Authors: Jill S. Alexander
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Performing Arts, #Music, #Social Issues, #Friendship
ON THE RUN
My heart set its beat to the warning light cadence from the police cars barricading the pasture gate. Blue—red. Blue—red. Blue—red. I slipped around the back of the barn. Following Paradise and Levi. Staring at the ground. The rain-soaked night wrapped around me like a cold, soggy towel.
It occurred to me to quit.
It wasn’t like I could name any rural girls who’d ever gone off and made a name for themselves drumming. I could do other things. Things I wouldn’t have to hide. Things that maybe even made more sense. Practical things with predictable outcomes.
Truck doors slammed all across the pasture as our footsteps pounded the ground in a half-time shuffle. I could so play that groove; just hit the snare on the third beat.
A sharp chill cut through me, but it was no night wind. I could quit the drums, but rhythm would haunt me forever.
I ran to catch up to Levi and Paradise. Drumming was in my core, and I knew that I couldn’t let it go. No matter what happened on the other side of the two-rut road leading into the pines.
Levi had hoisted Lacey over his shoulder, carried her from the barn. He laid her in the backseat of the Bronco. He knelt over her for a long time, smoothing her hair, until finally slamming the door shut.
Paradise opened the driver’s-side door. “I’ll be at the bottom of the hill just down from your uncle’s place. Where that wooden bridge is.”
Lacey’s key chain, the one with the giant silver heart, dangled from his middle finger.
I scooted behind the wheel. “I owe you for this.”
Regardless of how selfish I thought he was onstage, Paradise was willing to drive Lacey’s car past the sheriff and take an MIP for me. And I was desperate enough to let him.
Lacey moaned from the backseat; then she giggled some. As if it wasn’t bad enough that her shirt was buttoned wrong, the top button on her jeans was undone. Nothing about this night was right. One big cluster bomb.
I tried to put it all out of my head—the band was screwed, my sister was screwed. If I couldn’t make the cut through the woods, I’d be screwed. I hunted around for the ignition, but I just couldn’t find it, and my legs weren’t nearly long enough to reach the pedals, and I thought in that moment that I would scream. Scream my lungs out. I slammed both hands on the steering wheel.
“Easy now.” Paradise pitched his hat into the passenger seat and took the keys from me. He leaned in, reaching toward the floorboard, jerked on a handle, and popped the seat forward. “Put your foot on the brake and push the clutch in.”
Brake. Clutch. I tried to think of it like my drums—just working the hi-hats with one foot and the bass pedal with the other.
Paradise stuffed the key in the ignition and cranked the engine. Then he grabbed the doorframe with one hand and pushed himself out. “Don’t take whatever’s going on in that blond head of yours out on my ride.”
“Levi!” someone hollered from the barn. “Two sheriff’s deputies are headed this way.”
Levi stared through the window at Lacey sprawled in the backseat. He let down the straps to his overalls, slipping them from his sturdy shoulders. Levi took off his shirt, opened the side door, and covered her.
Paradise held open the door as if he was having second thoughts, like maybe driving Lacey’s car out and taking an MIP wasn’t such a smart move on his part. “Stay in the ruts and out of the brush,” he said. “Try not to bounce around too much.”
He locked his eyes with mine, pursed his lips, and blew a soft whistle. “My accordion’s in the back.”
“Get on out, Paisley.” Levi stood behind Paradise. “Keep your lights off as long as the moonlight holds out. And don’t stop in that thicket for nobody or nothin’.”
I let up on the clutch and leaned on the gas. I stayed in low gear as I followed the old bootleg road into the woods.
Nobody, nothing. Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers. Maybe clowns. I hate clowns.
I pushed on. Rolling over the deep ruts was a little like crawling across gravel on my hands and knees. And it hurt like that too. It hurt because this shouldn’t be how chasing a dream goes down for me or Lacey or anybody else. If I didn’t have to hide my drumming or the band, I wouldn’t be in this mess. Lacey might even be sober.
The trees crowded against the Bronco. The moonlight disappeared. I’d driven downhill, deep into the wooded bottom, into a cave-like darkness so black that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The night’s rain pooled in the bottom, turning it into a soaked swamp. Water sloshed against the tires. I had to hit the lights or lose the trail.
I grabbed for the headlight switch but got the turn indicator. Blinking left. Blinking right. I slowed to a creep as I hunted for the lights.
With no warning, just a jarring thud, the right front tire slammed into a hole. My neck snapped forward as I hit the brake. No clutch. The Bronco coughed and choked to a dead silence in the deep woods. Levi’s warning not to stop snuck up on me. I pushed my back hard against the seat, sinking lower.
Lacey started singing, “Oh-o, say can you see-eeee…”
“Shut up, Lacey.” I pushed in the clutch, turned the ignition key, pressed the accelerator. The engine roared.
“By-y the dawn’s early li-ight.”
With one foot on the brake and one on the clutch, I hit the blinkers again. Still no lights.
Lacey hummed for a few seconds; then she grunted as if she was trying to get up.
No way would I be able to drive us out and corral her at the same time.
“Shut up, Lacey. Please. Just lay down.”
I tried clearing my mind, focused on finding the freakin’ lights. But she just wouldn’t stop moaning and grunting.
I whipped around.
Lacey was flat on her back across the seat and silent. Not a movement. Not a word. But the grumbling, a deep huffing grunt, continued all around the Bronco.
I slammed the lock down on my side, reached across, locked the passenger door.
Twigs snapped in the darkness. A sliver of moonlight sliced through the trees. The thicket shook. Whatever was coming was heavy footed. Not alone.
Sweat dampened my neck. A cold bead snaked down my spine.
I revved the engine and slapped at the dash. I found a knob, twisting and turning it and finally pulling it out.
The headlight beams burst into the thicket. I shrieked. Four. No. Six feral hogs—the size of stocky bulls—darted in the brightness and charged the Bronco.
“I gotta go pee,” Lacey mumbled.
Lacey slapped at the door. If she got ahold of that handle, got out, the hogs would mangle her.
“NO! God, Lacey please.” Keeping my foot on the brake, I shifted into neutral and let off the clutch. I reached over the seat and grabbed her arm. “If you never listen to me again, just lay back down.”
Lacey looked at me like she didn’t know who I was. Then she fell back. Passed out.
When I turned around, I could see the trail ahead blocked by a hulking black hog. A male one with tusks. Pissed off. Its nostrils flaring with every angry huff.
I pushed in the clutch, wrestled the stick shift into low gear, goosed the accelerator. Nothing budged. Not the Bronco’s right front tire. Not the wild hog.
“C’mon.” I tried reverse. Maybe back out of the hole. The tire barely budged. The other front tire squealed as it spun deeper into the mud.
“Crap.” I knew what I had to do. Gun it and get out of the hole. But I didn’t know if the hog would move. Hitting it would be like hitting a wall head-on.
I couldn’t honk. If I did, the sheriff’s deputies would know we’d hightailed out the back way. Lacey and I would be in trouble twice as deep for running.
I had no choice.
I gutted it up, squeezed the steering wheel with both hands, floored the accelerator. The front end heaved as the Bronco shot out of the hole, straight toward the hog. I hung on, but I could feel the back tires losing traction on the wet, red clay trail. The hog bolted into the brush as the Bronco slid into a sideways drift. Like we’d hit ice. I turned the steering wheel into the slide, trying to counter the drift, trying to keep out of the trees. The tires spun. Clods of mud hailed down on us. Pummeling the roof. I fought the slide with everything I had. Staying off the brake. Holding the steering wheel steady. Wrecking was not an option.
I held my breath and rode the drift until I felt the back end swing into line. I steered the Bronco into an opening flanked by two old oaks, their gnarled branches forming an archway.
The trail had disappeared beneath the rutting and the hoof stamping of the wild hogs. I pushed in the clutch, eased on the brake, and collapsed onto the steering wheel. My forehead damp from sweat. My shoulders ached from fighting with the steering wheel. But I had to get out of the thicket.
The Jessup County line couldn’t be that much farther ahead. If I was right, the highway would be just a rock’s throw from the woods’ edge. If I was wrong, I’d be tunneling deeper into the piney woods. Dad would have the sheriff and his dogs searching by church time Easter Sunday. I’d be legendary, but for all the wrong reasons.
I shut off the headlights. Just sat there in the black night, clutching the steering wheel, my head resting on my hands. The hogs had scattered. Lacey was out. Not even a coyote howling. It was just me and a trembling fear I couldn’t shake.
I sat upright and looked at my hands. My worst fear wasn’t of wild hogs, psycho movie murderers, or MIPs. It wasn’t even the getting caught. All that seemed to disappear into the woods with the hogs. There was only one thing. The real fear. The worst fear.
I tilted the rearview mirror and stared at my sister’s reflection.
There was nothing I feared in the woods that scared me more than not being able to drum in the band—to make something of myself—and I’d hang on to drumming and the band with my teeth if I had to.
I wasn’t going to stay stuck in the woods. Nothing could keep me from making it.
I turned the lights back on and stepped out of the Bronco.
The trees looked different in the night with their bark bright-lighted to an ash gray. I searched around, three-sixty, until I was certain the way to the highway was between the arching oaks. I hopped back into the Bronco and set out.
About a hundred yards farther into the thicket, the trees began to thin, the canopy opened up to a broad star-filled sky. The storm front had pushed through. The clear night behind it breathed a soft blue moonlight onto the pasture ahead. I sucked in a deep breath. The curving highway, slick from the rain and shining like black glass, waited at the end of the trail like a shiny-shoed escort extending the bend of his arm.
I pulled onto the road and exhaled. I could make it now. Dodged a bullet. The dream was still alive.
HANGING ON AND HANGING IN
I steered with one hand, reached over the seat, and patted her leg.
“Lacey, wake up.”
She grumbled and began to stir, wrapping Levi’s shirt around her shoulders.
“Get up and get yourself together. We’re almost home.” I took a right off the highway onto the blacktop county road. “I’m switching cars at the bridge by L. V.’s.”
At the bottom of the hill, just before L. V.’s house, I spotted Lacey’s yellow Volkswagen. Paradise leaned against the side; Cal sat on the edge of the roadside out from under the trees. He had a piece of paper pressed on his leg and looked like he was trying to write by the moonlight.
I drove onto the old wooden bridge and stopped. The boards creaked, but the tall cypress would camouflage the Bronco in case L. V. took a late-night smoke and stroll around his house.
Lacey sat up, rubbing her face. “I’m gonna … gonna bust if I don’t pee.” Lacey flung open the door. She put one pink boot on the bridge and fell to her knees.
I killed the engine and got out. Paradise helped her to her feet. She still wasn’t completely right.
“Lacey, we’re on the bridge. You’re drunk. You’ll have to wait till we get home.”
She shook her arms loose from Paradise. “I ain’t drunk and I’m going to pee.”
Arguing with her would take too long, so I grabbed her shoulders and nudged her toward a stand of big trees. “Go. Just go.” I’d made it through the woods and I wasn’t about to let Lacey cut loose with some L. V.–alerting, drunken rant. I’d come too far to let my plans get messed up over Lacey’s need to piss.
Paradise and I stayed out of view of Lacey on one side of the Bronco.
Cal still sat by the road. His long blond hair whipping around him in the night wind. “Looks like you got Cal out too,” I said.
“For a skinny guy”—Paradise rubbed his beefy forearm—“that boy’s a beast on guitar.”
The pink corner of a piece of paper stuck out the pocket of Paradise’s jeans.
“Is that your MIP?”
“Yeah. I’ll do some community service for a few weeks. It’s not that bad.”