Flirting with Danger
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Sophomore year, our history teacher made us keep a daily journal of news headlines that caught our attention. On Friday mornings, we chose one headline each, and shared a summary of the story. A pattern soon emerged.
I brought in the feel-good stories. “Hairdresser Gives Homeless Free Haircuts.” Miranda’s grandparents had emigrated from the Philippines, and she focused on refugees. LaShondra’s uncle died in prison last year, so she brought in police reform and social justice stories. Charlie brought in the grisly crime reports, assaults and murders. Our teacher tried too hard to be funny and nicknamed him Charles Manson.
Charlie told us about the recent assault of a local woman in her house. I tried to fill my brain with a thick cloud to obscure the details of how the man broke in and found her, but the twist at the end of the story pierced my fabricated fog.
“She fought him off with a bar of soap!” Charlie couldn’t restrain his laughter as he told the story.
“Shoved it right into his eyes. How brilliant is that? And then the cops asked people to be on the lookout for a guy in a baseball cap with red, irritated eyes.” He coughed to cover his next words.
Two weeks later, another woman was attacked a few cities away, but she managed to escape too. The attacks were similar to a woman found dead months ago, just over the state line in Ohio. Missing persons cases were being reexamined for clues. There was talk of a serial killer. Our grandparents remembered the Oakland County Child Killer from 1976. Those crimes still remained unsolved over forty years later.
LaShondra began to research reports of missing brown and Black girls. Stories that didn’t get the sensational coverage or multi-state manhunts.
I continued to report the good news.
“Texas Couple Invites Stranded Delivery Driver to Stay with Them During Storm.”
“Sounds like the perfect murder mystery plot,” Charlie said.
The fall days were shortening. Dusk arrived by late afternoon. My mom worked long hours as an attorney. I had always enjoyed my time home alone after school—blasting my music, singing, and dancing—before settling down to my homework. In the woods behind my house, I twirled through the carpet of crinkly leaves and paused to take pictures of mushrooms shaped like seashells sprouting from fallen logs. But now, the dimming skies felt ominous and the shadows amongst the trees menacing. My little terrier, Abby, followed me around the house as I turned on all the lights inside and out, closed all the blinds, and checked the door locks.
Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night to double check. Mom was always complaining about hot flashes. So, what if she opened her bedroom window for a cool breeze?
I sought to find the safe stories for my homework, but my eyes snagged on the scenarios that Charlie would later report. The police had raided a motel a few miles away and rescued six women held captive by a human trafficking ring. I retreated into old Disney sitcom favorites, but friends insisted on telling me about their latest thrillers or true crime shows.
One overcast afternoon, the sky erupted in a sudden downpour just as school let out. I sat shivering on the bus. My hair soaked and my jeans plastered to my legs. When I got home, I went straight to the bathroom, peeled off my wet clothes, and stood in the steaming shower, savoring the warmth. I had just lathered shampoo into my hair when Abby barked and barked and barked.
She had always been a yapper. She barked at squirrels, the mail lady, leaves twirling in a gust of wind. But now I was home alone. What if someone was breaking into the house? Had the rain stopped? Would someone actually be out now?
Shampoo stung my eyes, reminding me of Charlie’s story. Abby’s barking finally stopped, but what did that mean? She always barked when visitors entered, but then wagged her tail and rolled onto her back for tummy rubs.
I quickly rinsed my hair and doused my burning eyes. I yanked my towel off the hook, wrapped it around my shivering body and grabbed my phone off the counter. My heartbeat galloped at a scritch-scratching at the door.
Abby. It’s just Abby. Tail wagging, her sweet face grinning up at me. She licked the water dripping off my ankles, her tongue tickling my skin. Breath returned to my lungs.
I listened through the darkness of my bedroom at night, interpreting the noises of our house. The rumbling icemaker, the whoosh of the furnace, the faint vibration and then the rattling windows from the train four blocks away. Abby whimpered and twitched in her sleep beside me.
The morning sun rose later and later. My stomach ached everyday before school as I looked out into the gloom. Mom had little patience for my anxiety. She snapped about my safe, sheltered, white world. She said I had no idea about the real fear others lived with every day just because of the color of their skin and the neighborhood they lived in. But one morning, I gagged trying to swallow a spoonful of cornflakes, and she pulled me into a hug.
Mom had little patience for my anxiety. She snapped about my safe, sheltered, white world. She said I had no idea about the real fear others lived with every day just because of the color of their skin and the neighborhood they lived in. But one morning, I gagged trying to swallow a spoonful of cornflakes, and she pulled me into a hug.
“You have to let go of this fear,” she murmured into my hair.
“Yes, bad things happen in our world, but you can’t let that stop you from living your life.”
My fitful nights caught up to me, so one Friday morning I overslept. Mom shook my shoulder, her fingernails digging into my skin, and shouted.
“Get up! You’re going to miss the bus.”
I quickly dressed and yanked a brush through my hair. No time for breakfast. I opened the front door into the early morning murkiness and darted across the dewy lawn. Wetness seeped into my sneakers. The crisp autumn air was sharp in my lungs as I sprinted down the street with my backpack thumping against my spine. The bus wheezed and ambled away as I rounded the corner.
I stooped to catch my breath. Then, I trudged back home and dropped my backpack on the kitchen tile. The tang of freshly brewed coffee hung in the air. My stomach rumbled. At least I could eat breakfast now.
Mom was dressed in her black suit jacket and skirt with shiny black pumps. She hardly ever wore skirts and heels anymore.
“I have to be in court today, remember? I’ll be late if I detour to the high school. You’ll have to ride your bike.”
“What?” I froze with the refrigerator door half open, reaching for the carton of orange juice.
“If you leave now, you’ll probably beat the bus.”
“Mom! I can’t ride my bike. My backpack weighs a ton. It’s freezing out.”
“You rode your bike all summer, you’ll be fine. Wear a hat and gloves. It’s not that cold.” She hoisted her work bag onto one shoulder and grabbed her travel mug of coffee.
“It’s barely light out!”
“Enjoy the sunrise.” She smooched the air and shooed me with her free hand. “Go! I’m leaving now too.”
A growling huff erupted from my throat. I shoved the refrigerator door closed, grabbed my backpack, and flung the side door open into the garage. A meager ray of light swept the concrete floor as the garage door creaked and rose. Dust motes hovered. A bird swooped in, a startling shadow, and I sucked in my breath. It flew right back out and disappeared into the pine trees that stood like sentinels along our driveway.
Mom rushed past me, as swift as that bird, and climbed into her car.
“Wear your helmet,” she called as she drove away.
I ignored my helmet hanging on the wall hook, wheeled my bike out of the garage, and pedaled off. The sharp wind scraped my knuckles, stung my ears and seared my lungs. My hair blew wild behind me. I stuck to the sidewalks while cars sped past.
I waited at a stoplight. Inside of the cars next to me, drivers and passengers focused on their phones. The sun was a fat ball of fire streaking the sky pink and orange. I drank it in, as sweet as the juice I had missed at home.
The light turned green, and I pushed off.
Mom was wrong. I didn’t beat the bus. I took my time getting a late pass from the office and stopped in the bathroom to finger comb the snarls out of my hair. My cheeks were flushed. I still felt the bite of the wind in my lungs.
I arrived in history just late enough to miss the dark, serious news. Miranda, LaShondra and Charlie had already taken their turns. Mr. Thurman nodded as I set my pass on his desk and took my seat.
“Good morning, Grace. You’re just in time. What’s your headline?” he said.
I opened my notebook and skimmed the headlines I’d jotted down for the week.
“Ballet Dancer Jumps onto Subway Tracks to Save Fallen Man.”
“Student Saves CPR Instructor’s Life After He Has a Heart Attack in Class.”
“130 Years Later, DNA Reveals High-Ranking Viking Warrior Was Actually a Woman.”
I chose the Warrior Woman and read it aloud.
“Whoa,” Miranda said. “That’s huge.”
“That’s hot,” Charlie said.
Miranda and I rolled our eyes.
Later at lunch, Miranda nudged me. “Charles Manson’s got his eye on you, Grace.”
“Don’t call him that, it’s creepy.”
“He’s creepy,” she said.
I followed her gaze. Charlie pointed his finger at me like a gun. Pow.
“WTF, told you,” she said. “He called the school shooter in Florida ‘a genius’ for pulling the fire alarm.”
“He said it was a ‘sick genius’ move,” I said.
“Exactly!” Miranda said. “I’m going to stop in the counseling office and make sure they’re watching him. I mean, he spent a year in juvie.”
“You don’t know that,” LaShondra said.
“He hasn’t denied it,” Miranda said. “He was gone for a whole year, and he’s never explained otherwise.”
I turned back to my salami sandwich, but nausea stirred in my gut. I scanned the lunchroom and focused on swallowing the extra saliva that churned in my throat. Random clips of my classmates’ conversations roared through my ears from all directions.
I had gone to school with Charlie since Kindergarten. The first week of school, he ran up the sidewalk and plowed me over from behind. I fell to the concrete, scraped the skin off both knees, and chipped my front tooth. The teacher explained to my mother that Charlie had difficulty managing his space and speed. She was working with him on impulse control.
In middle school, he had hopped off his skateboard, picked up a discarded bottle, and chucked it against the outside brick wall of the gym. It didn’t hit anyone, but shattered glass sprayed the sidewalk. He hopped back on his skateboard, veered into the street, and disappeared. I crunched through the shards on my walk home for days.
He was the first kid I knew who broke his arm. The first to wear a gruesome mask on Halloween. The first to have his locker searched. First to sprout up a foot in height in one summer. First to speak with a deepening voice and to look like he needed to shave. First to get his license. First to crash his car.
He was my first kiss.
It was toward the end of third grade, and I swung across the monkey bars at recess. My hands slid off the final rung, and my feet had barely touched the ground when Charlie raced by and planted a smacking kiss on my lips. He spent the final weeks of school chasing me around the playground making smooching noises while my friends ran interference, protecting me.
I was half-dreading/half-looking-forward to that game when school resumed in fourth grade, but Charlie had moved away. He showed up again in sixth grade, but I never knew where he went for those two years. Then he disappeared again at the end of eighth grade. That’s when kids started saying he was sent to juvie.
Charlie stood up, shook his bangs out of his eyes, and fist-bumped another guy on his way out of the lunchroom. He was shorter than me back in third grade. I imagined how that kiss would look now. Charlie dipping his head down, me rising up on my tiptoes. My cheeks warmed, and I snapped my gaze back to my lunch. Miranda’s and LaShondra’s conversation jumped from the Viking Warrior story to patriarchy to feminism to gun control. They are too smart to waste energy thinking about Charlie.
I was almost to the bus stop at the end of the day before I remembered my bike. Fuck. I turned around and headed to the bike racks instead.
Charlie was there, unlocking his bike. Of course, the car crash. I didn’t know the real story, only the rumors—drag racing, drinking, a stop sign, a tree—no one hurt. Lucky to be alive. Lucky he didn’t get sent back to juvie. He supposedly had to check in with a probation officer every week.
“Grace-Under-Fire, I didn’t know you were a bike rider,” he said.
“I missed the bus this morning.”
“You should do that more often.”
I shook my head and spun the dials on my lock.
He swung his leg over his bike. “Come with me to the Java Hut. You’re a mocha kind of girl, aren’t you? Whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles, a dusting of cinnamon?”
I was a mocha kind of girl, but I shook my head again and wheeled my bike out of the rack. “I gotta get home.”
“Goodness Gracious, always doing the right thing. Straight home to hit the books?”
I aimed my bike down the sidewalk and pushed off. “See you tomorrow,” I called over my shoulder.
The day had warmed, and I left my coat unzipped. It flapped behind me like a cape as I coasted downhill. Leaves had been raked to the edges of lawns, and just as I imagined veering through a golden pile, a “Yee-ha!” shouted behind me. Charlie careened up a driveway, onto a lawn, and barreled through a mound of red maple leaves.
He pumped the pedals while standing and swerved to coast alongside me. I couldn’t help grinning. His face had lost its summer tan, revealing a sprinkle of faint freckles across his nose.
“That’s how it really happened, you know,” he said.
“My car accident. I hadn’t been drinking. There was this huge pile of leaves in the street, and I couldn’t resist—I stomped on the gas and raced through them. Poof!” He raised both hands off his handlebars and up into the air.
“You crashed your car into leaves?”
“I crashed my car into the metal rake that was buried under the leaves, which popped my tire, then I popped the curb, barely missed a tree, and hit the stop sign.”
“Oh!” It wasn’t funny, but I couldn’t stop my startled laughter.
“My dad said I was lucky. He read about someone hitting a kid like that. This little boy was playing in the leaves, hiding, ready to pop up and shout, ‘Surprise!’ But then along comes this car…” Charlie was still riding no-handed, and he slapped his palms together. “Bam!”
My mouth dropped open, laughter turning to horror. I slowed and swerved behind him, turning onto my street. He followed me.
“Glad no one was hurt,” I said, “besides your car. I live down here.”
“I know where you live.”
I gave him my one raised eyebrow look.
“You were my first kiss. Of course, I know where you live.”
Now both of my eyebrows rose.
“Like you don’t remember?” he said.
“It was third grade. You were such a pest!”
“I’ve been called worse.”
I veered into my driveway, hopped off my bike, and leaned it against the garage. Abby yipped and yapped from inside the house.
“Sounds ferocious.” Charlie was still on his bike, one foot on the ground, one on the pedal.
“Why are you here?”
“My parents got divorced the same time as yours,” he said.
“That’s why I left in fourth-grade, you know.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t know.”
“My mom moved back to Ohio. I had to go with her.” He dropped his gaze to the ground.
Abby’s muffled barking intensified.
“But you got to come back.”
He nodded without looking up. “She got another job back here, but then I left again to try living with my dad for ninth grade.”
“And now you’re back again.” I paused and waited for him to raise his eyes. “Are you doing okay?”
He met my gaze and nodded again.
“Good. I hope so.” I turned and punched in the numbers to raise the garage door. It slowly lifted, groaning and shuddering, drowning out Abby’s barking.
I wheeled my bike into the garage and headed to the kitchen door. Charlie hadn’t moved, still on his bike, one foot on the ground, one on the pedal.
“I like my mocha with a drizzle of caramel syrup,” I called out, then hit the button to close the garage door. I watched it lower, Charlie disappearing bit by bit—his hair flopping over one eye, his smirking grin, his waist, his jeans, his boots. Gone.
Inside, Abby whined and pawed at my shins. I dropped my backpack and scooped her up. She licked my cheek, and I scratched her ears and under her chin, watching through the front window as Charlie pedaled off the way we came. The scuttling spider was a deflated puddle on my neighbor’s lawn. A couple gravestones had toppled. The dangling skeleton remained hidden in the tree.
I never knew where Charlie used to live. I didn’t know where he lived now.
All at once I was aware of my thudding heart, the heat in my face, my damp armpits. I cuddled Abby against my chest then set her down. I locked the door to the garage and leaned against it.
Women were Viking warriors. I pictured myself wearing a coat of chainmail armor. The warrior in the story had been buried with a sword, arrows, shields, two horses, and a board game used for devising military strategies.
Charlie knew where I lived. He knew when my parents got divorced. He had gone through it too. He remembered I was his first kiss.
I touched my fingertips to my lips, closed my eyes, and rose on my tiptoes.
Kristin Bartley Lenz is a writer and social worker in metro Detroit. Her Young Adult novel, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go, was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Great Lakes Great Books Award honor book. Her writing has been published in the YA poetry anthology, Rhyme & Rhythm: Poems for Student Athletes, as well as in The New York Times, Writer’s Digest, Hunger Mountain, Literary Mama, Women On Writing, and more.