Authors: Erik E. Esckilsen
Holding my breath, I tore open the envelope. As I slipped the pages outâthree sheetsâand snapped them open, my eyes fell on one word:
Dear Casey LaPlante:
Congratulations. Your application for undergraduate admission to Cray College has been approved.
I screamed like a kid on a roller coaster and kissed the letter. Then I read it again slowly, word for word.
There was no mistake. I got in. I was going to Cray College. I was leaving Flivertonâand not just going-to-the-state-university-down-the-highway leaving. Cray College was a seven-hour drive west of where I sat idling by the roadside.
The second and third pages were from the financial aid office. There was a form to fill out before they could calculate how much assistance I'd receive. I didn't want to think about that just then, but I couldn't help remembering how, at dinner a few nights earlier, Big Daddy and Wade had argued about when the racing team could afford to overhaul the suspension on car 02âWade's ticket to glory. Big Daddy's company, LaPlante Landscaping,
wasn't going gangbusters,
as he said, and he was banking on sending me to State. As he and Wade bickered, and Mom just listened for her cue to tell one of them to please lower his voice, I pulled a bottle of salad dressing over to my plate and read the label, trying to see how many of the chemical ingredients I could identify by their function in the recipe. This was how I often endured Wade LaPlante Motorsports team meetings thinly disguised as family meals.
There on the shoulder of River Road, I tucked the pages of my Cray College acceptance letter back inside the envelope, kissed the envelope again, and tossed it onto the dashboard, as if to let Hilda read it through her vents.
I checked the side mirror and spotted Wade's Nova vibrating like a space capsule burning into Earth's atmosphere. He called the car the Red Snake, which made no sense, since, like I mentioned, it was more orange, and while there are snake species orange and red in color, those species have never inhabited the greater Fliverton ecosystem. Wade didn't have a name for his racecar. Maybe he couldn't come up with another one.
I hesitated to pull out, since Wade was hammering fast along the dry spring roads, just like I'd been doing. A few seconds later, he pulled up beside me.
He smiled a toothy smile and slid his sunglasses onto his forehead, bunching up a tiny haystack of red hair, then leaned across his front seat to lower the passenger window. “Hey there, Casey,” he said.
I could read his mind from his tone of voice. I shook my head.
He gunned the Red Snake's engine.
“Aw, come on, Case. We never have any fun together anymore.”
He flipped his hair-haystack toward our house on the hill. “Wasn't that good pie Mom made last night?” he said.
“Sure was. I'm all about the raspberries, guy.”
“Well, when I left the house this morning, I could've sworn I saw a piece of that pie in the refrigerator.”
“I hope you took a picture.”
“One piece.” He revved his engine and arched his eyebrows. “Not two pieces.” He revved his engine twice. “One.” He revved his engine once again. “Taste pretty good with a glass of milk, don't you think?”
“Just don't drink out of the carton, Wade. It's immature, disgusting, and inconsiderate.” I reached for the letter on the dashboard and stole a glance at the twenty yards of pavement between Hilda's front end and the Meadow Ridge Road turnoff. I visualized the line I'd need to follow to give Wade room when he jumped on the gas. I ran a few mental calculationsâreaction time, rate of acceleration, distance. I redrew the imaginary line based on the results.
“What's that in your hand?” he said. “Love letter? Got a secret admirer, do you?”
“Thisâ” I held the letter out the window with my left handâ“is freedom.” I waved the letter slowly, as if imitating a falling leaf. As Wade's eyes followed the envelope, I moved my right hand to the gearshiftâcasually, without changing the position of my bodyâand slid Hilda into first while depressing the clutch with my left foot.
“You sure that's not a love letter?” Wade said. “Because I know
guy might have a thing for you.
, anyway. ”
“I do believe so, yes.”
“And who might that be?”
“Well, I don't know if I should tell you. How about you ask me some questions and see if you can figure it out?”
“OK.” I tossed the letter onto the passenger seat and took the wheel in both hands. In gear. Clutch in. Resting my head on the steering wheel as if deep in thought, I glanced at the road again, visualizing the angle to the turnoff. I sat up straight and looked at Wade. “If this person were a piece of pie, what kind of pie would he be?”
Wade made a puzzled face. “Piece of pie?”
I punched the gas, popped the clutch, and launched over the shoulder. Jerking the wheel to the right, I shifted into second.
Wade's tires chirped on the pavement behind me.
I hugged the turn off River and onto Meadow Ridge and shifted into third gear the instant I hit the straightaway.
Wade took the outside, clinging to my bumper. He drifted in so tightly that I lifted on the gas for a split second to avoid getting rapped.
It was a trick, an intimidation tacticâand it worked. My “lift,” as Wade and his crew called a quick easing up on the gas, gave my brother the time he needed to pull up even.
Gripping the wheel and flooring the accelerator, I listened for Hilda to whine up to peak power in third gear then made a quick shift into fourth.
The Red Snake had automatic transmission, no stick shift, so Wade was all gas pedal, his big American engine roaring at Hilda like the country dogs that sometimes ran out to the roadside to chase me when I jogged by. The only place where I had a chance against the Red Snake's horsepower was in the swale about one hundred yards ahead. Whenever I pushed Hilda to the outer boundary of what her engine could handle in a particular gear, she never faltered
I might get a hiccup out of Wade's throaty engine on the incline, and that might gain me some ground.
In the last bit of flat road before the rise, I made my move: quick shift into fifth gear, losing only a nose on Wade. I honked my horn and stayed on it. Wade, startled, instinctively lifted a touch, and I floored the gas at the bottom of the dip and got full power on the rise.
Just as I expected, Wade's car needed a second to make the adjustment of the incline, and when I flew over the swale and down the other side, I had him by a car length. It was enough. As we rattled along the rutted mudpack for another hundred yards or so, Wade had to drop behind me as we both slowed to make the arcing right turn up the long, asphalt driveway. He bobbed around in my rearview mirror. I downshifted to third and got ready to shift into second in the turn. I knew I'd squeal my tires around the corner, which would earn a scolding if Mom was home from work and heard it, but I didn't care.
I glanced in my rearview mirror one more time.
Wade was gone.
And then I saw him again, off to the right. The cheater had driven off the road and across a corner of the front yard. His rear wheels slipped in the damp grass, leaving troughs, but he popped onto the driveway just ahead of me and stole the front spot.
He was out of his car and spinning his keys on his finger by the time I'd killed Hilda's engine. Mom's blue station wagon was in the garage, but she wasn't looking out the kitchen door like she sometimes did when she could tell we'd raced up to the house.
“You call that driving?” I said, approaching him.
He moved away from the car and backpedaled toward the walkway, staying a few steps ahead. “I guess I just really want that pie. ”
“I guess so. That's some fancy go-cart technique you've got there. That going to be your strategy this season?” “Aw, Case, you didn't think you were going to beat the Red Snake, did you?”
Stopping in the walkway, I looked into the yard, where Wade's tracks were filling with ground water. “Red
is more like it,” I said.
Down near the end of the walkway, Wade did the taunting, infantile leprechaun dance that I'd longed to capture on video for his fans. Twenty years old, living at home, working for Big Daddy but putting every penny into his cars. Dancing around like a leprechaun.
“Go on,” I said. “Growing boy's got to have his pie.” Still backing toward the front door, Wade didn't see a lone patch of ice on the walkway lingering in the shade of the front step. He planted his boot heel right onto it, slipped, and lost his balance. Flailing his arms, he tossed his keys in the air.
I was just close enough to grab his arm and save him. But I didn't.
As he landed in the yard with a delicious squish, I bounded to the door and slipped inside.
“Hi, Casey,” Mom said from the dining room table, where she was flipping through catalogs.
“Hey.” I tossed the mail, minus the Cray College letter, onto the table on my way to the refrigerator. Mom's sweater gave off a faint piney smell, as her clothing often did when she'd been working in the plant nursery that she and Big Daddy were adding onto the landscaping office. “Where's that leftover pie?” I asked as I scanned the inside of the fridge.
“Oh, I heard your brother's car in the driveway, so I set it on the counter for him.”
As if on cue, Wade entered the kitchen and zipped past me. Down at the end of the counter, he corralled the plate of pie and guarded it with his arms, like I'd seen raptors do with their wings while eating in tree branchesâ
, the ornithologists call it. He held the plate up to his nose. “Mmm. Pie.”
I rolled my eyes.
Wade laughed, sending flakes of crust drifting to the kitchen floor.
I took an apple from the crisper.
Mom tucked a strand of jet-black hair behind her earâshe must've just had it coloredâand eyed me as I crossed the kitchen. “How was your day, sweetie?” she said.
I paused to consider how my day had goneâthat is, how to put it into words that Mom, on mental safari in Catalog Land, might find interesting enough to listen to.
“Great,” Wade interrupted with another puff of crust flakes.
Mom laughed and shook her head. It was a gesture I wouldn't miss: the
Oh, that Wade
look. Impish jokester, man-child Wade. Our very own live-in, life-size action figure. Push a button and hear him make disgusting chewing noises.
“Dad came out to the site today around lunchtime,” Wade went on, “and he said that he thinks the bank is ready to take their sponsorship to the next level. There's some equipment we could really use in the pit. ”
“Like new uniforms?” Mom said, holding the cover of a catalog up so Wade could see it.
“It's not a sure thing yet,” Wade said, taking a last bite of pie. “But we're going to meet with Mr. Church next weekâyou know, a formal, sit-down type of meeting in his officeâand work out the details.”
“Well, that sounds pretty final.” Mom bent a page corner down and resumed her skimming.
I walked over to the table and sat down next to her, trying not to be creeped out by the vacant smile on her face as she scanned the pages, no doubt imagining Wadeâour fearless boy-manâin a smart-looking fireproof racing suit. “Got my chemistry test back,” I said. “Aced it. Destroyed it. Ran it over, backed up, and ran it over again.”
Mom didn't look up, but she did arch her eyebrows, indicating at least low-level interest. The muscles in her long neck tightened as she strained to look like she was paying attention to me without prying her eyes from the catalog. “What's that, Casey?”
“Casey's got a secret admirer,” Wade said.
Mom looked up and gave me a sly, mother-daughter smile that made me want to calmly stand and throw a chair through the glass doors leading to the patio. It was a sight even more disturbing than her blissed-out,
Ob, that Wade
smile. “So, who's the mystery man?” she said.
Before I could answer, before I could inform these people that goats would fly like angels down the streets of Fliverton before I shared with them even the most trivial detail of my personal life, the front door opened.
Big Daddy blustered into the kitchen. He gave Mom, then Wade, a goofy grin, his eyes skipping over me. “You tell your mother the news?” he said to Wade, flipping the man-child a chin peppered with red-gray end-of-the-day stubble.
“Mentioned it,” Wade said, a pout clouding his doughy face. “I wish they'd just give us the money now.”
“Well, I'll tell you what,” Big Daddy said, wagging a beefy finger at his pride and joy. “I don't know why a bank vice president would arrange a meeting right there in his own office just to tell a guy, no, he won't up his sponsorship money. ” He set his lunch cooler down on the dining room table. “Granted, we shouldn't be counting our chickens before they hatch. I do have a feeling, though, that this time next week”âhe knocked his knuckles on a chair backâ“we'll be counting more than chickens.”
Mom splayed the catalog on the table and slid it toward Big Daddy. “Take a look at these, hon,” she said, tucking another strand of hair behind her ear.
Big Daddy took off his barn jacket and hung it on a chair, and Wade walked over so the three of them could hover together over the catalog, my father standing behind my mother, his hands resting on her shoulders as she discussed the merits of racing uniforms.
I got up from the table and walked into the kitchen, where I took my Cray College acceptance letter out of my pocket and stuck it on the refrigerator under a V
magnet. Standing back, I wondered how long the letter could hang there before someone noticed it. Hearing Mom say that she also found some “fun” shirts that Wade's fans could wear, asking Wade and Big Daddy if they agreed that Iâshe was actually, honestly, sincerely referring to
Caseyâwould look “just darling” in ... she flipped the pages...
it hit me harder than it ever had just how little my family knew about me. I mean, I hadn't gone to Demon's Run even once over the two previous seasons, an attendance record I intended to maintain. Apparently, whether I went or not escaped their notice.