New fiction from David Daniel
Night Roller Coaster
By David Daniel
The red T-Bird bled through the darkness, Hayden hunched over the steering wheel. The digital speedometer showed 83 mph. I was riding shotgun. If we hit anything, Hayden at least had something to hang onto, probably flatten his face, knock out his expensively straightened teeth, but he’d live. Murph probably, too, in the backseat. He was a big padded lunk. I would be launched into the night like a missile in a spray of pebbled glass.
“Jesus, Hayd, put the headlights on,” Murph whined. I could feel him bracing on the back of my seat and was compelled to say: “The stretch ahead’s where it gets hairy. You remember that, right?”
“This baby’s good for it. Christ, it ought to be, the dough my old man paid for it.”
“Let’s go back to town,” Murph pleaded. “Find someone to buy us a sixer.”
Hayden’s eyes flicked to the rearview mirror. “What, getting’ scared of the dark, Murph?”
“Thirsty is all. Come on, I’ll spring. We’re wastin’ gas.”
“Spring for gas.”
“I’ll put in five,” I said, keeping my voice even.
But gas was never at issue with Hayden. He had money. I’d been with him another time, just the two of us, when Hayden had raised the idea of driving without the headlights on. I told him it’d be stupid.
“Be exciting,” he said. “Like getting a royal flush on a multiplier in video poker.”
I didn’t play video poker. I was saving the meager money I got from my shifts at the shipyard to buy a car; nothing like Hayden’s dad’s T-Bird, but something that ran. And hopefully better than my dad’s old Pontiac that I got to borrow sometimes, so loose-as-a-goose in the front end the wheels bounced like rubber balls going over ruts in the pavement. But I didn’t say anything.
“Yeah,” Hayden went on, musing, “like a roller coaster. In the dark. Not knowing when the next drop’s gonna come.” The glint had come to his eyes, but he hadn’t tried it that time. And it wasn’t mentioned again.
Until tonight. The three of us were on the road that ran out past the fairgrounds, a stretch where kids sometimes raced because it was remote, the two-lane running arrow-straight for a couple miles, then growing winding, following the contour of New England landscape, where nothing stayed straight or flat for long.
And Hayden driving his old man’s new T-Bird, suddenly saying, “Who wants to ride the roller coaster?”
“At Nantasket? Is it even open yet? I don’t think ’til after Memorial Day.”
“No, Murph, the night roller coaster. Retard.”
That’s when I glanced over, knowing what Hayden was thinking.
“What the hell’s that?” Murphy asked.
“What the hell is it? Well, quit playing with yourself back there and I’ll tell ya, Murph. It’s this.” And Hayden pushed in the knob and the headlights were gone.
“Jesus,” Murphy breathed.
I kept quiet, but I had my head angled slightly to study Hayden without seeming to. His face was lit by dashboard gleam, just enough to green his nose and make his eyes glow. From ahead, the night plunged at us. Without the headlights, even the small roadside reflectors on posts every hundred feet or so were gone. The straightaway went for another mile and some, I knew, so I waited. Hayden wasn’t stupid after all.
But crazy, yeah. The car raced on, silent but for the whoosh of air past the partly open windows, bringing only the dry-husk scent of fields dead now in November.
“Okay, man,” Murphy said, “we rode the roller coaster. Fun time. Let’s cool it and go back to town.” His voice was quick with adrenaline. “I’m thirsty for a brew. You, Hayd? Dave? I’m buying, right?”
Hayden didn’t slow, didn’t pull on the headlights. I stiffened, looking over at him, then back at the blackness we sped into. This wasn’t good. As the end of the straightaway neared, I sat up straighter, and braced my feet in the leg-well, but I didn’t speak. Finally, I reached over and put my left hand on Hayden’s shoulder. Just a signal.
“I like when you do that, Dave,” Hayden said. “Lower. And rub a little, willya?”
I gripped hard. “The fucking lights, man.”
Hayden gave a vulgar laugh but did turn on the lights. In the backseat Murphy gave a gust of relief. Back in town Hayden said, “So admit it, you big tough guys are scared of the dark.”
“You’re an asshole, Hayden, you know that?” I said. It hadn’t been the only cause, but it helped bring the friendship to an end.
These days I was on third shift at the shipyard and had saved enough for my own wheels. Okay, an eight-year-old pickup with 120 thousand miles on it, but it was mine. And Jordan Cole had said yes to going out with me, though she hadn’t let me make out with her beyond a goodnight peck when I would drop her off outside her family’s house.
Where I drew up now, before the Coles’ enormous home. Jordan came out, looking scrubbed and cute, her collar-length brown hair curling up at the ends. I got out and opened the door and she scooted in with a teasing sidelong smile. Somehow this always hinted at a streak of mischief, but if it was there, it hadn’t shown. As always when we were together, I wished that I’d showered longer, scrubbed my hands harder with the degreaser that never seemed to get all the grime out.
After the movie, I asked Jordan if she wanted to get ice cream and go down by the beach for a while. “Ice cream sounds good,” she said, “but then I’ve got to get home.”
“Really?” I glanced over, disappointed.
“I kind of told my parents. I’ve got class tomorrow.” She was enrolled in the junior college.
I drove along, the May night wind feathering Jordan’s hair where she sat way over by the door. The air was fragrant with some kind of blossoms. After a time, she sat up a little. “Where are you going?”
“Taking you home.”
“We can get there this way.”
And I went out toward the county road. As we passed the fairgrounds, dark and stretching, I asked: “You like carnival rides?” I said it casually, but with an eagerness in it.
“I don’t know. They’re okay.”
“Maybe we can go when the fair comes.”
“That’s not ‘til summer.”
“How about roller coasters?”
“Roller coasters. You like them?”
Jordan shook her head, then after a pause said, “Yeah. They scare me.”
I pushed in the dashboard knob and the headlights went out. The night rushed at us.
I pressed on the gas pedal.
Jordan made a small sound. Fear?
I felt the seat jiggle as she slid nearer. The fragrance now was her. I kept my gaze straight ahead. Then her hand was on my shoulder. Clenching. Her voice small. “David—?”
I was a little scared now, too. I turned on the lights. Then she surprised me. She reached under the steering wheel, across my knees, and pushed in the knob and the dark was back.
I felt a wild alarm. Jordan Cole made that sound again. . . but not fear . . . something else. Excitement?
Her hand was on my shoulder. I glanced at her quickly in the darkness.
She looked me in the eye. “I trust you,” she said.