Authors: Paul Swearingen
Tags: #relationships, #el dia de los muertos, #corvette, #day of the dead, #mexican american, #car chase, #hispanic, #mustang
The smell was of burning grass, and Carla
realized that the overheated muffler must have set the grass on
fire. Time to evacuate. She grabbed her book bag and tried the door
latch. It opened readily, and she left the door open and exited
into a stand of dead sunflowers and other weed stalks that were
taller than she was. Her legs were rubbery, but she took a deep
breath and leaned back into the car. A chorus of distant sirens
joined the cloud of smoke.
“See ya on the evening news, jerk.” Marv
looked at her and then pulled at his door handle. The door opened
part way, and Marv fell out of the car.
He’ll live, she thought to herself, and she
pushed her door shut, turned, and pushed her way into a scrub of
low brush and trees and then a nearly dry creek bed. She looked
behind her and up through the scrub. The white smoke was mixed with
black now, so the car must be on fire, too.
Carla hitched her bag around both shoulders
and carefully picked her way down the creek bed. The creek probably
ran into the river that wandered through Ft. Fremont, so eventually
she’d come up on a bridge and would be able to crawl out to a road.
Maybe the dry brush wouldn’t show that she’d passed through it;
maybe Marvelous Marv would keep his mouth shut; maybe the twenty
and her spare change would be enough to get her on a bus and back
to Niotaka in time for her to make her shift after school at the
In the distance, ahead of her, a siren grew
in intensity. If it was a fire truck, it was too late now. That
Corvette and its fiberglass body probably looked like a big old
toasted marshmallow. And that low-life Marv probably looked like a
complete loser, especially if the cops had handcuffed him and
dragged him out of the field.
The bridge ahead of Carla turned out to be
for the highway, and after she climbed the rocky bank she spotted a
roadside café right next to it. Maybe it was time now for that cup
of coffee? She looked carefully both ways down the highway, mostly
for cops, and then crossed the road. She took one look down the
highway before she opened the door; the smoke in the distance was
completely black now but thinning. She shrugged and pushed the door
open and went in. She dropped her bag on the floor under a stool
next to the counter and sat on the one next to it.
“Coffee, please.” While she waited on the
girl to pour it, she swiveled around to survey the almost-empty
café and stopped dead. In a corner booth, facing her, was Sandra,
and across from her was an older man who was leaning across the
table and seemed to be talking to her intensely. Sandra looked
directly at Carla with a look that she never had seen on her face
before, that of near terror.
The man grabbed Sandra’s wrist, and without
thinking Carla picked up a steak knife from a dirty plate on the
counter and almost flew across the café.
She knelt in the booth behind the man and
with the knife gently pricked the skin just below his jaw.
“Let go,” she intoned in her best radio
gangster voice.” “Now. And don’t turn around.”
Slowly, the man uncurled his fingers from
around Sandra’s arm, which she withdrew and clutched around
herself. The man didn’t move.
She kept the knife to his neck as he rose
slowly, his right eye flicking to the side.
“Out,” she repeated. And the man complied,
his speed increasing as he went through the door.
Carla looked at the knife thoughtfully and
then at Sandra, whose face had turned a dull grey color. She was
shaking, both arms hugging her body. Carla looked behind her; the
waitress had just reappeared with a fresh pot of coffee and was
pouring some into Carla’s cup. She looked across the café at Carla
Carla looked back at Sandra’s table, palming
the knife in front of her. Sandra’s coffee cup was half-empty.
“How about some more for my friend,
“Sure. Be right there. I’ll bring your cup,
too.” The waitress’s voice floated across the room.
Carla slipped around the seat and sat in
front of Sandra, pushing the man’s cup and plate to the edge of the
table and slipping the knife next to a crusty fork.
The waitress placed Carla’s steaming cup in
front of her and topped off Sandra’s cup. She looked at Sandra
questioningly and down at the cup and plate at the edge of the
“I guess your friend had to leave, huh?”
“He just couldn’t understand my point,”
Carla said, deadpan. “Don’t worry about it; this one’s on me.”
The waitress eyed Carla and picked up the
cup, plate, and knife. “Enjoy,” was all she said as she swept
“What are YOU doing here?” Carla and Sandra
said almost in unison. Sandra added a nervous laugh and reached
slowly for the cup of coffee.
“You first,” Carla said, and she took a sip
of her coffee. Too hot, but good and strong. Just what she
“Well … I suppose that you think that Frank
and I are … a couple,” Sandra said slowly, both hands around the
cup. “And we were, but somewhere along the way ‘couple’ sort of
turned into ‘people who thought they knew each other’. We were just
together at the same time, in the same place. Neither one of us was
having much fun. We didn’t really know how to say ‘goodbye’ to each
other. So along comes this guy in a chat room on the Internet. He
was exciting; Frank is … well … conventional, and you know he’s a
junior and I’m a senior. Oh, he’s a nice guy and all that, but …
well … you know.”
Carla didn’t answer. She conjured that image
of Frank in a tux, this time with a yellow dress shirt. No, lime
green. And her in a paler strapless Empire gown to match and to
make her look taller.
“So to make a long story short, I let slip
that I lived in Niotaka, and turns out he lives here in Ft.
Fremont, and he asked me to meet him. I thought he was about 18 or
19, but turns out he’s … well … I suppose 30 or 40. I don’t know.
And he didn’t even bother to take off his wedding ring today!”
Sandra’s eyes filled with tears, and one slowly trickled down her
cheek. “I think he was about to drag me off for God knows what,
when I saw you come in. He told me not to scream or say anything,
because he knew where I lived, or something like that. I didn’t
believe him, but you never know. Anyway, about then you were behind
him with that knife … Where’d you learn that trick, anyway?”
Carla snorted. “Too much TV, Sandra. I’m no
Chuck Norris, but I’ll do what I have to do.”
“Well. Thanks. I didn’t expect that. I owe
Carla smiled for the first time. It did seem
a little unexpected for her to save Snooty Sandra’s life, didn’t
it? She looked out the window. “You drive over here?”
“Yes. I don’t even think that sleaze ball
has a car. I saw him hotfooting it down the highway after you
“Well, maybe you can give me a ride back to
Niotaka.” And, omitting only the part about the baggie of drugs,
she told Sandra about her flying trip to Ft. Fremont with Marvelous
Sandra’s eyes were wide as Carla went
through the story, and when Carla finished, Sandra reached across
the table and touched her hand.
“Carla, I don’t know what to say. I really
underestimated you. I thought you were just a fluff ball. I’m sorry
that I didn’t …”
Carla sighed. “Yeah, well, deep down inside,
I really am just a cream puff.”
“Cream puffs don’t pull steak knives on
“I don’t know what all you’ve heard about
me, but probably only half … make that about 10 percent … is true,
if that. Look at me. I’m the one that they’d yell at to stand up
when I’m on my feet, next to my desk about to give a report. I look
like a fireplug with legs. I am NOT the fighting type, believe me,
and girls my size try not to yank too many chains.”
“I bet. Carla, I really appreciate your
standing up for me when I needed it and probably didn’t deserve it.
Thanks. I mean that.”
“It’s all right. Stuff happens. I
understand.” She leaned back in the booth and took another sip of
coffee and eyed Sandra. “One more thing. Just what does
“Oh. That. White bread. You can get big
loaves of bread in Mexico and I suppose elsewhere, and they’re
“White bread? You called me ‘white bread’
the other day?”
“Oh, Carla, I’m sorry about that. Really
sorry. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but …”
Carla chuckled. “’
I guess I need to make up my mind that I’m a half-and-half and get
used to it, huh? Hey, you about finished with that coffee?”
“I’m done. Let’s get out of here.”
“Right. Like I said, this one’s on me. I’m …
ah, rich today.” Carla pulled the twenty out of her pocket and
“Okay; tip’s on me,” Sandra answered.
* * *
Sandra didn’t say a word when they passed
the intersection where Marv’s car had left the road; they could see
a half-dozen or more cars and emergency vehicles parked along the
side road and a fire truck slowly pulling through the field,
spraying blackened areas of smoldering grass about an acre in size.
Carla glanced across the field but could not see the car and
realized how lucky she was that the car had not flipped but somehow
had just slid across the grassy field, so far that she could just
see the brushy area that bordered the creek, over a quarter-mile
Sandra seemed to drive almost in slow motion
in contrast to the high-speed trip that Carla had just had, and
this time Carla settled back and enjoyed the scenery, even after
the obvious effect of early-November freezes on Kansas cow
pastures. They were within a few miles of home when Sandra turned
to Carla suddenly.
“Carla, Frank is all yours. If you want him.
I’m not going back on the Internet again to look for someone, but
I’m not going to pretend that we’re a couple when we’re not. I
think he kind of likes you, anyway.”
Carla looked at Sandra in disbelief. “And
you’re assuming that I’m interested in Frank?”
“Not really, although it was becoming
obvious that Frank was sort of interested in you. I’m just saying
that it’s time for Frank and me to move on. You know? Time to turn
Carla didn’t say anything until they could
see the grain elevator at the edge of Niotaka in the distance.
“Hey, Sandra. How’d you like to meet a radio star named Bob?” And
she giggled. “I’m sure that I can hook you up. No problem.”
Carla’s stomach growled as Sandra pulled up
in front of Carla’s house, and she realized that it was only a
little past noon. The morning had seemed like a lifetime to her,
but there was still some unfinished business hanging. She needed to
track down Justin and Buck and talk to them about the conversation
between T. J. and Jace that she’d overheard; she needed to deal
with her absences from school; she needed to track down that
teacher whom she’d run into and … well, scratch that for now. She’d
probably run into him soon enough, and no, she wouldn’t be kissing
his finger when she did.
Sandra impulsively leaned across the car
seat and gave Carla a hug and kiss on her cheek. “Thanks for
everything, Carla. Like I said, I really owe you one. See you
“Yeah, thanks for the ride. I’ll probably
get something to eat and head back for the last two periods. I
can’t really afford to miss algebra class.”
“I know what you mean. Um … I’ll have a
little freedom talk with Frank when I see him.”
Carla pushed the car door open. “Don’t you
dare say anything about me to him. Promise?”
“All right, all right. You’re on your own
Carla leaned back into the car. “But I’ll
put in a good word about you with Bob!” She slammed the door before
Sandra could answer and skipped up the sidewalk and through her
front door, pausing to wave at Sandra before she drove away.
The door was unlocked, and she pushed it
open cautiously. “Pop?”
“In the kitchen,” a voice floated into the
living room. “What are you doing home? Want a sandwich? I got all
the fixings out and I’m making myself one.”
“Um … sure.” Her stomach growled again. “The
question is, what are YOU doing home at this time of day?” She
dropped her backpack onto the sofa and walked into the kitchen.
“Some kind of problem with the water at
work. They actually gave us an extra hour off, with pay, so I
decided to come home and get something different to eat besides
“Yeah, I can relate to that.”
“The real question is, what are YOU doing
home, Carla? They don’t give you that much time to eat out, do
Carla accepted the thick ham sandwich that
her father handed her on a plate, along with a handful of potato
chips, and sat at the table. She took a preliminary bite and wiped
excess mustard from her upper lip. “Pop, I guess you can say that I
had a little adventure today.” And she told her father much the
same story that she’d told Sandra, also omitting any mention of
drugs or the car wrecking and burning or the knife at the neck of
the man and in general making it sound mostly like a joyride with a
“And that’s it? You just happened to run
into Sandra supposedly selling yearbook ads at the café?”
“Yep, and then she gave me a ride home.
Pretty silly of her trying to hook up with someone she’d only met
“Yeah, and don’t you ever try that, or
you’ll be grounded until you’re 21, my darling daughter.”
“No way, Pop. I think I may have one good
potential around here. Sandra’s dumping her old boyfriend, and I
think he likes me.”
“Yeah, well, you’d better calm down, or
you’ll scare him off, don’t you think?”
She considered the question. “I don’t think
so. Although he’s sorta the quiet kind. Not really Sandra’s type at
all. I don’t know how they ever hooked up in the first place.”