The Bright Altar Of The Dashboard
by zara hemla

Bright expects any day now that he'll have a surreal experience. Amy sees ghosts; his father is a born- again Chinese medicine spouter; his aunt has come home from the rain forests and given it all up for Everwood's cozy, rarefied atmosphere. Yep, any time now, Bright's going to fly off to a magical wonderland full of elves and pixies, and they're going to give him ambrosia to drink and sprinkle him with fairy dust.

Half-asleep and half-imagining, he drifts down the two-lane road in his pickup, knowing that he should know better than to drive seventy-five in a forty, but he's a Colorado boy and they drive like maniacs. It's a pride thing.

The road sings under his tires. Twilight has dropped a grey veil over the October evening and the full moon is out. The radio's shuffling through crappy alt-rock and playing Damien Rice, who should've stayed a failed '90s rock icon, in Bright's opinion. The dark wind rushes through the half-open window and into his hair. And suddenly in front of him, there are headlights that come toward him, bounce once, and go off the road.

It's startling, surreal. Bright jerks to attention and says, "What the hell?" He checks the rearview: there are no lights as far as he can see, in front or behind. Only the two that are over to the left of him, slightly crooked, shining like a nasty reminder of what can happen if you aren't careful. Bright pulls over. What else can he do?

He pulls his navy windbreaker off the seat beside him and slides from the cab, shivering in the chill wind. As he crosses the road, the car in front of him takes shape in the darkness and, in keeping with the craziness, then turns out to be an honest-to-Pete, holy fucking Aston Martin Vantage Volante, the cherriest of cherry cars, or Bright knows nothing about the automotive world.

"Sheeit," he says reverently. "What's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?" He almost puts his hand out to touch the matte grey paint, but doesn't. And that's lucky, for a shadow rises from the right side of the car and a very soft voice says in a clipped British accent, "Hello."

Bright jumps backwards. "Dude!" he says inanely, and only then notices that the car is right-hand drive, and that's why the shadowy man came from that side. He also notices that while he is framed brightly by the car's headlights, the man with the clipped British accent has neither moved nor put himself into any light.

"You need any help?" he says. "Maybe you have a cell. I don't know." Geez, his brain says, can you sound any more stupid?

"My car," says the man, and it sounds like, "cah." "It's the tire. I'm sure I can fix it . . ." and there is a long, audible pause, and the voice continues thoughtfully, "but I'm sure I can use your help. You look very brawny."

That makes Bright laugh for real, huffing white breath into the trailing wind. "Brawn's all I got, mister. Let me at your wheel."

"All right." The man moves back to open the car door. In the weak light of the car's interior, Bright spots blond hair, cut brutally short; white skin, a long neck, thin lips. As he stares, the man releases a catch in the dashboard and then turns his head to look directly at Bright. His eyes are cobalt blue, ringed by black. He stares back at Bright, then smiles widely and pulls out of the car.

"What's your name?" he asks Bright, and Bright tells him. He holds out his hand to the man, and the man takes it, but does not step into the headlight beam, so Bright is forced to step forward.

"Bright," says the man. He sounds like he's laughing.

"Yeah. I know." Bright is starting to feel a bit annoyed. Here he has stopped and tried to help, and now his name's getting made fun of by a guy who won't even reciprocate. "My mom has weird ideas."

"No no," says the man. "On the contrary. It suits you." Then he pauses and this time, Bright is not sure what the silence means. Then the man says, "My name is Sark."

"All right," shrugs Bright, thinking that the man shouldn't make fun of names, with a name like his. Thinking, but not saying. "And the tire?"

"Right." Sark moves to the back of the car, roots around, and heaves out the spare tire. Bright sees clearly enough, now that he is out of the light, and he watches Sark lift that tire as if it weighs nothing. He feels goosebumps rise on his arms. Stronger than he looks, says the little voice in his head. And beautiful. Have you noticed?

Bright has. It's partly the cold and partly the dark and mostly the lovely line of Sark's muscles against a white t-shirt that tightens the skin across Bright's chest and pebbles his nipples. He catches his breath and hugs his windbreaker closer. This isn't happening. It's a dream. This guy doesn't need help to change his tire. So what does he want?

Sark carries the tire, the jack, and the tire wrench over and sets it down. Bright crouches next to the wheel and lets his admiration -- for the car -- disguise the rest of it.

"This is one sweet machine," he says, faking for cool. "Vantage Volante, am I right?"

"You are," says Sark. He leans over to help Bright set the jack, and Bright can smell peppermint and smoke on his breath. "And I'll be calling the dealer in the morning about these tires. I'm glad I had to slow down on the county road." "Where are you going?" asks Bright. "Little late for a spin."

"Nowhere," replies Sark. "And I'm not coming from anywhere either, if you follow me." He sounds mildly amused, as if fending off awkward conversational sallies from a teenager is all in a day's work.

"Sure, fine. And you don't do anything either. It's so black ops." Bright begins on the lug nuts and sets them each down in Sark's white, moon-lined palm.

"Black ops? Nothing like that. I'm just a businessman." The British accent is amused and almost charming, the way it puts questions aside unanswered. He and Sark both heave the wheel off and set it aside, then put on the spare. It is a full tire, not a doughnut, and it's inflated to full pressure, as if Sark had actually expected a tire to blow at any time.

Bright spins the lug nuts and makes sure they are just as tight as he learned in his shop class. Sark asks casually what town he's from and Bright says, "Everwood."

"Ah! I passed through it on my way. A charming little place. Small. You ever get tired of it?"

"All the time," says Bright, and the words stream away on the wind as if they mean something. "All the fucking time."

Sark goes around to put the popped tire in the trunk, and Bright stands hugging himself against the cold, waiting for something, he doesn't know what. And here it is, as Sark comes up and puts a hand on his arm. "Bright."

"Yeah?" He feels heat radiating into him, dispelling the fall chill almost entirely.

"As a thank-you, do you want to take the car for a bit of a spin?" He sees Sark's teeth flash white in another disarming smile.

"Hell yes," says Bright fervently. He eyes the car and his brain tells him, Get behind that wheel or you'll never forgive yourself. When does a kid from Everwood get to drive a two hundred thousand dollar orgasm on wheels?

He huffs at his own humor, goes around to the right. Slides in and watches the very long line of Sark's thigh as he swings his leg into the passenger side. The seats are warm already and the motor turns over like it's been waiting for him all its life. Bright pulls out carefully past his lonely pickup truck and eases back out onto the road.

Going down the county road he is mindful of the right-hand drive, but the car almost drives itself. It slides through gears with barely a touch, and the motor practically hums the chorus of Beethoven's Ninth, it has so much power to spare. There is no vibration in the wheel, and the power steering takes the curves in lovely long esses.

Sark doesn't fiddle with the radio or make any nervous moves as Bright experiments with the turns and six-speed shift. He merely tips his seat back a little and laces his fingers behind his head. He doesn't even put a seatbelt on, which almost prompts Bright to say something very responsible, but in the end he gives up. If they do go off a cliff, they will probably be going so fast that they'll be paste.

That's damn exciting of itself, and Bright shifts up to fourth, gritting his teeth in concentration, caught between the heated seat and the amused stare of his strange passenger.

It doesn't seem any time at all until he merges to the highway. It's not really a highway like I-80, which is the big-ass piece of road through Denver, but it's as close to a highway in rural Colorado as it gets -- four lanes. Darkness has truly fallen now and Bright guns the engine, seeing no one ahead and only two cars behind which rapidly fall back as he revs up to one hundred and twenty miles an hour.

He has never, ever driven this fast before. His father's dire warnings and his rickety truck have seen to that. This speed is terrifyingly lovely. He concentrates on the road and when he flicks a glance back at Sark, that enigma simply smiles back at him.

"Only one-twenty? Why stop there?"

He grins at Bright and Bright grins back at him. This is better than weed or that nice whiskey in Colin's dad's liquor cabinet. This is better than the squirming sex he had by a bonfire with the opposite team's head cheerleader. Better than the two drunken makeout sessions he barely remembers from the frat boys' rush. Here, now, this is electricity. He punches up to one-fifty. The road is straight in front of him, which he is thankful for: part of him is screaming in terror and the car is getting harder to handle.

"I like a risk-taker," comes Sark's voice from the left side. "In Europe they have the Autobahn, where there isn't any speed limit. Almost makes me want to go back there."

This piece of information is distracting. Bright tries to imagine a road where everyone is going this fast and fails. But Sark seems to anticipate it. "The Europeans on the whole are a stodgy lot, and they don't open up as much as they should. But here in America -- who drives sixty-five in the West? Even in LA they're going ninety on a good day. It's a concept you Yanks should adopt."

Bright is pretty unprepared for an argument about the national speed limit, and anyway he doesn't want to argue, so he changes the subject to match his mood. "If everyone drove like this, people would be happier," he says, and it sounds inane, but it's true. This is speed in its purest form, and he knows that anyone who tries it will love it.

"'The key in having a key, and putting it in, and going?'" Sark's voice is amused, and Bright frowns, not understanding. "I'm agreeing with you, Bright. Good driving is like good sex. Not great sex, mind you -- good sex."

"Then I haven't had any great sex," says Bright from the heart, "because this beats the shit out of anything I've ever done."

Sark laughs at that, not a mean laugh but one of camaraderie. "You will someday. But this will always be in your top ten." Bright risks another glance at him and then looks away -- Sark's gaze is superheated, his eyes blue as an October morning. Oh hell, why not admit it? Bright is more attracted to this stranger, this blond clipped soft-mouthed man, than he has been to anyone else in his whole life. The cheerleader had been for prestige and the black- haired, half-drunk frat boy for curiosity. But what is sizzling through his body now is neither of those things. It's pure motor-boosted lust, and Bright should know lust well enough, so why kid?

He glances back at Sark again, and takes a chance and smiles his charming smile, the one he's always showing Ephram in jest because he knows Ephram has half a crush on him. "This is fuckin' A of you, to let me drive like this." They have been on the road for about twenty minutes, by Bright's guess, and he begins to think about turning around. Unfortunately.

"It's my pleasure," says Sark in a way Bright can only describe as lazy. He props one booted foot on the dashboard and Bright can feel his gaze, hotter than the seat warmers.

The next turnoff is two miles later, and Bright reluctantly slows down. They flip around and head back west, buzzing by other cars as if, in Beach Boys lingo, they were standin' still. Bright knows he's never going to be able to drive that heavy-ass truck of his again without wishing -- well, wishing for whatever. For a stranger's eyes on him, for an acceleration pedal into the night.

They don't really speak again during the drive back to the truck. Bright says, "Oops, sorry," when he jerks the wheel too hard, and Sark just smiles. "My timing is for shit," says Bright ruefully. And Sark says it's all right and Bright feels him reach over and twine a finger negligently through one of his curls. A whole-body shiver goes through him and, speeding or not, he almost slams on the brake in reflex.

And Sark doesn't stop it either. For the next fifteen minutes or so, by Bright's feverish count, he drives a hundred and forty-five miles an hour and his passenger silently plays with his hair. No one has touched his hair so gently since he was five and his mom brushed it for church. His scalp prickles and it's gentle, so gentle, that he can still concentrate on the road -- mostly.

He pulls back onto the county road and sadly, eventually he sees his truck waiting for him. Mist is lying low along the field, and he can imagine its damp grab as he pulls carefully over to the side so he can get out.

He turns to Sark to tell him -- what? Thank you? That was the coolest thing that will probably ever happen to me? Something less pathetic than that. His mouth is even half-open when Sark smiles and interrupts him.

"Your mother was right," he says. Bright hesitates, thinking stupidly that Sark is talking about his hair. But Sark leans forward and whispers an inch from Bright's mouth, "You are bright. When you stepped into those headlights you looked like Michael or Gabriel, come by some mistake to take me up to Heaven."

Bright pauses and must look very blank, because Sark takes pity on him. "Angels, Bright. They're angels." He smiles sweetly and puts one hand on Bright's leg and one on his shoulder, like the biggest stalking cat in Colorado. Bright lets his head fall back against the car window, knowing what's coming next, wanting it, and shuddering when he feels Sark's breath against his neck.

Eventually Sark kisses him, but not before he's writhing and clutching the steering wheel with his sweaty left hand. He's maneuvered for space, as Sark has too: Sark is sort of kneeling on the emergency brake, his hands in Bright's hair, and Bright has one knee under the steering wheel and the other shoved against the seat front. He's trembling and he can feel Sark trembling too.

His shirt is rucked up to his armpits and his jeans are down on his hips: Sark's hands are everywhere, tracing ticklish paths from top to bottom. Bright has sort of reciprocated by getting as far under Sark's white t-shirt as possible, but the car is very confining and both of them keep muttering, "Ow" and scooching around to make room.

It's not exactly working out as planned. Bright's brain is full of images, mostly of the two of them skin to skin, but somewhere else. The back of his truck? Too cold. His bedroom? Yeah, and how to explain that one to his mom.

"How old are you?" asks Sark against his navel.

"Se -- sev -- seventeen," Bright finally manages, and Sark actually sits up so fast he whacks his head on the ceiling. Bright, bemused, can only think that he looks like he put his hand into a box of kittens and come out with a lobster.


"Um . . . twenty?" tries Bright, but it doesn't wash. Sark only twists his mouth a little into a smile. And there is a long pause which fills Bright up with worry.

"Well, this is a predicament. I don't know what to say. I thought you were . . . older. Not that one wants to bring in the real world, but we are strangers."

"Well I sure as hell don't know where you've been," Bright says half-sulkily. Which provokes a short laugh from Sark as he surveys his conquest. Bright doesn't know what Sark sees, so he watches him -- hair messed up, shirt awry, half in moonlight, grey and white and gold.

"Everywhere," he says. Only Bright knows there's something wrong, because Sark drops his head and lets out a long breath, raking his hand through his hair as if he actually had any.

Bright waits, feeling the cold glass against his back, and when Sark neither moves nor speaks, he begins to tug down his shirt. Something is creeping in under the lust -- not shame, exactly, but a feeling of extreme youth, like he's ten years old and trying to say something adult at the dinner table and all the grownups're about to laugh and say, oh, how cute.

"Hey man, I'm sorry," he says kind of haltingly, not because he is, but because it seems like the right thing to say. "I'm gonna --" and he makes a half- aborted head-jerk toward his truck. Sark looks up at him then, and his eyes seem shadowed and full of pain.

"No," he says, "no," and takes Bright's hand and holds it palm up, staring at it. "Don't you dare." It seems half directed at himself. Bright waits again and when Sark looks up at him, the lazy look is back as if it had never gone, and Sark's teeth show white in a grin of pure delighted evil. Whatever half-stupid feeling Bright may have had evaporates and he smiles back, the smile of a conspirator.

"Here's what we'll do," says Sark. "I'm afraid my scruples are getting the better of me, but I reckon you're eighteen sometime next year?"

"May," says Bright and smiles. "Thirteenth."

Sark's answering smile is almost as bright as the moonlight. He reaches over to the dashboard and pushes a button and a little box lights up. Bright leans forward to peer at it: it's a GPS with a little map in it. Cool. Sark punches a button and a pleasant female's voice says, "Your current position is . . . United States . . . Colorado . . . County Road thirty-nine . . . mile eight. Do you need driving directions?"

With another flick of his fingers, Sark turns off the box. He surges up against Bright like a tidal wave and whispers hotly in his ear, "And so seven months from now, what is that, May fifteenth or something, shall we make it the fifteenth? You are going to drive up here to mile eight -- easy to remember, it's eight like infinity -- in your truck at dusk, and it's going to be a bit cool in May, so you're going to bring some blankets for your truck bed, and you're going to think of a place we can go where it's just us and no stupid Yank tourists looking for bears or whatever it is you do out here in the wilderness. And then, my bright boy, it will be just you -- and me."

Bright whimpers, because the thought of it is about as sexy as anything, and he wants it now, not in seven stupid months when who knows what will happen? Which seems to strike Sark too, for he whispers again, "And if I don't show, for I might not, then I will find you if I am not dead. All you'll have to do is wait for me." And before Bright can ask about what the blue fuck that means, Sark slides his hand into Bright's underwear and drives everything out of his head except the short, sweaty quest for something that's better than driving an Aston Martin.

Afterward Sark won't let him reciprocate. He simply says, "I can't," and silences Bright with kisses. Bright, soft as Jell-O, can only sprawl out on the seat and watch Sark smile as he cleans off his fingers.

"Where are you going?" he asks Sark lazily. "When you start up the car."

"Los Angeles." Sark isn't looking at him, he's looking out the window into the night. Bright wants to ask more, but he doubts he'll get an answer. He feels a little lost and strange, here in a place where he will never be again.

"Will you really be here in May?" he asks abruptly. "I mean, don't shit me. What's the damn difference between me now and me then?"

Sark looks back at him, those cobalt eyes greyed by moonlight. "Well . . . why don't you come with me to LA? You can even drive. And you never have to go back to your little town." He looks serious, and Bright stammers out a reply.

"Well -- I -- I can't -- my parents -- and Amy -- oh shit, and school -- they cut off my football scholarship, so now I have to study. . . . "

Sark hears him out to the end of it, then nods. "That's the difference, Bright. What if I come back in May and want you to come with me?"

Bright frowns. "And what if you come back and I'm not here?"

"Then I'll leave you alone. I'm not a child molester," and Sark grins at him. "Am I?"

"Fuckin' A you are," says Bright and shoves up from his reclining position and uses his superior weight to bear Sark backwards for once. The windows steam up with their breathing and they spend long minutes kissing, breathing into one anothers' mouths. It's good to be in charge, decides Bright. Excellent.

Eventually they stop mutually, because there's only so far you can go, and they just sit for awhile, then Bright pulls up his jeans and finds his windbreaker, which is stuffed in the backseat. He puts it on and he eyes Sark for a minute and Sark eyes him, and then they smile at each other and Sark twines a finger into Bright's curls.

"Go home, sleep well, angel," he says, "dream of me."

And Bright just smiles, because there's no way he won't.

After that he gets out of the car and goes back to his clumsy truck and, shaking with cold, he watches the Vantage Volante accelerate down the road until it's not even a speck of taillight. And after that, he climbs in the truck and puts the heater on high and sits there, trembling not with cold now but with plain arousal. He puts his head down on the steering wheel and laughs at himself. Tells himself that there is no way on the planet that any of that just happened.

And just before he puts on the headlights and drives back to his little town, he puts his hand in the pocket of his windbreaker and feels something small and metal and plastic. And he pulls it out, and it's one of those sweet space-age keys that barely looks like a key, and on it in swirly silver printing it says, "Aston Martin." And Bright smiles very softly, closes his hand around that key, and puts it back into his pocket, and goes home.


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