The engine whined against my attempt to go faster. The yellow lines of the road went by on my left in a blur. The ocean on my right didn’t seem affected at all. It created the illusion that I wasn’t going fast enough. The gentle curves on this road begged to be taken at high speeds. I pushed down another inch on the gas pedal and the car lurched forward. My heart picked up speed and I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. Wind whipped through the cabin, sending my hair flying and drying the sweat on my forehead from my last practice of the school year.
Red and blue lights flashed in the rearview mirror. I pointlessly lifted my foot off the gas pedal, as if that would help. I looked for a place to pull off the road, already coming up with my story. By the time the cop reached my window, pad in hand, I’d thought of two great possibilities.
When I saw his face, all my excuses were gone. I sighed and rolled down the window.
“Charlotte Reynolds, we meet again,” he said.
“What is this, the third time?”
“Is it?” Crap. What were the odds the same cop had to pull me over three times? “My dad says hi.”
He laughed. “Your dad is a good cop, but his name isn’t going to get you out of it this time. Not when you were going fifteen miles over the speed limit.”
“Really? It couldn’t have been fifteen.”
“It was. I need your license.”
“Can I look at your radar, make sure you read it right?”
He raised his eyebrows at me and I grudgingly handed over my license. My dad was going to kill me.
I walked in the front door and threw my bag under the entryway table, still angry about the stupid ticket. “Where is everyone?” I yelled out. I followed the sounds of laughter into the kitchen. A blender sat in the middle of the island, surrounded by a bottle of Tabasco sauce, ketchup, and eggshells. Gage looked up and caught my eye.
“Charlie! Just in time.”
I could smell from the doorway whatever awful smoothie they had just created—it smelled like rotten tomatoes. “Oh no.”
“Oh yes.” Nathan snaked his arm around my shoulder and pulled me up to the counter. “Grab another glass.”
A glass was added to the others on the counter. “On three we down it,” Gage said, pouring some of the soupy concoction from the blender into five glasses.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked, looking at the four guys around the kitchen island. Three of them were my brothers—Jerom, Nathan, and Gage—and the other might as well have been—Braden. He’d been our neighbor for twelve of the sixteen years of my life and was always around.
“One, to prove we can. Two, to toughen our stomachs for the pounding they’re going to get in football tomorrow.”
“So, in other words, just to be idiots.”
“That too,” Gage said, holding up his glass. “Ready?”
“Losers have to wear it,” Braden said.
“Yeah, yeah, come on already. I want to run before dark.” I took a closer whiff. I shouldn’t have. It smelled worse than Gage’s closet.
“She’s not going to do it. Charlie’s chickening out,” Nathan said, pointing at me.
“No, you’re stalling.” He was right. I wasn’t going to drink it. But neither were they. That was the whole game here. We had done this before. Well, not this particular one, but various versions over the years. On the count of three, everyone jump in the pool. On the count of three, everyone yell, “I’m a loser,” in the middle of the mall. On the count of three, everyone lick the person to your right. It was a game of bluff. If one person did it, the rest had to do something stupid as a punishment. If nobody did it, everyone was safe.
The only person I was wary of in that moment was Braden. My brothers were so easy to read. Tonight, I knew they weren’t going to drink it the minute I’d walked into the kitchen—it was written all over their faces, twisted in disgust. But Braden, even after all these years, was still the wild card. I eyed him and he smiled at me.
Scared? he mouthed.
I shook my head and studied his eyes. They were hazel, sometimes more green and sometimes more brown. They seemed more green at that moment, and I tried to figure out what that meant about his intention. Was he going to drink it?
“Okay, close your eyes,” Jerom said. “Glasses ready.”
I closed my eyes. I did not want to wear this and have to take two showers tonight—before and after the run.
“One . . .”
Braden cleared his throat next to me. That was a bluff move, wasn’t it? So that meant he wasn’t going to drink it.
“Two . . .”
He bumped his elbow into mine. Crap, he was trying to trick me. So that meant he was going to drink it.
Better to drink it than to wear it. I downed the glass in three big gulps, gagging only slightly.
“Charlie!” Nathan whined. “Seriously?”
They all held a full glass in front of them. “Ha! Wear it. All of you.” I looked at Braden, who had a smug look on his face even though technically he’d lost. I had to learn his tell so in the future I could avoid the horrid taste that coated my tongue. My stomach wasn’t very happy either. “Mmm, tastes like V8.”
“Ew, Charlie, never date a guy who likes V8,” Gage said.
I rolled my eyes. Ever since I turned sixteen—the age my father’s dating ban officially lifted—my brothers constantly spouted off qualities they thought made a guy undateable. I was convinced that if I compiled all the things they had rattled off in the last six months, there would be no one in the world left for me to date. “Why not?” I asked.
“Because you can’t trust a guy who drinks his vegetables. Plus tomato-juice breath is raunchy.”
My entire mouth slowly heated up from the Tabasco sauce. Then I got a punch of pepper that made me gag. “Ugh. What did you guys put in that?” I turned around and gave my tongue a high-pressure wash under the kitchen tap. “There is no pouring going on,” I said, spitting water everywhere. I listened as they dumped the horrible concoction on their heads to groans and complaints. Not worth the taste in my mouth. I gurgled and spit out one more mouthful of water. “Okay, that was fun. Football tomorrow. You are all going down.” I shoved Braden on my way out of the kitchen and he laughed, obviously knowing he was the only reason I ended up downing the drink.
“Wait,” Jerom called. “I want to run with you.”