John cruised Main Street after dark with the top down, enjoying the solo ride. It was weird not having Nancy in the passenger seat, scarf wrapped around her hair, but weird in a good way. Breaking up with her had been hard, but he’d never felt more free.
They say that time will erase all my sorrow
Well I guess since I've lost you I'll find out tomorrow
Be gay while she's with you don't break down and cry
Eat drink and be merry tomorrow you'll cry
Nancy had never liked listening to the country station, unless they were playing Elvis. John cranked up the volume.
John looked over at the car rolling along beside him. Laura Cadman was hanging half out the window, waving at him, which meant Alicia was probably behind the wheel.
“What’s happenin’?” John called back.
“Mitchell’s looking for you! He wants to race!”
“Then he can find me and tell me himself!”
John turned onto Milner, one hand out to wave at Laura. He thought he might go to Mel’s, get a burger and see what the action was. He was leaving in the morning and it was his last chance to have a little fun.
Evan’s big yellow Roadmaster pulled up beside John at the next light. “Shep!”
“What’s up, Dimples?”
“Mitchell’s looking for you.”
“You gonna race him?”
John shrugged, like he didn’t care. Truth was, he’d love to go out with his record unbeaten. And Mitchell had been pestering him for weeks, so sure his ride would be the one that finally left John in the dust. Be nice to stick it to him.
“He finds me, maybe.”
Evan grinned, popping his dimples out. It was no wonder he was so popular with the girls. He still had a year of high school left, and John knew he was leaving things in good hands.
“I’ll keep an ear to the ground, Shep!”
“You do that.”
I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine
Since, I don't know when
John nodded along to the music. The first time he’d heard Johnny Cash on the radio he’d run right out and picked up With His Hot and Blue Guitar, and played it over and over when he was at home. He didn’t know if it was the lyrics or Cash’s voice, but something about the music really spoke to John.
He was almost to the end of Milner when he saw some kind of dust-up happening out front of Klein’s Pharmacy. A young guy was getting pushed around by some hoods in black leather jackets. John might’ve kept on driving – he was no Captain America – if he hadn’t recognized the too-long blond hair and scowling countenance.
John skin flashed hot and he whipped the Bel Air over to the curb. He levered himself up and over the door and made a beeline for the hoods, hitting the first one around the midsection and knocking him back into the wall. The other two abandoned their quarry and joined in the fray, and for a minute John was sure he was about to get his ass kicked.
He hadn’t heard the motorcycle roar up, but suddenly Ronon was picking the hoods up by their collars and tossing them aside with very little effort.
“Freak!” one of the hoods yelled as they all ran away.
Ronon gave John a hand up. “You okay, Sheppard?”
“Thanks for the assist,” John said. “Rodney? You all right?”
Rodney eyed him warily. He had blood on his lip. “I had it under control.”
“Sure you did,” Ronon said. No-one rocked the greaser look the way he did, with leather chaps and leather vest and his thick hair slicked up into an impressive pompadour. “Lucky I was cruising by.”
“Appreciate it,” John said. “You wanna go get a burger or something? I owe you.”
Ronon tipped his head and John saw there was a girl sitting on the back of the bike, smoking a cigarette and looking bored.
“I got plans. So do you. I hear you’re gonna race Mitchell.”
“I hear that too. We’ll see.”
“Good luck.” Ronon clapped him on the shoulder and walked away.
John stretched, wincing a little as his ribs twinged. One of the guys had gotten in a good shot. Rodney looked like he was ready to bolt, but John wasn’t willing to let him get away that easily. He’d been watching the guy from afar for the last year or so, and he didn’t want to leave without getting a chance to at least talk to him.
“Let me give you a ride home,” John offered.
“Why?” Rodney asked suspiciously. He shifted from foot to foot, and tugged at the bottom of his argyle cardigan, which was layered over a plaid shirt. He was a good looking guy but he dressed like a square.
“If you’d rather take your chances, be my guest.” John made a show of holding his side as he limped back to his car.
“They hurt you.”
John fought back a grin as Rodney trailed after him. “I’m fine.”
“You clearly aren’t.”
“I didn’t know you cared,” John said. He slid back behind the wheel.
Rodney stood on the other side of the car, arms crossed. “I don’t.”
“Well I don’t either.” Somehow John had lost track of what they were even talking about. He didn’t like feeling so off-kilter. Maybe he was better off forgetting about Rodney and getting back that nice, easy feeling he had earlier.
But then Rodney was getting in the car and John’s skin was feeling hot and too tight again.
“So, uh…where do you live?”
“Just over on Maple Crest,” Rodney said. “Number seventeen.”
John tried not to be disappointed. Maple Crest was only a few blocks away. He pulled back into traffic.
“Nice car,” Rodney said.
“Thanks. It’s got a two hundred twenty-five horsepower engine. It goes zero to sixty in twelve seconds.”
“Well, let’s not do that.” Rodney fastened his seatbelt, much to John’s amusement. It wasn’t like they were competing in a derby.
Of all the things John would be leaving behind he’d miss the car the most. It was a sweet ride: ’56 Chevy Bel Air, in Matador Red and Dune Beige. He’d saved up his paycheck for a whole year, working at the hardware store despite his father’s insistence that Sheppard men didn’t work at menial jobs, and pulled money out of his savings. Hopefully his brother Dave would take good care of it while he was gone.
“I hear you’re leaving tomorrow,” Rodney said.
John glanced over at him, surprised. “Yeah. I am.”
“Military. I enlisted in the Air Force.” And made his father so angry they hadn’t spoken in weeks.
“I’m going to college,” Rodney said. “Back East. I’m really smart, you know. I’m going to be a physicist.”
Which was probably why the hoods had been pushing him around. They hadn’t been in many of the same classes at school, but the ones they had shared had been memorable. Rodney had a sharp tongue and a keen mind, and he looked good in a pair of blue jeans.
“I’m sure you’ll be great,” John said sincerely.
“Huh. Nothing, I guess.”
John shot a look at Rodney, saw that he was staring at John with an expression somewhere between confused and pleased.
My hands are shaky and my knees are weak
I can't seem to stand on my own two feet
Who do you thank when you have such luck?
I'm in love
I'm all shook up
While John was thinking of something to say, and Rodney was drumming his fingers on the seat in time to the music, a Fairlane pulled up close on John’s tail, lights flashing.
“Shit,” he muttered. “Not now.”
“What? What’s happening?”
“It’s Cam Mitchell,” John said. “He wants to race me.”
“Racing? That’s stupid. And reckless. You’re not going to do it, are you?”
“If I back out he wins by default. Can’t have that. Hold on.”
“Why? What are you –”
John slammed on the brakes, forcing Cam to go around to keep from rear-ending him. He pulled up beside John, his girl Vala hanging out the passenger window with her pigtails streaming.
“There you are, Johnny!” Vala beamed. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“So I hear.”
Mitchell leaned across the seat. “Come on, man. I want a shot at you before you leave.”
“Not for pinks,” John said. “I’m leaving the car to my brother.”
“I don’t want your shitty car, man.”
“Fine. Paradise Road.”
“See you there, Johnny!” Vala blew him a kiss as Cam pulled ahead of John and made a left.
“You’re insane,” Rodney said. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“What’s the matter?” John asked, shooting Rodney a grin. “Don’t you like going fast?”
“Want me to drop you home first?”
“I…no.” Rodney looked away, and John’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “So…um…why the Air Force?”
Just one step at a time
The one true way to get all you need is
To start out slow and then pick up speed
One step at a time boy, Just one step at a time
“My uncle flew a medic chopper in Korea,” John said. “I want to do something important like that. And I love flying.”
“Aren’t you worried there’ll be another war?”
“That’s when they need pilots the most.”
Rodney snorted. “You sound like an idealist. Planes and helicopters are easy targets, you know that, right?”
John just shrugged. He didn’t know how to explain the feeling he got when Uncle Marty took him up in his old Piper Cub and gave him the yoke. It was freedom up there, from his father’s expectations and his own tangled feelings. Like John could just leave it all behind and fly away somewhere where none of it mattered.
“This is terrible music, by the way.” Rodney spun the dial, hitting some static, a commercial for Brylcreem, and finally landing on WATL, the same station Nancy was always listening to.
Oh-oh, yes I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I'm lonely but no one can tell
“It’s not nice to mess with a guy’s radio,” John said. Only it didn’t really bother him when Rodney did it.
“You’ll get over it,” Rodney replied with a crooked grin. John felt stupidly pleased that Rodney felt comfortable with him. “Just be glad I’m not subjecting you to classical music.”
“Yeah? You listen to that stuff? Like Beethoven?”
“Beethoven, Mozart, Bach…that’s real music. I play the piano, you know.”
As a matter of fact, John did know. He’d stumbled across Rodney in the music room after school one day, playing something soaring and majestic on the old upright. John had listened until Rodney finished, then high-tailed it out of there before he got caught.
“You like listening to Country,” Rodney said thoughtfully. “So you probably play the guitar.”
“Huh. Do you play any instruments? I know you weren’t in band.”
“I played quarterback,” John said with a grin.
“Oh. Right. Jock.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Rodney glared at him. “It is if you’re me.”
“Oh. Right.” John was aware that some of the other guys on the team gave kids a hard time, especially the ones like Rodney who had such a difficult time fitting in. They never did it in front of him, though, because they knew John didn’t like it and as team captain he had a lot of pull. His mother hadn’t raised him to be the kind of guy that had to tear others down to feel good about himself.
Still, he felt guilty that Rodney got picked on. He had a big mouth, but he wasn’t a bad guy.
They left the suburbs behind, heading towards the outskirts of town and Paradise Road. It was a long, straight stretch, perfect for racing. Cars were already lined up on either side of the road, headlights on and radios blasting. John pulled up to the chalked starting line beside Mitchell, who was already there.
“Do you really need to do this?” Rodney asked.
“Yup. But not with you in the car.” John waved Evan over. “Hey, can you keep an eye on Rodney for me? I still owe him a ride home.”
“Sure thing, Shep,” Evan replied. “Leave Mitchell in the dust, okay?”
“You got it.”
“You’re an idiot,” Rodney grumbled, but he got out of the car and stood over on the side with Evan and Radek and the little Japanese girl, Miko.
Mitchell revved his engine, and John did the same, and they shared a look of gleeful anticipation as Vala took her spot as flag waver. Although at this time of night she was using a flashlight instead of a flag.
“Don’t let me down, baby,” John murmured to the car. He ran his hand along the dashboard. “One more win.”
Vala held the flashlight straight out, and as soon as she flicked it on John stomped on the gas. The Bel Air surged forward in a squeal of rubber and that welcome feeling of adrenalin and speed suffused him again.
John whooped at the top of his lungs and pressed harder on the gas, watching the speedometer edge towards eighty. He was nose and nose with Mitchell’s Fairlane for a long moment, and then he pulled ahead. Eighty five. Ninety. Ninety five. The engine was roaring and the wind was strong in John’s face. For the briefest moment he took his hands off the wheel and held his arms out, and it felt like flying.
Then he looked in the rearview and saw that Mitchell’s car was off the road. The headlights were wrong somehow, and he realized the Fairlane was upside down. John hit the brakes and turned the wheel, laying down some rubber as he raced back to make sure the guy was okay.
Everyone else had the same idea, converging on the overturned car. Vala and Evan pulled Mitchell out through the driver’s side window. He looked okay, just a cut over his eye. He was holding his arm, though, and John hoped it was only bruised and not broken.
“You okay, man?” he asked, clapping Mitchell on the back.
“My ride,” Mitchell replied mournfully.
“What the hell happened?”
“Tire blew and I couldn’t hold her.”
It wasn’t the way John wanted to win, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t happy his record was intact.
“Better get that arm checked out,” John said, and then went looking for Rodney.
John found him still standing by Evan’s car, arms crossed and face flushed.
“That was idiotic,” Rodney said as soon as John was close enough to hear him. “Do you have a death wish?”
“No. And nothing happened to me, in case you missed that part.”
“You are so…that was…”
Rodney threw his arms up and stomped off in the direction of the Bel Air. John watched him go, perplexed. Was he angry? If he didn’t know better, John would say that Rodney was more flustered, though he couldn’t imagine why.
John followed Rodney back to the car. “It’s late. I better get you home.”
My honey I know (I know)
With the dawn that you will be gone
But tonight you belong to me
They drove back to town in companionable silence and John wished he’d approached Rodney while they were still in school. He felt sure they could’ve been friends.
Number seventeen Maple Crest was an unassuming two-story house with a narrow front porch. All the lights were off. John pulled into the driveway and cut the engine.
“Thanks for the ride,” Rodney said. “And, you know. The saving.”
“Any time,” John replied. He ran his hand around the steering wheel. “Good luck at school and everything.”
“You too. With the flying. Don’t let anyone shoot you down.”
John huffed out a laugh. “I’ll do my best.”
“We’re both leaving this dead-end town tomorrow. And we’ll probably never see each other again.”
John looked over at Rodney, and he was filled with regret. “Probably.”
“So I’m just gonna…” Rodney slid across the seat, grabbed John’s head between his hands, and kissed him hard on the mouth.
Before John could get his brain to stop short-circuiting and do something like kiss back, Rodney was already out of the car and running to his front door, as if John might give chase and pummel him or something. But John just sat there, his mouth hanging open, and watched Rodney unlock his front door, give him an awkward little wave, and disappear inside.
John had no idea how long he sat in Rodney’s driveway before he turned the car back on and backed out. Without even thinking about it, he switched the radio from the middle of Philip Morris commercial back to the country station.
Yearning to hold you, and let my arms enfold you
Yearning to hear you call my name
Yearning to kiss you, oh darling, how I'll miss you
Oh, how I wish you felt the same.
He decided there wasn’t anything else he wanted to do, so he headed home to finish packing. And knew he’d spend all night remembering how it felt when Rodney kissed him.