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The Landing - Excerpt

Order your copy of The Landing

CHAPTER ONE - MAY 2007

Danny Bale leaned against the restroom wall, ran his finger along his wrist.

Running his fingers through his beach-blond hair, he exhaled with a heavy grunt and tilted his head toward the ceiling, the details of which he had surveyed many times before. The circles of water damage. The hole at the edge of a beige panel. An aging light bulb that had developed a mysterious, maize-colored tint. Since his arrival at Sunset Beach, this room had grown familiar. He had branded it into his memory and could re-create it with his eyes closed.

His skin was tanned, a shade between local-light and tourist-brown. Bleached by the penetrating sun, his dark blond hair had developed a bright sheen and shouted his status as a permanent beach dweller. Leaning toward the mirror, he examined the creases that had begun to form along the corners of his eyes. It seemed premature for signs of aging to begin.

Danny felt tired. He blamed it on sleep deprivation, to late nights spent writing after Sunset Beach calmed. But the root of his fatigue didn't result from poor habit or a need for a twenty-seven-hour day. Rather, a pattern of bland constancy had emerged, leaving Danny drained at heart from years of plugging away at his craft and seeing no manifestation of success.

Not that Danny could pinpoint a definition for success.

At first, he had defined it as freedom-one he could obtain by spending his late twenties seaside and inspired. In truth, Danny's heart had departed for the beach long before he did. Prior to his arrival, Danny had invested four years in the college scene, where he had conformed to an uninspired status quo disguised as a ladder to breakthrough. It seemed a lifetime ago.

And now, by age twenty-eight, he'd grown exhausted.

An elusive notion, success.

As he eyed his beaded necklace and linen shirt, Danny wondered how he'd managed to spend another four years of his life at McGrady's. On weekdays and weeknights, he engaged in the mundane work of a cook. But on weekends, McGrady's slated him as its featured entertainment. Danny would strum his acoustic guitar and sing the songs of Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and some original pieces of his own. It provided Danny with a performance outlet. And by the time McGrady's closed for the night, Danny figured, half of the drinkers wouldn't know the difference between songwriters anyway.

Danny jumped at the sudden burst of the restroom door.

"Danny Boy! How's it going, chief?"

Even when he dabbled with subtlety, you couldn't help but notice Jay McGrady's presence. Forgoing college and opting instead for a family business that would one day become his own, Jay earned his living as the McGrady's manager and oddity specialist. On any given day, you could spot him fixing a water pipe or grilling a burger, taking out the trash or chewing out a waitress. But Jay approached it all in good fun.

Danny rubbed his eyes. "Never better. I mean, you've got the water, the ladies. This is paradise, right?"

Jay made his way to the sink and started to wash his hands. As luck would have it this evening, he would assume the role of senior chef, a title he'd created on the fly.

"Man, you should see the woman out there at table eleven," Jay said with a knowing chuckle. "Mmm, she's hot. I'll betcha she's about fifty years old, too." Flipping water from his hands, he wiped them with a paper towel until they were damp at best, then shook his head. "But that guy she's with-I don't understand it, man. What a slob! I mean, his knockers are bigger than hers, my hands were probably cleaner before I started washing 'em-and some dudes are just not meant for biker shorts, you know what I mean?"

"Geez, Jay!" Danny snickered, gritting his teeth. "I hate when you do that. I have to look at these people when I'm out there singing, you know."

"I'm serious, man! How could a woman like that be so hard up?" Jay stretched his arms toward the dingy walls surrounding him. "A prince like me and an inheritance like this place. What more could a woman want!"

"That slob probably owns a hotel down here, Jay!"

A quick chuckle and the fortunate son headed toward the door. "You coming?"

Danny nodded. "Yeah, I'm on my way."

Jay and his mouth departed as swiftly as they had burst in, and a few seconds later, Danny could hear him joking with customers in the hall. An amiable guy, you could always count on Jay for a stupid laugh. Not the intention Jay had in mind, per se, but his speech tended to accelerate faster than his tact. To his credit, the benevolent Jay was also responsible for complimentary rounds of beers among the staff, McGrady's profit-sharing program in its most primitive form. Danny, unlike the other staff members, had developed a solid friendship with Jay over time.

Pounding his fist into his other hand with determination, Danny shook the heaviness from his eyes and walked out the restroom door.

Danny didn't get far. Jay caught him by the sleeve of his shirt and tugged him toward a pair of patrons. "Guys, this is Danny Bale. He's our entertainment for the weekend," Jay said. "Danny, this is Chris Clark and Kyle Clark, two brothers I met on my way to the dining area."

Danny exchanged handshakes with Chris, the older brother, who had blue eyes, brown hair, and an athletic build. "Nice to meet you, Chris. What do you do for a living?"

"I sell document management software," Chris said. "Sales are great, but I was ready for a vacation and convinced my brother to hang out for a week at the beach."

At that, Jay gestured to Kyle with his thumb. "Kyle and I discovered we share some common ground. Tell him, Kyle."

Kyle, who had brown eyes and light red hair, chuckled. "I'm a chef in New York."

"I told him not to be intimidated by the ol' five-star establishment he set foot into here," Jay joshed.

Despite numerous attempts by competitors to challenge its dominance throughout the years, McGrady's remained the most visited restaurant at Destiny Landing, a tourist dive in the heart of Sunset Beach, South Carolina, referred to as "The Landing" by local residents. One of the first businesses to set up shop at the development, McGrady's remained the standard bearer for out-of-towner attraction, though no one could ascertain its appeal-other than the fact that it didn't have a niche appeal. A catch-all establishment, management identified its clientele as casual dates and families, who would arrive sunburned in flip-flops and printed T-shirts purchased at hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops. McGrady's made no effort to impress, and its patrons sunk to meet the challenge.

With a final handshake, Danny wished them well and headed out to the dining area.

With the convergence of the dinner crowd, Danny figured the number of voices had doubled. In the narrow hallway, he nodded to a man and woman engaged in a conversation. A pair of human lobsters, their skin had burned to a wow-that-must-hurt degree. When he entered the dining area and surveyed the range of people in the audience, tiredness dissipated from his body. He sensed a rush of energy, an aggressive rise in the rate at which his blood coursed through his veins.

Danny was home.

He hummed to Dave Matthews Band's "The Best of What's Around," which blared through speakers hung years ago by two teenagers with a roll of twine and a questionable sense of safety. Perched upon metal rafters, the speakers loomed like crows over the talking customers, who ignored them. From a distance, Danny waved at a group of waitresses, tanned beauties who came to Sunset Beach during Spring Break but never bothered to return to the world of academia.

Toward the kitchen, Danny counted a handful of patrons sitting at the bar, but the majority of his audience partook of faux-rustic cuisine at the hut-shaped restaurant. Along the perimeter and throughout the midsection, he watched them eat at tables of various sizes and matching brown tint. Ashen fumes dimmed the room as they crept in a hypnotic blur beneath the overhead lights. In a front corner sat a small platform, occupied by an empty stool and an acoustic guitar, which sat behind a microphone. Two large speakers sat on the stage floor. Tonight it would be Danny's stage.

As Danny walked up the steps and onto the platform, the heat from a single row of tracking lights invigorated his skin like a candle flame. Danny nodded at Jay, who meandered to the side of the room and faded the music to silence. With a thumbs-up signal, Jay departed for the kitchen, leaving Danny alone with the crowd. Danny couldn't help but grin. Grabbing the guitar and tossing the strap over his shoulder, he plugged the instrument into an amplifier and turned toward the microphone.

"Hey everybody, I'm Danny Bale. Welcome to McGrady's!" When he spoke into a microphone, mysterious warmth ensued within him. He couldn't explain its rationale, but something about it always felt right. Unable to determine if he was bathing the air with his voice or vice versa, he perceived a connection with the audience and possessed a keen awareness of when it was mutual.

The audience applauded.

"How you all doing tonight?" Glancing around and catching eyes with a few regulars, his pulse now raced. This was his drug. "Either it's dinner time, or you all heard that Jay McGrady wasn't your entertainment for the night."

As the audience snickered at the lackluster pun, Danny shot a mischievous glare over at Jay, who bowed from behind the kitchen window.

"All right," Danny said. "Let's get cooking."

With delicate care, he began caressing the guitar strings in the key of G. On most occasions, he would launch the evening with a classic rock song-something buzzing with adrenaline, a personification befitting beer and hot wings. Tonight, however, he felt inspired to start slow with a song of his own. And after a few introductory measures, he slid his hot-buttered vocals into the microphone and bore his heart. Danny inhaled the smoke-saturated air and ignited it with the sweet aroma of words on fire.

There's something about her eyes
I can't put my fingers on
It's in the way she looks at me
That keeps me oh so strong
There's something about her eyes
That takes the best of me
It reaches down inside my heart
And conquers me easily

Whenever he gazed at a crowd, he observed the reactions of those who listened. The romantic songs never ceased to amaze him, because with them he witnessed how a casual crowd could morph into a captivated audience. In reality, most customers allowed the music to sweep over their heads and into the hazy milieu. But as he studied through discerning eyes, Danny could spot his music's effect on a handful of people, who would become his core fans for the minutes that followed. He searched for subtle gestures that suggested mood alterations: a tilted head, an arm sliding around a girlfriend's waist, two eyes glimpsing past his guitar and into the depths of his soul. Perhaps his greatest compliment was the woman who failed to notice the delivery of a meal because of an undivided focus on the musical message that emanated. One by one, audience members found themselves distracted from their Friday night conversations and swept into Danny's personal world. Their attention spurred him on. Danny could see his future when he received such feedback-silent, yet undeniable.

Climaxing with a high note and free-falling to a final chord, Danny blushed as the song ended and the muted applause arose.

"Thank you," he said.

As much as he hated to do it, it was inevitable. The mood needed to be broken and an emotional balance maintained-a reminder of why McGrady's drew capacity crowds on Friday nights. After all, this was Sunset Beach, and its visitors had flocked here for two reasons: to get their senses teased and their skin fried.

Danny picked up the tempo and continued his song set as the blend of conversational tones resumed at full volume.

CHAPTER TWO - MAY 2007

Her office was located on the far edge of Oxford, Ohio. Today, Meghan Harting would take her time getting there.

A quiet town about a half-hour from Cincinnati, Oxford was home to thousands of Miami University students, as well as a smattering of local residents who observed the migration of young adults to their hometown every autumn. As the community's largest source of revenue and employment, Miami had positioned itself as a force to be reckoned with. Plus, with a greater concentration on academics than a splashy athletic program, the university's football games provided an avenue for family entertainment that remained affordable.

A visitor to the town might imagine the significant slowdown the town must have experienced during the summer months. But Meghan had seen it firsthand. An Oxford native, Meghan had spent her entire life walking around campus with her dad. But these days, she found herself on site as a non-traditional, part-time student: part-time hours, part-time academic years, part-time class attendance. Since childhood, her casual attitude had surfaced much to her father's dismay, but he had grown to accept it as a distinct feature of her personality. Besides, with Travis Harting a professor at the institution, Meghan's tuition carried a hefty discount. And perhaps she would even locate a career path in the process.

Career direction was the least of Meghan's concerns at the moment, however. Today she wanted to stroll down the campus streets and fill her lungs with a dose of medicinal life. In the last few minutes, she had overcome a minor case of nausea stimulated by the strange odor that filled some of the aging buildings. She couldn't put her finger on the cause-ointment and cotton balls or something. She shivered at the thought of it. As the sun's cozy rays lathered her hair, Meghan watched green leaves rustle from the tickle of a warm breeze. Who could rush to work on such a May afternoon?

As Meghan wandered down a side street and past a series of classroom buildings, red brick and Ivy Leaguish, she noticed the roads had become less cluttered as students returned to their hometowns after final exams. An occasional car broke the calm as it weaved and honked its way off of university grounds, announcing its arrival to the outside world.

Homes fated to decades of student leasing lined Oxford's streets. Meghan rolled her eyes at a group of howling fraternity guys who sat on their porch steps with nothing better to do than to flash "8.5" signs in her direction to rate her appearance. Meghan figured they had probably just finished drinks and pizza from the night before. She supposed they had chosen to savor their final days of boyhood jests before a white-collar world forced them to swap pizza-stained T-shirts for coffee-stained neckties. Amused at the thought, she wondered how many years these cocky guys would remain juveniles.

She shot them a look of disdain and kept walking, eventually catching a university shuttle bus bound for the opposite side of town.

* * *

Meghan walked through the glass doors as if nothing was wrong. While her late arrival at the building wouldn't go unnoticed, she wouldn't sweat it. The Oxford Meadows apartment complex was her paycheck, not her lifestyle.

She almost collided with Bob, the office manager, who rounded a corner and rushed for the front door. A stack of paperwork beneath his arm, he glared at his watch from the corner of his eye.

"I was wondering when you'd get here," Bob sneered between pants of breath.

"My exam ran late."

"Oh, okay. I'll be back in a couple hours. Got a meeting offsite." And off ran Bob, a man on a mission and without a clue.

This job is a joke, mused Meghan.

With a glance to the corner of the office, she found the waterless fish bowl empty, which meant no one had deposited a late rent payment. No mundane data entry today.

Despite keeping watch for residents approaching the room, Taryn, the staff member on duty, had failed to notice Meghan's entrance. Engrossed in her task at hand, Taryn scissored her way through a stack of Summer is here! decorations that would soon don the office walls. Never a dull moment.

"Hey there," Meghan said. She tossed her book bag beneath her desk and transposed into the role of a leasing associate.

Taryn looked up, as if to downplay the fact that she had missed an office walk-in. "How'd the test go?"

"I think it went okay. Post-Civil War American history."

"Was the class any good?"

Meghan shrugged. "The instructor was pretty cool. An old hippie, so it was a blast hearing him talk about the sixties, especially since he lived it-well, 'smoked it' is probably more like it." She sat down and reached for a file folder from her inbox. "Only one more exam to go."

Taryn offered a half-interested nod and examined the pile of construction paper through her wire-rimmed glasses. Deciding on orange this time, she began another artistic assault. According to Bob, the decorations would foster a sense of homecoming when one arrives at Oxford Meadows. But Meghan knew half of the single-parent and college-aged residents would flip the bird to sentimental fuzziness as they parted with their monthly rent checks.

Opening the folder and flipping through its contents, Meghan grimaced. "I just processed this paperwork. What was Bob thinking when he gave this back to me?"

"He said there was supposed to be an extra charge for the damage to the door post."

"Why doesn't he put a note on this stuff? I can't read his frickin' mind."

Taryn laughed. "Are you in a bad mood or just being yourself? It gets hard to tell."

"I don't have patience with stupid people."

Meghan thumbed her way through a few opened envelopes that also sat in her inbox, then carried them to the computer, a shared resource among the staff. Shared because, after all, they needed to reserve funds for construction paper and such.

"Did you end up going out last night?" Meghan asked.

"Yeah, Chad and I caught a movie," Taryn replied. "We hadn't seen each other for a few days. Two paramedics are on vacation, so he and some others have taken turns covering those shifts."

Meghan started typing. She gave Taryn a half-glance over her shoulder and asked, "Did you notice a change after you got married? Did the romance come or go?"

"I don't know, it doesn't seem like much changed. I guess I'll know better in six years rather than six months. He's a sweetie, though." Suddenly interested, Taryn leaned forward. "Why? Are you and Brian thinking about taking the big step?"

Meghan typed faster. "Oh, we've talked about it in passing," she replied. "But nothing serious. He seems content with the way things are, so I don't push it."

"How long have you been together?"

"Eight years." The words sent a shock through Meghan. How had it been that long? She recalculated the years in her head but arrived at the same figure. By the time Taryn's next question arrived, Meghan had started counting Valentine's Days.

"What do you love best about him?" Taryn asked.

Meghan couldn't recall when she'd last considered it. The answer should have been simple, but with her guard down, she was left searching for an answer. She shuffled a few papers, searching for a nonexistent lease agreement to buy some time.

But in the end, Meghan could think of just one response.

"He's never cheated on me," she said.

"With all the college girls around here, that's a big accomplishment."

While relieved she'd concocted an answer, Meghan considered the answer deficient. Taryn's question continued to linger in her mind like a rash, a relentless nag, refusing to be ignored.

Interrupting her silent struggle, a pair of high school kids walked past the office, armed with beach towels and aiming for the back door. Although close in age, one of the teens towered almost a foot above the other.

"Pool's not open, guys," Meghan shouted across the room, hoping to catch them before they wasted extra steps.

Turning on their heels, the teenagers roamed into the office, the taller one scrunching his nose as he morphed from navigator to mouthpiece. "When does it open?" he asked, his face overlaid with an expression of perpetual boredom.

"Memorial Day weekend," Meghan answered. They couldn't be older than fifteen. And there was no way they were old enough to drive.

"Can we just go out there anyway?"

"It's dry concrete."

"I know." Definitely not older than fifteen.

"Well, what do you think you're gonna do with a concrete hole and no water?" Halting, Meghan leaned back in her chair. She inspected the shorter boy's avoidance of eye contact, then added, "Do you kids even live here?"

"My friend lives in number twenty-five," the taller teenager said.

Without breaking her gaze, Meghan pointed her red fingernail at the shorter kid, who drew on the carpet with his bare foot. "Is this your friend?"

The shorter kid looked up. Wide-eyed, he all but admitted his status as a trespasser, which appeared to add more guilt to his conscience.

"No," the taller one replied, adjusting his shell necklace. "My friend's at school."

Without a hint of hesitation, Meghan shot her finger in the direction of the front door. "This isn't a park. Get out."

The shorter boy, already out the office door, appeared relieved. The taller one scratched his cropped, red hair, then turned and followed, grumbling a muffled expletive on his way out. When a slamming of the front door sent echoes down the hall, Taryn stared at Meghan.

"What?" Meghan asked, not about to justify her firmness. "They weren't supposed to be here." Case closed.

Taryn crossed her legs and cocked her head, then grabbed a permanent marker and threatened the construction paper with a black decorative flair. Restoring their conversation, she asked, "What did you and Brian do last night?"

"We had dinner. He loves a Mexican restaurant around the corner, so I agree to go once a month." Meghan examined a freckle on her arm. While she felt like an amoeba under the microscope of Taryn's third degree, Meghan didn't mind. In fact, Taryn's questions had begun to pique her curiosity. Years had cycled and recycled, and she sensed a hollowness buried within. Suddenly the once-a-month Mexican dinner seemed to personify her relationship: going through the motions, then coming back for another round, where the only thing that changed was the color of her margarita. And lately those margaritas were frozen.

While Meghan had always considered herself fearless, she now found herself in a safe zone and wondered where the comfort had crept in.

"It ended up in a fight," Meghan muttered at last.

"About what?"

"It was a stupid little thing. His cell phone rang the whole time, and he refused to shut it off one hour for dinner. Apparently another department had worked into the evening on a project, and they needed his input on every detail. So he picked up the phone each time it rang. He does that all the time, and it drives me nuts because it's plain rude. Anyway, I got aggravated and told him to turn it off."

"He freaked out about that?"

"Well, it grew from there. We started getting into the whole career issue. He said he intends to become the top advertising executive in the industry, so it requires a lot of his time. Then he reminded me that, hey, we're not married, so it shouldn't be a big deal. I said something back, and the whole thing snowballed." Meghan squinted as her frustration resurfaced. Although she had put the scene to rest when she'd fallen asleep last night, now she found herself indulging its resurrection. Because Meghan's trust toward people had grown thin long ago, verbalizing her difficulties had become rare and overdue. Maybe Taryn could offer insight from a wife's perspective.

"Suffice to say," Meghan continued, "he wanted me to mind my own business, and that hurts after being involved for such a long time. Makes me feel like a hood ornament on his car."

Meghan and Taryn had only worked together for a few months, but conversations were frequent when a room was shared four days a week between the same two individuals. Meghan had revealed little about Brian, save a few details of a special event here and there. Taryn chewed a fingernail as if to decide whether to press forward. "Where did you two meet, anyway?" she asked.

"In Cincinnati, at this old Italian restaurant," Meghan replied. "A girl I worked with had gotten engaged, so a few of us went out to celebrate. Brian was sitting a few tables over at a dinner meeting." Meghan furled her eyebrows. "I remember thinking he didn't fit in with his group. He was dressed just like them, suit and tie, and had the same professional demeanor, but it didn't matter. Here were four guys old enough to be his father, and then there was Brian. He seemed to keep the conversation rolling, though.

"Anyway, his chair faced mine, and when I looked up at one point, we caught each other's eyes. Then he went back to his business conversation. A while later, I looked up again, and the same thing happened. He was cute, but I figured it was a chance encounter, nothing more.

"Eventually I stepped out into the lobby to make a phone call. Not even a minute passed before he walked through the door and said, 'Excuse me, but I couldn't help but meet you. I'm Brian Garrett.' Very polished, like he forgot to step out of executive mode. In fact, I had to giggle because he even shook my hand! Then he said he had to get back to his meeting and asked if he could take me to dinner sometime."

"Did you say yes?"

"Yeah, I decided it wouldn't hurt. What took me by surprise, though, was that he ended our conversation. He was confident-to the extreme, almost as if he had the whole thing planned and knew my answer ahead of time."

"And you said he's in advertising?"

"Yes."

"So basically, he closed the deal?"

"Kind of seems that way, huh!"

"And you kept seeing each other after that?"

"Just one date, then it went platonic. I didn't think we were compatible at all. He was wrapped up in a material world, and that never impressed me. But we got along well, and he was a good listener back then, so we became friends and talked almost every day. From time to time, he would bring up the idea of dating, but I always turned him down. That didn't deter him, because the way he sees it, 'no' is always negotiable. Finally, after five months as friends, I gave in and agreed to a second date." Meghan paused. "The truth is, before he came around, I hadn't been on a date in a long time."

Taking a seat near the computer, where Meghan had started to update invoice records, Taryn had lost interest in her construction paper. "So you stayed attached?"

Meghan shrugged. "Yeah, but it was tough. He's an overachiever. Work beckoned him constantly, so he would make dates with me, then postpone them, and I wasn't used to that." A hollow feeling settled into Meghan's gut. Or maybe it was flatness. Whatever it was, it felt eerie to her. It possessed a hint of familiarity, a long-present taunt, which she had never paused long enough to notice.

"So what kept you holding on to Brian?" Taryn asked.

Meghan thought for a moment. "I felt alone. He stood by me."

At the word alone, Taryn stopped asking questions. And Meghan didn't want to elaborate. For that matter, Meghan didn't know why she had chosen that particular word, but it had seemed suitable in an odd way.

Now in a daze, Meghan tried to refocus on her work. But reality had become cold pewter to her, hard and factual, like the account numbers in front of her eyes.

CHAPTER THREE - AUGUST 1994

The black convertible pealed from the drive-through window, past a stop sign at 30 miles an hour, and onto the suburban street. Summer breeze sent a rush through the teenagers' lungs.

This weekend, Meghan and her brother, Greg, had driven to northern Ohio in Meghan's car, separate from their parents, as the Hartings visited the Bales in Solon. And though a year older than his sister, Greg was content to let her drive so he could keep his freshly waxed vehicle at home, safe in the confines of the garage.

For all his research and study with the university, Meghan's father could not seem to understand the logic behind the separate vehicles. To Meghan, however, her car represented more than a mere ride; with her license in hand for a year, driving had emerged as her means of escape from the plastic world of high school. Plus, she had shaved an hour from her drive to Solon, courtesy of her lead foot.

When spending the weekend together, the Bale and Harting kids had formed a tradition of leaving the house after dinner and pushing curfew as close to the limit as possible. On occasions where they crossed the line, Greg, the legal adult in the group at eighteen years old, acted as first line of defense and peacemaker between generations.

Danny, fifteen years old and without a license, welcomed the idea of freedom by association. His older brother, Reece, also relished the idea of liberty, but for a different reason. With plans to join the military after his high-school graduation, he intended to make the most of the next nine months before penning himself up in boot camp. Jake, the youngest Bale, rounded out the back seat, self-invited and self-convinced otherwise.

"Don't get trash all over my car," Meghan directed toward no one in particular as she tried to catch a glimpse of Jake's lap in the rearview mirror. And her timing could not have been better. Jake had already managed to wipe burger grease on the seat fabric and keep quiet about it, knowing Meghan wouldn't discover it until weeks later. From their back-seat views, Danny and Reece had seen the whole thing but had grown accustomed to Jake's pre-adolescent carelessness.

Having cruised these streets many times before, Meghan guided the group southbound on Route 91 toward Twinsburg, then Hudson, and would steer them to Cuyahoga Falls, all to the tunes of a Prince CD that belted from the stereo. A point of conflict since leaving the house, the musical choice was Meghan's personal favorite. Though the passengers had voiced their dissent, Meghan had quashed it with a my-car-my-rules response, much to their chagrin. Greg had adopted control of the volume switch and now turned the classic songs up a notch.

"Where are we headed?" Meghan shouted, her voice barely audible above the wind and Prince's crooning of "Little Red Corvette."

Jake leaned forward. "Let's go to a movie." He licked mustard from his fingers, then crumpled the burger wrapper and stuffed it into the map pocket behind the passenger seat.

"It's 11:30. The last shows have already started," Danny replied, confident their cruise would prolong until they settled for late-night pancakes at a Denny's restaurant.

"I could go for a shake, if you're up for it," shouted Jake. His comment earned a punch in the shoulder from Reece, who stared in disbelief.

"Man, you just got done eating. Why don't you digest it?"

"Here, take the rest of this." Danny shoved the remaining bites of a cheeseburger at his brother, who began stuffing his mouth without a second thought.

Reaching into his hip pocket, Danny found his pack of cigarettes and removed one. As he yanked a lighter from his other pocket, he poked the tar-and-nicotine stick into his mouth, then crouched down to escape the wind shear and light up. With the first inhale, he fell back in the seat, tightened his lips as he blew smoke toward the overcast sky. He watched as the plume of smoke whirled upon the wind and around the car.

Within seconds, Meghan shot her nose in the air. Her humming ceased, and Danny knew she'd detected the odor. She glared straight at Danny through the rearview mirror. Her head remained still, but her eyes could crack a rock.

"You know, that's so nasty. I hate when you smoke in my car."

With three feet of distance as a buffer between them, Danny grinned and blew a quick, haughty puff in her direction. Meghan clenched her jaw. Danny took this as a token reaction because he knew she thrived on attention from the Bale guys. She returned her attention to Prince, who now sang of driving to a place where someone's horses roam free.

Jake's head bolted forward. He exuded the type of sincerity only a fourteen-year-old could muster with a sudden, naďve idea. "Hey Meg, can I drive?"

Meghan didn't even blink. "I'm sorry, did hell freeze over and someone forget to tell me?"

Their trek continued. Another minute passed before Reece finally verbalized the obvious: "Dude, we're like, roaming aimlessly around."

"I told you guys we should have left earlier," Greg said.

"And go where?"

"This isn't my town, man. Why don't you think of something?"

"I can think of a few things, but we can't take the kids along." Reece's claim, while an empty one, ignited a flame nonetheless, to which Danny provided a befitting retort with minimal effort. And so the traditional arguments began—spontaneous, brief, and good-natured—which always left the participants laughing in the end.

"All right," Meghan snapped. "Somebody decide where we're going, because I'm not gonna drive around all night."

Jake was on the ball. "I already offered a solution to that one."

Another pound in the arm from Reece. Meghan offered Jake a look of pity for the constant harassment, but she had grown up with the same shots from Greg and had managed to deal with it.

Drawing another puff, Danny flicked the ashes and rested his cigarette-laden hand on the car door. He relished these moments most. For all the pointless wandering and side arguments that erupted along the way, each Bale-Harting reunion arrived with eager anticipation on his part. In truth, Danny didn't care where they wound up or what would ensue that evening. He felt content right now. The way he saw it, the remaining hours constituted bonus time.

As he slouched in the back seat, Danny picked up the scent of Meghan's shampoo. And for no particular reason, he just looked at her as she stopped the CD and tuned to a Top 40 station, her head bobbing to Gin Blossoms. Danny watched as Greg spoke something to her and she turned to answer him. A streetlight raced by overhead and revealed a freckle on the back of her neck, a freckle Danny hadn't noticed before. Her puckered lips, her stubby chin, her delicate ears unveiled and hidden again by her hair in motion—Danny studied them all. More than any other person in the car, Danny savored Meghan's company. Her personality, razor sharp and a polar opposite to his own, captivated him. She could draw attention to herself with effortless flair. But in this late summer moment, a bittersweet delight emerged in Danny's heart. Like velvet purple incense, a nervous ache and a welcome pleasure. It ignited in Danny the desire to smile and shed a tear, both at the same time. Unable to reconcile this incongruity, he shook himself out of the emotional state and fed his lungs with more nicotine.

"Danny, you're quiet back there," Meghan called out.

"Oh, I was just thinking about something."

"Anything you'd like to share with the rest of the group?"

He had the sudden urge for a conversation with her, but his tongue grew lax in the unanticipated moment. Embarrassed, he began a desperate search for a topic of substance but wound up penniless. "Nope."

"You know, it's not polite to keep secrets. Didn't they teach you that in kindergarten?"

Feigning interest in the darkened roadside grass, Danny wouldn't risk eye contact. Instead, he peeped in her direction for a split second, his eyebrows lifting in a mode that claimed innocence. "Tsk." Back to the darkened grass, praying for a change in subject matter. One hint of detail and she would never let it rest. He couldn't afford the humiliation, especially with Reece sitting nearby consuming his fair share of oxygen. Granted, at the moment, Reece seemed to pay him no attention, busy joking around with Greg and terrorizing Jake. However, years of experience had proven Reece's hearing impeccable.

After persevering a few moments, Danny proved victorious as Meghan turned on the brights and focused on the road ahead. She had veered and now approached a stretch of pavement absent of traffic signals and intersections. And with the passage of another mile, Meghan slumped back in her seat, her usual indication that she'd reached the brink of boredom. Interrupting the commotion, she glanced at the corner of the back seat. "Hey Reece, switch places with me. I want to talk to Danny."

"What, now?"

"Yeah. Hurry, before the traffic picks up."

"You're kind of busy with your foot on the pedal," Greg chimed in.

"Take the wheel, Greg. And the pedal too."

Before he could object, her hands had abandoned the steering wheel, her knee already halfway up the backrest of the driver's seat. Greg hurried to grab the wheel and forced his leg over the middle partition, his eyes round with shock.

"What the hell, Meg! You're gonna get us all killed!"

"Just drive the car, Greg."

"Gee, what an idea!"

His options limited, Reece bolted to his feet and took a firm grasp of Greg's headrest, as if he realized he'd better make it over the seats first so someone would be behind the wheel. At Reece's reaction, Meghan waited a moment, then tried to squeeze past the two front seats anyway.

Reece, now stuck between both front seats and squirming to get loose, looked down to discover Meghan's head forcing its way through the open space between his legs. "Meghan, look out!" He jimmied a tad more.

Danny refused to blink and miss a single detail of the clown act. Once he'd figured his own death wasn't imminent, he found himself searching for routes out of the human maze as it unfolded before him.

Motionless, Greg shut his eyes. "Reece, get your ass out of my face."

"I can't help it! She's using up all the space! You could've done this an easier way, Meghan—maybe stop the car or something!"

Lunging forward with his life in his hands, Reece fumbled the wheel and landed on the driver's seat, at the mercy of gravity's tug. Still trying to maintain control of the circumstances, Meghan kicked her way out of her own predicament and, by accident, knocked Greg's hand off the steering wheel. The car took a violent swerve toward the shoulder of the road.

Greg gasped. "Reece, look out! There's a ditch right next to us!" he screamed like a girl.

Panicked, Reece gained control of the wheel and jerked the car back into the lane, pushing Meghan's leg away and sending her, head first, toward the back seat in a tumbled mess, her feet whipping through the air. At the sight of her midair, Danny took one last puff and flung his cigarette out of the car. Its ashes dispersed with a seething twinkle just before Meghan landed on Jake's lap. As Jake and Danny roared with laughter, Greg shook his head, his hand halfway over his eyes, trying to hide a smirk. Reece looked like he could sweat bullets as he inched, back and forth, against the seat, probably to determine whether he'd soiled himself in the process.

For all the adventure, Danny swore the car had only reached fifty miles an hour. An unusual feat, yet he was confident Meghan had survived riskier encounters in the past.

Meghan squeezed between the two youngest Bales and straightened her posture. And of course, her hair required fixing in the blowing wind.

"Well, that was easy," she said, adding in mockery, "Why don't you stop the car while we do this, Reece!"

"Shut up, Meghan." He'd continued to drive, so his pants must have been dry as talcum powder.

Not another word ensued as all five passengers grew calm, pulses and breathing patterns slowing to regularity. They reached the Cuyahoga Falls area, where a street lined with darkened retail windows told the group all was closed for the night. A handful of neon signs remained aglow but piqued no interest among the teenagers in the car.

Danny had all but forgotten about the car stereo, which persisted with The Cranberries' "Linger," oblivious to the recent excitement.

Without a sound, Danny peered over at Meghan, who had closed her eyes. She must have forgotten the conversation she'd deemed so crucial moments earlier. Even Jake had managed to doze. Danny could overhear Greg telling Reece about his upcoming college journey.

And once again, Danny picked up the trace of Meghan's shampoo. Self-conscious, he elevated his knees higher as he sunk further in his seat, overcome with keen awareness of his surroundings and the subtle movements of all who filled them. He found himself intrigued by the older girl seated beside him—the girl with whom he had been acquainted his entire life, but about whom, in practicality, he knew very little. Danny wondered what it was like to spend Tuesdays with her.

As if she could read his train of thought, Meghan opened her eyes and sunk down into her seat until their faces were cheek to cheek. The car rolled down an incline, and she crossed her arms as a chill in the air sent goose-bumps over them.

Danny's stomach quivered again. He sought something—anything—to break the silence. "When do you start school?" he asked.

"Next week," she replied. "Senior year, so it should fly. I can't wait to get out."

"Me too. I've got a while to go, though. You looking at colleges?"

"My dad keeps pushing me on it, but I can't stand the thought of being chained down for another four years."

She tacked on a halfhearted pout, as if she couldn't care less for sympathy but offered the expression anyway. Her eyes, crystal blue and illumined by passing streetlights, appeared deeper than Danny remembered them. They seemed to speak volumes, as if to invite him to look into the depths of her soul.

His nervousness ached more.

"My boyfriend might go to Ball State to play basketball," Meghan continued. "He's so talented. They really want him."

"How long have you two been going out?"

"Since January." She slapped her knee. "I should've brought our junior prom picture to show you. Oh, well." She gave Danny a gentle nudge. "So now that you know all my personal details, is there a hot babe in your life, Danny Boy?"

He shrugged. "There's a girl who rode my bus last year, kinda good looking. We talked a lot during the ride home. I may ask her out."

"Hmm." Meghan nodded, a smirk at the corner of her mouth. "You play hard to get, don't you, Dan the Man!" She poked at his ribs.

Danny squirmed, attempted to maintain a straight face, playfully twisted in his seat until she ceased her platonic attack.

As she twirled a lock of hair with her finger, Danny stared straight ahead and replayed mental pictures of the tease that had ended far too soon. Mustering soft courage, he turned to her and broke the stillness.

"I would've taken you to your prom if your boyfriend couldn't," he whispered. "Would you have gone with me?"

Another moment lingered, then Meghan turned her face toward his. With nary a movement, she leaned her head toward him, a knowing gleam in her eye.

"Yeah, I would've." And with that, as smoothly as she had leaned in his direction, Meghan resumed her position as if nothing had occurred.

His heartbeat on a gradual rise, Danny responded with a nod of coolness, his cheeks growing hot. Cocking his head toward the side of the road, he fought to hide his contented smile.

Excerpt Copyright 2012 John Herrick