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Nathaniel's gum was getting hard. He chomped his jaws a few more times, judged that the flavor was gone, and spat the gum into its wrapper. He put his head back against the hot suede seat of the mini van and drummed his fingers on the arm rest. His cell phone vibrated on the dash board.
"Hey Sparky," he answered, "you ready?"
Sparky's voice crackled in and out. Either he or Nathaniel wasn’t getting service, more likely Nathaniel since he was parked under a bridge.
"I'm gonna take that as a yes, 'kay bud? Be there in a minute," said Nathaniel, talking over Sparky's garbled voice. He hung up and started the car.
Left blinker on. Glance behind left shoulder. Slowly edge out. Glance again. Straighten out. Blinker off.
Slowly Nathaniel made his way around the block, methodically flipping the blinker at every turn. He pulled up to Sparky's house, put the car in park, and hopped out, taking the few stones leading to the front door in four strides. He rang the bell.
Sparky answered the door. He was short and red-faced, with glasses identical to Nathaniel's. This feature continued to irk Nathaniel who had thought the bold, black rimmed glasses were cool, made him look like a hot computer nerd rather than technologically illiterate and slouchy. But when Sparky came to school with the same glasses a week later, Nathaniel started to feel like part of a comic duo on a bad Full House episode.
"I tried to warn you," said Sparky. His face was more scrunched than usual.
"Warn me what?"
"You gotta drive Darla Pettruccio home." Sparky's eyes behind the black glasses searched Nathaniel's.
Had Sparky been any good at reading people, he would have watched Nathaniel's jaw. Nathaniel had a habit of thrusting it to the side whenever he was stressed. He did so now.
"Your mom can't take her home?"
"She has to watch my sister."
"Oh, right." Nathaniel felt his tongue swelling and his lower intestines tingling, a particularly unpleasant but familiar sensation.
The last time he had spoken to Darla was a year ago at his friend's birthday party. That night he had kissed Darla instead of Sharise, his ex-girlfriend who turned out to be a wack-job anyway. Whatever Sparky said to the contrary, the kiss was an simple mistake. It was dark, and Sharise and Darla both had their hair in ponytails.
"Just keep cool, OK Plucky?" said Sparky. The name fell flat, but Nathaniel let it pass. No one but Sparky called Nathaniel "Plucky" and even Sparky forgot the nickname most of the time. Everyone, even his teachers, called Sparky "Sparky". It was the name Nathaniel had given his friend when Sparky was six and Nathaniel was eight. It just fit him more than "Edward" ever would. Sparky was always jittery, red in the face, and sputtering through his sentences.
"I'll keep cool if you do," said Nathaniel, "Where is she?"
"My mom's paying her now. Dude, today, when she was making my sister mac'n'cheese, she reached up to get a pot, and I saw--- she has a belly button ring!" Sparky whispered the last few words and waited for Nathaniel to react. Nathaniel scratched his nose.
"That's pretty cool," he said. "Listen, you know how to get to Darla's house, right? 'Cuz Mrs. Heeny's first on my rounds today and she'll call every two minutes if I'm late."
"Sure don't worry about it." Sparky glanced back into his house. "She's coming."
Nathaniel's lower intestines resumed writhing. He heard Darla calling from inside the house. "Sparky! Your mom wants you to finish your milk!"
Sparky went red. He sputtered. "I'm not thirsty!"
"Ok well, suits me, but your mom won't let it go." Darla appeared next to Sparky in the doorway. She was wearing a light purple tank top and her short hair was tousled. When she saw Nathaniel, she stopped. Quite suddenly, Nathaniel could taste peaches on his tongue.
"Edward! Come finish your milk!" The voice of Sparky's mom drifted on air-conditioned waves out to the heat on the doorstep.
"I'm running rounds with Nathaniel, Mom, I'll drink it when I come back!"
"It'll be warm by then!"
"We have a fridge!"
"Why not save us some energy and drink it now?"
Nathaniel and Darla glanced at each other, two unlikely people trapped in an embarrassingly mundane crossfire.
"Mom, energy usage is NOT proportional to the number of objects in the fridge!"
"Don't talk science at me; just come get your calcium."
"Bye Mom!" Sparky began to close the door.
"Thank Nathaniel for driving Darla home!"
"Remember to wear a seat belt and---" But the rest of her sentenced was blocked by the door. The three were silent for a moment, then; "Shall we hit the road?" Sparky skipped off the stoop and beat Darla and Nathaniel to the car.
"Shotgun!" Sparky was dancing by the mini van. His resemblance to a penguin was uncanny.
"Spark, if we're dropping off Darla first, shouldn't she sit---"
"Oh I don't mind." Darla's voice was quiet. Before-you-drift-off-to-sleep slumber party quiet. "Nice car by the way."
Nathaniel couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic. The mini van was not a nice car. It was beige and dented, and the side door had a sign that read "CHEER ON WHEELS". But Darla didn't sound mocking; and she was smiling.
"Well, it's really for my mother's job, but I take over on the weekends," said Nathaniel. Darla tried to slide open the door, but it was stuck.
"Oh hurry up," whined Sparky from the front seat as Nathaniel jerked the door several times. His hands slid on the handle, but finally the door opened.
"Thanks," said Darla, climbing in.
Nathaniel turned the key and Sparky sputtered to life, banging the dashboard and his legs in pre-motion excitement. Left blinker on. Glance behind left shoulder. Hand over hand steering. Release brake.
"Whose underwear is this?" Darla was holding up flowered underpants.
"Nathaniel! You're rolling backward!"
Nathaniel slammed the brake and all three were jolted backwards, banging their necks on their headrests.
"Sorry, I was in Reverse."
"No kidding, Plucky."
Nathaniel put the van in Drive. "Those must be one of the clients'; they send my mom on shopping errands."
"Oh, right." Darla folded the panties. "Just got your license?"
"Three weeks ago tomorrow," answered Sparky.
"Thanks, buddy." They were on the road now, and it was hard for Nathaniel to concentrate. Darla was leaning forward in her seat, her elbows resting one each on Sparky and Nathaniel's arm rests. She smelled like shampoo.
"So where do you live?" Nathaniel started up again.
"Up by Choco's. Prospect Street."
His cell phone vibrated. "I got it!" yelled Sparky. He glanced at the caller ID and grimaced. "Hello?"
The volume on the phone was louder than Nathaniel remembered. A voice like soggy grocery bags came through. "Nathaniel? Where are you?"
"He's driving now, Mrs. Heeny," said Sparky.
"What is he doing driving? He should be at my house! Who's this?"
"It's Sparky, Mrs. Heeny. You remember me."
"Tell her we'll be there in fifteen minutes," Nathaniel cut in. Darla's shampoo was clouding his brain. Signal left. Glance back. Merge into left lane. Blinker off.
"Mrs. Heeny, we'll be there in fifteen minutes," said Sparky, and hung up.
"Why'd you hang up on her?" said Nathaniel, "She's just going to call back."
"She was stressing me out," said Sparky, "she has a very intimidating voice!"
Darla laughed. Then she put her chin in her hand. "So what's your job, Nathaniel?"
"I cheer up old people," he said, looking at her in the rearview mirror.
"They pay you two to do that?"
"Well Sparky's kind of an added bonus, but mostly I play cello for them, or read."
"Oh! I get it now… cheer on wheels."
Sparky switched on the radio. Darla sang along softly to Yesterday by The Beatles. Nathaniel joined in just as his phone began to buzz.
"I'm not getting it," said Sparky.
"I'm driving, you're shotgun. It would be bad manners not to."
"She sounds like my mom during pollen season."
"Just tell her we're on our way."
"She only asks for you anyway!"
"But I'm driving, and that's illegal."
"I'll get it," said Darla calmly.
"Oh no, you really don't have to---"
"DOUBLE STANDARDS!" shouted Sparky.
"Hello?" said Darla.
Nathaniel heard muggy rain, dripping shopping receipts and wet cardboard. Mrs. Heeny answered, "Nathaniel, where are you?"
"He's on his way now, ma'am. We're going there directly," said Darla.
"Well, that's more like it. You can tell Parker to get his manners fixed. In my day we pinched children when they disrespected elders. You give him a pinch from me, you hear?"
"Will do, Mrs. Heeny. I know how kids can get."
"Of course you do. I'll be waiting for Nathaniel. Tell him to come directly. Bye now."
"Good-bye." Darla closed the phone. "I've got to pinch you now, Sparky. I promised." Sparky squirmed out of Darla's reach. The pursuit continued until Darla managed to grab Sparky's ear between her fingers. Sparky yelped and flailed his arms, accidentally hitting Nathaniel's elbow.
"Hey, watch it!" He swerved and Sparky screamed unnecessarily. "Okay, enough fooling around. Where'm'I going?"
"To Mrs. Heeny's," said Darla, sitting very still.
"You really don't have to come, Darla, she's wacko."
"WAC-ko," Sparky enforced.
"But she needs cheering, right? Besides," Darla's hair was sweeping Nathaniel's upper arm, "I'd love to meet this voice."
And so Nathaniel found himself parked in front of the huge white fortress that Mrs. Heeny called home. The engine exhaled, Sparky jiggled his knees, the van settled with ticking noises, and Nathaniel scratched his nose.
"You're sure you don’t want to wait in the car?"
"Don't be silly, I love old people," said Darla.
"Va-men-NOS," shouted Sparky, simultaneously practicing his Spanish and leaping out of the van. They trudged up the walkway together, Nathaniel carrying his cello on his back. Darla rang the doorbell.
From inside the mansion came the clunk, scrape, and shuffle of an elderly woman with a walker. Or a breeching orca; Nathaniel had always believed the two sounds to be indistinguishable.
"Nathaniel! Parker!" Mrs. Heeny was at the door, excitedly shaking her walker at the visitors. She was a tiny woman, and wore three different sized muumuus over her shapeless body. Her hair was the color of vanilla ice cream, but looked like dried grass. Nathaniel stepped inside.
"How are you, Mrs. Heeny? This is Darla," he said, presenting her for the lady's inspection.
Mrs. Heeny shuffled forward and squinted up at Darla, scrunching her nose and multiplying her wrinkles. She sniffed Darla's hair and licked her elbow. Darla cracked a smile. "Peaches…" the old lady mumbled. She then turned to clunk, scrape, and shuffle into her sitting room.
"Isn't she charming?" said Nathaniel, leading the way.
Mrs. Heeny was already nestled in her arm chair. "I want the girly to read today," she demanded, and all three visitors winced. The sound of damp cardboard ripping was simply unpleasant.
"Mrs. Heeny, I've brought my cello today," started Nathaniel, "and Darla's just visiting she's not---"
"THE GIRLY WILL READ." Plaster fell from the ceiling as the tiny woman banged her walker repeatedly on the floor. Some hit Sparky on the ear, causing him to swat at the air, much too late to have any effect. Nathaniel looked at Darla, who blinked.
"I don't mind, Nathaniel," she said. "Which book?"
"We were reading Persuasion," said Mrs. Heeny contentedly. "YOU TWO," she bellowed again, this time dusting Nathaniel's hair with white plaster, "SIT." They did.
Darla began to read, her soft voice rising and falling with the paragraphs. A lull descended on Mrs. Heeny's white citadel. Sparky's momentum was slowed; he swayed rhythmically in a rocking chair. Darla was perched on the couch next to Mrs. Heeny, and Nathaniel was on a stool in the center. He let her voice drench him, concentrating on the golden fuzz on the back of her knee. A small pillow hit Nathaniel on the shoulder. Darla continued to read as Nathaniel looked at Sparky.
"You like her?" Sparky mouthed.
Nathaniel stared back at the identical black-rimmed glasses and the twitch in Sparky's cheek. He brushed the plaster from his hair and nodded.
"I'll make it happen," Sparky whispered. Soon the room was dripping with Mrs. Heeny's snores. Nathaniel motioned to Darla that they should go. She closed the book and followed him outside.
"I enjoyed that," she said when they were outside, "Thanks, Nathaniel." She pushed her hair back and smiled at him. Her lips were level with his neck.
"What about me?" piped in Sparky, "I was the one who made him drive you!"
"Oh! Of course."
"Well how're you gonna thank me?" Sparky was standing up taller.
"How would you like me to?"
"Can I have a kiss?"
"Sparky, I'm you're sister's babysitter." Her eyebrows wrinkled.
"I know. Just on the cheek."
"All right," she shrugged. And as she leaned in to peck Sparky on his red cheek, Sparky grabbed Nathaniel's shoulder and thrust his head at Darla. Their teeth knocked together painfully. Each cried out and clapped hands over their mouths.
"Sparky! You're an idiot!" said Nathaniel. Darla was laughing. She laughed so hard that she had to get down on all fours. Sparky looked sheepish. Nathaniel let go of his mouth and stole Sparky's glasses. He lay down next to Darla on the grass and as he turned his head toward her, some grass shoots poked into his ear.
"Two accidental kisses are probably enough, right?" Nathaniel was beginning to chuckle. Darla nodded. Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. Her hair flopped into his eyes. Sparky sputtered on as the sun made Mrs. Heeny's house blindingly bright.