The neighborhood pool was a gala of the cul-de-sac's who's who. It took Ray's mom two months of campaigning to throw Ray's tenth birthday party under the pool's main gazebo.
Ellie was also at the pool, but not for the party. Her parents used the pool like a summer daycare where Ellie could be somewhat supervised by lifeguards blowing whistles at kids running around with wrinkled toes.
Balloons shingled the gazebo. Frosted faces crowded around birthday boy as a lit cake was placed in front of him. "Happy Birthday toooooo youuuuuu."
Ray knew the protocol but could only see Ellie across the pool through a sliver of people. She was sitting cross-legged on a lawn chair staring at the party like a painting. Ellie was the last thing he thought of before he blew out the candles.
Ellie and Ray remained backdrop in each other's lives until one day when Ellie was 16, she walked across the cul-de-sac and climbed up Ray's steep driveway with an idea.
It took Ray a minute to understand who was knocking on the front door. When he answered, she used his name like she knew him.
"Ray, have you ever been to the junkyard out on Richmond Road?"
Did she want something from him? Was that a bad thing? "I don't think so."
"You like cars?"
"I don't dislike them."
"They gotta '66 Charger." She waited for recognition. "First year of the fastback B-bodies."
"Okay?" For years, Ray's dad had painted Ellie and her family as hoarding weirdos, but with each new year, parent labels were becoming harder to trust.
"They're worth like 50 grand restored. It's just sitting there rusting."
"I don't know how to restore a car."
"You don't have to."
The saddest thing Ellie owned was a collection of auto repair manuals: '73Dodge Dart, '84-'90 Dodge Caravan, '92 Saab 900... all chock full of diagrams and procedures begging to be performed.
When Ellie was 13, she took apart the family lawnmower to figure out how it worked. When she had put it back together, she realized she hadn't felt jumpy or scared for the entire two hours she had been mechanic-ing. She looked for more things to take apart and eventually got to her father's prized Aquanaut Scuba Set.
Ellie's dad was addicted to flea markets. He saw cathedrals of architecture in things like avocado Toastmasters, mimeographs, or obsolete exercise equipment. Of these treasures, his most cherished prize was an Evinrude Aquanaut Scuba Compressor. A litigious nightmare from the 60s, the Aquanaut consisted of a lawn mower engine floating on an inner-tube and pumping gasoline flavored air down 20-foot tubes attached to kid-sized scuba masks. A vintage Aquanaut in good condition was worth decent coin, and Ellie's dad thought of the grimy doom-toy as a nest egg. A nest egg Ellie had taken apart and broken.
"Do you know how much that's worth?!"
"I can fix it."
There was no room for Ellie in her father's interests. She shadowed him at flea markets as he gawked over nostalgic trash, but he'd pull away, jumping from one treasure to the next. Whatever joy he saw in each item, he kept to himself. So, Ellie would wander off and find her own interests.
The car people laid out undefinable parts, looking like metal organs waiting to be transplanted. All Ellie had to do was ask, "What's that?" or "How does it work?" and the car people would happily share lineages of metal secrets.
At Ray's doorstep, Ellie suggested, "We could use your dad's YJ to get through the woods behind the junkyard and drag the Charger out."
"Didn't your dad buy a Jeep?"
Ellie and Ray knew the secrets neighbors know. Despite never speaking to each other, Ellie knew Ray's dad had recently bought a tricked-out Jeep after divorcing Ray's mom and moving to some mid-life-crisis bachelor pad where Ray spent his weekends. Ray found it uncomfortably comforting Ellie already knew these awkward details. "It'd be easier to steal a car than to borrow Dad's Jeep."
The saddest thing Ray owned was a full bottle of Maker's Mark. Early puberty gave teenage Ray 21-year-old features, and that overnight-night maturing garnered the attention of some high school elites looking for booze.
On the way to his first high school party, Ray stopped at the liquor store. He wanted to get caught. He wanted a reason to go back home.
The liquor store clerk barely glanced at Ray's underage ID, took the money, and threw the bottle in a paper bag.
When Ray was little, he misheard his Only Child label as "he's only a child." That definition stayed at the forefront of his mind when people asked, "Do you have any siblings?" "No, I'm only a child." Outside the liquor store, Ray stared at the bottle of Maker's and thought about being only a child. He went home and hid the bottle in his pajama drawer. He was too scared to drink the Marker's Mark and too scared to throw it out. He was only a child. Potential friends and acquaintances stopped trying to include him. They left Ray in the comfortable backdrop he'd painted for himself.
Two days before Ellie walked up Ray's steep driveway with an idea, she was in right field waiting out a PE softball drill. Ellie spent most of her time on the periphery. People were impossible to understand while machines were only truth. A lazy flyball thumped on the ground inches from her feet. Classmates snickered and bullied. Even the PE teacher yelled, "Jesus, Ellie!"
It was time to machine herself to life.
Ellie chucked the school-provided glove into the woods and stormed off the field. She walked out passed the parking lot, away from the school, and down three miles worth of side streets to the junkyard she'd always wanted to explore.
She spent the next day sketching ideas out of the junkyard inventory when something unfamiliar surfaced—the desire to share. Ellie didn't know connection and was suddenly ravenous for all of it. Through her bedroom window, the steep driveway across the cul-de-sac answered.
"Well, if we can't use your dad's Jeep—and let's not totally rule that out—at least come to the junkyard and see the Charger."
Ray found himself following Ellie through the woods. The crunchy leaves looked like the burnt orange carpet in his living room. Outdated when his parents bought the house—a house they always talked about renovating. Now the carpet was an anthropology of stains. He'd catch his mom staring into it. They knew the same things.
The crunch and rustle of the leaves helped Ray track Ellie's sprint through the woods. He staggered over the uneven ground while the beat of Ellie's crunch got faster and faster—crunch, crunch, crunch—until it suddenly stopped.
Ray almost collided into her. "You're..." his lungs struggled to settle. "I couldn't... keep up."
Ellie wasn't out of breath. She pointed through a shriveled chain-link fence. "There she be."
Autumn's overgrowth had bled onto the rusty exoskeletons. Orphan cars lined up for selection decade after decade. Opportunists had picked off emblems and engines, leaving the metal husks to writhe in their hospice while raccoons and squirrels darted in and out.
"Ain't she beautiful?"
"It looks like a bombshell."
Ellie peeled back the mangled fence. She saw everything Ray didn't. Candy cars. Gleaming dashboards. Plump seats for future spectators to sit in while she lion-tamed a roaring engine with expert flicks and taps and stomps, screaming the machine to life like Dr. Frankenstein.
Ray watched her pet the metal. "When was your last Tetanus shot?"
"This could be worth a lot of money if we get it running."
Ellie had said we like they belonged in that word. "How are we going to do that?"
"I mean... we don't have to put this one together. They have an Eagle Kammback over there."
Ray fought back the urge to attack the enthusiasm he was starting to feel. His father would have asked something like, "How do you expect to pay for any of these?"
Ellie turned a corner and introduced Ray to a new row of metal. "This is an AMC Gremlin. '73–'78, Levi's did denim interiors in some of these. A fourth generation Civic—looks like a Transformer that works at the Post Office. A Chevy Citation. Can you believe someone got paid for coming up with that name? Cadillac Seville, which is just a fancy Chevy Nova."
The cars had looked like day-drunk Bukowskis complaining about rusty prostates, but Ellie's spotlight photoshopped the wrecks into stories. "How come you know so much about cars?" Ray asked.
Ellie looked underneath a Dodge Dakota to see if someone had modified the rear axle. From under the truck she answered, "Something to distract my brain from attacking itself." The axle had been repositioned under the leaf springs. Ellie pulled her head out from under the car and looked back up at Ray. The moment was slow motion. They clasped hands, and Ellie let him pull her up. "I read manuals and watch videos, but..." she faced him, allowing a breeze to pass through the sentence, "I want to put something together." Ellie turned and walked ahead. She found an '89 Caravan and busted open the sliding side door. "Come on!" She crawled inside the van.
Ray stood outside. "It's gotta smell fucking terrible." He didn't hear a response. "How bad is it?" Ellie still didn't say anything. He yanked open the crooked door.
Ray climbed into Ellie's bubble. The van jostled under their weight. He settled into the bench seat next to Ellie. They looked like kids carpooling to soccer practice. Words were tough to find in the Caravan bubble. Ray said something his dad would say, "We don't have the money to buy that junked Charger."
Ellie squinted her eyes trying to find the Ray she wanted to see.
More practical words flooded Ray's head. Dust attacked his eyes. Mold teased his nostrils. He wanted to be different. He wanted to put something together. "We're in a decompression chamber," he began to play, "after repairing an oil rig on the bottom of the Gulf."
Ellie inched towards the story.
"My Umbilical got twisted around the rig and snapped. You pulled me back to the ship."
Ellie played along, "You saved me from hypothermia five years ago."
Ray scooted closer to her story. "Our dive in the North Sea."
"Now we're even." Ellie moved through the last inch of platonic space and waited.
He dipped his face into the warm water. Ellie got out of her body's way. Their noses sparred. Their eyes napped. Their lips tried on costumes.
In a van, in a junkyard, in a history, Ellie and Ray played together like the kids they hadn't let themselves be.
Ellie ended the chapter so the story could continue. She climbed over Ray and out of the Caravan bubble. "C'mon. There's more."
Out in the junk, Ellie was Scheherazade. "This is an X-frame. GM started using these to get the floor pans lower for all the luxury Caddys."
They were wearing similar clothes. Ray had on tame jeans and a striped I-don't-care-but-kind-of-do button-up. Ellie wore a striped T-shirt and jeans that refused to learn her body. Ray's self-esteem lived and died by what he was wearing. Ellie's self-esteem couldn't give the clothes power. Ray saw ghost stories seeping from the jagged tombstones. Ellie saw crystal balls full of visions she could create.
She started a story. "This particular model was owned by a guy named Dennis." She slapped the rusty roof like a car seller. "Who liked Fritos."
"Right, Dennis," Ray let his imagination ride. "He sold John Deere Tractors and wrote Frankenstein fan fiction."
"Ray, you didn't hear?" Ellie stepped closer, playing concern.
"John Deere let Dennis go."
"But his Franken Steinfeld pilot got picked up." Her clothes rippled like a laugh track.
Ray quickly deflated, breaking character. "How come we never talked like this before?"
"Doesn't matter." The answer was a challenge. Ellie needed Ray to understand in order for the bond to be worth building.
An excitement bloomed over Ray's face. "I got some money saved up from lifeguarding."
"I sold some of Dad's junk on eBay."
They navigated the junkyard like a Ouiji board. When they got to a garage with a person who seemed in charge, Ray asked, "Would you take 100 bucks for that Dodge Caravan by the back fence?"
There was a crack in the garage floor. The guy in charge could fill it with a rubberized epoxy, but that would eventually erode. He could resurface the concrete, but the roots would still grow and crack it again. He turned to Ray and Ellie and saw a together. He was honest. "Frame's bent. Ain't worth putting together."
"Can we do it anyway?"
Most days after school, Ellie and Ray could be seen leaving together. Their together began to catch the attention of high school onlookers. "What are those two doing together?"
Ellie and Ray would go to the junkyard and work on the Blue Caravan. They would mechanic for a while, taking pictures of the engine bay, the transaxle, and the suspension. They would consult manuals and the Internet for wrenching ideas. Then they'd take mechanic breaks to go into their Caravan bubble and play stories with their bodies.
Over several months they managed to use scavenged parts and borrowed tools to trial-and-error the van back to life.
Someone at school said they saw Ray and Ellie on the side of a road in some broken-down beater. The two were seen laughing and tickling each other while the car smoked.
Ellie and Ray's plot began to move center stage. At school they answered curious questions:
"We're working on a car."
"It's an '89 Dodge Caravan."
"We're learning as we go."
"Rack and pinion steering."
"We'll probably go to the dance if we can get the Caravan running."
"Yeah, we can show you how to change your oil."
Eventually, the Caravan made the trip from the junkyard to Ellie and Ray's cul-de-sac. "Wanna see if it'll make it up your steep-ass driveway?" Ellie dared from the driver's seat.
"Do I have a choice?"
Ellie stomped the throttle and careened up the driveway.
The van had slightly more torque than a go-cart, and midway up the 38-degree slope the bald tires started to slip. "It's not gonna make it." Ellie stood on the brake and feathered the gas. The van bumped and climbed a couple more feet before slowly sliding backwards. "Front brake lines are shot."
"We should've replaced the back drums," Ray diagnosed.
Ellie laughed and snorted as the van descended at a barely dangerous rate.
The sliding door slid open on its own. Ray was quick to inventory. "We gotta fix that latch again."
Ellie rescued Ray's mood, "We're going down, babe! There's only one parachute. Save yourself, my love."
Ray matched her comic melodrama, "No darling, we go down together."
"But the baby!"
"The child I never told you about." Ellie wailed. "It's yours."
"I knew it!" Ray got up from the passenger seat. "You take the parachute. I'll go down with the plane."
"No, love, it's my destiny—just like the fortune teller said."
"That wasn't a fortune teller."
"I'll be more famous than Amelia Earhart. It's my destiny, darling!"
"I will love you forever." Ray leaned in for a dramatic kiss and jumped out the side door of the van, which was still inching its way to the bottom of the driveway. He tuck-and-rolled onto the sloped front lawn, sending Ellie into true-gut laughter. Nothing made Ray feel like a person more than surprising Ellie with funny.
The van settled at the curb. "Hop in, big boy," Ellie called from the window.
Ray climbed into the wobbling passenger seat. "I can't believe the tires didn't pop."
"We gotta go park somewhere." Ellie restarted the van. "Take advantage of this near-death experience."
"What if we break down?"
"Doesn't matter. We'll give 'em a show."