Frankie pulls up in her dad’s car, wearing white. She hops out of the black-green ’63 Mustang and leaves the engine running, glancing nervously at the house looming behind Cameron.
“Get the fuck in.” She growls, running around the hood. Cameron trots around the trunk and stuffs his black sports bag in the back, as Frankie slides gracefully into the passenger side. She’s 5’6” and sixteen, short, black hair, shaved to a quarter inch fuzz down the right hand side. There’s a tiny, round, silver stud high up in her ear that glints in the sunset as she gets in. She’s gorgeous. Cameron puts it in first and tries to pull off innocuously and quickly, but fails. The engine is loud. Frankie slides nervously down the seat, crinkling her white summer dress. She watches her mirror in silence until they hit the highway.
“Why am I driving?” Cameron asks after a while, quietly breaking the engine filled silence.
“No licence.” She says shortly.
The silent-tide rolls back in and they follow the curving asphalt through the pine trees as the sun goes down. There are few cars on the road, but Frankie still tenses visibly when they pass one. Cameron’s a year older than she is and has no more experience of law-breaking, but is able to hide his nervousness better. He grips the wheel white-knuckled and pretends that his guts don’t feel like they’re trying to escape.
“Nice dress,” he says, trying to take his mind off things. They curve right into a canyon lined with firs and unforgiving rock faces. “I’ve never seen you wear something like that before.” She normally wore jeans, t-shirts and half laced Doc-Martins. Sometimes her bottom half was obscured by overalls whose upper-half was tied around her waist. Frankie shrugs.
“New life, new start… new clothes seemed appropriate. My mother never grubbed around in jeans like me.” It gets darker and Cameron flicks on the Mustang’s lights, illuminating the twisting path in front of them. The double yellow line stretches for winding miles, its white twins following closely, gripping the canyon-side.
“Just don’t change too much, right?” Cameron smiles, trying to lighten the mood that has settled on them heavily, like the dark. “I quite like you how you are.”
Frankie puts the glass back onto the counter and wipes the water off her oily hands, smudging the towel with black grease. Her mother isn’t going to be impressed. She pulls the arms of her overalls in a tighter knot about her slim waist.
There’s a noise from upstairs and Frankie freezes. She thought she was in the house alone. She snatches the monkey wrench from the counter where she’d dropped it a second ago. The still air is warm and working on her father’s car has beads of perspiration standing out all down the back of her neck, but the thought of an intruder chills her. She hefts the wrench and goes to investigate.
From the bottom of the stairs, she can see her mother’s legs, and the bottom hem of her skirt, standing at the top of a step ladder on the landing above. They disappear into the attic’s darkness above.
“Mom?” She calls as she climbs the stairs. There are pictures lining the staircase, of Frankie and her parents in various states of aging. They get fewer as Frankie gets older and Frankie’s father gets more red-faced, peppered by alcohol burst capillaries. Frankie’s mother climbs back down the ladder.
“Oh, hey, I didn’t know you were home, honey.” She says guiltily. She bends to pick up the last box on the floor behind her.
“In the garage,” Frankie mutters. “What are these?” She asks, dipping her hand into the box as her mother swings it past her. Her hand comes back holding an old, leather-bound book. Her mother pauses and sighs subtly.
“They’re my law books, love. They’re going back up the attic, put it back.” She puts the navy book back. Her mother traipses up the ladder again, leaving Frankie confused at the bottom.
“I didn’t know you were a lawyer.” She calls up.
“I wasn’t,” her mom calls back down. “I didn’t finish law school.” She sounds sad, the same way that she sounds when her father stumbles in at all hours. ‘At least he doesn’t drink in the house,’ Frankie heard her telling a friend, once.
“I didn’t even know you went to law school, mom.” Frankie says accusingly. Her mother descends again and closes the ladders.
“That’s because I don’t talk about it much, it was a long time ago, another life. I like to flick through them sometimes.” She hefts the steps and Frankie grabs an end, helping her drag them downstairs, careful of the pictures on the staircase wall. They take them through the kitchen into the garage, where the Mustang is bearing its guts to the world. They prop them against the wall and Frankie follows her mother back into the kitchen.
“What happened?” She asks, as her mother gets a casserole dish from the ancient avocado cupboards.
“Well, I had you and married your father,” she says, trying to smile convincingly, and failing miserably. Something writhes inside Frankie.
“Couldn’t you have done both?” The girl asks, terrified of the answer. There’s a pause that’s far too long for Frankie’s liking.
“People do. I don’t think I could have. It wasn’t what your father… and I wanted.” Her mother puts her hand on Frankie’s upper arms and looks her in the eye, trying to convey how much she loves her in that simple gesture. “I wouldn’t choose differently if I had to choose again.”
“I don’t want to have to choose at all.” Frankie says, close to tears. Her mother can’t see that, thankfully.
“You won’t have to, baby. You can be an engineer and a mother, if you want to. Or not, if you don’t. I know you’re smart and strong enough.” Frankie doesn’t know. She has no idea whether or not she’s capable of it, or even if she should try. If her mother, the person she looked to for answers, couldn’t manage it, why should she be able to? She rubs the rough, cast steel handle of the wrench with her thumb. Which one does she want more? “That’s a long time away yet, I hope!” Her mother jokes.
Frankie nods noncommittally, absentmindedly. Her mother assumes she’s thinking about the car again. She has a tendency to zone out like that.
“Are you seeing Cameron tonight, Frankie?”
Frankie’s head snaps out of her reverie.
“No, definitely not tonight.”
They cruise past a gas station where a black and white squad car is being gassed up by its uniformed driver. Their hearts pound in unison, as they pass, but neither says how terrified they are. Frankie wonders how Cameron feels. He just keeps driving, eyes wide, no sign of tiredness, floating the Mustang through the mountainous evergreen canyons.
“Why don’t you leave me?” She asks, as they swoop around another bend. Now Cameron is showing emotion. Confusion.
“I don’t understand,” he says, “I thought this is what you wanted.”
“It is,” she says, and it’s not completely a lie, but she wants other things too. “But what do you want? You can’t want this; I know you had big plans.”
He shrugs in the dusk.
“I’ll never leave you, it’s just not right. It might not be what I had planned, but I’m sure I’ll be just as happy.” She hates him for being so sure. It seems simultaneously absurd and justified that they should both lose out for their mistake. No one expected it of Cameron, to be sure. No one expected the mistake, because he was so damned… well he wasn’t particularly anything, really, poor bastard, she thought grimly. He was kind; that was a point in his favour. But as a seventeen year old guy, expectations on him were few.
He guns the motor and slides into fifth when he hears what he thinks is the right engine pitch. Frankie would have changed up sooner.
In the gloomy dark, Frankie hears the voices vibrating through the wall. They were arguing again. It was nothing new, they argued regularly, loud enough to wake the entire block, never mind Frankie. Something felt different to her that night and she couldn’t help be curious about what they were arguing about; her father had come home sober after all. She creeps out of her bed and pulls the door slightly ajar. On the landing the moon shines brightly through the landing window and lights it up like a halogen search light. With the fear of the hunted pulsing through her veins, Frankie scutters back to bed and listens, trying to breathe as shallowly as she can.
“I want go back to college.” She hears her mother say. “Once Frankie’s gone to college.”
“What the hell for?” Her father demands, his voice dismissive and rough.
“I want to finish my degree, you miserable bastard.” Her mother snaps. Frankie’s never heard her speak to her father like that before. She’s pretty sure he’s never heard it either, judging by the stunned silence.
“How are we going to afford that?” He asks miserably, after a while. “I’m not even sure we can send Frankie.” Frankie’s heart plummets. She thinks about it a second and then remembers there are other reasons that she might not be able to go anyway.
“I’ve been putting money away for years. So you couldn’t drink or gamble it away. I don’t care what else happens, that girl is going to college. She has to get out of here, away from a life like ours.” Frankie’s mind thrashes around; she hates it when other people decide things for her. Besides her mother doesn’t know what’s going on with Cameron anyway. She doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation. She’s fed up of people making decisions for her, sixteen or not. She slides out of bed again and pads across the room to the door, which she closes quietly.
Back in bed the room is lit by the harsh white light of her mobile phone. She flicks through a few screens and presses it to her ear, listening to the ringing.
“Cameron?” She says, when the ringing stops.
“Frankie? What’s wrong?” He sounds panicked; it’s understandable, she’s never called him in the middle of the night before.
“Nothing’s wrong, don’t worry.” He starts talking before she can keep going.
“Look, I’m really sorry about earlier, I was just scared, I didn’t…”
“Shut up, Cameron.” She says, not unkindly. “We’re going. Tomorrow. Meet me outside your house at sunset, I’ll get a ride and we’ll just leave, ok? We’ll go somewhere we can be together and… fuck, I don’t know, we’ll just work it out, ok?”
They pull-in to the gas-station and Cameron fills the car up, while Frankie fiddles with the radio. She can’t get anything except for local stations and she hates each and every one of them, especially so late at night. No one cares about the county fair apart from the people who bring the chickens, she thinks bitterly to herself, in such a foul mood that everything is a target. Instead, she sits there in silence, scowling at the pines that line the canyon side, twitching back and forth in the wind.
Cameron startles her when he gets back in the car with armfuls of twinkies and cola, a seventeen-year-old’s idea of a roadside feast. She begins to roll her eyes, when she stops herself, almost violently, rage surging inside. She’s already starting to think like her mother. They sit there for a while, tearing into the cellophane wrapped sponge and guzzling down soda filled with stinging bubbles.
“I think that there’s a place that we can go, across the state where there’s nobody that we know. We could rent somewhere, maybe sell the car. I can work and you can…” He doesn’t say it. He’s not that stupid. “Some place that what we’ve got can go along like it’s supposed to. It could work.” It sounds perfectly fine. That’s not what she wants. There are no cars in that future, no engines or diagrams or blueprints or oil or hydraulic brake fluid. It might be only for a while, she knows that, but sometimes knowing isn’t enough and in her mind, she’ll never get those things back, never heft a monkey wrench again, except to hand it to someone else. Cameron was part of the problem, she felt. He never said what he expected, like everyone else. There were a thousand unsaid expectations deafening her, making her vision blur, so loud that she couldn’t hear her own thoughts, just the thousand silent voices and cries of everyone else.
“You look tired.” She looks him in the eye. They were bloodshot and baggy. “Let me drive for a bit.” She looks fresh, bright and lively, but to him, that’s how she always looks.
“You sure? I don’t know if it’s a good idea.” She nods.
“It’s fine, how many state troopers are we going to see out here? I bet even the attendant has to drive forty minutes to get home. There’s only trees and rocks out here.” He assents, reluctantly, and gets out, while she slides over into the driver’s seat. He shuts the driver’s door. He’s by the filler cap, when the engine roars into life. She pops the clutch and slams the gas down, in the most fluid motion of her life, and squeals from the gas-station forecourt. The sudden motion spins Cameron like a top, throwing him ass first in the gravel.
It’s easy going at first, a hundred yards of open canyon side road, before dipping in to a turn. Sheer rock on the right and sheer drop on the left. She keeps her foot on the accelerator, the engine growling and roaring like she’s never heard it before, getting inside her chest, burning through her mind, louder than all the silent voices. She thinks triumphantly to herself, ‘Even expectations can’t out run a good, solid engine,’ before tears leap into her eyes. A small smile flickers at the tips of her lips. She hits the corner. Through the haze of tears she sees the double line drift into the centre of the hood as she wrestles with the wheel. Too fast for the corner, she strays over the line. A vehicle appears in the teary mist. The arctic’s horn blares as her heart stops.
Frankie and Cameron’s legs dangle over the edge of the work bench in the garage. The edge presses painfully into the backs of their thighs and grit tries to worm its way through the tough fabric of Frankie’s overalls into the backs of her legs. They stare at the patchy concrete floor, stained with splashes of mechanical fluids. Her overalls have the comforting smell of motor oil and grease.
“You’re sure?” Cameron asks, suddenly.
She nods, silently. Oh boy is she sure. She must have drunk about three litres, trying to make sure. Cameron sighs noisily.
“Your dad is going to be nuclear. Maybe we could run away?”
“Why would that help?” She asks, looking at him like an alien was working its way out of his forehead.
“Well, we could go somewhere we could make decisions ourselves, without anyone’s ‘help’” He makes the air quotes. Frankie’s entirely unsure and there’s another awkward silence.
It drags on.
“And it’s definitely mine?” Cameron asks.
It’s like she’s been hit by a bus. She stands and stares at him, her mouth open, and closed again, by turns.
“What the actual fuck?” she demands. He looks scared, as he should be. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” She barely raises her voice, but there’s so much venom that Cameron’s not sure whether to answer or run.
He opts to sit there looking horrified.
She knows it’s just because he’s scared, looking for an out, in a really fucked up way, but she’s scared too and way too stressed to deal with his bullshit. If things keep going the way that they’re going, he’s going to have to grow up, and fast, and right now she knows that she’s not in the mood to be an adult for him. He opens his mouth again and she glowers until he shuts it.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” She asks, quietly. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “I’m going to get a drink. I’ll call you when I’m ready. You’d better be gone when I get back.” She says coldly. He slides off the bench, scattering debris on the floor with a gentle shower.
“I’m really sorry,” he says, before slinking off.
Frankie is numb as she goes into the kitchen and pours a glass of water from the faucet. As she puts the glass back on the counter, she hears a noise from upstairs.
Still stunned at the station, Cameron pulls himself off the asphalt, the alarmed station clerk coming through the duct-taped swing door. He watches the Mustang’s red tail lights drift into the corner and slide over the double yellow line in the centre of the road.
Then he hears the brass rumble of the big truck’s horn and horror grips him. His breathing fast he hears the loudest bang and then another and the scream of metal on metal. He takes off, sneakers pounding concrete as fast as he can. Dread fills him, from his soles to his scalp.
Around the corner between the Jeffrey pines, the car and the arctic are a mess. The arctic stands immobile at the road edge, its driver dazed, steam pouring from its grill. The front left flank is smashed where Frankie’s car bounced off it. The Mustang is crumpled, nose first, against the canyon wall, crushing the barrier. There’s glass and metal everywhere, but Cameron just runs, ignoring it, to the still shape in the muscle car. The door swings limply ajar.
Cameron reaches it and pulls the door open with a squeal. There’s less room in the cockpit than there should be and the wheel gently rests against Frankie’s chest. The glass has gashed her face, tiny crimson spots appearing here and there, along with the split in her lip. Cameron shakes her ineffectually. Her breathing is non-existent. He steps back and looks again where the wheel joins her. A moment ago it looked like it had just crushed the white fabric, put a crinkle in the white dress. Now he can see it’s more serious than that.
Now the white is red.