In the back, JP chanted, “Roller coaster! Roller coaster! Roller coaster!” I just flipped the phone shut and turned to the Duke. I was about to lobby for going home when my phone rang again. My mom.
“Couldn’t get a car. We’re back at the hotel,” she said. “Only eight minutes to Christmas, and I was going to wait, but your father is tired and wants to go to bed, so we’ll just say it now.” My father leaned into the phone, and I could hear his lackluster “Merry Christmas” an octave beneath Mom’s boisterous one.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. “Call if anything comes up; we’ve still got two more Bond movies to watch.” Just before Mom hung up, my call waiting beeped. Keun. I put him on speaker.
“Tell me you’re out of Grove Park.”
“Dude, you just called. We’re still at the base of the hill,” I said. “I think we’re headed home, man.”
“Get. Here. Now. I just found out who Mitchell invited: Timmy and Tommy Reston. They’re on their way. You can still beat them. I know you can! You must! My Cheertastic Christmas Miracle will not be ruined by the Reston twins!” He hung up then. Keun had a certain flair for the dramatic, but I could see his point. The Reston Twins could ruin almost anything. Timmy and Tommy Reston were identical twins who bore absolutely no resemblance to each other. Timmy weighed three hundred pounds, but he wasn’t fat. He was just strong, and incredibly fast, and thus the best football player on our football team. Tommy, on the other hand, could fit into one leg of Timmy’s jeans, but what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in crazed aggression. When we were in middle school, Timmy and Tommy would get into these epic fights with each other on the basketball court. I don’t think either of them had any of their original teeth.
The Duke turned to me. “Okay, it’s not just about us anymore, or about cheerleaders. This is about protecting Keun from the Reston twins.”
“If they get snowed in at the Waffle House for a few days, and run low on food, you know what’s gonna happen,” JP said.
The Duke picked up the joke. She was good at that. “They’ll have to turn to cannibalism. And Keun will be the first to go.”
I just shook my head. “But the car,” I said.
“Think of the cheerleaders,” JP implored. But I wasn’t thinking of the cheerleaders when I nodded. I was thinking of cresting the hill, of the plowed streets that could take us anywhere.
The Duke, as usual, had a plan. We were still parked in the middle of the road when she shared it with us. “So the problem was that we ran out of speed on the way up the hill. Why? Because we didn’t carry enough speed to the hill. So back up as far as you can in a straight line, and then gun it. We’ll hit the hill going much faster, and the momentum will take us to the top.”
It did not strike me as a particularly compelling plan, but I couldn’t think of a better one, so I drove backward as far as I could, the hill directly in front of us, barely visible through the fast-falling snow in the headlights. I didn’t stop until I was in somebody’s front yard, a towering oak tree a few feet behind Carla’s back bumper. I spun the tires a little to get down to the hard-packed snow.
“Seat belts buckled?” I asked.
“Yes,” they answered together.
“Air bags all on?”
“Affirmative,” the Duke said. I glanced over at her. She smiled and raised her eyebrows. I nodded to her.
“I need a countdown, people.”
“Five,” they said in unison. “Four. Three.” I put the gearshift in neutral and began revving the engine. “Two. One.” I slammed Carla into drive and we shot off, accelerating in fits and starts between moments of hydroplaning on the snow pack. We hit the hill at forty miles per hour, twenty-five over the Grove Park speed limit. I stood up out of the seat, pressed against the belt, all my weight on the accelerator, but the tires were spinning and we began to slow, so I tapered off.
“Come on!” the Duke said.
“You can do this, Carla,” JP mumbled quietly from the back, and she continued forward, slowing incrementally with each passing moment.
“Carla, get your fat gas-guzzling ass to the top of the hill!” I shouted, hitting the steering wheel.
“Don’t make fun of her,” the Duke said. “She needs gentle encouragement. Carla, baby, we love you. You are such a good car. And we believe in you. We believe in you one hundred percent.”
JP began to panic. “We’re not gonna make it.”
The Duke answered soothingly, “Don’t listen to him, Carla. You’re gonna do this.” I could see the crest of the hill again, and the newly plowed blacktop of the highway. And Carla was like, I think I can, I think I can, and the Duke just kept petting the dashboard, saying, “I love you, Carla. You know that, don’t you? I wake up every morning and the first thing I think is that I love Tobin’s mom’s car. I know that’s weird, baby, but I do. I love you. And I know you can do this.”
I kept tapping the accelerator, and the wheels kept spinning. Down to eight miles per hour. We were approaching a snowdrift three feet tall where the snowplow had dumped all the snow, blocking our path. We were so close. The speedometer shuttering around five miles per hour.
“Oh God, it’s a long way down,” JP said, his voice cracking. I glanced in the rearview. It sure was.
We were still inching forward, but only just. The hill was starting to level out, but we were going to come up just short. I kept tapping the accelerator to no avail. “Carla,” the Duke said, “it’s time to tell you the truth. I’m in love with you. I want to be with you, Carla. I’ve never felt this way about a c—”
The tires caught on the snow as I had the accelerator near the floor and we blew forward through the snowdrift, the snow as high as the base of the windshield, but we barreled past, half over the snowdrift and half through it. Carla bottomed out on the other side of the drift, and then I slammed on the brakes as we approached the stop sign. Carla’s back end fishtailed, and all of a sudden instead of being at the stop sign we were on the highway, facing in the proper direction. I let off the brake and started off down the highway.
“YESSSSSS!” shouted JP from the back. He leaned forward and rubbed the Duke’s mess of curly hair. “WE JUST DID SUCH AN AWESOME JOB OF NOT DYING!”
“You sure know how to talk to a car,” I told the Duke. I could feel my blood pressure in my entire body. She looked outstandingly calm as she finger-combed her hair back into place.