He reaches for the radio, and I momentarily release my grip on the wheel to swat his hand.
“I don’t want music yet. I’m not ready.” I realize that I sound like a baby, but I’m driving this two-ton, stick-shift, beast of a truck, and I don’t think I’m to the place where I can sit back and listen to music like we’re on some kind of joy ride.
Royal lifts his hands. “All right. No worries. Just trying to get you to relax.”
I follow his directions and bring us to an easy stop. We’re at a highway intersection now. A semi barrels from the east.
“Where should I go?” I ask.
“Anywhere you want.” He lowers his window, and a burst of mild summer air flows through. I didn’t realize how stuffy it was in here until now, so I do the same.
I take a deep breath, shift into first, and concentrate on not popping the clutch so we don’t become road kill.
He’s so patient with me. And he trusts me with his truck. I don’t know many guys at school who’d be this cool about letting me learn with their only mode of transportation.
Every high-schooler in Rixton Falls knows that vehicles equal freedom.
I could easily wreck this thing, and Royal doesn’t make enough money doing seasonal landscaping to be able to replace it. His current foster family doesn’t have the means either, not that they’d be obligated.
“Thanks for trusting me with this,” I say, releasing the clutch and pressing my toes against the gas pedal. This might be the only time in my fifteen years that I’ve ever thanked Royal Lockhart for anything.
We ease forward, crossing the four lane highway and heading north.
“Demi, watch out . . .” Royal grabs the steering wheel and jerks it in his direction as a fuel truck whirs past us so fast that it shakes the cab.
I jam my foot hard into the clutch and brake and bring us to a violent stop in a cloud of dust on the side of the highway.
“I’m sorry. I . . . I didn’t see it coming.” My words shake, and two fat tears drip down my cheeks. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Ignoring him, I pull on the door lever and climb out. He meets me halfway, at the tailgate. I cross my arms. He’s going to try and talk me out of it, but my mind’s made up.
“I don’t like stick shifts,” I say. “I’ll just wait until my parents get back. Mom can teach me in the Suburban.”
My chin trembles. He stares at me. I’m not sure how he stays this calm when two minutes ago, I almost got us killed.
I squeeze my eyelids so tightly they hurt. I wish I could crawl into a hole and never come out. I wish Royal never would’ve offered to teach me how to drive. I wish—
The warmth of his hands encapsulates mine, and I pull in a startled breath, opening my eyes.
“Demi, it’s okay. Everyone has to learn somehow. You master this beast? You can drive anything. Automatics are for pussies and fraidy-cats. You’re fearless. I know you are. I’ve seen it.”
His hands leave mine and slide up my arms, leaving a trail of tingles. I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry.
“Remember when we were kids, and we were playing in that creek, and Delilah got bitten by that snake?” he asks.
“Everyone else took off running, and what’d you do? You went back and smashed its head with a rock.”
I laugh through my nose, my damp eyes blinking.
“That thing didn’t stand a chance when you were done with it,” he adds.
Though it’s been years, the most vivid part of that memory is the fact that Royal chased after me. He let me do what I had to do, and he made sure I wasn’t alone.
“So tell me, former child snake killer,” he says. “You going to get back in there and practice some more? Or am I taking you home now?”
I wipe my drying tears on the back of my hand and stuff my pride down deep.
“Yeah. Fine.” I sigh. He lets me go, and we linger for a moment. “Stop looking at me that way. It’s weird.”
“How was I looking at you?”
“I don’t know. Like . . .” Like you think I’m pretty.
Derek would murder him if he made a move on me.
The sky behind him morphs into a deep shade of stormy blue, and flashes of lightening precede a distant rumble of thunder.
Quick, tiny droplets of water ping against the metal bed of his Chevy, and the rain begins to kiss our faces.
“Get in,” he nods toward the cabin.
I move toward him, making my way to the passenger side, but he stops me with a palm on my shoulder.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You didn’t think you’d get out of driving just ‘cause there’s a little bit of rain, did you?” Royal smirks. “This is how you learn. Get in. You’re driving us home.”