-Hey handsome! <3<3<3
-How you been?
-Got any plans this weekend?
-Yeah Gabe's going to practice his biology presentation.
-Any time you want to come over and hang out is great. I made a lasagna last week so we have plenty of food.
-I was planning to hit the road at nine to get some fares, but we could watch a couple episodes of Batman TAS before then.
-I was thinking of something a bit more adventuresome ;-)
-My friend from college has two ANGR tickets she can't use
-I know it's short notice, but ANGR!
-I listen to that playlist you sent me, they rock so hard when you get used to it
-Let me know how their show is
-Can you please shoot me some video
-Bambabombomb is my favorite track
-Lucky you lol
-It's Saturday at 8pm at the Knitting Factory
-Who you going with?
Lisa stared at her phone for an entire minute. Then she flung it at her bed. It bounced and slid between the mattress and the wall, and she had to crawl over it and stick her arm down there and fish it out.
Robbie Reyes was badass and good-looking and smart and compassionate and sweet and caring and responsible and mature and boring and so fucking clueless and he made her feel like an idiot, too, because, of course. Of course Robbie never went anywhere. Of course he couldn't do anything on the spur of the moment. Of course his Saturday nights were reserved for working. Of course his idea of a date was reheated lasagna and children's cartoons on DVD.
Of course Lisa would always come second. She knew she would. She was such an idiot.
To be fair, Lisa had always had to make the first move with Robbie. She'd just...hoped he would start making the second move some time.
-Don't worry I'll get you some video :-) Maybe a t-shirt
-Hey, you still race?
-You don't have to get me a shirt
-I just love that band
-They're important to the local scene
-They used to play out behind the tattoo parlor on riverside
-I saw them one time but I almost got arrested when the cops came bc a noise complaint so I didn't go again
-I was so stupid when I was younger
-Could have ruined my life
-I don't think you were ever stupid XD
-Hey shoot me a text next time you have a race coming up. We'll make a date of it.
There was a long pause and Lisa saw Robbie stop and start typing several times.
-I don't think that's a good idea.
-You're a really nice girl
Lisa set her phone down and walked away so she wouldn't lose it again. “You're a really nice girl,” she said in a gruff voice. “Oh fudge you, Robbie. You can shove that attitude up your you-know-what.”
Shockingly, illegal street racing happened to be illegal. Lisa could identify a few locations on videos posted online, even found Robbie's car in a couple (the license-plates blurred), but the actual scheduling was a mystery. According to the few forums she could find, real street-racers organized their meets on onion sites and encrypted chats that were only shared in-person among trusted individuals. So she couldn't google her way to the next race.
Stalking Robbie was a bridge too far.
She'd figure it out. Three weeks later, when she showed up to a strip-mall parking lot at one in the morning and a girl in a Fox Racing jacket pushed through the crowd of young men to demand her bonafides, Lisa told her, “I'm friends with Jacky Cardona,” and it was practically true, because Jacky's friend's brother was cousins with Tina Alvarez and Lisa and Tina had shared four classes in Junior Year and Tina had gotten Lisa an invite to an SMS Jacky and the other East Side street racers used. The girl in the racing jacket gave her a hard stare, and Lisa smiled back. “Remember to turn off timestamp and geolocation for photos and video, and blur out plates and faces before you post anything,” the girl said at last, and Lisa got out her phone and fiddled through the menus.
She stood around with her hands in her pockets, right hand gripping her can of mace, staring at the cars. She didn't see Robbie's car anywhere, but there were a lot of sports cars, Mustangs and Camaros, and a lot of what she thought of as crappy budget subcompacts that were decked out with weird fat tires, spoilers, air vents in the hoods, tubular struts inside the cabin—modifications that looked awful but she had to guess were both expensive and functional. People were wandering around filming each-other's cars with their phones, babbling impenetrably about horsepower and boost pressure and tire dimensions.
Out on the road, though, Lisa thought she saw flamethrowers. She crossed the parking lot to the four-lane street beyond.
Two guys with garden sprayers were painting long stripes into the road with burning motor oil, walking quickly and leaving forty-foot trails of flame where a car's tires might go. One boy had to shut the flow off so he could slap fire off the leg of his jeans with his bare hands; he gave the spray-can a few more pumps, sprayed some oil on the flames, and the whole mist caught fire again and he kept moving.
A guy with way too much spray tan and body spray clued into her wallflowering and started to chat her up. His name was Calvin, and he was more than happy to explain everything in sight.
“Helps the tires stick,” he said, pointing to the flamethrowers. “The heat on the road softens the rubber. You bet on your guy, you help him out.”
Lisa looked up and down the road. To the right, just in front of an intersection, a little white car was parked crossways in the middle of the street, and the driver was standing in front of it, pointing the sparse traffic around behind the shopping mall. A car honked angrily. “Find another way home, pizza boy!” Calvin yelled. To the left, a guy with a bandanna over his face hosed down a traffic camera with bee spray.
“What's today's event?” Lisa asked.
“Today's a quarter-mile darkhorse match race, car-length handicap, two grand to the winner. That Reyes fucker is the primary, he's got the handicap, and we're waiting for the darkhorse to show. Gotta be Tommy Yi, he's the only one crazy enough to race Reyes for more than pocket change.”
Lisa frowned. “Not a fan of this Reyes guy?”
A man booed and shook his fist at Calvin, and another called out, “Take that back, you whiny motherfucker!”
“How do you cheat at car racing?” Lisa demanded. “You either get to the end first or you don't!”
“Nobody knows!” Calvin exclaimed. “Today's a straight quarter mile, but something's fishy on the drift courses, it's like he's cutting through blocks but the lookouts all say he's not doing that! He's gotta be running nitrous, four-link suspension, air-shocks, but hell, he shouldn't be able to corner like he does in that boat, and those tires, he never shows up in anything but street radials, but the fucker's magnetized to the pavement. For all I know maybe it is magnets.”
“Maybe he's just good.
“It's not physically possible. And besides. He throws races.”
More boos. “You take that back, you asslickin’ west-side motherfucker!”
“August 7, Riverside, quarter-mile against Scorp's twin turbo nitrous Lancer. Twenty-seven hundred pounds, eight hundred horses. Three length handicap. Win. September 27, Olympic, quarter mile against Caspar’s stage-one Camaro. Thirty-eight hundred pounds, seven hundred horses. Same handicap. Loss. Dry weather both days. Straight quarter-mile tracks. Only difference is, Scorp was racing for g’s, Caspar just offered up hundreds, with an audience. He’s stringing us along.”
“He had a bad start, it happens!” someone yelled.
“Sure, it only happens when he's racing for less than five hundred dollars!” Calvin yelled back. “Pull the other one.”
Robbie had fans, Lisa thought, watching the exchange. He had fans, and he threw street races based on how much money they’d make him.
A yell went up from the parking lot, and all the other gearheads jogged over to the road to join them. In the distance, Lisa heard the throaty rumble and unsettling whine of Robbie's Charger. It cruised sedately around the barrier car and parked just behind the black streaks left on the road from the burning oil. He didn’t get out of the car or even look around much; didn’t notice Lisa, just checked his phone. Rolled down the window and had a brief word with one of the guys who'd been prepping the street. Lisa raised her hand up to her shoulder to wave at him, then put it down. He didn’t want her here. And these people didn’t all like him. She didn’t have enough information to decide if she wanted them to know she and Robbie knew each-other.
Another car screeched around the side street, a little yellow thing with a big black spoiler and fairings that almost touched the ground, metallic green wheels, a scoop in the hood. Instead of the whine and hiss of Robbie’s supercharger, this car made a sharp prrrRRRprprprprp when it revved. The crowd parted for it, and it came to a sharp stop beside Robbie's car at the other set of burn marks.
The yellow car's driver got out. Lisa stared.
Medium-height, in a sleeveless tiger-striped catsuit that contrasted with short-cropped cheetah-dyed hair, bulging shoulders and biceps, and—and wide hips, long legs, small breasts pressed tight to her chest under a sports bra. Bold steps like she owned the whole block, her movements tight, smooth, controlled. Her arms swung out away from her chest, heavy with muscle. Head high, shoulders back. Her balance was perfect. She wore a little bandana as a mask, printed with one of those puppy-face Instagram filters. She was both the coolest and dorkiest person Lisa had ever seen.
Robbie was out of his car, too, hunched, his head cocked a little to the side, one fist clenching and unclenching. If the other racer was having a good time, Robbie was strung tight enough to snap. They circled each-other's cars, once-around, peering at the wheels and peeking under the bumpers while keeping half an eye on the other driver.
The audience started yelling out numbers, passing money around. “Now we're in business! Three hundred on Pyston Nitro!” Calvin yelled, and he fanned out a bundle of fifties. One of the East-Side fans took his bet, held up three fingers. “This part, they're tryna figure out what the other guy's running. The Toyota's turbo'ed, of course, you can hear the flutter. And look at the tires! Nine inches in the back, that'll put some power to the pavement!”
“Pyston's a hell of a driver,” Calvin continued. “And she races pink-slip, too, she got a different car every damn month seems like—”
“She cheats!” yelled one of Robbie's fans. A man.
The woman, Pyston, called out to Robbie. “Hey, Reyes! How's about we have some fun? Bump it to five grand—and I throw in the car.”
“I'm not betting my car,” Robbie replied.
“Ooh, he's nervous,” said Calvin. He yelled at Robbie. “Don't be a pussy, Reyes!”
“Aw, my fans are so mean!” Pyston exclaimed in mock sympathy. “What, you scared of little ol' me? Your Demon Dodge don't feel up to it?”
Robbie twitched his head and hissed something inaudible. He talked to himself when he was stressed.
She cupped her ear. “Didn't catch that, dude.”
“What would I want with your car,” Robbie said, louder.
A chorus of Ooooohs from the audience. Pyston Nitro bulled into his space, and she was...wow, she looked like she could toss him over her shoulder and walk away. Instead she said, “You hurt Bumble's feelings.”
Robbie stared at her, stiff-backed. “Two grand, take it or leave it.”
Pyston Nitro glared down at him a minute, her breath fluttering the puppy-face bandanna. “You're a bore, Reyes,” she said. She flashed a fan of bills, Robbie flashed his own back at her, and they got back into their cars. One man from the starting crew started waving them back and forth, getting them lined up. Pyston's car waited just ahead of Robbie, her rear tires in line with his fronts. She rolled down her window. “Last chance to make it more interesting. I'll even give up my handicap. Hell, you can have the handicap—”
Robbie revved his engine, drowning out her voice.
“Rude!” Pyston yelled. She rolled up her window and revved her own engine.
Their rear tires started to spin in place, sending up thick acrid smoke and a deafening screech. The guy in charge stood right between the cars, just feet away from Pyston's front bumper, a little flashlight up at his shoulder, pointed at them. He flicked it on and off.
Both cars shot forward with a roar, Robbie's car squatting backward and leaving black streaks of rubber on the pavement, the blower screaming. Pyston's car zipped off with less theatrics, its turbocharger buzzing a deep prrrrrrrrrrat! In seconds they were down the street, almost out of sight, and Lisa heard more screeching and rumbling as the cars slowed. She coughed and rubbed her eyes from the smoke.
“Holy shit, did you see Reyes' tailpipe!” one of the fans yelled. “He's driving a fucking flamethrower!”
There was a tense silence as Robbie's car made a U-turn and returned on the opposite side of the street at a legal pace. Pyston's car did a donut in the middle of the intersection before following him.
“Wait, is it over?” Lisa asked. The white car that was blocking oncoming traffic turned and pulled in to the mall parking lot, and the audience wandered out of the road. Law-abiding cars honked angrily past them, over the hot-prepped asphalt.
Calvin bounced up and down, the chains on his pants jingling. “Come on, Pyston, make me some money!”
“I got seven point eight seconds,” said one of the guys, consulting his phone.
“How the fuck,” said the woman in the Fox jacket.
The crowd stilled.
“Seven point eight seconds, that's what I clocked.”
“Fumble-fingers, no way that's real. Who won?”
“Steve just sent me the finish video, I got it, lemme slow it down.”
Lisa found herself pushed to the back of a tightening knot of people surrounding one of the organizers, who scrolled frame-by-frame through a video.
“Okay, okay, pipe down, everybody,” the man called. “Tonight's winner is...the Toyota, by a length!”
“Holy shit!” Calvin bellowed, pumping his fist in the air. “In your face!” And he hurried off to find the guy who'd bet against him. The rest of the audience wandered back into the parking lot toward their cars. At last Robbie and Pyston pulled in to the lot, parked in front of a pawn shop. Pyston Nitro got out first, waving at Robbie.
Lisa stared off down the block. The two cars had made a U-turn and were coming back up toward the bar they'd started at; Pyston Nitro parked and got out first, waved at Robbie. Lisa could see above her mask that she was grinning, triumphant.
Lisa yelled over the bickering crowd, “I love your hair!”
Pyston's gaze drilled into her, and Lisa grinned back, please don't think I'm an idiot. Lisa heard Robbie's door open and shut.
“Toyota takes the win by a car length!” the organizer yelled.
“Hoooo!” cried Pyston, breaking eye contact with Lisa and jumping three feet in the air. “No hard feelings, Reyes. I know you had a bad night. And your car's capable of so much more. Don't feel bad. Put her here,” she said, waving a hand over Robbie's head for a high-five.
Robbie brushed past her, shoving through the audience toward Lisa. His head was low, jaw clenched, shoulders heaving. He smelled like car exhaust, so strong Lisa had to wonder how he hadn't passed out driving the Charger around with the cabin full of fumes. “Lisa, what are you doing here?” he demanded, flat.
Robbie had a way of making her feel six years old and stupid. And, honestly, coming here was stupid. But it was the kind of stupid whose consequences she could live with. “Thought I'd come see you race,” Lisa said. “I learned a lot! Had a great time!”
Calvin stared at Lisa over his shoulder. “You know him?”
“This your fresa, Reyes?” yelled one of the other fans. “Your Uptown Girl?”
Lisa was nobody's uptown girl, thank-you-very-much; the sororities had made that very clear when they'd rejected her. But Robbie put his body between her and the other fans like she was naive, like she was delicate, a stupid rich girl out slumming with people she'd never understand.
“Uptown Girl,” one of the guys started singing, “She's been living in her white-bread world...bet she's never had a Downtown Ma-an!”
“I'm from Hillrock,” Lisa scoffed. “Robbie, you can't even come see your favorite band with me. I just wanted to hang out, somewhere that's not your apartment.”
Robbie's eyes went wide for an instant, a shock of hurt, and Lisa knew she'd stepped in it. Then he scowled, an ugly curl to his lip, and he turned his head sharply away. Swallowed hard several times and took a deep, slow breath. The engine fumes poured off him. “You knew what my life is like,” Robbie said in a calm voice. “You could get hurt. You could get in trouble.”
As if to demonstrate, two squad cars pulled into the parking lot, light-bars flashing. One of the gear-heads waved, yelled, “Hey, cops! Good morning, cops!”
“And you're not proud of this, are you,” Lisa said, wading further into the shit but unable to stop herself.
Robbie turned his back on her and stared at the pavement, silent.
“I'm sorry,” she said.
“I'm sorry, this was stupid. I don't know what I was thinking.”
“I can't talk about this right now, Lisa,” he said, raspy.
“I get it.”
Pyston Nitro swaggered over. “Pony up, Reyes!”
Robbie stiffened even further, reached into his pocket, and counted out two thousand dollars in hundreds and twenties. Then he turned and practically jogged back to his car, slammed the door, and screamed off, laying down rubber on the asphalt. One of the patrol cars took off after him, disappearing down the street. The other followed seconds later.
Lisa ground her teeth. If Robbie was so worried about her, why couldn't he stick around until she got back in her car. If he was so worried about getting in trouble, why would he start a chase with the cops. If he was so worried about his brother, why would he throw away thousands of dollars on races. Screw him.
“Rude,” said Pyston, stuffing the wad of cash into her fanny pack. Lisa stared at her out of the corner of her eye. Up close, especially, she was...she was something. The cords on her neck, and her broad shoulders, and her quick dark eyes, and the swell of her thighs in the skin-tight tiger-striped spandex. “So you like my hair, huh?”
“Yeah,” Lisa said, caught out. God, she was an idiot.
“That your car?” Pyston jerked her head at Lisa's white Beetle, with the pink pine tree hanging from the mirror.
“How'd you know?”
“Hey, Pyston Nitro!” yelled one of the guys, getting into his Mustang. “You gonna come roll with us?”
“Aw, really?” Pyston called back. “You boys ready to get spanked?”
A chorus of titters.
“How can I say no. Especially since Reyes was kind enough to draw the Law off.”
“Where are they going?” Lisa asked.
“Off to race,” Pyston said.
“Oh, that was for money. This part's for fun. This your first time? Your boyfriend ever take you for a ride?”
“Not like this. And I don't think he's my...anymore.”
“Shit, that's awful,” Pyston said. “Get in with me. I'll take your mind off it.”
“Omigosh omigosh omigosh omigaaaaawsh,” Lisa babbled, pressed back into her seat by the force of the little Toyota's acceleration. Streetlights whipped by, flashing through the cabin like strobes. They passed under an exit sign and slowed, the engine chugging, to a sensible seventy miles per hour. Calvin's Subaru overtook them, then slowed. They drifted into the middle lane, slowed further, pulled up alongside a gunmetal-gray Corvette.
“Give him the count!” Pyston yelled from the driver's seat, over the roar of the motor.
“What do I say?” Lisa yelled back.
“Just, 'One, Two, Three,' loud as you can!”
Lisa rolled the window down, and her hair whipped across her face and her eardrums ached from the pressure changes. She saw the man in the driver's seat watching her, his own window cracked. “One, Two, Threeeee!” she screamed, and Pyston punched the accelerator on three, knocking her back against the headrest. The Corvette lunged forward, too, they were neck and neck, it was gaining, and suddenly—suddenly it seemed to slow, the pitch of its motor dropped, Lisa could almost see the wheels turning—Pyston's car pulled ahead and time went back to normal. Lisa laughed, giddy.
“Awesome, right?” Pyston demanded. “Who should we race next!”
“That green one,” Lisa said, pointing to a Ford Interceptor ahead and to the left of them.
“Oh, you're mean,” Pyston laughed.
Pyston just chuckled, pulled up alongside the Interceptor, and beeped the horn three times. On the third beep, she punched it, the Interceptor punched it, they were flying down the dark freeway, Lisa's heart was thumping and skipping in her chest, she felt so heavy and so light at the same time, it was like flying, it was flying; if they had wings, they'd have taken off a dozen times over. And there were still more cars, the whole length of I-5 to play on.
The car was bumpy and uncomfortable and it smelled and it was full of incomprehensible gauges and extra levers and dials, and Lisa was having the time of her life until a minivan pulled into their lane to pass a semi-truck.
“Fuck,” said Pyston, downshifting, and Lisa's gut went cold, the world went slow again, she heard the engine screaming, the anti-lock brakes clattering—but they managed to slow from one-twenty to seventy miles an hour in the space of three streetlights, and they whipped around the minivan and back into empty freeway. Lisa laughed nervously. “Safety first,” Pyston said. “Always check for oncoming traffic before beginning to pass, especially after midnight in LA, grandpa!”
The gray Corvette pulled up to them, wanting a rematch, and the driver bellowed, “One, Two!”
The 'three' was drowned in the roar of their engines.
At four in the morning, they pulled into a McDonalds drive-thru. Pyston got an extra-large water and two roasted chicken salads, and Lisa got a Junior cheeseburger and a diet cola. They ate in the now-empty mall parking lot, next to Lisa's car.
“Say, you're from Hillrock Heights, right? I heard that right?”
Lisa nodded, watching Pyston chew each bite twenty times. She had her bandanna off. She had a cute pointy chin.
“You got that ghost rider thing over there, is it real? You ever see it up close?”
Lisa's mouth twisted. “I just lived there, I didn't, like, hang around with drug dealers or hunt for spooks. Maybe he's just photoshop, and there's some guy driving around beating people with crowbars like that movie that's coming out, El Chicano. Just, start your own urban legend so people are too scared to look for you.”
“You think it's a person?” Pyston asked. “Like you can talk to 'em? I mean, maybe it's a robot or a hologram or a golem. Like, a really sophisticated alarm system.”
“I never thought of that,” Lisa said. “That's scary to think about. What if it gets reprogrammed, or glitches or something.”
Pyston took another bite of salad, chewed industriously. They sat in silence until she finished. “So, you and Reyes...”
Lisa dropped her head in her hands.
“Hey, I don't blame you. He's perfectly proportioned.”
Lisa whipped her head up. “What?”
“Shoulders, hips, torso-to-height ratio, nice straight legs...” Pyston sketched a human form in the air. “Quality. Nice face, too.”
“Oh my gosh,” Lisa said, laughing. “You're talking about him like he's...a, a horse or something.”
“Nah, I don't know anything about horses.”
“Like he's a car.”
“I do know a bit about cars.”
Lisa giggled, and Pyston smiled back, almost shyly.
“He's smart and serious and cool, and he works so hard to make his brother happy,” Lisa said, and her smile died halfway through. “At least that's what I thought. I don't know anymore.”
“I'm smart and serious and cool,” Pyston said.
Lisa's eyes went very wide, and Pyston stared back steadily. “What's your name?”
Pyston pointed to the tattoo on her forehead. “Reading's a tough subject, I don't judge.”
“Okay,” Lisa allowed. “How about your number?”
Pyston Nitro smiled, dug her phone out. “Golly-gee, did I just hear what I think I did?”
“Maybe,” said Lisa. “I guess you'd know for sure if you drove with hearing protection.”
And just like that, Lisa was dating Pyston Nitro.
It was crazy. She didn't know anything about Pyston Nitro. Not how old she was, her real name, where she lived, what her favorite subject in school was, whether she had any brothers or sisters...she might as well be a fantasy Lisa had dreamed up.
But they were definitely dating.
Tuesday night, a text.
Midnight rollerskating y n?
There's rinks open at midnight?
Should that stop us?
So they broke into a skating rink. Pyston slipped a little shim through a bathroom window to pop the lock, squeezed herself up through it, and then after what felt like just a few seconds she opened the front door for Lisa. Pyston brought her own skates, Lisa helped herself to the rentals. Pyston hit the lights when they were all laced up, and they turned on red-orange, a weird firelight glow. She set up her phone and a blue-tooth speaker in the middle of the rink, thumping and throbbing dance mixes, and they went around and around, Lisa stumbling along at the rail, Pyston rolling backward and forward, skates squeaking on hard turns, leaning so low to the ground it looked like her ankles might snap.
“Here, you want some pads?” Pyston said, and she helped Lisa into wrist guards and elbow pads and knee pads, and then she said, “It's easier to learn if you're going fast,” and then she was pushing Lisa around the rink, callused hands on her hips, around and around, “Lean into the turns, I got you,” and then she let go, and Lisa squeaked, panicked, crossed her feet, skidded ten feet over the boards in a clatter of pads. “You okay?” Pyston asked, whirling over to help her up. She didn't even have to kneel off her skates to lift Lisa.
Lisa checked herself over. No skinned knees or palms. Nothing hurt. “I'm okay.”
“Want to try that again? Little slower?”
“Yeah,” Lisa breathed.
It felt like hours at the rink. Lisa was giddy, but exhausted by the time Pyston shut down the music and packed up her things. She left out the front door, sat in her car while Pyston un-bypassed the alarm and climbed back out the bathroom window.
“That was fun, right?” Pyston said, knocking on the glass. Lisa startled and opened her car door. Pyston leaned in, one arm draped over the roof. “Do I get a kiss?”
“Yeah,” Lisa managed, and then Pyston had one hand steadying the nape of her neck, soft warm lips, tongue rubbing against her teeth, may I come in, and yes, yes she may. She scruffed her hand through Pyston's cheetah-print hair and she laughed, purred into her mouth.
When Lisa finally snuck home, it was only one in the morning and her sister's bedroom light was still on.
She saw Pyston a couple times a week. Pyston almost always texted first, which made Lisa feel wanted, bewildered, carried away in her wake. They went spelunking in graffiti-covered drainage tunnels, raced Pyston's latest car up and down the freeway in the dead of the night, went long-boarding—somehow it felt easier to learn to longboard than to rollerskate—always at night, always alone. The world seemed to go silent when they were together, and even the stars glowed warm and yellow-orange, an eternal mood-light that followed Pyston around. Always, their dates seemed to last all night—Lisa was tired like she'd been out all night—but when she got home, it was never more than an hour or two after they'd left.
All the late nights made her feel jetlagged.
She found herself searching, incognito, “how do lesbians have sex,” and then halfway through reading about dental dams—wondering where one bought dental dams and how one put one on—she had to stop and think about the fact that she was contemplating giving up her technical-virginity to a woman whose name she didn't know. She'd spent maybe half a day, total, with Pyston. Talk about moving fast; this was dating on fast-forward.
She finally got the jump on Pyston and asked her out for a coffee. Pyston begged off, said she had work. Whatever work someone who seemed to street race for a living and had a forehead tattoo and animal-print hair did, apparently had a demanding schedule. Instead of a normal coffee date, Pyston took her out into the national forest for a picnic under the stars. Grilled salmon and steamed asparagus, spinach salad with walnuts; as accompaniments, a green smoothie for Pyston and a can of chardonnay for Lisa which Pyston didn't touch. No bread. A mango for dessert.
“I feel like I'm dating a vampire,” Lisa said.
Pyston smoldered at her. “You are my ultimate heroin,” she said in a husky voice.
Lisa laughed, shoved her off as she leaned in for her throat. “I'm serious! I never see you in daylight,” she said, keeping it light, playful. “You never talk about your past. You come up out of nowhere.” Pyston started to shutter down, her mouth tight. “You're super strong and amazing at everything you do,” Lisa said. “You...you never eat normal food.” That got a bark of laughter out of her. “For all I know, you're hundreds of years old!”
Pyston looked away, her smile fading again. “I'm not hundreds of years old.”
Lisa raised her eyebrow. “Really? That's what you fix on?”
“I don't have any more time than anyone else, I just get to decide how I use it,” she said, which was a strange thing to say, and Lisa couldn't untangle it. “Isn't this good? Us? Right now? We can do whatever we want. Why worry as long as it feels good?”
“Yeah, it's good,” Lisa said. “You're an awesome vampire-girlfriend. But. I want to get to know you. The—the whole you. Like, you had work today. What do you do? How'd you get into racing? Who does your hair?”
“You jealous?” Pyston ran her hand over her head. “You want to be the only one touching this?”
“I'd never be that good, not in a million years,” she laughed. “I'm not jealous, I just...I want to know the rest of you, that's all.”
Pyston sat forward and met her eyes. “Lisa, nobody else loves Pyston Nitro,” she said. “No one else gets a piece of me. I'm all yours. Whoever else I am, I can't give to just you. It wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be good.”
“You can't just carve yourself up into different people,” Lisa said, concerned.
They stared up in silence at the warm, mood-light stars.
“Lisa, what's it say on my face,” Pyston asked, pointing to her forehead tattoo. “This is my name. This is me. My...favorite version of me. That's who you have. Okay?”
“Okay,” Lisa said at last.
Lisa's mom still thought she was dating Robbie, and Lisa didn't tell her otherwise. If Pyston wasn't willing to share Lisa with anyone else in her life, Lisa felt no obligation to tell anyone about Pyston. Besides, she wasn't ready for the conversation, “Hey, you know how you think Annie's a lesbian because she died her hair green? Well, she's probably straight. But I'm pansexual! Surprise! That means I experience attraction to...” No. Just, no. Maybe after she got her own place.
Robbie was weirdly okay with breaking up with her. She still dropped by to help out with Gabe when he needed to work or run errands, and she gave him a discount rate. They even still watched TV on the couch together; it was as if, relieved of the pressure of dating Lisa, Robbie was happier to be her friend.
They'd barely even managed to kiss while they were dating. Robbie was wired so tight, nine times out of ten, as soon as either of them had leaned in, he'd had some kind of panic attack and run off.
With as well as Robbie had taken their breakup, Lisa was deeply disappointed when he turned out to be jealous.
Lisa I have to talk to you.
-Whats going on? Gabe ok?
I know its none of my business who you date but youre my friend and I want you to be safe
Piston Nitro is not a good person
Shes a car thief
She has guns
Shes mixed up with bad people
I know this is hard to hear but its important to have good people in your life and to keep away from bad influences and I know youre a strong person but shes dangerous and I dont want you go get hurt
-Thanks for your concern, Robbie.
-You're right. It's none of your business who I date.
Lisa muted him.
They had a date in West Hollywood, breaking into a crossfit studio in the dead of night. Pyston was showing Lisa some body-weight moves to start training—lunges, squats, staged push-ups. Hands on Lisa's skin, because proper technique when beginning training was the cornerstone of a successful conditioning program. Lisa shivered a bit, resisted the urge to let herself slump so Pyston would correct her.
She and Lisa were doing wall-sits when Pyston asked, off-hand, “You hear about the Ghost Rider robbing that stash house?”
“Something about a gang?” Lisa guessed. Her thighs burned. She knocked her head back against the wall, panting. Shuffled her feet on the ground, trying to switch up the angle, use some part of her legs that wasn't exhausted.
“Made off with about twenty grand, I heard,” Pyston said. “Burned the merchandise. Guess I was wrong; maybe it is a person.”
“Ugh,” Lisa said. She hated drug dealers. She hated that she knew their names. “Who was it?”
At least Cid wasn't related to anyone she knew. “Great. Now the dealers'll be even more paranoid.”
“They're always jumpy.”
Lisa pushed her butt away from the wall, straightening her thighs slightly—cool relief. She gasped.
“I didn't say you could do that,” Pyston said. Her legs weren't shaking. Perfect right angles, her face placid but gleaming with sweat. Lisa sat reluctantly back against the wall. “Say. How's Robbie Reyes' finances?”
“Haven't heard about him racing in a while.”
“Fine,” Lisa grunted.
“Huh, the way I hear he's kinda desperate,” Pyston said. “Mechanics don't make so much.”
“Why are we talking about Robbie?”
“Where'd he get his car?”
“Shop gave it to him.” Lisa scratched her sweaty hair, dragged her nails over her scalp to distract from the pain in her legs. “Why?”
“It's the same kind of car the Ghost Rider drives. I just...think it's funny.”
“Can't believe we're talking about Robbie now. How long are we holding this?”
“Little bit longer.”
“Oh, it'll hurt a lot more in two days. When you feel it, remember: that's the pain of not working out.”
“Pyston. It hurts,” Lisa begged, and Pyston sighed and stood up against the wall. Lisa dropped and curled into a ball on the floor.
“Stretch your legs out, come on,” she said, and Lisa rolled and unrolled like a pillbug.
Lisa lay on her back and looked up at her. “Are you asking if Robbie is the Ghost Rider?” she demanded, thinking over the past couple minutes.
Pyston grinned, caught out.
“Uugh. That was a stupid rumor Guero started. He's such a dick. And I don't want to talk about Robbie.”
“But what if he was?” Pyston asked, crouched on her heels, her arms crossed on top of her knees. “What if Robbie Reyes is, or controls the Ghost Rider?”
“It wouldn't change anything,” Lisa said, scowling, “because we broke up last month and I'm here, on a date, with my girlfriend.”
Pyston patted her leg. “Sorry. Bad topic.” She stood, reached down to help Lisa up. “Come on. Burpees!”
A minute into Burpees, which turned out to be Sun Salutations but with jumping, Pyston cut in with, “Do you think Ghost Rider's car can pierce spacetime because there's a ghost driving it, or Ghost Rider drives it because it can pierce spacetime?”
Lisa panted and stopped in the middle of a set. “I think you need to ask Wikipedia.”
She thought about what Pyston had said that night, as she sweated into her sheets and tried to sleep. Robbie thought Pyston was some kind of gangbanger. Pyston thought Robbie might be the Ghost Rider, which was ridiculous, because Robbie was sensible and responsible and solid as a rock, and even if he was a mutant or an Inhuman or something, he'd never use his powers to maim and terrorize people, he was too—except he wasn't, not really. He wasn't gentle or merciful. That was what she remembered from sitting next to him in high school English: he never let anyone get away with their bullshit, even if they were the ostensible hero. She never heard about him picking fights, but he had a reputation for finishing them. Two years ago, Guero and his buddies messed with Robbie for weeks, something about his brother, and one day they all showed up to school with casts and crutches while Robbie had this...smirk.
Lisa had never gotten the whole story of how Robbie got his car, something about the original owner not paying for a major job, but it had never quite added up. And seeing how hard other racers worked on their cars—gutting the interiors, boost this, aerodynamic that—it was odd that Robbie did so well with a car that looked good, had all its upholstery, and could manage to amble along at twenty miles an hour without choking.
He wasn't the most emotionally stable guy in the world, but last year he'd had a breakdown. He seemed better this year, especially compared to the trolls Lisa had met at college, but she still remembered the weird scream before he—he'd lunged at Gabe and strangled him and Lisa had had to pull him off.
Guero still swore up and down that Robbie was the Ghost Rider.
Well, somebody had to be.
That about summed up life in Hillrock Heights: nobody had more than three degrees of separation from one or more very violent people.
She rolled over, woke up her phone, and checked Robbie's texts. He hadn't blown it up with new messages. Just one new one:
-Call me any time if you need a ride
That didn't exactly qualify as deranged, jealous stalker behavior. More like what he'd do if he was actually worried.
She rolled onto her back, phone on her chest. If Pyston was right about Robbie, then what if Robbie was right about Pyston.
Lisa was too young to have terrible taste in partners, but if she counted college, she was now three for three: mysterious, domineering weirdoes.
Two days later, Lisa’s legs hurt so bad she could barely stand, and her arms hurt so bad she couldn’t lift them over her head. She hobbled to her temp job and spent the whole day scooting around on her roller chair. She found a meme of one of those popular fitness trainers, Ronnie Ronalds or someone, who looked kind of like Pyston if Pyston wore bright red lipstick and bangs that covered half her face, screencapped midway through some kind of squat-jump in a pose like Burning Elmo, shopped on a background of red flames.
-This is totally you lol
Pyston responded half an hour later
-I can explain
-Lisa please you are amazing you light my life I love you Lisa
-You are amazing and thank you for putting up with my bullshit wherever you go I will always love you
-I didn’t mean to make a song I will always love you
Lisa stared at the phone.
-You said I’d be sore and I did the workout anyway *rolls eyes*
-I’m not breaking up with you bc you made my thighs hurt lol
-Are you ok?
-How do I delete sent texts
-Sorry about the soreness lol
-Remember 20 grams of protein
Suddenly, Lisa felt a little less foolish for how fast she had fallen for Pyston Nitro.
-You light up my life too you know
“A cemetery date?” Pyston teased as Lisa pulled her (stock, adorable, gutless) white Beetle up to the gate after dark. “Now who's the vampire?”
Lisa looked at her, anxious, her skin tingling, throat tight. She parked the car and walked along the fence, climbed over where someone had cut a gap in the barbed wire. Pyston boosted her up over the wrought-iron portion, and then hauled herself gracefully over the top after her. The thick springy turf was still wet from the sprinklers, soaking Lisa's sneakers.
“Who we meeting?” Pyston joked.
Lisa got her phone out and checked the headstones, trying to remember the last time she'd come here. She passed flowers, some wilted, some plastic, some fiber-optic and glowing in the dark. Headed over and between the graves.
“Here,” she said, stopping at a small, rectangular monument. Emmanuel Grocer. Two dates sixteen years apart.
Pyston stood at Lisa's shoulder awkwardly. “Who was he?”
“Just some guy,” Lisa said. Which was true. Emmanuel Grocer was never her crush or her friend or a friend of her friends; he'd been just some guy, a nerd who advertised as a tutor. Good at sports. Kind of weird-looking. A grade ahead of Lisa at the time. “There was a drive-by outside my school. Killed him.”
“Wow. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess,” Pyston said, and Lisa spun around, her limbs tense, her heart pounding, and so, so disappointed.
“It was by my school,” Lisa repeated. “Manny was in the right place. It was those idiots who just, shot randomly at the sidewalk, hoping to hit someone—they did it. They were in the wrong place. They killed him and they got away with it. And I hate them.
“We were all so scared ever since, but we still had to go to school. We didn't know what would happen to us when we left. I try to tell anyone at college about this, they tell me to go see a trauma counselor or they go, that Lisa O'Toole, she's from a crap-hole, don't mess with her, when East LA is not a crap-hole, it's not, there's so many good people, but we're all so scared, all the time, because of what idiots like the people who killed Manny do.”
“They probably weren't aiming for Manny,” Pyston said. “Not unless he was in something deeper than he let on.”
“He's not any less dead,” Lisa spat. “If they were aiming for someone next to me, and they hit me, I'm not going to feel better about it. I'd feel worse. Because it doesn't matter that I didn't do anything.”
“God, of course not. If anyone missed and hit you, I'd—what are we talking about, here?” Pyston asked.
“I don't like being scared,” Lisa said, her voice quaking with intensity. “People who hurt each-other because they want something, scare me. I hate anyone who's making Hillrock Heights worse.”
“Okay,” Pyston said.
“You look upset. You want a hug?”
Lisa clenched her teeth. “I have 'second-hand trauma' and 'survivor's guilt,' I'm not upset, I'm angry, and I have a really good reason—”
“Yeah. Yeah. Can I hug you?”
“Do you believe me?”
“That I hate anyone who makes Hillrock Heights worse. Makes us scared.”
Pyston nodded shakily. “Yeah. Yeah, I believe you.”
“Still think you want to give me a hug?”
“I do,” Pyston said, and Lisa dove forward and wrapped herself around Pyston's spandex-wrapped chest. Pyston nuzzled her ear, rocked her from side to side. Blew on her earring. “You want to get out of here?”
“You promise not to scare me?” Lisa pressed her chin hard into the muscle of Pyston's neck.
“Ow! Ow, shit, I promise, I'm not gonna, I'll do my best, okay? I promise. I'm not gonna scare you.”
Lisa nodded, let up with her chin. Gave her an apology kiss. “I'll hold you to that.” She tugged her away from Manuel's grave, back toward the fence with the gap in the barbed wire. “Do I still light up your life?”
Pyston muttered something.
“Nothing! Uptown Girl.”
“I'm not an Uptown Girl,” Lisa growled.
“You're my Uptown Girl,” Pyston said. “Far as I'm concerned, you're sweet and innocent and bright and sunshiny—”
“Oh my gosh, I'm not—”
“And I love you like that.”