The snow on the streets was a foot deep. Nothing in our subdivision had been salted or plowed.
“This is such a dumb way to die,” the Duke noted, and I was starting to agree with her. But from the back, JP shouted, “Spartans! Tonight, we dine in the Waffle House!”
I nodded my head and put the car into drive and pressed the accelerator. The tires spun and spun, and then we shot off, the falling snow alive in the headlights. I couldn’t see the curbs of the road, let alone the painted lines dividing the lanes, so I mostly just tried to stay between the mailboxes.
Grove Park is kind of a bowl, so to leave you have to drive up a very modest hill. JP and the Duke and I all grew up in the Grove Park subdivision, and I’ve driven up the hill in question thousands of times.
And so the potential problem did not even occur to me as we started to climb. But soon, I noticed that the amount of pressure I placed on the accelerator pedal did not in any way affect the speed at which we were going up the hill. I began to feel a tinge of dread.
We began to slow down. I pressed the accelerator, and listened as the tires spun on the snow. JP swore. We were still creeping forward, though, and I could now see the crest of the hill and the black pavement of the plowed highway above us. “Come on, Carla,” I mumbled.
“Give it some gas,” JP suggested. I did, and the tires spun some more, and then suddenly Carla ceased climbing.
There was a long moment between when Carla stopped moving forward and when she began to slide, tires locked, back down the hill. It was a quiet moment, a time of contemplation. I am generally pretty averse to taking risks. I was not the sort of person who hikes the entire Appalachian Trail or spends the summer studying in Ecuador, or even the kind of person who eats sushi. When I was little and I would get worried about stuff at night and it would keep me up, my mom would always ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” She thought this was very comforting—she thought it would make me realize that the possible mistakes on my second-grade math homework would not have broad repercussions on my quality of life. But that’s not what happened. What happened was that I got to thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Say that I am worried that there are mistakes on my second-grade math homework. Maybe my teacher Ms. Chapman will yell at me. She won’t yell, but maybe she’ll gently disapprove. Maybe her gentle disapproval will upset me. And maybe I’ll start crying. Everyone will call me a crybaby, which will further my social isolation, and because no one likes me, I’ll turn to drugs for comfort, and by the time I’m in fifth grade, I’ll be strung out on heroin. And then I’ll die. That’s the worst that can happen. And it can happen. And I believed in thinking through these situations, so as to keep myself from becoming strung out on heroin and/or dead. But I had thrown all that out. And for what? For cheerleaders I didn’t know? Nothing against cheerleaders, but surely there were better things to sacrifice for.
I felt the Duke looking at me, and I looked back at her, and her eyes were big and round and scared and maybe a little pissed. And only now, in the drawn-out moment of stillness, did I think through to the worst thing that could happen: this. Provided I survived, my parents would kill me for totaling the car. I would be grounded for years—possibly decades. I would work hundreds of hours over the summer to pay for car repairs.
And then the inexorable thing happened. We began to fishtail back toward the house. I pumped the brake. The Duke pulled up the parking break, but Carla just slalomed backward, only occasionally responding to my frantic spinning of the steering wheel.
I felt a slight bump and figured we’d hopped a curb; we were retreating down the hill now through the yards of our neighbors as we plowed through snow as high as the wheel wells. We rolled backward past houses, so close that I could see the ornaments on the Christmas trees through living-room windows. Carla miraculously dodged a pickup truck parked in a driveway, and as I watched for approaching mailboxes and cars and houses in the rearview, I happened to glance back at JP. He was smiling. The worst thing that could happen had finally happened. And there was a kind of relief in it, maybe. Anyway, something about his smile made me smile.
I glanced over at the Duke, and then threw my hands off the wheel. She shook her head as if she were angry, but she cracked up, too. To demonstrate the extent to which I did not control Carla, I then grabbed the steering wheel and began dramatically turning it back and forth. She laughed some more and said, “We’re so screwed.”
And then all at once the brakes started to work, and I could feel myself pressed against the seat, and then finally, as the road leveled out, we slowed to a stop. JP was talking too loud, saying, “Holy crap, I cannot believe we’re not dead. We are so not dead!”
I looked around to try to get my bearings. About five feet outside the passenger’s-side door was the house of these old retirees, Mr. and Mrs. Olney. A light was on, and after a second of looking I could see Mrs. Olney, wearing a white nightgown, her face almost pressed against the glass, staring at us, her mouth agape. The Duke looked over at her and saluted. I put Carla into drive and cautiously made my way out of the Olneys’ yard and back onto what I hoped was the street. I put the car into park and took my shaking hands off the wheel.
“Okay,” JP said, trying to calm himself. “Okay. Okay. Okay.” He took a breath, and then said, “That was awesome! Best roller coaster ever!”
“I’m trying not to pee myself,” I said. I was ready to go home—back to James Bond movies—stay up half the night, eat popcorn, sleep a few hours, spend Christmas with the Duke and her parents. I’d lived without the companionship of Pennsylvanian cheerleaders for seventeen and a half years. I could manage another day without them.
JP kept talking. “The whole time I was just thinking, Man, I am going to die in a baby-blue ski suit. My mom is going to have to identify my body, and she’s going to spend the rest of her life thinking that, in his private time, her son liked to dress up like a hypothermic p**n star from the 1970s.”
“I think I can manage a night without hash browns,” the Duke said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Yeah.” JP protested loudly that he wanted to go on the roller coaster again, but I’d had enough. I called Keun, my finger shaking as I hit his speed-dial number.
“Listen, man, we can’t even get out of Grove Park. Too much snow.”
“Dude,” said Keun. “Try harder. Mitchell’s friends haven’t even left yet, I don’t think. And Billy called a couple of college guys he knows and told them to bring a keg of beer, because the only way these lovely ladies would ever stoop to talking to Billy is if they were intoxic— Hey! Sorry, Billy just hit me with his paper hat. I’m the acting assistant manager, Billy! And I will report your behav— Hey! Anyway, please come. I don’t want to be stuck here with Billy and a bunch of sloppy drunk people. My restaurant will get trashed, and I’ll get fired, and just . . . please.”