By Frankie Bolt
Most Saturday nights, I dress up, lie on my side on top of the covers, facing the closed door to my room. Tonight, only sleep can help me forget what I can’t stand any longer—my mother, myself, Hunter—but I’m awake. Forgetting is a threat I can’t make. Not with Mom on the phone constantly talking to Dad. She’s trying to undo all the hard parts of us since their separation. She’s trying to forget she ever asked for any of it. She’s waiting to be forgiven and not forgotten. I’m here, waiting to be remembered. Forgiveness is much too dangerous with Hunter out there driving around with an empty passenger seat.
He’s coming for me. He has to be.
Five minutes in and I’m restless already. I turn off the fan and take it out of the window. Streetlights wash the empty road in an alien greenish-white. My sheet bubbles and flops as I spread it on the floor below the windowsill and lie down. I hope I will hear Hunter pull in front of our dark house. Chances are, he won’t come. I’ll sleep uninterrupted and wake up empty-handed. He’s unpredictable but I’m not.
Most nights, Hunter comes when I’m not expecting him. I don’t know how he knows when I’m desperate but he does. That’s the way he likes me most—too eager. I’m not sure if I am last on his list of riders—who knows how many there are? There is another girl, okay, “the girlfriend,” but they’re off now and I’m on.
I’m here waiting.
When the girlfriend won’t answer him, Hunter comes to me late at night, as if he can sense when sleep has rescued me. Then, he stands under the pale streetlight, opening and shutting his car door to wake me. Those nights, I jump like water magnified, splitting into a hundred miniscule drops hoping to hit a solid that will absorb me.
Tonight I’m almost over it. I won’t let him drunk dial our house anymore. He likes waking my mother and hearing my breath catch on the line while I wonder if I have died and gone to heaven when I hear his unapologetic voice say my name. Tonight, I have taken the house phone off the hook. Mom is on her cell and mine is powered up but I swear I’m done waiting.
I can’t bring myself to move away from the window, so I fluff my pillow to settle in. Two cardstock rectangles poke my cheek through the cotton. They’re corners of un-torn prom tickets that Hunter gave me this spring, as if the mere idea of us going together were enough for me.
I’m through being the secret, the second-hand, the background scenery. I’m finished with his lies.
I throw the tickets across the make-up stained carpet, turn the fan on, and climb in bed. I won’t pick out a sexy outfit or put on a lace bra. Not tonight. I slip under the new bedspread Mom bought to convince us both that she notices my life. Between her twelve-hour work shifts and dropping everything to meet Dad on the corner to flirt, she’s on and I’m off. She wants that blanket to say, I’m thinking of you, no, I’m with you, even when I’m not here, I’m still your mother.
Tonight, tonight, I’m not hers or Hunter’s or even mine. I’m given over to the blinking blue illumination of the digital clock. I know time passes, but the more I know it, the more tired I become, the more I wonder if he’s coming to get me.
Blink. Come. Blink. Don’t come. Blink. Come.
I unplug the clock. Plug it back in. It resets. No hours move. When the minutes reach fifty-eight I’ll unplug it again.
I have unplugged my clock twice. Our street is officially dead. Porch lights off. Air conditioners whirring on low. I turn away from the window and check myself in the full-length mirror by the door. Wonder why my big face isn’t as pretty as my naked body. My small eyes are hers. My height is my father’s. I am both of them, trying to hold on to myself when they are nothing sure. Footsteps creak on the stairs and scoot down the hall toward me. I slide my cell flashlight off. Through the keyhole I see Mom creeping to her bedroom. I don’t make a move but I want to whisper, Sleep well Mom, alone. A boy is coming. I swear he could love me. When he does, I’ll forgive him making me wait and he’ll worship even my pie face.
He’s not coming.
Between the blinking lie of 12:37 a.m. and 1:52 a.m., I sleep.
Soon I wake to my endless desperate cry. You, Hunter. And my cell vibrating. Shit. Shit!
He’s here. If I don’t move fast enough—I’ve chased his car down the road before. I don’t know if he saw me—he had to—but he never stopped because Hunter doesn’t wait. My body and my heart are being timed. I dive into a pile of clothes on the floor.
He texts me twice.
“Hurry,” he writes.
“Now,” he writes.
I try to flag him from the window but he’s back in the car. He’s going to leave. I don’t have time to write a sonnet, so I text, “K.”
I shove my bra in my skirt pocket, scrap my shoes on the landing, skid barefoot past my mother’s room, and walk tightrope down thirteen stairs. Finally, I exit through the open window in our unused dining room.
Hunter is still here. His blue Ford Escape may as well be our rocket to the moon. The brake lights flicker and then hold red. He’s seen me now. He’s not leaving, because my body looks like this and I listen. I pull myself together and take my time getting to the car. When I do, Hunter smiles, leans over and opens the door with a flick of his wrist. He looks skinnier than usual—small—but every inch of him is high voltage wire. He stares at me with those gunmetal grey bullets. His smile is a blade. He is iridescent like an oil slick or a crow’s wing. I want to fall to my knees and weep.
I turn my back and put my bra on under my shirt.
“Classy,” he says.
“I try,” I say. I begin to shut the car door, to pull myself in and leave the divorce worry behind for a couple of hours, but I can’t sever my waiting and him coming from Mom and Dad’s separation/reunification. The house starts to disappear and my worry hangs in the space between the open door and moving road. When I imagine crumpled beer cans trailing my parent’s honeymoon car, I slam the door and say, “Marriage is bullshit.”
Hunter doesn’t disagree. Instead he says, “Yeah it is.” And turns left on a dime.
“You’re not drunk?”
“Not tonight. Tonight is different.” His lips glint as he smiles and I’m sure I could handle every cut, if he would ever kiss me. He says, “You get drunk and let me take advantage.” He punches me in the arm like a brother.
A brother—despite what he’s saying that’s how he sees me. This mini-skirt isn’t short enough? My skin isn’t polished enough? I should giggle more?
He will never kiss me.
I could force myself to forget him all together. Slip out of the car at the four-way stop near the gated neighborhood. Walk all the way back home. Creep up the stairs and find out what a Saturday night is like without the painful excitement of wanting. Or, I could give in to my place as a buddy in his life and get to stay longer. I would always be waiting for more from Hunter; I know it.
My mother stopped waiting for her life to begin. She turned the tables, practically flipped them upside down. She got a job and a used car paid in full and it bought her a new start with my father. Maybe he wanted her to surprise him.
Tonight I will make Hunter stay with me until daylight—whatever it takes, whatever he asks for or even if he doesn’t—he’s going to get all of me tonight. Then Hunter will recognize who we are to each other and we will be the happy couple.
We drift down the main road. The fast food signs are dark and the stoplights are blinking yellow. We will drive as long as he wants before he says another word, but I am determined tonight. I swear everything will be different. Hunter will be mine.
The whole time he is not talking I am being cool. Running my hands over my shaved legs. Gazing out the open window, even though cold dew is settling into the summer air. I stay quiet—I am mysterious. I don’t look at him—I am not every girl. I am the one who wins. Tonight, Hunter doesn’t know who he has chosen.
To flirt like my mother I throw my head back, peer through the open sunroof and say something witty. “You know, even though some of them are dead, you can see the lights of the stars for, like, eons. Pretty amazing if you think about it.”
I glance at Hunter for a response. He turns up the music. I was trying too hard to be brilliant and we both know it. I hear my voice drop to a whisper, saying, “Eons.” There’s no beating Hunter at his game.
You will never be mine.
A mile later we pass the twenty-four-hour grocery store and now I know the ride will be even more silent. He’s thinking of the girlfriend. She lives up that road to the right and he is speeding to pass it as quickly he can. I know I am a dead star but he needs whatever light he can get when he’s like this. He takes me to the lake when that girl has hurt him. She does it all the time, but never when I need him most. Still, Hunter told me tonight would be different. I want to believe him.
I ask if we can change the music but he says, “My car. My rules.”
At the entrance to the lake, he pulls the Escape around the rope gates and onto the surrounding field. He taps his cell playlist and his new obsession repeats on the stereo. Hunter turns to me. “What do you know about stars.” He’s not asking a question and I am reminded that I don’t deserve to be here, beside him. He turns the volume up at his favorite parts of the song.
“Incandescent,” I say to describe the music even though I’m not exactly sure what it means.
“What?” He asks, as if I have interrupted him. “You mean ‘ethereal.’ A light bulb is incandescent.”
Fuck. I want to be that girl. The girl that gets it right. Tears trickle down my cheek and I swallow. Stop sinking. Be new.
I sit up in straight in my seat and put my feet on the dash to aggravate Hunter. “I meant to say it. Incandescent. Think of how a light . . .”
For the first time I realize his sparkling laugh is more of a nasal drone. I hate him.
Hunter drives figure eights in the field beside the lake. I grab the door handle as if I’m actually going to jump out at thirty miles an hour. He accelerates and smiles. Right before Mom left Dad, did it feel like driving endless infinity signs?
I release the handle and say, “Screw you, Hunter.”
He touches my bare leg. “Don’t be that way. Come on, (blank) beautiful.” I can’t tell if he’s said “it’s” or “you’re beautiful.” I still hate him.
My lighter flares and cigarette smoke trails out the window. I roll it up. He rolls his up, too. We glide across the grass, swooping and turning and crossing over.
“I love it when you smoke,” Hunter says.
I stub my cigarette out. “I thought you hated it.”
“It reminds me of you.”
“I remind you of me? When I’m here?” I twist and lean against the passenger door to face him. “That’s insulting.”
“It’s a compliment.”
“How?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. The incandescent/ethereal song repeats.
He glances over and reaches to pull my ponytail free. I don’t want to walk away from Hunter tonight; I want to break his heart. I shake my hair loose and swish it over one shoulder. I’ve watched his girlfriend do it a hundred times and when she does, Hunter comes running. He turns the car one last time, sharply, and pops from drive into neutral without taking his eyes off me.
“Lovely,” he says, and rubs the ends of my hair between his thumb and fingers. “You are. It’s true. God, you make me want to do things I’ll regret.”
Even in the middle of the night, at this indecent hour, when nobody but us knows we’re together, without warning, I am back to being his.
The Escape slows to a stop. He pushes my hair away from my face the way a man does in the movies when love takes hold. My heart is not mine and I would never ask for it back just to make this night last until morning. His face is so close, I know if I do anything, anything wrong, our moment will be over. I hold my breath.
Hunter says, “Come here. Sweetheart.”
His cheek rests against mine.
His lips by my ear, he whispers, “You know me by now, don’t you?”
I want to say, I was born for you, Hunter, but I don’t want to overwhelm him. We’ll take it slow, together. I can feel it. I breathe. “Yes. I know you after all our nights.”
His hands close around the back of my neck. He whispers again. “Everyone needs love, don’t they?”
“I do. I need it. I have it to give.”
“Yes,” he says.
I’m brave, brash even, saying, “It’s yours to take.”
“I know,” he laughs, releases me and slips the car into drive.
I walked naked into his trap and he gave me a knife to the heart. Of course he did. It’s painful, humiliating, but a clean kill.
As we sail the field I watch the stars through blurry eyes. With each long lap up the lakeside, across the marsh end, down the street edge, and back around my panic fades. I’m almost grateful for the fatal cut. At least I had the courage to quit waiting—like my mom did—and offer myself to him.
The Escape rolls smoothly, grass whipping my dangling hand while Hunter steers with his knees. We are so close to the lake that I can only see water through his open window. This is an old trick. He watches my face and accelerates and lets the wheel slip. He’s looking at me for the fraction of fear and dependence he loves. He circles away and speeds up to make another pass by the water’s edge. And still another. He says, “No screaming? No cries for mercy?”
“You don’t scare me anymore.”
“Is that right.” Hunter stops talking for a while and then parks the car in the darkest spot under a willow tree. The Escape is covered by strings of branches reaching to the ground. No one can see in. I can barely see out. Even though this is another trap, I’m seeing Hunter clearly. He scans my face, my shirt, my skirt and my legs pinched together. He laughs again.
I pull my hair back into a ponytail. “Take me home.”
“Not yet.” He takes his hand off my foot. “You come with me every time. Why?”
I snap half a lit cigarette out the window and say, “You wish you knew.”
“Don’t,” Hunter says. He jerks the Escape out of park and starts another figure eight, way too fast but I stand on my seat and stretch through the sunroof to feel the air whooshing around us.
He yells toward the opening, “Come down. Don’t be crazy. It isn’t flattering.”
“Drive!” I yell. “Faster!”
Hunter’s hand slides up my calf and tugs on my mini-skirt. He sounds worried when he says, “Come the hell down here. I’m serious!” Our eyes meet for a split second. “Come back. I miss you.”
I don’t want to be like him—cruel—so I slide into my seat and he closes the sunroof. He stretches his arm out and points in my face. “Answer me. You never say no to me. Why?”
Out of habit I think, I was trying to be rescued. I was here to rescue you. Every cell of me was for you. Idiot. But I say, “That’s over. It doesn’t matter now.”
Hunter steps on the emergency brake and we fishtail on the silky grass, sailing back and forth until the car slams to a stop. “That’s bullshit. Tell me,” he says. He opens his door. “I’ll get it out of you. It’s not in your nature to argue. Come on. Tell me.”
He walks to my side of the Escape to prove he’s serious. I crawl over the cup holders onto the driver’s side while he slides through the passenger door and drapes across the seat, over the console and onto me. He rests his beautiful crow head in my lap. He wraps his arms around my waist. I am no longer the brother punched on the arm—I am the mother. No. His face is hot through my skirt—I am the virgin.
I say, “Hunter, I can’t be what you want when you want it. I won’t be anything for you.”
Hunter is quiet.
The headlights spread over our tire tracks in the field, crisscrossing and flat. The untouched grass is tall. It’s four a.m. In two hours Mom will be getting up to work hard and I’ll be in bed looking out my window for living stars.
“I should go,” I say and reach over Hunter for the ignition.
He tightens his grip around my waist.
In hopes of not walking away completely empty-handed, I ask, “Hunter, why do you choose me?”
“No one is like you,” he says. His milky breath blows hot on my legs, his right hand scaly on my ankle.
“Liar,” I say.
He raises his head and his hand stops. “Tell me the truth, then. Why do I choose you?”
I stroke his cheek. “No one puts up with you like I did.”
“Yes. What else?” His right hand trails my tensed calf to my knees and stops in the warmth between them. His stiff lip breaks into a sweat.
“Enough. This is not what I want.” I hear the strength of my parent’s voices in mine but not their words and I know I can’t turn back. Mom and Dad signed up for love. Together. This—what I have with Hunter—is the furthest thing from love I’ve seen.
“Where are you? Stay here. With me,” he says and lifts himself to press his chest against mine. “Part of you will always be mine. Admit it.”
Maybe I am cruel. I recline the seat and stroke his dull hair. Underneath his cologne, the girlfriend’s perfume crouches ready to spring. “You said tonight is different. You were right, Hunter.”
He’s understated, saying, “Yes. This is our night.” Then he reaches past the hem of my skirt and I open my legs a little more.
Seconds away from his thin mouth, I say, “You want me. Don’t you.”
His lips flutter against mine. They aren’t sharp at all.
Hunter says, “I do. I want so much of you.” He almost looks like he’s telling the truth.
I can feel him winning again. The seconds tick away and I remind myself I have lived by the clock since the first moment I saw Hunter. Four whole years. I have waited through all of high school for him. He has always known I was worth more than the waiting. Tonight is different. I want to torture him with what he’ll be missing.
My lips break on his. I thought I was in control but I had expectations, I guess. Heaven does not come screeching in on the wings of angels and a blaze of rockets. No new stars are born. His kiss is pasty and thick with spit. I put up with him pushing and slopping and pawing until my mouth tastes like his. Then, I rest one hand over Hunter’s bony chest and tell him to stop. He does. He quits, parts away from me, but slides his hand deeper between my legs without a word. My fingers tighten on the hook of his wrist.
I say, “No.”
“Yes,” I say.
Hunter is not even a dead star. He’s not in my night sky at all. We both know it.
He comes closer, glaring, asking me, “What will I do without you?”
“Whatever you want. You always do.”
“But I want you.”
I tuck his hair away from his eyes. “No, you don’t. You never have.”
“When you’re ready. I’ll wait for you.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you. I wouldn’t do it to myself.”
Hunter retreats to the passenger seat. “I’m waiting now. See?” He adjusts his hard-on. “You’re not laughing. I thought you might. Come on. Don’t be so serious. Haven’t we laughed before?”
I say, “Do you know that you’re almost perfect?”
He peels one of my loose hairs off his button down and drops it out the window. “Please. For the love of Christ, let me have you.”
“I have to have myself, Hunter. That’s the way it is, now. It’s not going to change.” I let a respectful amount of time pass before I turn the keys to the ignition because I know, I especially know, even the pitiful deserve dignity.
I drive us through the tall grass to a steady road home—no circles, no tricks. When he reaches over to me the knot of his hand makes wrinkled, damp stars on my skirt. I drive toward town, take the longest way home, unraveling all the miles he’s driven and I’ve ridden.
Neither of us has won. The truth is, we haven’t lost anything because we had nothing. Not like my parents. They had everything and maybe it broke a little. Maybe it needed breaking to find a new road together.
I circle back to the lake to get one last look from this side of the Escape. There is no song on repeat, just me driving and Hunter riding.
“Who taught you to talk about the stars, light, suffering? Or eons and incandescence. Tell me. Who?” He asks.
I have a couple of answers to that question. Hunter taught me. Or, I did because of who he was to me and who I wanted to be to him. Hunter will have to figure out the answer for himself. For now, he can wait.
Out of the darkness from the lake road we approach the twenty-four hour grocery store and as we pass it our eyes adjust to the lights of town. Without pausing at the blinking yellow, I turn left onto the avenue, hang a right onto my street and then make a U-turn so that his Escape is facing the stop sign.
Hunter doesn’t ask me any more questions. He gets out of the passenger side and glides around the front of the car. We stand outside the driver’s door. I have to make sure he knows not to come back. I need to hear myself say it. “If you wouldn’t—”
“I won’t,” Hunter interrupts and slips inside his Escape. “Whatever it is. When it comes to you, I won’t do anything.”
When I thank him, he slams his door and peels out onto the avenue.
All the way down the street to my house, I walk under a heaven of stars—what seems like millions of them—winking at me.
Yes, they are.
At home, I crawl through the unlocked window, lock it back and tiptoe up the stairs to the second floor. Being here feels so right that I walk into Mom’s room and climb in bed with her. My arms stretch through the darkness, feeling across the flat mattress but she has gone to Dad’s. Before I fall asleep, before Mom comes home to get ready for another shift, I lie on my side, face her open door, and think about all the apologies I owe her while she’s trying so hard to find a life for us.
Frankie Bolt lives and writes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Frankie earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been faculty of The Great Smokies Writers Program at UNC-Asheville. “The Driver” is her short story debut.