She sat on the edge of the bed with her hands clasped between her knees and kept clenching and unclenching her palms to stop the trembling. The night was still and the house was stark silent. Except the ominous ticking of the clock on the wall, keeping track of the trickling seconds. On hearing a sudden shuffling sound, she turned to look at her baby brother turning in his sleep on the bed they had to share. Mercifully the bed wetting had stopped about three months ago, even though the thumb sucking hadn’t. She tried not to think about how his mother was just three years older than her, which was what always came to her mind each time she looked at him. Her own mother had left them a year ago, and just a month after that, her Dad had replaced both her and her mother with this readymade family in the house. She had just assumed that the boy must have been his. She never cared to ask.
Her ears strained to listen to the one sound she was waiting for. Fully dressed in faded jeans and a cotton turtleneck with a mismatched scarf wrapped around her neck, she wiggled her toes inside the canvas shoes. She had been sitting still for so long her feet were starting to become numb. The last thing she wanted was a bad case of pins and needles in that crucial moment. She looked at the bag lying on the floor between her feet, and back again at her brother. At least he was a heavy sleeper. Sometimes she almost felt sad for this little guy who had no idea what he’d have to deal with once he was older. Step brother he might be, but at least she could hold him and cuddle up next to him each night, when their dad came home drunk and started smashing things. She could at least pretend someone cared when she’d hear her step mother swearing at her father and sometimes getting beaten up when her father wouldn’t take it anymore and lash at That Woman’s back with the belt. She only assumed it was her back because she never saw any other scar on That Woman, and she just hoped that the whip lashes were her father’s leather belt hitting bare skin and not anything even more sinister that she didn’t know about.
Tonight though, her father was away. And she knew it because That Woman had told her she’d be away for the night and that never happened unless their father was staying out overnight. She’d never forget the one time That Woman stayed out late outside and her father was home before That Woman was. Even her brother’s sleep had been broken by all the yelling and screaming and she’d held him all night just so he wouldn’t cry and make their dad come upstairs and beat him up instead. She knew her dad tolerated both of them only because they made themselves invisible to him. And yet, when it came to breakfast in the morning and getting his clothes ready as he set off for the garage he owned, her dad strangely never let anyone else do it. Specially not That Woman. Maybe it was his way of proving that he was still boss, and they all were his minions who were bound to give indulgence to all his whims and fancies.
But tonight was different. She rubbed her sweaty palms on her jeans and peeked at the clock to check the time. In the dim light streaming into her room from the streetlight outside, she could make out that it was one. Her heart beat quickened at the thought. Anytime now. And as if on right on cue, she heard the soft purr of an engine and the unmistakable sound of a car slowing down to a stop right beneath her window. She stood up with a start, and the bag landed on her feet with a dull thud. Heart beating wildly, she glanced around the room and outside the window, not knowing for a moment what to do. Keeping her ears open for any sound other than the running engine outside, she clutched her bag and slowly tiptoed to the door, even though she knew it wasn’t necessary. Taking one last look at her still sleeping brother, she ran down the stairs two at a time and was out the front door in one breath. With shaking hands, she pulled the keys out of her jeans pocket and locked the door, and without waiting to catch her breath, ran towards the lane beneath her window where she knew the car would be waiting for her.
“You needn’t have ran” was all he said as she opened the door and sat down on the front seat with an unceremonious thump.
She was still panting, “I. Don’t. Know. Why. I. Ran” she said between gasps.
Resting his elbow on the window, he kept looking at her and smiled. “Ready?” he asked.
It was only then that she noticed that the car was not moving. She looked at him in surprise and whispered as loud as she could, “DRIVE!! MOVE!! WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?”
He chuckled and lazily stepped on to the accelerator. She kept staring at him disbelievingly.
Five minutes later, when she was finally able to breathe normally, even though her heart was still beating fast, she suddenly let out a giggle. Surprised at herself, she tried suppressing yet another giggle. Before she knew it, she was letting out peals of laughter into the crisp autumn night.
“We are actually doing this” she finally said between chuckles.
“Yes we are” he said and reached out for her hand. It was only then that she realized that they were again clasped between her knees. Laughing at herself yet again, she held his hand, and immediately felt herself let go. His touch was always so assuring.
Relieved for the first time since that evening, she looked around her and noticed his car.
“Whoa! She’s some lady! When did you find her?” she asked, taking in the swanky dashboard and the shiny buttons.
He laughed again, “Some old guy wanted her painted. Brought her in about a week ago. Your dad just happened to leave the keys with me tonight when I told him I wanted to work all night. You like her?”
“Dude, you’re so fired!” she said with grudging admiration in her voice.
“Yeah, specially when he’ll realize the car isn’t the only thing I am stealing away” he added.
She started laughing again, and clasped his hand with both her hands. She always liked how his large palms totally engulfed hers.
“I’m so busted when the police find out. So how old are you again? Fifteen?” he joked.
“Seventeen”, she made a face, “and thirty if you count how I feel.” she replied. He was the one person who knew how desperately she’d been waiting to turn eighteen. To finally get all the privileges of an adult even though she had been fulfilling the responsibilities since way back.
He let go of her hands and ruffled her hair. Holding her by her shoulder, he looked straight ahead as the headlights illuminated roads previously swallowed by the darkness.
She leaned on his shoulder and looked at the night sky. So this is how it feels like, she said to herself. She was surprised at how easy this felt. Far away from her drunk father and That Woman and that house she had no happy memory of. She dreamily gazed at the stars and felt the fragrant breeze caress her. Was it frangipani? Or maybe lilies from the valley? Maybe it was just her imagination. Heady was this feeling, when she wanted to close her eyes and just sleep in his arms, and yet was determined not to miss a moment of this. Her first taste of freedom. She wanted to scream into the night; open her arms and wave them like a mad woman just for the heck of it.
She realized he was slowing down. Sitting up straight and looking ahead she saw a fork on the road in front of them.
“Which way?” he asked.
“Surprise me” was all she said, but as an afterthought added, “Show me what the lady’s got in her. Show me how she flies. Let me see your fast car.”
He chuckled again and took the left turning, his foot pressing on the accelerator. The until then purring car seemed to let out a roar as he geared up, and she let out a small squeal of joy.
“Faster!” she screamed, and leaned on the open window with her head outside. The whipping wind lashed out at her eyes and hair as she threw back her head and giggled like a little girl. She suddenly noticed the city lights blinking in the horizon, and stared at them as they turned into blurred yellow streaks. The big city. The snazzy streets. The posh houses and the polished families. The grand high rises. The fancy restaurants. The elegant ladies having tea parties. The well-behaved children with neat shiny faces.
She sat up and tried running her fingers through her hair, only to realize her hair was a tangled mess. She’d forgotten all about the scarf around her neck she was supposed to wrap around her head. She looked at him, with his focus on the road. She was reminded of the first day she’d seen him, in her dad’s garage. And how she’d noticed his chiseled face and strong jaw line that was a perfect foil for her round face. She smiled as she thought of how she’d fallen in love at the first sight, and how he’d not known of her existence until that day she drove into the garage in a friend’s car and parked right in front of him, inches away from his toes. She’d never admit it was deliberate, of course. She kept thinking of how she’d gradually learnt to accept his broodiness and silences as part of who he is. And about tonight, and about the culmination of their plans and dreams.
He slowed the car down to a halt again, and looked at her.
“It is 3am, baby.” he said.
She suddenly realized that they had been driving for two hours and would be reaching the big city anytime now.
“Yeah, I know” she replied.
“Time to go” he said softly, reaching out for her hand again.
She nodded and held his hand tighter.
He set the reverse gear and turned his car around. She kept looking at the horizon where the city lights teased and taunted her. With the car facing the direction from which they had driven for the last two hours, he paused and heaved a heavy sigh. Another two hours, and this will all be forgotten.
She didn’t say a single word as he accelerated again, and kept looking at her bag on the floor of the car.
“Some day”, he said.
She opened her bag and took out the wads of newspaper she’d stuffed in to make it look stuffed. Angrily throwing them out the window of the speeding car, she wiped hot tears from her already wind-stung eyes.
He threw his empty wallet onto the dashboard and said, “Someday”.
Inspired by Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car.