I’d said it before and I would say it again, babies popped out looking uglier than a linebacker, but for some, that ugliness turned into cuteness by the time the toddler phase rolled around. It was a fact. Once you got ’em past the poopy diapers stage, the baby started looking and smelling better. What made me the expert on this stuff? My little sister, Meggie.
Megs was good and ugly in the beginning, but nowadays it didn’t matter where we were: as soon as people saw her, the “oohs” and “awws” would start. And that was always followed by, “She’s so cute.” I would just laugh. If these people only knew that my precious little sister was the same cutie-pie who’d tried to eat cigarette butts off the ground in the Foodland parking lot--granted, that was when she was three, but still. And it wasn’t long ago that Megs needed help wiping her butt and a reminder to wash her hands after using the bathroom. She was also the same peanut who shared her bed with our very large and slobbery bullmastiff, Otis. By morning she would have a mouth full of Otis hair and a soaking wet pillowcase, but she didn’t care, and neither did the rest of the world, ’cause here was the other thing about Megs: she was a little person with a great big vocabulary. She was only going into first grade, but she liked using grown-up words when she talked, and that just made her cute card even stronger. It was her whole package that gave her the superpower ability to melt hearts--and we were gonna need all of that to save our family this time around.
I was firing another pass through my trusty tire target when Meggie yelled, “Gavvy, Daddy needs your assistance!” Assistance? See what I mean? She scared me pretty good by yelling like that when I wasn’t ready for it, so my throw sailed high. It was the first pass I’d missed all afternoon. Blockhead Otis ran and snatched my football and raced around with it in his mouth.
“Drop it!” I shouted. Fat chance. I had to go and grab one of his tennis balls from near the porch, and then he came bounding over and dropped my football. The stupid dog was smart enough to know I’d throw his tennis ball for him all day long if he captured my football first, so who was the dumb one? I chucked his ball across the yard, and he tore after it. Then I turned to Megs, ready to yell at her for scaring me like that, but instead I burst out laughing. She had grease and dirt smeared across her upper lip.
“What?” she whined.
“Nothing.” I wasn’t gonna tell her. Cute or not, she was still my little sister. “What’s Dad need help with?” I asked.
She shrugged. “He didn’t say.”
I picked up my football and wiped it clean on my quarterbacking towel. “Let’s go see.”
We walked around the side of the house, and I saw that Dad had the jack slid under the front of Mom’s car. “You’re gonna be drivin’ before we know it,” he said. “Figure it’s time you learned how to change a flat. Not everything can be about football, you know.”
“I know,” I said, even though football was all I could think about these days. Preseason would be starting soon--I hoped. The school still hadn’t hired a new coach.
Dad got down and showed me where he’d positioned the jack under the car and how he’d stuck a block of wood behind the back tire to keep it from rolling. “Safety first,” he emphasized. “Always, safety first.”
He handed me a screwdriver and the lug wrench. “Pop the hubcap and loosen the lug nuts,” he said. “Then jack her up and take the wheel off.”
It took all the horsepower I could muster to loosen a few of those nuts, but I got it. Then I raised the car, pulled the flat off, and slid the new tire on. Dad showed me how to give everything a final tightening after we had the car back on the ground, ’cause that kept the wheel from spinning when you cranked on the wrench, same reason why he’d had me loosen it before jacking it up.
“Margaret,” Dad said. “You see this?” He pointed to a small puddle by the side of the car. “You want to make sure Otis doesn’t go drinkin’ puddles that are near vehicles, like this is. If it’s the wrong stuff, it could kill him.”
“Okay, Daddy,” Meggie said, her eyes big.
“I do a good job of makin’ sure there’s nothin’ bad out here, ’cause I don’t want any accidents, but it’s good for you to be payin’ attention, too.”
She nodded some more. Too bad that wasn’t the only thing we had to be careful of when it came to Otis and accidents.
“Mija, can you come inside for a minute?” Mom called from the front porch.
“Coming,” Meggie yelled. “C’mon, Otis. Mommy requests our company.”
Me and Dad chuckled as the partners in crime ran off. Then Dad turned and tossed me the keys. “Time to take her for a test drive, don’tcha think?”
He hopped in on the passenger’s side, and I stood there. He rolled down his window. “Let’s go.”
“Yes! My old man had me drivin’ when I was your age. Now c’mon, ’fore your mother stops us.”
My mother had gotten in trouble for driving without a license, and now Dad was telling me to do it. My eyes popped in disbelief, but I didn’t waste another second. I hopped in behind the wheel and stuck the key he’d handed to me in the ignition--but that was as far as I got. I couldn’t get the key to turn.
Dad started cracking up. I felt my face growing red. I tried again. Nothing.
“This car can be finicky,” he said. “Give the steering wheel a yank and try her again.”
I’m so stupid, I thought. I did what he said and turned the key, and the engine came to life.
“Now push the brake in and put the car in drive,” Dad coached.
“Ease off the brake.”
I did, and we crept forward.
“Give it some gas, big shot,” he encouraged.
I gave it too much, and we shot forward like a lineman firing out of his stance. That startled me, so I mashed the brakes, and we slammed to a stop.
“You tryin’ to make me a human milkshake?” Dad said. “Go easy with the pedals. You don’t need to stomp on them.” He chuckled.
I took a deep breath like before a big play and tried again, and this time I did better. Dad had me drive around the hills. We stuck to the back roads, so we didn’t see any other cars, which was good ’cause I didn’t know what I’d do if that happened. I woulda driven by Randi’s house so I could show off, but she was busy training for gymnastics. She had a big event coming up, so she was putting in extra time.
I did a pretty good job driving for my first time behind the wheel--until we got back home. I forgot to slow down before pulling into our driveway. I took the turn so fast, Mom’s car came up on two wheels. I yanked the steering wheel and mashed the brakes again, and we slammed to another instant stop. I put the car in park and sat there shaking, but Dad burst out laughing, which made me feel better.
“Well, you’ve got some improvin’ to do, but not bad,” he said.
I turned the engine off and handed him the keys. That was enough for one day. Little did I know how important this early training would be for later.
Copyright © 2019 by Rob Buyea. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.