by Abby Rice
He’s looking at me from the far side of the classroom. Nothing shy about the way he’s staring, either.
I’m way in the back, but he’s seated all the way in front, closest desk to the door. When he transferred in mid-semester that was the only desk vacant, so he got stuck in the front row. But somehow he’s managed to make it feel like he scored the catbird seat. He’s always first out the door when the bell rings. So yeah, there’s that.
The chemistry teacher, Mr. Griffith, still hasn’t noticed the new kid is half-turned in his seat, facing me. But I have.
Try as I might, I can’t unsee those brown eyes, still calmly fixed on me. Oh, I’ve tried to pretend I’m not looking back. My face is still front-and-center, pretending to be all wrapped up in Mr. Griffith’s lecture. Covalent bonding. Yeah.
But in reality my peripheral vision is firmly fixed on him. Wondering what he’s thinking. Why he’s staring. At me, of all people. Wondering if the subliminal buzz I feel coursing through my body reaches all the way across the room. Does he feel it too?
The chemistry in this room is all about us.
The bell rings and there’s the usual mad scrabbling of tablets, backpacks and feet. I throw my notebook into my bag and take a deep breath. He’ll be gone by the time I reach the door. No reason my heart should be beating like this.
Except that he’s not. For once, he’s standing off to the side as I head for the exit with the rest of the classroom stragglers.
Those brown eyes lock on mine again. Something in my chest gives a funny little leap.
“You want to hang out after school today?” he asks.
My sneakers have stopped moving as if of their own accord. Students push by us, oblivious to whatever quantum force is zipping between the two of us.
He’s been in our class three months now, and I don’t think he’s spoken a word to anyone all that time. He’s certainly never spoken to me.
All the girls had a crush on him the first week he arrived. That dark hair, skin bronzed to prove the sun loves him. The hint of a tribal tatt creeping down his bicep below the short-sleeved T-shirt he always wears. He seems older than the rest of us. Maybe he is. His shoulders are certainly broader than the rest of the junior boys.
And he smells different. Standing here, just a dozen inches apart, I notice it for the first time. He smells like woodsy-green soap and sawdust, and maybe something else.
One eyebrow lifts. Oh yeah. He’s waiting for an answer. Do I want to hang out?
“The park? Or you can come by my place.” The left edge of his lips tilts up in a teasing smile.
He doesn’t expect me to pick his place. He expect me to make the safe choice. And I do.
“Sure. See you at the park at –” I glance at my watch, for absolutely no good reason. We both know what time school’s out. “Three-fifteen?”
“Deal.” His smile washes over that handsome face, lighting it up with a different vibe. Usually he’s got that dark-and-broody thing going on. Right now he just looks – happy.
“Name’s Austin,” he says, extending a hand.
I already knew that.
“Felicia,” I say, feeling awkward and grown up at the same time as I shake. His palm is warm and dry. Mine feels tiny engulfed in his wide hand. I seriously hope it’s not sweaty.
Happy isn’t his usual thing. Mine either. So we already have that much in common. And, as it turns out, a whole lot more.
Sitting across from him at the picnic table in the park I learn his dad is a jerk of the Bible-thumping variety. One who takes occasional parental pride in thumping Austin, too.
My dad isn’t a thumper, but he isn’t much of a dad either. It’s pretty hard to be a great dad from a prone, passed-out position on the sofa.
Both our moms are long gone. His ran away when he was six, never to be seen again; an accident took mine when I was ten.
We shrug. Neither of us is too torn up about it. It’s life. We’ll both be 17 soon, and before we know it, 18. Then it’ll be decision time.
“Where will you go?” I know he’s thought about it. It’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past year.
“California,” he says, decisively. “Always wanted to see palm trees. You?”
I laugh. “Everywhere! I want to see it all! The Grand Canyon. That Mount Rushmore thing with all the presidents. New York City. The Great Smoky Mountains.”
“Could I interest you in some palm trees?” he laughs, reaching out across the table and threading his fingers slowly through mine. It’s playful. It’s casual. But in some weird way, I know it’s more than that.
“Sure. Palm trees and ocean water – maybe we can learn to surf!”
I’m all in for palm trees. And looking into those sparkling brown eyes across the table, I’m all in for him, too. I wonder if he knows it.
That picnic table in the park becomes our place. Every day after school, I meet him there and we talk. About our day. About his dad’s latest lecture. How much beer my dad went through last night. About palm trees and California and surfing.
One day he grabs me by the hand and leads me to the parking lot at the edge of the park, excitement written on his features.
“I want to show you something.”
‘Something’ turns out to be a car. It’s mostly primer grey, patches of bright yellow paint still left in a few spots along with bleached remnants of a racing stripe. But it’s beautiful. Sleek lines. The promise of stomach-lurching speed.
“What is it?”
“A muscle car?”
He nods, still grinning.
“Where did you get it?”
“A guy I know. He was willing to take payments.”
He’s lying. I know he’s lying. But I’m not sure I want to know the real answer.
“Wanna go for a ride?” He’s got the keys jingling in his hand and he’s already striding around to the driver’s side.
I do and I don’t. I’d love to slide into that torn but comfy-looking passenger seat, tip it way-way back, and let Austin spin me away into another world. On the other hand, part of me knows being alone with Austin isn’t what shows up in the dictionary under “good idea.” Oh, he’d never do anything I didn’t want him to. I’m sure of that. But what if it was something I did want?
My heart’s beating overtime. I already know the answer.
In the weeks to come, we spend every spare second in that car. Driving fast, wind whipping my hair across my face. Exploring the back roads. Exploring each other.
I’m happier than I’ve ever been. School will be out in another three weeks. We’ve both turned 17.
Summer arrives and we both get jobs, which means we see a whole lot less of each other. That’s okay. He’s saving for a set of tires to replace the baldies on the Challenger. I’m just trying to keep Dad’s rent paid. We make the most of the time we’re together. Every. Single. Weekend.
Sometimes we spend the whole night together in the car. It’s not exactly the most comfortable place to sleep. But it’s not sleep we’re mostly after.
When school starts up again in the fall, I’m excited. We’ll have more time during the week to spend together. It’s our senior year, too. We still won’t turn 18 for a while – seven months to go for him, eight for me. Which seems like forever. But then comes graduation, and we’ll both have that magic piece of paper in hand.
California beckons. Along with those palm trees.
That was the plan, anyway. Until the first Monday in October, when I stare across the classroom. Different teacher, but Austin is occupying that same front-row seat. He’s staked it out in every class, now; says he likes it. I’m farther back, so it’s a little hard for me to see. But he’s got something on his face.
“What happened, Austin?” The teacher’s frowning, a look of concern. One of the students in front of me finally moves a little, so I can see.
It’s a bruise. A giant, purple bruise covers Austin’s cheekbone. His entire left eye looks swollen shut.
“Yeah, but you should see the other guy,” he tells the teacher, making a joke of it. Then tosses in an offhand, “Ran into a door. I know, really dumb.”
The teacher lets it go. I don’t.
That afternoon as the wind rushes through the open windows of the Challenger, I settle a hand on his leg.
“Your dad did that, didn’t he.”
Austin turns his head toward me and smiles. It’s not a happy smile, this time. It’s more like he’s crying inside, but with his lips turning up.
“You don’t have to take it, you know.” I’m angry for him. I don’t know what the alternatives are, but there must be at least one.
“Like I told the teacher, you should see the other guy.” He’s not joking, I realize.
“Austin! You hit him? You hit your dad?”
He nods. “Put him in the hospital this time. He won’t do it again.” His lips are grim.
I sink back into the torn vinyl seat. My stomach has that seasick feeling. Things have suddenly changed, I realize. Life is not going to go on the way it was.
Austin’s dad will get out of the hospital. But he’ll be madder than ever. The next time will be worse. Maybe much worse.
“So what are you going to do now?”
He exhales. “I’m not really sure. Take it day by day, I guess.”
“You know and I know that’s not going to work.”
He turns those soft brown eyes on me and I see all the pain. “I don’t see that there’s an option. I’m not eighteen, yet.”
My thoughts are spinning faster than that ride at the carnival, the one that nearly made me lose my corndog lunch. There is an option. Is he brave enough to take it?
“Eighteen or not, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got a car. I haven’t paid the rent yet, so I’ve got $800 bucks of my own money in my purse. That’ll get us half-way to California at least.” I turn toward him now on the seat, tucking one leg up beneath me. Excitement starting to take over. “We can both get jobs. Work under the table if we have to. Get our GEDs.”
I can see the gears turning in his head. But then one hand slaps the steering wheel.
“Except, I don’t really own this car, Felicia. It’s – well, it’s stolen.”
I knew it. Hadn’t wanted to think about it, but inside, I’d known all along. Nobody lets a 16-year-old buy a great old muscle car like this on time.
“Did you steal it?”
“Pop did. He just lets me drive it. He’s got a dozen more stolen cars in the yard out back of our house. It’s how he makes his living.”
So much for Bible-thumping.
I’m silent as we cruise the back streets, up and down, up and down. Not going anywhere, just giving ourselves time to think.
“I have an idea,” I say finally.
He listens. I talk. And after a slow thirty seconds, the edges of those lips creep up again.
He noses the Challenger into the parking lot in front of the police station. We both sit there for a moment in silence, staring at the brick building’s glass doors. The purple spot on Austin’s cheek doesn’t look bad at all, I think, under the layer of makeup I’d carefully applied.
I hear Austin inhale, gathering his courage. Then the Challenger’s rusty door hinges squeak in unison as we open our doors at the exact same time.
The middle-aged investigator on duty is only too happy to take the report. Austin hands him the key to the Challenger, dangling the fob between two fingers.
The officer is tapping his computer screen, obviously pleased with himself. “Yup, here’s the VIN number in our system. Trust me, the owner will be very happy to get this one back.” He glances up at Austin. “Really appreciate the tip about those others, too. We’ll get warrants this afternoon for that address you mentioned.” He looks over at me. I must look puzzled. “Both a search and an arrest warrant,” he clarifies.
Austin just smiles and gives me a quick thumbs-up. It’s an inside joke, a double-entendre of sorts. Our thumbs will be getting a workout in the very near future.
“Ready?” Austin turns toward the door and sticks out his hand, fingers spread open wide. I thread my palm through his.
“Ready!” I grin back.
The officer leans forward in his chair, one finger pushing at the brim of his blue cap. “So, where are you two kids off to now?” He smiles in that sweet but slightly patronizing way those over forty tend to use with teens.
To him, we still look young, I realize. I’m sure he thinks we’ll say the park, or McDonald’s, possibly the movies. He doesn’t realize our first grown-up decision is firmly in the rear-view mirror.
We aren’t kids anymore. And we know where we’re going. Even if it takes our thumbs to get there.
“California,” we say in unison.
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