Jacob Mailer pulled the car to the side of the two-lane road. He retrieved a map of Illinois from the glove compartment and unfolded it over the steering wheel. After turning on his courtesy light, he ran his finger from Chicago to the south, trying to gauge his current position.
Following the Interstate did him no good; he flicked the map in the center of the state and shook his head. He was definitely lost.
He got out of the car, clutching the map, and stormed to the front of the car. He spread the map on the hood and realized he couldn’t see any of the towns or roads marked on the map. Where the hell was Cambridge, Illinois anyway? His magazine editor, Ted Holgrum, told him it was near the middle of Illinois and by his own calculations, he should be near the small town, but here he was, somewhere between Peoria and Springfield guessing which way he should go.
The map quickly became useless and he crumpled it as tight as he could. The ball of paper took on the size of a softball and he side-armed it into the car. He watched it bounce on the passenger seat and disappear onto the floor.
Occasionally, Jacob made out a dot on the horizon, but not the cluster he expected to see indicating a town. The night sky overcastted hours ago and the three-quarters moon he saw before he left Chicago took refuge behind the clouds, taking any light with it. The car’s headlights shone outward, expanding like a cone, hitting corn on the left and right and about 1,000 feet of road.
A GPS would come in handy right now, his mind commented.
Jacob scoffed. Electronics made humans weak, too reliant on surviving by using such devices. Did the early explorers use GPS? No. Their GPS system was the stars themselves. He looked up into the night sky. Well, they could use the stars if they were visible. Ted would be laughing at him right now if he knew Jacob was lost.
The only thing left to do was to continue on this road. Either it would end or he would hit a town. Hopefully hit a town, but the prospects didn’t look good.
Once in his car, he glimpse at his cell phone. He should really just call someone. Ted, directory assistance, maybe triple-A. He wasn’t a member of AAA—the group he left two years ago had one less A—but maybe they’d provide some help. He just needed directions. Could he call anyone else? The digital clock read 10:20. His one friend would be sleeping by now. His ex-wife might be up since she stayed up late writing; no doubt she’d be next to a computer to look up directions.
No, he vowed never to call her after The Thing happened four months ago.
He flipped open the cell phone and saw NO SERVICE displayed. The phone was one of those pre-paid units and he couldn’t remember if he recharged the minutes before he left the city. He supposed he sat in a spot that really didn’t have service.
Jacob eased the car back onto the road, cursing Ted for this assignment.
Two days ago, Ted “High and Mighty Editor” Holgrum—the nickname was Jacob’s term of endearment that others of the magazine secretly found humorous—walked out of his High and Mighty Office to find Jacob. Get into my office now, Ted mumbled. You going to fire me? Jacob jokingly asked.
When Ted returned no witty comment, Jacob knew something was wrong.
“Sit down,” Ted said when Jacob shut the door.
The editor only had one chair in his office—besides his High and Mighty Throne—that seemed like a remnant from the 50’s: green vinyl stitched over a decaying sponge cushion. A few cracks exposed the cushion, but no one’s ever seen the chair leave the office for repairs.
“I want you to know right now,” Ted said, “you are on notice.”
“Notice? What do you mean by that?”
“Your stuff stinks lately, Jacob. I could go for hours about your grammar and tenses and punctuation, but a 10-year-old could fix that.” Ted sighed, throwing to manuscripts of Jacob’s articles across the desk. “I’m talking about your content.”
The first article, Men & the Secret Language of Their Clothes, took Jacob nearly a month to research and write. Unfortunately, he saw multitudes of red marks and additional words scattered on the first page. The other twelve pages probably looked the same.
Jacob pushed aside the top story and saw, Facial Hair: Hindrance or Vanity? Jacob smiled: he wrote that four hours into a drinking binge shortly after The Thing with his ex. He could understand why Ted disliked that article. It probably did stink.
“Who’s going to read that shit?” Ted asked. “Those titles belong on a damn tabloid.”
“Men, I’m guessing. Aren’t we a men’s magazine?”
“Don’t try to be funny.”
“Okay, okay. So what does being on notice mean?”
“Basically you have to get your act together. You have one month and one story to keep your job. If the story sucks, then you’re gone.” Ted removed a manila folder and tossed it into Jacob’s lap. “I’ll even make it easy on you. The story’s there; you just need to write it.”
A Post-it note stuck to the outside read Fattest Man/Cambridge, IL. “Cambridge, Illinois?” Jacob read. “Where the hell is that?”
“Somewhere in the middle of Illinois. You got a GPS?”
“Don’t believe in them.”
“You might want to start.” Ted picked up a pen and starting following some words on another manuscript.
When he did that, Jacob knew it was time to leave.
You might want to start echoed in Jacob’s head as he gazed into the blackness ahead of him. For fun, he swerved the car into the middle of the road, watching the yellow dashes zip by under the car.
He continued his way for another mile or so, watching the shallow ditches and fields of corn blur by. He looked out the driver’s side window and played a game he used to play as a kid. When he rode in the back on log and boring trips with his parents, he’d stare out the window and try to make himself dizzy by forcing his eyes to focus on an upcoming object and follow it until it zipped by. He would do that over and over again until the lightheadedness came. Most times, he just got a headache, but once, while on a trip to Florida, he actually passed out. When he woke, they were pulling into the hotel and his mom was shaking him; she just assumed he was in a deep sleep.
So that’s what he did know. Jacob had a limited distance to find objects—and those only seemed to be cornstalks—but he tried to recreate the experience.
His eyes contracted and expanded and a few stars formed in front of his pupils. Yes, this is it! Jacob smiled and concentrated even harder. The lights hit a telephone pole and he squinted, keeping the wooden pole in his direct line of sight.
The pole approached quickly…and towards him. A click in his brain told him something wasn’t right about the view. He snapped his game shut and realized he had veered towards the pole, heading for the ditch.
On instinct, Jacob jerked the steering wheel to the right. As soon as the car lurched, he cursed at the windshield: wrong move. The car fishtailed—left, right, left, right—and he tried to compensate for the skid, but the car was too far gone. At least you’re still on the road. He tapped the brakes once, which spun the car completely around, and held tight onto the wheel. Jacob’s eyes closed.
The car went into two complete circles, throwing Jacob’s upper body in every direction, before sliding into gravel and eventually coming to a stop.
“You’re still alive,” he said.
He opened his eyes and saw the car stopped about five feet from the base of a billboard. The road, like most roads he traveled, went on, forgetting about his little game and embarrassing little stunt. On his right, he saw the short path of a graveled access road disappearing into the dark. Thank God for small miracles and all that. If the ditched continued, he probably would have wrecked the car. Worse, he may have injured himself out here in the middle of nowhere.
But he didn’t and he thanked whoever decided to lay the access road and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. Muscles in his body twitched and his heart thudded faster than he could remember. Jacob sucked in a deep breath, letting his nerves calm and waiting for his heart to slow.
After a few minutes, he put the car in Reverse and eased the car away from the billboard. Before putting the car back on the road, he looked up at the sign.
Nola’s Bed & Breakfast. Cambridge’s Finest Getaway Spot. Two Miles Ahead. Underneath the wording was an inviting, two-story mansion overlooking a small town, which Jacob assumed was Cambridge.
“Well, if the luck doesn’t continue.”
Just two miles? If he hadn’t screwed around, he might be there already, all safe and sound in Nola’s Bed and Breakfast. Was that really the point, though? He bent down and grabbed the balled map and uncrinkled it. He stared at the area between Champaign, Peoria and Springfield and found no towns named Cambridge. Flipping the map over, Jacob ran down the alphabetical list of towns and again found no town named Cambridge. He looked at the bottom right of the map and saw the 2009 copyright. The town should be on there, even if it had a small population.
He made a mental note to ask someone once he reached town, then pulled the car on the road, jamming the accelerator down. Jacob wanted the two miles to only last two minutes. Exhaustion crept into his eyes as if they knew the town was so close. At the same time, his bladder joined in the fun and told him it was time for the bathroom. He could pull over right now and take a leak on the side of the road, but why waste those minutes. Check in, pee, maybe food and bed immediately after: that was the plan.
The bladder pushed harder, but Jacob overcame the persistence.
The odometer dial moved to the second mile. The road rose into a hill and when Jacob passed over the crest, he saw a group of lights. Not many, though a wave of relief washed over his body. Even the bladder seemed overjoyed and drew back the need to pee.
At the bottom of the small hill, he took a curve and entered the outskirts. A wooden sign told him this wasindeed Cambridge and that it had a population of 1,452. The first intersection approached and he saw a lighted sign pointing him to the left for Nola’s Bed & Breakfast, the right for John Helane Park and straight ahead for Downtown Cambridge.
Of course he wanted the left.
He drove past the post office and Dobsy’s Grocery Store and caught another sign telling him to turn right for the bed and breakfast—he could only turn right anyway—which stood two blocks down.
Houses sat on the right and cornfields on the left. The fields were lighted by antique-style lampposts every five-hundred feet or so; they cast an ominous glow, as if there was an invisible barrier blocking the outside world with Cambridge. The thought made Jacob laugh; he just came in to town on that side—he could see Route 136 behind him—so he knew…
Why was he still thinking this? He turned his thoughts to the street ahead.
Ahead, a hulking metal archway loomed over the street, covering it with an ominous shadow from the two lights meant to bring the sign attention. He slowed and, as he got closer, saw it was a sign for the bed and breakfast. The stands holding up the curved sign appeared to be the bottom parts of television towers, the kind his mom and dad had when fiber optics and digital broadcasts were years into the future. About thirty feet up, a poorly-welded sign, with poorly-crafted metal letters—some kind of thin metal like tin or aluminum—told Jacob Welcome to Nola’s.
He passed under the sign, skipping the intersection and parked his car along the sidewalk. Two other cars sat in front of him.
The billboard did the bed and breakfast no justice. The massive two-story manor took up most of the block.Two spires sat at each corner and connected to the left spire was a smaller utility shed. A porch made from pine ran from corner to corner, extended past the right spire and disappeared; Jacob assumed the porch continued around most of the house. The bed and breakfast was painted a pretty light blue with white trim. Jacob stopped halfway up the path to the porch and counted the number of windows he could see. Twelve, including the large bay window that appeared to lead into the lobby. He saw some movement inside this window; the rest of the windows were dark.
The porch held various Adirondack chairs—a set of them hung from chains like a swing—and a few tables with unlit pillar candles on them. Jacob saw two sets of double doors, but only one set had a porch light on next it. He opened these doors.
Inside, the place took on a cabin feel, especially since the lobby had hardwood floors and a cathedral ceiling with wooden beams. Whether this was for decoration or support Jacob didn’t know. A lot of wood-grained and plaid décor items hit Jacob immediately. A brown/light brown, plaid couch rested against the right hand wall, which ended into a dining room with a large table and eight chairs. The coffee table in front of the couch looked handmade, as did the end table near the couch. A brown leather chair and a larger loveseat—also plaid, but had a few hints of red on the fabric—faced each other near the middle of the room. They too had small tables next to them with wooden lamps. To his immediately left, facing out towards the furniture, Jacob felt a comforting fire inviting him to sit and rest for a while. Another set of doors led to more of the porch and towards the rest of the town. Looking out, Jacob saw the bed and breakfast sat on a slight hill, gazing down on twinkling lights of Cambridge.
“Welcome to Nola’s,” said a voice on his right.
An older woman—sixty or so—emerged from a hallway leading to another part of the house and sat down on a stool. She placed a visor on her head, as if she was preparing to play tennis, and patted her curly, white hair down. A shadow from the visor hid her gaunt face and she adjusted it even more so a tinge of green gave the woman a strange presence. Jacob watched a wrinkly, pale hand reach into a metal holder and remove a pencil.
Two other women, one about the same age as the first and one maybe twenty years younger, exited from a door near the hallway, crossed the room with teacups and sat down at the dining table. He heard them mumbling to one another, presumably about him.
“My name is Nola. How can I help you this evening,” the first woman said.
Jacob approached the desk, impressed by Nola’s enunciation. “Hi. Name’s Jacob Mailer. I need a room.”
“I see.” She glanced outside. “Just you?”
“And for how many nights?”
He thought for a moment, not really sure how many nights he’d need. “Can I start with two and go from there?”
Nola’s eyebrows raised and the side of her lip scrounged against her cheek. “May I ask your reason for visiting Cambridge? Are you just passing through?”
The last question strained, like Nola was trying to manipulate Jacob’s thoughts, telling him that you are passing through so one night will do. Jacob removed his wallet and slid out the magazine’s credit card.
“No, not passing through,” he said.
Nola took the card. “For Men Magazine. Are you a reporter?”
“Not really. I’m more of a feature writer.”
“What could possibly be in Cambridge that you’d need to feature?” The more Nola spoke, the more suspicious Jacob thought she sounded. “We don’t really have anything.”
“This bed and breakfast is amazing. Hasn’t anyone covered it in a home or architecture magazine?”
Nola shook her head as she wrote down information from the card.
“That’s too bad. I bet a lot of people would love to come here.”
She handed the card back. “Mr. Mailer, is that why you’re here? To write about my bed and breakfast?”
He caught the two other woman giving him furtive glances. Jacob smiled. “I’m here to find out more on The Fattest Man in Cambridge. My editor thinks there’s something of a story here and sent me.”
“The Fattest Man?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Nola. I’d hope you could tell me something as a start.”
“It’s just Nola. No Mrs.” She spun on the stool and retrieved a key from a wooden cabinet. “Room 12. It’s a corner room; gives you the best view.”
She plopped a receipt on the desk. “Sign here.” As he did, Nola said, “I don’t know where your editor got this fattest man business, but we don’t have anything like that here.”
Maybe she didn’t know anything about it. Nola seemed real interested in knowing why he was here and spoke matter-of-factly about everything, so she’d probably just say something outright about the fattest man if she wanted. That’s fine if she doesn’t know, Jacob thought, there’s bound to be someone who does.
As he turned to leave and get his suitcases, Jacob caught the other two women twittering and giving him an uncomfortable stare.
“Don’t mind them,” Nola said. “They’re always bored. You’ll probably see them here quite a bit.” She pointed.
“The old one who looks like she’s ready to step into a grave right now is Misty. We call her Mits. The other one is Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth, slender with brunette hair, took a sip of her tea and checked Misty’s cup: Elizabeth stood. “We need more tea, Nola,” she said.
As Jacob left, he heard Nola say with a sigh, “Well, you know where it is. You got two hands and two feet.”
As Jacob stepped into the room, he wanted to move in immediately. A butterscotch scent hung in the room and he saw a few plug-in air fresheners in each of the outlets. Despite the chilly, night air, a fake hearth pumped out electric heat; combine that with the thick and inviting bed, Jacob wondered if he’d even get anything done while in town. On the far wall, next to the left window, a roll-top desk made him smile. Its open top yawned at him, begging him to slam down a piece of paper and start writing.
He threw his suitcase and duffle bag on the bed and walked to the two corner windows. Nola was right when she said it gives the best view. Opening the taupe, crinkly curtains revealed even more of the town.
Surprisingly, Jacob could see the entire town. In the far distance, large, modern houses sat in a cul-de-sac which he assumed was new development. Next to that sat a school. As he eyes took in the town towards the middle, older houses indicated a simpler moment in the town’s history when one-floor ranch-style homes were the rage. On the left, near one of the far streets exiting town, another house about one-quarter the size of Nola’s Bed & Breakfast rested on a hill, poised a little lower.
Another tall metal archway popped up in the middle of town. Jacob could make out the world “Helane.” That must be the park he saw on the directional sign earlier. He made a mental note of the park in case he needed some time to think. Parks usually calmed him.
A street full of business grabbed Jacob’s attention. The downtown business district, he thought. Could a small town have a business district? He didn’t know, but noticed nine or ten buildings and a parking space. Surely if that area had a parking space, then commerce was good. Jacob didn’t think so since if he had a hard time finding this town, then others probably did as well. Especially those who didn’t live close by.
He eyes gazed towards one end of the business district and saw a building with a well-covered partition behind it. Vines and various flowers rose on a curved structure, covering something underneath. It looked pretty; he’d have to check it out.
A few cars dotted the streets of Cambridge, but most of the activity congregated to his left.A signed told Jacob Your Bar was the hot spot tonight. Their parking lot overflowed; some cars spilled onto the adjacent streets.
Jacob’s stomach protested, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten dinner.
He headed back downstairs and saw Nola sitting by herself at the dining table reading a book. “Friends leave?” Jacob asked.
“Looks like it.”
“Where can I get some dinner? Does Your Bar have food?”
“There’s that place or The Cambridge Court.” Nola checked her watch. “The Cambridge Court is closing in thirty and it would be rude to walk in there now. I know Yvonne and she wouldn’t like that.”
“Okay…then Your Bar.”
“Never been there.”
“Really? How long have you lived here?”
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t drink.” She returned to her book and Jacob knew no other questions would get answered.
Jacob enjoyed drinking—his friends often thought he gave in to the writer stereotype, but he just told them he gave in to the insane stereotype—so he stepped out the other set of doors and down the two sets of steps until he stood on the sidewalk. The bar sat kitty-corner to the bed and breakfast.
A quiet and soothing peace blanketed the town. Jacob thought for a moment if he could survive hear, after living in the city for as long as he has. He could get use to it; everyone who lives here now had to start with getting use to it, so why not him? Of course, he’d probably miss the noise and the frenzied pace of Chicago.
Jacob strolled down the sidewalk and an unnatural sensation crawled over his skin. He turned back towards the bed and breakfast and swore he saw someone leaving the view of the window. Someone short, but quick enough to move away when he turned. Nola? She seemed like your typical curmudgeon, but harmless. This quiet was getting to him already; Jacob smiled and knew he wouldn’t last but a week if he moved here.
On the opposite side of the street, a man and a child walked hand in hand, both heads turned in his direction. Since they stared at him, Jacob nodded in greeting, but they returned no acknowledgement. Instead, their faces jerked forward and they increased the speed of their walk.
The first three of the five people he has met so far are a little crazy and Jacob wasn’t entirely sure about Mits and Elizabeth. He realized he was a new guy in town, the stranger, but the townspeople should be use to it since Cambridge had a bed and breakfast.
No matter, the bar would probably have drunk people. They would be crazy, but a drunk crazy. He could grease their attention away with a simple glass of alcohol. Maybe even extract a few pieces of information about the town and the fattest man. Perhaps even about Nola, who regarded him as strange for asking about the fattest man. Being someone who asks questions for a living, Jacob caught Nola’s inflection that gave her away. The fattest man existed in Cambridge and Nola felt like hiding that fact. Ted doesn’t just give assignments based on gossip or rumor: he had concrete evidence somewhere.
Jacob had to try to crack Nola. First, thought, he’d see if someone in the bar would crack.
He crossed the street and headed for Your Bar.