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Authors: Erik E. Esckilsen

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BOOK: The Outside Groove
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Fletcher shrugged. “There'll be other days.”

“Patience, is what you're saying.” I was reminded of Uncle Harvey's advice:
Take what the race brings you.

Fletcher nodded. “TRS—a total race strategy, we call it back at Wade LaPlante Motorsports World Headquarters.” He smirked. “Still, at least you pushed yourself. You gave the fans something to watch.”

“They're not my fans.”

Fletcher turned to the grandstands and then back. “Not likely, no.” He looked toward the ring of Thundermakers and trailers along the backside of the pits. The rest of Wade's team was circling car 02, gesturing, discussing, debating. “But still,” Fletcher said, “now you've got your first race out of the way. That counts for something. Congratulations. ”

The strains of a horrific pop tune simpering out of the track loudspeakers diverted my attention to the main straightaway again, where a dozen or so girls in leotards were falling into formation, batons at their sides. “And now for a little intermission entertainment,” Bean called out over the crowd. “Let's give a big Demon's Run welcome to the Brogansville Baton Brigade.”

I turned back to Fletcher, but he was jogging away. I shouted, “Thanks!” forgetting that human voices didn't travel well in that environment. I watched him, hoping he'd turn. He didn't. I felt stupid that I hadn't thanked him for the compliment. He didn't exactly say that I had any racing skills, but what he did say was sweet in its own way—if that word,
sweet
, had any place at Demon's Run.

Chapter 6

The Demon's Run season opener was historically followed by what I'd termed the Days of Shrieking. These were the days in May when Flu High females were asked to attend the prom. Tradition dictated that the prom be held over Memorial Day weekend late in the month. So, for the few weeks prior, the corridors echoed with the shrill sounds of young women announcing, at brain-cleaving frequencies, that they'd snagged a date. I did my best to stay sane during the Days of Shrieking, but it was never easy. I found myself continually on the brink of death-by-embarrassment for the way others of my gender behaved. Had I been more outgoing, I might've pleaded with the guys in my school to understand that not all women behaved that way. I'd have handed out ear protection.

Crossing the student parking lot and entering the school building the morning after my Demon's Run debut, such as it was, I was greeted by shrieks of romantic achievement piercing the lobby chatter. I navigated a pod of popular, curvy girls with button noses, smooth skin, and lips perpetually parted in glossy pouts—the Dolphins, I called them—who were jumping up and down, shrieking and clicking, and wagging their noses. I headed for my locker in the foreign languages hall.

Rounding the corner, I found myself stuck behind a wall of three guys—Bo something and the Gravelle twins, Jesse and Jud—moving at a slow rate of speed. As I nearly collided with Bo, he glanced over his shoulder. Then he stepped out of the way, dragging the Gravelles with him. “Watch out, guys,” he said. “It's Casey.”

The Gravelles laughed and stepped aside. “Rookie of the Year,” one of them said. I wasn't sure which one, since I'd never learned how to tell them apart.

“Yeah, in, like, fifty years maybe,” the other Gravelle said.

It actually wasn't a bad joke—for a Gravelle.

“Look at her go,” Bo said. “Just look.”

I ignored them. I also ignored the I Brake for Moose bumper sticker stuck to my locker and the yellow caution flag someone had managed to stuff through the vents in my locker door. As I collected my books for my first-period class—English—I ignored the various automotive sounds guys made as they passed, especially the imitations of tires screeching and cars smashing.

I took out the book I'd been reading in English class, the library's hardcover edition of
The Great Gatsby,
and slid off the dust jacket. I pulled from my backpack
Racing for Keeps,
by famous autoracing guru Francis “Flip” Brackey, which I'd received in the mail the previous Saturday. I slid
The Great Gatsby
dust jacket over
Racing for Keeps
and closed my locker.

I read as I walked to class, avoiding eye contact with the dolts in my school who were deriving far more amusement out of my racing failure than it merited. I focused intently on every shred of advice that Flip Brackey had to offer so that I'd soon be able to shut everyone up.

I looked up as someone crossed my path so closely that I almost tagged him: Fletcher.

He smiled and stopped.

I closed my book and smiled back but not too much.

“Must be a good book,” he said.

“Oh, sure. Full of twists and turns.”

“Speaking of which,” he said, “I wanted to tell you again, you gave it a good run yesterday. You know, for a first timer.”

“For a girl.”

“That's not what I said.”

Fletcher looked at his boots, and I felt mean.

“Anyway,” he went on, seeming to regain his composure. “That's not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“What's up?”

He hesitated, but I knew what he was about to say. It was in the air.

“What about the prom?”

“The prom?” The words caught in my throat.

“Yeah. The prom. We go. Together. In the Dart. I'll wash it. It won't be that bad.”

Fletcher smiled again, and I was struck by his confidence. He was known for being on the shy side, but right then he was standing tall, looking me in the eye.

I turned to suppress a blush. Fletcher had given me credit in the pits when no one else would, not even my own brother. Adding in the fact that it was one of the earlier Days of Shrieking, not those tense final days before the prom weekend, when dateless girls wandered the halls looking frantic and sleep-deprived, I felt safe in assuming that Fletcher sincerely wanted to take me to the prom. It was only those last-minute proposals that carried the stigma of being a second or third choice.

When I looked at him again, I thought I detected a twinge of nervousness in his eyes. His green eyes. That was OK, the nervousness. I didn't need another cocky guy in my life. Wade was worth a hundred of them. “Sure,” I said.

“Great.” Fletcher released a breath. “Well, we can talk details later—you know, dinner, parties, and whatnot.”

“Right. We have some time.”

“OK, so...” He started backing away, as if eager to escape. “I guess I'll see you around.”

“I'm sure you will.”

He laughed, and I laughed, even though neither of us had said anything particularly funny. He walked away, and as I rounded the corner by the guidance counselors' offices, I let out a shriek so faint that only I could hear it.

Chapter 7

Uncle Harvey was in a strange mood. While he must've expected that I'd want to race again, something about it seemed to bug him. His grouchiness flared up every time he looked at Theo's scarred front end. As I leaned against the shop workbench, he paced, disappeared behind a copper-colored sports car with its hood open, whacked on something, then reappeared. He yanked the rag from his pocket, cleaned off his hands, and shook his head at me.

“What?” I said for about the tenth time.

He disappeared again, invisible except for random clangs.

Jim rolled in with a mangled racecar on the flatbed. It looked bigger than a Road Warrior car, but it wasn't as tricked out as a Thundermaker. It was somewhere in between. I'd never seen one like it before. He drove around back.

“I told you it'd be dangerous,” Uncle Harvey shouted from the sports car's front seat. He waved his wrench at me.

I hadn't complained about wrecking in the first place, so I didn't say anything.

He scrambled out of the car and crossed the shop, tossing the wrench onto the workbench. “What was I thinking?” He stopped in front of me, yanked out that rag, and shook his head again. “What in the world was I thinking.”

“I'm fine,” I said.

“Oh, you think so, do you? You think taking a run down into the turn-one pokey is just fine?”

I honestly didn't know what to say. Drivers, especially Road Warriors, wrecked all the time. And it wasn't like I'd been driving carelessly when I crashed. I'd just got swept up in the competition, pushed myself a little too hard. Uncle Harvey's reaction was confusing. Confusing and unsettling. I feared he was going to tell me I couldn't race again, something he actually had the power to keep me from doing, since he did all the work on my car. Arguing with him didn't seem like a wise strategy.

Jim stepped into the shop doorway.

“What do you got?” Uncle Harvey said.

“Flying Tiger.”

“Repairs?”

“Nah.” Jim took off his baseball cap and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Parts. Kid over in Byam says he's done with it. He'll take three hundred. Struts are bent, but the battery's new. New pistons. Relatively new exhaust. According to him.”

“Well, I'll take a look, and then we'll see what he'll take.” Uncle Harvey fixed me with a stare. “Tell you what, Casey. Kid who cracked this car up is probably wearing stitches somewhere, maybe a cast.”

“You don't know that for sure,” I said, the words slipping out before I could stop them.

Uncle Harvey clenched his jaw and stormed out of the shop, around back, then back in again. “Did you get a
look
at that rig Jim hauled in?” he said, his eyes bulging as he gestured with his thumb out the door.

“From a distance.”

He took a few steps toward me and, before I could react, started dragging me out of the shop by my sweatshirt sleeve. I yanked the sleeve back but followed.

“Get in,” he said when I reach the twisted hulk. The car's front panels, both of them, were peeled back like tinfoil from a casserole dish, and it looked like someone had dropped a load of boulders onto the roof. The body was black with rust-colored number 07s and the words C
ORKUM
C
OUNTY
A
NIMAL
H
OSPITAL
stenciled across the hood and panels. “Where'd this come from?” I asked because it couldn't have been Dale Scott's car 07. The F
UN
P
ARK
car 07 was blue.

Uncle Harvey pointed at the driver's-side window. “In you go,” he said.

I slid into the front seat, which was hard to do with the steering column almost pressing against my chest. The seat back was bent at a weird angle.

“Comfortable?” Uncle Harvey said. He pulled down a flap of metal on the front end and let it spring back. “Looks to me like this car was hit on both sides and maybe...” He scooted around to the rear. “Yup. And from behind. I don't think I need to tell you, from the look of the roof here, how this ride was sitting when it stopped moving.”

“Upside down,” I said, just to make sure he knew I was paying attention. What I really wanted to ask him was where the car had come from.

Uncle Harvey approached the driver's side and leaned on the window. “But still, you aren't impressed. Don't think this could be you.”

“I know it could,” I said, trying not to whine or sound snotty. “I understand there are risks. I just...”

“What? You just what?”

“I just want to try again. I think I can do better.”

Uncle Harvey slapped the door and stepped away. “No, it's personal, Casey. Just be straight about that. You don't like being laughed at. No one does. But, I'm telling you, racing to prove yourself to others, that's just the kind of ... of objective...” He held me with a very stern look. “That's going to get you hurt.”

I gazed across the bent surface of the hood. “So, OK, it's partly personal,” I said. “So what?”

Uncle Harvey circled the car. “So, I don't like it, that's what. If it's
too
personal, it's more dangerous than it needs to be.”

“It must be dangerous,” I said. “It scared you off.”

Uncle Harvey halted and squinted through the rear window frame.

Jim tapped him on the shoulder, but Uncle Harvey kept standing there, squinting. “I told the kid to call you tomorrow, Harvey,” Jim said. “Three hundred he's asking.”

“Fine,” Uncle Harvey said. “I'll talk to him.”

Jim walked to the tow truck.

“Hey, Jim,” I said as he climbed up into the cab.

He flipped his chin at me.

“Where'd you get this car?”

“Byam,” he said.

“Where's Byam?”

“Just east of Gale Falls. About a hundred miles south, give or take. ”

“Oh, right. Little place.”

He nodded. “Maybe a couple thousand people. Used to be a granite town. Now there's a paper mill. Not much else.” He gestured at the car I was sitting in. “Except a racetrack. ”

“Racetrack.” I gripped the steering wheel.

Jim climbed into the truck and, a few moments later, bounced across the yard and out. When I turned back to Uncle Harvey, he was still giving me the stink-eye. “What?” I said.

“Just what did you mean by that?”

“By what?”

“By my being scared away.”

I shrugged.

He stepped up to lean against the driver's-side window frame. “You want to know why I don't go to Demon's Run?” His voice was low and rough.

I nodded.

“Because I'm not welcome.”

“Why?”

He stepped away. “That's my business. Understand?”

I didn't nod or say anything. I didn't understand anything but the fact that my uncle was in a foul mood.

He stared at the ground, arms crossed, one hand scratching at his chin stubble.

I tried shifting the gears but only got the stick into first. I tried ramming the stick into second. It wouldn't go. I pumped the clutch to make sure I was pressing it all the way down but got only a metal knocking sound when I tried to upshift.

BOOK: The Outside Groove
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