My grip tightened, white knuckles on a black steering wheel. I glanced in the mirror and accelerated.
The woman beside me clutched at her seat belt, face going pale. “What are you doing?”
I pushed the gas petal deeper, all the way to the floor, throwing us both back against our seats. The light flicked red.
“No! No, brakes!”
The car flew out into the intersection, engine roaring.
Bright headlights flared across my face and a horn blared. The woman screamed, red fingernails embedded in the car door. Brakes shrieked in the cool autumn air and we were through. I gasped for breath, a nervous laugh of triumph in my throat, and then the woman reached over and smacked me on the side of the head with the Driver’s Manual, snarling, “What is wrong with you?”
I was shocked. “What? The light was yellow!”
“Why? My mom said-”
I sighed. Nobody understood me. I sullenly eased the car to the side of the road, glaring out the windshield.
Rolling my eyes, I pulled the door open and stepped out onto the road. The road was quiet, the afternoon sun burning overhead like an interrogator’s lamp. I slammed the door shut and went around the back of the car, my instructor stomping across the blacktop around the front. Flopping in the passenger seat, I protested again, “My mom said that when the light’s yellow-”
“That light was red before you even got into the intersection!” she snapped. “If you can’t make it at least halfway through before the light turns red, just stop, Ella! You can spare the extra two minutes, I guarantee you.”
I shook my head, scrunching down against the door.
“Three strikes, Ella,” she ranted. “I told you you had three strikes with me. And guess what that just was.”
I leaned against the window, staring out at the passing small town. “But I get three instructors,” I drawled, unimpressed. “So isn’t that more like nine strikes?”
She fumed in silence as we cruised down another side street and pulled into the gravel parking lot of the One Way Driving School. My mom stood up as she watched us pulling in, her eyes hopeful. Sometimes, I though she wanted me to have a driver’s license as much as I did. But the instructor’s face on the driver’s side was clear enough and my mother slumped, disappointed again. I climbed out of the car, glaring down at my battered shoes. I heard my mother asking, “How’d it go?”
Neither of us answered. The instructor stormed into the building and I trailed her with the surly disbelief of the wrongfully accused.
My mother drifted in after us both, a hand-wringing shadow. “Ella? Ms. Jones?”
The instructor led the parade down the hall and back to the school manager’s office. She rapped on the door and let herself in, slamming it in my face. I could immediately hear angry voices, muffled through the thick door.
Mom stepped closer. “Ella, what happened?”
My eyes narrowed. “Apparently, I almost got her killed.”
I sighed, shrugging. “I just wanted to make the yellow light! And she’s acting like it was attempted murder!”
The door opened and Ms. Jones brushed past us, not even looking at us. I watched her go, shakily pulling a battered pack of cigarettes from her pocket, and then turned back to the manager. She gave my mother a tight smile and said, “Annie, why don’t you two step in here for a minute?”
We followed her in and sank into our hard plastic chairs, caution cone orange, as she thoughtfully stepped around her monolithic desk. I glanced across the tiny road signs all over the edge: stop, yield, various speed limits, and a dozen others, all clustered around a smug little one way sign. Unhurried, she eased into her seat. “Well, Ella, sounds like you had another fun ride.”
I folded my arms and scoffed. “Hardly.”
She opened a drawer in her desk and started rummaging through her files. “So that’s two instructors down. Only one chance left.”
“Or three, depending on how you look at it.”
My mom elbowed me in the ribs and I settled into a firm glare at the edge of the desk.
The manager skimmed a schedule and asked, “Would three-forty-five be alright?”
“That would be fine,” my mother replied.
“What about swimming?” I demanded, sitting up.
“Mr. Rafferty has an-”
“No way!” I protested. “He smells like mothballs and nursing homes!”
My mother shot me a glare.
The manager looked up from her schedule, peering at me over her glasses, impassive as a sphinx. “Miss Dove,” she said softly, letting the sheet fall to the desk. “You are entirely low on options.”
“But there are options?”
She paused, staring, and I glanced away first. Finally, she replied, “Ms. Kim is available at two-thirty.”
My mother shook her head. “We can’t make two-thirty.”
“We do have a new instructor, but he only does evenings.”
Mom and I glanced at each other. “Who is it?”
“Edmond Kilner. He’s a grad student up at the university, takes his studies pretty seriously. He leaves again for the summer, says he likes the winters better.”
“Weird,” I muttered.
Her unsympathetic eyes snapped back on me. “Well, it’s weird Mr. Kilner or smelly Mr. Rafferty.”
I puffed out a sigh, glancing down at a miniature yellow caution sign. “Fine.”
“Please, honey, no more strikes today,” my mother begged again, flicking on the headlights as the sky slowly darkened overhead.
My phone buzzed and I reached into my pocket. “Mm-hm.”
“I mean it, Ella. Just be careful.”
I opened a text from a friend and my mother rested her hand over the screen. “And turn that thing off when you start driving, alright? The use of cell phones, eating, grooming, playing the radio or CD player extremely loud, or other activities while driving contributes to crashes.”
I pulled the phone away. “Yeah, I know.” I read the text and began punching in a reply.
“I know, Mom! I’ll be careful.”
“Did you read the Driver’s Manual?”
“Did you read the Nozler Reloading Guide Number Four?” She glared at a pedestrian and I grinned. “Dad would be horrified-”
“Ella, I’m serious.” The tail lights ahead of us flared red and she pressed the breaks, maintaining a four-second gap between the two cars.
I sighed. “I’ll be careful.”
“What are the ten tips for managing some of the most common distractions?”
“Don’t lecture while driving?” I suggested.
The car ahead drove away and she pulled up to the stop sign in a full and complete stop. “Turn off your phone, set up a message to tell callers you’re driving and will get back to them, pull over if you need to make a call, ask passengers to make the call for you, never text or surf the web, know local laws regarding phone use, prepare maps and directions before you drive or ask a passenger to navigate, secure pets, pull over to address situations with children, and refrain from smoking, eating, drinking, reading, and any other activity that takes your mind and eyes off the road.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to wait around?”
“No, go do your errands. I’ll walk to the store when we’re done.” The car behind us honked impatiently.
She flexed her fingers against the steering wheel, her eyes worried. “Alright,” she relented, starting off again.
A few minutes later, we pulled into One Way and Mom dropped me off in the lot. I kicked the gravel, carving swoops and swirls in the lot. I glanced down at the time on my phone and then up into the dark sky. The smoldering red of the western horizon bled over into the deep violet of the east, the falling night studded with faint stars.
An engine revved and I turned as a silver Volvo S60R pulled into the lot, sliding like a stalking cougar into one of the spaces. I grinned, wishing I had a car like that. My father had secured a little green Geo Metro about as old as I was for my eventual advent into the mobile world. I stared as the door opened and a tall man stood from within. I felt my pulse raise as I stared. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. Lean and broad shouldered. Impossibly tall copper hair. His skin was so pale it looked like he lived in Alaska year round. His dark eyes met mine, confident, unfathomable. Dangerous. He watched me for a few moments in the dim twilight and then sauntered toward me, every inch a predator, and I felt myself trapped by his cobra gaze. ‘I really need to get to know the other students,’ I thought dreamily.
I blinked. “Uh- yeah?”
He thrust a hand toward me. “I’m Mr. Kilner. Should we get started?”
I stared stupidly down at his hand. “Mr. Kilner? My driving instructor?”
He laughed quietly. “Not what you were expecting?”
Embarrassed, I glanced away. He didn’t look any older than I was. Was he seriously in grad school?
The wind shifted across my back and he sniffed, his eyes flaring wide. He took a sudden step closer, fists clenched.
I looked up, surprised. “What’s wrong?”
He glared for a moment and then exhaled slowly. “Nothing. Let’s get started.” He turned and started back toward the Volvo, me following closely behind.
Nervous, I laughed. “That’s a really nice car. Aren’t you worried I’m going to wreck it?”
He stopped suddenly, whirling toward me, and leaned closer. Towering over me, he growled, “Are you going to wreck my car, Miss Dove?”
I fell back a step, eyes wide. “No.”
“Good.” He straightened, turning back to his car.
I followed in silence, not sure what to say. He went around to the passenger side and I climbed into the driver’s seat, closing the door. I adjusted the seat in closer as he slammed his door. Wordlessly, he picked up a bottle of air freshener, pointed it at me, and sprayed.
I coughed, gagging on mountain breeze. “What are-”
“Let’s get started,” he interrupted coldly.
I scowled, turning the key in the ignition. The car purred to life and I glanced in the side mirror and put the car in reverse. He put a hand over mine on the stick and I drew back, shocked at how cold his hand was.
“Don’t depend on mirrors,” he said, his eyes boring into mine. “Instead, turn to the right and look out the rear window.”
I hesitated. “Okay.” I turned, looking out the back window, as I backed around in the lot.
He nodded as I shifted into first. “Good.” He sank back into his seat, trying to relax.
“You seem tense.”
“It’s fine.” He picked up the air freshener and spritzed it in my direction again. I squeezed the steering wheel, gritting my teeth. We drove in silence, dodging the potholes of a quiet back road. Finally, he said, “This should go without saying, but are you insured?”
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“Do you have proof?”
I glanced over at him. “Do you? It’s your car.”
His eyes narrowed. “I do.”
“Good,” I said airily, glad for once of my mother’s endless lecturing. “Because if you got in an accident, you’d have to provide proof of insurance to the DMV within fifteen days or face a ninety day revocation of your license for the first offense or a year for the second.” I glanced over at him, my eyes glinting competitively, and then back out the windshield.
A small smile quirked in the corners of his perfect mouth. “So I would.” His eyes lingered on my profile a moment longer before he glanced out the window again, seeming satisfied.