Rules of the Road

by Geron Kees

Chapter 6

©2016 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

Friday night. Brian and Ed got a six-pack of Molson, smoked a little of Ed's stash, and hit the road.

They went looking for Colin in all the usual haunts, but he was nowhere to be seen. They asked people they knew if they had seen the blue Roadrunner, and got a few different stories. They chased a few false leads, and by dark hadn't found him.

They decided to cruise over towards Maple Hill, on the chance that he might be there. They were sitting at a stop light on Route 5, almost to Maple Hill, when a car pulled up at the light next to them. Brian and Ed were busy laughing over something they'd heard the DJ talk about on the radio and weren't paying attention - until they heard the toot-toot of a horn.

Brian looked over. It was Mahowsky's candy apple red GTO.

There was a guy in the car with the big brawler, and both of them were looking at Brian and Ed. Mahowsky made a gesture through his windshield. The way he did it made what he was asking quite clear. Also the way he was asking it.

Wanna try me, punk?

Brian looked at Ed, and they both grinned.

Brian looked back at the GTO and nodded. He put his left foot on the brake and shifted his right foot to the gas pedal, tached the car up to three grand.

The light changed. Mahowsky pulled a nice hole shot - but the Bee was right with him. And Brian simply walked away from the GTO, pulling ahead with the utmost of ease, until the red car was a good three car lengths back. They were on a long, straight stretch of road, and Brian simply let the car out, hitting third gear when the speedometer said 120 MPH. The Bee went on, the speedometer hit 130 and continued to climb; and Brian was so scared he simply took his foot off the gas pedal and grasped the steering wheel tightly with both hands, afraid to let it turn in either direction, even an inch. The car felt like it was floating, and that the slightest burst of air from either side would simply blow it right off the road.

They slowed, and the car was back under a hundred pretty quickly. By the time they dropped back to sixty and Brian braked, he felt a cold bead of sweat in the hair atop his head.

The red GTO was nowhere to be seen. Brian found a break in the median strip and turned the car around, and then he and Ed cruised along at forty miles per hour.

Finally, Brian looked over at Ed, who seemed a little withdrawn. "Scare you?"

Ed nodded. "Fuckin' right. I nearly pissed my pants, dude." He looked at Brian, and a small smile finally appeared. "You just polished Mahowsky's ass for him."

Brian grinned. "I know."

Ed made a face. "Wanna 'nuther beer?"

"I could use one, yeah."

Onward they went. Still no Colin. But now, Brian had no doubt what would happen if he finally found the other car.

Roadrunner for lunch, ya all!

About ten o'clock they decided to try Zion, on the chance that Colin might be there. Challenging the other boy and then running him at the crowded hot spot would be suitable payback, Brian thought, grinning at the prospect. Even as a little, spoiling voice inside his head told him he was sinking to Colin's level if he did this.

They arrived at the intersection just before the race lanes, and found the area choked with parked cars. Brian managed to find a spot close to the action, and backed the Bee in between a van and a fairly nice AMC Javelin. He and Ed got out, beers in hand, and walked about, looking for Colin.

The Roadrunner was there, parked to one side, along with several other cars from school. Colin's car was locked, and he was nowhere to immediately be seen.

"He wouldn't go off and leave his baby here," Ed pointed out. "Must be hidin' around here some fuckin' place."

Brian grinned. Ed was ready for some payback, too.

Two cars were paired up to run. One was Dave Routh's Nova - the other car was one Brian didn't recognize, a '69 'Cuda with an awful orange paint job. It looked like Jim Van Pelt had starter duty; he stood between the two cars with a flashlight.

Brian stopped and surveyed the faces in the crowd, but didn't see Colin.

He heard the engines of the two cars revving, and Jim stepped over to the side of the road and raised the flashlight and pointed it between the pair.

It lit.

Both cars roared, smoke appeared from beneath the rears tires, and they were off. Brian could hear the engines winding up as the vehicles turned into a pair of taillights moving away into an infinity of darkness.

Ed tapped his shoulder and pointed, and Brian followed his finger. And there was Colin, at the edge of the crowd, Marianne Davis standing next to him. They both had beers in hand, and were watching the receding taillights with interest.

Brian grinned, and took a step towards Colin - and stopped.

The sound of engines behind him made him turn, and then he was getting out of the road quickly as several cars pulled up.

One was Mahowsky's red GTO, and another was Tim's green GTX. The third car was Jeff Breakman's green Camaro.

They drew to a stop, and guys began to pile out of the cars. The crowd grew suddenly quiet, turning to watch, sensing that something was up.

Jeff stood by the driver's door of his car, looking around. On his feet he was still small and wiry, looking like a runner, and a good one. He raised a hand, and waved it. "Anyone seen Brian - the guy that has that wine-colored Super Bee over there?"

Brian was shocked, but stepped right forward. "Here I am."

Jeff looked at him, squinted, and then he was on his way over. He walked right up to Brian, got right into his face. "You lied to me, man. You said your car was stock."

Brian took a step back, shocked at the other boy's intensity, the look of anger on his face. "No, I didn't. At the time I said that, it was true. I've changed engines since."

Jeff looked at him, his eyes trying to see inside Brian. Brian was fascinated - Jeff looked almost hurt, somehow, like he'd been betrayed by his best friend.

"I told you the truth," Brian stated.

Jeff licked his lips, his eyes still probing. "You smoked Dave a little while ago. That's my second. I can't have that."

Brian let his eyes move over to Mahowsky, who stood against his car, a small smile on his face. Brian understood then; Mahowsky had gone straight to Jeff, told him his title was on the line, that there was competition over at Proctor that Kennedy just couldn't let go unaddressed. He had gotten Jeff all wound up like it was personal, and now the Camaro's driver was here to see what might be done about it.

Brian let his eyes go back to Jeff's. "Your buddy there is an asshole, Jeff," Brian whispered. "He's playing you off against me."

Jeff watched him a moment longer, and then a small smile appeared on his lips. "Yeah, he is that." He took a step back, dug in his pocket, produced a fifty dollar bill, held it up.

"I wanna challenge that Super Bee, here and now." Jeff's voice was loud, and he looked around at the crowd, which pretty much stared back in silence.

Ed was beside Brian now, standing close. "What the fuck is going on?"

Brian frowned, spoke out of the side of his mouth. "I think I'm about to find out if my dad knows his shit or not."

People were looking at Brian now. Jim Van Pelt came over, smiling. "Fuck," he whispered, "this is gonna be the show of the year, Brian."

Brian licked his lips. "Think I can take him?"

Jim nodded. "If he really ran a twelve-two with just himself in the car, yeah. You did that with three guys riding."

Brian nodded. He still felt scared - this was big time. This was the Bee against the meanest car he had ever seen.

Jeff turned back to face him. "What do you say, Brian?"

Brian nodded slowly, took out his wallet, found the fifty he had put there just for this kind of race. He held it up. "You're on."

Jeff grinned. It was an assured grin, slightly predatory, like the look of the Camaro itself.

Keep that smile going, Brian thought, irritated at the other's self-assurance. You're gonna need it.

They agreed to let Jim hold the money. Mahowsky protested that he should hold it; but everyone agreed that Kennedy had challenged, so Proctor got to hold the pot. Jeff selected Tim to go to the finish line as his witness; Brian selected Ed as his. Both got into Tim's car and headed down to the other end of the road. Another four neutrals were selected as general witnesses, and they got into a van and went after the green GTX.

A flood of people wanted to hop into their cars and go to witness the end of the run; but Jim waved the flashlight and told them flat out not to do it. "Can't have you people in the way. These cars are going to be moving when they get down there, and we don't want anyone to get hurt."

There was some grumbling, but Jim had the respect of the crowd, and no one from Proctor, at least, was going to challenge him.

"Get your car, Brian," Jim said, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Good luck."

Brian headed over to the Dodge, unlocked the door and got inside. He started the car, listened to it lope, listened to it rumble. He reached out and laid his hand on top of the dash, gave it a small rub. "You can do it."

He decided to unhook the shoulder belt from its clip and attach it to the lap belt. Best to be well-strapped-in for this one.

He pulled the car out and moved towards the starting line. As challenger, Jeff got the chicken lane on the left, leaving the right lane clear for Brian. He pulled up and stopped, looked to Jim, who motioned him forward. Brian let the car drift forward until Jim held up his hand. They should be even on the line now.

Jeff revved his car a couple of times, and it sounded like a pro-racer. Brian grinned, decided not to mimic him. Let him guess what he was going to hear until the run got rolling.

Brian braked with his left foot, tached the Bee up with his right on the gas. He let the tach creep all the way to 3,500 RPMs this time, and the car stood up on her suspension and the brakes groaned like they were staving off the end of the world.

Jim moved to the side of the road, held up the flashlight. Brian tensed, unable to concentrate on anything but the end of the black cylinder in Jim's hand.

It lit.

Brian yanked his foot off the brake even as he walked the accelerator to the floor. The Camaro reared and fired itself ahead, got a full car length out front in the wink of an eye. But the Bee leaped after it, caught it immediately, and they both screamed away into the night, neck and neck.

Jeff went for second gear and Brian moved ahead in the interval. Brian tapped the shifter back and the Bee surged forward in second, her tires spinning briefly, and the Camaro was right alongside again. For a couple of seconds it looked like they were one car, moving down the road, joined somehow and unable to part.

Then the Bee began to draw ahead. It was just a few feet at first, but then the lead increased, a slow, unstoppable parting of the ways. Jeff went for third gear and lost a couple of more feet even as Brian realized he would not have to shift again before the race was done.

Ahead, he could see the green GTX drawn off to the side of the road, and the small knots of people standing well off on the shoulder to each side of the finish line. Brian was a full car length ahead of the Camaro now, and still drawing apart. Brian felt frozen, his eyes darting between the tach and the road ahead.

The Camaro's headlights were visible in Brian's side mirror, more than a car length back. They crossed the yellow line then, and out of the side of his eye Brian saw Ed raise a hand and jump into the air - and then he was past them.

It seemed to take forever for the two cars to slow down. The Camaro braked first, slowed, stopped by the side of the road. Brian braked until he could swing the car around, and headed back to the finish line. Jeff was already there, standing next to his car. Brian stopped, left the Bee idling, and got out.

Ed ran over, his face covered in the most shit-eating grin Brian had ever seen on a living human being. He pounded Brian on the back, and Brian held up a hand to ward him off. "Take it easy!"

Jeff watched him come over, his face set like stone. Brian stopped in front of the other boy, nodded. "Hell of a race, man. It was close."

"You won," Jeff said stiffly, like he still couldn't believe it.

Tim, the GTX guy - and Jeff's witness - came over and tried to hide his grin. But his eyes said it all: great day to be a Mopar driver!

"Anybody want to contest the outcome?" he asked.

Jeff shook his head, a curt side-to-side jerk. "No. This guy won."

Brian looked at the other boy. There were things in Jeff's eyes that were accusing, and there were things there that seemed hurt. Brian didn't want to leave it that way - he was just starting to see that this race had meant a lot more to Jeff than it had to him. Jeff had lost something here, and not just the race.

Brian stuck out his hand. "It was an honor," he said.

Jeff looked down at Brian's hand, then up to his eyes. "Was it?"

Brian nodded. "Yeah. It was. I was more scared of your car than any other car I've ever seen."

Jeff nodded. "But not now. You're not scared of it now."

It was a sad but true fact. "No." He licked his lips. "But I still respect the hell out of it."

Jeff nodded again, reached out, slid the palm of his hand against Brian's. "See you back at the start."

Brian watched as Jeff climbed into his car, started it, drove off like a little old lady at the wheel of some clunker.

"What the fuck was that about?" Ed asked.

Tim looked at him. "That car means a lot to that guy. I guess it was a hard loss for him. It was his first one ever."

Brian looked after the Camaro's receding taillights, somehow not feeling the victory now, not like he should.

"Top dog," Ed said, grabbing Brian's shoulder. "Let's go get your money."

Ed got in the Bee with Brian. Tim mounted his GTX, and he and the van turned themselves around. Brian headed back to the starting line, his head a cauldron of bubbling emotions.

That Jeff had been hurt somehow by the loss was obvious. Hurt more than just losing, that is. He acted like Brian had somehow betrayed something - and Brian couldn't for the life of him figure out what. There was nothing between him and Jeff - nothing at all. They had met and spoken one time. Yet, somehow, there seemed to be more there for Jeff.

Whatever had just happened, the look in Jeff's eyes - the hurt - was something that Brian could feel. It made him sad, somehow, and he didn't know the why of that, either.

They got back to the starting line. Jeff's Camaro was pulled off to the side, and Jeff was standing outside the door. Mahowsky was standing nearby, gesticulating wildly. Jeff appeared to be examining the ground while the bigger boy raved.

"That don't look good," Ed said.

Brian stopped the Bee on the other side of the road and he and Ed got out.

Jim came over, smiling. "Fucking awesome, Brian. I had a feeling you'd win."

The could hear Mahowsky yelling now. Jim waved a hand, trying to get Jeff's attention. He looked up and saw them, and then looked at Mahowsky. "Shut the fuck up , Dave."

Jeff walked away, leaving Mahowsky looking stunned. He approached them, his eyes on Brian, came up, stopped.

"I'm giving up the pot," Jim said. He reached into his pocket, took out the two fifties, handed them to Brian.

Jeff leaned forward, looked into Brian's face. "What the fuck you got in that car, huh?"

"It's a 383."

"I don't fuckin' believe it. Show me."

Brian nodded, went over to the Dodge, raised the hood. Other people came to look, including Mahowsky. They all peered at the engine in the Bee like it was a mystical charm of some kind.

Jeff shook his head. "Not a hemi. A fuckin' wedge." He looked over at Mahowsky. "You see that?"

Mahowsky laughed. "You got beat by a station wagon motor, motherfucker."

Brian smiled. Well, it was hardly that, although Dodge had been putting the dependable engine - in much milder form - in family cars for years.

Jeff looked at Brian, shaking his head. "Something isn't right."

Brian held up the money. "You want to go again?" He was getting a little irritated at all this weirdness.

Jeff's face bunched into a knot. Brian saw the swing coming, saw the look in Jeff's eyes and the tic of his shoulder that telegraphed the shot. Brian brought his left up and took a step back as Jeff swung, and the blow glanced down along Brian's forearm. Brian stuffed the money back in his pocket, seeing another shot coming, and backed up quickly, avoiding it.

The crowd around them suddenly backed up, too, giving them room. Jeff stepped into Brian, swinging, even as Tim pushed his way to the front of the crowd, yelling at Jeff to stop.

Jeff heard none of it. His eyes were on Brian's face, on Brian's eyes, and he kept right on stepping forward and swinging, even as Brian danced back, blocking. Brian moved in a small circle while Jeff chased him, trying to connect. Brian was hyped now, feeling the jazz he felt when he was boxing, his reflexes sharp and his eyes not missing a thing.

Jeff chased him around, growing angrier and more confused as each blow missed its mark. "Stand fucking still!" he bellowed at last, causing Brian to smile.

"Right," was all he could say. It was a matter of keeping moving, keeping blocking and evading. Jeff simply wasn't fast enough to make a connect. Brian saw that now, and relaxed into his defensive posture.

He could have ended it quickly, could have put Jeff right on the ground with a couple of swift moves. But the more he watched the other boy, the more he saw the frustration and helpless anger in his eyes, the more sympathy he felt.

And the more of something else. Brian smiled. Jeff was agonizingly appealing in his anger somehow, and what Brian felt the urge to do was grab him and hold him, to tell him it was okay - to comfort him. That this was about the craziest reaction he could have was also apparent to him, and he just didn't know how to deal with it other than the way he was doing. Certainly, he didn't want to hurt the guy. That would only make things much worse.

Jeff saw the smile, misinterpreted it as a gloat. He surged forward, starting to swing wildly now. Brian continued to block, continued to evade.

They kept moving in a circle, while the crowd milled around them, most watching in silence, a few calling support to Brian. Kennedy was ill-represented here, and the lack of audible support for Jeff only made Brian's heart even softer towards the other boy. Jeff was alone, and that fact somehow pained Brian right down to his core.

He was coming back around towards the Bee, dancing and bobbing and weaving , managing to stay one move ahead of Jeff's rampage. As he came around the edge of the crowd he felt something against the back of his leg as he backed, knew somehow instantaneously what it was.

Someone was trying to trip him up. Brian's reflexes, in attack mode now, took over. He leapt upward and backward, over the extended leg, and as he did so he twisted in mid air and fired his right fist into whoever it was standing there. It connected with a meaty thwap! that brought silence to the crowd.

Brian came down without even seeing who he had hit. Jeff roared, charged at him. Brian feinted left, stepped right, and grabbed Jeff as he came by, swinging the other boy around and putting him into a headlock. Brian used the power of his chest and back muscles to bear down with his weight on Jeff, and the other boy went mostly quiescent, offering only a minimum of resistance as Brian held him.

Brian leaned close, whispered into Jeff's ear: "Give it up, man. I don't want to hurt you."

"You already did!" Jeff grated, squirming anew.

"Then I'm sorry," Brian hissed. "Please stop. Jeff...please."

Jeff suddenly relaxed - so suddenly that Brian took a step to one side before he could get his balance.

They stood there in silence, both breathing a little harder from their exertions.

"Let me go," Jeff said quietly. "I'm done."

Brian somehow felt the truth of it. He let go of the other boy and stepped quickly away, just in case he was wrong.

"Hey, dumbfuck!" someone else bellowed. Brian turned to see Mahowsky staggering towards him. The brawler's face was almost as red as his car, and blood streamed from his nose. "You fuckin' think you're gettin' away with that?"

Brian stared, realizing now who he had hit. He crouched, put up his hands, stepped back away from the approaching teen.

And then Ed was at his side, his fists raised, and Jim Van Pelt was on the other side, pointing. "You better know what you're fuckin' starting, Mahowsky. That was a real bitch move, trying to trip Brian up."

Others stepped up beside Ed. Dave Routh was there, and Mike Zurka, and Wade Tomlinson, all at the ready. Brian glanced the other way, at Van Pelt, who had his fists up now - and there, on the other side of Jim, was Colin, looking petrified - but his fists were knotted up just like everyone else's.

Mahowsky stopped, looking confused by all the sudden opposition.

Across from them, at the fore of the crowd, were Bert and Ernie, who both started to yell, "Go home, Kennedy!"

"Knock it off, Dave." Jeff pointed at the other Kennedy boy. "I fuckin' mean it."

Mahowsky made a face, dabbed at the blood from his nose. He gave Brian a last, malevolent look, then turned and headed back towards his car.

Nobody moved.

Jeff came up, looked after Mahowsky. Several other Kennedy guys had emerged from the crowd and joined the brawler as he retreated. None had stepped up to stand next to him to face the Proctor guys, though, which everyone had to have noticed.

"Asshole," Jeff breathed, staring after them.

Brian looked at him. There was something different about Jeff now. Gone, somehow, was the predatory aura, the sheen of power. He seemed now simply a slightly built guy, wiry, kind of cute, kind of lonely. Something about him was newly familiar, too. Brian frowned, trying to see it - but couldn't.

Still there, though, was the need. Jeff was alone, still, and Brian wanted somehow to comfort that. To just put his arms around the other guy and -

Shit. Listen to yourself, Brian.

And then Brian knew what was newly familiar about Jeff. The other boy was carrying, and what he was carrying was the It. That was the only name that Brian had for it. The It. The It was a certain something: a many-colored shadow, a wisp of certain feeling, a soft and quiet sense; and some other things that didn't have any names or faces or dictionary descriptions, but appeared in unique and elegant form nonetheless.

It was a thing inside, the It. It was a heart thing, maybe a soul thing, too. It was there to be seen by those who looked and no one else; and, somehow, Brian had looked at just the right moment in space and time. Jeff had the It, and Brian had seen it.

The last time Brian had seen the It was when he was fourteen, when a new boy had been moving in two houses down. A boy with a father in the military, a mom who liked to shop, a minibike in the garage, and six months of his life to share.

Chris had had the It. And he had shared it with Brian, and he had shared it deeply.

Jeff was looking at Brian now, looking at him oddly. They stared at each other, and their eyes touched, and their eyes talked.

Jeff looked somehow shocked, and took a step back. "I gotta be going." He frowned. "I acted like such a jerk, man. I'm...sorry."

Brian found he could only nod.

Jeff backed away slowly, his eyes still on Brian's. Finally, more than a dozen feet away, he turned and just walked away, back to his car.

"Man. That dude is creepy." That was Ed, standing beside him. "See the way he kept looking at you?"

Brian nodded. "Yeah. I saw it."

He watched as Jeff got to his car, got inside, started it, and drove off. No tires spinning, no pedal-to-the-metal.


Someone touched Brian's shoulder. He started, turned, and saw Tim standing beside him.

"Thanks, man."

Brian blinked. "For?"

Tim smiled. "For not hurting Jeff. You could have done it. He had no idea who he was fucking with."

Brian shook his head, looked down the road where Jeff's car had disappeared. "I didn't want to hurt him, man. He was already hurt."

Tim nodded. "Yeah. Losing's a new thing for him."

That wasn't totally what Brian had meant, but he nodded anyway. "Strange dude."

Tim nodded. "His old man is powerful as shit. There's a lot of stories about him trashing people that fucked with him or his family. And he donates a lot of money to the school for stuff, and the staff acts like Jeff walks on water. That makes everybody else a little careful around Jeff, too. " He laughed. "Even Mahowsky is scared of him."

Brian looked at him. "He didn't seem that way to me - you know, stuck up or anything."

"He's not." Tim frowned. "Jeff is quiet, but he's an all right dude. He never cashes on his old man's money, or his strong arm, or anything. Except for the car, maybe. But even that, I heard Jeff cut grass for like three years to buy it and build it up. That car's his baby."

Brian blinked, then smiled. Cut grass? That sounded familiar.

In his mind, Brian could see Jeff's face. He'd always thought the guy was nice-looking, but now he saw other things, not the least of which was that Jeff was cute. It wasn't just his looks - it was something inside.

And, he was carrying the it. That Jeff might be gay was something Brian had to seriously consider. How he even suspected this now was a mystery. Gay had no colors, no signs that hung out to be seen. Unless you were a flamer, there were no signs at all. Just the it, if you were observant enough, under the right conditions, to spy it.

What was more, he suspected now that Jeff had seen the it in Brian. There had been some eye-talk going on in the midst of all that turmoil, and what they had said to each other by sight had been important.

Brian just didn't know what those silent words had meant. Not yet.

Tim clapped him on the shoulder, smiled. "You're a good dude, Brian. I hope you won't go too hard on Jeff. He's really a good guy. I think you just busted up his world a little, is all."

Brian nodded. "No hard feelings here. You tell him that, if you see him, huh?"

Tim nodded. "I will." He looked around. "I'd better go. I hang here too long and Mahowsky will think I switched sides."

Brian laughed. "Can't have that."

Tim backed up a few steps, grinned. "Hell, no. And I can't have people think I go to a pussy school like Proctor, either."

Brian laughed, and Tim headed off.

"I like that dude," Ed said, watching the other boy go. "He's got some class. For a Kennedy guy, anyway."

Brian suddenly noticed Colin standing behind Ed, talking to Marianne. He grinned at Ed, stepped around him, clapped Colin on the shoulder. "Hey, buddy. Thanks for the support."

Colin looked pleased. "Yeah. I couldn't let that guy rub you out, man. He's got muscles on his muscles."

Brian nodded. "It was cool seeing you there with your hands up, man. I was a little surprised."

Colin actually looked embarrassed. "Why? We're buddies, right? I can't let some knucklehead like that pound on you."

Brian leaned back, looked down at Colin's crotch. The other boy looked startled, glancing down. "What?"

Brian grinned. "Just making sure you didn't piss yourself. You looked a little worried when Mahowsky was coming at us."

Colin puffed up like an agitated bird; but then, just as suddenly, he relaxed. "I was scared shitless, man."

"But you were there anyway. That's what counts."

Colin looked pleased. "You'd do the same for me."

Brian nodded. "Yup. I would."

Marianne leaned over and hung on Colin's arm as though he had just chased off a pride of hungry lions with a toothbrush. Her eyes just glowed at the guy, and all Brian could do was shake his head a little. Marianne was never going to change.

Colin, either.

Brian grinned. "You still want to go cruising together some night?"

Colin looked agitated all over again. "Well -"

"I won't show you up," Brian said quietly. "Promise."

Colin nodded. He didn't look thrilled, but he did look accepting. "Okay. Let me know when."

Brian nodded. Colin rubbed at his nose, looked like he didn't know what to say next.

Brian helped him out. "Well, I'd better get back to shit. Stay outta trouble, huh?"

Colin grinned. "You, too."

He watched as the other two headed off.

Ed sighed. "You soft-hearted motherfucker. Ya punked out with Colin again."

Brian grinned at him. "What? He stood up with me, man. You didn't think that was cool as shit?"

Ed made a face, but nodded. "Yeah. I'm amazed." He looked after the departing couple. "I just wonder what it's gonna cost you down the line."

Jim Van Pelt was standing by the Bee, talking to the Chevy guys, Dave, Wade, and Mike. They all turned to look as Brian and Ed approached.

"Man of the evening," Wade said, grinning. "Amazing what headers and a new shifter will do, huh?"

Brian felt his cheeks burn a little. "Sorry I didn't tell you guys. I didn't want Colin to know before I got a chance at a rematch."

"We saw you talking to him," Mike said, grinning. "He say he'd run you?"

"I didn't ask him. Didn't have the heart to, after the way he stood up with us when Mahowsky was on the rampage."

"Yeah, how about that?" Jim Van Pelt shook his head. "I couldn't believe it myself when I saw him next to me like that. You never know, huh?"

Brian had known Colin a long time. Colin had issues, and he was often undependable. But he hadn't been tonight. And that, really, was all that mattered to Brian.

He nodded. "I know I can beat his car. That's enough for me."

Dave Routh smiled. "You know we didn't believe you when you said you'd just put headers and a few new things on, right?"

Brian was surprised. "Huh? Why not?"

Dave exchanged grins with Jim Van Pelt. "Come on, Brian. We've been around cars for a little, right? Your Bee loped like a bitch at idle when you showed up that first day. I figured you had a new cam, but not a whole new engine. I knew some work had been done to the car, though, because the damn thing reeked of Permatex. Can't miss that smell."

Brian nodded. True, that. The gasket sealer had a very unique odor. He had gotten so he didn't even notice it - but the others had.

"So if you guys knew, why didn't you say something?"

Mike poked him playfully. "We figured you had a reason. We wanted to see what it was."

Brian grimaced. "Aw, that makes me feel stupid, man."

Jim laughed. "Why? It was all cool. And it wasn't the first time one of us concealed an edge until we got to use it."

The conversation went on for awhile, someone handed Brian a cold beer, and it seemed everyone that walked by him patted him on the shoulder.

He thanked Dave and Wade and Mike – and Jim – for standing with him at the crunch. They all laughed, patted him down or pushed him a little, and Brian understood it was all part of being a member of the crowd. The car crowd.

Finally, it was late, and people were leaving. He got the thumbs up again from the car crowd, and everyone headed back to their rides to start moving on.

Brian and Ed climbed into the Bee, headed home.

"Thanks for being there," Brian told Ed. "Meant a lot to see you stand up with me."

Ed gave him a gentle push. "You're my best bud, dude." He laughed. "Besides, if I let that whacko go nuts he mighta hurt you, and then I'd have to find another ride home."

Brian grinned, and nodded. The Bee rolled on.

Ed talked a mile-a-minute, about the race, Jeff, Jeff's car, Mahowsky, the suspect nature of Kennedy manhood in general.

Brian half-listened, smiling or laughing in all the right places; but his mind was not really on what his friend was saying. All he could think about was Jeff. That something had been exchanged between himself and the other boy was definite. Exactly what it had been, and where it might lead, was another.

Brian wanted to know more about Jeff now, but couldn't see a way to do it without showing his hand.

Uh, yeah, no homo intended, but what can you tell me about the cute guy that drives that Camaro?

The next steps - if there were to be any at all - would need to be careful ones. Brian could see a few possible next moves, but to get to them would require that all-important first step.

And Brian had no idea how to take it.

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