By Kristen Sheley
Originally published in the Arts & Communication High School literary magazine, Savant, June 1997

Duke was late picking me up again; I don't know why that surprised me.

After nearly a decade of friendship, I should've known long ago that, to Duke, "around eight" was closer to eight thirty. The clock in my living room read nearly a quarter 'til nine when Duke's light blue '65 Thunderbird pulled into my driveway. I was outside before the vehicle had stopped.

The passenger side door popped open and Zoey stepped out so I could get into the narrow back seat. "What took you guys so long?" I asked as I crawled into the car. Duke's guitar took up half the space and the other half was filled with bags of chips and cans of soda. It was a tight fit for me back there.

Zoey snapped her chewing gum as she settled back in her seat and slammed the door. "Johnny needed to pick up some refreshments," she explained, one long red nail pointing at Duke in the driver's seat. John was his real name, but he only allowed Zoey to call him anything other than "Duke."

"Hey, Alex, chill," Duke said to me, raising his voice over the heavy metal music pouring from the stereo system. "It's not fashionable to arrive on time at parties, anyway. What's your hurry?"

"You know," I said evasively, not wanting Zoey to get wind of the reason. Though she and Duke had been dating for nearly a year now, I still didn't think it was wise to let her in on the little secret. As head cheerleader at Fairdale High, the girl had trouble keeping her mouth shut.

"So does Zoey," Duke said as he pulled out of my driveway. He took a moment to glance at his blond girlfriend, a tender smile crossing his face.

"You didn't!" I gasped in horror. "Duke!"

Zoey giggled at my discomfort. "Oh, Alex, don't worry. I won't tell anyone else that you have your eye on Jenny Silverman."

"Anyone else?" I asked, catching that one little word. "Who've you told already?"

Zoey shrugged, her hoop earrings swinging with the gesture. "Just a few people on the squad."

I groaned loudly, slumping back in my seat. "Oh, wonderful. By Friday the entire school will know!"

Zoey twisted around in her seat to wag her finger at me. "You worry far too much, Alex. Why don't you loosen up a little, like Johnny?"

"My parents would send me to military school if I showed up at home with black leather and green hair," I answered.

Duke glanced at me in the rearview mirror. "Hey, I happen to know your parents think very highly of me!"

"Maybe because you're off to Harvard next year," I said. "Brains score big with my parents."

"Johnny, you're going too fast again!" Zoey warned, turning back to the front and spotting the speedometer. "The sign said 35, not 45!"

"I'm makin' up for lost time," Duke answered. "We don't want Alex to miss Jenny, do we?" he added, tilting his head enough to grin at me.

"We also don't want to end up in the hospital emergency room," Zoey said softly.

Duke looked at his girlfriend, suddenly serious. When Zoey was only six, her family had a head on collision with a drunk in a semi. Zoey's parents and three-year-old brother Dan had been killed. She had been in the hospital for a couple weeks with a concussion, a broken arm, and a broken heart. Afterwards she had gone to live with her aunt, but the scars from that ordeal were still visible eleven years later, even if they had faded on her body.

"Okay, baby, I'll lay on the breaks," Duke said. The words had hardly left his lips when we heard the sound of a siren behind us. I twisted around and saw a white cop car, lights flashing, right on our tail.

"Shit!" Duke hissed. "My dad'll kill me if I get another ticket!"

"Don't worry - it might not be for us," I said, ever optimistic. "Maybe the guy is just in a hurry for his coffee break."

"Right," Duke muttered. He took a turn into a residential street, the cop car following our move.

"Pull over, pull over," I heard a mechanical voice order from the squad car.

"No way!" Duke said, accelerating sharply. The cop car fell back a moment, then lay on the gas as well.

"Johnny!" Zoey yelled, her cheeks flushing with anger. "Pull over!"

But Duke's eyes remained fixed on the road ahead. "Can't, baby. My dad told me one more ticket, and he's selling my car to pay for it."

"Duke, outrunning the cops is a federal offense," I pointed out, agreeing with Zoey on this one.

"Only if we're caught," Duke corrected, downshifting as he took a sharp turn into the main drag of town. I was thrown against the pile of party snacks. One of the chip bags popped open, tossing cheese doodles through the air.

"Watch it, McDonald," I warned Duke, trying to comb the doodles out of my hair. "I don't have a seat belt here!"

Duke either did not hear me or did not care. The Thunderbird continued to accelerate, but the cop was up to the challenge.

"Are you trying to get us all killed?!" Zoey shrieked at Duke, her face now deathly white. "Pull the car over!"

"After we lose the black and white," Duke promised, his eyes swinging between his mirrors and the windshield. Up ahead, the traffic light turned yellow.

"You're gonna have to stop, Duke," I said, already knowing he wouldn't. I gripped the back of the front seat, preparing myself for a bumpy ride.

"No, he's gonna have to stop!" Duke corrected. "He's a cop -- he's not supposed to break the law."

I rolled my eyes. For a intelligent, Harvard-bound eighteen-year-old, Duke could be painfully naive sometimes. "Think about it, Duke," I said patiently as we hurtled towards the now-red light. "Haven't you ever noticed ambulances going through red lights?"

Duke's response was to push the car harder. The engine roared, drowning everything else out. Cars started to cross the intersection before us as Duke entered it. I gasped and ducked my head, certain a collision was eminent. In the front seat, Zoey's hand's flew to her face and a wordless whimper of terror emerged from her mouth.

The time it took to cross the intersection seemed to last forever. A vision of my tombstone flashed in my mind - Here Lies Alexander Carlson, Aged 18. Killed in a Fiery Car Wreak with John "Duke" McDonald and Zoey Garcia. I counted the seconds, bracing myself for the sudden sound of tortured metal and the sensation of being thrown out of the car. Instead, I heard the squeal of protesting tires -- though not ours.

"We made it!" Duke cheered a moment later, taking a second to pump one fist in the air. "Hooo-wee, was that great?! What a rush!"

"Yeah, a real blast," I said dryly, trying to slow my pounding heart. I turned my head to see the cop car still on our tail. "Duke, I really think we should pull over. This guy isn't going to give up."

"He ain't seen nothin' yet," Duke vowed. "Hold on!"

Three seconds after he warned me, Duke took a sharp right turn, then another right, and finally a left, zooming down a quiet suburban street. I gripped the back of the front seat so hard my knuckles were white, but I still ended up getting tossed around a bit with the guitar and the food. Cheese doodles crunched under my sneakers.

"Johnny, Johnny, please slow down!" Zoey begged, tears in her eyes. She was terrified. "Don't do this anymore, okay? It's not funny!"

"We'll be at the party soon," Duke said instead. Even the love of his girlfriend was not going to make him back down. Never before had I seen him so reckless, so wired! Zoey wasn't the only one scared.

"And when we get to the party they'll have, like, fifty cops there, waiting for you," I said. I glanced out the back window again, startled at what I saw. Another cop car had joined in the chase. "We've got more company!"

Duke glanced at me through the rearview mirror, then shifted his gaze to the back window. His eyes narrowed and he pushed the T-bird harder. I caught a glimpse of the speedometer. We were up to 110. Lights and dark scenery flew by in a featureless blur of grey.

Zoey whipped her head around to face me. "Alex, help me," she moaned, tears streaming down her face in dark smears of mascara. "Make him stop!"

"Nobody ever made Duke do anything," I admitted, recalling how stubborn the guy was.

"Look, I'll stop when these pigs get off my tail and we get to the party!" Duke snapped at us. "Have we gotten in an accident yet? No! Let me drive, all right! I know what I'm doing!"

The words didn't exactly comfort me, and I could see Zoey was still as anxious as ever. But she lapsed into silence, her face turned towards the window outside, away from Duke. I could tell from her shaking shoulders that she was still crying, though the roar of the car's engine drowned the noise out.

Duke took another sharp turn without signaling. I was completely lost on where we were - this was the old section of town, the one you didn't go through after dark unless you were new to the area or stupid. I decided that Duke fit into the second category tonight.

"Do you know how to get to the party from here?" I asked him, trying to ignore the sirens behind us.

"I'll find it, don't you worry," Duke promised me. He turned back onto a main road, turning out the lights on his car. Now the only illumination was provided by the streetlights. Duke drove a few hundred feet on the road, then turned right into another neighborhood.

"Do you think that'll help the cops, if we get in an accident from driving off the road?" I asked. The neighborhood streets in this area of town were poorly lit and it was difficult to see anything before us. Duke had let his speed drop considerably, leaning close to the windshield and squinting.

"If the cops can't see us, we'll get away," Duke said.

I sighed, unable to relax. "How many times have you done this? Playing tag with the cops?"

"This would be the first," Duke admitted with reluctance. "Don't worry. Are they still behind us?"

I looked out the window. "Not yet," I said. Just as I spoke, the white cars turned onto the street, their sirens silenced but the lights still flashing as brightly as possible. "Never mind," I corrected myself.

Duke swore under his breath, cautiously accelerating and turning onto another street. He took the first streets he came to for the next few minutes, weaving us in a dizzying maze of poorly lit suburban streets. Finally, we turned onto another four lane road that ran on the outskirts of town.

"The Zimmerman's house is near here," Duke said after a moment, still going twice as fast as the posted speed. "Once there, we should be home free."

"What about your license plate?" I asked, the notion just occurring to me. "What if they took that down?"

Duke's mouth tightened into a hard line. I could tell he hadn't thought of it before, either.

"They can't have seen it," Zoey said softly. "It was covered with mud from our camping trip. Remember?"

Duke's face brightened considerably with that bit of information. "That's right! Thanks, baby."

Zoey let out a trembling sigh, slumping down in her seat. One bloodless hand gripped the locked door handle.

"I think we lost them, Duke," I said after a few minutes of no cop sightings at our back. But I spoke too soon. Like a phantom in the night, the cars were suddenly on our tail again, having arrived from a side street. They were relentless, these police. I made a mental note that -- should I ever get out of this alive -- I was never running from them if they wanted to pull me over!

"They're ba-ack," I warned, imitating the child in Poltergeist.

"Not for long!" Duke said to me, a wicked grin crossing his face. I really didn't like the look of that grin.

"What are you planning, Johnny?" Zoey asked, getting the same vibes off it that I was.

The roar of the T-Bird as it accelerated was the only answer. I turned my eyes on the road ahead, wondering if Duke was going to try jumping a bridge or lake. What I saw instead was worse -- much worse.

"No way, Duke, no way!" I protested. "That's crazy! We'll never make it!"

Duke tightened his grip on the steering wheel, his eyes locked on the railroad crossing gates that had just completed their descent.

"Maybe, but what choice have we?"

"To pull over and stop this crazy game!" Zoey said immediately, her voice shrill.

Duke didn't answer her. Over the sound of the sirens I heard the warning of the airhorn from the approaching train. Images of splattered bugs on the windshield flashed into my mind. I wondered if humans could be splattered the same way on the windshields of trains. "You might wreck your car!" I said to Duke, attempting to reach through his haze of adrenaline.

"Too late to stop now," Duke muttered in reply. The engine screamed as Duke pushed it up to 120. The flashing gates hurtled towards us with a speed that was almost fascinating to watch. But watching I planned to do no more of.

"Get down!" I shouted to Zoey, taking my own advice and leaning over as far as I could and still be seated. Things were moving too fast for me to realize that nothing I did would help if the train hit us.

There was a crash of something hitting the front of the car -- the wooden gates that were supposed to prevent people from crossing?then the car was jolted so hard that I was nearly thrown out of my seat. My neck snapped forward with so much force that I wondered, briefly, if I'd be paralyzed the rest of my life. A second later there was another crash, then Duke cheered!

"We made it!" he shouted. I lifted my head up cautiously and looked out the back window just in time to see the train enter the intersection, successfully cutting the cops off for the next few minutes.

"Yeah," I said shakily, surprised to still be alive.

"That was insane, Johnny, completely insane!" Zoey shrieked, turning her head around to look at him. The tears were gone now, and what glowed in her eyes was pure rage. "You could've killed us all! We could be dog food right now!"

Duke stared at his girlfriend a moment, then did the most unexpected thing under the circumstances. He started to laugh -- hard. "Dog food?" he gasped out. "Dog food? What kind? Kibbles 'N Bits? Or Kal Kan? Or maybe Purina Puppy Chow?"

Though Duke's words weren't that funny, I started to laugh as well. Zoey glared at us both, hurt. But I couldn't help it. The laugher came from deep inside me, pouring out so long and hard that my stomach hurt. At the back of my mind I wondered if I was hysterical, if we all were.

Then Duke turned into the long gravel driveway that led up to Tim Zimmerman's house. He parked the car under a large tree, so it was shrouded in darkness and all but invisible from the main road.

"Last stop, Party Central," Duke intoned, shutting the car off. Even inside the car the faint sound of music from the house was audible.

Zoey unlocked her door and literally threw it open and jumped outside. Even in the darkness I could see her shaking. "If you plan to take that same way home, I think I'll catch a ride with someone else," she said coolly to Duke, heading for the main house.

Duke opened his own door and stepped outside. "Aw come on, Zoe. It wasn't that bad -- wasn't it the least bit fun and exciting?"

Even still in the car I could hear Zoey's snort as she kept walking, not looking back.

"She'll cool down, Duke," I assured my friend, emerging from the vehicle. My knees were a little weak and my heart was still skipping along a bit unevenly, but I thought I'd gotten off well under the circumstances.

Duke sighed. "Yeah.... Hey, wanna help me carry this stuff in the house?" he asked, gesturing to the food and guitar scattered across the back floor and seat.

"What do I get in return?" I asked, already leaning inside the car.

"A free ride home," Duke said with a wicked grin.

I groaned. "I don't know if my heart can take another ride like that tonight."

Duke laughed as he pulled his guitar out of the car. "Trust me, Alex, I think my days as stunt driver extraordinare are over now. I was just as freaked out as you guys were."

"Then why didn't you stop, Duke?" I asked seriously, pulling out the unbroken bags of chips.

"You ever do something just for the hell of it?" Duke asked me.

I pursed my lips together as I thought. "I dunno. Probably. Is that why you did this? Just for the hell of it?"

Duke nodded. "Life's too short to play by the rules all the time, don't you think? And in the long run, you'll probably remember this stuff more than getting a ticket." He grinned at me again as he shut the door to his car. "Now let's get up there and party!"

I smiled as we started up the driveway to the house, Duke's words echoing in my ears. And they proved true as the years went on -- though most car rides I've taken have been easily forgettable, I've never forgotten about that one spontaneous joyride.

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