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Kirsten's not a very good driver. And the driver's ed classes aren't helping. No matter how hard she tries, she just can't get the hang of being behind the wheel. When Rob offers to give Kirsten a few tips on how to improve her driving, he turns up missing after the first lesson. Now Kirsten's getting a crash course--in murder.
KIRSTEN WILKES PRIVATE JOURNAL!! PENALTY FOR READING: DEATH
Three thousand dollars. That's how much the accident is going to cost. Because I hit a tree with Dad's car at, like, two miles an hour. Can you believe it? The tree had more damage than the car!
Dad was mad. He almost had a heart attack because I hit it on the passenger side, where he was sitting. But he says the insurance company will pay for it, so I shouldn't worry about the money part.
It doesn't matter. I feel like an idiot!
I will never never NEVER learn to drive well. You know what happened in driver's ed Monday? Mr. Busk announced a driving contest and handed out some flyers about it. When I took one, my classmates burst out laughing. Laughing!
None of this would be happening if we still lived in the city. I wouldn't even have to learn how to drive—ever! I'd just take buses and subways.
Whose idea was it to move to Port Lincoln, anyway?
Dad asked me again if I would mow the lawn today. HA! I said no way, José. We've only been here three weeks and he's already forgotten the agreement. I move to Long Island without complaining if I never have to mow a lawn or walk a dog.
That'll last, oh, a month or two. (No such word as "never" in this family!)
Might as well live it up while I can, huh?
Rachel did not write today. I could die waiting for a letter from her. I had no mail at all. No one from New York misses me. Just tons of catalogs for the Lorillards. One of them actually said, FREE GIFT FOR YOUR NEW HOME.
Well, they only lived here for two months. It was a new home for them.
I wonder why they moved.
Also, we got something else for the Trang family (the ones who lived here before the Lorillards).
I still get the creeps when I think of them. I told Mom today I thought it was bad luck to move into a house where somebody died. She just smiled and said he didn't die in the house. Duh. Nat thinks it's cool. He keeps saying he hears a beating heart under the floorboards, like in "The Tell-Tale Heart." He says that was why the Lorillards moved.
Was I such a jerk at twelve?
I don't think so.
Okay, here's my big confession of the day. I, Kirsten Wilkes, actually decided I liked the suburbs for a few minutes. I think it's because I'm getting to know this girl, Maria Sirocco, at school. She's practically the first person who said a word to me this whole three weeks! She has this thick, gorgeous, jet-black hair, and she wears the coolest clothes. She's kind of a loudmouth, but she's funny and nice. I think we're going to be friends. Yeah! She has a boyfriend named Virgil. He has short brown hair, braces, and glasses. Smart, I think. And quiet (unlike Maria). But he seems like a nice guy.
So there is hope, after all.
Now if only I didn't have to take driver's ed.CHAPTER 2
Kirsten Wilkes sat silently in the backseat of the driver's ed car. Next to her, Sara Gartman exhaled with boredom. Gwen Mitchell was reading a magazine and chewing fruity-smelling gum on the other side of Sara.
Up front, Maria Sirocco began pulling the steering wheel to the right.
"Signal," Mr. Busk rasped from the passenger seat.
Some voice. Like he cleaned his vocal cords with a bottle brush.
Mr. Busk thought he was still in the Marines. At least it seemed that way. And despite his potbelly and receding hairline, he looked fit enough to storm a beachhead, or whatever Marines did. Rumor had it he lost his voice in the Vietnam War, along with some of his sanity. When he returned, he kind of snapped—left his wife and disappeared for a few years. Then he came back and the school happily hired him to be a driver's ed and auto shop teacher.
Anyway, that was Maria's version of the story. Of course, Maria also said Mr. Busk used napalm for an aftershave.
The back of Mr. Busk's neck reminded Kirsten of rare roast beef. Pinkish-red, juicy, marbled with white lines. His short brown hair was stiff and sparse, like cut grass in a drought. You could scour pans by turning them upside down and rubbing them on his head.
Bottle brush, napalm, roast beef, dry grass, scouring pad. Mm, what a guy.
Kirsten must have been grinning, because when Mr. Busk turned around, he said, "I'm glad you find this amusing, Kirsten. Now come up front and entertain the rest of us."
Oops. Maria had parked already. Sara and Gwen had taken their turns before Maria. Kirsten was the last driver today.
She opened the door and got out. Maria was standing there, waiting. "You'll be great," she said with a smile.
From inside the car a voice chirped, "Pray for your life."
"Cram it, Gwen," Maria called out. Then she whispered to Kirsten, "Don't worry. I've got my gym bag. If she starts gasping like the last time, I'll stuff a sweat sock down her throat."
"Right." Kirsten forced a nervous laugh. She sank into the driver's seat as Maria got in back.
With a sigh, Kirsten fastened her seat belt. Oh, well, at least it was last period. If she got into an accident, they could all go to the hospital without missing any classes.
"Okay, Kristen," Mr. Busk said, "ease onto the street. Then take us back to the school."
"Kirsten. That's what I meant. Go."
Three weeks, and he was still having trouble with the name. Was "Kirsten" that unusual?
Turn key. Depress gas pedal.
How would he feel if she called him Mr. Bust? Mr. Dust? Tusk?
Foot on brake. Shift to Drive.
Alcohol. She could smell it. Just faintly.
Mr. Soused. That would be more like it.
Foot on gas pedal. Gently turn steering wheel to the left ...
The car tore away from the curb. Kirsten felt her body lurch backward against the seat.
"Owwww," moaned Sara.
"Easy!" Mr. Busk barked. "You got lead weights in your shoe?"
Kirsten lifted her foot and everyone jerked forward.
Gwen was giggling. Sara was sucking her teeth in disgust. Mr. Busk stared stonily ahead.
Kirsten felt about two inches tall. She wanted to drive the car over a cliff and forget about the whole thing.
Instead she pressed her foot lightly on the pedal and gripped the steering wheel so hard, her arms hurt. As she eased into the right lane, a pickup whooshed by. Someone inside it let out a wolf whistle. Kirsten's concentration faltered.
Intersection ahead. Just over the railroad tracks. Gate is up, light is green. Yeah! One left turn, and she'd be on the road to school.
The light turned to yellow.
Kirsten put her foot on the brake.
A huge, angry-looking front grille snarled at Kirsten through the rearview mirror.
Her breath caught in her throat. She stepped on the gas. The car shot over the train tracks and toward the intersection as the light flicked to red.
"It's red it's red it's red it's red" Gwen gasped in the backseat.
The car skidded to a stop, its engine groaning. Mr. Busk's back was arched. His foot was pressing down his brake, which was connected by a long metal bar to Kirsten's.
Mr. Busk unclenched his teeth. "Would you get your foot off the gas, please?"
Kirsten did, and the engine groan stopped.
"Oh my lord ..." Sara muttered.
Mr. Busk was massaging his forehead. "Kirsten, when the light turns green, take us back alive, will you?"
Sweat formed an itchy ring beneath Kirsten's hairline. She approached Port Lincoln High School at seventeen miles per hour.
"Way to go," encouraged Maria softly from behind.
"Uh, can we get there today, thank you very much?" Gwen remarked.
"Ow! Maria hit me!"
Mr. Busk ignored them. Kirsten smiled as she signaled to turn into the school driveway.
Classes had already ended. Kids were leaning against cars, sitting on the stoop, walking, laughing, enjoying the crisp early-autumn air.
Relief washed over Kirsten. All she had to do was go through the gate, follow a wide driveway along the side of the school, and park in the big lot behind the building. End of lesson.
She turned right, steering toward the open gate. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw two students walking arm in arm toward the driveway. Of course they would see her and stop.
They smiled at each other. They kissed. They stepped off the curb together.
Right in front of Kirsten.
She yanked the wheel to the left. She lifted her foot to step on the brake.
Her foot clomped down on the gas pedal. The car tore off through the gate.
It careened up the driveway. Two football-player types dove into a hedge, their books flying. Kirsten executed a perfect ninety-degree skid into the parking lot.
Just beyond the lot, a pickup baseball game stopped as the players turned to watch.
Kirsten gritted her teeth. She was in control again. More or less. The front of the car was pointing right at the driver's ed parking spaces. Just to the right of the auto shop.
A group of kids had been working on an old, jacked-up car. Now they were staring at Kirsten in terror.
All of them scrambled around the car as she got closer.
All but one.
He was tall and dark-haired. His face was extremely bony. That was all Kirsten noticed before he took a step toward her approaching car.
"Watch it!" Mr. Busk bellowed.
"Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh!" Gwen gasped.
Kirsten and Mr. Busk jammed their feet on the brakes.
With a dull cry, the boy fell to the blacktop.CHAPTER 3
"Aaah! Aaah! Aaah! Aaah! Aaah! Aaah! Aaah!"
Gwen's rapid-fire shrieking filled the car as Kirsten pushed the door open.
The boy was sprawled on his back, eyes closed. Kirsten stared at the oil-stained T-shirt that showed under his black leather jacket. He wasn't breathing.
Mr. Busk barged through the gathering crowd. "Out of the way!"
Quickly he knelt down next to the boy and felt his pulse.
Maria and Sara stood beside Kirsten, stiff with shock. Gwen was staggering out of the car, bone-white. Her shrieks had become whimpers, and she was nervously fingering a locket around her neck.
Mr. Busk tilted the boy's head back until his mouth opened, then lowered himself to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The boy's eyes sprang open.
"Yo," he said, looking into Mr. Busk's face. "I didn't know you cared."
Absolute silence. The crowd gaped, dumbfounded.
The guy stood up with a grin and brushed himself off. "I mean, really, you ain't my type, Mr. Busk."
From behind the old car, a whoop of laughter rang out. A couple of auto shop classmates stepped around the car and exchanged high fives with the boy.
"That was a joke?" Sara remarked.
Maria looked disgusted. "I can't believe this."
Gwen propped herself on the driver's ed car and covered her face with her hands.
Kirsten kept staring. She thought she had killed him. Her terror was slowly leaking out of her, like air through a pinhole in a tire.
He had pretended. He had scared half the school to death—for a dumb laugh. What kind of jerk would do something like that?
Mr. Busk stood up slowly. His fists were clenched. The veins in his temples stood out. The roast beef was becoming raw.
As he walked toward the boy, the crowd fell silent. Kids began to scatter.
But the guy wasn't backing away.
He was smirking. His green-gray eyes hadn't the slightest fear.
They were cold, steady, penetrating. The color of polished jade.
As he gave a casual glance across the crowd, his gaze met Kirsten's for an instant. A split-second, really. She wasn't sure he had even focused on her.
But Kirsten was rooted to the ground. Transfixed. In that instant she felt he had drunk her in, absorbed her like a sponge. She felt it in the follicles of her hair and the soles of her feet.
Kirsten had never seen eyes like that.
The spell was broken by Mr. Busk's voice. "I want you out of my class, Maxson!"
"Heyyy, come on, I was just kidding—"
As Mr. Busk roared in anger, Maria grabbed Kirsten by the arm. "Let's go," she said.
They began walking toward the driveway. Around them, the lot had emptied. Mr. Busk and the boy were face to face.
And the boy still had that cocky grin.
Mr. Busk's shouts faded as Kirsten and Maria approached the front of the school. "Who was that guy?" Kirsten asked.
Maria shot her a look. "Kirsten Wilkes, don't even think of it."
"Think of what?"
"Don't play dumb with me. Rob Maxson is a scuzzball. A slug. Pour salt on him and he shrivels up. Definitely NYT."
"NYT? New York Times?"
"Not Your Type."
Kirsten giggled. "Oh, I know that. It's just that ... well, I mean, his eyes—"
"Yeah. Green. The color of slime. Need I say more?" Maria sighed. "Kirsten. Look what happened to Gwen. She used to be nice before she met him."
"They went out together?"
"Until he totally ruined her life."
"He got bored with her and broke up. She was devastated. Well, for months Nguyen Trang had been mooning over her—so she went out with him, thinking Rob would get jealous. Nguyen showered her with gifts, gave her jewelry, treated her sooo specially. But she still loved Rob, and Nguyen knew it. That was why he did what he did...." Maria's voice trailed off.
"What exactly did Nguyen do?" Kirsten asked. "All I know is that he was killed in a car accident."
"Well, that was the official report," Maria replied. "But everybody knows it wasn't really an accident."
Kirsten's eyes widened. "You mean, someone—"
"Not someone. Himself." Maria gave her a confidential look and lowered her voice. "He stole a car, Kirsten, and drove it into a ravine. He committed suicide."CHAPTER 4
The word was so ugly. How could Nguyen Trang have done that? Over Gwen? What a waste.
Kirsten had a sudden pang of sympathy for Gwen. Imagine how she felt.
But if it were true—if Nguyen did commit suicide over her—hadn't she caused it by manipulating him?
What a horrible story. Why hadn't Kirsten known about it until now? She was living in the Trangs' old house. Why hadn't the Lorillards mentioned what had happened? Or the real-estate agent who had sold them the house?
The Lightbulb of Obvious Answers switched on in Kirsten's head. Of course they didn't talk about it. How would the truth have sounded? You'll love this house, Dr. Wilkes! Three bedrooms, two baths, new kitchen, nice location, and a recent suicide committed by one of the former residents!
Maria's face broke into a sudden smile. "Hey!" she called out. "Over here!"
Virgil Garth was standing in front of the school, looking bored. When he saw Maria he brightened. "Where were you?"
"You didn't hear?" Maria asked.
"Hear what?" Virgil said.
"Oh, Rob was being a sadistic jerk," Maria replied. Then, with a sly smile, she added, "But you'll never guess who has a crush on him."
"Mariaaaaa!" Kirsten felt the blood rushing to her face. She barely knew Virgil!
"Oh, come on, it's okay," Maria said. "Virgil had a crush on him, too."
Virgil grimaced. "Maria, what did you have in your lunch today?"
"Well, you used to think he was soooo cool."
'Yeah, but that's not the same as—"
Maria threw her arms around him. "I have a big mouth, but he loves me, anyway." She planted a kiss on Virgil's lips, and he blushed. "Go ahead," she continued, "you tell her about Rob."
Virgil rolled his eyes. "Well, he's kind of ... unpredictable. If I were you—"
"You guys!" Kirsten interrupted. "I mean, I've never even met this guy."
"Keep it that way!" Maria said with a laugh. As she and Virgil began walking away, she said over her shoulder, "Call me later!"
Kirsten was amazed. Maria could say whatever was on her mind, no matter how obnoxious—but you couldn't stay angry with her.
She watched Maria and Virgil for a while, then headed in the other direction, toward her house.
This was one part of suburban life she liked. Walking home among the chirping birds, shuffling through bright piles of fresh-fallen leaves, smelling the cool, sweet air. It was a far cry from the sweat, the B.O., and the car-horn noise of her ride home on the M19 crosstown bus.
Each day Kirsten was missing New York City less. Port Lincoln wasn't so bad. Despite the cliques. And the fact that kids went everywhere in cars. And hung out at a mall. And wore the same clothes. From the same store.
Well, almost all the kids were like that. Rob wasn't. How had Virgil described him?
Excerpted from Driver's Dead by Peter Lerangis. Copyright © 1994 Peter Lerangis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 8, 2001