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Our house made a lot of noises at night. It groaned as gusts of wind pushed the walls. It popped and hissed as the radiator kept out the cold. And if one of my dad’s esteemed colleagues—drunks—happened to be spending the night, then the floorboards would creak under their weight as they walked to the kitchen for another beer. These sounds were a part of our lives. So they never struck me as so revealing until the night I opened my bedroom door at 3:00 AM.

The hinges screamed for every inch I turned them, and I must have spent an hour subduing the sons of guns. I would coax the door open just a hair, and then wait. If I heard footsteps coming down the hall, as I was sure I would, then I would jump back into my bed and act asleep. “It was the wind opening the door,” I would say. I didn’t end up needing the excuse though. I got through the creaky bastard of a door and out into the hall, and the rest was cake. I mentioned that our house’s floorboards creaked for guests, and that was true. But for those of us who lived there, we knew exactly how to step around those spots.

There are times when we have to make choices. Not right choices or wrong choices—those are figured out afterwards. Just choices. And at the well-balanced and ever-reasonable age of sixteen, I made the choice to take my dad’s car out for a 3:00 AM drive.

Our house sat on this big ol’ hill. The hill was so big, in fact, that when I took the car out of the garage in stealth mode—neutral—I still ended up doing thirty when I hit the backroad. And lord, when I hit the road and threw it in gear, you can bet I was doing a hell of a lot more than the speed signs tried to tell me.

On the county road I flat-out floored it. The blacktop flew under me. My heart pounded harder than the 200 decibel beat of License to Ill. My fingertips were electric, and my expression was the same. The headlights were off, because fuck it: I was invincible, and flying through the night made me feel cool as hell. The gauge said ninety, then one hundred, and when I hit the other car, I was doing well over one twenty.

Flashing lights flew around my field of vision as I came to on the pavement. And funny enough, the first thing I thought wasn’t that “oh, shit” feeling—that came second. What came first was the acute torture of having my canine tooth cracked in half. I writhed there on the blacktop road, thinking that from that point on, that toothache would be my entire life.

And then I heard my best friend’s voice saying my name: “Jake?”

Oh, shit.

“Jake, Jesus Christ man, are you okay?”

I came to realize that there was a whole world around me, beyond just my toothache. There was my best friend—what were the odds—and there were our cars, crumpled together at the hoods like paper.

“Jake, man, answer me!”

I moaned something and nodded, which he took to mean that I was fine.

He breathed out, crossed his arms, and turned to the pair of totaled machines. “Fuck, man. What are we gonna do?”

I stood up. It felt weird, being able to stand on the solid ground. I felt like I should’ve been floating instead, or flying, or anything else to make it clear that this hadn’t really happened. I wanted to be back in my room. I wanted to still be waiting for my dad to fall asleep, except this time, I wanted to change my mind about sneaking out.

“Jesus fucking Christ, man.”

I agreed with my friend wholeheartedly, and I tried to tell him so. But the words… they didn’t come out right. When I tried to say them, they came out on top of each other, and Miles looked at me funny.

“What are you saying? Jesus, Jake, sit down, right now.”

I did what he said, because I knew his “I’m fucking with you” voice, and that wasn’t it. He went to the trunk of his car, and I laughed when he came back with a first-aid kit. Fucking boy scouts, man. Miles must have been waiting to use his merit badge skills like this for years.

He pulled a flashlight out of the kit, and before I could ask what he was doing with it, the prick was already shining it in my eyes.

“Christ.”

That bad? I thought, but the words all tried to jump out at once. Which did answer my question, the more I thought about it.

“Let’s just sit down for a while, Jake.”

And there we sat. He called his mom and asked her to come get us. I thought he had a death wish, and I tried to take the phone from him. But she was already on her way. I could’ve sworn I heard Miles say hospital.

“You know I could kill you right about now,” Miles told me. “I mean I could really kill you. No headlights? Jesus, man.”

We were sitting side by side, looking at the cars. I wished one of them would burst into flames, so it would feel more like a movie.

He looked at me, then shook his head. “I’m just glad you’re alright. Talk to me. How fast were you going, anyways?”

I smiled—minus one tooth. “One thirty eight.”

“One thirty eight? Fuck, man, maybe I should kill you, for the sake of all those other poor defenseless drivers on your road.” He laughed and punched me on the shoulder. As if on cue, the hood of my dad’s car burst into flames.

The doctors said the concussion wouldn’t leave any permanent damage. My dad said, “What’s it matter? The kid’s retarded anyways.” But the noises changed around our house. The sharp clinking of beer bottles became the soft clang of soda cans. The shouts of drunks were replaced, over time, by the laughter of my little brothers and sisters. Most of my dad’s old friends stopped hanging around. I think my mom would’ve liked that last one the best.

There are times when we have to make choices. Not right choices or wrong choices—those are figured out afterwards. Just choices. And at the well-balanced and ever-reasonable age of sixteen, I made the choice to take my dad’s car out for a 3:00 AM drive.

I spent a lot of time thinking that was a bad one.

© Ray Underscore Thompson, February 2016