The black convertible pealed from the drive-through window, past a stop sign at 30 miles an hour, and onto the suburban street. Summer breeze sent a rush through the teenagers' lungs.
This weekend, Meghan and her brother, Greg, had driven to northern Ohio in Meghan's car, separate from their parents, as the Hartings visited the Bales in Solon. And though a year older than his sister, Greg was content to let her drive so he could keep his freshly waxed vehicle at home, safe in the confines of the garage.
For all his research and study with the university, Meghan's father could not seem to understand the logic behind the separate vehicles. To Meghan, however, her car represented more than a mere ride; with her license in hand for a year, driving had emerged as her means of escape from the plastic world of high school. Plus, she had shaved an hour from her drive to Solon, courtesy of her lead foot.
When spending the weekend together, the Bale and Harting kids had formed a tradition of leaving the house after dinner and pushing curfew as close to the limit as possible. On occasions where they crossed the line, Greg, the legal adult in the group at eighteen years old, acted as first line of defense and peacemaker between generations.
Danny, fifteen years old and without a license, welcomed the idea of freedom by association. His older brother, Reece, also relished the idea of liberty, but for a different reason. With plans to join the military after his high-school graduation, he intended to make the most of the next nine months before penning himself up in boot camp. Jake, the youngest Bale, rounded out the back seat, self-invited and self-convinced otherwise.
"Don't get trash all over my car," Meghan directed toward no one in particular as she tried to catch a glimpse of Jake's lap in the rearview mirror. And her timing could not have been better. Jake had already managed to wipe burger grease on the seat fabric and keep quiet about it, knowing Meghan wouldn't discover it until weeks later. From their back-seat views, Danny and Reece had seen the whole thing but had grown accustomed to Jake's pre-adolescent carelessness.
Having cruised these streets many times before, Meghan guided the group southbound on Route 91 toward Twinsburg, then Hudson, and would steer them to Cuyahoga Falls, all to the tunes of a Prince CD that belted from the stereo. A point of conflict since leaving the house, the musical choice was Meghan's personal favorite. Though the passengers had voiced their dissent, Meghan had quashed it with a my-car-my-rules response, much to their chagrin. Greg had adopted control of the volume switch and now turned the classic songs up a notch.
"Where are we headed?" Meghan shouted, her voice barely audible above the wind and Prince's crooning of "Little Red Corvette."
Jake leaned forward. "Let's go to a movie." He licked mustard from his fingers, then crumpled the burger wrapper and stuffed it into the map pocket behind the passenger seat.
"It's 11:30. The last shows have already started," Danny replied, confident their cruise would prolong until they settled for late-night pancakes at a Denny's restaurant.
"I could go for a shake, if you're up for it," shouted Jake. His comment earned a punch in the shoulder from Reece, who stared in disbelief.
"Man, you just got done eating. Why don't you digest it?"
"Here, take the rest of this." Danny shoved the remaining bites of a cheeseburger at his brother, who began stuffing his mouth without a second thought.
Reaching into his hip pocket, Danny found his pack of cigarettes and removed one. As he yanked a lighter from his other pocket, he poked the tar-and-nicotine stick into his mouth, then crouched down to escape the wind shear and light up. With the first inhale, he fell back in the seat, tightened his lips as he blew smoke toward the overcast sky. He watched as the plume of smoke whirled upon the wind and around the car.
Within seconds, Meghan shot her nose in the air. Her humming ceased, and Danny knew she'd detected the odor. She glared straight at Danny through the rearview mirror. Her head remained still, but her eyes could crack a rock.
"You know, that's so nasty. I hate when you smoke in my car."
With three feet of distance as a buffer between them, Danny grinned and blew a quick, haughty puff in her direction. Meghan clenched her jaw. Danny took this as a token reaction because he knew she thrived on attention from the Bale guys. She returned her attention to Prince, who now sang of driving to a place where someone's horses roam free.
Jake's head bolted forward. He exuded the type of sincerity only a fourteen-year-old could muster with a sudden, naïve idea. "Hey Meg, can I drive?"
Meghan didn't even blink. "I'm sorry, did hell freeze over and someone forget to tell me?"
Their trek continued. Another minute passed before Reece finally verbalized the obvious: "Dude, we're like, roaming aimlessly around."
"I told you guys we should have left earlier," Greg said.
"And go where?"
"This isn't my town, man. Why don't you think of something?"
"I can think of a few things, but we can't take the kids along." Reece's claim, while an empty one, ignited a flame nonetheless, to which Danny provided a befitting retort with minimal effort. And so the traditional arguments began—spontaneous, brief, and good-natured—which always left the participants laughing in the end.
"All right," Meghan snapped. "Somebody decide where we're going, because I'm not gonna drive around all night."
Jake was on the ball. "I already offered a solution to that one."
Another pound in the arm from Reece. Meghan offered Jake a look of pity for the constant harassment, but she had grown up with the same shots from Greg and had managed to deal with it.
Drawing another puff, Danny flicked the ashes and rested his cigarette-laden hand on the car door. He relished these moments most. For all the pointless wandering and side arguments that erupted along the way, each Bale-Harting reunion arrived with eager anticipation on his part. In truth, Danny didn't care where they wound up or what would ensue that evening. He felt content right now. The way he saw it, the remaining hours constituted bonus time.
As he slouched in the back seat, Danny picked up the scent of Meghan's shampoo. And for no particular reason, he just looked at her as she stopped the CD and tuned to a Top 40 station, her head bobbing to Gin Blossoms. Danny watched as Greg spoke something to her and she turned to answer him. A streetlight raced by overhead and revealed a freckle on the back of her neck, a freckle Danny hadn't noticed before. Her puckered lips, her stubby chin, her delicate ears unveiled and hidden again by her hair in motion—Danny studied them all. More than any other person in the car, Danny savored Meghan's company. Her personality, razor sharp and a polar opposite to his own, captivated him. She could draw attention to herself with effortless flair. But in this late summer moment, a bittersweet delight emerged in Danny's heart. Like velvet purple incense, a nervous ache and a welcome pleasure. It ignited in Danny the desire to smile and shed a tear, both at the same time. Unable to reconcile this incongruity, he shook himself out of the emotional state and fed his lungs with more nicotine.
"Danny, you're quiet back there," Meghan called out.
"Oh, I was just thinking about something."
"Anything you'd like to share with the rest of the group?"
He had the sudden urge for a conversation with her, but his tongue grew lax in the unanticipated moment. Embarrassed, he began a desperate search for a topic of substance but wound up penniless. "Nope."
"You know, it's not polite to keep secrets. Didn't they teach you that in kindergarten?"
Feigning interest in the darkened roadside grass, Danny wouldn't risk eye contact. Instead, he peeped in her direction for a split second, his eyebrows lifting in a mode that claimed innocence. "Tsk." Back to the darkened grass, praying for a change in subject matter. One hint of detail and she would never let it rest. He couldn't afford the humiliation, especially with Reece sitting nearby consuming his fair share of oxygen. Granted, at the moment, Reece seemed to pay him no attention, busy joking around with Greg and terrorizing Jake. However, years of experience had proven Reece's hearing impeccable.
After persevering a few moments, Danny proved victorious as Meghan turned on the brights and focused on the road ahead. She had veered and now approached a stretch of pavement absent of traffic signals and intersections. And with the passage of another mile, Meghan slumped back in her seat, her usual indication that she'd reached the brink of boredom. Interrupting the commotion, she glanced at the corner of the back seat. "Hey Reece, switch places with me. I want to talk to Danny."
"Yeah. Hurry, before the traffic picks up."
"You're kind of busy with your foot on the pedal," Greg chimed in.
"Take the wheel, Greg. And the pedal too."
Before he could object, her hands had abandoned the steering wheel, her knee already halfway up the backrest of the driver's seat. Greg hurried to grab the wheel and forced his leg over the middle partition, his eyes round with shock.
"What the hell, Meg! You're gonna get us all killed!"
"Just drive the car, Greg."
"Gee, what an idea!"
His options limited, Reece bolted to his feet and took a firm grasp of Greg's headrest, as if he realized he'd better make it over the seats first so someone would be behind the wheel. At Reece's reaction, Meghan waited a moment, then tried to squeeze past the two front seats anyway.
Reece, now stuck between both front seats and squirming to get loose, looked down to discover Meghan's head forcing its way through the open space between his legs. "Meghan, look out!" He jimmied a tad more.
Danny refused to blink and miss a single detail of the clown act. Once he'd figured his own death wasn't imminent, he found himself searching for routes out of the human maze as it unfolded before him.
Motionless, Greg shut his eyes. "Reece, get your ass out of my face."
"I can't help it! She's using up all the space! You could've done this an easier way, Meghan—maybe stop the car or something!"
Lunging forward with his life in his hands, Reece fumbled the wheel and landed on the driver's seat, at the mercy of gravity's tug. Still trying to maintain control of the circumstances, Meghan kicked her way out of her own predicament and, by accident, knocked Greg's hand off the steering wheel. The car took a violent swerve toward the shoulder of the road.
Greg gasped. "Reece, look out! There's a ditch right next to us!" he screamed like a girl.
Panicked, Reece gained control of the wheel and jerked the car back into the lane, pushing Meghan's leg away and sending her, head first, toward the back seat in a tumbled mess, her feet whipping through the air. At the sight of her midair, Danny took one last puff and flung his cigarette out of the car. Its ashes dispersed with a seething twinkle just before Meghan landed on Jake's lap. As Jake and Danny roared with laughter, Greg shook his head, his hand halfway over his eyes, trying to hide a smirk. Reece looked like he could sweat bullets as he inched, back and forth, against the seat, probably to determine whether he'd soiled himself in the process.
For all the adventure, Danny swore the car had only reached fifty miles an hour. An unusual feat, yet he was confident Meghan had survived riskier encounters in the past.
Meghan squeezed between the two youngest Bales and straightened her posture. And of course, her hair required fixing in the blowing wind.
"Well, that was easy," she said, adding in mockery, "Why don't you stop the car while we do this, Reece!"
"Shut up, Meghan." He'd continued to drive, so his pants must have been dry as talcum powder.
Not another word ensued as all five passengers grew calm, pulses and breathing patterns slowing to regularity. They reached the Cuyahoga Falls area, where a street lined with darkened retail windows told the group all was closed for the night. A handful of neon signs remained aglow but piqued no interest among the teenagers in the car.
Danny had all but forgotten about the car stereo, which persisted with The Cranberries' "Linger," oblivious to the recent excitement.
Without a sound, Danny peered over at Meghan, who had closed her eyes. She must have forgotten the conversation she'd deemed so crucial moments earlier. Even Jake had managed to doze. Danny could overhear Greg telling Reece about his upcoming college journey.
And once again, Danny picked up the trace of Meghan's shampoo. Self-conscious, he elevated his knees higher as he sunk further in his seat, overcome with keen awareness of his surroundings and the subtle movements of all who filled them. He found himself intrigued by the older girl seated beside him—the girl with whom he had been acquainted his entire life, but about whom, in practicality, he knew very little. Danny wondered what it was like to spend Tuesdays with her.
As if she could read his train of thought, Meghan opened her eyes and sunk down into her seat until their faces were cheek to cheek. The car rolled down an incline, and she crossed her arms as a chill in the air sent goose-bumps over them.
Danny's stomach quivered again. He sought something—anything—to break the silence. "When do you start school?" he asked.
"Next week," she replied. "Senior year, so it should fly. I can't wait to get out."
"Me too. I've got a while to go, though. You looking at colleges?"
"My dad keeps pushing me on it, but I can't stand the thought of being chained down for another four years."
She tacked on a halfhearted pout, as if she couldn't care less for sympathy but offered the expression anyway. Her eyes, crystal blue and illumined by passing streetlights, appeared deeper than Danny remembered them. They seemed to speak volumes, as if to invite him to look into the depths of her soul.
His nervousness ached more.
"My boyfriend might go to Ball State to play basketball," Meghan continued. "He's so talented. They really want him."
"How long have you two been going out?"
"Since January." She slapped her knee. "I should've brought our junior prom picture to show you. Oh, well." She gave Danny a gentle nudge. "So now that you know all my personal details, is there a hot babe in your life, Danny Boy?"
He shrugged. "There's a girl who rode my bus last year, kinda good looking. We talked a lot during the ride home. I may ask her out."
"Hmm." Meghan nodded, a smirk at the corner of her mouth. "You play hard to get, don't you, Dan the Man!" She poked at his ribs.
Danny squirmed, attempted to maintain a straight face, playfully twisted in his seat until she ceased her platonic attack.
As she twirled a lock of hair with her finger, Danny stared straight ahead and replayed mental pictures of the tease that had ended far too soon. Mustering soft courage, he turned to her and broke the stillness.
"I would've taken you to your prom if your boyfriend couldn't," he whispered. "Would you have gone with me?"
Another moment lingered, then Meghan turned her face toward his. With nary a movement, she leaned her head toward him, a knowing gleam in her eye.
"Yeah, I would've." And with that, as smoothly as she had leaned in his direction, Meghan resumed her position as if nothing had occurred.
His heartbeat on a gradual rise, Danny responded with a nod of coolness, his cheeks growing hot. Cocking his head toward the side of the road, he fought to hide his contented smile.
Excerpt Copyright 2012 John Herrick