Baby, if I made you mad
for something I might have said,
Please, let's forget the past,
the future looks bright ahead,
Don't be cruel to a heart that's true.
Rodney swung but only caught the hood in the leather jacket a glancing blow. He got an elbow in the mouth in return and he felt his bottom lip give. He tried again and this time caught the guy solidly in the ribs, sending a flare of pain up his own arm. Well, he wouldn’t be playing the piano for a few days.
Really, it was a fitting send-off. His father had been a fool to accept a transfer to that backwater American town, and Rodney had been paying the price for the last three years. The smartest person in school rarely got the respect he deserved.
He wished he was better at fighting. Or at least better at keeping his mouth shut. If he hadn’t called the hood a bottom-feeding ignoramus his lip wouldn’t be bleeding and his shirt wouldn’t be torn.
The hood’s greasy friend held Rodney’s arms and kept him from doubling over when he took a solid shot to the gut. He only dimly registered the squeal of tires through the ringing in his ears and then someone plowed into the first hood, knocking him back into the brick façade of Klein’s Pharmacy.
The second hood released Rodney so abruptly he staggered and almost fell. He looked around wildly for something to use as a weapon and saw the two-toned Bel Air convertible parked half up on the curb. Oh, no. John.
Rodney wasn’t successful in locating a weapon and was just about to throw himself back in the fray when a second wave of help arrived in the oversized person of Ronon Dex: greaser, high school dropout, and all-around intimidating individual. He plucked the hoods off John by the collars of their leather jackets and flung them to the side like it was nothing.
“Freak!” one of the hoods screamed as they ran away.
Ronon gave John a hand up and a critical once-over. “You good?”
“I’ll live. Thanks for the assist.”
John Sheppard: captain of the football team, co-captain of the baseball team, and the very secret object of Rodney’s even-more-secret affections. Rodney was mortified at having been rescued, though the fact that John hadn’t fared any better was some consolation.
“You okay, Rodney?” John asked, dusting off his blue jeans.
“I had it under control.” He hadn’t asked to be saved like a princess in a Disney movie.
“Sure you did,” Ronon said. He pulled a comb out of his back pocket and touched up his gleaming pompadour.
“We owe you one.” John clapped Ronon on the back.
“You wanna pay me back? Kick Mitchell’s ass.”
With those enigmatic words Ronon mounted his motorcycle, much like the way a cowboy might swing himself into the saddle. The bored-looking girl that was sitting on the back immediately perked up and wrapped her arms around him. He might have been a greaser with no foreseeable future, but even Rodney could admit that Ronon was cool.
Rodney licked the blood off his lip, which felt a little swollen. If his parents could stop arguing for five minutes he’d have stayed home instead of wandering Milner Avenue after dark and getting jumped by cretins.
“Let me give you a ride home,” John offered.
Rodney had fantasized many times about riding in the convertible with John, just the two of them cruising through town. He hated having to turn him down.
“Not going home yet.”
John nodded and turned away, then turned back around again. “Are you hungry? I was thinking of stopping by the Flip-n-Sip.”
“Oh. Uh. Okay.” Rodney felt self-conscious and tried to smooth the rumples out of his shirt, which he’d forgotten was torn up until the left sleeve came off. He quickly stripped off the ragged remains and tossed it in the nearby trash receptacle. Good thing he always layered.
The car was cherry; even someone who wasn’t a gear head could see that. Every bit of chrome gleamed. Rodney knew that John raced the convertible, which he thought was dangerous and stupid and weirdly impressive, and it was clear that John loved his car.
For absence always makes the hearts grow fonder
I get lonesome for someone's company
You're here today and gone tomorrow and my loving you is just a fantasy
They rode in companionable silence for a little while, which surprised Rodney. He expected John to ask about the hoods, or what Rodney was going to do now that they were high school graduates. Instead he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music and occasionally had shouted conversations with the occupants of other cars.
Rodney had never been cruising. He didn’t have a car, and neither did the one or two people he could call friends. Radek had a powder blue Vespa, but Rodney wouldn’t be caught dead on that thing.
When the Flip-n-Sip came into view it was crowded with cars and people.
“You want to eat inside?” John asked.
Rodney weighed his options. If they ate in the car there was a very good chance he’d get food on the upholstery. But sitting in a booth meant other people might feel compelled to join them because John was so popular, and Rodney wanted to keep John to himself.
“Drive-in is fine,” he said as nonchalantly as possible. “If you can find a spot.”
John, just by dint of who he was, had no trouble getting a spot. He merely honked his horn, got the driver’s attention, and jerked his thumb. Rodney didn’t know who the kid in the Thunderbird was, but he was probably a Freshman. Underclassmen fell all over themselves to help John with whatever he needed. High school royalty. Speaking of which…
“Shouldn’t you be out with Nancy?”
John and Nancy had been the power couple at school since before Rodney had moved to town. Nancy Beeman was the head cheerleader, the soloist in the Glee Club, and very possibly the prettiest girl in school. She and John were usually joined at the hip.
John shrugged. “We broke up. What do you want to eat?”
Rodney scanned the menu board. “Cheeseburger, no onion, fries and a cherry Coke. Why did you break up? I mean, I figured you two would get married, do the whole suburb thing.”
John placed their order and then turned to look at Rodney, his arm stretched out across the back of the seat. “Gave it a lot of thought, did you?”
Rodney flushed, embarrassed. “No! I mean, everyone’s thinking the same thing.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but it was a mutual decision. I’m leaving in the morning and it wouldn’t be fair to her to make her wait on me.”
“Air Force. I enlisted.”
Rodney supposed that wasn’t much of a stretch, going from racing cars to flying jet planes. It seemed fairly short-sighted, though, which he was more than happy to point out.
“Aren’t you worried there’ll be another war?”
John shrugged, like it wasn’t even a consideration. “That’s when they’ll need pilots the most. My uncle flew a medic chopper in Korea and I want to do something important like that.”
“That’s very idealistic, but planes and helicopters make easy targets. You know that, right?”
Another shrug, and Rodney started to wonder if he’d been wrong about John being smart. They’d been in some of the same AP classes, so he knew what John was capable of, but he didn’t seem to have much regard for his own safety. Didn’t he know how many pilots died in Korea?
As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I've known proves that it's right
Because you're mine, I walk the line
“This music is awful,” Rodney said.
“Get bent! Johnny Cash isn’t awful!”
And there it was, John Sheppard getting all worked up. Rodney had seen him like that in class sometimes, eyes sparkling and his whole body animated as he defended an opinion. Was it any wonder that Rodney harbored an inappropriate crush?
“Mozart is real music,” Rodney said, just to egg him on.
“Of course you’d say that. You play piano.” John rolled his eyes.
How did John know he played piano? Rodney wasn’t in band or anything, but sometimes after school Ms. McGill would let him play the upright in the music room. The idea of John listening to him play made him a little anxious while at the same time wishing he’d known so he could’ve showed off a little.
“Now, if you could play like Jerry Lee Lewis, you’d be onto something.”
“Who says I can’t?” Rodney replied airily. Actually, there was something pretty liberating at whaling on the piano keys like Jerry Lee did. Rodney’d taught himself to play Great Balls of Fire solely by ear.
John snorted. “I’d love to see that.”
“So find me a piano,” Rodney challenged.
“Maybe I will!”
“Fine! Wait, why are we yelling?”
John huffed out a laugh. “I don’t know.”
They grinned at each other and then Dolly was there, rolling up to the car on her skates with the tray of food balanced on her hand.
“Oh, Johnny! Hi!” Dolly had graduated the year before. “I heard you and Nancy broke up. That’s too bad.”
She hooked the tray over the car door, bending down and showing far too much cleavage. Rodney glared at her.
“It’s okay. We’re staying friends.” John seemed oblivious to the display.
“You’re so sweet. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m available.”
Rodney just bet she was. Dolly rolled off, waggling her fingers at John as she went, but he was already focused in on the food.
Another twangy Country song came on, and without thinking Rodney twisted the radio dial to ATL.
Sandman, I'm so alone
Don't have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream
John raised an eyebrow. “And this is an improvement?”
“Give me my burger.”
Dolly wasn’t the only one who stopped by while they ate. Several other girls from school offered their insincere condolences on the demise of John and Nancy’s relationship and a shoulder to cry on if John needed one. Which didn’t seem to be the case. Several of his jock friends leaned up against the side of the car, pilfering John’s fries and talking about Mitchell and the race he’d apparently challenged John to. From what Rodney could gather, Mitchell was from a different school and he was looking for one last chance to steal John’s racing title.
The jocks gave Rodney questioning looks, but otherwise pretended he wasn’t there, which was fine with him. He wished they’d paid less attention to him when they were all still in school, when ‘nerds’ were pushed into their own lockers or otherwise humiliated on a fairly regular basis. To his credit, John had never done anything like that as far as Rodney knew.
“Hey, Dimples. What’s up?”
Dimples, aka Evan Lorne, was a jock who was also some kind of art prodigy, probably because his mother was the art teacher at school and he was exposed to that kind of stuff all the time. Rodney had no problem with the guy; like John, he had a live-and-let-live policy with the other kids at school.
“Mitchell’s looking for you.”
“So I hear. He wants to race, he can find me and ask in person.”
Evan grinned, and it was no wonder he was popular with the girls with dimples like those. “If I see him I’ll let him know.”
“You do that.” John removed the tray and handed it to Evan. “Take care of that, would you?”
“Hail Caesar,” Rodney muttered under his breath. How did John do it? How did he get people to cheerfully agree to do things for him?
“What was that?”
“Nothing. Where are we going?”
“Just cruising,” John replied with a little grin that said he had something up his sleeve. But since he wasn’t kicking Rodney out of the car, he was fine with seeing where the night took him.
Come, come, come, come
Come into my heart
Tell me, darlin'
We will never part
I need you, darlin'
So come go with me
They drove down Henderson and seemed to hit every red light. Several more people used that opportunity to pass the word to John about Mitchell, and at one light a girl jumped in the backseat of the convertible and rode with them for a couple blocks, chatting animatedly about her plan to get on The Price Is Right and win a sofa for her mother.
“Is every night like this for you?” Rodney asked when the girl hopped out.
“We live very different lives.”
John turned on Bolander and suddenly they were pulling in the empty parking lot of the high school. Well, almost empty. There was one other car parked there, if the rusted old jalopy that looked like it was put together by Dr. Frankenstein could be considered a car. The windows were completely fogged up and the whole thing was rocking in a very suggestive way. Rodney blushed.
“What are we doing here?” he asked.
“You promised me a song,” John replied with a grin. He hopped out of the car without opening the door.
“Wait. You want to break in? You do know that’s against the law, right?”
“What are they gonna do? Kick us out of school? Come on, Rodney. Live a little!”
Rodney wasn’t a very spontaneous person, but he was helpless to resist John’s easy charm. Besides, he was leaving in the morning, and doing something dangerous with John was a far better send-off than getting jumped by a couple of hoods. He got out of the convertible in the more conventional way.
As they walked past the jalopy John banged on the hood. “Get a room, Stackhouse!”
There was a muffled curse and a giggle and the rocking stopped. Rodney’d never made out with a girl but he didn’t think the backseat was a very comfortable place to do it. How many times had John and Nancy made out in the Bel Air?
Rodney didn’t know what he’d been expecting when John suggested they sneak into school after hours. A broken window, maybe, or some lock picking, but not for John to produce a key to the basement door.
“How do you have a key?”
“I made friends with Mr. Kavanagh,” John said as he led the way through the boiler room, the maintenance room, a storage room, and past the locked door to the records room. It was creepy with just the safety lights on. “He’s a really nice guy.”
“Peter’s dad? How can a nice guy be Peter’s dad?”
Peter Kavanagh, like Rodney, was considered a nerd by the jocks, except not even the other nerds liked him. He was a snake, a snitch, and had way too much ego for a guy whose dad was a janitor.
Mr. Kavanagh’s key also got them into the music room. John flipped the lights on and gestured grandly at the piano. “Amaze me.”
Rodney narrowed his eyes at the challenge and made a show of cracking his knuckles and flexing his fingers. The hand he’d hit the hood with was still a little sore, but unlike his earlier prediction he could still play. He made John wait while he ran scales to make sure the piano was in tune.
As soon as John started looking skeptical Rodney began pounding away at the keys in the same frenetic way that Jerry Lee Lewis did. He sang the lyrics under his breath, because as well as he could play piano he was in no way a singer. To his surprise John joined in at the second verse. He couldn’t really sing either, but he was full of enthusiasm.
I laughed at love when I thought it was funny
But you came along and you moved me honey
I've changed my mind, this love is fine
Goodness gracious great balls of fire
Rodney looked up at John, laughing, and John just grinned back at him. Feeling emboldened, and since it was just the two of them, Rodney sang out loud.
Kiss me baby, woo, it feels good
Hold me baby, ooh, yeah, let me love you like a lover should
You're fine, so kind, I'm gonna tell this world that you're mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!
By the end of the song Rodney was standing up at the piano and both he and John were singing at top volume with a kind of reckless abandon Rodney had never experienced before.
“Damn, that was so cool!” John said. He draped himself over the back of the piano, arms hanging down, as he caught his breath. “You could give Jerry Lee a run for his money!”
Rodney, his own heart still pounding, felt his own smile dim just a little. For the last three years he’d handled his crush on John, because that’s all it was. Just a crush. The girls called that kind of thing puppy love. But now…now it was something else. Something worse, because it was something Rodney couldn’t ever have.
Luckily John didn’t seem to notice the change in his mood. He was looking up at the clock above the chalkboard.
“Dang. It’s getting pretty late. I should probably drive you home.”
Rodney reluctantly agreed. His parents were undoubtedly pretty mad that he’d been out when he should be getting ready for the long drive in the morning. Trapped with them in the car for twelve hours was going to be a fresh kind of hell.
As it turned out, they didn’t end up going to Rodney’s house right away.
Almost as soon as they turned back on Henderson a car pulled up close on John’s tail, lights flashing.
“Shit,” John muttered.
Rodney twisted on the seat, trying to see. “What? What’s happening?”
“It’s Cam Mitchell.”
“The guy who wants to race you? You’re not actually going to do that, are you? It’s stupid and reckless.”
John flashed Rodney a grin. “Yeah, it is. But if I back out he wins by default. Can’t have that. Hold on.”
“Why? What are you –”
John stomped on the brakes, forcing Mitchell to go around to keep from rear-ending them.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Rodney shouted, bracing himself on the dashboard.
Mitchell’s shiny black Fairlane pulled up beside the convertible. A girl with streaming pigtails was hanging out the passenger window.
“There you are, Johnny! We’ve been looking for you!”
“So I hear.”
Mitchell leaned across his girl. “Come on, Sheppard. I want a shot at you before you leave.”
“I don’t do pinks,” John said.
“I don’t want your shitty car, man.”
“Fine. Paradise Road.”
“See you there!” the girl said, blowing a kiss as Mitchell pulled in front of John and zipped on down Henderson.
“You’re insane,” Rodney said. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“No-one’s dying today,” John assured him. “You want me to drop you home?”
His parents were going to kill him. “Um…no. That’s okay.”
“That’s the spirit, Rodney!”
John clapped a hand on his shoulder and Rodney’s stomach twisted. He was so stupid to keep dragging things out. If he was the genius he knew himself to be, he’d tell John he’d changed his mind and needed to go home.
But he’d never seen John race.
All of my life, I've been waitin'
Tonight there'll be no hesitatin', oh boy! (Oh boy!)
When you're with me, oh boy! (Oh boy!)
The world can see that you were meant for me
Somehow word spread, and by the time John and Rodney rolled down Paradise Road there were cars parked on both sides, headlights illuminating the blacktop. Kids were everywhere, a lot of them sitting on the hoods of their cars. There was a definite party atmosphere.
“This is where you get out,” John said. “No passengers during a race.”
“Try not to maim yourself,” Rodney replied.
Evan jogged over, a flashlight in his hand. “You all set, Shep?”
“Let’s get it done.”
Rodney stood off to the side by Evan’s car, a big yellow Roadmaster. It was hard to miss, even in the dark. Laura Cadman, who’d also graduated with Rodney’s class, led the assembled crowd in a verse of that stupid driving song Rodney couldn’t stand.
Oh doc pardon me for this crazy intrusion
I'm never never never gonna speed again
Pump the fluid in me Louie
Evan gave the flashlight to Mitchell’s girl. She stood between both cars and held it straight out in front of her. As soon as she flicked it on there was a squeal of rubber and both cars leapt forward. John let out a whoop, the Bel Air already in the lead.
Rodney watched with his heart in his throat. They were going so fast. It was dangerous and stupid, but a part of him found the display incredibly…heady. Everyone was screaming for their favorite driver, but as the taillights receded something went wrong and Mitchell’s swerved wildly before going off the road and rolling twice. His car was upside down when it came to rest.
The crowd swept Rodney along as they all went running. John beat them there. He was helping Mitchell up out of the ditch, one hand on his back to steady him.
“What happened, Cam?” his girl asked, slipping under his arm and letting him lean on her.
“Tire blew. I couldn’t hold her.”
That could just as easily have been John, Rodney thought. His mind supplied plenty of horrific crash scenarios up to and including the car bursting into a ball of flame.
“Better get that arm checked out,” John advised Mitchell. “Hey, Rodney.”
“That was idiotic. Do you have a death wish? Why not just beat your hands on your chest like a gorilla?” Rodney knew he was babbling but he couldn’t help it. The race, short-lived though it may have been, had been scary and sexy all at once and he was pretty sure that was bad.
“I don’t have a death wish. And nothing happened to me, in case you missed that part.”
“You are so…that was…” Rodney couldn’t think of a single adjective that wouldn’t get him in trouble, so he just threw his arms up and stalked over to the Bel Air. He got in and sat there with his arms crossed until John joined him.
“Where do you live, Rodney?”
“Maple Crest. Number seventeen.”
They drove back into town in silence, which gave Rodney plenty of time to wonder if he and John might’ve been friends the last three years if he’d done something about it. Struck up a conversation that didn’t involve math problems, maybe, or asked him if might want to catch a movie. Rodney’d had more fun in the last few hours than he’d had since his family moved to town.
Any hope Rodney had of being able to slip back in the house unnoticed was dashed when they pulled into the driveway and he saw the kitchen light was still on. John cut the engine and the silence drew out a little longer before Rodney had to break it.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said. “And, you know. The saving.”
“Any time,” John replied. He ran his hand around the steering wheel. “Rodney, do you ever…do you ever feel like there’s something you want but everyone tells you you’re wrong for wanting it?”
Rodney nodded. “Yes. I do.” He thought back to the film they’d watched in Health class last year. It was about homosexuals, how they preyed on young boys because they had a mental disease. Watching that had been terrible, and he’d felt sure everyone could tell he was one, too.
Except Rodney didn’t think he had a mental disease. And he didn’t think homosexuals were lurking behind every bush waiting to take advantage of stupidly trusting kids who didn’t know better than to talk to strangers. He didn’t see any reason a person couldn’t like boys and girls. Rodney could be just as distracted by a pair of breasts as he could a muscular pair of biceps.
“But I don’t think anyone has the right to decide for you. I mean, as long as what you want doesn’t hurt anyone.”
John looked at him, and Rodney’s breath caught in his throat. That was not a look that a friend gave another friend. It seemed his evening of impulsive behavior wasn’t quite over yet.
“We’re both leaving this dead-end town tomorrow,” Rodney said. He slid a little closer to John. “And we’ll probably never see each other again.”
John’s expression was filled with regret, and Rodney’s skin flashed hot. “Probably.”
“So I’m just gonna…” He slid over the rest of the way, grabbed John’s head between his hands, and kissed him hard on the mouth. And maybe the night would end as it started, with a fist in his face, but it would be worth it.
Except John didn’t pull away or throw a punch. All he did was melt into the kiss. The hardest thing Rodney ever had to do was pull away. If his dad saw him kissing a boy in the driveway there was no telling what he’d do.
John had Rodney’s blood on his lips.
“Good luck with the flying,” Rodney said a little breathlessly. “Don’t let anyone shoot you down.”
“I’ll do my best.” John traced Rodney’s mouth with one trembling finger, and then he had both hands wrapped around the steering wheel so tight his knuckles were white. “Good luck at school.”
Rodney got out of the car, but couldn’t make himself go inside. John started the engine and the radio came back to life.
In the still of the night
I held you
Held you tight
'Cause I love
Love you so
Promise I'll never
Let you go
In the still of the night
He watched John back out of the driveway and drive off, and wished the world was a different place.