Four girls riding back of an old pick-up truck, giggling to remind themselves, we are girls! They squint the sun away, squint to keep the dust from their eyes on the truck’s sharp turns, and the squinting goes nice with their teenage smiles. Over a bump—hands up! Rollercoaster, and so fun and young in the back of this truck, they might as well be on one.
But if you look closer at the clump of them, you’ll see it’s really three who are giggle and squint. There is Jess, the back-right corner of the square. Jess holds on tight. She keeps her eyes open, looks forward to see what’s ahead and back to see what they’ve left behind, looks at the many evergreens and the afternoon shadows they cast. She has a baby sister at home she looks out for, Lee, but Lee likes to be called Little Jess, it’s that way with them.
Joseph driving. He looks, too. He looks straight ahead like he learned to, and looks back often through the rearview. Yes, to check for cars that want to pass. But also to look at Jess. Joseph is a teenager, too. He is careful, too, and quiet – no creep, no gawker, a nice boy, everyone says so. He drives slowly and has even cranked his window down twice now to warn the girls to hold on. To sit in the bed of the truck, not on its thin sides.
Jess isn’t thinking about Joseph, not yet. She’s trying to hold on.
The girls woo-woo. They mime to Jess, put your hands up, girl. They yell, put them up, put them up!
Yes, for one minute, Jess loosens the clamp of one hand and lifts it. Yes, sometimes Jess would like to be a woo-woo girl, would like to be thought of as one. But bump, and her clenched butt levitates, her eyes go even wider, and she resumes her clutching.
One girl digs in her purse. Her compact mirror snaps open and shut like a puppet’s mouth. Another girl glosses her lips. The third shouts to Jess, what’s up with you? Hey, are you okay?
Is she? Last week, Little Jess brought home from school a giant moth, open-winged and flat under glass. Jess snatched it from Little Jess’s little hand, and slammed the glass against a wall to break it. She shimmied a thin knife under the wings. She pinched the delicate middle. She held the moth to the light.
You might’ve seen it running across the road, you might’ve had time to brake gradually. But Joseph’s eyes were on Jess in the rearview at that moment, and he did not see the rabbit. He swerved one way and then the other. The rabbit made it across, but the three hands-up girls jerked forward and backward and forward, flew off the truck and landed on the ground.
There they are, a tumble of clean-shaven legs, wild hair, bronze arms bright against the black pavement. They cradle their blond heads, test their tentative knees and elbows – are they okay? We’re okay, they assure themselves and each other. We’re okay! they shout to Joseph. But there are scrapes, some deep, and all three girls will have wide bruises on their tails by tomorrow. Dazed in the low sun’s glare, they brush dust from their colorful sundresses. They press their palms against the ground and push themselves up like toddlers do. They are standing, steady now.
Joseph is not mean. There’s not an ill-will inch in his head. But he starts driving. The shrinking girls in his mirror are squawking, hands up and waving, but Joseph keeps going. He is seventeen, and he needs just one rare moment that is quiet, that refuses the insistent shriek and whistle, a moment that says, enough, give me just this moment please. Such a moment goes well with driving on a winding road. It goes well with Jess in the back, but would go better with her in front. Joseph takes all the time in the world to slow the truck and stop it fully. He cranks the window once more and sticks out his hand, which is sweaty from nervous thoughts, as well as the steering wheel’s slick in summer.
Jess sees Joseph’s hand beckoning her and thinks of Little Jess, at sleep-away camp, where she’s forced to paddle on a lake named after a long-lost someone, where she’s coaxed to grow up faster. Won’t you come for me? she sniffs to Jess on the phone. But what is there to do? What can Jess really do?
She turns around and slides her butt off the side of the truck. She lands on two feet.