Authors: Laura Langston
A driver I recognize from Burien comes to the start line. He gives the cars in front the signal. My heart kicks into overdrive as I watch the two drivers get ready to launch. Beside me, Santiago is checking his gauges, fiddling with his wheel. He'd better be careful. If he hits a patch of ice, he could lose control, big time.
The two cars shoot off. After a minute, Santiago and I pull ahead. This is it. I clutch the steering wheel, feather my foot over the gas pedal. And I watch.
The starter raises his arm. And then he drops it.
I launch in a surge of adrenaline and speed. The world rushes by. Blood roars in my ears. Santiago is inches back. I'm going to win. I deserve to win.
And that's when I smell itâcherry Twizzlers. The familiar prickle hits the back of my neck. There's a flash of movement off to my right. It's Logan. Staring at me from the passenger seat. One side of his face is cut and bleeding, the other is smashed beyond recognition.
“Hey, Shields.” He grins. “How's it goin'?”
I stop breathing. “You're not real,” I yell. “You can't be.”
But the look he gives me is as real as anything I've ever seen. I'm pretty sure the blood on his face is wet too.
“Don't be such a dweeb. I'm as real as you are. Probably more.”
I swear I'm going to piss my pants. “Go away!”
“No way.” He laughs. “I've been trying to get your attention for weeks.”
He has it now. Outside the car, everything slows. I'm inching down the track. The world creeps past in major slow motion. Rain is starting to fall; it hovers above the windshield, almost suspended in time.
“Why won't you leave me alone?”A bead of sweat rolls down my forehead and stings my eye. I press on the gas, urge the Acura forward. The car shudders but stays almost still. I can't lose. I need to help Mom. I need my pride. “You're dead.”
“And you think life stops when you're dead?” He laughs. “That's naÃ¯ve.”
“I killed you.” Tears clog the back of my throat. “If it wasn't for me, you'd still be alive.”
He snorts. “You didn't kill me. If you hadn't dared me to race, I would've found another way to bail on life. The same way you are.”
“I'm not bailing.”
“Sure you are. You're a loser, Shields. A total and complete wuss.”
I grit my teeth. “I'm no wuss. Wusses don't race.”
“No. They're afraid to live. Just like you. You're scared you don't measure up.”
“You're full of it.”
“You think you're nothing without five thousand pounds of steel between you and the world.”
The tears start to fall.
“You're racing out of fear. All of your decisions are based on fear. Every single one.”
“No way.” Furiously I wipe my eyes.
“Yes way. You're scared you'll lose your car. You're scared you'll lose your house. You're scared you'll lose Hannah.”
“I can't lose Hannah. Hannah doesn't want me. And she's with Cole anyway.”
“Yeah, and why do you think I've been bugging you?” He doesn't wait for me to answer. “Cole Murray is a dipstick. You're the one who's supposed to be with Hannah.”
He glances over his shoulder. “I don't see anybody else in the car.”
You'll never change. You'll never stop.
“Hannah wants me to stop racing. Forever.”
He nods. “Yeah.”
I 'd have to give up my car. I wouldn't be able to help Mom. My stomach bottoms out. What if I give it all up, and Hannah still doesn't want me? Logan's right. I am afraid. I'm afraid I'll never been good enough for Hannah Sinclair.
“I can't do it,” I admit.
Logan dips head the way he used to. For a second I forget about his blood and ripped skin and exposed flesh. I see Logan, my friend. And I miss him. “Wuss,” he says again.
Wuss, badassâwhat's the difference?
Time is speeding up. I catch fifth gear and floor it. There's a surface dip ahead that'll be full of rain. I'll need to compensate. I glance in my rearview mirror.
Santiago won't be able to. Not with those tires. He'll fishtail. Maybe lose control. Panic clutches me. And this crash will be my fault. Because I can see it coming.
I need to stop. It's the only way to get him to slow down. To keep him safe. But if I doâ¦My panic swells, black and heavy. If I do, I'll lose my car, my chance to help Mom, my pride. I'll lose everything.
“He's gaining on you,” Logan says.
I glance in the rearview mirror again. But I might save a life.
“What're you gonna be, Shields? A winner or a loser?”
I hit the brakes. Logan smiles and starts to fade.
By the time I pull over, Logan's gone. Santiago slows as he passes me, then disappears down the track. After I stop shaking, I put the car in gear and drive to the finish line, coasting to a stop within inches of Ray.
He yanks open my door. “What the
?” His face is so red it looks like he's sweating blood. “Santiago says you pulled over. Have you lost your mind?”
Have I? I clutch my keys, get out of the car, stare at the passenger seat. What am I looking for? Some kind of sign that what I saw was real? That I'm not a nut job? The seat's empty. There's no sign of life. Or death.
“I just lost three grand!” Ray says.
I know. I lost three grand too. A strange kind of calm settles on me. But I couldn't have lived with myself feeling responsible for another crash.
Over by the Boxster, Santiago looks both smug and pissed. No wonder. It's one thing to win a race. It's another to have a race win handed over.
Except, I didn't just hand him the race. I handed him his life.
“What were you thinking?” Ray demands.
That I'm no loser, no wuss. That I'm through with being a badass. But Ray wouldn't understand. “Nothing.” My breath comes out in a puff of white. My keys stab my hand. I hardly understand myself. I wonder if Hannah will.
Engines rumble in the distance. Another race is about to start. There'll always be another race. But not for me. I stare at my Acura. From now on, I'll be without wheels. It'll be justâ¦me. I dangle my keys. “Here.” I drop them into Ray's palm. “It's yours.”
Giving up my car a few weeks ago was the hardest thing I've ever done. Until now.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of Logan's house, I stare at his front porch. Someone has tied blue balloons to the railing. Cars crowd the driveway and stretch down the street. I had to park Cam's truck two blocks away.
Snow crunches under my feet as I walk up to the front door. Through the window to my right, I see a crowd of people in the living room. A silver Happy Birthday banner hangs from the fireplace. Beads of sweat pop out on my forehead. It would take me two minutes to walk back to the truck, to drive away.
I don't have to be here.
I hear the word like someone is standing beside me. Is it Logan? I'm not sure. I don't feel a prickle. I don't smell Twizzlers. But he's around. I feel him. Especially when I see Hannah.
She and I haven't said more than a dozen words to each other since the race. She's either with Cole or she's ignoring me. Not cool. Fingers shaking, I ring the bell.
Amy answers, staring up at me with those familiar gray eyes. She looks so much like Logan. Tears jam the back of my throat. I want to turn around and run. But there's nowhere to hide. Nothing to hide behind.
“Tom!” She throws herself at me. “I haven't seen you in, like, forever.”
I saw Amy the other day, but she hasn't seen me since the funeral. I clutch her tiny shoulders, swallow back my tears. Amy doesn't hate me. And all this time I thought she did.
“Come on.” She tugs me forward. “Mom's back here somewhere. So's the food.” My eyes scan the living room as we head for the kitchen. The brown couch is in the same place. The piano's still in the corner. There's the picture of Logan and his family on top. Logan's grandpa is talking to a few of Logan's friends from the swim team. I avoid their eyes. I need to find Hannah and say what I came to say. Before Logan jumps out and spooks me all over again.
“There's the food.” Amy points to the table. It's loaded with Swedish meatballs, pasta salad, cheese and crackers. And Hannah is standing beside it.
She's setting out a plate, removing plastic wrap. She's wearing a dress. A tight red dress. Red was Logan's favorite color.
I walk up behind her, thinking of all the things I want to say
. I'll never
race again. I promise. Cole's a dipstick. Logan said so
I saw him and he's
still alive and he's okay with us being together.
Yeah, that'll so fly.
Instead I say, “You can't ignore me forever.”
She whirls around. “You came.”
“I told you I would. I left three messages. And I texted. Four times.”
Her cheeks flood with color. She straightens a tray of veggies and dip. “I've been busy.”
Yeah. With Cole “the Dipstick” Murray.
“Here.” She hands me a paper plate. “There's cake.”
It has blue frosting and it's shaped like a swimming pool. An edge of brown peeks out. Chocolate. Prickles hit my neck. Logan's favorite. The air shifts. My stomach flips. Oh manâ¦I need to get out of here. “You want to get together after school this week?” I ask. “Tuesday or Wednesday? We could go somewhere for fries. And talk.”
“There's nothing to talk about.”
I won't take no for an answer. “DQ maybe? 'Cause we'll need to walk.”
“Yeah, I heard your car is in Ray's shop.” She leans over and cuts a piece of cake. Her hair is getting longer. It's past her ears. Soon it'll be touching her shoulders. “Getting fixed or something.”
That's what I've told everybody else. Other than Mom and Cam. I wanted Hannah to be the first to know the truth. “Ray owns my car now. It's his.”
“Right.” Hannah's brown eyes are filled with disbelief as she grabs a fork and straightens. “You gave it away.”
“Yeah.” The air shifts again. I feel lightheaded. Focus, focus. “I owed him fourteen grand for the repairs, which is one reason Iâ” I stop. Hannah doesn't need to hear my excuses. There was the car and there was the house. Which we may end up keeping after all if Mom puts a suite in the basement and gets approved for some homeowner-help thing the government has in place.
“I signed it over to him,” I tell her. “It's his.”
Our gazes lock. She still doesn't believe me. I can tell. “I'm not working for him anymore either.”
She blinks. “You're not?”
I shake my head. “I finished two days ago. I start at that garage by the ravine in another week.” Ray's biggest competition. Unbelievably, Lansky wrote me a letter of recommendation, and there might even be a chance of an apprenticeship. “Lots has changed, Hannah. I've châ”
A familiar smell floods the kitchen. Cherry Twizzlers. My heart kicks into overdrive; prickles race down my spine. I brace myself for the flash of black hair, his grin. Instead Amy bounces up to the table, waving a handful of familiar red sticks.
“We forgot the cherry Twizzlers! And we can't have a party for Logan without them.” She piles the licorice beside the cake and rushes off again.
My heartbeat slows, but prickles still tease the back of my neck. “So, what's it going to be? Tuesday or Wednesday?” I'm not giving her a chance to say no. We'll be together sooner or later. It may as well be sooner.
Hannah doesn't answer; she just stares at me. My cheeks grow warm.
I pick up a Twizzler and spin it between my fingers. “We'll go to DQ,” I say. “I'll buy you a Snickers Blizzard.” The prickles start to fade. “That's your favorite, right?”
“How did you know?”
I smile. “I just did.” And the prickles are gone.
“Let's go Wednesday,” she says. “I'll drive.”
With thanks to Bryan Harrison of Evo Street Racers and to Barry Nazarko for the hours of input.
Laura Langston is the author of
in the Orca Soundings series, as well as picturebooks and teen novels. Laura lives in Victoria, British Columbia.