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False Friends and True Strangers
By Nancy N. Rue
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Youth Specialties
All right reserved.
Chapter One"You're doin' great, Duffy-you're doin' great."
I glanced over at Celeste, whose blue eyes were bulging toward the windshield as if I were about to plow into a semi.
"Is that why you're gripping the seat that way?" I said.
"KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD!"
I jerked the wheel, shooting the Volvo momentarily into the oncoming lane of traffic and lunging it back.
"Don't yell!" I yelled. "You about scared me to death!"
"Yeah? Well, you're terrifying me! I think I just wet my pants."
"I thought you said I was doing great." I could feel Celeste directing her eyes at the side of my face. "I lied," she said.
Her voice was its usual husky-hoarse, made worse by the fact that her entire neck had been, to use one of her own New York phrases, "stiff as a day-old baguette" ever since we'd pulled out of her driveway. She'd even made me turn the radio off so I could concentrate. Why did I need to concentrate? She was practically driving for me.
I made a less-than-smooth stop at the light on the corner of Highway 77 and Twenty-third Street and glanced into the rearview mirror at Joy Beth. She was gazing calmly out the window between the panels of her off-blonde hair, her big swimmer's shoulders taking up three-quarters of my tiny backseat.
"Am I doing that bad?" I said.
She gave one of her signature grunts. "Not for somebody who's driving for the first time without parents."
Joy Beth didn't usually speak in sentences that long. She saved her energy for what she considered to be more important activities.
Celeste, on the other hand, used most of hers on speaking. To her, there weren't too many more important activities. "Light's green," she said.
I had to concentrate on pulling into the Books-A-Million parking lot. The way kids zoomed in and out of there you practically had to have eyes in the seat of your pants to avoid a ten-car pile-up.
"Everybody and their mother is here today," Celeste said.
Joy Beth gave a half-grunt. "Too bad half of them can't read."
"They just come to schmooze," Celeste said. "There's a parking place over there."
"There's no way I can get into that!" I said.
"It's not like you've got a land yacht here. Just swing out and cut it hard. Show me what you're workin' with, Duffy."
I planted my foot on the brake, rocking all three of us forward like duck decoys. The person in the Jeep behind me leaned on the horn.
"Chill, dude," Joy Beth muttered.
Celeste's voice went into that husky-low thing that always calmed me down. "Okay, you can SO do this. pull forward while you turn your wheel to the right-you got it. Now crank it hard to the left. Crank it hard!"
I was cranking so hard I was breaking into a sweat. Power steering would have been a nice touch-but, then, I was lucky to have a car at all. It was a miracle the handles on the windows worked.
"You're good on this side. Keep crankin'."
"How am I doing in the back, Joy Beth?" I said.
"Don't worry about the back." Celeste was up on her knees craning her neck toward the red Mustang on my right. "You're clear."
I gave the wheel one more shoulder-wrenching yank, and for a second I thought the wretched grating sound I heard was my arm pulling out of the socket.
Too bad it wasn't.
"Stop!" Celeste shouted.
I did, pulling my feet and hands off of everything, so the Volvo gave a final jerk and rocked back once more against the shiny, Darth-Vader-black Chevy Silverado pick-up truck I had already grazed.
"No stinkin' way!" Celeste pulled the top half of her body out through the passenger side window, while I buried my face in my hands. When she let herself back through, she said, "Way. You did a number on his paint job."
"Paint job?" Joy Beth said. "What about his whole door? He's gonna need some serious body work."
"I can't look," I said into my palms.
"Don't," Celeste said. "Here comes the owner, and he's not happy."
"Hey, I know him," Joy Beth said.
"Do I?" I said.
"Do you know Vance Woodruff? Big jaw-big ego-big bucks?"
I shook my head.
"Well, you're about to meet him." Celeste lowered her voice to a thick whisper. "Okay, so, like, don't let him know you're scared."
Like I had a choice. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it, and I was pretty sure the person who was now slamming his hand on my hood could detect it as well. I also knew he was likely to pick up on how red my already-naturally-ruddy cheeks were and on the fact that I was holding back tears. The lump in my throat was big enough to choke Godzilla.
"Whatever you do, Laura," Celeste whispered, "do not cry."
That was, of course, my cue to burst into tears.
But Vance Whatever-His-Name-Was obviously wasn't one to be moved by female emotions. He just jabbed a finger toward his Silverado and shouted, "You see what you just did?"
"She'd have to be blind not to," Joy Beth mumbled.
Celeste curled her fingers around my arm. "Get out of the car so he doesn't feel like he can stand over you. And if you have to cry, do it with class-no snuffing up snot."
I put my hand on my door handle and then shook my head. I could see wisps of my dark hair out of the corners of my eyes, sticking straight out as if they, too, were in shock. "I can't get out this side. I'm gonna have to climb over you."
Celeste got out and extended a hand to help me extricate myself. Before I even had one less-than-graceful foot out the door, Vance had vaulted my hood and was in my face.
"I sure hope you got insurance," he said.
"Don't go gettin' all up in her dental work. Of course she's got insurance." Celeste tossed her hair and then leaned into me.
"You do have insurance, don't you?"
I nodded and pulled my jacket tighter around me until my arms were crossed. I was too numb to do much else.
The peppery freckles on Celeste's nose folded over on themselves as she wrinkled it at Vance, obviously changing tactics. "Her insurance will pay for it."
For the first time since I'd known Celeste, I was watching a boy resist her. He was looking at me out of hard cobalt eyes.
"I'm really sorry," I said. "I haven't been driving all that long-"
"Ya think?" That came from a sandy-haired kid who stepped up beside Vance, his hands rolled into his T-shirt in the front, giving us a display of his six-pack abs and the tops of his plaid boxers. He was fairer and a little goofier-looking than Vance, but other than that they could have been brothers-in-popularity. Celeste didn't have to tell me they ran the school, they just looked it. A vision of their fathers dragging my father to court flashed through my mind, and my heart plummeted.
My father. I was probably going to be grounded until I graduated-from college.
"It's Ethan, isn't it?" Celeste said to the sandy-haired kid.
He ignored her and turned to his buddy. "Dude, before she hit you, I was behind her and she slams on her brakes for, like, no reason. I almost plowed right into her."
"Ooh," said somebody else. "She's toast."
It was a girl this time, with a feminine version of their 'tude going on. She came up behind Vance and surveyed me as if I were an oozing zit. She looked like the cover of Seventeen, with shimmering dark hair and flawless skin. She had probably paid more for her eyebrow waxing than my father had for my car.
"Where did you learn to drive?" she said.
"She didn't," Ethan-of-the-Sandy-Hair said.
"Enough with the sarcasm, already," Celeste said. Her charms had been abandoned, and she was now totally New York. "Let's just exchange insurance information and get outa here. We haven't got all day."
"Packed social schedule?" Seventeen said. Her icy-blue eyes sliced through Celeste and then cut up to Vance, where they nestled in. "Didn't you just get that truck?"
"Yeah," Vance said. And then he swore. It was nothing I hadn't heard in the halls at Panama Beach High every day since I'd been there, but knowing it was directed at me thickened the lump in my throat to the consistency of a bagel. I could feel the Don't you dare cry again warning as Celeste squeezed my hand.
"Where's your insurance card, Laura?" she said out loud.
A crowd gathered in front of the store, while Vance and I exchanged insurance cards, driver's licenses, and phone numbers. I managed to drop my insurance card three times as I fumbled my wallet out of my jacket pocket and then rifled through its contents like a first-time burglar. Joy Beth muttered something about calling the police to get an accident report, but that was met with a unanimous stare-down from the entire group. It was the only thing I was grateful for. If the police had appeared on the scene, I would have cried myself into a puddle.
By the time the three of us piled back into my car, all my nerves were sparking like my entire nervous system was shorting out.
"My dad's gonna kill me!" I wailed.
My father, of course, did not kill me. He didn't even ground me. He did worse.
"If I file an accident claim with the insurance company, our coverage for you is going to spike to go out of control. You're going to have to pay for the repairs out of your own pocket."
I searched his face. His eyes, which were wide and brown like mine, gave me no indication that he was kidding.
"Plus you're going to have to pay your share of the insurance from now on."
Dad gave a long sigh.
"The way everybody else does it, Laura. Get a job."
He might as well have said, "Get an arm removed."
"I don't have time for a job!" I wailed to Celeste the next morning.
The locker hall was crammed with loud kids, but the guy at the locker above mine manged to hear me. "Welcome to the real world, chick," He said..
Excerpted from False Friends and True Strangers by Nancy N. Rue Copyright © 2003 by Youth Specialties. Excerpted by permission.
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