Running Wide Open

Cody Everett has a temper as hot as the inside of a combustion chamber, and it’s landed him at his uncle’s trailer, a last-chance home before military school. But how can he take the guy seriously when he calls himself Race, eats Twinkies for breakfast, and pals around with rednecks who drive in circles every Saturday night?

What Cody doesn’t expect is for the arrangement to work. Or for Race to become the friend and mentor he’s been looking for all his life. But just as Cody begins to settle in and get a handle on his supercharged temper, a crisis sends his life spinning out of control. Everything he’s come to care about is threatened, and he has to choose between falling back on his old, familiar anger or stepping up to prove his loyalty to the only person he’s ever dared to trust.

Running Wide Open sponsors Jared Myers.

“The roar of engines practically explodes off the page in this compelling, heart-thumping debut. Cody Everett is a straight-shooter with attitude, smarts, and whip-cracking wit; he doesn’t pull any punches, and neither does author Lisa Nowak. The collision of Cody and the world of stock car racing makes for a great story, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Running Wide Open is a book not to be missed.”

- Christine Fletcher, author of  Tallulah Falls and Ten Cents a Dance

“With characters that are as real as the dialogue is authentic, Running Wide Open is by turns both heartbreaking and hopeful. Readers will race to the finish of this powerful coming-of-age novel.”

- Casey McCormick, author of the popular YA blog, Literary Rambles, co-founder of  WriteOnCon, and creator of the Agent Spotlight series.  

A boy at River City Speedway reading Running Wide Open.

Free Excerpt:

Before

 April 1989

 The hiss of a paint can sounded like a roar, even over the rumble of traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Tim’s drunk-assed laugh snagged my attention. His fingers shook as he used a can of Krylon royal blue to put the finishing touches on an anatomically correct and obviously proud elephant.

“Dude,” I said, “his shlong is longer than his trunk.”

“Why do you think he’s smiling?” Tim busted into another giggle fit, doubling over and clutching his gut.

“C’mon, Cody, you’re supposed to be drawing,” prodded Mike. “That’s not a picture.” He was kind of an ass, but it’s hard to blow off a guy you’ve hung out with since third grade.

“Pardon me for being able to communicate with words.”

“Is that a giraffe?” Tim said. He was sprawled on the concrete now, staring up at Mike’s neon pink animal as it brayed a string of four-letter words across the zoo wall.

“No, moron,” Mike said, “it’s a zebra. Can’t you see the stripes?”

“Looks like a giraffe.”

“It’s a frickin’ zebra!”

Mike planted the toe of his Adidas in Tim’s ribs, and Tim tried to nail him in the balls with his rattle can. Then they were both rolling on the sidewalk, thrashing each other.

Why couldn’t they shut the hell up? Beer buzzed through my skull, making everything go sideways. The words spilling out of my spray can had a crazy tilt to them.

Whooooop! A siren shrieked. I jerked back and dropped my paint.

“Cops!” Mike was up in a second, bolting down the sidewalk for the woods. Tim wasn’t so fast. He’d messed up his knee last fall when he totaled his stepdad’s Jeep in the Terwilliger Curves.

“C’mon,” I said, grabbing his arm. Red and blue lights flashed around us as I dragged him down the sidewalk—no easy feat, considering he had five inches and fifty pounds on me.

The siren got louder. I risked a peek over my shoulder. They were close, but if I ditched Tim I could make it.

He stumbled, wrenching my arm.

“Move it!” I said, yanking him up.

Behind us, the car screeched to a stop. Doors slammed, and footsteps pounded the asphalt.

We reached the end of the zoo wall, but I knew we couldn’t make it through the trees in the dark and stay ahead of the cops.

“Shit, Cody. I can’t get busted again!” Tim panted.

I remembered the last time—how his face had looked when his stepdad got done with him.

“Then get the hell out of here,” I said, shoving him into the bushes.

As he disappeared I turned to face the cops.

“Good evening, officers!” I called. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to discuss this like gentlemen over a dozen donuts?”

Chapter 1

 I glanced around the crowded bus terminal and wondered if I’d made a mistake. After the thing with the cops, Dad had given me two choices: military school or living with my mother’s black sheep brother—the only one in the family willing to take me in. I figured it was a no-brainer, but what if the guy turned out to be just like Mom?

The thought of her ticked me off, so I drop-kicked it to the back of my mind where it bounced off the other parental offenses, including this Greyhound business. A mere hundred miles between Portland and Eugene, and Dad couldn’t be bothered to make the drive. Not that his lack of fatherly commitment had been any shocker. Until Mom had bailed on us a month ago, he’d looked the other way every time she went postal on me for hanging a towel up crooked or talking during her favorite TV show.

At least I didn’t have that to deal with anymore. No, all I had to worry about now was living with a total stranger. The stink of diesel fumes hung in the air as my eyes swept the bus station: vending machines straight out of the ’60s, back-to-back rows of orange plastic chairs holding people so bored it was a wonder they hadn’t slit their own throats. No sign of my uncle.

I hadn’t seen him since I was five and I didn’t remember many details. Just that he was ten years younger than Mom and they didn’t get along. When she’d called from Phoenix to finalize the arrangements she was too pissed to talk to me, so I’d had to rely on Dad for information. He didn’t know much more than I did: my uncle was an artist, he was into stock car racing, his name was Race.

Anxiety rippled through my gut. What if he didn’t show up? Our family wasn’t known for reliability, and no one in the terminal seemed remotely like the person I was looking for. But then I wasn’t sure what to expect. A redneck in a John Deere hat? A moody artiste wearing paint-spattered clothes? Chill, I told myself. At least he wasn’t standing there holding some stupid sign that had Cody Everett scrawled across it.

A flash of sunlight glinted off the door. I turned and knew instantly that the person standing in the entrance was my uncle. He was in his mid-twenties and had a casual way of holding himself, along with the sort of build that made a guy look fit even if he didn’t work out. Shaggy brown hair hung in his eyes as if he’d let an open car window do his styling for him. His jeans and Valvoline T-shirt were streaked with grease, but in spite of his slacker appearance, he looked like a younger, male version of Mom. Or maybe an older, taller version of me. I’d been fortunate enough to inherit the Morgan good looks but had gotten stuck with Dad’s short, wiry build.

Race grinned across the room at me, and there the resemblance to my mother ended. Mom hardly ever smiled, except at her friends and the guys she flirted with. Race beamed like a little kid who’d asked for a stuffed toy but had gotten a real puppy. My apprehension flickered for only a second before blazing back up. Even if the guy turned out to be decent, he was sure to send me packing before the week was out. I should’ve opted for military school and saved myself the hassle of a second bus trip.

In a few long, loping strides Race made it across the terminal. “Cody,” he said, with the grin coming through in his voice. I noticed that he had the same eyes as Mom, dark and full of feeling. They could sell you on anything, even if it cost your last penny, but I’d gotten pretty good at resisting that particular voodoo. Those eyes scanned me now, taking in my Everyone’s entitled to my opinion T-shirt. He chuckled. “Good one.”

I managed a nod. Part of me wanted to give in to his friendliness, but I couldn’t work my lips into a smile. It had been a long bus trip. A long two weeks since I’d gotten busted. There wasn’t much to smile about.

“I’m sure coming to stay with me probably wasn’t at the top of your agenda,” Race said, “but I think we can make it work. I’m pretty easy to get along with.”

If he was that optimistic, Mom obviously hadn’t filled him in on what an ungrateful little smartass I was.

“And I know my sister’s probably told you all kinds of horror stories about me,” Race continued, “but I’m really not the villain she makes me out to be.”

The comment sent a twitch through my paralyzed lips. So he knew how she was.

“You ready to go?” Race asked.

“I guess.”

“C’mon, let’s get the rest of your stuff.” He reached out to clasp my shoulder, and instinctively I ducked. Other than the smacks Mom gave me for smarting off, nobody touched me much.

Race’s grin dimmed by a good sixty watts. For a second his hand hung in the air, then he pulled it back. Well, what did he expect? He should know better than to get all touchy-feely with someone he’d just met.

I followed him over to the package claim counter where we piled my boxes onto a couple of hand trucks.

“Whoa,” Race said. “Whaddaya got in this one, rocks?”

No—books, but I’d be damned if I’d fess up to it. It was bad enough having Mom give me crap all the time for reading, demanding to know whether I planned on becoming a complete geek, like Dad. I lifted the box out of Race’s hands and dumped it on top of the others on my dolley.

 “Well,” he said as he searched for clues in my expression. “I guess we better go.”

I trailed him out the door into the blazing May sun, my conscience nagging as I wrestled the hand truck over the rough asphalt lot. Maybe I should give the guy a chance. Maybe it would be different this time.

Race stopped behind a van that might’ve been green sometime before I was born. Paint chipped off in big flakes, and splotches of primer marred every panel. One of the back tires was low. Okay, so he wasn’t rich like my grandparents, who Mom was always hitting up for cash.

“Nice wheels, dude.”

“It gets me where I’m going.”

Race unlocked the rear doors of the van to reveal a rolling scrap yard. Tires, toolboxes, and an assortment of car parts littered the inside. Most of it was housed in milk crates that had no doubt been pilfered from behind some grocery store.

Race slid his stuff around to make room for mine, then, while I piled my boxes on the floorboards, he squeezed between the side of the van and a VW Bug to unlock the passenger door. The parking space wasn’t nearly big enough for a vehicle the size of his beater, and you’d think the “Compacts Only” sign would have been his first clue. But I didn’t figure I’d win him over by blurting out a remark about his ability to read.

I wedged myself through the door of the van, settled into the torn bucket seat, and pulled out my pack of Camel filters as Race slithered his way behind the wheel.

“If you’re gonna smoke in here,” he said, “open your window.”

I waited for him to go on, telling me how cigarettes were a lousy habit, and they’d kill me before I graduated from high school, but that was all he had to say.

I rolled down the window. It was too hot to be riding around with it up, anyway.

Slouching back, I put my feet on the dash and rested my black Converse high tops in a pile of junk food wrappers that looked like they’d been there since Race bought the van. He didn’t seem to notice that my shoes were flaking dried mud all over his accumulation of rodent bait. He just turned the key, nearly blasting me out of the seat when the stereo powered up with Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.

“Sorry,” Race said, lowering the volume. He glanced across the cab at me before unthreading the van from its narrow parking spot. “So I hear you took the rap for your friend.”

I snorted and turned to look out the window. “Yeah, I’m a real hero.”

If my uncle thought he could buddy up to me with a few sympathetic comments, he was in for a letdown. I’d gotten enough of that phony bullshit from teachers, and school counselors, and all the other people who considered it their job to meddle in the lives of “at risk” kids. They suckered you in, got you to trust them, and always let you down in the end.

But the comment made me think of Tim. I knew I wouldn’t hear from him as long as I was in Eugene. He wasn’t the letter-writing type, and his stepdad would kill him if he found long distance charges on the phone bill.

At least Tim had gotten away. The cops hadn’t bothered trailing him into the woods once they had me. Later he’d called me and offered to give himself up on my behalf, but I told him not to be a dumbass.

In less than a minute we were out of the downtown area. If you could even call it a downtown. I saw more trees than buildings, and I felt like I was stuck in a tiny green bowl, surrounded on all sides by low hills covered in Douglas firs. Welcome to Hicksville, USA.

The van rounded a corner with a swoop that made me clutch the door handle. A long-haired guy dressed in bell-bottoms, a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt, and Birkenstocks stepped off the sidewalk in front of us. Race dodged him, swinging into the other lane.

“Somebody needs to tell that dude it’s 1989, not 1969,” I muttered as the man grinned and waved, oblivious to the fact that he’d just missed taking the Big Trip.

Race laughed. “Eugene does have its hippie element. It’s interesting because damn near the entire population of this town is made up of college students, environmentalists, and loggers, but they manage to get along without killing each other.”

 I grunted and went back to looking out the window. We were headed east now, passing a college. A few girls sunbathed on the lawn in front of one of the dorms. Hmmm, not bad.

“That’s the University of Oregon,” my uncle said. “Off to the left is Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks have their games, but you can’t really see it from here.”

Ducks, now there was a real fighting name. It was even more pitiful than what they called their rivals, the OSU Beavers. At least Beavers had teeth.

We crossed under the freeway and drove along a narrow river. “That the Willamette?” I asked, allowing curiosity to overpower my cool.

“Yup. It runs right behind the trailer park where I live.”

I checked out the river. In Portland the Willamette was a monster that supported drawbridges and big ships. Here, it looked puny enough to walk across. There were even rocks sticking up out of it.

The river disappeared behind some trees, and after that the scenery went south. Rundown buildings and used car lots replaced the hotels and restaurants I’d seen near the University. Jimmy Buffett began crooning Changes In Attitudes, Changes In Latitudes.

“So what kinda stuff do you like to do?” Race asked.

I shrugged. Did he really think I’d spill my guts? For all I knew, he’d report everything I said to my dad. Things were messed up enough with him. He thought I’d gotten off too easily—that a week or two in juvie might have done me some good. I had no idea why the zoo had dropped charges against me, but the fact that they did proved it wasn’t any big deal, right?

Race tried again. “You into heavy metal?”

I answered with another shrug. Years ago I’d learned that this simple gesture was a good supplement to any vocabulary. People got fed up with it pretty quick then they tended to leave you alone.

“I’m not gonna get on your case about anything like that, if you’re worried,” Race said. He made a right turn just before a bridge that, according to a sign, crossed the river into the city of Springfield.

“I figure a kid your age needs space. There’s a couple things I’m gonna draw the line at, like messing with drugs or getting in trouble with the cops, but I won’t nag you on matters of taste.”

I took a final drag off my cigarette and threw it out the window. “Whatever,” I said, calling up my next-best tool for putting an end to a conversation.

Race nodded like he didn’t give a rip that I’d brushed off his attempt to be a good guy, but a twinge of disappointment flickered in his eyes. That figured. He was nice, but he was just like my dad. Weak.

 *          *          *

 Race’s trailer looked old enough to be the first place Noah rented when he got off the Ark, and I was pretty sure I recognized the mobile home park from a recent episode of Cops. About fifty feet to the north, a railroad trestle rose up out of the brush.

My uncle literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

I glanced across the van at him, hoping he’d made a wrong turn and taken me to the landfill by mistake.

“This is it, kid.”

That military school was looking better all the time.

I hopped down from the van and swung wide of the carport, which leaned dangerously to one side. It looked like the rusty car parts stacked around it were the only things holding it up. The trailer’s wooden steps, lined with a waist-deep pile of yellowing newspapers, felt spongy from dry rot as I climbed them.

Inside, the living room, kitchen, and dining area were one open space. Dishes overflowed the sink, dirty clothes peeked out from under the coffee table, and the whole place smelled like a Jiffy Lube.

“Damn,” I said. “This looks worse than my room back home.”

Race glanced around like he was seeing the mess for the first time. “I’m not much on housework.”

No kidding.

“Well, look, kid. This trailer’s kinda small, but you can have the back room. I mostly just use it for storage, anyway.”

“Don’t you sleep?”

“Sure, but I crash on the couch. Go ahead and put your stuff in the bedroom. I’ll be back in a minute to box up my junk, then we can take it down to my shop.”

A snort almost escaped me as I sidestepped Race’s drafting table, which filled damn near the entire kitchen. It was a neat-freak oasis in a desert of disarray, organized into tidy stacks of papers and art supplies. Clearly, my uncle was nuts. But there was no denying his talent. The sketches of cars and people tacked to the walls above his workstation looked totally realistic.

I slipped down the hallway that led between a closet and the tiniest bathroom I’d ever seen. At the back of the trailer, car parts and tools covered the desk, bed, and floor. Ugly black stains spotted the carpet, completely overwhelming its three-tone pattern. The only positive thing about the room was that it had its own door leading outside.

“This place really isn’t big enough for two people,” Race said as he joined me in the scrap emporium. “But it’ll do for the summer. By fall I oughta be able to afford an apartment.”

I grunted and dropped onto the bed, where I sunk into the flabby mattress.

Oblivious to my culture shock, Race secured the bottom of an old Valvoline box with duct tape then began tossing cans of spray paint into it. “I shoulda done this before you got here, but I’ve been kinda busy. I’m putting a roll cage in a guy’s car, and he wants it done by Monday.”

This time I couldn’t even muster a grunt. Paralyzed by apathy, I watched my uncle chuck stuff into boxes and milk crates. There was no way this could work. If the guy couldn’t take the time to clean out a room for me, what made him think he’d be able to put up with all the other things about a kid that would cramp his style?

I stared down at the flecks of orange paint that had spattered my favorite jeans the other night. I still couldn’t fathom why the cops had let me off. Dad refused to discuss it. All he’d seemed to care about was getting rid of me.

“Wanna help me load this stuff into the van?” Race asked.

I lifted my shoulders noncommittally, still staring at my jeans.

“Hey, the sooner we get this place cleaned up, the sooner you can make it yours.”

Now there was some incentive. I sighed and pushed myself up off the bed. Maybe it would be easier if I cooperated. I grabbed the nearest box and followed him out to the van.

Within half an hour everything was loaded up. Race had even vacuumed the carpet—with a Shop Vac—and found clean sheets for the bed. They were green and yellow striped. I glanced sideways at him.

“University colors,” Race explained, blushing as if I’d accused him of some sort of perversion.

“You went to the University?”

“Yeah. For a year.”

“You flunk out?”

“Nope. The parental gravy train dried up. Seems you’ve gotta read the fine print if you want to get an education out of our family.”

You had to read the fine print if you wanted to get anything out of our family.

 *          *          *

 My uncle’s shop, in an industrial complex on the west end of town, was spotless compared to the trailer. The one exception was the area right inside the doorway. A frat house reject couch and chair sat beside a table built from milk crates and plywood. The surface was buried under a roach’s fantasies: Coke cans, Taco Time wrappers, and the remains of stale 7-Eleven burritos. After stepping through that mess, the rest of the shop shocked me. It was crammed full of boxes, tools, and spare parts, but everything was organized. I walked around, giving it a casual once-over.

Even though I figured the least bit of interest would invite a landslide of enthusiasm from my uncle, I couldn’t resist the pull of the race car. Scuffed, battered, and painted basic black, it sported yellow eights on the doors and roof which were shadowed with red to give them a three-dimensional pop. Both front fenders advertised Rick’s University Video, while the trunk promoted Willamette Electrical Supply. “Eugene Custom Classics” was stenciled across the hood under a sky blue pentagon with a skinny white star in the middle. I thought I recognized it as the logo for some car company. Dodge, maybe?

“A lot of work goes into one of these things.”

Race’s voice startled me, but I managed not to jump. With a grunt, I turned away. He took the hint and got busy unloading the van.

A second car sat at the back of the shop. The roof had been chopped off and the interior stripped. Inside, a structure of steel tubing was beginning to take shape. I figured that was the roll cage Race had mentioned. I could see why it was called a cage, since it hugged the outside contours of the car, forming a skeleton to protect the driver.

More exploration revealed an assortment of toolboxes and equipment. On one shelf, beside a row of car manuals, I spotted some trophies.

Race was good enough to win trophies?

I glanced over my shoulder. He was still stacking boxes, so I wandered closer. Several of the awards bore the date and the inscription “Trophy Dash Winner.” Others boasted a “Main Event” victory.

“How ’bout some lunch?”

I jerked back, hoping Race hadn’t noticed what I was looking at. Fat chance of that. He grinned at me, probably thinking he’d scored some points.

“You hungry?” he asked.

I shrugged. Was he for real? It was almost two o’clock.

“McDonald’s okay?”

“Sure.”

“Then let’s go.”

I followed him outside.

Trophies. I wouldn’t mind winning a trophy for something. I wondered what it would be like to drive a race car. I bet it was a rush.

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