If she were a litigious sort of person, Dani was reasonably certain she could’ve had her best friend charged with attempted murder. Tomás drove like he was trying to kill them both, with one hand on the wheel and the other stuck out the open window like an invitation for a wayward motorist to amputate. His sensible 2004 Toyota Corolla, which had been passed down through multiple older siblings before reaching him, did not seem likely to survive for his kid sister to inherit, judging from the groaning deep in the engine every time he accelerated. Or braked. Or turned. Or thought about turning.
“Is it supposed to be making that noise?” Dani asked, raising her voice over the blaring indie rock that Tomás favored in the afternoons.
“What?” He made no move to turn down the music.
“Is it—” Dani hit the power button on the center console, cutting off a hipster mid-croon. “Is your car supposed to be making that noise?”
Tomás squinted into the sunlight—he could never keep up with his sunglasses—and listened as the Corolla groaned (normal), squeaked (normal), and then began clicking (not normal).
“Huh,” he said. “That’s new.” He reached to turn the music back on. Dani let him, but compromised by turning down the volume to a tolerable level.
“If this car explodes, I want you to know that I’m not crawling through the wreckage to drag your mangled body away from the flames,” she said mildly.
“Cars don’t just explode.” He paused, scratching at a thin patch of stubble on his neck that he’d missed shaving that morning. “I mean, probably.”
“I’m going to have them carve ‘Gone but Never Forgotten . . . Probably’ on your gravestone.” She reached over and flipped down the visor for him. The sliding panel over the mirror had broken off years ago, and she caught a glimpse of his brown eyes in the fingerprint-smudged glass. He grinned at her.
“I like it.” He had a face made for grinning—all dimples and white teeth and smooth brown skin. There had been pimples there last year too, but they had obligingly vanished along with the last of his middle school awkwardness. He’d gotten his braces off, his growth spurt, and two girlfriends (not at the same time) over the course of the previous summer, and he’d arrived at junior year a bona fide heartthrob, and single—much to the joy of at least half the girls in their class.
“That reminds me,” said Dani, plucking the ponytail holder off her wrist to pull back her hair. Tomás took a curve too fast, and she grabbed the handle over the door to brace herself. Outside the pollen-streaked window, through breaks in the trees, she caught glimpses of the green and golden valley rolling into the foot of the mountains. “Jenna McKinney asked me for your number today.”
“Weird that she asked, or weird that she asked me?”
“Weird that we’re talking about my grave and you brought up Jenna McKinney. But also, weird that she asked you. Did you give it to her?”
“No. She pronounces your name wrong. It annoys me.” For the most part, Dani didn’t care about Tomás’s dating life, but she wasn’t above the occasional tiny abuse of power when it came to cute girls who spent three weeks flirting promisingly with her via late-night text before revealing their actual agenda on the last day of school. Not that Tomás needed to know all that.
“Oh,” he said noncommittally. “Maybe I’ll see her tonight.”
Dani and Tomás had been friends since seventh grade, when he’d been the new kid in school and she’d been recently bereft of a best friend. Their origin story was a bit of a legend around the middle school and had followed them to William Blount High. Darryl Lewis, the class ass-clown, had yanked Tomás’s Saint Christopher medal right off his neck, and when he saw how much it upset Tomás, had initiated a very mature game of keep-away. Dani, who had never been a fan of the game—or of Darryl Lewis, for that matter—had ended it with equal maturity by punching Darryl in the nose. She’d earned herself a two-day suspension, and found Tomás on her doorstep the next afternoon with her homework and a giant bag of Skittles. Some friendships were meant to be.
And yet, five years and many bags of Skittles later, he still missed her driveway every time he drove her home.
“Turn,” Dani said, and Tomás slammed the brakes and wrenched the wheel to the left. “Jesus Christ!” Dani banged into the car door, then steadied herself with both hands on the glove compartment as the car bumped down the rutted gravel driveway, which led downhill through a copse of pine trees.
“Language,” Tomás warned, with more habit than conviction. He was ostensibly Catholic; which was to say, he attended Sunday mass with his family every week and always wore his medal, but otherwise had never expressed much interest in religion. Too much distraction in school, friends, and everything else his abuela termed “secular.” Dani couldn’t blame him. She knew a thing or two about distractions.
“I wouldn’t have to ask for divine intervention if you would stop driving like a deranged orangutan.”
Tomás’s only reply was to sail over a dip in the driveway without slowing. Dani bounced high enough in her seat that her head smacked into the roof of the car. At this rate, the Corolla wasn’t going to survive another day, much less another owner. The driveway to Dani’s house was like its own road, winding through the trees and undergrowth a quarter mile before the property opened up to their front lawn. Thanks to a wet season, the grass was bright green, with neat flower beds encircling the handful of oaks that had survived her grandparents’ landscaping fifty years ago when they built the house. The nearest neighbor was twenty acres away through a young forest and overgrown fields, so to Dani, home always felt like its own private world.
The afternoon sun filtered through the trees and cast dappled shadows across the gabled roof, which featured a prominent widow’s watch; it had always seemed an incongruous detail for a farmhouse built in the middle of the Smoky Mountains. The whitewashed front porch, with its handmade rocking chairs from the local Cracker Barrel and a wind chime that Dani’s older sister Eden had crafted in the second grade from broken glass bottles, conjured Southern Living visions of hot summer