Monday. Doomsday, but not for the usual reason. Wheels ghosts past Heather's locker, quickly, quietly, like he's slipping out of Grandma's in the middle of the night. Hiding from himself. No one will notice. French and Algebra 2 are fine. History is a close call, but he sits in the very back row.

No, he's undone by the passing period. And Snake, as always. Snake's hanging at his locker. He waves, and suddenly Wheels is over there, like a sleepwalker, without thinking at all. What are they even talking about? As soon as Wheels says anything, it falls out of his brain immediately. And when a thought falls out, self-consciousness elbows its way in to take its place. After Saturday night's party, he's never been so aware of his pimples or the stains on his white button-downs. But he stuffs all those worries into a little box in the back of his mind.

He's not really listening to what Snake's saying either, if he's honest with himself (which he's not in the business of being). It's mostly nice just being around him, watching the way he moves his hands when he gets excited and how his eyes light up when he's smiling. But then Wheels' brain turns back on and he coughs and pretends he wasn't thinking about much of anything.

As soon as they turn down the hallway, Wheels jolts awake. Heather and Erica are staring at him, both of them. Heather looks a little dazed, smiling placidly, while Erica is trying to melt a hole in his face with her laser vision. He freezes for a second— just a second— before his instincts override his sense of decency. Fuck her feelings. Better her heart gets broken than his jaw.

"Hi, Wheels," Heather says, vaguely breathless. She clutches her textbooks closer to her chest and beams.

He raises his eyebrows and smiles, tight-lipped, without his eyes changing. "Hey." Then he takes a long, lukewarm drink of water from the fountain. He stares into his reflection in the flat gray metal.

Heather looms, waiting, but then she shuffles off. Erica leans over and whispers, "You creep!" before rushing to her sister's side. Whatever.

He stands up and wipes his mouth. Crisis averted.

"You didn't call her."

Snake's still standing there, dangerously close to him. He sounds so disappointed, but not the way Grandma does, red and steaming and shrieking about Children's Aid. Snake stands with his hands hanging limply by his sides, his face fairly slack, stupefied.

Wheels shrugs and bites back the desire to redeem himself. "What was I supposed to say?"

"I don't know. Anything would've been better than that."

"Yeah? What would you have told her?"

Snake looks like he's waiting for the earth to swallow him up. He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out, like a slowly-leaking balloon. The radiators in the hallway have been turned on in anticipation of winter; the air is thick and heavy and smells like rust. It's choking him. Wheels holds his breath, but the silence remains.

He turns his back and heads to Chemistry.

Lunch is not a reprieve. "Dude!" Joey calls as he gets out of the lunch line, loud enough for the whole quad to hear. "I heard you got lucky on Saturday!" He nearly splashes Snake with his mashed potatoes in the rush to sit down.

Snake makes a face. "Classy, Joey."

"I didn't get lucky. It was like second base at most. Like, first and a half." Wheels picks at his sandwich. Bologna again. Hooray.

"Which one is second again?" Snake asks no one in particular.

"Well, Snake, when a guy and a girl love each other very much…" Joey starts in a syrupy-sweet tone, earning him a smack.

"Whatever, it's not important."

Joey's still leering over his tepid lunchroom meatloaf. "So how come you're not sitting with Heather?"

"He didn't call her."

Joey gasps mockingly. "Stone cold, man."

He shrugs and puts on his cockiest grin— channeling his inner Joey, really. He's never been great at that, but he's attempted it so often that the smirk comes readily now. "What can I say? I'm a player."

"Keep telling yourself that," Snake scoffs.

Ouch. Wheels shoves that comment into the little box too. It rots in the back of his mind.

He's halfway through his sandwich when he notices Joey staring off into space. "What're you staring at?"

Joey sits with his head in his hands and sighs.

Wheels glances behind him. Caitlin's sitting across from that dork with the suspenders. She's giggling, and probably not at his pathetic mustache.

"Is she really still going out with that loser?" Snake asks.


"Aw, c'mon, Joey, you just need to get your mind off of things," Wheels says. Poor guy. The mighty Joey Jeremiah brought to his knees by a girl. "Weren't you, me, and your dad supposed to go driving tonight?"

"Oh, yeah." Joey smiles faintly. "You mean you're going driving."

"Hey, it's not my fault he doesn't trust you behind the wheel. We'll take you up to a parking lot or something, buddy." Wheels grins, sincerely this time. Joey laughs, and out of the corner of his eye, Wheels sees Snake crack a tiny smile.

Though the school day crawls along at a snail's pace, Wheels finally manages to escape. He lags behind Snake a little on their way out of English like usual.

"What's taking him so long?" Snake leans back against the handrail of the steps.

Wheels shrugs. The sun is out, and it's nice to be outside in the fresh cool air together. If he lets himself, he can imagine the two of them lying in the grass of the schoolyard side-by-side, without Grandma or Joey or God knows who else breathing down their necks—but only if. For now he just enjoys the sun. For now, that's enough.

Caitlin bounds out of the front door hand-in-hand with Suspenders Guy— what's his name, Claude? "Three, two, one…" Snake mutters.

It's not within three seconds, but sure enough, Joey wanders out like a hapless puppy. "Knew it." Snake snickers.

"Hey!" Joey flashes them a thumbs-up. "Who's ready to go driving?"

"I wish my parents would let me drive," Snake says. "They said I have to wait until I take driver's ed."

Joey shrugs. "What can I say? My dad's cool about that kind of stuff."

As they start to walk home, Wheels asks, "What are you so excited about? You can barely pull out of the driveway."

"Yeah, okay, Mr. Big Shot. Gonna lord it over us once you turn sixteen?"

"Nah, I'll have to get a car first. If you guys are nice, I might even drive you around."

Snake puts on a falsetto. "But, Wheels, how can he impress Caitlin if he has to bum a ride off of you?"

Joey laughs sarcastically. "I'm getting over her, guys. It's just taking a while."

Snake and Wheels exchange a glance. "Riiiiiight." Snake punches him in the arm gently.

He'd never admit it to either of them, but it's hard for Wheels to hold it against him. Joey and Caitlin were joined at the hip for most of last year and all through the summer. They practically turned into one word, Joey-and-Caitlin, always a unit. The sucker was totally hypnotized. It was just barely too sweet to be nauseating, though Joey definitely walked that tightrope.

And God knows Wheels doesn't have any room to talk about getting over impossible crushes, no matter how hard he tries. So he puts up with Joey's babbling about girls. It's the least he can do.

Snake lives closest to the school, so they reach his house first. That's always a bummer, but at least he can breathe more easily knowing Joey's the same as he's always been.

The rest of the walk is like any other. Without really thinking about it, he remembers walking to Joey's on a fall day like today, eight years ago— not the first time he'd been to Joey's, but one of the first, back when they were young enough to jump into every pile of leaves they came across. Back when friendships were simple and fluid, built on nothing more than sharing a favorite TV show, completely transparent.

Wheels may be different, but Joey's always just been Joey. And sometimes that's a great thing.

"Okay, now slowly, slowly, take your foot off the clutch."



The stupid fucking piece-of-shit car sputters to a halt under Wheels' feet again. Mr. Jeremiah lurches forward in the shotgun seat and stifles a grimace. "That's all right, Derek, it just takes practice. Let's give it one more try, okay?"

"Come on, Joey, I totally know how to drive," Joey calls from the backseat, doing a pretty lame impression of Wheels' voice. In the rear-view mirror, Wheels catches a glimpse of his smirk. " I just have to burn out the clutch first."

"Well, I didn't know your dad was gonna make me start this thing on a f—friggin' hill." He grits his teeth.

"You'll have to learn sometime," Mr. Jeremiah replies, unfazed. "Push the clutch in and let's try it again."

Joey laughs. "Seventh time's the charm!"

Wheels yanks on the handbrake. "Joey, if you don't shut up, you're getting out and pushing." Next to him, Mr. Jeremiah laughs softly through his nose.

Okay. He gives the car a tiny bit of gas. Now for the clutch. Slowly, gently, carefully, he lifts his foot off the clutch...

The monstrosity of a car finally decides to cooperate with him and they inch their way up the hill. Joey cackles triumphantly. "See? I knew you could do it!"

Wheels laughs. "Sure you did, Joey."

"Okay, let's head down to First Methodist so you guys can practice parking. You know where it is, right?"

Not really, but who cares? It's great to be driving, to have finally gotten this damn boat under his command. If it weren't Mr. Jeremiah's car, if he could be alone, he'd roll the windows down and feel the wind in his hair. It's five o' clock; the sun is just barely peeking over the horizon, the last signs of daylight. He flips the headlights on. One day, this will all be in the palm of his hand— the wind, the sunset, the stars. And most of all, the freedom of having a car, of being able to go anywhere. He grips the steering wheel a little tighter and smiles.

"Okay, well, you missed the turn there, buddy," Mr. Jeremiah cuts in. "Circle around up here." From the back, Joey cracks up.

In the parking lot, Wheels reluctantly climbs out of the driver's seat. "Yeah, yeah," he says as Joey nearly shoves him out of the car. "Hey, what's the rush? Aren't you taking driver's ed next semester with Snake?"

"Only if his grades stay up. Now you're aiming for the space on the end, Joey." Mr. Jeremiah points as Joey buckles his seatbelt.

"Can you blame a guy for being eager? And I'm already sixteen, so I've got catching up to do."

"I took the driver's test—"

"—five times before you passed it, yeah, I know, Dad." Joey bumps over the curb. "Maybe I should've driven with Mom."

Wheels stretches out out in the backseat and half-listens. Briefly he considers taking his shoes off and napping back there, but Joey's erratic stops and starts jolt him out of his thoughts. He's not horrible, but the guy's got a lead foot. It's like driving with Grandma, only twice as fast. On the whole, though, it's not too bad. He doesn't get motion sickness, and Mr. Jeremiah is a good driver's ed teacher.

He remembers his first lesson with Grandma, how she nearly had a heart attack every time he turned a corner or edged near the speed limit. Dude, what are you practicing with her for? Joey asked, like it was a question with a real answer: Oh, man, you're right, I should be driving with my paraplegic grandpa, or maybe just take the car out alone. But sure enough, Mr. Jeremiah picked them both up from school the next day to practice, no questions asked, no thank-yous required. It was just a very Joey way to handle it. Words have always been superfluous with them.

As Joey backs out again for what feels like his seventeenth try at parking between the lines, he looks over his shoulder at Wheels and asks, "So what was all that about with Heather, anyway?"

He would pay a hundred dollars to never hear about Heather Farrell again. "I don't kiss and tell," he says, forcing a smile even as the intended sarcasm evaporates from his voice.

"Please don't." He can practically hear Mr. Jeremiah rolling his eyes.

Joey sounds breezy as always. "Sure, sure. Hey, did I tell you I called a couple TV stations yesterday? I'm gonna drop the tape off tomorrow during lunch."

Oh, thank God, he's talking about the video again. It's a thought as foreign to him as Gee whiz, I can't wait to get a root canal! He really is losing his mind.

"That's great," he says with warmed-over enthusiasm. "Did you cut everything together yourself?"

"Nah, I asked Caitlin to do it. She did all that photography stuff in junior high."

Of course. All roads lead to Caitlin. "C'mon, man. You have to get over her."

"Right now, you have to keep your eyes on the lines, Joey—"

"Well, I think I have a real shot. Have you seen that Claude guy? I mean, come on!" The car shambles forward.

"—okay, you're on the line, so back out and try again—"

"She says we're just not 'compatible' anymore. I mean, what's up with that? I can be political! I'll go protest stuff!"

"There's plenty of girls out there. You don't need to keep being stuck on Caitlin."

"Give me a break. Haven't you ever been in love?"

Joey jerks the car forward again. For a second, there's only the sound of the engine grumbling.

"What does that have to do with anything?" he finally sputters.

"I'm saying you don't know what you're talking about, man. You don't know anything about love."

"—you know, much as I'm enjoying this conversation," Mr. Jeremiah intones, "I think we'd better focus on parking."

The next day, things fall back into their old rhythm for the first time. Or maybe Wheels is just getting used to the knot in his stomach that refuses to go away. When his worries start to subside, school expands to fill the space they leave behind.

Thursday at lunch he's sitting out on the quad again, headphones on, sun out. It's the perfect environment to zone out in. Theoretically it would also be a good environment to study in, if there were such a thing. But his textbooks sit in his backpack. Wheels isn't going to spoil this with math.

A hand lands on his shoulder and Wheels nearly jumps out of his skin. "Sh—" He jerks his head up. Snake's standing over him. "You startled me."

Snake sits next to him, alarmingly close. "Sorry, I said your name and you didn't hear me." He reaches over and pulls one of Wheels' earphones away from his head. "You're gonna blow your ears out. What is that?"

Stop touching me and move over are sitting on the edge of his tongue, but Snake is less than a hand's width away from him and he's apparently lost his fucking mind completely. So he clears his throat and says, "Uh, Metallica."

"Oh, cool. I didn't know you were into metal-metal."

"Yeah, I got a bunch of tapes real cheap awhile back." He pulls the headphones down around his neck. The guitar keeps blasting through the cheap tinny speakers.

"Nice." Snake offers him one of his unreadable smiles. "Do you have any Maiden? I've got some stuff you can borrow if you want."

"Cool." He stares a hole into the table.

Snake cocks his head. "You feeling okay? You seem a little out of it."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. I'm fine, I just didn't sleep great."

"You sure?"

No, because you're sitting too damn close to me and I don't know why and not knowing what you're thinking is driving me totally crazy— "Yeah, don't worry."

Snake shrugs. He reaches over and plucks the headphones from around Wheels' neck. "Hey!"

"Oh, sorry. You mind? I want a listen."

He can feel every hair on his neck that Snake accidentally touched. "Go ahead."

Snake pops them on, the orange foam nearly blending in with his hair. He leans forward, elbows on the lunch table, chin in his hands. Snake's eyes always go a little glazed when he's thinking really hard about something, like he's looking into the far distance. Teachers got on his case about it sometimes, thinking he wasn't paying attention, but he's at his most focused when he looks a little spacey.

Wheels scoots away from him by a few inches. He looks back at the table. That way, nobody can catch him staring at Snake staring into space.

"You could probably do this bass part," Snake says, shattering the silence that, Wheels realizes, wasn't really there. The quad is as loud as ever. He just couldn't hear it.

He coughs and sits up a little straighter. "You think so?"

"Sure, why not? It's not too fast, and you're really good." Snake pops the headphones off and hands them back to him. "Don't look now, but here comes Joey."

Sure enough, there's Joey, charging at them from across the grass. "Hey, guys! Our video's gonna be on TV!" He sprawls out across the table from them. "Mark your calendars. Monday, eight-thirty. I'm taping it at my house."

"Nice!" There's a round of high-fives.

Snake cuts in. "Joey, nobody's gonna watch our music video."

"Sure they will," Wheels says. Joey's enthusiasm is nothing if not infectious. "Producers probably watch stuff like that all the time to find local talent."

"Calling us 'local talent' is pretty generous." Snake smirks.

"Who cares? Let's celebrate!"

"Yeah, let's go see a movie." Wheels glances over at Snake, scanning for any hint of a reaction.

"Bor-ing." Joey's got that devious look in his eye, the one that's almost always followed up with Trust me, this time everything'll be fine, I swear. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, guys. We need to celebrate with something extraordinary."

He reaches in his shirt pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, unfolding it with a flick of the wrist like a bullfighter unfurling a cape. He hands it to Snake.

It's a screaming-orange flyer with a drawing of a half-naked woman plastered across the front. Girls, girls, girls! Exotic dancers! Full nudity! This week only: half-price cover!

"Go to a strip joint?" Snake says, coughing out a laugh. "You can't be serious."

"Why not? It's half price, did you see?" He leans over and points.

"Joey, you have to be eighteen," Wheels adds.

"We've got fakes. Come on, guys. There's gonna be real-live naked women. Totally naked." God, he's practically drooling. For better or worse, there's the pre-Caitlin Joey they used to know.

Snake doesn't look at either of them. He stares intently at a spot over Joey's right shoulder. "My grandparents are coming over for dinner tonight. It's my mom's birthday."

"What, since when?" Wheels blurts out.

Snake shoots him a dirty look. "Since, like, fifty years ago, what do you think?" Ask a stupid question, I guess.

"Well, happy birthday, Sharon," Joey says casually. "We can go tomorrow. It says all week."

For a single frozen second, Snake glances down at Wheels and they lock eyes. "Sure," Snake says, his voice toneless. "Tomorrow."

Tomorrow. The word hangs over him, ready to fall.

It's Friday before Wheels knows it. Quickest schoolweek ever. Possible lies flash through his mind, but it's not worth it. It'll probably be fine. Just a waste of time— and hey, maybe the place will have good hot wings.

Snake's jittery as they stand in line outside the grimy club. He's still avoiding eye contact, but both he and Joey have grins stuck to their faces as they chatter to each other. They haven't noticed Wheels' silence. Of course not. Why would they? He tags along behind them, watching them laugh at their private joke.

Can he really keep this act up for two hours, or however long this is supposed to last?

Doesn't matter, he thinks. You have to anyway.

The entryway is plastered with Club Rat decals and more pictures of girls with their tops off— really trying to pound it into everyone's head that there will be naked women! here to see. Seems like overkill, but their clientele don't have a lot of blood in their brains. Maybe they'd forget otherwise. It stinks of cigarette smoke in here, too, and with all the people packed inside, it's disgustingly hot.

This bouncer looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here. Wheels sympathizes. "ID, gentlemen?" Joey digs through his pockets, so Wheels and Snake follow suit. This ID is so cheap that it's practically made of cardboard, but the bouncer barely looks twice. "The three of you together, that'll be thirty bucks."

"Thirty bucks?" Joey shrieks. He yanks the flyer out of his pocket. "This says half price!"

"During the week. It's Friday, so it's ten bucks each." The bouncer's voice is flat.

Joey stops in place. "Oh, well," he stammers, "m-my associates and I, we'll just get organized." Wheels rolls his eyes.

Joey herds the two of them into the back of the entryway, near the door. "Okay, how much do we have all together?" He holds out his hand.

Dutifully, Wheels hands over his six bucks.

Eventually, Snake pulls out a twenty— he's busy staring slack-jawed at every chick who walks by. Fucking wonderful. The cherry on top of this miserable experience.

Joey pitches in his four measly dollars. "Isn't that thirty? We're good," Snake says.

"No, there's a drink minimum. That's only enough for two people." Joey sighs. "Okay, we'll put the money in the hat," he says, taking his fedora off. "Rock-paper-scissors."

Snake stands transfixed, gawking at some girl in a feather boa.

"Snake!" Joey yells. "I said rock-paper-scissors, come on!"

"You know what, Joey?" Wheels snaps. "This is stupid. I'm going home. You two enjoy yourselves."

"Wheels, come on," Joey whines. "Rock-paper-scissors means you've got a shot."

"I wanted to see a movie." He glares at Joey. "And it reeks in here. My grandmother's gonna kill me if I come home smelling like smoke."

Joey slumps a little, shrinking away from him. "All right, I guess Snake and me will go. We'll tell you how it is, man."

And through all that, Snake just stands there, gaping at him like a fish. Saying nothing.

Wheels pushes the double-doors open and heads home.