"You did what?"
Even with the air conditioning humming and the windows closed, Seth could hear Ryan's incredulous voice in his bedroom. Beside him, Summer stirred slightly, and he brushed a hand across her rumpled hair, ghosting a kiss across her eyelid and wishing her deeper into sleep.
Since Marissa's death earlier in the summer, sleep had become elusive for them all. Summer refused the drugs that Dr. Roberts had plied Julie and Kaitlin with, memories of the step-monster's foggy existence still too fresh in her mind, so she slept in fits and starts, jerking awake with nightmares. Seth had learned not too take it too personally when she nodded off after -- and once even during -- their times alone together in bed.
At least she would sleep. Seth was convinced that Ryan had been awake without a break since the night of the accident -- medical science be damned.
When he awoke in the middle of the night, he could hear the tv in the family room playing old black and white movies. Often, his father or mother was there too, slumped over and dozing, but Seth could always see the rigid line of Ryan's back as he stared at the screen, glassy-eyed. If he crept down the stairs for some post-nooky sustenance in the pre-dawn light, Ryan was already sitting, slumped, at the counter, his second cup of coffee cooling in front of him. If he wandered by the pool house at any point during the day or night, Ryan was engrossed in a novel, or doing endless sit-ups, or always, always, pounding away at the bag in the corner as though he could see Kevin Volchok's face before him.
On some level, Seth recognized that the kind of grief that Summer and Ryan were feeling was far different from the detached sorrow he himself felt for his one-time next-door neighbor, but he was worried and exhausted all the same. The people he loved most in the world were out of control, and he had no idea how to make it better for them.
He eased himself gently out from under Summer's sleeping form, covering her with a blanket before heading downstairs to see what had caused Ryan's shout. He could still hear Ryan's voice, softer, but still louder than whoever was talking to him, still sounding amazed and, frankly, more animated than he had in weeks.
When Seth entered the kitchen, both his parents were at the table, staring doggedly at the newspaper and pretending not to be monitoring every syllable of the conversation happening just beyond the French doors.
Seth could already see what had them so interested -- Taylor Townsend. He should have guessed. She was the only one that seemed to be able to get any reaction at all from Ryan lately -- even if that reaction was usually complete confusion.
She had returned from South Korea and the DMZ only a week or so after Marissa's funeral, and not, apparently, voluntarily. Seth wasn't sure what had happened -- why Sung Ho was still in Korea and Taylor was currently living in her mother's guest house and muttering about community college -- because, if he was honest, he really didn't care. Or rather, he did, but he just couldn't handle one more person's emotional crisis at the moment. He had been brought up to be the center of attention, not the stoic rock of emotional comfort. It wasn't his fault he was completely unprepared for a situation like this.
But he had to admit that he was glad she'd returned. As soon as she'd heard about Marissa, she'd put her mind towards fixing things -- fixing the remnants of the Core Four, now and forever diminished. She set up outings -- to movies, at strange theatres with foreign films and no Imax; to tiny beachside restaurants in tacky tourist towns far from the diner; to a new spa, just for her and Summer, with an "amazing" woman who was somehow better than the infamous Suky. Another person might have tried to be more subtle about it; someone less manically focused might have worried that she was wedging herself into hole she couldn't fill. Taylor just ploughed ahead.
And Seth was grateful, he had to admit. Glad to share the burden of Newport grief counselor with someone whose idea of a good idea was not watching all three Lord of the Rings movies in a marathon, forgetting that pretty girls and pretty boys died prettily all over the screen.
What really amazed him, though, was how she handled Ryan. While Summer had left them all a way in, Ryan had shut down completely, and only Taylor seemed to be able to rouse him.
Summer had cried and railed and kickboxed her heart out. She'd thrown herself against Seth, sobbing, and against Ryan, punching, and had come out on the other side. Now, she was determined to go on, to live life the way Marissa never could. She made Julie and Kaitlin go with her for mani-pedis and she dragged Seth to Fashion Island to shop for sweaters. And she made sure to talk about Marissa every day, to mention her purposefully and in casual conversation, until her voice stopped shaking on the second syllable every time.
Ryan, on the other hand, avoided them all. It wasn't an Oliver-level shut-down -- with the lowered shades in the pool house and the blank staring at the ceiling -- but he acted as though he'd been made of wood. He'd talk about current events, or movies, or even extra-long twin sheets, but each and every time Summer uttered her best friend's name, he left the room as though she were radioactive. He wouldn't talk to the Kirsten about the upcoming semester, or Sandy about the ongoing search for Volchok, or Summer about the way that Kaitlin and Julie called him day and night, sobbing, in his official capacity as The Keeper of Marissa's Last Moments, and he wouldn't talk to Seth about anything more serious than DC versus Marvel.
But Taylor, in her typical blunt way, had had enough of that. The first night she'd made plans, they'd ended up standing outside the doors of the pool house, peering in through the blinds as his parents made uneasy small talk with them about whether or not they'd make the first showing of Superman Returns that night. Ryan had been laying on his back, tossing a ball aimlessly up in the air towards the ceiling.
"Maybe -- maybe you girls and Seth should go without Ryan," Kirsten had finally said, uneasily. More than anyone else, his mother seemed attuned to Ryan's barely perceptible moods, so Seth had been willing to let it go and leave him behind, but Taylor had simply nodded as though in agreement and then marched over and opened the pool house door.
"Ryan," she'd said, as though they were picking up an interrupted conversation, "We're going to miss the previews if you don't get a move on."
Ryan had mumbled a response that Seth was pretty sure included some creative profanity, but it hadn't deterred her at all. She had entered the room and sat on the edge of his bed, and batted the ball out of mid-air on his next toss, causing him to sit up, startled.
"Honestly," she'd said, as though she'd been seeking his opinion on Winter Formal themes, "Is this helping at all?"
He'd shaken his head blearily, as though trying to clear it, and had finally answered in a voice creaky with disuse.
"No. Not really."
"Yeah, I didn't think so. So why not stop freaking everybody out, take a shower, and get out of the scary little house for a while," she'd suggested brightly. "It's the Newport Way."
He'd shot her a confused look, but already, his feet were swinging towards the floor.
"What is?" he'd asked, but he was already heading for the shower.
"Pretending," she'd hissed, her sunny facade crumbling momentarily, but by the time she'd turned back to Seth and Summer, fiddling with the knot of the sweater she'd worn over her shoulders, her smile was back in place.
"We might have to make the later movie after all," she'd chirped, and that had been the beginning of their strange, weirdly honest friendship.
Even today, it was hard for Seth to wrap his mind around it. Ryan was dressed in his standard attire these days -- a grey t-shirt and an old pair of olive-green sweatpants, His hair was tousled, and his knuckles were free of blood, which meant he'd probably been reading when she'd disturbed him, not fighting another endless round with his faceless enemy. Taylor, with her back to the doors, was dressed in a sky-blue shift, her perfectly straight hair caught in a perfectly symmetrical clip at the nape of her neck. She looked like she'd wandered into a gym by accident on her way to a garden party, as Ryan flung his hands around, still arguing animatedly.
There was a paper shopping bag sitting on the kitchen table at the end closest to the patio, but before even his parents could stop him from peaking in, Ryan stormed past Taylor and into the kitchen, still talking over his shoulder.
". . . Are completely crazy," was all Seth heard before he jumped back towards the kitchen island, trying desperately to look busy as Taylor trailed into the kitchen on Ryan's heels.
"Everything okay out there?" his father asked mildly, looking up from his crossword puzzle as though he'd been utterly absorbed in it.
Ryan snorted and waved his arm toward Taylor in what was, for him, a dramatic gesture.
"Taylor bought a car," he said, as though that were the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.
"That's wonderful, honey. How exciting for you!"
His mother stood up, beaming, already eager for details, but Ryan cut her off ruthlessly.
"No, it's not exciting. It's ridiculous," he spat. "Ask her what kind."
"What kind?" Seth blurted. It was hopeless. Like Roger Rabbit was helpless before the power of Shave and a Hair Cut, he could never quite resist a rhetorical question.
"A red one," Taylor said excitedly, even as Ryan snorted again behind her. He was going to lose an eyeball, Seth was pretty sure, if his eyes rolled back any further in his head.
"Red is not a kind of car," he muttered through gritted teeth. "Red is a color."
"Well, we're not all big car buffs like you, Mr. Goodwrench," Sandy said mildly, and Taylor turned to him, beaming.
"That's exactly what I said!" she agreed, and the two shared a little knuckle bump, "It's a convertible!"
"Ooh, I always wanted a convertible," his mother cooed, "I wanted to tool around San Fransisco like Steve McQueen in Bullit."
She stopped at the gape-mouthed looks that Sandy and Ryan were shooting her.
"What? You're the only two that are allowed to watch old movies? My father loved that chase scene."
"Well, then, you'll be happy to know that you just might get a chance. Tell them what you bought," Ryan ordered, as Taylor started towards Kirsten. "Tell her."
"Oh, you're just jealous," Taylor said breezily, "That's why you're all upset."
But Ryan folded his arms across his chest and stared her down. After a moment, she tossed her hair and waved her hands as if he was being completely unreasonable.
"Fine. Be that way. Mr. Lee Iacocca over here thinks I bought a lime."
"A lemon," Ryan hissed, as Taylor waved him off again. "You bought a lemon."
"Oh, now really, Ryan, how bad could it be. I know those dealers'll try to bleed you dry, but if there are real problems I'm sure Taylor can take it back. After all, Veronica certainly knows how to drive a hard bargain," Sandy said, then stopped, noticing that Taylor's bubbly mood had vanished almost immediately.
"No, Mr. Cohen, my mother didn't buy this for me. It's all mine. I used my graduation money -- I bought it used," she said, more subdued, and despite his moratorium on Other People's Problems, Seth found himself wondering what, exactly, had happened between Taylor and her mother this summer.
But Ryan was already off again.
"I bought it used," he mimicked in a voice that was surprisingly close to Taylor's own, "That's like saying that Sherman had a little barbeque in Atlanta! You bought it out of 'some guy's' front yard because you liked the paint job! You don't even know what you bought! You drove it here in first gear!"
Apparently, that was a bad thing. Ryan sounded like Seth did when someone read a classic X-Man comic outside of its protective sleeve.
"Well, the guy said it was okay that I only could only drive in first gear, because it couldn't shift into any of the others! I thought that meant it would be easier! How was I supposed to know that you need all of them? None of my other cars do."
Ryan dropped into a kitchen chair, pushing the bag out of his way as he buried his head in his hands.
"Yes, Taylor, they do. They just have automatic transmissions, so you don't realize that they're shifting the gears for you. Have you ever even driven a stick shift?"
"Well, I got it here, didn't I? That's got to mean something, right?"
He lifted his head to look at her.
"And you got it up the hill? To the top of the driveway?"
Taylor looked away for the first time.
"Not -- exactly. It sort of rolled to the bottom. But it stopped! I just figured, well, maybe you could take a look at it?"
"And do what?" Ryan asked quietly, but he was already turned back towards her, listening.
"I don't know! Car guy things! Show me how to get it up the hill. It's really pretty, and I can't afford a new one, and I'll be dam -- darned if I ask my mother for another dime," she finished fiercely.
Okay, now Seth was intrigued. This was becoming less potential Other People's Problems and more possible telenovela by the moment. His parents looked taken aback by Taylor's outburst, but Ryan was already standing, reaching out and bumping his shoulder against her in a friendly way.
"Okay, okay, fine. I'll take a look at it. See if there's anything we can do with it. If not, we're going to drive around until we find 'some guy's' house and persuade him to give you your money back. You didn't pay him in cash, did you?" he asked, but Taylor was already blushing.
"He said that we wouldn't have to pay taxes that way. It seemed more cost effective," she protested as Ryan shook his head again.
"Did he at least give you the pink?"
"The pink slip. The title to the car?"
"Oh! Oh, yeah. That's in the glove box. The radio's in there, too, which I thought was kind of weird. He said I just had to take it to the DMV and get new plates."
"You have to do a little more than that, Taylor, but we'll figure it out, okay?"
She nodded, and Seth could see a little of her earlier enthusiasm return.
Seth wasn't quite sure how it turned into a Cohen family field trip, but he found himself trailing behind as they all trooped through the house and out the front door, only to stop in a confused heap just outside on the front step. Ryan had stopped short as soon as he caught sight of the car parked crookedly at the bottom of the driveway, half in and half out of the street, and they'd jumbled themselves trying to stop behind him.
"Oh my God," he breathed in a quiet, awed voice, "That's a 1965 Mustang convertible."
Seth had to admit that it was kind of a neat-looking old car, with its candy-apple paint job and its red-and-white seats.
"See? Isn't she pretty? I was thinking I might call her Jane, after Jane Austen," Taylor said, but Ryan was in a world of his own.
"Is that the original pony interior? And did you say that the radio was in the glove box? Are those mag wheels? Seriously?"
He looked at the faces around him, but Seth could only shake his head along with everyone else. Ryan was talking crazy.
"You know," he said, under his breath, to no one in particular, "There are times that I really miss Trey."
He gestured to Taylor and they walked to the bottom of the driveway together. She stood off to the side as he ran a reverent hand over it, raising his voice so that the Cohens could hear, too.
"Jesus, this is a primo paint job," he said as he squatted down for a better look. He waved Taylor into the driver's seat and popped the hood, staring intently down at the engine for a few minutes, then asking her to start it.
The car coughed and bucked, a thin trickle of black smoke rising up from the back exhaust as it backfired, startling them all.
"Christ! Was it doing that the whole way over?" he shouted and Seth saw Taylor nod.
"Well, the exterior's cherry, but this engine is for shit," he called to her.
"Ryan. Language," Kirsten called, and he waved an apology.
"Sorry. Um, we're going to have to go to the store and get a bunch of stuff before I can even try to fix what's going on here," he said in a more normal tone of voice as Taylor turned off the knocking engine, "Can you back it up and park it in the street?"
"I don't think it goes in reverse," Taylor offered, even as Kirsten was simultaneously shaking her head.
"Oh no, Ryan, you can't leave the car parked on the street. Someone will call the association."
Seth saw his shoulders tense as he dropped the hood back into place.
"Okay, then, can you get her to the top of the hill?" he asked Taylor shook her head and started to slide back out of the driver's seat, but Ryan was already turning back to the Cohens.
"Can any of you drive a stick?" he asked without much hope.
Seth held his breath. Ryan, although he had tried not to make a big deal out of it, had not been behind the wheel of a car since Marissa died. He knew his parents where worried, but since he'd been able to ride in the car with them, they hadn't pushed too hard, but he didn't think that either of them could help him now.
"Sorry, sweetie, Bullit's still a fantasy for me," Kirsten answered.
Ryan twisted to look at Sandy, who was holding up his hands placatingly.
"Don't look at me, kid. I was raised in New York City. I didn't even learn to drive until I was twenty-two, and that was in little Miss Bullitt over here's Honda. We could call a tow truck . . ."
But Ryan shook his head.
"That's ridiculous. It's just got to get out of the way so we can take another car to the auto-parts store. I'll get it," he said, but Seth could see him pale beneath the bright morning sunlight.
Taylor got out and walked around to the passenger side, shutting the door behind her with a loud thump.
"Taylor, you can wait for me at the top," Ryan said nervously, and Seth watched as he ran his hands down the front of his sweatpants as if to dry them off.
"No way. I already hiked up it once. Plus, it's my car. I want to see how you do it. I'm going to have to learn, you know."
Seth hadn't realized how intently he'd been watching until the front door opened behind him and he jumped. He turned around to see Summer's sleep-wrinkled face staring owlishly back at him.
"Hey, Cohen, spaz much? What's going on?" she asked muzzily, as Seth's parents parted to give her a better view.
"Oh my God, is that Atwood driving that car?" she asked, and Kirsten nodded, putting a finger over her mouth in an exaggerated motion.
"We're trying not to make a big deal out of it," she stage-whispered, but Ryan had already started the car and pulled it up, lurching only slightly, onto the little-used concrete apron in front of their three-car garage.
"You're doing an excellent job of acting nonchalant," he said dryly as he put the car into park and turned the noisy engine off with a confident gesture, "I didn't notice you all watching me like hawks. Not at all."
"Oh, sweetheart, I'm sorry," Kirsten began, but Ryan waved her off.
"Hah, it's okay. It was sort of starting to be a thing. That's probably not a good idea. Um, speaking of, we're going to have to do a bunch of work -- do you think maybe Taylor could leave it here for a while -- I'll put dropcloths down and everything to make sure there's no mess, I promise," he said, as Taylor squealed behind him.
"You'll help me? Terrific! I knew you'd be good at this! It'll be, like, our summer project," she said excitedly. "I knew you'd say yes. I already have something for it."
Without another word, she dashed back into the house, leaving Seth and his parents to look carefully at Ryan.
"Are you sure you want to do this, kid? I mean, we can pay for a mechanic even if Veronica won't for whatever reason," Sandy started, but Ryan looked like someone had just told him that they'd canceled Chrismukkah.
"Sure, Sandy, I mean, if guys don't want the trouble, that's not a bad idea," he said, looking down at his hands, still clutching the old-fashioned keys.
"Ryan," Kirsten asked softly, "Do you want to fix the car up for Taylor?"
He looked up at her with pleading eyes.
"It's a '65 Ford Mustang, Kirsten," he said, as if that explained everything.
Beside him, Seth felt Summer stir.
"I've seen that look in my father's eye, Kirsten. I think you have to hear "Ford Mustang" and think "Manolo Blahnik." Then it sort of all makes sense," she said. Seth was not about to tell her that it made it a little easier for him to understand too.
"Well, if that's the case, then feel free to do whatever you need to do. We've got some tools in the garage . . ."
Ryan looked down at the floor again, blushing.
"Yeah, um, no offense, but you've got a Philips head screwdriver and a band saw. I was thinking that I might take some of my savings and buy a used set -- I know the guy Arturo and Trey used . . ."
"Absolutely not," his mother cut Ryan off, and Seth wanted to kick her when he saw Ryan's face fall. For a moment, he had looked, almost, but not quite, happy.
But she continued as though she hadn't seen it too.
"I don't want you back there getting black eyes again. You take our credit card and you go -- wherever it is people go in Newport for that kind of stuff. You buy whatever you need. We paid for ten years of Camp Takahoe for Seth -- I think we can fund one summer project," she said, and Ryan's face lit up again.
"Great! I mean, thank you! I'll just go get changed, and then, um, maybe we can borrow a car?" he asked tentatively, but before he could answer, Taylor came bounding back out of the door.
She was dressed in form-fitting grey coveralls, her hair now pulled back into a neat French braid. There was a blank white circle on her breast, where a name would be, and she was clutching the paper bag from inside.
"See! I knew you'd want to, so I made a stop. You can put yours on and we can go. You don't even have to get changed! I had to guess at the size, but I have to take them back anyway and get the names put on -- they couldn't do it this morning while I waited.
Seth was astonished to hear a short, sharp bark of laughter from Ryan as he peered into the paper bag.
"You got us matching coveralls? You drove this piece of sh-- Sorry, Kirsten, this piece of trash to town in first gear to make sure that we had matching coveralls? Why?"
"Well, I figured it would be dirty, and I didn't want to ruin my outfit," Taylor said, as if that explained it all.
"What would be dirty?" Ryan asked, even as he shimmied into his own grey jumpsuit. It was, of course, a perfect fit.
"Fixing the car. I'm an independent woman of the 21 st century, Ryan. I want to learn to fix my car. Oh, and then to drive it."
Ryan laughed again, and Seth gasped as Summer nudged him in the side with her sharp elbow. He didn't need the reminder, though; he could see what Summer saw -- Ryan was smiling. It was the first time, Seth was pretty sure, that anyone had seen that since that afternoon at the model home.
"I think we can arrange that. Anyone else want some basic car care lessons? How to change the spark plugs, a flat tire -- anything like that?" he asked easily.
"Ryan, my man, that's why God invented the AAA. We Jews are not a tire-changing people," Seth said, and saw his father's enthusiastic nod of agreement, but before he could stop her, Summer was making an inquiring noise.
"Actually, Atwood, that might be cool. My dad loves this stuff -- we could totally bond over, like, old cars and stuff. How dirty would I really have to get?" she demanded, and this time, for sure, Seth saw Ryan grin.
"We'll get you a coverall, too. And maybe one for your little boyfriend, too," he laughed, and Seth wanted to protest, but Summer was elbowing him again. God, her elbows were so bony. He needed to take her out to eat more often.
"I don't really think this is my thing," he protested, but Taylor was already talking about whether or not they should all get nicknames embroidered on their patches, and the girls were pushing him towards the Range Rover.
Sandy dug the keys out of the pocket of his board shorts, and tossed them casually in his direction. He reached out to grab them out of habit, but to his surprise, Ryan caught them neatly in his hand.
"I thought -- maybe I'd drive," he said with uncharacteristic deference, but Seth acquiesced happily.
"Sure. I'm always happy to ride shotgun and supervise the selection of tunes," he answered, and sent a little covert "thumbs up" to his parents as he waved goodbye.
At the door of the Range Rover, Seth saw Ryan take a deep breath and square his shoulders, but otherwise he looked fine. He checked to make sure that everyone had a seatbelt on, then back smoothly down the driveway with a casual wave to Sandy and Kirsten. They were all silent, as if be agreement, until they reached the edge of the gates, when Taylor and Summer started talking about coordinating outfits with the interior of the car. Seth looked up from the important task of picking a new CD as they glided to a stop at a red light, only to find Ryan looking at him with a genuine grin plastered over his face.
"What? What? Is my hair winning?" he asked.
"No. I'm just picturing you trying to change the oil on the car," Ryan said, and Seth thought even that might be worth it, just to see that smile again.