Out of Nowhere (Middle of Somewhere #2)(11) by Roan Parrish

I also answer some of the weirdest questions about cars I’ve ever heard, including, “Could you put together a car that had two front ends or two back ends?” from Gap Model, to which someone replies, “Course you want something with two back ends,” whatever that means; “Is it possible to have a second set of wheels so cars could move side to side?” from one of the twins; and “You know that flying car in Harry Potter? Could you make that?” from the kid in all black who hasn’t spoken since he walked in. I don’t know the flying car in Harry Potter, but the rest of the kids greet this idea with enthusiasm.

Then it’s over, and the time has gone so fast that I feel like I didn’t get to talk about even 10 percent of what I’d wanted to. The twins, Gap Model, and Dorothy wave good-bye to me and call out their thanks as they leave. Carlos thanks me and turns to Rafe.

“Good one, Conan. Way better than that modern dance bullshit.”

“You think I didn’t see you enjoying the hell out of modern dance, Carlito?”

Carlos mutters something and jogs away. The kid in all black waves good-bye just as he waved hello and wanders off in the other direction.

“Thank you,” says DeShawn, holding out his hand. “That was interesting.” Again, I’m struck by the softness of his voice, though his handshake is firm. Something about the way he’s trying not to seem threatening reminds me of Rafe. I mostly do the opposite.

“You’re welcome,” I say. He nods solemnly and starts to walk off, but Rafe catches up to him and they start talking about something I can’t hear.

Only Ricky is left, staring at Rafe’s car as if she’s still seeing its guts even though the hood is down now.

“You know,” I say quietly to Ricky, taking a page out of DeShawn’s book so as not to startle her, “with a photographic memory, you could learn cars really easily. So much of it is just remembering how the pieces interact; what goes where; which are the things that are different in one model versus another. You’d probably be real good at it.”

She sighs but doesn’t look at me.

“Probably,” she says. And she walks away, thin arms wrapped around her chest, hugging herself.

I’m packing up my tools when Rafe comes back over.

“That went well, huh?”

“You think? I—there was so much I could’ve told them. I don’t know if I picked the right stuff. Or if it’ll be useful to them.”

“They seemed to really enjoy it,” he says, and he sounds completely sure. “It interested them, caught their attention. That was my goal for it, and by that measure it was a definite success.”

“Oh, okay. Well, that’s good, then.”

“It is. So, thank you. Let me buy you lunch? There’s a great burger place a couple blocks from here.”

As I load my tools into the trunk, Rafe stands close enough that I can smell him—warm and spicy and clean—and I fight the urge to lean in and sniff him by slamming the trunk shut hard and digging my car keys into my palm.

The burger place is a little hole-in-the-wall with stools under a bar built into the wall. Rafe’s posture is casual and he seems totally concentrated on enjoying his burger, so I try to do the same. I force myself to relax, muscle by muscle, like I do when I can’t sleep.

I have the strangest feeling that I’ve been transported to some other world, like in a science fiction movie. Like I woke up this morning, got in my car, and at some point, drove through a—what do they call them in those movies: wormholes? Yeah, I drove through a wormhole and now I’m here in some alternate North Philly with this person who doesn’t exist in my real life, doing things I’d never do in my real life, like the workshop, feeling like I never feel in my real life. Almost… what’s the opposite of miserable? It’s like a warm charge in my chest. Energy, maybe, but not the kind of fidgety energy I usually have that compels me to run or lift until I can sit still without ripping myself apart. This is—fuck, I don’t know.

“Are you going to eat?”

“Huh?”

Rafe points to my burger, which only has one bite taken out of it.

“Oh,” I say. “Yeah.”

I haven’t figured out how to talk to Rafe yet. Fortunately, shoving food in my face gives me a great excuse not to. We don’t know each other, so there’s nothing to catch up on like there is with Xavier. No “How’s your mom?” or “Is your officemate still a jerkoff?” Usually, that would mean small talk, but Rafe has shown himself to be uninterested in that so it seems silly to bother.

“So, um,” I say, “I didn’t catch some of the kids’ names. Can you go through them again?”

Rafe’s eyes light up and I know I picked the right topic.

“Carlos,” he begins, and I nod. That one I got. “He’s a nice kid. I think he’ll calm down some. He’s been coming to the YA for about three years.”

“YA?”

“Youth Alliance.”

I nod and keep eating. The burger is really good, despite the fact that the floor is dirty and I can’t even tell what color the walls are supposed to be.

“Then there’s Dorothy. She talks tough, but she looks out for everyone. She’s a poet. Really amazing.”

“Who were the twins?”

“Oh, that’s Sammi and Tynesha. They’re not twins, they’re cousins, but they do everything together. They just started coming a few months ago, so I don’t know them that well. Edward is quiet—”

“Is that the Gap model? White T-shirt?”

“Shit, he does look like a Gap model.” Rafe smiles. “From the nineties.” He shakes his head. “Yeah, he’s quiet, but if you get him talking about music, he’s all right.”

“What kind of music?”

“Not sure, exactly. I don’t usually know most of what they listen to. But I’ve heard him talk a lot with Mikal about experimental music from, I don’t know, Sweden or Iceland or something. Not really stuff I know anything about, though it sounds interesting.”

He gets a look in his eye that I take to mean he’s going to look into it. Rafe seems interested in everything. I respect it, that curiosity. Like he genuinely cares enough about some teenager to look into the music he likes so he can talk to him about it. I can’t even imagine Pop doing something like that. Or my brothers, for that matter. Well. No, Daniel would do that. Hell, Daniel did do that. He’d ask me who did a song and then ask me things about the band. Then the next time that song came on the radio, he always remembered it.

“So what kind of music do you like?” I ask.

“Honestly?” Rafe runs a hand through his hair. “I mostly end up listening to whatever radio station the kids put on: Top 40 or hip-hop or alternative, usually. I think I know the words to every Taylor Swift song, but I wouldn’t know her if I fell over her.”

“Taylor Swift—I—wow.” I can’t help but laugh at the picture of Rafe singing along to Taylor Swift, but he smiles at me, not seeming embarrassed by it, really.

“What would you listen to at home, then?” I try to predict what he’s going to say; I’m usually pretty good at that, but he’s jammed every signal I have for this sort of thing and I really have no idea.

“I don’t listen to music that much,” he says. “Mostly in the car, and I don’t drive that often. I like country some. I used to listen to mostly rap and hip-hop when I was younger, but that was when I was with friends. Yeah, country. Bluesy country I like a lot. Mostly when I’m home, though, I listen to podcasts.”

“Like the news?” Just the sound of those people talking puts me to sleep.

“No. I like ones about history or politics, sometimes science. Do you listen to podcasts?”

I shake my head, my mouth full.

“They’re usually about specific topics, like… the Boxer Rebellion or black holes or how icebergs work. And then, depending on the show, they go into different levels of detail on the topic, tell stories about it, that kind of thing.”

“So, they’re like little documentaries?”

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