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Authors: Erik E. Esckilsen

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BOOK: The Outside Groove
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Zoning in on that one key word in the letter—
Congratulations
—my heartbeat sped up. I looked over to the dining room table, where my family huddled around a stack of catalogs like soldiers around maps—maps of a land I'd been living in, completely lost, my whole life. I slid the letter from beneath the magnet and tucked it in my back pocket.

Mom looked up as I opened the patio door and tossed my apple core onto the back lawn. “Biodegradable,” I said.

“Casey, have a look,” she said. “Imagine your brother and his crew in these getups.”

“Maybe later.” I headed for the stairs. “I've got a paper to write.”

“Yeah, imagine Fletcher Corwin in one of these,” Wade said, sliding the catalog away from Mom.

“Fletcher?” she said. “Fletcher's Casey's mystery man?”

I didn't even consider responding. Although it was my name being bandied about, they weren't talking about me. They hardly knew me.

***

Up in my room, I took out my Cray College acceptance letter and reread it, just to be absolutely sure. I was absolutely sure. I'd got in.

I booted up my computer and hit the Cray website, where I spent a few minutes imagining myself wandering down tidy walkways flanked by old trees, backpack hitched over my shoulders. Or hanging out with other students on the lawns spread out before stately old buildings or on that stone fence that framed part of campus. Or collecting water samples and recording environmental data while knee-deep in the creek that ran behind the athletic fields.

I'd only visited Cray once, in ninth grade, when the college hosted the state high school cross-country meet. But I remembered the visit as if I'd gone back there every day since then, which, in a way, I had, sitting at my desk, clicking around the Cray site. When our Flu High team bus passed through that iron gate at the east end of campus, I felt something I'd never felt before: that college could be the start of a new life, a life with trajectory, with direction, without the incessant rumble of engines and stench of exhaust. A life in which I'd be known as who I was, not as whose little sister I was.

I slipped the letter into my desk drawer, covering the acceptance letter from State. Of course, I'd told my parents about the State letter, but getting into State had hardly been a surprise. State was a fine institution, no question. The guy who owned the Wimmer Granite Quarry, Mr. Wimmer, had gone to State and studied geology. A couple of senators had gone there too. My own mother had gone to State and studied travel and tourism. She'd just started working as a travel agent before marrying Big Daddy. There was nothing wrong with State. Community College? Another great option. The way I saw it, a person could study at Community College, transfer to State, get a degree, and rule the world. It happened every day.

But Community College and State didn't have one of the best environmental studies programs in the country. Cray College did.

An engine fired up in the driveway outside my window. The way the cross-country ribbons tacked to the bulletin board above my desk vibrated told me that it was car 02. No mortal car ever rocked my bulletin board like Wade's ride. I pulled back the curtains and peered out, finding the late-afternoon shift at Wade LaPlante Motorsports getting under way. I expected other cars to come rumbling up to the house any minute.

I grabbed my car keys off the dresser.

Wade and Big Daddy, along with a few of Wade's crewmembers, including Fletcher, were dutifully grinding more grease into our driveway as I came down the walkway. No one seemed to notice me, not even Fletcher. I looked at him as I passed, but he was up to his elbows in car 02. Wade caught me staring at Fletcher and smirked. I strapped in, fired Hilda's engine, and backed out. As I started down the hill, I glanced toward the garage but caught only Wade's eye again. When he tapped Fletcher on the shoulder, I punched the gas.

***

I navigated Fishing Access Road carefully, trying to avoid potholes. When I pulled into the access lot, mine was one of only two cars there. The other was a boxy sedan backed up to the shore of the Willow River, with a boat trailer mostly submerged in the water. The car looked like an old Pontiac, white with a floral pattern of rust patches. No one appeared to be sitting inside.

I idled over to the spot at river's edge where town employees would, according to the calendar, soon run out a long, aluminum dock that also acted as a boardwalk throughout spring and summer. The blunt riverbank didn't offer much room to sit, but that was OK with me, since I could sit in my car and still enjoy watching the river beating a frantic path out of Fliverton. That evening, I knew I could savor it like never before.

My world was about to get much bigger. I was going to Cray College (so long as Big Daddy could handle my recalculated college budget). I was about to meet new people, people who had no idea what short-track racing was, people who would know me as me.

The fishing access was, in my opinion, the most scenic spot in all of Granite County and, on race days at Demon's Run, the most peaceful place imaginable. I may have been the only person who
could
imagine it, since I seemed to be the only person in Fliverton who went anywhere besides the track on race days. That evening, though, as dusky light painted the river charcoal-black, I saw in the color a less cheerful reality—something neither dark nor light but, rather, absent. The access was not only scenic and peaceful but an undeniably romantic spot. I could imagine the metal dock lying atop the water, the couples strolling, hand in hand, to the end. But I'd never experienced this place that way—and never would. While it was there by the riverside that I'd fantasized about escaping Fliverton, that night the sound of the Willow River coursing by made me feel suddenly, strangely sad. I was on the threshold of freedom, but I'd soon slip away unnoticed, without having ever
been
noticed.

The sound of tires crunching gravel drew my attention, and I glanced in the rearview mirror to see a village police cruiser rolling into the lot. The way the cop took up the whole road, not hugging to one side, suggested he wanted to know who was down there, and why, and that he didn't want anyone making a break for River Road until he knew. The cruiser pulled up next to me, and I saw that it wasn't just any cop but Chief Congreve.

He got out of his cruiser and approached Hilda. The chief was no taller than average—five-eight or so—and of medium build, except for wide hips and a butt that, against the laws of nature, sank inward. A concave butt. Chief Concave, I thought of him. But he moved steadily, with a sense of ready caution, as if approaching a carload of felons along a highway shoulder. Stepping up to my window, he smiled faintly. “Hey, Casey,” he said. “Enjoying the sunset?”

“Hi, Chief. Yup. That's what I'm doing.”

The chief's eyes darted into Hilda's back seat and then back to me. “Planning to spend much more time here tonight?”

“No, sir. Just came to watch the sunset.”

“I see. Well, I don't mean to interrupt your moment, but I thought I'd check and see who all's down here.”

“I understand. I appreciate it.”

Chief Congreve looked toward the river as a lone boater rowed into view from beneath a curtain of willow branches. The man drifted toward the riverbank, stepped into the shallow water, and began hauling his metal boat onto the semisubmerged trailer. He looked over, waved, and said, “Evening, Chief” in a scratchy voice that reminded me of a duck call. It was a familiar voice—my Uncle Harvey's voice.

“Harvey,” the chief grumbled, the word rattling in his throat like a stick dragged across corrugated metal.

Uncle Harvey hauled his boat onto the trailer and waded ashore. He was practically swimming in thick work pants streaked with sludge where they weren't wet from the river, and he wore a forest-green windbreaker fraying at the sleeves. His Valvoline-logo baseball cap was dappled with paint, wiry gray hair sticking out on all sides like the bristles of a paintbrush left to harden on a workbench. When he was close enough to the chief to extend a hand, he finally noticed me. “Well, here's a surprise,” he said with a wheezing laugh, cracking a smile that revealed at least three fewer teeth than I remembered from the last time I saw him, though I couldn't remember when that time had been. Maybe a year earlier, maybe more, probably in town somewhere. “Casey LaPlante. How've you been, old girl?”

“Hi, Uncle Harvey. I'm OK.”

“Glad to hear it.” He slapped a hand on Hilda's roof, and his tired-looking eyes, which bulged a little—a LaPlante male gene I didn't inherit—flickered with the day's waning light. He glanced at Chief Congreve. “So what's this all about then? Everything OK here?”

“Not really your concern, is it?” the chief said in a flat, unfriendly tone.

“Just curious, is all,” Uncle Harvey said. “I see my niece parked over here. Normal to wonder why.”

“Normal just to stay out of it. Don't you think?”

Uncle Harvey didn't say anything, as if startled—and understandably so—at the chief's coldness.

Despite the awkward vibe Chief Congreve had conjured among us, Uncle Harvey smiled at me. “Haven't crossed your path in quite some time,” he said. “Too long. You're looking fit.”

As if accepting the fact that he wasn't about to make the biggest drug bust in Granite County history, or even the smallest, the chief sighed and walked back to his cruiser.

“Good seeing you, Chief,” Uncle Harvey said.

The chief clicked his flashlight on Uncle Harvey's sedan. “Don't think your vehicle's going to pass inspection, Harvey.”

“Fortunately I've got ten months to go on it,” Uncle Harvey said, giving me a wink.

The chief grumbled something I couldn't hear and climbed into his cruiser.

“Well”—Uncle Harvey gave Hilda's roof another slap—“I should haul that boat out of here before the chief thinks of something to cite me for. ”

“Guy's kind of a grump.”

Uncle Harvey chuckled. “He's not a bad guy, really. It can't be easy being the most unpopular man in town.”

“Why's he so mean to you?”

“I'm the only one gives him any competition.”

I eyed Uncle Harvey's boat sloshing in the current washing over the trailer. “Can I give you a hand?”

Uncle Harvey nodded. “Sure. I'd appreciate that.”

At river's edge, I helped my uncle secure his boat for the drive home, but neither of us said much. Fact was, as relatives, we weren't close. I didn't think that I'd even mention to my parents that I'd run into him, especially not Big Daddy, Uncle Harvey's younger brother. I couldn't pinpoint a single time in my life when those two got along, though no one had ever explained to me what the problem between them was. And while I wasn't forbidden from uttering Uncle Harvey's name, over the years I'd noticed that it was sometimes avoided in conspicuous ways, like driving a conversation around a hunk of something in the road that might cause a flat tire.

While Uncle Harvey and I worked, he asked some of the questions I might've expected someone my father's age to ask if he'd known me from the time I was born but only ever saw me passing on the street or pulled up to a stoplight: “How's school going?” “Family doing OK?” “Think Wade's got a shot at his second track championship? You know, they say—”

“I know,” I said, stifling a yawn. “If Wade performs well early on this season, he could get a call from a Circuit team. They've got their eye on him.”

I so surely expected Uncle Harvey to launch into an analysis of how Wade could achieve that feat, the topic being a favorite among Fliverton males of all ages, that I was surprised when he didn't. “Not much interested in racing, are you?” he said and smiled that piano-keyboard smile.

“Not much.”

“Don't care to spend your Sundays getting bumped and T-boned and chopped by a bunch of maniacs with more balls than brains? Oh, sorry. That was crude.”

I hesitated to answer, not because Uncle Harvey had offended me but because it dawned on me that he'd just asked me if I had any interest in
driving,
not spectating. There'd never been any women drivers at Demon's Run, at least not that I could remember. In racing, as in life, my hometown was generally behind the times.

“Well I can't say as I blame you.” He flipped a hitch on his trailer, wiped his hands on his pants, then faced the parking lot.

It seemed an odd thing for him to say, given that, according to a story Wade had told me, Uncle Harvey had been Big Daddy's crew chief back when Wade Senior almost hit the big time. “So, you don't follow racing anymore?” I said.

Uncle Harvey looked uncomfortable as he pulled his car keys from his pocket. “Now and again,” he said. “Now and again.” He stared at the river, seeming to search his mind for something, as if he might've left something out on the water that he'd need to row back out and get. “What'd you say you were doing in the fall?” he said, turning back to me.

“I didn't.”

“Well? What are you doing?”

“Going to college.”

“State?”

I shrugged. “Depends.”

“On...?”

“Money. I just got into Cray College. Ever hear of it?”

Uncle Harvey looked toward the river again, and as his eyes drifted along the horizon, following the river's flow, he nodded. “Oh, I've heard of it,” he said quietly. “Yes I have. That's a fine institution, Cray. A top-notch institution.” He turned back to me. “Your parents must be proud.”

For no particular reason—maybe because I'd been raised to more or less exclude Uncle Harvey from my notion of who my family was—I didn't tell him that I hadn't broken the news to Big Daddy, Mom, and Wade yet. I shrugged again.

“You're not just going to college,” Uncle Harvey said and looked downriver. The way he said it made me look away, too, and I felt like I could predict what he was going to say next: “Casey, your whole life's about to begin.”

BOOK: The Outside Groove
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