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Backcountry

BY CU FLESHMAN
 

University of California - Irvine, '18
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors List

 

            I meet Jamie the night the cops get themselves together and raid the neighborhood racetrack for real. Because there really isn’t anything to do in a backwater town barely north of Charlotte, we make our own fun at an old elementary school. Men and women of all ages race their trucks and family cars on the track behind the playground, where kids used to run back when the school was open.

            Jamie is new to the town, and nobody really likes him showing up at our little party. Even rednecks want privacy, and Jamie feels like an invasion. He’s charming, but it’s obvious he’s trying too hard. He winks at the girls, runs his hand through his curly dark hair. I know Jamie’s something of a fool. But when he winks at me, I find myself giggling with the other high school girls. He turns and talks to a man wearing a sunhat. I fantasize he’s asking about me. “You’re friggin’ jailbait,” one of my friends says to me. “That guy’s gotta be thirty, at least.”

            “Not like I’d turn that ass in.” I put a little bit of a twang on my words for effect, an over-exaggeration of our normal accents, to make my friends laugh. “All the guys around here chew straw in bed, anyway. What’s wrong with taking advantage of fresh resources?”

            As we walk down to the track, a hand catches my elbow. I turn around to see Jamie. “What’s your name?” he asks.

            I tell him my name is Tara, and he gives me wicked grin that makes me feel a little tipsy, although I haven’t touched a drink yet. “Want to be my good luck charm, Tara?”

            I nod and let my eyes flutter, the way I’ve practiced in the mirror a thousand times. I’m expecting him to kiss me, that’s what everyone does for luck, right? But Jamie grabs my arm and marches me down to the track.

            “Okay if she rides shotgun?” he says to the man working the timer.

            There’s some fuss from the people behind him. What kind of stranger shows up to a neighborhood party and takes a teenage girl along in a race? But the man with the timer rules the sport, and though I’m pretty sure he’s trashed, nobody disputes it when he says I can ride with Jamie. The next thing I know, he drags me down to his car, a sleek black two-door, and the audience cheers from the sidelines.

            Jamie’s car is clean inside, no fast food wrappers anywhere in sight. “Buckle in,” Jamie says. I haven’t worn a seatbelt since I was ten, but I do as he says. “You sure you don’t mind?” he asks.

            I shake my head. I’ve never been in a race of any kind before. Okay, I still feel a little jilted that he didn’t kiss me for luck, but this is almost as good. Jamie isn’t looking at me anymore; he has his hands firmly on the steering wheel as he takes deep breaths. It’s sort of sexy, in a weird way. You can bet he doesn’t chew straw in bed, I tell myself.

            Then the timer man shoots the gun into the air, and I jump. For some reason, it sounds much louder in the car. I don’t have time to wonder about that, because Jamie slams the gas pedal before the sound of the gunshot has died away. I fall backwards into the seat. “Holy shit,” I say.

            “Having fun?” Jamie asks. His voice is remarkably steady, considering the speed of the car. I manage a nod. We whip around the first corner, the second. Jamie throws his whole body into steering, as if his weight can help the car turn better. I hear the crowd cheering. I think, this is my greatest moment. This is better than sex. This is better than getting drunk.

            The first lap is smooth. Jamie doesn’t lose speed for the second lap. Then, as we spin around the track to the third lap, we hear sirens. “Shit,” Jamie says. The crowd scatters as blue and red lights slide over the scene.

            Jamie doesn’t slow down. He shakes his head, seems to decide something. He presses the gas pedal down, making the engine complain, and cranks the steering wheel hard to the right. We crash through the wooden fence on the other side of the track.

            “Where do you live?” he asks as we pull onto the street beyond the track. He sounds so damn casual. “I’ll take you home. I can’t get pulled over, I’ve had a couple drinks.”

            The only thing I can think to say is, “You drive pretty well for a drunk.” My heart still pumps too fast. I wonder what’s happening back at the track. “I live a few streets over,” I say.

            Jamie drives me there in silence, barely wobbling on the road. He drives below the speed limit, and I catch my breath too quickly. The magic of the track is lost. Jamie seems to have deflated, all that charm left with the audience.

            There’s something dark about him now, and for a moment or two I wonder if he’s just going to keep driving with me, never let me leave. It wouldn’t be hard to do. But he pulls over at my house, tells me to go in and don’t tell my parents. It almost looks like he’s going to kiss me, that I’m going to get what I wanted after all. But instead, he pulls back at the last second, maybe thinking jailbait, and drives away in a cloud of exhaust.

 

 

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Cu Fleshman is a writer, art teacher, and ski instructor originally from Winnsboro, South Carolina. She has won a National Silver Medal with Distinction and Regional Gold Key Award for Writing Portfolio from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She has also won two Honorable Mention Awards and two Merit Awards from the YoungArts Foundation. A graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, Cu is now a freshman English major at the University of California, Irvine.