Hazardous Driving Conditions

Justin is the main character in the novel I’m working on. This story comes from me trying to follow him around and figure out the kinds of things he’s experienced that will make him into who he is at the time of the novel. So basically, I’ve been stalking an imaginary person and now I’m inviting you to come with me. …Writing is a strange activity. 

Sally Masters saw the boy standing in the line for the DMV front desk and froze. She did an about face and speed-walked back to her cubicle, wide eyed. Her desk mate Anna looked up over the computer and smirked.

“What, were you hoping he’d chicken out and not come back? He may be a weatherman but he’s also a teenage boy. He’s not going to back out of his driving test just because you wish he would.”

Sally glared at her and tried to think of a calming mantra. Last week he’d accidentally blown all the papers off all the desks and she’d rescheduled him—ostensibly so he could calm down. And of all days to wear her new pantsuit—couldn’t she send him away again until she thought to wear more suitable attire to work…something like waders and a rain jacket?

She checked over her shoulder again. He was still standing in line, having the nerve to look normal: tall, brown haired, and lanky. A little nervous, like most of the teens who were hoping to get their license.

And then. Enid Walters, at desk three called out in bored tones: “Ticket number 63.”

Justin jumped forward and put his papers down on the counter. “Uh, I’m Justin Shoalter.” He said, “I was here before, but I had to come back to take my driving—”

A breeze gusted through the waiting room, picking up papers and rattling the pen holder on the desk. Justin put out a hand to catch it but instead he bumped it over, spilling pens everywhere.

“Oh, sorry about that.” And he was on the floor, collecting pens. When he stood up again Sally saw he’d gone red to the ears and there was a fine fog surrounding him. He hastily stuffed the pens back into their holder and wiped his hands on his jeans, doing nothing to dispel the fog. “Um, sorry…”

Enid, who had seen enough in her twenty-eight years as a DMV clerk to be impervious to surprise, just handed him a pen. “Sign here.”

Justin scribbled his name and Enid continued: “Your instructor is Ms. Masters. She’ll meet you out front in a moment.”

Sally felt doom fall upon her like a swiftly descending baby grand.

“Great!” Justin said, and hurried out in a bluster of wind. The door slammed shut behind him and the other occupants of the waiting room visibly relaxed. Sally gulped and clutched at her necklace. Behind her, Anna said: “That boy is so nervous he’s going to blow you halfway to Memphis.”

She didn’t sound particularly upset.

Sally straightened her jacket, patted her hair, straightened her jacket again, picked up her pen and clipboard, and blurted, “I don’t know why they even let those people get licenses in the first place.”

“Well.” Anna gave her a bored look over the top of her computer. “Don’t let him have one, then.”

“I-I, well…” Sally wobbled between indignation at the idea that she might not do her job and a thrill of possibility. “I just don’t know!” And she hurried out the door before she could lose her nerve.

“Turn right out of the parking lot.” Sally crossed her arms protectively, not looking at the boy in the seat beside her. She reviewed their interactions so far.

When she’d introduced herself he’d tried to shake her hand and there was a cloud around his hand! A CLOUD. And possibly it meant he was very nervous, but still. It was unnatural. He was unnatural. She’d clutched her clipboard to her chest and pretended not to see it.

The fog seemed to increase after she’d refused his handshake, to the point that when he lifted his feet to get in the car, a bank of fog had rolled in with him and was now swirling in slow motion around the floorboards. Her socks felt damp and the crease was coming out of her trouser leg.

He was talking as he drove. “So I did a lot of driving with my sister, and she’s a leadfoot, so I’m hoping she didn’t wear off on me! I told her if I don’t pass, I get to blame her. How long have you been with the DMV?”

Sally wasn’t really listening.  I can’t believe nobody stepped up and took over for me on this. I do half the work at the office and I can’t even get a break from a weatherman student driver! And they know how nervous I get. I just wish for once somebody would look out for me for a change!

“Ms. Masters?”

“What?” She squawked, and then was doubly irritated because she’d sounded ridiculous in front of this genetic freak. “Mind your manners, young man! Where are we?”

Justin shut his eyes, sighed (the clouds on the floor sank from her knees to her ankles) and said, “I pulled into a parking lot because you weren’t telling me where to go. Look, I know you’re weirded out by me, but I’m just a regular teenager, okay? If we just get this over with, you grade me like you would anybody else—then you’ll never have to see me again.”

He grinned hesitantly and stuck out his hand. “Deal?”

Sally thought absently to herself that if he wasn’t a weatherman, he’d be a charming young man. Then she tapped her pen on the clipboard and pursed her lips. Surely he’d make some fail-worthy mistake. He was a weatherman, after all. “We’ll see. Turn left.”

Justin’s grin faltered but he nodded, put his hands on the steering wheel, and drove out.

He had the cheek to drive perfectly. He knew he was doing well, too. The clouds around her feet nearly vanished. The sunlight seemed to shine through the car windows brighter. And she found herself furious. Weathermen were supposed to be stupid. Everybody knew they were unstable. Yet here he was, pretending to be all nice and controlled. It was all an act, a low down act.

They were coming up on the entrance to the DMV parking lot again. Justin had reigned in his chattiness, but he radiated delighted confidence from every particle of him. Sally ground her teeth.

“Turn left here?” He asked, speaking out loud for the first time since he’d offered her his deal.

Sally looked at the DMV. She looked at the clipboard in front of her. She clenched her pen in white knuckles and made up her mind.

“No. Keep driving. Go out to the interstate. Get on at Greene Street.”

“Oh. Okay…” Justin said. He glanced at her once, nervously, did as she asked. “All the way up at Greene Street? This is going to be a long test.”

Sally harrumphed. “This test will be exactly as long as it needs to be.”

He looked at her skeptically, one eyebrow raised. The clouds around their feet darkened. “Needs to be to get me to make a mistake so you can fail me?”

Flustered at his perception, Sally pretended to jot down a note on the clipboard. “Eyes on the road! And disrespect is not going to help you today, Mister.”

They drove in silence to the interstate, and Sally began to bark commands.

“Change lanes!” Much to her disappointment, she watched him check the mirror, turn on his blinker, and slide into the left lane.

“Change lanes again!”

Mirror, blinker, lane change.

“Get off at Galveston!”

Apparently unruffled, he checked his mirror and managed—barely—to slide across four lanes of traffic in time to get off the exit for Galveston. But she noticed the dark cloud around their feet was growing, lapping cold misty tendrils onto her knees. It muttered, darkly. He only looked unruffled. He wasn’t. Fine. She inhaled deeply, lifting her chin. If her coworkers were so selfish as to send her out with this monster, she’d show them; she’d fail him, and fail him good. Sally Masters could take care of herself.

She flapped her clipboard in the air as they nearly passed a road. “Turn right!”

“Turning right.”

“Second exit on the roundabout!”

“Roundabounding. Notice my perfect yielding skills and expert blinker use.”

“Go left!”

“Turning into Crowder Meadow Homes.”

“Parallel park there, between those cars.”

He stopped the car in the empty street, gave her a challenging stare, put his arm over the back of the seat and flawlessly wedged the Taurus between two cars. Grudgingly, she was impressed. That wasn’t on the regular test. “Fine. Go back out to the main road.”

Five minutes later she barked, “Left!”

“Can’t, that’s a one-way street.”

“Go right!”

“…And that’s a cornfield.”

She was getting dry in the mouth. What if she couldn’t trick him? He hadn’t even exceeded the speed limit by more than a mile. No child should be able to drive this well, she thought sourly.

Even more embarrassing, a couple smug little puffy clouds were hovering over Justin’s shoulders. She didn’t know how she knew they were smug; she’d never seen a smug cloud before, but these were undoubtedly smug clouds.

“Look,” Justin said, “It’s been forty-five minutes. I had a Coke before getting to the DMV and I’m going to need a bathroom break if we’re going to do a cross country road trip.”

She sighed and waved at a roadside gas station. “Pull over there.”

By that point they had left even the suburbs and were driving beside cornfields and cow pastures. The only other vehicle in sight was a battered black Ford truck with an old man sitting in the bed.

As Justin parked, he grinned at her. “Can I get snacks?”

She ignored him. He left the car and she got out too, pulling out her phone to text…someone. But who could she text? Everyone would laugh at her for being unable to fail a dumb weatherman, especially Anna, and it was really Anna’s fault, after all, giving her the stupid idea of failing him.

A voice spoke just behind her. “Hey, turn ‘round.” And a massive, hard hand yanked her around so that she nearly spun off balance. She stared up into a leathery red face, eyes bloodshot, chin prickled with grey stubble. He breathed rancid, beery breath in her face and she winced away, putting her hands up.

“Eugh, you’re drunk!” She wrenched her arm away from him and dusted herself off, scowling at him. “It’s not even eleven in the morning! Shame on you!”

He leered and grabbed at her.

Sally squeaked, her throat constricted, unable to do much but flail uselessly.

The door to the convenience store jingled and Justin appeared, a bag of Combos in one hand, a Dr. Pepper in the other. He, stopped, eyes wide, when he saw what was happening. “Hey, get your hands off her!” He shouted, but his voice cracked, and he sounded young and innocent.

The drunk man just giggled and kept pawing at her, ignoring Justin. He yanked, she lost her balance and fell onto the asphalt, the gravel cutting into her knees—and then a raindrop smacked, wet and heavy on her nose. The drunk man let go of her.

She opened her eyes to find the cloudless sunny day gone. The cornfields were gone. The convenience store was gone. The world was swathed in a dark, wet, cloud. It rumbled and she felt it all the way through her bones. This is what the end of the world will feel like, she thought.

Justin was advancing on the drunk man, tiny electric bolts snapping at his fingers, his face grim, his hair standing on end. He pointed one of the crackling, fire-laced fingers at the drunk man. “You let her go.” He said. This time his voice didn’t crack.

The drunk dropped Sally and bolted. There was a dull thump as he collided with his truck out of sight. As the cloud lifted and the sunlight began to break through, Sally saw him lying stretched out on the ground, staring at the sky.

Justin came over, his hand outstretched to help her up—but Sally stared at it like he was trying to give her an earthworm. Her fingers were still wrapped around her phone, her link to all the people that would laugh at her if she couldn’t fail this monstrosity at his driver’s test. She wriggled away from him on the pavement, getting gravel and dirt all along the back of her nice blue pantsuit. Her eyes were wild and her neat hair was a mess.  “Get away from me!” She said, her voice quivering.

Justin pulled back, hurt and surprise in his eyes. “I’m just trying to help you up. Look, no more lightning!” He held up his hands with an apologetic grin, but she scrambled to her feet and glared at him, still shaking, trying to dust herself off.

“You don’t deserve to be on the road!” She pointed a finger at him. “I thought so from the beginning, and you just proved it.”

Justin’s mouth fell open. “What? I just—I just saved you! I drove perfectly, and I saved you!”

“You’re a danger!” She said, her voice wobbling with tears, “And a monster! Get your own ride home!”

She lunged for the driver’s side door, fell into the seat, locked the door, and gunned the vehicle, tires squealing as she roared out of the parking lot. She glanced behind her in the mirror and saw Justin, standing alone in front of the convenience store. If she’d looked at him she would have seen his eyes wide with hurt and shock and anger, but instead she only saw the massive black cloud building around his feet. Serves him right, she told herself. Nobody like that should be on the roads anyway…

Back at the convenience store, Justin sat in the grass by the side of the road with his phone, swathed in rainclouds up to his shoulders. A car whooshed past. The grass ruffled, and the clouds billowed and swirled around him, spraying raindrops out onto the asphalt. He took a deep breath and dialed his sister.

“Hey Tab!” He’d plastered on a large fake smile but it faded as he said, “….yeah, the test is over…Uh, well I’ve decided I’m not going to get a license after all.” He cleared his throat and rubbed at his eyes before he continued. “Didn’t really want one, anyway, so it’s fine. I mean, who wants to drive, right? …Can you come pick me up? I’m not at the DMV…”