THE LAST STATION MASTER
Nate drummed his thumb on the steering wheel, watching the rearview mirror as the man approached. “We need to bounce.”
“Are you kidding?” Malcolm whispered from the passenger seat. “How hard would it be for them to trace this car to me?” Sweat beads on Malcolm’s forehead and his wild dreads wouldn’t help their situation.
“Fine.” Nate buttoned his polo shirt, hoping the Boston Preparatory logo embroidered on the front, along with his clean-cut looks, would earn them a pass. “Just let me do the talking.” He straightened in the seat and rolled down the window.
The noise and fumes of passing motorists drifted into the car. Rush-hour traffic slowed with gawking drivers. He would give anything to be one of them right now instead of the middle-aged white cop’s focus of attention.
The cop stopped two feet away with a pad in one hand and clicked a pen with the other. “When an officer of the law signals you over, you pull over.”
“Sorry, officer. I didn’t think you meant me. I don’t remember doing anything wrong back there.”
The man pointed the pen at the rear of the car. “You have a tail light out. That could be a problem, especially if the other one goes too. I’m going to need your license and registration.”
“Ah man, for a busted tail light?”
“The ticket is for not complying with an officer, otherwise we would be looking at a warning.”
“But I did pull over,” Nate reminded him.
“License and registration,” the cop repeated.
“Yeah, okay.” Nate leaned over and shuffled through papers inside the glove compartment of the red Mustang, wondering what a registration looked like. He pulled out a square slip of paper with the make and model of the car typed across it. He passed it to the cop and hoped he guessed right. Boston’s finest scrutinized the paper with a frown.
“Name on this registration says Angela Epson.”
“Right, she’s a neighbor.”
“So this is her car?”
“If I called her, she would verify you have permission to drive it?”
“Well, you can try calling, but she’s out of town so you won’t reach her at home. Sorry, I don’t know the number of her cell.”
“Let’s have a look at your license, son.”
Busted. “Oh, yeah, well, see...” Nate started. The explanation seemed reasonable when they first got the idea, but now he wondered if it sounded lame. “I’m supposed to get my permit on Monday, but we didn’t think anyone would mind us taking a trial run. Right now, I don’t actually have a permit, but I will in a couple of days.”
The cop blew out a sigh. “Step out of the car, son. You too, kid,” he told Malcolm. “We’re taking a little trip to the station.”
They exited the Mustang and were handcuffed then guided into the backseat of the police cruiser for a five-minute trip downtown.
Through a hall crammed with people, the cop kept a tight grip on their forearms until they reached a booth.
“I got two juvies on a joyride, Frank,” the cop told the man standing behind a tall desk.
Frank acknowledged the cop with a nod. “Sorry, Bill. They get low priority. Our hands are full today. Cuff them over there until I can process them.” Frank nodded to a wood bench in a corner.
“You got it,” cop Bill said. “They can wait.”
“Actually, my parents are sort of waiting for me,” Nate said.
“Don’t worry. We will be calling them.”
Nate slumped onto the bench next to Malcolm as the cop walked away. “I can’t believe this.”
“Sorry, man,” Malcolm said. “This is my fault.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nate said. Malcolm had meant well. If not for the cop profiling them, they wouldn’t be here.
“I got to, man. My dad’s going to kill me.” Malcolm lifted his face to the ceiling like he wanted to howl or maybe plea for divine intervention. “Remember how he lost it when he caught us drinking his beer?”
“Yeah, that was more like a nuclear meltdown.” He was ready to tease Malcolm about being toast and how it had been nice knowing him when he noticed a muscle-bound white dude watching them from across the hall. The dude wore black jeans and a T-shirt with a skull on the front. He had tattooed biceps Hell’s Angels would envy.
The man tugged the cap he wore and headed over. “Say, are you Independent Daniel’s kid?”
“Um, yeah.” Nate squinted to make out the man’s features, shadowed beneath the bib of the cap.
“Boy, you’ve grown. You’re the spitting image of Inde; you know that? How’s he doing?”
“Yeah, he’s good,” Nate said and turned away, hoping the guy would go get in someone else’s face. If he got out of this, he didn’t need a witness who knew his dad.
“So, where is he?” The man’s gaze swept the room before noticing the handcuffs that bound them to the bench. “What are you boys up to?” Before Nate could think of a lie, Malcolm blurted out the truth.
“It’s like this, see. I was house-sitting for a neighbor who has this maxed-out Mustang. It’s my bro’s here birthday so I didn’t think it would hurt to take a quick spin. See, we didn’t know it had a busted tail light and then this cop started acting like we were hardcore gang members or something.” Malcolm finally took a breath; Nate felt like he needed one too. Malcolm was his boy but sometimes he had all the cool of a bonfire.
The guy frowned. “You’re waiting to be booked?”
“Yeah, see, that’s messed up, right?” Malcolm said.
“Hmm, hold here, I’ll check it out.”
“Yeah, cool. We’ll wait,” Malcolm said as if they had a choice. Nate figured the man suffered from a distorted opinion of his own importance. He didn’t get his hopes up, but the guy came back thirty minutes later with news.
“We’ve located the owner.” He shook his head. “You’re lucky Ms. Epson isn’t pressing charges, but she’s disappointed in you boys.”
“Yeah, we’re really sorry.” Malcolm’s eyes sparkled more with relief than remorse. “So if there’re no charges, we can bounce, right?”
“You two had no business driving the car. You will have to face some consequences for that.” The man pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked their cuffs.
“Yeah, thanks.” Nate rubbed his wrist. “But can’t you tell us what we can do to fix this? We don’t need to involve our parents, right?”
The man shook his head and laughed. “Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
Ten minutes after delivering Malcolm into his dad’s clutches, the man pressed the lighted button on the doorbell at Nate’s house. His mom answered.
“How’s it going, Saite?” he greeted her.
“Jimmy, my goodness. It’s been awhile. Come on in here.” For a moment, Nate held the thinnest hope that the reason for the escort home would get lost in reunion talk.
Dad sat in an armchair but stood to shake Jimmy’s hand. “I hear it’s Detective James Shore now. Got a nice ring to it, man. Congratulations on the promotion. Have a seat.”
“Nah, I can’t stay, Inde.” Detective Shore took off his cap and ran his large hand through his blond hair. “I wanted to drop off Nate. He and Malcolm Lee were pulled over downtown on Tremont.”
“Pulled over?” Mom frowned. “For what?”
“Joyriding. The owner isn’t pressing charges, but there is the matter of the fine plus an impound fee.”
That’s when Mom and Dad turned on him, throwing questions but not pausing to let him answer. Detective Shore’s voice burst through the chaos and saved him from the verbal bombardment.
“Look, guys, I’ll leave your boy to explain, I should get going.”
“Jimmy.” Mom blinked back tears then took a deep breath. She tiptoed to kiss the detective’s cheek. “Thanks so much.”
Dad sighed and shook the man’s hand again. “Thanks, Jim.”
“Not a problem.” Detective Shore put his cap on then aimed a stone cold glare at Nate that could scare the statues off Easter Island. “Stay out of trouble.”
Nate swallowed and leaned back a little. “Yes, sir.”
Dad walked the detective to the door then returned and dropped into an armchair, studying him without saying a word. On the flip side, Mom transformed into a Tasmanian devil.
“Nathan Freedman Daniels!” She put a hand on her hip and shifted her weight to one foot. “You stole a car? Are you insane?”
He shot a HELP look to Dad because Tasmanian devils often ate their young.
“Let’s give the boy a chance to explain, honey.” “Inde—” Mom started. “Saite,” Dad interrupted, “we have company.” He nodded to Ell.
Nate’s best friend since childhood sat quietly on the corner of the couch, but Ell was more like a sister than company. Presents on the coffee table in front of her caught his attention, as did the scent of chocolate angel food cake wafting through the air. The smell made his mouth water because the cake was his favorite and he hadn’t eaten since lunch. He hoped his parents would wait until after his B-day celebration to lecture him.
“Don’t even think about it, Nate,” Dad said as though reading his mind. “Those presents will go back to the store, and I think we need to cancel dining out and the movie, don’t you agree?”
No, not really. Nate wanted to say, but this wasn’t a punishment to haggle over. “Okay, but it’s dark outside. Can I see Ell home?”
“All right,” Dad said. “But get back here fast.”
“Sure.” Nate stood, grateful for a chance to escape and give his parents a chance to cool off. “Come on, Ell.”
At the bottom of the stoop, they cut across the grass to the brownstone Ell shared with her mom next door. A dim porch light illuminated pots of orange marigolds lining their front steps.
“Man, I can’t believe I’m not getting anything for my birthday.” He turned to Ell, expecting a little sympathy.
“How about I print you a ‘get out of jail free’ card?” she said “Should I wrap it in a ribbon?” He kept forgetting how much like his mom she was. She rolled her eyes. “You were totally wrong, Nate.”
“See, I don’t understand how Mom does it. I mean, does she channel herself through you or what?” He leaned over to give her skinny five-foot-two frame a hug. “Stop lecturing me. You’re my girl, right?” he teased and tugged at her dark-brown curls to get her to chill. Instead of giving him the usual punch to the shoulder, she blushed beneath her pale Latino skin. Ell was getting harder to read all the time. Lately, just meeting her eyes caused her to blush. Something was happening with her.
She took a breath like she needed to calm down. “I want to tell you ...” She stopped then hunched her shoulders and smiled. “It’ll wait.”
That was Ell. Her mood could turn on a dime. Ten years of friendship had taught him it was never any use trying to pry more out of her.
He nudged her shoulder. “I always got your back. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” Her face went all goofy before she dodged past him and ran up the steps then into the house.
Once more, he wondered what was up with his best friend then scratched his head and walked home.
His parents waited in the living room with expressions so serious, they could intimidate a Third World tribunal.
“Sit, Nathan.” Mom was seated on the arm of Dad’s chair. “Do you have any explanation for what happened today?”
“Sure, we just borrowed Malcolm’s neighbor’s car.”
“So Malcolm’s neighbor gave two fifteen-year-olds permission to drive a car?” she said in a ‘what kind of sense does that make’ tone.
“Not exactly; she wasn’t there, but Malcolm said she wouldn’t mind.”
“Son.” Dad pinched the bridge of his nose. “We expect you to mess up at times, but we also expect you to know where to draw the line. From the number of mess-ups you’ve gotten into lately, it’s obvious you do not. That forces your mom and I to consider options that will help you understand how bad decisions have serious consequences. Here is what we’re going to do.” Dad pinned him with a penetrating stare. “School lets out for summer in a few days. You’re going to spend some time with your grandparents to reflect on your recent choices.”
Wow! He wanted to jump with joy. This was his punishment? “Okay, I’ll do a summer in New York,” he said, hoping to sound put upon. Dad’s parents lived in New York. The last family reunion there had been a blast.
“No, not your father’s parents.” Mom sounded exasperated. “My parents.”
His cheeriness vanished. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Hardly,” she answered flatly.
“Yeah, all right,” he agreed like he had options. “But I don’t think I need a whole summer. How about a week?”
“The whole summer,” Dad’s no-negotiation voice thundered and made it clear that this was final.
Mom’s parents never talked about their life in North Carolina when they came for visits. They probably didn’t want to bore people to death. Although Nate had never visited them, he knew they lived miles from any neighbors. He could forget about the Internet too, because their technophobia made exceptions for only a phone and a TV without cable or satellite. This would be the worst two months of his life.
Nate gazed past the empty window seat to the terminal. Security precautions put in place after Nine-Eleven excluded friends and family from the departure gates. Not getting a chance to wave a last goodbye was making him miss his parents and Ell even before the plane left the runway.
The pilot’s intercom voice announced Delta Flight 417 would be nonstop to North Carolina. A flight attendant went through the ‘What to do if this plane crashes’ routine; which, he thought, would at least be an adventure.
A boy and a girl about his age were in the seats across the aisle from him. The boy sat by the window and wore a black knit cap and earphones from an iTouch. The girl was hot enough to throw lava balls and not be burned. She was working on one of those friendship bracelets Ell and her girlfriends wore. He forced his gaze away, but it kept wandering back to her. When she caught him checking her out, he grabbed the Fly Mall magazine from the seat in front of him and buried his face in the pages.
He continued faking interest in the magazine, but he noticed how the girl still watched him. He tugged at his collar and pretended to read an article on Turtle Island as the girl reached over to shake hands.
“Hi, I’m Hannah,” she said and flashed a dazzling smile.
His brain short-circuited. “Oh, ah...” His face burned. “What?” He forgot his name. “Yeah,” he mumbled then scooted over to the window and stared out at the clouds. Nope, the Casanovas of the world had nothing to fear from his game.
Two long hours passed with him crammed into the window seat, pretending fascination with the view of the clouds at 36,000 feet. At last, the pilot announced the plane was making an approach to the airport. Nate ignored the buckle-up sign and jumped up to pull his bag from the overhead compartment. He dropped back into the seat as a Barbie-doll looking attendant headed over, giving him the evil eye.
The attendant reached him and shook her head. “Sorry,” he mouthed and gave her one of his stupid-kid smile.
“We have rules in place for your safety. You must stay in your seat until the buckle-up sign is off.”
“Yeah, I’m really sorry.” He tried another smile; afraid she would take his bag and shove it back into the overhead compartment to make her point. Sometimes grown-ups did stuff like that. But maybe the smile worked this time because the attendant rolled her eyes and walked away.
The plane taxied onto the runway, and he hauled into the aisle before a friendly voice from the audio system could finish the ‘Thanks for flying Delta Airlines’ speech.
Several passengers stood too, blocking his way. A minute past and no one moved any closer to the exit. Someone tugged the sleeve of his hoodie from behind. He turned just as a flight attendant with almond-shaped eyes squeezed past him.
“We apologize for the delay, but we must ask everyone to return to their seat.” She ruffled the white shirt and tie he wore to impress his grandparents as she passed, repeating the same vague message to the passenger ahead of him. The people behind him must have gotten the same request because most were returning to their seats or already sitting and looking anxious.
He lingered a few moments more, wondering what was up. Then the pilot’s microphone voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen.”
Right away, he knew something really was up. No one said ‘ladies and gentlemen’ unless they wanted you to behave that way. “We have been asked to hold our position on the tarmac until security arrives.”
Security? His mind jumped immediately to terrorists. Waiting for security seemed like a stupid idea. Logic dictated that everyone beat a quick path to the exit. Unfortunately, the flight attendants had positioned themselves to prevent that.
“Everyone remain calm,” a tall white man with a beer gut bellowed as he pushed his way down the aisle, forcing people to take whatever seats were available as he passed. He seemed like someone used to being in charge. Probably one of those air marshals the government started putting on planes after Nine-Eleven.
Nate decided to retreat to his seat before the air marshal reached him. Turning, he collided with another passenger. “Sorry.” He almost added “sir,” but decided the bronzed-face man didn’t look old enough. He twisted away from the man’s hands roaming across his hoodie. Watch it, Touchy. The guy tugged at Nate’s jacket once more before Nate glided past him and into the seat across from the boy and girl.
The pair had switched places. Now the boy sat in the aisle seat, and Hannah sat by the window with her gaze fixed forward.
“Hey,” he croaked in her direction because he wanted someone to freak-out with. “What do you think is going on?”
Her gaze shifted to the ceiling, and she drummed her fingers rapidly against her thigh in a way that made him think she needed to pee. What was up with that?
“They’re probably checking out a suspicious person,” the boy with the earphones answered. It surprised Nate that the boy even heard the question. His music was loud enough to make out the tune even without the earphones. “It happens sometimes.” The boy shrugged.
“Yeah, thanks,” Nate said. Now that Hannah was ignoring him, he couldn’t help studying her. Her warm cinnamon skin glowed, and a fluffy pink blouse complimented her looks so that she gave the impression of a sunrise. Her legs were hidden from view now, but he remembered how her pale-colored stockings matched her flat-heel shoes.
What kind of girl even dressed like that anymore? Everything about her flustered him. He swallowed, wishing his tongue hadn’t swelled to the size of a Moray eel earlier so he could have at least mumbled ‘Hello’.
After forty-five minutes, the plane was still in lockdown. When a security team finally arrived half an hour later, they asked everyone to show identification. Nate’s only ID was his B-Prep student badge. Hannah and the boy had no ID at all.
“This violates our civil rights!” A passenger built like a bull shouted and stormed up the aisle from the rear. In seconds, two of the newly arrived G-men charged him and slammed him to the floor.
Thanks, Mr. Bull; you’ve just guaranteed us all a longer delay. The G-men hauled the guy to his feet then dumped him into a seat.
“You can’t hold people without cause!” Mr. Bull spewed a string of four-letter words as his face turned bright red. Two more G-men joined the uproar, and out the window, a dozen more government- types rushed the plane.
Nate glanced about and met the worried and scared gazes of other passengers. The one exception was the bronzed-face man who had bumped into him. The guy looked calm, like nothing unusual was happening.
“You kids are with me.” Startled, Nate glanced up. A serious face young agent with a blond crew cut motioned him to stand. “I’ll escort you to the terminal so your guardians can verify where you’ll be staying.”
Fine by me, Nate took the lead while the boy and Hannah followed with the agent bringing up the rear.
“Can you tell us what this is about?” the ear-phoned boy asked.
“National security,” the agent said like it should be enough explanation. Their plane had landed at least 200 yards from the arrival gate. They marched across several runways strangely void of any other planes.
In the terminal, the agent jotted down his grandparents’ license numbers and address before releasing him to their custody. The agent then walked off with Hannah and the boy in tow.
“They finally let you off the plane,” Granddad said. “What happened to make them hold people for so long?”
“I don’t know,” Nate said. “They said something about national security.”
“Well, we have you now,” Grandma said. “And oh my goodness! Look how skinny you are.”
“Grandma, look how tiny you are,” he teased and patted the top of a silvery head that only reached his chest. He gave her bird-like frame a gentle hug then shook Granddad’s hand.
“Would you be up for a game of chess, young man?” Granddad, though ancient, still stood as straight as ever and beat Nate’s height by two inches. Nate smiled at the challenge.
“I’ve gotten better,” he warned.
“Well, you would have to.” Granddad’s mouth puckered as he tried to stifle a laugh.
“All right, it is on,” Nate threatened and grinned. Seeing his grandparents again almost made him forget the miserable summer ahead.
They found the elevator to baggage claim. Before stepping inside, he spotted Hannah and the boy. So many people were hugging them; it looked like a family reunion happening at the airport.
Maybe the feel of his gaze caused Hannah to look his way. He met her eyes and waved, a little one, in case she ignored him again, but she waved back. Next, he smiled and got one in return. Yes! He resisted the urge to jump into the air and give her two thumbs up like a dork, but he still grinned like one.
He wished he had the nerve to walk over and ask for her number so this summer wouldn’t suck so much. He noticed another passenger checking her out, but then realized she just stood in the man’s line of sight.
The guy, whom Nate recognized as Bronze-Face from the plane, looked past her and focused on his grandparents and him. The man appeared again as Granddad pulled the car out of short term parking. Apparently, Mr. Bronzed-Face wasn’t in any hurry to get to his own car or find a cab because he kept standing there, watching as they drove away.