Running Free

"You Dom Toretto's brat?"

I looked up to see four kids, boys, staring at me suspiciously. I put down my book and studied them back. Two that could be Latino, one black and one that looked more exotic, some kind of Asian mix, maybe. That was interesting. There weren't too many groups around here were like that, not that I'd seen before. I did remember a couple of them from some of my classes, ones who always sat right at the back. They all looked pretty 'street', though, and if they knew who Dom was, then they were probably into cars.

After a moment, I nodded.

The one in front scowled. "Bullshit. No way you's a Toretto."

"Conrad, actually. 'Rents died. Dom 'n Letty inherited me."

That caught his interest and without even checking to see if anyone was watching, which was cool, he sat down across the table from me.

Second week here and I'd already figured out where in the cafeteria I could grab a table to myself, so there was plenty of room. The other three sat down too, two beside him and the fourth, the black kid, jumping over the table to grab a seat next to me. I smacked his hand when he tried to grab a chicken finger off my plate, and the other guys 'oohed'.

"Ask nicer next time," I said, real sarcastic, knowing that if I let him push me around now everyone would be pushing me around for the next year.

He surprised me, though. "May I have one?"

I blinked at his suddenly polite tone and pushed my plate at him. "Help yourself." I'd already eaten most of them anyway. He grinned and started in on the ones that were left.

I turned back to the first guy who'd spoken, who was obviously their leader. He was watching me, and I returned his stare. Grinning, he shrugged a little and stuck out his hand.

"Joshua Luke Santos. Call me Juke."

I shook his hand. "Darien Conrad. I go by Darry."

"This," he said, pointing to the other faintly Latino guy, "is my brother Hector."

"Heck," his brother said.

"Nickname?" I wanted to be sure.

He nodded.

"Fraternal twins?" I guessed.

They both nodded.


The Vietnamese kid waved. "Nick Tran."

I stiffened. "What'd you say?"

He gave me a funny look. "Nick Chan. My name," he said slowly, like I was retarded or something.

"Sorry," I apologized. "Thought you said Tran."

His eyebrows went up but he didn't make a big deal out of it. "Nope."

I turned to the kid next to me, who'd finished off the chicken strips and was demolishing my fries.

Juke answered for him. "Mike Witter."

Mike saluted and went back to his - er, my - lunch.

"So you guys're into cars?"

Juke grinned. Big. "Uh huh. You?"

I bobbed my head a bit, sort of a 'yes-no' kinda thing. "I do some work for Dom in his garage, but he doesn't really let me near the cars."

"Well, no shit," he scoffed, and we all laughed.

The bell rang, and they got up. "See ya'," Heck said, and I waved.

I waited 'til they'd before I got up. When I was sure there was no one watching, I grinned.

As far as I could tell, I'd just made some friends. And unless they were hiding their dresses and teen mags, they were nothing like any school friends I'd ever had before. That was okay, I decided. I wasn't like I was 'before', either.

That afternoon, in gym, we were doing running. At first I held back, not wanting to stick out or anything, but after a bit I started really getting into it.

I finished first in the long run without much difficulty. My only competition was one other girl, and I think she wasn't trying that hard. When the teacher came over to talk to me about trying out for the track team, though, I got distracted because the girl and some of her friends were staring at me. I nodded and agreed to try out, but my attention was on the girl. I knew it was only a matter of time before she made up her mind about me, and I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay out of her way.

She came up to me in the locker room.  "You a runner?" she asked, real casual.

I shrugged. "I guess."

"You comin' out for the team?"

"Prob'ly." I wasn't sure what kind of vibe I was getting from her, so I decided not to react much either way. Besides, it took some doing to change without showing my stomach. I didn't feel like dealing with that kind of attention.

Thank god this school had a long, narrow shower area. I made a point of claiming an end shower and facing the corner, so no one saw anything but my back.

"Saw you talkin' to Juke and Heck at lunch. You into cars or something?"

For the first time, I looked at her. Bri always told me that people telegraph what they're gonna do. Like, their eyes show what they're gonna go for in a fight, and the way they stand tells you if they plan to fight or not. This girl didn't seem upset, just curious, and I decided she wasn't setting me up for a catfight. I'd already seen a couple of them since starting school here, and I didn't want any more scars, thank you very much.

"Yeah. Whole family's into 'em."

"So's mine," she said, smiling for the first time. She stuck out her hand. "Consuela Santos. Call me anythin' but Ayla and I'll kick your ass. Juke 'n Heck are my cousins."

"Hey Ayla." I shook her hand, trying not to laugh. What was with the handshaking? Maybe it was a family thing. "Darien Conrad. Answer to Darry."

She tilted her head. "I never heard of no Conrads around here."

"I live with my godparents. Dom Toretto and Letty Covas."

She whistled in recognition.  "No wonder Juke wanted to meet ya'. Toretto's, like, his hero or somethin'."


She nodded and changed the subject. "What you got after PE?"

"English. With Burner."

Cocking her head so I knew she was testing me, "Me too. Why don't ya' sit with us?"

I looked behind her to where a bunch of girls were watching and listening.


Well, I thought as we finished dressing, this was turning out to be an interesting day.

I headed to the garage right after school. Everyone was there, busy with work orders, so I started at the desk, putting away the files that were sitting in the 'job finished' pile and pulling up stuff that was marked 'priority' or had a deadline that was coming up. Notes about those got pinned to the board behind the desk so Dom could keep track of them from wherever he was in the garage. When that was done I ran the billing stuff through the computer then prepped receipt tallies for customers, double-checking that I spelled everything and got the codes right. It didn't take too long.

Then I grabbed some cotton cloths and a mix of motor oil and kerosene, wiping down some tools before putting them away so no one would have any trouble finding them later. I grinned when I saw the cheesecloth bag filled with uncooked rice in a toolbox. They'd laughed at me when I suggested it, but when I printed off some articles off the Net agreeing that it helped prevent rust, Dom had me make a bunch of them to tuck into places around the garage. Nowhere any outsiders could see them, but around.

By the time I was done putting away tools, talk had quieted down. It looked like everyone was done for the day.

I looked over to see Vince grabbing a cup of water from the water cooler and turned so he couldn't see me smile. I'd "accidentally" left some more articles on the table about how dehydration was a real danger in garages, and a couple days later a cooler was delivered. There were a lot of jokes about stocking it with beer instead of water but I noticed that it got used. I considered that a personal triumph. Plus, I had to admit that the sight of these tough, dirty, macho guys using an office cooler, watching the bubbles rise and waiting patiently for the paper cup to fill, humming sometimes even, was enough to keep me in a good mood for hours. It was just so damned funny.

I was real careful never to let on, of course, though once or twice Dom caught me grinning and looked at me knowingly. Never said anything, though.

I pulled out my school bag and did homework until everyone except Letty and Dom had left. I figured out a long time ago that they liked to have some time by themselves in the garage, and I wanted to speak to them alone before leaving for home.

Dom looked up when he heard me coming over. "You need a ride home, kid?"

"Nope. I just need you guys to sign something for me and then I'll take off."

He arched one eyebrow. "In trouble already?" His tone hinted that he was more impressed than upset.

Letty snorted and I gave him a dirty look. "Nah, I wanna join track. Here," I said, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper, "this is the permission slip. I filled in as much as I could, but I need you guys to sign it."

"This why you go runnin' in the mornings?"

Whoa! "You know about that?"

Now it was his turn to give me a dirty look, like of course he knew everything.

"It wasn't, but now I'll start keeping track of my miles and they'll count toward a varsity letter or something."

He nodded and signed the form, then handed it to Letty, and she signed it too. She seemed kind of reluctant to hand it back to me.

"Letty?" Was something wrong? Didn't she want to sign it?

She just grinned at me. "Relax, kid. I just never seen one of these before."

Oh? "Didn't you do any sports in high school?" I looked at her arms. Her buff arms.

She just shook her head, and I took the hint. "'Kay, well, if you don't need me to do anything else, I'll get home and help Mia with dinner."

"Got your cell?"

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and waved it at Dom, who nodded.

"See ya' at home." I loved saying that.

When I got outside I did a couple quick stretches and hooked my backpack securely over my shoulders. It was a two mile run home from the garage, and I decided I'd take a longer route, out to the park and then home, making it more like three or maybe even four. There was just something about running, about moving fast and just feeling everything and not thinking, I wanted as much as I could get.

When I was running, I felt free. Like no one could catch me.

And if no one could catch me, then no one could hurt me.

Next: Tran's Legacy