Appalachian Hope: Chapter 18

“Dude, we gotta go see it.” Daniel just finished showing me the trailer for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. His eyes twinkled with glee.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be a great movie.” Steven agreed.

I thought it looked stupid, but I was willing to go along with it. The three of us were spending the weekend at the trailer. Steven and I already started drinking. We hadn’t even had lunch, but it seemed like a good idea. We had two bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 to last us the evening, and the first one had a pretty sizable dent in it.

“I’ll go see it, but I gotta get up to take that test in the morning.”

“Mister fancy pants here taking his SATs.”

“It’s the ACT. I need it to get into college.”

“Mister fancy pants here, trying to get into college.”

“Yeah, yeah. You all are the cool ones.” I didn’t want to attack Steven and Daniel with the uncomfortable truth of their futures. Daniel was a high school drop out living on the remnants of his father’s estate with no job prospects or marketable skills. Steven was still enrolled, but he regularly boasted that he’d missed more than one hundred days of school since he was a freshman. Neither one has making an effort to improve their future, and they didn’t seem nearly as anxious as I was about ending up a wage slave.

I had a recurring nightmare about working at Shop and Save into old age. My mom caused it. Every time my grades would slip or I got caught skipping school she would warn me that without an education, I would end up retiring from Shop and Save.

The dream was horrifying. It started after one of our semi-retired employees had a heart attack and died in the store. His name was George. He retired from the railroad with a decent pension, but he’d made some poor financial decisions in his life and needed to work at the store to cover his health insurance. He resented that he had to work, and he hated Shop and Save. He frequently complained that the employees didn’t make enough to even buy the groceries they put on the shelves. He was stocking Coke products before the store opened when he dropped dead. It was a few minutes before the store manager found him. George died alone, doing what he hated most, in the place he hated most.

The nightmare always came before a big homework assignment or test, and it always started the same way. There was a demented old lady who came in to Shop and Save every day. No one knew her real name, but we all called her Grandma Bardels. The old lady told the same story every time she came in. “You know Patsy Cline was my sister; we had the same father.” Because she was an old, lonely, childless, widow suffering with dementia, I let her tell me the story every day, and I pretended each time I heard it was the first time. “My dad was a no good, rotten scoundrel, always whoring around.” I politely nodded, waiting to find out what she actually needed. “Anyway, Mike, can you show me where the Kraft Mac and Cheese is?” I lead her down the aisle and pointed out the mac and cheese. But when I reached out, my hand was leathery. The skin was loose hanging and covered in liver spots. In the dream, I dropped the box of mac and cheese and sprinted to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and saw a bald, ragged looking, old man, far passed the age of retirement.

The shock of seeing myself in that condition always startled me awake. My hands were sweaty, and my heart rate and breathing were quickened. My anxiety about working at Shop and Save into old age was deep rooted. But the anxiety wasn’t about Shop and Save itself. I was, and still am, afraid of wasting my life, of not making any lasting impact, and of being forgotten. My parents both worked their lives away for no money, and they both stressed the importance of this time in my life. They told me that the decisions I made now would chart my economic destiny forever, and they said it often enough that I believed them.

I didn’t want to think about Daniel and Steven ending up like George, but they weren’t taking any steps to pull themselves up, and they often made fun of me for studying too hard or going to school too often, but behind the jests there was a hint of admiration, and if not admiration, respect. Somewhere they knew that I was right to take the ACT and pursue college, and they wished they cared enough to do the same.

“It’s only three o’clock Mikey.” Daniel looked at his watch. “We can have you back in plenty of time.”

“You guys say that every time you have one of these stupid ideas.”

“And every time you put up a fight, but eventually you come around to our way of thinking.” Steven put his arm around my shoulders and spoke into my ear, “So why don’t we cut out the whole dance and just leave now? The longer we wait and argue, the later we’ll get back.”

Daniel twirled the keys on his finger, “I haven’t had a drop to drink.”

The fortified wine I’d been guzzling all afternoon made their arguments pretty persuasive. It was an hour to the theater, couple hours for the movie, hour back. We would be back in plenty of time. “Let’s do it.”

Stevie and I took turns chugging the half finished bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 and then we climbed in the car. I let out a deep, vomit gurgling belch as soon as I was buckled in the front seat.

“That didn’t sound too good.” Steven laughed from the back.

“I threw up in my mouth a little bit. Tasted like strawberry kiwi.”

“I tucked the other bottle up under your seat.”

“Jesus, do you think we’ll need it?”

“Better to have it and not need it,” Daniel started the car.

The trip to the Everettsville Mall was down thirty-five miles of open interstate, and Daniel let the car open up. He’d installed a radar detector, and Daniel boasted that the radar detector was the newest, most cutting edge one he could find. It was so sensitive that the electrical interference from stoplights set the thing off. It was worthless in town, but pretty reliable on the interstate. We flew down the road, weaving in and out of traffic. Daniel pushed the speedometer over one hundred. The dotted center line blurred until it became whole. Individual trees along the shoulder morphed into a solid wall of green.

Normally, I was a ball of tension when Daniel drove this way, but the booze worked it’s magic, and I actually enjoyed the speed. Your perception of the world changes when you go that fast, when the only thing that stands between you and death is engineering, luck, and a small measure of skill. At those speeds, it takes a half a mile to change lanes. Every movement must be fine and slight. The car whined its throaty notes, and Daniel gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands. When Daniel was going fast, he reached a state of serenity and concentration. He could think of nothing else but the road and the car. It was necessary for him to ignore his other worries; the penalty for thinking of anything besides the steering wheel was death.

Daniel burned three-quarters of a tank of gas by the time we saw the first signs for the mall exit. The radar detector warned us of a speed trap, and Daniel gently tapped the brakes to bring us to a reasonable speed. The cop was hidden in one of the emergency turn around spots.

“I gotta get me one of those for the Camaro,” I said.

“You’d have to drive it fast to need one,” Steven jibed.

The Everettsville Mall was dying, even then. Outlet malls, outdoor walking malls, and online shopping had caused the overbuilt indoor complex mortal injury. The only anchor store left was Bon-Ton. The others had moved out or closed. The arcade had been replaced with a thrift store. We walked down the hallways toward the movie theater, and I noticed my feet and my balance beginning to give way from under me. “Stevie,” I turned, “you feeling that MD 20/20 yet?”

Steven turned, his grin threatened to split his face in two. “Oh yeah, he nodded.”

The cineplex was in the exact center of the mall, just passed the food court. It was the singular hub around which every teenager in the area congregated. The mall was the closest thing we had to a community center.

I was happy when we reached the food court. There were two Chinese restaurants, one next to the other, and both of them sent out little Chinese ladies to hand out samples. I could play them off of each other and end up with a pretty decent snack. “You wanna a free sample?” the first one squawked when we were within ear shot. Daniel and Steven both refused. I gleefully (and drunkenly) accepted. I shoved the morsel in my mouth and groaned with delight.

“I’m not sure I like that one. Can I try another flavor?”

The Chinese lady from the neighboring restaurant took this as her cue. “Wanna try a free sample?” She shuffled over.

“I don’t want to be rude,” I explained to the first sample lady and walked toward the other.

I feigned indecisiveness and bounced back and forth between, requesting different flavors, or asking to try the same flavor one more time. I pushed it as far as I could before shrugging my shoulders, patting my belly, and explaining that I was no longer hungry.

The booze was in full effect now. I staggered over to where Daniel and Steven stood by the entrance to the theater. It felt like my feet were somehow dragging behind me. “I never get tired of seeing you do that,” Steven laughed. I pulled this scam regularly. The only time it didn’t work was when one of the ladies recognized me.

“I have no idea how you keep a straight face the whole time,” Daniel said.

“It’s necessity. I’m too poor to buy the movie theater snacks.”

“Uh huh. You’re the only one with a job,” Steven prodded.

“Because I’m the only one needs to have one.” I replied, perhaps a little too harshly. It was the alcohol talking. I squinted at the showtimes hanging above the ticket counter. My vision was doubled up. I couldn’t read the showtimes. “I’m gonna need someone to buy my ticket.” I reached out and hung onto Daniel’s shoulder. “I am fucked up!”

I pulled out my wallet and handed Daniel a twenty, he pushed it away. “Keep it,” he said, “I’ll buy the tickets, you buy the snacks.” I nodded, I wouldn’t need to read to buy snacks.

I guess the movie was good. I passed out somewhere in the middle of the second act, spilling popcorn all over the floor and my lap. The loud music from the end credits started me awake. Daniel and Steven were snapping pictures of the overturned popcorn bucket in my lap.

“Mikey the lightweight.” Steven was happy to make fun of my drunkenness until he tried to walk down the light trimmed steps to exit the theater. His knees were wobbly, and I noticed both of us holding on to the hand rail a little too tightly.

“We got a whole other bottle in the car,” Daniel reminded us. “Don’t think you guys will need it though.”

“I’m feeling pretty good there Danny boy, how bout you Stevie?”

“My feet aren’t working so good.”

“I think that nap did me some good. I can read without squinting at least.”

Steven and Daniel chattered about the movie the entire way back to the car, and somehow decided that cruising in downtown Everettesville would be a fine idea. It was a Friday night after all, and there would be some interesting cars out because of the release of Tokyo drift, and a local drag racing event was being held at the abandoned airport by the mall. The sun was just starting to fall behind the clouds. Daniel’s phone rang.

“Hey, Kenny. No, we’re still in Everettesville. Yeah, we’ll meet you by the big Sheetz there at the crossroads by Martins.” Daniel flipped the phone closed, “Kenny is comin’ down. Bringin’ Del and Gray.”

“Sweet. But don’t forget, I have my test in the morning. You all swore we’d be home in plenty of time.”

We slowly made our way down what the locals called the dual highway. It was a divided, four lane stretch of road, mostly flat, mostly straight. There were medians every so often so that motorists could U-turn. Perhaps it was genetic memory, perhaps it was tradition, perhaps it was geography, but every teenage kid and gear head adult within fifty miles converged on the dual highway every Friday night to drive up and down the ten mile stretch and park at gas stations and grocery stores to eye hump each others cars.

Daniel backs the Trans-Am into the Sheetz parking lot, and we took turns keeping an eye out, playing on our phones, and smoking cigarettes. Steven and I were both brutally and unforgivably wasted, but the nicotine helped balance us out.

“Check that out,” Daniel pointed to a boxy green car across the parking lot, illuminated in the dark by the street lamp. “Who tricks out one of those?”

“Is that a Ford Festiva? I’m having flash backs to the Easter Egg,” I said.

“People soup-up all kinds of weird vehicles. I bet that Festiva is faster than this car. It’s light enough, probably has a huge motor in it,” Daniel explained.

I felt Steven reach up behind the seat and reach for the bottle of Mad Dogg. The bottle clinked as he pulled it from where it was hidden in the cushion springs. “I’m gonna take another drink, want some?” He asked from the back seat.

I laughed, “no. I’m recovering pretty nicely for being passed out in a movie theater a half hour ago.” Truthfully, I was still pretty drunk, and I wasn’t sure that I’d reached the top of my buzz. I didn’t need to throw any more fuel on the fire.

“Suit yourself,” Steven cracked the bottle open and took a long pull.

“You better be careful with all that,” Daniel chuckled, if you throw up in the back of my car, your ass will be walkin’ home.”

“Yes mein furor,” Steven offered a salute in response.

I reached forward and tapped the dashboard clock, “Taking Kenny a long time.”

“Well, there’s Del and Gray.” Daniel pointed to the black Fiero turning into the parking lot.

“Surprised they got here first.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You guys notice anything weird with them?”

“Yeah. They don’t drink anymore, but they’re fucked up all the time. That what you mean Mike?”

“Ha, yeah. Wasn’t just gonna toss it out there like that.”

“Kenny and Del got into a big fight at the trailer there the other night. They wouldn’t tell me too much, either one of them. But they had the fight right outside the bathroom window. Kenny was saying something about ‘don’t bring that shit in my house.’ And ‘if you wanna put that shit up your nose then do it in your car.”

“Shit. There’s a lot of pills goin’ around school right now. There’s a lot of pills goin’ around everywhere. Robert’s brother has been stealing them from his Dad for years. I saw a kid grind one up on a lunch table way off in the corner of the cafeteria and snort it with a milk straw a week ago. He was trying to be sneaky. I told the other guys at my table and they thought I was full of shit.”

“Yeah. They used to just be for old people though. Back injuries and shit like that. Now there’s enough of them floating around you can buy ’em cheap.”

“They fuck you up good?” Daniel asked.

“Don’t know, never tried em,” Steven said.

“My dad took a bunch of pain pills,” Daniel considered.

“But your dad drank a lot too, Dan. You’re not supposed to mix the two.”

“That’s true.” Daniel continued to think. His eyes were distant; they suggested that he was somewhere else entirely.

“That would explain why Del and Gray never have any money,” Steven spoke to break the silence.

Daniel flashed the headlights at the Fiero when it entered the parking lot. Del pulled the car over and rolled down the window, “Ya’ll seen Kenny?”

“Nope. Not yet.” Daniel shouted from his window. “Turn your car off so I don’t have to yell.”

Del did as Daniel asked. The Fiero sputtered a bit and died. A wisp of white vapor trailed from the tailpipe. “That better master?” Del smiled his crooked smile. He’d always had bad teeth, but now he was missing a tooth on the left side of his face. “He left a ways before we did. Thought he’d be here by now.”

“Cruisin’ is out heavy tonight on account of that street night at the drag strip. Ain’t it Gray?”

“There’s cars everywhere.” Gray nodded from the passenger seat without turning from the windshield.

Del smacked him, “whatcha lookin’ at out there? Ain’t nothin’ there?”

Gray’s head snapped around, “One of these times Del I’m gonna smack the fuck out of you. Thinkin’ you can hit me like that.”

“Jeezus, someone’s a little testy.” Del put his hands up and leaned away from his brother. “oughta be in a pretty good mood for the shape your in.”

“Been drinkin’ Gray?” I shouted across Daniel into the Fiero, “Stevie and I are both snockered.”

“Yeah,” Steven held the bottle forward from the back seat. A third of it was now gone. I hadn’t drank any. Steven screamed “Madd Dogg!,” and then barked.

“You better slow down on that Steven,” I turned around and faced the back of the car, Steven’s eyes were resting half opened. “Put the cap on it Stevie.”

“Alright, fun police Mikey.” Steven put the cap on the bottle and handed it to me.

I shoved the flask shaped bottle in the glovebox, “We don’t need your ass being blackout drunk.”

“Ewww big responsible Mikey. Couldn’t even read the movie times at the theatre.” Steven shouted out to Del and Gray.

Del leaned back in his seat with laughter, “seein’ double were you Mike?”

“I still got a pretty good buzz goin’ now. But I can read; Stevie can’t say that stone cold sober.”

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck you Mikey. You’re so smart.” There was a growing edge in Steven’s voice.

“You better not be pickin’ fights there Stevie. You know Mikey’s a ninja.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot.” Steven reached forward and started patting my shoulders and sides, “Where you hiding the throwing stars and nunchucks?”

I patted my pants pockets and then shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t know, must’ve left em in your sister’s snatch.”

Steven moved his hand up and smacked me on the side of the face. I spun around in my seat. I was facing him now, and he was leaning as far back as he could. “I’ll let that one slide,” I pointed my finger, “because you’re so drunk. But if you ever hit me in the face again, I’ll kick your teeth in.”

Steven’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “Do you understand me?” I asked, and he nodded.

Daniel put his hand on my shoulder, “take a seat there killer.”

“Fucker boxed my ear.”

“He’s drunk Mikey. Aren’t you Steven?” Daniel played peacemaker.

“I’m sorry, Mike.”

“It’s alright Steven.”

“If ya’ll are done tryin’ to murder each other over there, why don’t we go cruisin’?”

“We not waitin’ on Kenny?”

“I called him. No answer. Who the fuck knows where he is.” Del started the Fiero and then shouted “boogity boogity boogity boys, let’s go racin’.”

The Fiero sped across the parking lot with abandon, nearly missing a woman walking from the storefront to her car.

Daniel started the Firebird and revved the engine loud, begging for the attention of the group of cars surrounding the green Festiva. Their stares followed us across the parking lot, but the older men didn’t look at us with admiration. They glared. One of them gave us the finger. Daniel and Steven didn’t notice, and I didn’t mention it. We were speeding down the highway before I could speak. Daniel’s focus was intense. We moved in and out of traffic, threading the needle and mostly weaving a path through slower family sedans and mini-vans out for late-evening shopping.

Other sports cars were scattered throughout the traffic in groups, other packs of friends cruising down the highway, showing off their cars, revving the motors, and burning tires.

Aside from simply showing off the car, the primary goal of cruising the dual highway was the find other cars to race. Dual highway was segmented into roughly quarter and half mile segments between traffic lights. The drivers used combinations of motor revving and horn honking to communicate a willingness to race. Once the drivers signaled their mutual interest in a race, they slowed traffic to insure that both of them stopped at the same signal.The light turns green and the drivers race to the next traffic light. We approached the rear of a Mustang. It was loud and fast. The tail lights were blacked out and dual chrome exhaust shouted a deep growl even over the sound of Daniel’s Trans Am. “Let’s see if this guy wants to play with us.” Daniel downshifted and jumped into the left lane. We pulled alongside the Mustang and matched its speed. “Oh it’s a Cobra. Didn’t notice the rear bumper, but he’s got the badges on the side.” Daniel pushed the clutch in and stomped on the throttle. The Firebird roared and then growled the invitation for a contest. The Mustang answered the call with three honks of its horn.

“Oh shit, we’re goin’ racin’ boys,” Steven slurred and smacked the back of my seat. “It’s a good thing I got my seat belt on. Mikey, I’m good now. You should hand me the Madd Dogg. I need to top off my buzz.”

I reached into the glovebox and opened the bottle, taking two long pulls from it before handing it back to Steven. He would probably empty it, and every drink I took was one fewer he would take.

Steven did just what I predicted. As soon as the bottle was in his hand, he cracked it open and chugged its contents, tossing the empty bottle under the seat.

Daniel watched him in the rearview mirror without saying a word and then focused intently on the red traffic light. The light turned green and Daniel dumped the clutch and stomped on the accelerator in one smooth, practiced motion. The force of the car’s forward momentum shoved us back in our seats. The motor screamed and the tires chirped with each gear, threatening to break traction. The Mustang kept our pace for the first stretch. It was a dead heat. The cars were even, side by side flying down the highway. The next traffic signal was green, and there was still no traffic in sight, which meant the race would continue until we hit traffic or a red light. First one to reach the next obstacle was the winner.

But the moment we crossed under the green traffic light, the Mustang came to life. It easily walked ahead of us and shifted into our lane before slamming on its brakes. “He’s brake checking us,” Daniel squealed, “what the hell?” Daniel tapped the brake and then downshifted. He jerked the wheel to the right and stomped the gas, going for a quick pass, and managing to pull up beside the Mustang. “He’s toyin’ with us.”

The Mustang thundered behind us, and then easily pulled in front of us and repeated its brake check, Daniel stomped on his brake and downshifted in order to avoid rear ending the other car. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath.

“I think we should probably leave this fine, upstanding citizen alone.” Stevie drunkenly suggested from the back seat. “What say you young Michael?”

I was almost too excited and terrified to acknowledge his question, but after a long pause, I agreed. “I think we probably oughta cut our losses.”

I could see Daniel’s frown, even in the dark. “Alright, you pussies. I was just about to beat him.”

“Ha,” I laughed, “yeah you were. Could’ve passed him any time you wanted.”

Daniel downshifted again, and the transmission slowed the car incrementally. The Mustang stayed in front of us though, even when Daniel slowed well below the speed limit. “What is he doing?” Daniel wondered aloud.

Daniel put his turn signal on and changed lanes, the Mustang followed, still in front of us. Daniel changed lanes again. So did the Mustang. “This guy’s gonna cause a wreck.”

“I don’t wanna get in a wreck Dan.” Steven whispered from the back seat. “I’m too young and sexy to die in a fiery car accident. There’s so much I haven’t done.” The comment had none of Steven’s normal sarcasm.

I turned in my seat, “no one is gonna die Stevie.”

“You don’t know that Mike.”

“Man, how fucked up are you.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I’m good.”

“He’s staying with us. Think we should just exit out to the interstate?”

“I think he’d follow us.”

“Not all the way home.”

“I can get away from him.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, but I didn’t say anything. Daniel moved into the left lane. There were signs for an upcoming break in the grassy median where we could pull a U-turn. Daniel eyed the signs intently. When we reached the break in the median Daniel downshifted, dumped the clutch, and drifted the Firebird across the median. The Mustang didn’t make the turn, and we were now headed in the opposite direction. Daniel stomped the accelerator, trying to put some distance between the Mustang and us. We didn’t make it a quarter mile in the other direction before red and blue lights flashed on in the rearview.

“Shit.” Daniel groaned.

“Oh, fuck. Fuck.” Stevie swore from the back. “What do we do? I’m drunk guys.”

“I am too dumbass.”

“Look, everyone just be calm. He’ll write a speeding ticket, tell us to go home, and we’ll be on our way. You all aren’t driving. You got nothing to worry about.”

“I’m drunk in public, underage with an empty flask shaped bottle under the seat in front of me. I’m worrying,” Steven cried. “I’m too drunk to talk to the police.”

“You can pretend to be asleep,” I offered.

“That trick doesn’t work Mike.” Steven scoffed like I was an idiot for even suggesting it. “Besides only a pissy drunk could sleep through Evil Knievel’s U-turn.”

“Just calm the fuck down.” Daniel ordered. It seemed to snap Steven out of his panic momentarily. He was silent while Daniel moved into the right lane. Daniel scanned for a good place to stop. “I’m gonna pull into this Martin’s parking lot.”

The cop followed behind us. He shone his spotlight through the back of the car even though the parking lot was lit by powerful light poles. We heard his car door open and shut behind us. Daniel rolled down all the windows and whispered to Steven, “don’t say a word unless he asks you a direct question. Got it?”

Steven nodded.

The officer appeared outside the driver’s door. Daniel was the first to speak, “good evening officer.”

“Let’s cut the shit son. What the hell were you doin’ blowing broadside into traffic like that? You trying to kill someone?”

“No sir. There was a Mustang, and he was brake checking us and following us. We were trying to get away from him,” Daniel’s voice shook with nervousness.

“Save that bullshit story for your mom. License and registration.” The officer held out his hand.

“Can I reach into my glovebox?” Daniel had kept his hands on the steering wheel the entire conversation.

The officer nodded, “go ahead.”

Daniel handed over his papers. The officer motioned to Steven and then to me, “theirs too.”

“Their licenses sir?”

“Yep, let’s see some ID.”

I heard Steven fumbling around in the back seat while I dug for my wallet. I was still pretty drunk. It was hard to get my fingers to cooperate. All of my gesturing was imprecise. The wallet came out easily, but getting my license from its clear acrylic pocket was another challenge entirely. Daniel and the officer stared intently at me while I tried again and again to rip my license from it’s plastic prison. I finally gave up and handed the entire wallet to Daniel. “I can’t get it.”

Daniel slid the wallet out of its pocket on the first attempt. “Here you are officer.” He handed my license over and threw the wallet back in my lap. Steven handed his up shortly after.

“Alright boys. Don’t move a muscle.” The officer turned and walked back to the cruiser.

Daniel smacked me on the shoulder, “really Mike?”

“I know.” I hung my head. “I just couldn’t make my finger work. I’m nervous ok?” I lowered my voice, “we’re both drunk and there’s an empty bottle in the car.”

“Just calm down.” Daniel raised and lowered his hands indicating that I was still too loud.

“I don’t want to go to jail.” Steven repeated again from the back. His voice sounded far away and small.

“No one is goin’ to jail,” Daniel hissed over his shoulder. “We didn’t do anything worth goin’ to jail over.”

“We just had to go drag racing. It was so much fun.” Steven whined again.

“You weren’t complaining at the time. You’re the one who decided to finish the rest of that bottle.”

“I didn’t decide to blow a half donut in front of a police officer. Into moving traffic.”

I turned in my seat, worried about the growing edge in Steven’s voice. He was panicking and panicking was the only thing that could make this situation worse than it already was. “Steven, you need to calm down now. The cop’s been back there for a minute. He’s probably running the plates and writing Daniel a ticket. He’ll tell us to go home. This is Everettesville after all. He’s probably got actual criminals to deal with. Let’s worry about things when they actually happen.”

Steven clenched his jaw, took a few deep breaths, swallowed hard, and seemed to calm himself. But the calm didn’t last long. A white, windowless van pulled up next to the Firebird under the bright pole lamp light. It has the gold and black Everettesville Police Department logo emblazoned on the side.

“Oh my God!” Steven shrieked, “it’s the paddy wagon, we’re all going to jail!”

“Steven,” I turned in my seat, “the windows are down. Shut the fuck up.”

“You guys are fuck ups. We are going to jail because you all are idiots.”

“Calm him down Mike. Do it now.” Daniel pointed to the van. It’s driver side window was open. The officer in the van could hear everything.

“Steven,” I spoke through anger and gritted teeth. “Don’t you say another word.”

“Or what Mikey?” Steven shouted, spit flying from his lips, “you gonna bust out some of your kung fu tough guy sh-”

I nailed Steven with a stiff right cross to the jaw. He flopped back in his seat, raising his hands to his face with the shock of being struck.

“Jesus Mike,” Daniel spoke to himself.

“Fuck, Mike. You didn’t have to hit me.” Steven whispered.

“You’re whispering now aren’t you? I warned you to keep your mouth shut you dumb son of a bitch.” I reached forward and pulled Steven close to my face. He didn’t resist, “every thing you say incriminates us. Now sit back there and keep your fucking mouth shut. Not another word. Do you understand me?”

Steven nodded. I let him go, and he flopped back into his seat, rubbing the spot where I punched him. We sat in there silence for what seemed like a long time. I snuck glances at the van parked right outside my window. There was no doubt about it. The van was here to take us away. It had a cage separating the driver from the rear. The back had no windows. The black and yellow insignia taunted us, and a man dressed all in black sat behind the steering wheel.

“I guess you don’t have to worry about taking the SATs tomorrow there Mike.” Daniel made an effort to provide levity. The situation was dire.

“It’s the ACT,” I laughed.

“Right.” Daniel folded his hands in his lap and put his head back against his seat. I did the same. Steven sat behind us, out of sight, without making a peep.

There had been a million times that I should’ve been arrested. Any number of times, the three of us and a rotating cast of idiots did horribly reckless and illegal shit. I was sure that one day someone would get caught or hurt, but that day was always another day. The irreparable damage was always waiting to be done just over the horizon. I considered what this meant for my future. Aside from not taking the ACT in the morning, an arrest record would probably mean that I wouldn’t get into college no matter what my test scores were. No college meant no degree and no degree meant I’d be working with my hands. I’d be fetching Mac and Cheese for Grandma Bardels for the next fifty years, or I could work at the Silica mine like my old man.

My dad hated his job, but it was his whole life. All of his stories were about turning wrenches on extra difficult bolts. His clothes were burned with slag holes. He was frequently blinded by welder’s flash. Despite our many differences, I don’t believe he would want that life for me. This police officer could unilaterally decide to ruin my life. I fought to keep my panic from showing. The still lingering alcohol helped.

“We have a robbery in progress reported at Sheetz on the dual highway, we need officers to respond.” I snapped out of my daydream.

“Did you all hear that,” I whispered.

“The radio? Couldn’t make it out.”

“Is that the only Sheetz on dual highway?” I pointed to the red, white, and yellow glowing sign across the street.

“Yeah, that’s we were headed back there, but we got stopped.”

“Well, that Sheetz is gettin’ robbed right now.”

“Holy shit!” Daniel craned his neck, trying to get a glimpse of any action. “There are people running out into their cars.”

I shifted in my seat to get a better view. It was just as Daniel said. There were only a few people running from the store, but everyone in the parking lot was seeking shelter behind their cars. The paddy wagon outside my window started and I heard the driver pull the transmission into gear.

Behind us, the officer that pulled us over bailed out of his car and ran to Daniel’s window. He threw our licenses in Daniel’s lap. “One of you boys must have a four leaf clover up your ass. Don’t let me see you all out here again.” He turned without waiting for a reply and ran back to his cruiser.

The van and the cruiser lit up the world in blue and red, and then they were gone. Each of us stared blankly out the wind shield, breathing deeply, trying to process what we’d just been through. Steven was the first to break the silence, “I gotta take a piss.”

Daniel sighed, “yeah, me too.” Daniel turned the ignition and the car roared to life. He didn’t go one mile per hour over the speed limit until we reached the interstate.

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