And there it was. The brass ring that held the key to my freedom, inches from my grasp. I grabbed Dad‘s keychain out of his fingers and turned the key in the ignition. The engine rumbled to life underneath my sweaty grip.
It was the summer of 1986 and I was the proud owner of a driver‘s permit from the great state of California. Back then, once you passed a driver‘s education class, you could get behind the wheel. But in my life, there was a more powerful governing body that controlled my ability to drive: my parents.
“Make sure that you keep both hands in the ten and two position at all times,“ Dad said.
“But how am I supposed to hold my beer if both of my hands are on the wheel?“ I asked with a smile.
Dad seared a hole into my head with his stare. “Don‘t even joke about that. Do you understand me?“
“I was kidding!“
“I don’t care.“
I caught Mom’s reflection in the rear view mirror. She stopped going over the grocery store receipt to give me one of her looks. Eyebrows arched. Head tilted down. Chin to the left. It was a look I knew all too well. It was the “don’t dig yourself any further into this hole“ look.
My parents were pretty easy going and fair, as parents go anyway. Mom and Dad were always cool with my friends, let me go out at night within reason, and even let me have a telephone in my room. They moved to the United States in 1964 and luckily for me, weren‘t like the “typical“ Filipino parents. They didn‘t make me practice the piano eight hours a day, seven days a week. They didn‘t frown at an A-minus on my report card and ask, “Why isn‘t it an A-plus?“ And they didn‘t demand that I only study medicine or law in college. They merely suggested all those things. It was a slight twist on the Asian parenting handbook.
When I pushed to get more time behind the wheel, I knew what to expect. There would be lectures about how to be super-duper safe on the road. I‘d hear how to be wary of the other drivers. But more than anything else, they stressed that I was not to be an idiot in any way, shape, or form.
“Watch your speed!“ Dad said. “You‘re only supposed to go twenty-five around here!“
Around here was the suburbs of San Diego. I grew up in a home like a lot of other homes with a yard like many other yards. My neighborhood was like a lot of other neighborhoods. I graduated from Pence Junior High School this past June. I would attend Howard McMillan High School in a few days. It was a little more than a mile from our house.
“Dad, you know I‘m allowed to drive to school by myself with a permit,“ I said. I kept my hands at ten and two in hopes he‘d notice. I don’t know if he did. But I did hear him grunt.
“Why don‘t you ride your bike to school?“ Mom asked. “It‘s about the same distance from home.“
To a guy without his own car, a mile was the distance between San Diego and the moon. It was 5,280 feet of rugged terrain with steep hills and deep valleys. But to my parents, it was a short bike ride.
“I read the DMV manual and it says I’m allowed to drive,“ I said.
“We know the laws,“ Dad said. “But you‘re not driving until we think you‘re ready.“
“But I‘ll be the only one in my class not driving to school.“
“Then that makes you unique,“ he said. “Be ready to make a right at the light.“
I couldn‘t believe it. My parents were oblivious to how ridiculous I’d look pulling up to school on a ten speed bike. Or worse, they knew and didn‘t care. I slumped in my seat and jerked the wheel as I made the turn at the light.
Mom’s piercing scream rang in my ears. “BRANDON JACOB DELACRUZ! HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND?“
I shook my head a bit and looked around. Had I hit someone? I looked down at the dashboard and checked my speed. Was I going too fast? “What happened?“ I asked.
“You ran a red light and almost hit a car!“ Dad said. His whitened hands gripped the dashboard.
The other driver shook her fist at me as she passed us. Where in the world had she come from? “Wait a minute, I‘m allowed to turn right on red and I have the right of way,“ I said. “Right?“
A vein on Dad‘s head throbbed as he slowly turned toward me. Suddenly, he was Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. His glowing eyes were blood red. “Pull over.“
I parked the car to the side of the road and shut off the engine. This was it. I was about to hear the loudest and longest string of curse words I had ever heard. That included the time Josh and I snuck into the movies to watch Scarface when we were thirteen. “Dad,“ I pleaded. “I‘m sorry. I didn‘t mean…“
He held up his hand and pointed at the keys in the ignition. “Get out,“ he said.
Dad and I traded spots. I ran around the back and jumped into the passenger seat just in case he had ideas of leaving me here.
I didn‘t dare look in the backseat. I knew that Mom‘s icy stare awaited and I couldn‘t take both barrels from a parental blast at the moment. But when I peered over my shoulder, Mom‘s hands trembled like she‘d been out in the cold and not from the anger I expected.
Nobody said much when we got home. We unloaded the groceries from the car and brought them into the house. As I placed the last bag on top of the kitchen counter, I braced myself for the fire and brimstone speech. But instead, I got nothing. Dad grabbed the crossword puzzle while Mom started dinner.
“Do you need any help?“ I asked.
“No,“ she said. “I‘ve got it. Dinner will be ready later.“
I stayed on guard in case they went with a sneak attack. Still nothing. “Um, I‘m going outside for a while,“ I said. “Is that okay?“
“Take the trash out on your way,“ Dad said. His eyes were down on the crossword.
“Okay,“ I said. I dodged a bullet there. It could have been a lot worse. Mom and Dad were fine. And I was in the clear.
“By the way, Brandon,“ Dad said. He put his pen down and folded his hands in front of him. “You‘re not driving for a week.“
I dragged the fifth and last bag of trash across the driveway and threw it in the can. What could I do before dinner? I could ride down the block to the 7-Eleven and see who‘d challenge me in a game of Karate Champ. Or I could sit down on the curb in front and wallow in self-pity. I opted for the latter. Thanks to a car that appeared out of nowhere, I was going to be the one loser in the tenth grade that didn‘t drive to school. If I had any plans of being one of the cool kids, they were going to come up short, about the length of a car.
A rattling VW Bug with faded gold paint pulled up right in front of me. The turned out headlight made it look like the car had a lazy eye. It was a hunk of junk, but it was worlds better than my lousy bike. The engine sputtered and spewed a black cloud as it came to a stop. “Hey, Brandon,“ Ally said.
Ally McCartney lived at the corner house at the other end of the block. Our families went way back. Our moms were from the same town in the Philippines. Our dads were old Navy buddies and served at the same base for years. When we were five, Ally and I would race our bikes from her front yard to my front yard. She won almost every time. She played basketball, baseball, and football with us guys in the neighborhood too. Once in a football game, I’d cut through the defense like I was Walter Payton. But as I was finishing a spin move, Ally hit me in the chest like she was Ronnie Lott. My hat flew off in one direction and my shoes went in the other. It was my eleventh birthday party.
“Is that your car?“ I asked.
She turned her Cincinnati Reds cap around on her head. “So what do you think?“ she asked.
I pointed at her headlight. “Your car needs glasses.“
She looked down and laughed. “My dad said he‘d replace it as soon as he found another one,“ she said as she pushed her glasses up. “They don‘t make them like this anymore.“
“There‘s a reason for that,“ I said.
“Shut up and get in,“ she said. “The door‘s open.“
I stepped around to the passenger door and pulled on the handle. It didn‘t budge.
“Jiggle the handle a little,“ she said. “Then pull up on it, hold for a second, and then let it drop in place. When you‘ll hear a metal pin drop, you can open the door.“
It took me four times to finally get it open. “Jesus, Ally. I’ve had math tests that weren’t this complicated!“
“Be careful with the seat,“ she said as she started the car. “If you lean back too hard, it’ll lay flat.“
I plopped down on the fuzzy pink pillow she had on the passenger seat. “Oh my God,“ I said. “Are you listening to Wham?“
“Um, no,“ she said as she fiddled with the knobs. “The, um, car came with that tape deck and um, that tape was stuck in it.“
“Yeah, they‘ll do that,“ I smiled. “Did you try the eject button?“ I pressed it and the tape popped right out of the player.
Ally turned to me with a sheepish grin. “Please don‘t tell anyone,“ she asked.
I put my left hand up and drew an X over my chest. “I won‘t say a word. Not even a careless whisper.“
She popped the clutch and we took off down the street with a trail of black smoke behind us. We drove past the 7-Eleven and the lines of bicycles parked near the newspaper stand. We cruised by Silver Wing elementary school. Ally and I won the two-on-two tournament there in the fourth grade.
We drove up Palm Avenue and parked in the high school parking lot. McMillan High School ate up the entire block. Cement columns all over the campus stretched into the sky. The charcoal buildings looked like they were part of an ancient empire. Ally and I lay back on the hood of her car and looked up at the amber sky.
“We’re gonna be sophomores here,“ I groaned. “The bottom of the totem pole.“
“Did you know that the bottom of the totem pole is actually a distinguished place? They are the designs seen at eye level, so they’re actually more important,“ she smiled. “And besides, I think it‘s gonna be a great year.“
“Easy for you to say. You’ve got your own car,“ I said. “My folks won‘t let me drive for a week.“
“And why is that again?“
So I told her my story of how a car came out of nowhere as I made a right turn. And even though nobody got hurt, my parents still grounded me. Of all people, I knew Ally would be the one that would make me feel a little less like a loser.
Ally shook her head. “Brandon, you‘re supposed to stop at a red and wait for traffic.“
“But we’re allowed to turn right on a red light.“
“Only when it’s safe,“ she said. “And from what you said, it probably wasn’t.“
I felt as useful as a burnt-out match and almost as bright. I stared up at the glowing marquee. The words “School begins September 1st“ made my insides twist like l was riding the Tilt-A-Whirl. I wrapped both arms around my stomach and rocked back and forth. “We‘re gonna be Sophomores.“
“You said that already,“ she said.
“School hasn’t even started, and I‘ve already got two strikes on me,“ I said. “I’m the only sophomore that’ll get to school by bike.“
Ally banged her shoulder against mine. “You know, I can pick you up in the morning and we can go to school together.“
I rubbed my shoulder. “Are you trying out for football? I‘m sure they could use you.“
She laughed and tapped my shoulder with her fist. “So you want the ride to school or not?“
“Okay,“ I said. “But I’m bringing some of my tapes with me. I can’t hear you blast ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ every morning.“
“You realize that’s exactly what I’m gonna do now, don’t you?“ Ally asked as she slid off the hood. “Let‘s get out of here before you get grounded for two weeks.“
“Jennifer is at a sleepover tonight and Brian is at lola‘s house until Sunday,“ Mom said as she put on her earrings. “There‘s spaghetti in the fridge and bread in the toaster oven.“
This was some way to spend the last Friday night of my summer vacation. My parents were going out to a party and my younger brother and sister had plans elsewhere. I had leftover pasta. Talk about living the life. “I‘ll be fine, Mom. Don‘t worry.“
Dad was in their bedroom. “Have you seen my black tie with the gray and red stripes?“
“It‘s with the white shirt that you wore to Josephine‘s wedding last month,“ Mom said. “Check the hallway closet with the rest of your suits.“
“Madeline, would it be too much of a bother to ask that we share the bedroom closet?“
“Yes, dear. It is too much to ask.“ Mom cocked her head to the side. “Maybe I should heat up the spaghetti before we leave.“
I did my best to not roll my eyes or sound exasperated. There was no sense in upsetting the delicate truce that we had. “Mom, I‘m not hungry right now and if you heat it up before you leave, it‘ll get cold again when I am. Then I‘ll have to do it myself anyway. I can handle it.“
Dad came to my door with his tie in his hands. “Does this tie even go with this suit?“
“It‘s fine, Jon,“ she said. “Do you need me to tie it or can you manage?“
“Maddie, I’ve spent twenty-five years in the Navy. I can tie any kind of knot known to man. Windsor, double Windsor, reef knot, bowline knot...“
“You look great Dad,“ I said. “In fact, you both look fantastic.“
“Thank you, Brandon,“ he said. “But you‘re still not driving. Flattery, while appreciated, will get you nowhere.“
“Can‘t I pay you guys a compliment without having some ulterior motive?“
Mom and Dad stared at me. Then, as if they’d rehearsed it, they simultaneously let out a resounding, “No!“
I watched through the window as Mom and Dad pulled out of the driveway. As soon as the red of his taillights turned the corner, I ran off to the kitchen and grabbed the phone. There was no way in hell I was going to spend my last Friday night of freedom like this.
Josh Villegas and I met when we were six years old. We were in the same first grade class and found we lived a few blocks down the street. One day at lunch his mother had packed him two cans of juice and Mom had forgotten to pack a drink for me. He gave me his extra drink without me asking. From then on, we were best friends.
“Josh, tell me you‘re free.“
“I’m so free,“ he said. “My sister‘s having a sleepover and they‘ve been playing with My Little Ponies all night. If I don‘t get out of here soon, I‘m gonna start cracking skulls.“
“Come and pick me up. My parents are out for the night,“ I said.
“I can‘t,“ he said. “My dad took the car and mine isn‘t ready yet. Otherwise, I‘d already be gone.“
“When are you finally gonna get that piece of crap moving?“ I asked.
“Hey, I‘m building it from scratch. That takes time, not that you‘d know anything about fixing a car,“ he scoffed. “Besides, you‘re the newly minted driver. Why don‘t you come get me?“
I let out a sigh. “I‘m not allowed to drive for a week. I was driving with my parents this afternoon and got into an almost-accident.“
“What‘s an almost-accident?“
“No crash, but with all the parental freak-out attached.“
“So now what? We‘re stuck.“
Hmmm. This was tricky. Dad told me that I wasn‘t allowed to drive Mom‘s car for a week. But he didn‘t tell me that I couldn‘t ride in the car. “Josh? How fast can you get to my house if you run?“
Seven minutes later, I got my answer.
“Where‘d your parents go anyway?“ Josh asked as headlights flew past us in the opposite direction.
“They went to some party. They won‘t be back until midnight.“
Dad didn’t actually say that I wasn’t allowed to go out. So technically speaking, I wasn’t breaking any rules. Once I put it that way to Josh, we were off and running.
“You know, I could do without your dad killing me tonight,“ he said.
“It‘ll be fine. We‘re going to the bowling alley. It‘ll take us ten minutes to get home. Tops.“ I was trying to quell his fears, but my stomach was doing a few twists and turns itself.
Josh kept his hands gripped on the steering wheel. “God, the handling on this thing sucks ass.“
We pulled into the parking lot at the 32nd Street Bowl-A-Rama and jumped out of the car. Every Friday during the summer, they cleared the game room and turned it into a club. Josh spent the first few minutes gawking at every perm and pair of neon leg warmers that walked by.
“You‘re making us look like a couple of stalkers,“ I said.
He walked up to this short blonde girl with a triangular haircut and neon green sweater. “Which girl did you think was cute, Brandon? THIS ONE?“
The blonde girl glared over at the troublemaker, which was me and not the doofus pointing right at her. Josh looked over at me and laughed his famous silent laugh with squinted eyes. But it wouldn‘t be complete without the knee-slap.
A few hours later, we were sitting at a table in the corner of the club. We were toasting ourselves with a couple of sodas on a great night out.
“Good times,“ I said.
“This night ain‘t over yet,“ Josh said after taking a sip. “Whose turn is it?“
“Mine,“ I said. I slammed my empty glass on the table. “Go ahead. Bring it.“
Josh and I always played a game we called “Two Bucks.“ It was “Truth or Dare“ but without the truth part. One of us would come up with a task and a time frame to complete it. Whoever failed gave the other two bucks. Neither one of us had to give up any money in the last month and a half. The last time we played, Josh started every conversation by barking like a dog. It made for some great entertainment when we went to the McDonald‘s drive-thru that night.
“Since you‘re grounded, I‘m gonna go easy on you,“ Josh said. “Two bucks says that you can‘t go over to that girl in the corner and get her to dance with you in less than fifteen minutes. You have to dance one whole song. If you guys start in the middle of one song, you must keep her on the floor with you through the entirety of the next song. Deal?“
I took his hand and shook it. “Which girl is it again?“
“That one,“ he said. “The girl in the white sweater and pink dress.“
I saw a tall brunette with long straight hair and shapely legs in the far corner. She looked pretty good from where we were, but her back was to us.
I whipped off my jacket and threw it at his face. “Keep an eye on that for me.“ I walked through the dance floor and made a beeline toward the girl. It was getting near the end of the night and the DJ had already started up the slow jams. If I was going to win the bet, I had to work fast. I checked my breath by huffing into my palm and taking a whiff. It smelled passable enough, like a mix of French fries and spearmint chewing gum. I got close to the brunette and leaned in her ear. “Excuse me, do you wanna dance?“
“That depends,“ the brunette said as she turned around. “Do I get a share of the bet?“
Standing before me was Ally. Gone was her ever present Cincinnati Reds baseball cap. In its place was a long, silky head of hair that flowed with every little motion. Her funky rimmed glasses were gone too. I saw a pair of deep brown eyes and long eyelashes touched with a bit of makeup. Her lips, which were usually smacking on a piece of bubble gum, looked redder and fuller. She had on a fluffy white sweater and a soft pink dress that made me think of the sky before sunset. She was the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen.
Ally snapped her fingers. “Earth to Brandon, come in.“
I blinked for what felt like the first time in a long time. “Um…sorry about that.“
“You and Josh are playing ‘Two Bucks‘, aren‘t you? What‘s the bet?“
“The bet is that I‘m…um, supposed to talk to um…the girl that he pointed at…um…you…which you already know…and we‘re supposed to dance for one song.“ Jeez, how many times can a guy use “um“ in a sentence?
She tilted her head and her hair cascaded down alongside her like a waterfall. “Well, I don‘t want to make it too easy for you,“ she said.
“The bet. I‘ve gotta make it at least look good.“
I smiled. “Oh you do, do you?“
“Of course,“ she beamed. “So, let me hear it.“
I had never noticed how beautiful her smile was. “Um...hear what?“
“Your pick up line. If you didn‘t know me, what line would you have used to get me to go and dance with you?“
I shuffled my feet a bit. “I pretty much gave it.“
“So your best line consists of ‘Excuse me, do you wanna dance?’“
“Well, I tend to say it with a great deal of charm,“ I said as I extended my hand. “So, what do you say?“
She gave me a tiny smile. “Okay.“
I walked beside her toward the dance floor until we got to a small clearing in the middle. We faced each other and I put my hands at her waist. A flush of heat ran up to my head and pulled my hands away. “Sorry, was that okay?“ I asked her.
She put her hands on my shoulders and laughed. “Yes, Brandon. It‘s fine.“
Neither of us said anything for the first few moments. At times, I‘d look at her face and watch the colored lights move across her cheeks and shine on her eyes. But when she turned toward me, I‘d look away and marvel at the mirror ball above us. When I thought it might be safe to look back, I‘d catch her looking down toward the floor. This happened a couple more times until we finally met eye to eye. We both laughed and the tension in my shoulders melted away. From that moment on, neither of us looked away.
“Hey,“ I said.
“Hi,“ she said.
“Tell me if I step on your feet.“
She smiled. “I will.“
“They‘re nice,“ I said. “Your shoes, I mean. They‘re nice.“
“Thanks,“ she said as she stroked her hair behind her ear. “I like your shirt.“
“This old thing?“ I asked. I moved my hands from her sides to her back.
She rested her hands on my shoulders and bit her lip. “It fits you really well.“
My hands brushed against her hair. “I never knew your hair was so long.“
“That‘s because I usually have it tied up and under a baseball cap.“ Her fingers grazed the back of my neck.
“I like it,“ I said. I moved my hands upward until I could feel the ends of her long strands of hair near the middle of her back. “It‘s soft.“
She brushed a few stray hairs away from my eyes. “You‘ve got soft hair too.“
The music swelled in my ears. My fingers brushed against the tiny straps of her dress. She caressed my neck with both hands and nestled her cheek against mine. I lifted my head from her shoulder and pressed my forehead against hers. I stared right into her closed eyes and I could feel myself losing air.
“Ally?“ I asked.
Her eyes opened. “Yes, Brandon?“
I tilted my head and drifted toward her. I felt the heat from her lips getting closer and closer to mine. I got a whiff of her cherry perfume and felt dizzy. But as our lips were about to touch, I felt a rhythmic buzzing on my chest. Ally looked down at her tiny purse trapped between us. She looked down and I felt her shoulders slump. “It‘s my pager,“ she said.
“A what?“ I asked. I knew what a pager was. But my brain wasn’t exactly working at the moment.
“Dad makes me carry one whenever I go out,“ she said as she reached into her purse. “It‘s from home. I‘d better call them back. Did you see a payphone around here?“
I shook my head to get my vision back in focus. “Um…there‘s one near the bathrooms toward the back.“
She smiled and grabbed my hand. “I‘ll look for you when I get back.“
“I‘ll be here,“ I said. We kept eye contact as she made her way across the room.
When she disappeared from view, I walked back toward Josh and our table. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together with a huge grin on his face. I reached into my wallet and handed him the money. Josh raised one eyebrow at me. “What? No witty retort?“
“Nope,“ I said. “You won the bet. I didn‘t finish the song. Here’s your money.“ I plopped down in the chair and leaned back. I don‘t know what happened to Ally and me out there on the dance floor. It was crazy, exciting, completely unexpected, and I couldn‘t wait to do it again.
“Spill it,“ Josh said. “I saw you bring the brunette to the middle of the floor and then I lost sight of you. Who was she?“
I couldn‘t hide my smile. “It was Ally.“
“Ally McCarthy? Our Ally? She was the girl in the white sweater?“ Josh popped out of his chair and scanned the room. “Did she bring a friend?“
I grabbed my soda and toyed with the condensation down the side of the glass. I replayed every bit of our dance in my head. I could still feel the softness of her skin under my fingertips. Hints of her perfume lingered all over my neck and collar.
“You okay, B? You look like you just played forty minutes against the Celtics and won,“ he said. “What gives?“
“Man, I don‘t know. We were right there, you know? We were dancing. We were talking a little bit. Then I was moving in and she was moving in…“
“And then?“ Josh asked. He had moved his chair so he was in front of me.
I started to tell Josh about how close Ally and I had come to kissing when I stood up. I craned my neck as high as I could and stood on my chair. The dance floor was jam packed, but I couldn‘t find her anywhere. “Hold on a sec,“ I said as I got up from my seat.
“You tease!“ Josh yelled. “Finish the story!“
I moved through the scores of people and dodged drinks and plates of nachos as I got to the pay-phones. Ally wasn‘t there. I looked around me to see if I had passed her. No such luck.
I tapped a blonde girl on the shoulder as she came out of the bathroom. “Did you see a girl with long brown hair in there? Kinda tall?“
“I was the only one in there,“ she said. “Sorry.“
I moved past her and made my way back toward the dance floor. My head was on a swivel as I searched for any sign of her. I looked at every girl in the club with any shade of white on. Then I looked at anyone with long hair. No luck. I stuffed my hands into my pockets and made the slow walk back to Josh.
He looked flush all over. “Where the hell did you go?“
“I went looking for Ally,“ I said. “You didn‘t see her go by, did you?“
“Forget about her, B. We gotta get going!“
“What?“ I asked. Did Josh tell me to forget about her? He‘d better have a damn good reason...
Josh thrust his watch in front of my face. “It‘s five to midnight! We gotta go!“
We peeled out of the parking lot and zoomed down the streets toward my house. Josh drove like a pilot in a dogfight as he wove through traffic. In, out, and somehow, up and down. When we pulled up to my street, the house lights were still out and there was no sign of Dad‘s car. Josh let out a deep sigh of relief. He parked Mom’s car back in front of the house, exactly where it was before.
“Just in time,“ he said.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Just tired.“
Josh tossed me the keys. “You up for hoops tomorrow? I‘ll round up the usual suspects.“
“Yeah,“ I said as I headed toward my door. “Tomorrow.“
I got inside and kicked off my shoes. I cracked open a soda out of the refrigerator and sat down at the dinner table. I know I had dodged a big bullet with my parents tonight, but I couldn‘t help but think about Ally. Did I do something wrong? Did I scare her off? Did I move too fast? Did she regret what happened? And what was that anyway? Why was it so scary and so exciting at the same time?
I felt like I was seeing Ally for the first time. And now, it was over before we could begin.
I looked at my alarm clock through my bleary eyes and saw it was a little before eight. I never got up before ten most Saturdays. After an unsuccessful attempt to go back to sleep, I dragged myself out of bed and jumped into the shower.
I came to the kitchen expecting to surprise my parents. I wasn‘t usually awake to see Dad cook his Saturday morning breakfasts. I wanted to talk to them about what had happened between Ally and me and how confused I felt about everything. But how could I tell them about what had happened and not tell them how I had gotten out there? I felt guilty about sneaking out. Especially since they hadn‘t gone ballistic on me when they had every right to do so. I decided right then and there, I would tell them the truth. I would tell them what I did and take whatever punishment they doled out.
But when I got to the kitchen, there wasn‘t the sound of bacon frying or the smell of brewed coffee in the air. Mom and Dad were at the breakfast table. Dad stared out the window, still as a statue. Mom had a tissue in her hands. She looked like she had been crying.
“Mom?“ I asked. “Are you okay?“
They looked at each other, but didn‘t speak. After a minute, Dad stood up and shuffled his feet a bit. “Brandon, there‘s something you need to know.“ He fidgeted with his hands and cleared his throat.
“What is it?“ I asked. I‘d never seen my dad this way. His voice trembled and he was at a loss of words. It scared me.
Dad looked down at the ground and then back up at me. “Ally‘s mom died in a car accident last night.“
The gears on my bike clicked into place as I started up the hill. The steeper the hill got, the harder I went. I clamped my feet on the pedals and my calves seared in response. But I didn‘t care. I needed the wind to cut through me as I raced around my neighborhood. I needed the sun to beat down on me. I needed to drench my clothes with sweat. I needed something, anything, that would help me get rid of the gnawing pit in my stomach.
I rode past the 7-Eleven and peeked over at the Karate Champ game. There was a small group of kids gathered around the machine. I watched as a little girl with long brown hair mashed every button on her way to victory.
I biked down to the junior high parking lot and parked under the big oak tree in front of the cafeteria. Josh, Ally, and I sat there every day at lunch. Ally‘s mom dropped off a hot lunch that we‘d all share before she headed back to work. We‘d play rock, paper, scissors to see who would get the last of the brownies she used to bake.
I rode up the hills, across the baseball diamond, and into the empty water reservoir. I ended at the top of the hill overlooking my old elementary school. I rubbed my legs as the burning fatigue settled into my calves. Down the hill, in the middle of the basketball court was Ally‘s car. The faded gold paint caught the late afternoon sun. Everything around me, from the sky to the expanse of grass, had the burnt orange tint of an old photograph.
Ally sat on the ground with her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs. She hid most of her face behind her huddled arms and legs, but I could still see her tear-stained eyes. She rarely blinked, if at all.
I hit a bump and the resonant clang of my bike echoed throughout the court. Ally looked up and I froze in place with my hands gripped on the handlebars. “Hi,“ I said.
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Hi.“
I parked the bike and sat down beside her. For a long while, we didn‘t speak. I didn‘t dare to. I didn‘t even want to think about anything. I didn’t want to think about last night, or our dance, or about the butterflies in my stomach I had by being this close to her. I needed to push it all aside. Ally‘s mom was gone. “I‘m so sorry,“ I said.
“Thanks,“ she said. Her voice was a whisper. She took off her hat and traced her fingers all around the embroidered “C“ shaped logo. The edges were well worn with a few popped stitches here and there. Most of the original bright red coloring had faded away. “This was my mom‘s. My grandpa Joe bought it for her at her first game.“
It was hard to lift my head. “Are you guys big Cincinnati Reds fans?“
Ally nodded. “Yeah. Because of Grandpa Joe. He loved them.“
“That was great baseball,“ I said. “The Big Red Machine. Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez. They were awesome.“
She looked up at me with a hint of a smile. “Mom loved Johnny Bench. He‘s still her favorite player...I mean, he was her favorite...“ I saw the tears form in her eyes as her tiny smile faded away. Her breath came out in giant choking sobs as her head dropped to her chest.
I reached over and wrapped my arms around her. Her cries dampened my shoulder as she shuddered against my chest. My eyes welled up. “I‘ve got you Ally. I‘ve got you.“
She lifted her head up from my shoulder. I moved the stray hairs around her eyes and wiped the wetness away from her cheeks. And like last night, we locked eyes. I felt all the hurt she had in them. I saw all the confusion. But there was something else there too. Something I knew we both felt. We leaned closer and closer toward one another as our lips met in a kiss.
I wish I could say that I remembered every detail of that kiss. I wish I could remember how long it lasted, or how her perfume smelled, or the softness of her lips. All I remembered was how warm she felt in my arms. And how scared I was about everything else.
I knew we weren’t kids anymore, but I knew we weren’t adults either. We were stuck somewhere in between. Neither of us knew it at the time, but we’d entered the years when life took us down uncharted roads. And sometimes, we’d have to travel those roads without the people that have been with us our whole lives. But if you were lucky, you found someone else willing to go down those roads with you...