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Authors: Erik E. Esckilsen

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BOOK: The Outside Groove
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A shiver ran down my arms. “I hope so,” I said. The feeling I'd had by the river's edge, that lonely feeling, welled up a little. Uncle Harvey and I sighed at the exact same time, then we looked at each other and laughed.

“Well, this was a pleasant surprise,” he said and smiled, his eyes catching the last flickers of sun.

“It was good to see you too.”

I wanted to hug him, but I didn't do it. We were family, but, in a way, we weren't. At least that's how I understood things.

As Uncle Harvey got into his car, I began wondering, as I hadn't done in a while, why I'd never really pressed my parents about why he'd never been involved in my or Wade's lives. Maybe it was because, from the time I was a little kid, I was never interested in those kinds of questions
—indoor
questions, dull things grownups talked about, things involving other grownups. By the time I was in fourth grade, I was more concerned with what was going on out in our back meadow among the crickets, snakes, and birds; and then about summer lightning and why the roads cracked from underneath in the wintertime. When, in junior high, Wade started racing Karts—souped-up versions of the go-carts out at Intervale Fun Park—and my parents dragged me to Kart tracks around the state, I'd wander off in search of a swamp, creek, or field where I could pretend they'd brought me to do the things
I
liked to do. In eighth grade, I tracked a coyote for two miles through a new snowfall and didn't return home until an hour after my mother had called the police. Chief Congreve was there to greet me. I was bursting with
outdoor
questions—satisfactory answers to which I couldn't get from my parents, only from teachers, the library, and my computer. Maybe my mother and father had some of the answers, but when Wade's racing became their obsession, any enthusiasm they showed for my interests seemed fake.

As I stood back from Uncle Harvey's car, the time that'd passed since I'd last seen him swirled in the dust he kicked up in the parking lot. He was a sweet man. A person could tell that just by looking at him. And even though we'd chatted only a few minutes, I had a strong feeling that he really understood what Cray College—and getting out of Fliverton—could mean to me. It suddenly seemed ridiculously unfair that I hadn't been able to get to know him in all those years. What could've happened between him and Big Daddy to justify this wall between them—this wall between all of us?

As I was crossing the lot to my car, another car crunched down the access road: a familiar swamp-green Dodge Dart. I paused at my door, pretending to fiddle with the lock, which wasn't really locked, hoping to stall for a moment's conversation. When the car pulled up to the riverbank, though, I glanced over and saw two forms sitting in the front seat, one of them Fletcher, of course, and the other clearly female. Of course. I fired Hilda up and pulled out of there like I'd seen a tidal wave rolling in.

***

I made it home in time for dinner, but my punctuality was pointless, since, after my mother and I put the food on the table, she still had to call Wade and Big Daddy twice more before they came in from the garage. Once we were all seated and the dishes started around the table, talk turned to racing—specifically, the season opener, sixteen days away, the ninth of May. Big Daddy and Wade got into a prickly exchange about what my father called “prioritizing equipment acquisitions” until the Valley Savings & Trust “sponsorship upgrade” was finalized. Despite Big Daddy's prior warning against counting chickens until Wade LaPlante Motorsports had a check from its primary sponsor in hand, Wade had seemingly grown more enthusiastic, not less, about spending the team's limited funds.

I read the salad dressing bottle.

During a lull in the dinner conversation when Wade put so much chicken into his mouth that we all stopped to watch him, as if getting ready to save him from choking, Mom asked me if I had any news to share. After Wade had swallowed safely, she turned and gave me that sly, woman-to-woman look that made me want to throw canned goods against the walls.

“Crush,” Wade interjected in a mock cough, then repeated it, “Crush,” in a mock sneeze—a stupid joke he picked up from some movie.

I glared at him, telepathically trying to make him chew his tongue in half.

“Wade,” Mom said. “Let your sister speak for herself.”

“What's this?” Big Daddy interjected in his curt, businesslike manner, like he was answering his desk phone.

“I think Casey's got her eye on Fletcher, is what I'm hearing,” Mom said.

“I don't have my eye on anyone,” I said, failing to keep a groan from attaching itself to the end of the statement. Like Wade, I sometimes regressed into early childhood among family.

“Well, you should go out with him,” Big Daddy said, the way he might tell one of his employees where to stick a shrub. “Good kid. Fine kid. I trust him.”

“I trust him, too,” Wade said. “He's a good guy.”

As if Wade would know what it meant to be a good guy. According to local gossip, a few months earlier the Red Snake had been spotted outside the apartment of his current girlfriend, Gail Wiggans,
weeks
before he broke up with his then most recent former girlfriend, Samantha Houle. And no one had been the least bit surprised. I, however, didn't speak to Wade for a month. I liked Samantha. We'd actually had conversations about something other than Wade's racing career. In the time they were together, almost a year—a One Tank Wade record that'd gone unchallenged—she seemed to find qualities in him that even I, living under the same roof with the guy, had missed. I'm not sure what those qualities were, but Wade acted more mature, more considerate, around her. I thought there was more to Samantha, too, than a pretty face to beam from behind the Red Snake's windshield.

“Seriously, Case,” he said, every syllable like a fork jabbed into my face, “Fletcher's top shelf.”

“Then why don't
you
go out with him?” I snapped.

The table fell silent.

“Don't you like him?” Mom said in a singsong voice that sounded like she was helping me pick out a swimsuit. She tapped the back of my hand.

Feeling her fingers on my flesh, with my brother and father looking on with identical expressions of amusement, I yanked my hand back and whacked my fork on the edge of the table. “For one thing,” I said, “he hasn't asked me out. And for another, I believe he has a girlfriend.”

“Not so sure about that, Case,” Wade said. “Not what I heard from him today. No, he might ask you out. I mean, all I have to do is tell him—”

“Don't tell him anything. This is not your business.”

“You know,” my father chimed in, “the guys haven't exactly been busting down the door.”

“Wade,” Mom scolded.

“Sorry,” Big Daddy said with a chuckle. “Not my field, romance. Wade and I'll stick to racing.”

Although I was tempted to slide out of my chair and storm upstairs to lock myself in my room for the rest of my life—or at least until graduation day—I refused to sink to Wade's and Big Daddy's level. I simply took a bite of green beans, even though my appetite was history. When the LaPlante men stopped chuckling and spitting bits of food onto themselves, I said, as calmly as I could with my face burning like a radiator after a long drive, “As a matter of fact, I do have some news.”

“What's that, dear?” Mom said with a sugary, mother-to-daughter smile.

I smiled back, matching her effort at sincerity. “I got accepted at Cray College.”

Again, utter silence.

I looked at Mom first. Her expression conveyed more shock than delight, as if I'd told her I was pregnant and was planning to marry my driver's ed teacher, something that had happened to a Flu High girl who'd graduated the previous year. “Well, that's...,” Mom began, “that's terrific news. Congratulations, sweetheart.”

“That's just super,” Big Daddy said in such an awkward tone that I almost took the whole thing back, thinking that maybe we could try this all over again at breakfast. He attempted a proud smile, but I could see, in the way the lines around his eyes scrunched into a barely detectable wince, that he was calculating.

“Where's Cray College?” Wade said.

“It's west of here,” I said. “Way west.”

“Is it expensive?” he continued, ever the tactful conversationalist.

“I've applied for financial aid.”

“Well, good. ” My brother took a healthy drink of milk, as if toasting my financial-aid prospects. “Because money is definitely tight around here.”

“Let me worry about that,” Big Daddy said. “I don't want to hear another word about money until after we meet with Church. Meantime, there's plenty of other work to do on this racing team that's got nothing to do with new equipment. Like, for starters, getting your crew to learn how to make a simple sway-bar adjustment for a car running tight.”

And, suddenly, as if I'd interrupted the racing conversation to tell them how many redtailed hawks I'd seen that day, their talk shifted back to the upcoming Demon's Run season. No questions about what I was planning to study at Cray, about when school would start, about whether I'd have a dorm roommate—nothing. I looked at Mom again, but she was busy sliding another helping of string beans onto Wade's plate. I felt like I was already gone.

I thought of Uncle Harvey and how he'd gazed toward the river, like he was seeing my future materializing over the hills. My hands began to shake. “Oh, and one more thing,” I interrupted, tapping Wade's shoulder, even though it was difficult to touch him without ripping his arm off for what he'd done to Samantha Houle and about a dozen other girls.

He and Big Daddy shot me an identical annoyed look, red eyebrows crinkling into arches over their bulging LaPlante-male eyes.

“I've decided to start racing,” I said, the words seeming to jump into the conversation by their own power.

No one moved, let alone spoke, for about twenty seconds. “What do you mean?” Big Daddy finally said. “Like, sprinting? But cross-country's your sport. You're a distance runner.”

“Not track,” I said. “Stock cars. At Demon's Run. I'm going to race in the season opener. Road Warrior division.”

Everyone was silent again, but I could feel the table jiggling as Wade and Big Daddy tried to suppress their laughter. Wade finally couldn't hold it in and started howling. Big Daddy cracked a huge smile, but Mom's look from across the table kept him from joining in.

When Wade had finally regained a degree of self-control, he turned to me, head cocked to one side like a dog watching something peculiar. “Race
what
, Case?”

“A car, Brake-Fluid-for-Brains,” I said, my face once again heating up. “I've got some money saved up. I'm going to get a beater and run it in the Warriors.” The Road Warriors were the starter division at Demon's Run—cars with more or less normal four-cylinder engines, just stripped-down street rides, really—as compared to the elite Thundermakers, Wade's division, which ran on bigger, faster, meaner eight-cylinder engines.

Wade cocked his head to the other side. “But, Case, you don't know the first thing about racing.”

I was tempted to remind him of our race up Meadow Ridge Road earlier that day but decided that it wasn't worth the trouble it'd bring—for me more than him. In our household, as in the whole town of Fliverton, people turned a blind eye to whatever trouble Wade caused, never mind the feelings of the young women he tossed out of his life like fast-food bags on the highway. “How hard can it be?” I said. I forced down one last bite of string beans.

At this, Wade looked at Big Daddy with a bewildered expression. The two stared at each other for a few seconds, and the table started to jiggle again. An instant later, they both exploded with laughter.

I calmly set my napkin and utensils in the center of my plate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mom watching me, her hand reaching for my arm, but I stood before she could touch me again.

Chapter 2

Uncle Harvey's place was about five miles from the village, the last right turn before the interstate, down at the end of a long dirt road. I'd only been out there a few times, as a girl accompanying Mom as she drove around town sticking Christmas cards in mailboxes, a quaint little tradition she brought to the LaPlantes from the Beech family. I edged up Uncle Harvey's driveway, a hill lined with weedy brush, but as soon as I poked Hilda's front end into the clearing of his yard, I had to yank her to the right to avoid a head-on with a tow truck lumbering toward me, its flatbed jostling over the lumpy ground. The driver, a longhaired guy who looked roughly Wade's age, didn't even flinch. I skidded to a stop on the slick grass.

A tiny box of a house painted robin's-egg blue with black trim sat back about thirty yards from the driveway. A rabbit hutch stood in the side yard, leaning to one side, looking weather-beaten and neglected. Uncle Harvey's shop, a metal building with two garage doors tall and wide enough for school buses to pass through, rose off to the left with its back to a strip of trees through which I could detect an open meadow.

I pulled up next to my uncle's white sedan and cut Hilda's engine. Uncle Harvey stepped to the threshold of the open garage door and, sliding a wrench into a loop on his work pants, waved. “Hey, stranger,” he said.

“Hey.” As I approached the shop, I noticed about a half-dozen cars, in various states of demolition, scattered around the yard. Way back in the yard there was another smaller metal building—a long, narrow shed—with the door closed and a motorcycle frame leaning against its side. I figured that was where Uncle Harvey kept his boat.

“What brings you out this way?” he said, yanking a rag from his back pocket and wiping his hands.

We stared at each other for a few seconds. Truth was, I shouldn't have been out there. While my parents had never said outright that I couldn't have contact with Uncle Harvey, they probably assumed they didn't need to. Served them right for assuming.

BOOK: The Outside Groove
10.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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