He’s just had a cigarette and a TicTac after doing a line on the console. His tongue tastes of tobacco and peppermint. The car is almost too warm. The engine’s running, the heat on full-blast. Still, goosebumps dot your skin. The light from the stereo shines lava red. It’s a raw, frigid night. The threat of snow hangs like a skullcap over Maple Lake.
It’s the eve of your fifteenth birthday. He’s seventeen. He’s giving you your birthday present. Here, in the backseat of his Camaro. Fourteen isn’t so young. That’s what he’s told you for weeks. You thought sixteen would be better, but now you think he’s right.
The car is enveloped by an arched snarl of brambles cut out along the lake’s edge. The bare branches flail in the wind and screech as they stroke the car’s roof. You think of horror movies. You love horror movies. The enclosure is enough to conceal the car from cops and passersby. You wanted to come here. This is where you want it to happen.
Your parents don’t know you’re here. They don’t know you’re with him. If they knew, they would forbid you to see him, ever. He’s not the right sort. You go to Catholic school. He doesn’t go to school at all. He’s too old. He smokes. He does bad things. To you, he’s perfect. They don’t know that he shimmied up the cedar tree next to your house, climbed onto the roof, tapped on your bedroom window, wanting to be let in. You told him to wait for you across the street in his car. You snuck out and ran along the deserted road. The thump-thump of the car’s stereo beat its rhythm from within. Taillights, cherry-red beacons. Exhaust smoke reaching skyward in the wintry air.
There are stories about Maple Lake. This part of New Jersey has lots of stories. Old ones. About these woods. Things people have seen, heard. You’ve read books. Every book you could find. You’ve told these tales to him. You write about them in your diary.
The windows are fogging. Good. There’s no moon. It’s so dark. Still, it’s possible to see things. Movement. Shapes. Flickers.
“Why Can’t I Have You?” by The Cars is playing on the radio. It’s important to remember that for your diary. You’re shivering, but not from the cold.
Are you okay? he says, not really caring, all quick breaths and awkward movements on top of you. You nod. Your bare back sticks to the vinyl seat.
You focus your eyes over his shoulder to the passenger window. It’s steamed up. But there’s something there. You think of the stories. Cloven hooves, red eyes, horns, wings. They’re just stories, he’s said. There’s no such thing.
His fingers. Your underwear. His belt. Your lips. His mouth. No one knows you’re here. Only him.
You look at the window again. It’s closer. Something big. Looming. Red.
Wait. Not yet, you say.
Not yet? Come. On.
There’s something there.
Where? he says.
Out there. Just outside the car. Something big. Moving.
There’s nothing there. Shh. C’mon.
His tongue. Your thighs. His hands. Your hips. The music. Candy smile, all the while, glinting.
It’s happening. This is it. It’s happening.
His body finally goes limp and heavy on yours. He breathes on your shoulder.
The radio voice says it’s 11:29. You’re still fourteen. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t caress or hug you. He just lies on top of you, sweaty.
Then at the window. Gleaming red.
Look. See it? you say.
He sits up. Rubs at the fogged window with his balled-up shirt and peers out.
There’s nothing there. What, you think it’s the Jersey Devil? Christ.
It could be.
He laughs, puts on his clothes, tosses you yours. Grabs his cigarettes and lighter from the console. He gets out to smoke and take a piss. You dress and think of everything you want to remember for your diary.
A tiny orange flame flickers outside, lights up his face, then fizzles. You climb into the front seat. Then, a thunk. The car rocks. You rub your cuff on the window and it squeaks against the glass. You press your forehead against the cold surface and look. Nothing.
Except for a distant glimmer.
You roll down the window. The cigarette pack is lying on the ground. Your breath puffs out of you in tiny, faint clouds. No sound but for the gentle lapping of the lake water.
Two bright red embers stare back at you from the shore. They start moving toward you. In the feeble glow of the taillights you can make out the shape of horns and the points of wings as it gets closer. It’s just like the stories.
No one knows you’re here.
It stops near the back of the car. The glowing slits of its eyes consider you. You smile. It seems to nod. Its leathery wings unfurl and go taut as it leaps up into the night sky.
You leave the warmth of the car, but you don’t feel cold. You begin the long walk home and think about what you’ll write in your diary. Your plans, maybe…for next time.
He was right. Fourteen’s not so young.