Keep Goin’, Boy
By Safiyya Bintali

The day I remember best is the day I fell in love.

That day, it was almost a whole month after I decided to run away from Pa and Ma and their little apartment in the city, to go stay with my friend Jace and some other guys. It was almost a whole month after Pa hit me for that very last time and that bruise blossomed all ugly on my forehead and I thought about how it’d be impossible to hide from people at school. I was able to hide everything else, even though the teachers already looked at me strange and asked me if everything at home’s okay. “Sure is,” I always said, because I didn’t know what they’d do if I said no.

Back then, I’d already known Jace and the other guys for a while. They were what people around town called “delinquents”, though I thought they stayed outta everyone’s way—mostly. I mean, before I knew them, I just saw them hanging around school and downtown a lot, backs against a wall, chewing gum. They weren’t in school when they were supposed to be. But that was all they did. If they did anything that might be odd, I guess I could say it was their watching. They were the watchers of the neighborhood—watching people, watching me, watching big cars and everything.

One day, before I went home from my junior high, Jace came up to me to talk and that’s the day we became friends. It was funny, I guess, how it all happened. He knew almost everything about me somehow. He knew about Ma and Pa and my favorite movie and the day I fell and scuffed my knee and how all the other kids laughed at me. He knew how people always looked at me strange.

I guess I thought it was a little, I don’t know, suspicious that he knew so much. Anyone would. But, you know, that Jace—I needed someone then, and there he was. So, what did it matter how he knew?

 

After all, he promised me that if I started hangin’ around him and the guys they wouldn’t judge or look at me weird like everyone else. And they didn’t. That’s the thing about Jace. No matter what, he doesn’t lie.

Every time we were together, they told me to run away and join them in a place where I wouldn’t ever have to worry about Pa or school or teachers looking at me strange ever again. I remember thinking about what they said and thinking about Pa and his terrible loud voice and thinking about Ma who always stood by all quiet no matter what he did to us. I remember the guys always telling me, “C’mon, Adam. It ain’t hard. You’ll be happy. Just come with us.”

I remember the exact second I decided to do just that. When Ma and Pa were asleep, I took a bag with a few shirts and a toy hoverboard I made from an old box to look like Marty McFly’s and other things I thought I’d need. Then I snuck out the apartment and went to the place Jace’d always meet me at, his and the guys’—and my, I guess—special “courtyard.” It was real close by my junior high, an alley but not quite, hidden partway by runaway vines. You had to jump a wall to get in. It took me a few tries like it always did, when I got over, boy wouldn’t you know it, there Jace was, all smiles and scuffed knees.

“Welcome home, Adam,” he said to me, and then we split a great big chocolate bar that was all crunchy the way I liked it.

I thought that was the best decision I ever made. Back then, it would still be an awful long time before I’d regret anything.

Still, regret wasn’t part of that wonderful day, the day I fell in love. There was this funny orange light washing over the trees that watched over the far-out place in the country where we stayed. It was like they were bathed in honey that's been watered down. The air had a nip in it—the kind that makes you want to zip your sweater up your chest. It was the type of weather I loved, and that weather was perfect, perfect for brewing feelings of love. That it did, the very moment I laid eyes on her. I couldn't find words to describe how I felt at that very moment, seeing such a sleek, long, perfect body encased in that golden light. What a sight—eye candy she was, y’know?—shining right before my eyes, her windows calling me in shimmers with every slight shift of the light. I knew exactly what she was before Jace told me the first word of her name.

“Ain’t she a beaut, Adam?”

Indeed she was.

“Chevy Chevelle, seventies. She looks a ‘lil rough, yeah, but I do my best to keep ‘er lookin’ good.”

Half her body poking out of Jace’s makeshift garage, I could see the Chevelle’s body was rough. Oxidizing paint on the hood, scratches on the side; Jace wasn’t real gentle, so I guess his hand wasn’t all too soft on the steering wheel either. So, sure, the body left a little somethin’ to be desired, but I didn’t know how hot she was under the hood and it wasn’t like I’d know anyways. I wasn’t any mechanic. I knew some bodies, I knew some names. Physics and all that engineering stuff—it wasn’t in my head. I was a kid then anyway. Nicks here ‘n there didn’t mean she suddenly wasn’t the car of my dreams.

I mean, I don’t like to remember much about when I lived at Pa’s house, but the thing I revisit sometimes is when I read his book on the American classics. So I remembered the Chevelle, and I remembered I loved it.

Now, there I was, standing just a foot away from that door to the driver's seat. That foot seemed so impossibly far at that moment. I had never even touched a steering wheel. I didn’t know my RPM from my horsepower, or even what they were. And still, all I wanted was to jump into the seat and drive, drive, drive, drive, drive.

I didn’t realize I was holding my breath til I felt Jace come up by me. I looked up at him. He looked strong, like a lion, even more so with the matted-up mane of hair he never bothered to cut. He slapped his hand down on my shoulder with a strength that skinny ‘lil me thought was powerful. Funny, he was only sixteen, something I consider such a tender age now. But back then, I was only twelve. I used to think someone who had just a year’s advantage was all grown.

Jace then nudged me lightly.

“You don’t wanna go back to your pa, right?” he said in a bouncy kind of accent I can’t place to this day.

“No, sir,” I said.

Jace nodded. He pulled the skinny cig he had in his mouth and studied it for a few seconds. Right then, he looked exactly like those people Ma always warned me about.

“See those boys, Adam?” As we passed them, Ma would point at one of the guys slouched against a wall, a lit cigarette glowing over his lips. “You’d best watch out for them.”

“They don’t look so bad, Ma,” I’d say back, so she’d smack me and drag me away with a huff in her breath.

Back then when I ran away, all I knew was that they were my people. Now, I know they’re just confused kids who try to find the real world too early and get into all the wrong parts of it. I wish I knew that then.

But instead I just watched as Jace stuck the cig back in his mouth and then turned to look at me.

“Well’en, Adam, you're gonna hafta learn things.” The smell of tobacco smoke I still associate fondly with Jace wafted in the air. “An’ I'm gonna teach ya the most important thing you'll learn with us. Drivin’.”

Driving? I remember how my heart furiously pounded. I felt as if with each breath I didn't take, my heartbeat would suffocate me. I looked at the Chevelle. She wasn’t scratched or rusty or anything all of a sudden. Her racing stripes shone and she looked fresh from the factory and everything inside her was absolutely one-hundred-percent perfect, even though it was like hell I really knew that anyways.

“In this car?” I croaked out.

“Mmmhmm.” Jace had such a warm smile right then. “Boy, here's a secret, ‘tween you ‘n me. She's such a prize that I call ‘er…”

His eyes darted back and forth, as if he didn't want a soul other than mine to hear. “I call ‘er my Pretty Darlin’.”

I stepped forward and pressed a single hand against the hood. It made kind of a scratchy sound as I dragged my hand across. It’s that sound that makes you think that, when you pull your hand away, it’ll come off rusty.

“Pretty Darlin’,” I whispered, as if it was a sacred name no one but us two could hear.

Soon as I said it, my hand to the hood, I felt something I never felt before. Yeah, yeah, it’s a little cheesy but…it—no, she—she felt right.

I’ll say now it’s been a while since that day. It’s been a while, years really, since Jace and the guys got too brave one day and had a run-in with the folks on the real bad side of town. When they did, I wasn’t there ‘cause they never took me to places where they’d come back, hands and pockets and bags full, with bundles of money and food. When they went out, the guys would sometimes bring me back candy, and when I tried to give them some, they said it was all mine and I didn’t have to share. Jace brought me back Hot Wheels a few times, all mint in the box, and even though he had a good few years on me, we still played racecars together.

I still wonder what they did on those days they left me in the place we stayed. Sometimes I remember how one or two of the guys wouldn’t come back and everyone’d look all messed up and dirty and scared. I would wait for the missing guys until it got dark and Jace told me it was time to go to bed. When he did that, I would tell him I needed to be here so they knew we were expecting them back, but then Jace’d get all mad and grab me and say, “They ain’t comin’, boy. They knew what they got ‘emselves got into.”

When Jace said that, I used to think back to what Ma said when she saw them in the streets, that they were crooks and delinquents and people good boys should stay clear of. But crooks and delinquents and people good boys should stay clear of don’t play racecars with you, even though they’ve outgrown it already.

I always wanted to go with them when they went out, but no matter how much I begged, they always said I wasn’t ready to come with ‘em, that I was a little kid—all the things that made me mad. I once heard it was Jace’s decision to keep me behind, and that just made me madder. It bugged me so much that they thought I couldn’t handle whatever they did, ‘cause I’d been staying with them for four years by then and I’d just turned sixteen.

In that time, Jace became my big brother, or at least that’s how I thought of him, even though he got on my nerves sometimes. It didn’t matter that there was no blood between us. He was everything a big brother should be, so that’s what he was. He was the best brother anyone could ever have—pretty close to perfect, with that just right blend of mentor, enemy, and bad influence. But down the road I’ve learned that when things get perfect, that’s their cue to go.

So, when Jace and the others made that mistake and stepped outta line, those folks didn’t forget. In fact, just a week later, they came for us all. Jace, he knew they’d track us down somehow. But he never tried to run away, never tried to save the guys, and that’s the thing I’ll never get. One morning before dawn, he just shook me awake with a look in his eyes I’d never seen, and in that low dawn light they were like a little fire about to go to glory in winter wind.

And all he said was, “Take Pretty Darlin’ and go.”

I’d just woken up but I felt somethin’, fear maybe, already in my chest. “You think I can drive her that well?”

“Heck, Adam, you think I’d ask if I didn’ think so?”

Then I felt cold, jagged key-metal in my hand and the warm rubber of Jace’s keychain of a lady at the beach whose color was half rubbed off. It was pressed in my palm with some insistence. He wanted me to go. Now.

I ignored what he seemed to want. “Why? Why do I need to take her?”

“‘Cause you don’t deserve what’s comin’. You’re better than all that.” Jace looked away for a second and whispered the rest of his words. “You can’t pay for our sins, boy. Only we can.”

“Sins? What sins, Jace?”

“The hell it matters.” He smacked me suddenly. “Get outta here.”

“But—”

In my sleep-smeared vision, I saw the outline of our little countryside camp in morning twilight, and I felt wetness from dewy grass grow on my pants as Jace dragged me out where the garage was. Pretty Darlin’ was half-out as usual. He slammed me against her metal, iced by nighttime air.

He crouched down to look at me square in the eye. “Get outta here, Adam.”

“Jace—”

“Do I gotta put you in the car too, boy?”

I don’t know why I backed down then, but I did. Maybe it was how his voice sounded, low like the growl an animal makes when it’s made its last threat.

“No,” I said, all quiet. I felt the keys in my hand. Stood up. My pants were heavy with mud and dew, and normally Jace would’ve killed me if I sat in her like that. But he stared me down with beast-eyes til I opened the driver’s door and climbed in.

When the door was shut, he looked away and put his head down. Though I couldn’t see most of his face, he looked almost sad. I’d never seen him like that before. Sometimes I wonder, if it wasn’t the early hours of the morning, if I may have seen a tear or two go down his face.

From Darlin’s open window, I heard him softly say: “You’re better than us, Adam. You’re the only one of us who deserves to keep goin’.”

Though my hand was right there, I couldn’t turn the ignition. I tried to process what I just heard, trying to make sense of it, my brain whirring, trying, trying, trying to understand. It’s been so long since he’s said those words, and even now I still don’t…

I felt a kick to Darlin’s front. There was Jace facing me through the front window, all beast-eyes again, his hair tangled and wild around his face, shining dipped gold as the sun trickled onto the horizon.

“Go, you idiot!” he roared, sending another kick onto poor, beat-up Pretty Darlin’. “Go! Go!”

I guess it’s nature for a little brother to listen, so the next thing I remember is driving away from our place. I remember it all well, yeah, but just the pictures, the things I should’ve seen, they’re a little fuzzy. The only thing I can picture real sharp is my heartbeat and the growl of that tough girl against the morning mud as I pressed the gas, and the sudden smoothness of the road. Then, beyond that, it was just endless road.

The first thing I can picture clearly is when it was already gettin’ dark and I was hungry so I parked down by a burger place. I felt for a dollar in my pocket so I could get fries or something, but all I came up with was a nickel. Then, I looked at the cupholder ‘cause Jace left soda there sometimes and I needed at least some sugar to keep me goin’. But instead, there was a roll of cash with a note stuffed through the middle.

Take care of my Pretty Darlin’.

Keep going. Don’t turn back.

Jace

So I took a five and got me a steakburger and fries and a strawberry milkshake with whipped cream and a glace cherry on top. The fries were kind of soggy, but that burger was the most wonderful burger I ever had in my life. After I finished, I filled up my Darlin’s tank the way Jace taught me and went down the road again. Thinking back, maybe I was an idiot not to question the wad. But, I guess sometimes it’s a smart thing to just shut up and go along with things. My big brother gave it to me, so who was I to question it? I was a kid then anyway.

By now, it’s been a while since everything went down. I can’t say exactly what I saw when I decided to drive back to the place I stayed with Jace and the other guys, but I’ll tell you I really wish I listened to Jace’s note. When I saw what they did to our old camp, to Jace, to the guys—heck, I’m surprised I could even recognize them in the state they were left in—it’s the first time I remember being so weak I fell to my knees and had to fight to get up.

When I saw them, all I could think of was how Jace said they had to pay for their sins. But I’ve wracked my brains for years and can’t turn up any sin they might’ve done. Thinking about it, what can you say about your people—no, your family—anyway?

When I could stand again, I realized I lost the only family I ever had. I lost everything. Then my chest felt like crunched-up paper and I was on my knees again. It took me a whole lot longer to get up after that.

I couldn’t even go back to Ma and Pa, ‘cause when I drove to our old apartment building after I left the camp, the doorman for the building said they moved away when I asked if I could go see them.

I remember walking out of the building and back to Pretty Darlin’ in the parking lot, trying not to cry, ‘cause Pa and Jace both said boys aren’t supposed to do that. But, what’d it matter? They weren’t here anymore. So that’s what I did. I sat on the asphalt by her wheels for I don’t even know how long until my face felt so sticky and my head pounded so bad I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I wiped my hands on my t-shirt which would tear with just a quick jerk because it was so old, and I opened the driver’s door and sat down and started her up. She purred. I cried again.

Through the blur in my eyes, I managed to look up at Jace’s note that I hung on the rearview. The night I found it, I stuck it with some gum to the plastic keychain hung on the mirror—incidentally, another girl at the beach—so I could feel like he was there with me.

Keep going. Don’t turn back.

I remember I nodded, like he was telling me that all stern-like.

“Wipe those tears, boy,” he’d say, “and keep on truckin’.”

So I did. There was the smoothness of the road and endless everything. Pretty Darlin’, her growl melted in my ears and trees fell into green blurs and the world disappeared as I went further into it. I remember then thinking how alone I was. It was just little Adam all by himself against the whole entire universe.

But, you know, I was wrong. I may have been alone then, but there was one thing I had left. Among all that loss, I had my Pretty Darlin’... and she still feels right.

Safiyya Bintali is a writer, children's illustrator, and undergraduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She primarily focuses on creative nonfiction and flash/short prose, and her work has been featured in Bridge Eight Press, You Might Need to Hear This, and Beyond Thought. She was also named the Fall 2022 Tiny Resident for Tiny Spoon Literary Magazine. In her free time, she enjoys studying classic cars, reading, and playing RPGs. You can find more of Safiyya's work on her website, safiyyabintali.com.