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Nick Ellis

 

Untitled

 

 

Here comes the exit.  I hit the turn signal and drift toward the opening.  I can't stand it when people don't signal.  You're driving along behind them and suddenly they slow down, and you've got no idea what's going on until they finally make their move, and by then you're too mad to understand.  A long time ago I decided never to put other people through that, and now I always signal.

 

Before I grew up I owned a rusted out '69 Chevy with a 396 engine that got me into all sorts of trouble.  Whenever we were bored, me and my cousin Pete would take it out to a strip outside of town and try to make a few bucks racing the other high school kids.  After Sarah went to college, I got bored a lot.

Pete did all the work on the car and all the talking at the strip.  Me, I know squat about cars and less about hustling gullible saps.  Wed pull up to the strip and I'd weave the Chevy through the other cars, letting everyone hear the rumble of the engine as we pulled to the waiting area.  Every now and then a pair of cars would explode into a roar and tear down the strip, and two more cars would take their places at the starting line.

And Pete, he'd hop out of the car and do something under the hood that made the car shake a lot harder, and while he was doing that sooner or later some kid wearing a T-shirt with his favorite rock band would come up to him and ask him what we had.  Pete wouldn't even look up from whatever he was doing when he'd tell the kid that he'd give him thirty seconds to take a look under the hood and decide if he wanted to race for twenty dollars.  "Thirty seconds to go for twenty," he'd say, as he turned this bolt and twisted that screw and the Chevy would just about jump out of its rusted skin.  Half the time that would scare the kid off, but sooner or later we'd get a brave one. 

I first bought the car because Pete told me he'd fix it up if I promised to wreck it on the strip one day.  I had no idea what he was getting at then, but I figured if anyone could make it work Pete could, so I threw down five hundred to a guy whose wife had finally had it with the gray hulk taking up space in the garage.  The guy offered to help me push it home, but Pete, he just asked if we could have one more night in the garage.  By the next morning Pete had it running and I swear to god that poor guy just about cried.  There was a lot more Pete did to it after that, but that was one of those moments when it was just so great to be alive.

One day Pete got his wish.  He had mumbled the challenge to someone from under the hood, and the moment the guy said yes I knew we were really in for it.  He was older than any of us there, maybe past college age, and better dressed.  He was wearing an expensve looking pair of boots and a leather jacket, and he had a good looking blond haired girl who just stood behind him wherever he went.  When the guy walked away and got into a Corvette, Pete just looked at me and shook his head.

"We're out twenty tonight."

Like I said, Pete did the work and the talking, but the driving was my job.  That Chevy usually wasn't the fastest thing at the strip, but nine times out of ten the kids we were up against just didn't have the nerve to really give it their all.  When they'd pull out ahead of me I'd just smile and keep the pedal floored, waiting for the moment when they'd slow down because they were scared they'd blow their engines or skid off the road.  Me, I'd just keep it there, humming down the line until I flew over the spray painted line that let me know I'd won.  So what if I wrecked the car?  I was invincible; I couldn't die.

I pulled up at the start line next to the Corvette, and the guy's girlfriend got between us and waved a scarf around.  It was a nice touch.  I think I saw it in a movie once.  She threw up the scarf, and I guessed that meant go.  I felt the familiar thump of the pedal hitting the floor, and the girl shot behind me into my rearview mirror. 

A long time ago someone with a can of spraypaint and a lot of patience measured out a quarter mile of closed off road behind a farm on the outskirts of Aurora.  Normally you could judge where the finish line was by the headlights that would line the track and stop at that painted line.  I always held my breath until the line of cars ran out.

That night I felt the pressure build in my lungs as I glanced over at the Corvette, a little ahead of me and puling away.  I tried to smile and lose the fear, but then I caught a glimpse of the driver as we hurtled toward the end of the lights.  He was clam and steady, not at all like the kids I'd raced against before.  Usually they were leaning forward in their seats, their teeth bared in a tense grimace.  This guy just sat back like he was watching the news.

I took my eyes off him in time to see that I'd drifted too far to the right; now I was clearing the cars on the sidelines by less than a foot.  I let the breath out and eased the wheel back to the left, but the Corvette had followed my lead and drifted just as far as I had.  I felt a dull thump as we touched, and finally his expression broke into rage.  He glared right at me, both of us still accelerating, and he opened his mouth as if he was going to say something I'd actually be able to hear over the Chevy's thunder.

I snapped my eyes back to the road ahead just as my right front fender clipped the license plate off the last car lining the strip.  The Corvette had won, but something inside me told me that he'd want more than twenty bucks for bumping his car, so I just kept going.  The Corvette slowed, expecting me to do the same, then instantly fell into place behind me. 

My mind raced through my options.  He had the advantage in both speed and maneuvering, so I wouldn't be ahead of him for long; and I could never afford to put more than five dollars worth of gas in the car at a time, so at the very least I'd run out of gas before he ran out of steam for the damage done to his car.  I thought about doubling back to the strip, but seeing as most of those guys had paid me twenty dollars for embarrassing them, it didn't seem like I'd have much support. 

In my whole life, I've never been in a fight.  Fighting just seemed so stupid; as if by hitting each other two people would be able to solve a problem.  At least I like to think that's why I don't like fights.  Maybe I just don't like geting hit.  In any case, I didn't want to start that night.

Then the solution hit me.  I slowed down, forcing him to do the same and weaving back and forth to keep him behind me, and when I'd gotten down to about fifty I hit the gas again.  The Chevy shot forward in one last faithful burst of speed, and when I saw the Corvette do the same in my mirror, I hit the brakes as hard as I could.  I felt the car shudder as the Corvette plowed into my rear fender and bounced back.  The Chevy's back tires lost their grip on the road and the car fishtailed as I kept a firm step on the brakes.  The car went sideways and tilted, and I closed my eyes as gravity let go of us.  There was a sickening feeling of weightlessness, like when you're on a roller coaster that's just reached the top of the loop, and then the deafening crash as I fell toward the roof of the car.  The sounds faded away into a grinding noise as the car slid a few hundred feet upside down, then silence when it finally stopped.

All in all, not the result I'd hoped for.

Somewhere along the line Pete had welded an extra pair of support bars into the posts behind the back seat, just for the hell of it, and I think I owe that whim my life.  I climbed out of the driver side window and stood up, a little shaken but in pretty good shape, considering. 

The Corvette pulled up, its front end folded in, and the driver jumped out of the car with every intention of finishing the job my Chevy had started on me.

"What the hell kind of maniac are you?" he screamed, throwing his hands out to the sides and spinning around to look at his car.  "This is gonna cost a fortune!"

"Can it move?" I asked.

"What?"

"Can it move?" I asked again, trying to sound calm but hearing a definite quiver in my voice.

"Yes, it moves," he answered.  "It goddamned got me here, didn't it?"

"Good," I said.  "Then you better get out of here."

The guy just looked at me.  I mean, if I had sprouted a second head he probably wouldn't have looked that surprised. 

"What?"

"Go," I said.  "I'll deal with the cops."

"You're out of your fucking mind."

"Not really," I said, pointing at his car.  "Look at the damage.  If you don't go now, I'll tell the cops that I was just minding my own business and this drunk son of a bitch came up and rear-ended me."  The guy dropped his jaw, and I dropped the penny. 

"You're drunk, man, don't deny it."

He stood there for a second, just looking at me.  "You're full of shit."

"And you're full of booze.  I can smell it from here."  This was a lie.  I couldn't smell anything, but I figured it was worth a shot. 

The guy glared at me for a few more seconds, then turned and got back into his car.  He tore down the road past my prone Chevy, and as his lights faded away I saw a few pairs of headlights coming from the strip.  Then I passed out.

When I came to there was an ambulance and cops all around, and Pete was standing next to the stretcher I was on. 

"What the hell happened?"

"I kept the twenty," I said, smiling. 

The cops bought the story about the drunk driver, and in a case of divine intervention the insurance company gave me three thousand for the dead Chevy.  I bought the Mustang and stayed as far away from the strip as I could.

 

Okay, here's problem of the week #674--I'm not slowing down.  I push down a little harder on the brake, and my fears become reality.  I've waited too damned long, and now the brakes don't work.  Christ, what an idiot.  The upward slope of the off ramp is enough to take maybe ten miles of the sixty I'm doing by the time I reach the stoplight at the end of the ramp.  Not enough. 

I know what you're thinking.  Emergency brakes, right?  Well, about a year ago I took the car in for service and they noticed that the emergency brake cable had rusted to the point where if I ever used it the cable would stick where it was and the car wouldn't move until I got the cable replaced.  I didn't have the money, so I told them to disconnect the cable in case someone tried to pull on it.  And then I promptly forgot all about it until now.

I shift down to low and feel the transmission whine its disapproval as the car begins to slow a bit more.  Still not enough.  I say a quick prayer to a god who's never really paid that much attention to me as I pump the brakes to work the last bit of fluid toward the pads, then slam down the pedal as hard as I can and feel it travel all the way to the floor with no effect. 

God is dead.

I'm out of tricks, and almost out of room.  The traffic light looms closer and closer, defiantly red, holding the cars in place in front of me.  Even if it changes instantly, It still won't give me enough time to avoid a collision.  I've got no choice but to wreck the car.

The fender grinds into the siderail at my insistance, and I can feel the steering wheel shudder its argument against behavior that this machine wasn't built for.  The speedometer reads fifteen, and there's about that many feet between me and the closest car when the light finally turns green.  I don't know which is worse to look at, the car I'm about to hit or the fountain of sparks rushing from the metal on the side of my car as it scrapes the concrete divider.  I choose the sparks, at least they're prettier.

The deafening crash I'm expecting never comes; instead there's just a dull thump, like a rubber mallet hitting cardboard.  My head bounces against the steering wheel as I'm thrown forward, and the blast of the horn as my chest slams into it actually surprises me more than the crash itself.  I look forward again across the rippled sea of sheet metal that used to be my hood and see the trunk of the car in front of me folded almost in half.  I hope the driver isn't a big guy.  Did I pay my insurance? 

I open the door to my car and put a foot on the ground, which slides forward under my shoe. 

That's not right. 

No, the ground isn't going forward, I'm going backward.  The car's not in park.  I get back in, hit the brakes, and waste a second to curse myself for being born with twenty five percent of the average human's brainpower. 

I don't have any brakes.  If I had brakes, I wouldn't be in this mess.  I slam the car into park, feeling the sickening jerk as it cames to an immediate halt.  Maybe if I'm lucky the offramp will collapse and put me out of my misery.  I get out and shut the door gently, worried that slamming the door will send the whole car flying back into the ramp traffic, which has already organized itself into a path around the two damaged cars.  The "me first" prime directive of the human brain strikes again. 

I walk slowly over to the other car, a big four door gold buick.  Maybe when he gets the car fixed, he can have it painted a color that's not so damned ugly.  This could be a blessing in disguise.

The Buick's driver side door opens and a girl gets out to face me.  I'm a little surprised, since I always imagined my next serious accident would be with someone three times my size and ten times my temper.  I guess I'm also a little disappointed.  I was looking forward to telling one of those stories that goes, "So I walk over to the car and this guy gets out, and he's like, three feet taller than me, and I'm thinking, 'I'm fucking dead . . .'"

"Are you all right?" I ask.

The girl rubs her neck.  I'm thinking lawsuit.  "I think so.  Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I say, even though I can feel a knot on my forehead taking form.  Can she sue me for hurting myself?  No, of course not.  That's ridiculous.  At least I don't think she can.  Better keep my mouth shut anyway, just in case.  "I'm fine."

I take a look at her.  She's about five foot two, with a mop of short reddish brown hair on top of a freckled face that looks like it's always smiling, squinting at the sun.  I'd probably ask her out if we hadn't met under circumstances in which I'd caused her several hundred dollars in property damage.

"The cars are really wrecked," she says, gesturing to mine.  I turn and see the front of my car, all twisted and cracked.  It's funny.  I always thought I'd be furious if I ever damaged that car, and now it's not really that hard to take.  Maybe I'm just glad to be alive.  Hers isn't as bad, just a bent bumper and dented trunk lid.  "What happened, did you fall asleep?"

"My brakes went out."

"Wow.  That's got to be scary."  She's pretty calm, considering I almost killed her.  I'm glad she's not yelling at me.  I hate getting yelled at. 

"Yeah," I reply, looking at her car.  "Pretty scary.  Think it'll move?"

She nods.  "I think it's even still running."  I listen a little harder and hear the engine.  "What about yours?"

"I don't think I should chance it.  I'd better just call a tow truck.  Do you want my insurance information now, or--"

"I'm Rachel."

I do a quick scan over the last couple of sentences to leave my mouth.  Nope.  Didn't ask her name.  "Uh, I'm Ken.  Kenny.  Ken." 

Hell, take your pick.

"I just figured that this is a pretty personal thing, you know, car wrecks and insurance and all, and I thought it would be nice if we had a proper, civil introduction before the whole thing got started."

"Oh.  Okay," I said.  "I guess that's pretty nice."

We stand there and nod at each other for a few seconds, and I think both of us realize at the same time how stupid we must look, because we both stop at the same time.  "Why don't I give you a ride to a service station, and while they're towing your car we can take care of all the formalities there."  She starts walking toward the car, making up my mind for me.  I look back at my Mustang, now leaking every imagineable fluid onto the off ramp. 

Marking its territory.

"Is it going to be all right there?" Rachel asks, leaning against the roof of her car.  I turn to her and smile.

"Sure.  I just hope nobody scratches it or anything."

She busts out laughing; big genuine, tension breaking laughs that force me to join in as we get in her car.  We're still laughing as she starts up the ramp, toward a place we can go and catch our breath.

 

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