Author: Teresa Mummert
"Keep your foot on the brake and put the car in reverse."
She did as she was instructed.
"Now put your foot on the gas and slowly back us out of the space."
She nodded and pushed down on the gas pedal, sending the car lurching backward several feet.
"Woah!" My hands flew to the dashboard in front of me.
She put the car back into park and threw her hands into the air.
"I can't do this." Her hands covered her face in embarrassment. My fingers wrapped around her wrists and pulled her hands back from her face.
"You can and you will. Try again." I refused to let her give up on herself.
"You're putting your life in my hands. I hope you know what you're doing." She put the car in reverse again and slowly pushed down on the gas pedal. They eased out of the yard and onto the alley behind them.
"Now put it in drive and slowly pull forward toward the stop sign."
She followed my instructions and inched her way toward the end of the ally.
"Which way?" Both of our heads turned in each direction over the virtually empty crossroad.
"You choose. Why don't you have your license?"
She glanced in both directions a final time before putting on her left turn signal and pulling out across the road.
"When I was fifteen, my best friend was Liz. We were inseparable. She had turned sixteen before me and managed to pass her driving test on the first try." She looked over at me; my eyes were locked on her as she spoke. She turned right onto Brickel Street and cleared her throat. Her heart rate began to quicken and she began to mentally count.
"It was Friday and we left school. It had rained all afternoon. We rounded a corner and the car hydroplaned. It was horrible. One second we were singing along to a song on the radio, the next we were screaming. Everything was so loud and time moved so slowly." She blinked rapidly to push the tears back.
"Sometimes bad things happen to good people." She sighed loudly as I nodded. "Anyway, after the accident, my mother refused to let me take my driver's test. She said one teenager's funeral was enough for her. I didn't argue with that fact. I was terrified."
"I shouldn't have asked."
"No, it's fine. No one ever asks. It's nice to talk about her. To remember her."
There was a long, pregnant silence as her memories flooded with her friend she had lost.
"They should have made you take the test," I thought aloud as I stared out of the passenger-side window.
"Why is that?" She turned onto Interstate 95 and began driving north.
"It's like falling off a horse. It is important to get right back on before the fear settles in."
"Story of my life." She laughed and glanced over at me. "What about you?"
"What about me?" I asked, looking over at her.
"Tell me something about you. What was a defining moment in high school for you?"
I laughed and shook my head as I ran my palms over my jeans. I thought back to the fights I had gotten into and all of the days I had decided to just not show up. I never talked about my mother, keeping all of the anger from her death inside. I loved my aunt and uncle, but I never really felt like I belonged anywhere.
"I was your average kid with a chip on his shoulder."
Jenn nodded as she craned her neck to look in the mirror at the vehicle behind her. They were riding incredibly close but she was scared to go over forty-five miles an hour.
"Don't worry about them. They can pass you if they want."
She nodded and relaxed in her seat.
"So, what does that mean?"
"I thought the world was against me." I laughed. "But it all worked out. I met a recruiter who helped me get my life on track. Here I am."
"Here you are." She smiled.
"You're not half-bad at this driving thing." My eyes darted from my side mirror to her as I kept an eye on the driver behind her.
"So, why aren't you with your family on your birthday?"
"You ask a lot of questions." She cut her eyes to me, but a small smile played across her lips. "They had better things to do."
"Not anymore. Why aren't you spending time with Jake?"
I laughed at her attempt to change the subject.
"He needs some alone time with his wife. They have been having a hard time lately."
"He's not a bad guy."
Jenn nodded but didn't respond.
"Where are we going, birthday girl?"
"We are going to buy you a coat."
"We could go anywhere you want for your birthday and you are taking me to buy a coat?" I laughed.
Jenn exited the highway and turned right onto Stillwater Avenue.
"I wouldn't feel right if you froze to death on account of me. I'm sure the weather in North Carolina is beautiful this time of year."
The smile faded from my face as I thought of home. I hadn't been there for a few months and beautiful was the last thing I thought when I pictured going back there. The car slipped into park and I looked around.
"Come on. They have some good coats."
I hopped out of the car and blew out a deep breath as the cold consumed me, but I did not show my discomfort. I rounded the car and pulled open the driver-side door for her.
"Thank you." I followed behind her toward the store, running my hand over my hair.
I pulled open the door and stepped aside for Jenn to enter. My eyes darted around the store before I stepped inside. Checking my surroundings was engrained into my subconscious.
"That looks nice." She motioned with her chin to a rack in front of her with heavy coats in different earthy tones
"Yeah," I grabbed the sleeve of the coat and felt the thickness. All of this was nice. Some random girl that I wanted to make feel better was worrying about me. I grabbed an extra-large and pulled it from the rack, making my way to the register.
"You're not going to try it on?"
"Nah, if you say it looks good, then I trust your judgment."
"You wouldn't say that if you knew the bad decisions I made in the past." She laughed. I stopped and turned to face her.
"Your mistakes don't define who you are."
"Tell that to my father." She rolled her eyes as she took the coat from my hands and laid it on the counter at the register.
"Let me guess." I pulled out my wallet and held out my credit card to the woman behind the register. "You went and found yourself a man who was the spitting image of your father, who you despise, with this notion that you could somehow change him and make him love you the way you felt your father never did. Am I close?"
She took a step back in complete shock.
"You're out of line."
"You are if you think that any of those people are right about you."
"You don't even know me."
"I know we could be out doing anything you wanted for your birthday and your first thought was to take care of me, a complete stranger." I took my card back from the woman at the register and slipped the coat over my shoulders.
"That's just common courtesy."
"Trust me, sweetheart, it ain't that common." I placed my hand on the small of her back and guided her from the store.
She wasn't used to such brutal honesty, especially from someone she barely knew, but it was something she needed to hear. I wouldn't be around long and from the way she talked, I knew no one else would be pulling her off the bridge next time. As we reached the car, I held out my hand.
"You don't want me to drive anymore?" She pulled the keys from her pocket and placed them in my palm.
"If you do we will only end up doing something else unrelated to your birthday and we have a cake to eat." I smiled as I pulled open the passenger-side door for her.
As I settled into the driver's seat, I couldn't help but notice the grin on her face.
"I just didn't get the impression from you that you were so…nice. You come off very intimidating."
"Nice, huh? That is not something most people would describe me as." I laughed and started the car before pulling out of the parking lot.
"Why is that?" She asked as she secured her seatbelt and reached for the radio. To my surprise, she turned the volume down.
"Not part of the job description," I replied dryly.
"Well, your secret is safe with me."
I reached for the radio and turned up the music. Jenn stared out of the window as we made our way back onto the highway. I cursed myself for rudely ending our conversation right after she had told me she thought I was nice. Most people only saw the bitter and angry side of me. Maybe I was afraid of her realizing who I really was after she saw something more in me.
"Where are we going?"
"We are going to have a picnic."
She crinkled her nose as she smiled, and I couldn't help but laugh. I took the next exit and drove until we were surrounded by farmland. I pulled off on the shoulder of the road and put the car in park.
"Here?" she asked as her eyebrows shot up.
"Why not?" I shrugged and got out of the car, making my way to her side to let her out. I grabbed the cake and nodded to the tree-dotted field ahead.
"We can't go in there! There are horses!"
"Don't tell me you are scared of horses." I laughed and shook my head. Jenn narrowed her eyes at me as she crossed her arms over her chest and took off walking.
"Not scared," she said as she grabbed hold of the old wooden fence and boosted herself over the top. I held out the cake for her to take and put my hands on the top of the railing, boosting myself easily over the top.
"Show off." She bumped her shoulder into mine as we began walking across the large field toward a group of trees in the center.
"You do this a lot?"
"What? Take girls on cake picnics?"
"Trespassing." She giggled, her hair falling in her face.
"Only if it's necessary."
"You're kind of scary, you know that?"
I winked at her as I took the cake from her hands. When we reached the cluster of trees, I motioned for her to pick a spot to sit. She sank down at the base of one of the larger trees and leaned back against the trunk. I took a seat in front of her and set the cake between us.
"Would you like to do the honors?" I lifted the lid from the cake and raised my eyebrow. She laughed as she broke off a piece of cake from the corner and shoved it into her mouth. I did the same and we relaxed and watched the horses wandering around us.
"I've always wanted to live at a place like this," she said, licking frosting form her fingers.
"Too peaceful," I replied as I grabbed another hunk of cake, crumbling over my shirt.
"What's wrong with peaceful?"
"I'm used to a little more chaos in my life." I laughed as I brushed the crumbs from my chest.
"Don't you ever just get tired of it? Tired of the stress and worry?" she asked as she swiped her finger over the top of the cake and stuck a clump of frosting into her mouth.
"Do you?" I asked, following suit and dipping my finger into the frosting and sticking it in my mouth.
"I think I've had enough sugar," she said as she stood and brushed the grass off her legs. I put the lid on the cake and stood and glanced around the field. "Now what?"