Outside, Dakota was the only one left.
“What happened?” Stone asked.
“Mason got pissy,” Dakota said. “They went to Meebs’s place.”
“You stuck around for the handsome ones, eh?” Stone said.
“The parents’-basement scene is played out,” Dakota said.
“Really?” Stone said. “I thought that scene had maybe a year left.”
“Nope,” she said.
“And he’s got pizza.”
“His parents’ pizza,” Dakota said. “Those are his parents’ special pizzas. He made a point of that. No one is getting pizza.”
“Can we go for tacos?” Stone said. “I’m goddamned starving.”
“Tacos are far,” Dakota said.
“Ah. Tacos are far,” Stone said. They laughed at this, a joke between them.
Dakota drove and Stone rode in the front. He didn’t even ask if Lance wanted shotgun. As they pulled out, Stone lifted his right foot and crossed it over his knee. A big black boot, tattered around the heel. Its chunky sole was plastered with food scraps: lettuce, bits of cheese. Angled straight at Dakota.
“Ah! Stone! Wuuuuug! Boot! Boot!” Dakota screamed. Stone dropped his foot.
“Sorry. Forgot about the sludge. I’ll have to hose ’em down at home.”
“Looks like you’ve had those a while,” Lance said.
“Yeah?” Stone said. “So?”
“I just meant you’ve never thrown them.”
“Oh, hell no,” Stone said. “Never will. That wheel is rigged.”
“Can we not talk about the wheel?” Dakota said.
“That wheel is gonna be your world, sweetheart,” Stone said. “Wheels and shoes.”
“Maybe for a few months,” Dakota said.
“That’s what I said. A few months. Now, two years later.”
“Good thing we’re not the same person.”
“Yeah,” Stone said. “Good thing.” He rubbed his sinuses, breathed in.
“Where’s home tonight?” she asked.
She shook her head. “Your dad’s such an asshole.”
Lance’s head was still warm and buzzing from the beer. It was hard to hear from his position in the backseat, so he just leaned back. Stone cracked a window to smoke and wind whipped around him, the scent of evergreens mixing with cigarettes. Streetlights painted their faces white and yellow, and Stone was sitting so straight, chin out and grinning. Dakota put on the same ghost song she’d played for Lance the day before. Maybe she played that song for everyone.
Twenty minutes later they pulled into a fiesta-colored drive-through and Stone ordered a giant sack of tacos. He was a buck short on his order, so Lance covered him.
“Careful,” Dakota said. “He’s like a dog. Feed him once and he’ll never go away.” Stone muttered thanks under crinkling wrappers and Dakota pulled out, leaving the sad island of a strip mall. Tacos had been far. Far from The Float. Farther from Bend.
“Stone,” Lance said, leaning forward.
“Yes, Wildman,” Stone managed through his tacos.
“What should I tell the cops?”
“About the accident?” he asked. “I was driving.”
“That seems like a bad plan.”
“Why?” Stone asked.
“You’ll go to jail.”
He shrugged. “Better me than her.”
“I don’t think so,” Lance said.
“You don’t? Why the hell not?” Stone said, half turning in his seat.
“You play guitar. Breanna doesn’t play anything.”
Stone laughed. Dakota looked straight ahead. They passed a final cluster of streetlights. Darkness solidified, swallowing their faces. In the faint glow of the dashboard, Dakota’s and Stone’s hands were almost close enough to touch.
“Plus, you make good fries,” Lance said. It came out like a hiccup. He didn’t mean to say it. He hadn’t liked it when others had said it. But they laughed and Dakota put both hands back on the wheel.
“He does make good fries,” Dakota said.
“Damn straight,” Stone said. He half turned again. “Why do you care what happens, Wildman?”
“I saved your life,” Lance said. “I feel responsible for you.”
“Uh-oh,” Dakota said. “That’s why he bought you a taco.”
“That’s going to be a bitch,” Stone said. “You’ll have to send a lot of care packages when I’m on the inside. Bake me cookies.”
“Conjugal visits,” Dakota said.
“Desperate times, Lance,” Stone said.
“I’m telling the cops the truth,” Lance said.
“Naw, man. Think about it. Small-town kid drops out of high school, gets discharged from the military and kicked out of his house. He then works as a fry cook. He drinks too much. Hangs out with unsavory characters. Goes to jail. Fade to black. That’s the story.”
“That’s the wrong ending.”
“What? That’s the perfect ending!”
“Not for you. Your story ends in Telluride,” Lance said. “That’s what you told me.”
Oncoming headlights flooded the car. In the wash of light, Stone looked like one of those old photographs, a young picture of someone’s grandfather. The car went black.
“Telluride,” Stone said. “So let’s go.”
“To Telluride?” Dakota asked.
“Yeah,” Stone said. “We’ve got a half tank of gas and two packets of hot sauce.”
“I’m in,” Lance said.
“Don’t tempt me,” Dakota said. “My bag’s packed. We just have to swing by the Trainsong.”
“Nope,” Stone said. “Can’t swing by anywhere. It’ll break our momentum. We have to go right now, or we’ll never make it.”
“Just like the hot springs,” Dakota said.
“Yeah!” Stone said. “Exactly! Oh, man. What a trip.”
The idea flared in the dark car and suddenly everything was possible. Plans came rapid-fire. Dakota plunged them down back roads, hugging curves and listing the highways that could tie their trip together across four states—perfect-sounding numbers—the 90 to the 80 to the 70, like a countdown to destiny, and Stone was chopping the trip into shifts and Lance was organizing snacks and coffee breaks and the idea had taken hold.
And it was going to be like this one trip they’d taken, and this other trip they’d talked about, and this other trip they should’ve taken, but didn’t. Then Stone leaned back and sighed and said:
“It would be amazing.”
And the word would hit the atmosphere like air hissing from the tires. Dakota relaxed her foot on the accelerator. The conversation slowed and the car was drifting back to the place it had come from, rolling downhill toward The Float, then past it to a series of empty lots. Clusters of trailers. A maze of steel siding and small yards and, yes, they would drop Stone here.
Dakota parked outside a blue double-wide. The light fixtures looked like they’d been cobwebbed for Halloween.
“Hey,” Stone said. “This doesn’t look like Telluride.”
“Must’ve made a wrong turn,” Dakota said.
Stone climbed out and paused by the front door. Then he disappeared around the side of the trailer.
“Will he be able to get in?” Lance asked.
“We’ll wait,” Dakota said. Lance got out of the car and took Stone’s place, riding shotgun. A new experience up front. Just a few inches closer. But like distance from an open flame, inches mattered.
Dakota breathed a heavy sigh. She set her eyes on him. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Lance said.
He had to ask. The question was ricocheting in his brain, doing damage.
“Did you ever have a thing for Stone?”
“Stone!” she said, not quite rattled enough. “Maybe. Just for a minute though. No longer than a minute. When he was still James. Lifetimes ago.”
A light went on inside, and Lance exhaled. It didn’t matter. They were alone now.
She drove. The smile hadn’t left her lips and her hand was on the console between them. It was just resting there, fingers gently parted, and one of two things was certain. Dakota either:
1) completely, desperately wanted him to hold her hand; or
2) just liked to put her hand on the console.
He stared. Four fingers and a thumb. Ratios and probability. Harder than a multivariate equation. Worse than a story problem.
The Sphinx’s riddle: a girl’s open hand on the console.
Lance’s hands were still folded in his lap when they pulled into the Trainsong parking lot. He’d blown it. Ruined the whole night, his whole life, by not holding this girl’s hand on the way home from tacos. But Dakota didn’t say goodbye or go inside. She grabbed two plastic chairs from her front patio and walked them to where the parking lot’s edge crumbled into weeds.
“C’mon,” she said. “Let’s catch the trainsong.”
The ground was uneven. They had to work to find a place where the chairs’ wobbly legs would hold steady in the dirt. They stuck the chairs side by side with a view of the treed slope and the tracks, silver lines under moonlight. The train was coming. They sat, Dakota on his right.
“Almost,” Dakota said. She turned and dark hair spread over her left cheek, stirring her scent into the air. Lance’s legs shook. The plastic chair jumped, trying to buck him down the hill.
He should think about something else.
The physics of a plastic chair, of a train. The approaching calack, a broadband noise caused by vibrations of the wheels on the railheads, the irregularities of running surfaces. According to his AP science textbook, millions of dollars and decades of research had been unable to silence the sound of an oncoming train. Compressions and refractions, closing in, shaking Lance’s chest as if they were coming from inside. He could pop, like the wineglass.
He was sitting next to Dakota in the dark.
“Almost,” Dakota said. “The light will come just there.”
She pointed with one hand, the other open and still. Time thickened and Lance looked down. Her hand, dangling in the space between chairs. Fingers curled slightly, as if being trailed through a stream. In his chest, a hammer striking steel. His hand crossing through still time—this impossible distance. Fingers brushing Dakota’s. Clasping.
Holding her hand. Those eyes.
“You,” she says.
She squeezes his hand and the train’s light pricks the darkness, its horn screaming across the field: a giddy, nauseating sound. Blood beats in his temples. A bone-shaking rhythm. He lifts Dakota’s hand to his lap as if it will run away. Vanish with the train. The sound bears down and the train is passing, a drumbeat, a strumming, a whisper, suggestion. Gone.
But this hand. This impossible thing.
He cannot look back at Dakota’s eyes, because he has never seen a hand before. Never knuckles. Never the half-moons of nails, the crisscrossing in the folds of skin. To touch her hand freely this way, not brushing, not accidental, is the first real thing he’s done in his life. The rest of the world will bend around this hand.
Dakota shifts in her seat. Her eyes are hungry. Alert. He can’t look. The weeds are papery in the moonlight, and the trees are standing still and THIS HAND! Crickets and toads pile their voices into the darkness, filling the hollow of silence the train left behind.
“No one has ever held my hand before,” Dakota says. She lifts their clasped hands up between them, so they can both see. “God, it’s so nice, isn’t it?”
He looks at her blankly, hears her words. How can she talk about this while it’s happening? “I was afraid to sit next to you,” Lance says. She is stroking the flesh of his palm just above the wrist, and he can’t stop telling her things. “I was afraid to touch that tree.”
“Yes,” she says, nodding.
Her fingertips send shivery bolts up his wrist, all the way to his shoulder. She presses her thumb into the center of his palm, massaging it. Loosening his whole body through his hand.
“Are you glad you stayed another night?” she asks.
“So glad,” he says. He’s shaking. Hard to smile. Sensations all twisted together. He wants to cry and laugh and shiver and scream.
“Are you happy here?” Lance asks, watching her fingers.
“I’m happy now,” she says. “What about you, Lance? Are you happy?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think happy people mostly go to bed before midnight,” she says. “We’re up with all the other ghosts.”
And this is just hands. Nothing wrong with touching hands. But it’s delicate work, holding hands with Dakota. Like crossing a room with an overfull glass of water. The rim of the liquid curves up, suspended by pressure, trembling with each step. So you just keep walking, hoping you can keep it all nice and even and slow.
“Hey,” she says, pulling his hand close, right against her leg. Her leg. He is touching her leg. “Are you sure you’re real?”
“Yes,” he says. His teeth chatter. All this trembling.
She opens her lips to speak. A creak of moisture. “Not a ghost?”
He’s holding this glass, moving so slow, so careful—but now their foreheads are nearly touching. Frozen time thaws to a rush and they’re running downhill, the ground tipping forward, still tipping, and Lance’s feet pedal air, and his stomach drops and he loses the Earth and presses his lips to hers. Their mouths open to receive each other and everything is spilling, everything, everywhere.