What I Learned Instead by Debbie Bradford

Blue camaro close up of headlight and hoodI nod like I understand what Chris said, but the music’s too loud, the highway too blurry. Last time I felt brave enough to look, the speedometer read 120 mph, and Chris’s foot still pressed the gas.

Flashing lights in the rearview. Shit.

“Shit.” Chris slows the blue Camaro, takes an exit, officer close behind. He drives down the ramp into the entrance of the brightly lit gas station, which waits at the bottom like the safest place in the world. Despite not knowing what will happen when the cop realizes I’m sixteen and breaking curfew, I relax.

The car slows to a stop, then lurches forward. For a second I think Chris will keep going, straight out the exit. But he doesn’t.

Not until the cop opens his door and steps out.

Chris floors it.

The night whips past my window. We hurtle up the ramp.

Chris jerks the wheel, propels the car across four lanes. The guard rail rushes toward me, then recedes as we fly across an overpass. I wonder if the cop’s behind us, but my body refuses to check.

Chris swerves off the highway onto a side street. We tear around corners, tires straining for hold. Houses, trees, telephone poles blur. I close my eyes, but they open. To see how I’m going to die.

I focus on the music: Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

Chris loses control. We spin. Houses run like paint on a wheel.

The Camaro stalls.

I hear the escape of the breath I’ve been holding.

Chris turns the key.

His thigh muscle engages.

I’m going to die. I don’t even know him.

We pitch forward into a neighborhood, shoot up and down its narrow streets. Most turns, we stall, but Chris coaxes the car back to life.

I picture my mother asleep in her bed. She doesn’t know I am gone. I try again to shut my eyes.

Instead: swirling brick homes and their nebulous lawns, indefinite fences, disarranged alleys, sidewalks, a field.

Chris concentrates, jaw muscles taut. We spiral. Revolve. Careen towards a telephone pole.

My eyes close.

The spinning stops.

“Grab your shit and run,” Chris says.

I toss my backpack over my shoulder and climb out. Chris pulls a gun from under my seat. And a huge bag of weed.

We run across the field toward the neighborhood twisting and writhing in the glass a moment before.

Chris jumps a fence. Before I can follow, a cop slams me into it and vaults after him.

I look around. Grass and fence. My sandals are missing. My shoulder hurts. I scan the field, glistening with dew, and realize my feet are wet. I wander the field, find the sandals, then walk.

The sun’s not up. I don’t know these streets, don’t even know if this is Dallas.

Everything is empty.

Then suddenly: cars, lights, sirens. Cops headed to the field.

A police car pulls up, his passenger window slides down.

I open the front door and get in. Please help me.

The officer opens his mouth, but the radio interrupts; they’ve found Chris. Banging on a door, yelling, “They’re trying to kill me. Let me in. Please.”

The officer looks at me, cradles the radio, speeds past the field into the neighborhood.

We stop at a brick house with a brick mailbox. I watch two officers hurl Chris to the ground, kneel on his back, cuff him. My officer joins eight or nine others on the lawn.

I’m alone. I’ve never been in the front of a cop car before.

The other cops are on foot. They shove Chris into the backseat. He bangs his head against the cage between us. Like he is regretful.

The officer drives us back to the field. Lights strobe. The Camaro, in perfect condition, sits unspeakably close to a telephone pole.

I look down. No seatbelt. I almost laugh.

Chris is crying behind me.

An officer comes and walks Chris to another car. Most of the cruisers drive away. Darkness resumes.

Two cops circle the Camaro, writing, talking.

One lets me out, gestures to the passenger door. “If you’d spun another second, the pole would’ve hit here.” He looks like he’s making a presentation.

“If you’d slid another second, you’d have hit here.” He slaps his hand on the hood. “Young lady, you’re lucky to be alive.”

He’s trying to scare me.

But I’m back to being the girl who got in that car. No—tougher than the girl who got in. The one who got out.

Debbie bradfordDebbie Bradford received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Connecticut Review, r.kv.r.y quarterly, Wicked Alice, Scribblers on the Roof and The Writing Disorder, among other publications. She teaches developmental English at Tunxis Community College and is working on a memoir about her teenage years. Website: www.debbiebradford.com

  2 comments for “What I Learned Instead by Debbie Bradford

  1. The pacing of this piece had my heart pounding. You created a story in Technicolor and 3D. A thrilling ride for the reader, not so much for this young girl who could have so easily been me at that age. Great read, Debbie!

  2. Awesome read! Reminds me of a night from my teenage years haha. It’s very nice to finally see your work teach; thank you for all the help you’ve given me at Tunxis and never stop writing. Can’t wait to read about your teenage years.

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