She looked over in surprise and then smiled when she saw him. He tried to gesture with his hands for her to peel away from the others. She understood immediately and gave him a nod. He rose, allowing her to pass beneath. The others realized what she had done and began to scatter too.
The kid continued to follow the levicar that had maintained the straightest course, but he slowed, hoping to remain the most enticing target for at least a little longer. So far, so good. The cops were still behind him and getting very near, but they were not yet close enough. The timing would need to be perfect, so he waited. If they were planning to use the grappling hook on him, they’d need to get close. That would give him more time. But if they decided to shoot him, then his time was up. His only consolation lay in the fact that he wasn’t dead yet.
He waited until the last possible moment before dipping low to throw up a compression trail of debris; then he accelerated. By the time the cops cleared the dust cloud, the kid was gone.
When he returned to the desert plain, Max and Dermot met up with him, and their miniature convoy flew back to camp. Dermot had followed the action as best he could from his little handheld readout, but he wasn’t going to wait to get the details. He demanded to know everything immediately over the radio. The entire camp listened in.
It was getting dark when they arrived, and flames were already dancing in the fire pit. The camp greeted the kid like a returning hero, slapping his back and congratulating him. George trotted over, put her huge paws on his chest and licked his ear as he gave her a hug. Dermot pulled out the whiskey, offered a toast and gave the first swig to him. As he handed the bottle to the kid, that same amused look came onto his face.
“I was wondering why it was taking you so long under that transport,” Dermot said. “Busy, were ya?” He laughed.
He didn’t understand the joke. “Of course, I was busy.”
Max stepped in and took the bottle from the kid. “This is your night.” He took a drink and handed the bottle back. “But don’t become like Dermot.”
He understood the warning. Dermot was a brilliant mechanic. He could take the random parts of a hundred different rusted heaps and turn them into the most reliable vehicle. There wasn’t any circuit he didn’t understand; there was no part of any drive system he wasn’t familiar with; there were no interdependent subroutines he couldn’t coordinate, but there were times he was downright useless with drink.
The kid nodded.
“That was some good decision making,” Max continued. “I wouldn’t have thought to lead the cops to the others.”
“I don’t know how any of it worked out,” said the kid. “About a million things went wrong, but you kept it all going right.”
“Nothing ever goes as planned. Life is just a never-ending salvage run. One wreck follows another, pretty much forever, until the last one kills you. You have to fix each disaster, or at least try, otherwise you may as well roll over and die early.”
The kid thought of all those times he and Dermot raided the dump yards, turning junk into something useful. He nodded again.
Nell interrupted them. “Nice job out there, kiddo.”
She took his chin in her hand and examined his face with a discerning smile, turning his head to and fro like she was looking for a crack in a combustion chamber.
“But I’m surprised you found time to fix the transport.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He wasn’t understanding their jokes at all.
Chuckles bubbled up around the camp.
“I’d kiss ya too,” she continued. “But nothing’s as good as the first, and I don’t like being second best.”
How would they know about the kiss? There was no way they could’ve seen. Was there a tell-tale smear on his lips? He wiped his fingers over his mouth and brought his hand away to look. Nothing.
Upon seeing this, the others broke out in laughter.
“When’s the last time you looked at yourself,” asked Quinny.
It had been months. Mirrors were not a high priority possession. By now the solar lights had blinked to life, creating hearty reflections on the glass panes of the levicars. He stepped to the one closest and examined his image. He saw it immediately. Tess had not smeared random lines on his face; she had painted a puckered kiss.
There was no point in hiding it. Everyone had seen. He turned toward the others with an embarrassed smile he couldn’t control and a blush as red as a desert sunset on his face. They gave him a standing ovation. He wiped at the mark with his hand and didn’t bother trying to explain how it had gotten there.
He went to sleep that night happy and slightly tipsy. He was seventeen, and he thought often of that kiss.