We continue our draft preview of Dash: Into Space! If you just joined the read-along, you can catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Last episode, Dash had a study date with his dream girl, Astrid, that ended with Astrid walking Dash out to his car. Also there was a strange light in the sky…
Chapter 5: Head out on the Highway
Astrid recoiled. “What’s wrong?”
“Sorry,” said Dash, wincing at having said a swear word in front of the preacher’s daughter. “My car won’t start.” He turned the key again. “Dead battery. But I don’t know how.”
“You want me to jump you?” said Astrid.
“Errr…” replied Dash. His brain locked up as it tried to form a reply to what she obviously meant while picturing what he wished she meant. “Could you?”
“Sure! My Jeep’s in the garage. Have you got jumper cables? I do if not.”
“In the trunk,” said Dash.
Astrid jogged toward the house. Dash banged his head against the steering wheel. Bad enough he had to drive this pathetic junk pile. Now it was going out of its way to make him look like a loser. Stupid car!
Astrid backed her red Jeep Wrangler out of the garage while Dash retrieved his cables and propped open the hood.
Even with Astrid revving her engine, the Tercel wouldn’t turn over. After multiple tries, Dash gave up in disgust. Somehow the battery was completely drained. Or maybe the alternator was shot or a wire had come loose.
“No dice,” he said, shaking his head.
“Then hop in!” said Astrid. “I’ll drive you home. You can come back and figure it out after church tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?” said Dash.
Astrid leaned out of the window and yelled to Mrs. Castor, who was watching from the front door. “Mama, we can’t get it to start! I’m taking Dash home!”
“Sweetheart, your father can—”
“He’s still at his meeting!” said Astrid.
“I’ll call him and see—”
Astrid rolled her eyes. “It’s twenty miles, Mama! I’ll be back in forty minutes!” To Dash, she said, “Let’s go!”
Dash stowed the battery cables and retrieved his bag. He hesitated a moment, then went back and fished out the pack of Tygers wedged under the driver’s seat. He stuffed the cigarettes in his backpack before climbing into the Jeep. Before he could fasten his seatbelt, Astrid backed up, turned around, and sped down Church Street.
Dash clutched the arm rest and glanced at the side mirror. The nearest vehicle was a pickup about four blocks back. Astrid tore down the neighborhood streets and pulled on to the highway.
“Sorry to put you to the trouble,” said Dash.
Astrid laughed. “No trouble. We just had to git before Mama remembered I’m supposed to be grounded.”
“Grounded?” Dash was surprised. “What for?”
“I got in a little argument with my dad.”
“Er, what about?” asked Dash. Wait! Did she only ask him over because she was grounded and couldn’t go out tonight?
Astrid shrugged. “Something stupid. Doesn’t matter.”
The lights of Plainsville became a dim glow behind them. The state highway cut across the prairie, a dark ribbon through dark fields beneath a dark bowl of night sky. The stars were distant, the moon thin and pale. Only the brilliant blaze of Astrid’s high beams cut through the gloom.
“Do you really think that was a meteor we saw?” said Astrid, nodding up at the sky with her adorable dimpled chin.
Dash shrugged. “Maybe a satellite. It was the wrong heading to be the International Space Station, though.”
Astrid giggled. “You know all about space too, don’t you?”
“A little,” said Dash. Was she calling him a nerd?
“I like stars,” said Astrid. “They’re so high above the world and all our problems. Stars are so peaceful, you know?”
“Well, stars are actually violent thermonuclear…” started Dash. “I mean, I like stars too. I’ve got an old telescope my aunt bought me at a flea market. Nothing great, but okay for backyard astronomy.”
“And you can see planets and all with it?”
“Sure. Kansas is real good for stargazing, because everything is so flat.” Present company excluded. “I know lots of constellations. Those three stars in a row, that’s Orion.”
“I don’t know any star names,” said Astrid. “Except the Hollywood kind. But I know all the kinds of clouds. I used to want to be a weather girl. You know, like on the news?”
Dash grinned. Yeah, he’d never miss Weather With Astrid. “I wanted to be an astronaut. Maybe go to Mars.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t ever go up in space!” said Astrid. “It’s so dangerous! Like all those poor people on Maiden One!”
“Yeah,” Dash nodded. “That was pretty bad.”
Maiden One, the first tourist space ship, was lost with all aboard a few months ago. No survivors. Burned up in the atmosphere, they said. Knocked out of orbit by a freak solar storm. Experts thought it might have crashed in the Pacific, but the Navy never found any debris. Dash was glad he never found that winning bottle cap in the Maiden Cola “Win a Flight on Maiden One’s Maiden Voyage” contest.
“I don’t want to be an astronaut anymore,” he said.
“Well, I don’t want to be a weather girl anymore either.”
They both laughed. It felt good, laughing with Astrid, being here, alone together, except for the stars. Suddenly, Dash remembered something. A thrill of expectation shivered through him as he said, “Hey, what was it you were going to ask—”
“Would you hand me my purse please?” said Astrid, cutting him off without meaning to.
“Uh…sure.” Dash leaned forward and felt down around his feet. He passed a fringed buckskin bag with turquoise beading to Astrid, who placed it between her legs and pawed through it until she found a cheap plastic lighter and a pack of Morleys.
“You smoke?” Dash blurted.
“Do you mind?” she asked. She cracked her window open, put a cigarette in her mouth, lit up, and did all this while keeping at least one hand on the wheel.
Dash didn’t know if he was excited, disappointed, or what to learn this about Astrid. But the familiar scent of burning tobacco, even with most of the smoke whipping out the window, made him crave a cigarette himself. Did he dare?
“I can’t do this at home,” she said. “My little brother would rat me out for sure.” She glanced sidelong at Dash. “What? You going to tell me I shouldn’t?”
Dash shook his head. He extracted his Tygers. “Nope.”
Astrid laughed. “Dash Garnet! You bad boy!” She passed him the lighter.
He grinned. “Yeah, that’s me.” You like the bad boys, right? Dash lit up, hoping he could keep it Nick Tyger smooth and not embarrass himself with a coughing fit. Sharing this rebellious secret with Astrid made him bold enough to ask, “So what did you want to ask me before?”
“Before my car wouldn’t start. You said you wanted to ask me something.” Like, maybe, am I seeing anyone? Which I am not.
“Oh, yeah,” said Astrid. “Yeah, I wanted to ask you if you know that new guy. Wren McCord.”
Wren McCord? What is it with everybody and stupid Wren McCord?
Astrid pressed a button on the console. The thumping bass of a hip-hop anthem blasted the Jeep’s interior, along with lyrics that would peel the paint off Reverend Castor’s pulpit.
Astrid recited the words in sync with the performer: “‘Rootin’ in the boot, bringin’ the heat-heat all up in the street-street! Like Maguire you complete me, stone cold fever, won’t never defeat me.’ I love Kenyay, don’t you?” She turned the volume down. “Satellite radio. My dad has no idea what it can pick up.”
“I guess not,” said Dash.
“Anyway, do you know Wren? I don’t have any classes with him. But he dresses so cool, don’t you think? With those skinny 80s ties and the way he wears his hair all mussed?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” said Dash. He flipped his half-finished cigarette out the window, sullen. He immediately lit another, needing it.
“He’s the one who called in the ACLU for that lawsuit that’s got my dad and the council in a tizzy. Their stupid anti-dancing law is going down and I can’t wait!”
“I mean, how lame we can’t even have a prom?”
“I thought the ban was your dad’s idea in the first place.”
“Yeah, don’t remind me.” Astrid blew a long stream of smoke out the window. “No one in this stupid town had the balls to stand up to mighty Reverend Castor and his dumb law. Not until Wren McCord showed up.” Astrid took both hands off the wheel to flash some kind of gang sign. “First Amendment, bitches!”
“Uh…yeah,” said Dash.
“Do you know if he has a girlfriend?” said Astrid.
Dash coughed hard and flicked his new cigarette out the window. Wren McCord? He stared at the side mirror. Nothing but dark highway behind them. And nothing but dark highway ahead. “I have no idea,” he muttered.
The volume suddenly shot to full blast. The switched from station to station in rapid succession. Startled, Astrid jerked the wheel hard to the left, veering into the oncoming lane. Dash was smacked against the door.
Astrid cut back to the right lane, overcorrecting and running off on to the shoulder. The radio continued to cycle through channels, quickly reaching the Sports and Talk end of the spectrum. Then it went silent. At the same time the headlights and dashboard went dark and the engine cut out. The Jeep coasted to a stop on the side of the road.
“Oh my God, what was that!” shrieked Astrid. “What was that? What happened? Oh my God, I’m shaking!”
Dash was too. His pulse was pounding. He gripped the door handle so hard his hand cramped. He had thought Astrid was going to roll the Jeep and kill them both.
Astrid turned the key. “It won’t start! What just happened? What just happened? It isn’t supposed to just stop!” She banged on the steering wheel with both hands.
“Are you out of gas?” asked Dash.
“No!” she shouted. “No! I filled it up today!”
Dash took a deep breath. “Must be an electrical short,” he said. “A wire broke or something came loose.”
“Can you fix it?”
“I can look. Pop the hood. Do you have a flashlight?”
“I think so. In the back,” said Astrid.
Dash stepped out of the Jeep. The night air was chilly. He raised the hood, but could see only shadowy shapes.
“Flashlight?” he said.
“I found it, but the battery is dead!” said Astrid.
“Maybe your phone?”
Astrid rummaged through her purse. “My phone is dead too!” she said, starting to lose it again. “We can’t even call for help! Why is this happening?”
“We’ll be all right,” said Dash, though he wasn’t sure of it.
“Look, someone is coming! We have to flag them down!”
“Okay,” said Dash. The vehicle was about a mile back, coming from the direction of Plainsville. It was odd he hadn’t noticed the lights before. You could see a long way out here.
Astrid and Dash stood behind the Jeep. As the vehicle got closer, Dash saw it was a pickup truck. At a couple hundred yards out, its headlights found the Jeep. The truck slowed and pulled onto the shoulder about twenty feet behind them. The driver failed to dim the high beams, forcing Dash and Astrid to shield their eyes with upraised arms.
“Kind of a jerk,” said Astrid, squinting.
“Yeah,” said Dash. Without thinking, he stepped in front of Astrid. She clutched his shoulder nervously. Any other time, Dash would have been thrilled to feel Astrid’s hand on him. But right now he was almost as scared as she was.
A door opened. The pickup’s driver, an indistinct outline behind the bright glare, stood up on the running board.
“Looky here!” he said. “We caught us a couple of lovebirds!”
“Max?” said Astrid.
“I’m dead,” said Dash.
Uh-oh! Things are not looking good for Dash at all. Be here next episode, when Max says: “You can’t run forever!”
Thanks for reading!