Chapter Seven ~ The Hammer & The Porcupine
The rag-tag threesome set out along the logging road. One walked with a limp and stabbed the ground with a makeshift cane. The second wore fresh mud on her cheeks and carried a fistful of pencils. The third chewed on a stick, hummed, and kept an eye out for bears.
The afternoon sun shone down on them, dust puffed from under their feet, and rocks dug into the soles of their shoes. Nicki’s limp got worse and she cursed under her breath—too quietly for Elizabeth to make out individual words.
“Teach me to swear,” she said.
Nicki swiped sticky hair off her face. “Sure, if you pull me to town on a stretcher.”
“Do I look like a reindeer?”
“More like a small feral moose.”
“Shhh,” Melissa hissed, her brow knitting. “Listen!”
Elizabeth clamped her teeth together, cutting off a half-formed retort, and cocked her head. She heard Nicki’s heavy breathing, the call of a duck overhead, and the hum of a vehicle. It grew louder as they listened.
“Logan,” said Nicki. “He’s coming back.”
Elizabeth yanked pencils from her hair, accidentally breaking the points off three of them. She grimaced. If only she had a pike or a mace or a cannon instead of these stupid things. She doubted the ruffian would scare as easily as the black bear and she didn’t fancy getting close to him or his brute of a pickup.
Melissa pulled her Canadian history book from her backpack. “Think we can spook him?” she asked.
Nicki gave a short laugh and shook her head.
Just as I thought. “New plan,” Elizabeth said.
When she finished explaining, and the others had suggested some modifications, she and Melissa hid behind a tree on the left side of the road, leaving Nicki where she was.
“You girls are lunatics,” she said, leaning on her cane.
Elizabeth unearthed her pencil sharpener. “And you’re not?” she shot back, wood shavings curling onto her feet.
The roar of the pickup grew closer.
“Yeah,” called Melissa, shooting Elizabeth a nervous grin, “why choose him as a boyfriend?”
Nicki shrugged, “He’s got a temper, but otherwise—”
“Incoming!” Elizabeth shouted.
Before she could add anything more, the pickup powered around the corner, kicking dust into the air. Through the windshield they saw Logan’s surprised face. Then he slammed on the brakes. The pickup swerved from side to side, then screeched to a halt three meters from Nicki.
Elizabeth adjusted her grip on her pencils, trying to ignore her sweaty palms, her pounding heart, and a sudden urge to sneeze. If there hadn’t been hamburgers at stake she might have bolted. Melissa had gone pale, but she narrowed her eyes and squished her lips together. Time for a real adventure.
A door opened on the driver’s side and two boots thunked into the dirt, then walked towards the front. Logan didn’t close the door behind him.
Melissa grinned and pumped her fist. Elizabeth was too nervous to share her elation. Here we go. Ducking low, they slipped from behind the tree, tip-toed to the pickup, and hunched beside it.
All they could see of Nicki was her shoes. Then they heard her voice. “You left me.”
“I know. I lost it. I’m sorry.”
“Hurry,” Melissa whispered.
Elizabeth took a shaky breath, then army crawled under the truck. Scaring off a bear was nothing compared to this. Pebbles dug into her hands and dust coated her tongue. She scratched her nose and almost impaled her eye on a pencil.
“What’d you come back for?”
“I was worried about you. You hurt your ankle,” said Logan.
“So? I thought you didn’t care.”
Elizabeth reached the far side of the pickup, snuck a peak at Logan’s boots—still facing the other way, and climbed into the driver’s seat…all without passing out. Quite an accomplishment.
In a moment, Melissa eased onto the floor under the steering wheel, her chest rising and falling, eyes dancing with fear and excitement.
Outside they heard Logan’s voice. “Can I give you a ride back? Please, Nicki. We can talk in the truck.”
Melissa reached out and grabbed the door handle, then nodded. Elizabeth gritted her teeth and popped her head over the steering wheel, twisting her face into a ferocious grimace.
Nicki saw the movement and looked past Logan’s shoulder to stare at her in mock surprise. “Who’s that?”
“Now!” yelled Elizabeth.
Melissa slammed the driver’s side door.
Elizabeth hit the lock button, slipped, and caught her elbow on the horn. Blaaam! Through the windshield, she saw Logan spin around. His face went red with shock and he ran for the driver’s door.
Nicki abandoned her crutch and sprint-limped as fast as she could to the passenger’s side. Elizabeth lunged across the seat and flipped that door’s lock to “off”. Nicki yanked the door open, threw herself inside and locked it again.
“Buckle up,” she said.
Elizabeth grabbed the seatbelt and after several jabs, managed to latch it. Melissa scrambled onto the bucket seat while Nicki scooted past her.
Logan was hammering on the window and yelling.
Nicki shot him a cool glance. “Move,” she said. Then she put the pickup in reverse and stamped her foot on the gas.
They zoomed backwards. Trees and plumes of dust shot from the tires. Their stomachs swooped. They were flying. Elizabeth heard Melissa hollering and laughing and realized she was hollering and laughing too. Nicki didn’t look aside, but a tight smile curved her lips. She turned the pickup sharply, hit the brakes, then threw it into drive.
“He’s chasing us!” Melissa shrieked.
Through floating clouds of grime, they saw him. His boots ate up the road, his muscles strained, and his dark eyes smoked with anger.
“Go, go, go,” shouted Elizabeth.
But Nicki didn’t go. Not immediately. She paused for one long breath, then pressed the gas pedal.
Dust filled the air and Elizabeth lost sight of their pursuer. Then she heard a thump as something heavy landed in the pickup bed. She twisted around to look, then stifled a chirp of fear. There he was, glaring at them through the glass not two inches away. Logan Tanner. Ruffian.
“Gargoyles,” Melissa said, grabbing her seatbelt strap. “Now what?”
Nicki didn’t take her eyes off the road. Her tight smile deepened. “He can stay.”
Elizabeth stared at her. “Now who’s the lunatic?”
Nicki grinned. “Hamburgers coming right up.”
They drove for another ten minutes then Nicki slowed, stopped, and rolled down her window.
“What are you doing?” Melissa asked, her voice going high.
Nicki popped her head out. “Hey Logan, want to drive? My ankle hurts.”
He stood up in the bed and leaned over to stare at her, eyes smoldering. He didn’t say anything for a long moment, then smiled a sly, calculating smile. “For a kiss,” he said.
Elizabeth grabbed one of her pencils and prepared to launch an offensive. Melissa foisted a textbook, ready to join in. Nicki tilted her chin and smirked. “Alright.”
Melissa and Elizabeth exchanged horrified glances, but there was nothing they could do. Within 30 seconds Logan had collected a kiss (yuck!) and buckled himself into the driver seat.
He looked at Nicki. “What’s with the hammer and the porcupine?”
“New friends,” said Nicki. “I’m taking them out for hamburgers.”
He nodded, put the pickup in gear, and they were off again. He and Nicki spent the rest of the ride discussing their classes at school, a photography competition Logan planned to enter, and an upcoming concert by the Nefarinos.
Elizabeth looked out the window and wondered where she’d end up next, whether she’d ever get home again, ever see her parents again, and whether she’d come down with food poisoning from eating expired baked beans. The pickup jounced and roared, but Elizabeth barely noticed. She felt like a helium balloon, tugged one way and then another. Who was she any more? Practical daughter? Impractical runaway? Something in between? All she knew was that she was very dirty, tired, and hungry, and if someone had put a bowl of oatmeal in front of her, she didn’t know what she would have done.
Despite the rough road and her worries, the pickup seats were as cushiony as beds. Elizabeth’s head bumped against the window glass and her eyelids lowered. Melissa leaned against her. They both fell sound asleep.