of my own. I leaned my bike back against the side of Jack Stewart’s car and walked toward the mall entrance.
The Dough and Dye supply room was stocked with everything I would need. My favorite supervisor, Carla, was on duty. She liked me so I didn’t even have to sneak the supplies out as I had planned.
It took a surprising amount of effort to clean soap off the windshield of Jack Stewart’s car. As I scrubbed at it with paper towels and window cleaner, I wondered how Ian had managed to replace the first note so quickly.
I stared at the clean windshield for a long time as I waited for it to dry. I expected to feel the same dread, the same irrational panic, I’d been having around Ian for weeks.
Instead, I found I couldn’t remember why I’d been afraid in the first place. I still stood on the edge of change. It just didn’t feel like I’d be falling now. As I opened a fresh bar of soap, I realized Ian had taken the exact same risk. I didn’t know where this note would lead. Neither had Ian when he wrote, “Every time I say, ‘Let’s get together sometime,’ I secretly hope you’ll say ‘Why not now?’ But you never do.” on Jack Stewart’s car.
I carefully wrote out the letters of my own note on the glass. The soap stuck at every stroke, requiring much more pressure than I had expected. When I finished, I rubbed the soap off my hands as best I could and threw away the stub of soap I had left.
Wiping sweat from my forehead, I stepped back to admire Jack Stewart’s car and my handiwork. The windshield on Jack Stewart’s car now read: “I’m off tomorrow. This is me saying, ‘Why not now?'”