Nauseated by the stench of Mississippi tar, I focused on the yellow lines and tried not to let the heat shimmers blind me. Cars whizzed past, and a long line of vehicles trailed mine. I gripped the steering wheel in sweaty palms, refusing to speed up.
“Look, Julie!” my older brother John hollered from the passenger seat.
Startled, I whipped my head his direction, expecting to see a log truck coming at me from a side road. All I saw was a stand of pine trees. Perfectly normal-looking pine trees.
I frowned. “What?”
I glanced at him. He had a dumb smirk on his face. “What about it?”
“The kudzu’s growing faster than you’re going.” He cackled.
I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”
“Julie, I know you’re new at this and all, but, going 40 in a 55’s about dumber than dirt.”
A car packed with high school kids flew by, gunning the engine and yelling rude comments about my driving abilities. I put my hand up to hide my face and came away with a glob of melting makeup. So much for my perfect look. I’d give about anything to have air-conditioning in our beat-up Chevy. “I can’t help going slow. It’s not like driving out by the house.”
“Well, you’re gonna have to go faster. You’re fixing to get us run over.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw a convertible full of bikini-clad girls about to pass us. John shrank low in the seat.
I scowled at him. “Mama shouldn’t have sent you with me to the store.”
“Hey, y’all,” he called out to the girls, obviously deciding he couldn’t ride low enough to hide. He smiled big at them while hissing at me, “Mama doesn’t really need milk. She wanted you out of the house. You’re too big a baby to hear her and Daddy arguing over the bills.”
“Liar. Mama’s watching her stories.”
“Not lying.” John looked so sanctimonious I wanted to smack him upside the head. “Bet they can’t afford for you to get your license. Insurance is too high for little girls like you.”
My eyes widened. Stinging sweat trickled into the left one. A word I shouldn’t even know rose to the tip of my tongue. “It’s your fault if they can’t. You keep wrecking our cars!”
“Probably won’t have money for church camp neither.”
Church camp. I’d been planning for months to go to church camp.
Of course, I’d been planning for weeks to get along with my brother this summer. So far it didn’t look like either one was happening.
Mama had talked to me about this summer. Said she hoped John and I could get along better now that he was at Delta State most of the time. Said it was time to stop fighting like two crawdads over a scrap of baloney. Said to give a soft answer instead of a harsh word, quoting the Proverb she’d used on us since we were little. Daddy never bothered much with Scripture, just threatened to whip our tails if we didn’t quit bickering.
I rounded a curve and spotted the run-down convenience store where Mama said to buy milk. I clenched my teeth, watching car after car come at me. How was I supposed to make a left turn in this traffic? My heart pounded. “There’s no room to turn!”
“Calm down, stupid. Wait for a break in traffic then turn.” John snorted. “Didn’t you learn anything in drivers’ ed?”
I gulped air, slowed, saw an opening, and started my turn.
A horn blasted.
I jerked the wheel left and jammed down my foot. I shut my eyes. “Oh, God, please let me make this turn, amen.”
The car slammed into the ditch. I opened my eyes. Strands of brown hair dangled from a crack in the windshield. My forehead stung. “John? You okay?”
He lit into me good. “You’re not supposed to turn into the ditch! What’d you do, hit the gas instead of the brake?”
Tears blurred my vision. “I didn’t mean to! Some idiot was laying on the horn.”
John got out, stomped around to my side, and hauled me out.
I stared at the smashed car.
“Pig!” I stomped my foot and instantly regretted it when my head throbbed. “You’ve totaled three cars in three years.”
John’s eyes blazed blacker than the tar on the highway, but he shut up.
A man in a Mississippi State T-shirt ambled over from the store. He stared at the car and shook his head. “It’s hotter than heckfire out here, folks. Come on in and call your daddy to carry y’all home.” He returned to the store.
John tugged my arm. Heartsick, I followed him through the dingy store to a back room.
“You can sit here, girl.” The man pointed at a filthy chair beside a littered desk. “Y’all can use that phone.” He indicated a telephone in desperate need of Lysol spray. “Ain’t long-distance?”
John shook his head.
The man left, muttering, “Girl plowed straight into the ditch. Don’t make no sense.”
Mortified, I plopped down and wept, not even worried about my mascara. God, how’d I get myself into this mess?
Pride goeth before a fall, Mama’d tell me. Daddy’d just say, that’s what you get for making fun of your brother’s wrecks, thinking it ain’t gonna happen to you.
I knew it was true.
But why didn’t you stop me from wrecking, God? I asked for help.
A rough hand patted my arm. I looked up.
“You alright?” The almost-gentle expression in John’s eyes shocked me speechless.
“You broke the windshield with your head. Might have a concussion.” He sounded like he actually cared. Was this my brother?
I sniffled. “Why are you being nice now? You were hollering something awful before.”
His ears pink, John turned away and picked up the telephone.
“What’re you doing?”
“So you can tell him what a stupid girl driver I am?”
He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry I said that.”
“Yeah, right.” I hiccupped.
“I know how you feel, okay?”
He grunted. “You said it yourself. I wrecked three cars in three years. It’s humiliating.”
Thinking of all the times I’d been mean to him about those wrecks, I cringed. “I’m sorry, John.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay.”
He dialed our number and spoke into the receiver, “Daddy, don’t worry now. We had a little accident, but we’re okay.” He offered me a reassuring half-smile.
I smiled back at him. We really were okay. Thanks, God.