THE LAST ITALIAN TUNE-UP, PART THREE “SEE JACK RUN”

(THE FOLLOWING IS PART THREE OF THE ORIGINAL, SERIALIZED VERSION OF “THE LAST ITALIAN TUNE-UP”. BUT AS WE ARE NOW NOVELIZING THE STORY, WE ARE TREATING THIS, AND THE TWO PRIOR SHORTS THAT WE’D RELEASED, AS A SORT OF “ROUGH DRAFT” FOR EARLY CHAPTERS OF THE NOVEL. WE ARE ALSO THEREFORE RELEASING THESE SHORTS NOW TO READ FOR FREE, UNTIL THE FULL NOVEL VERSION IS COMPLETED. ENJOY!)

 

Day One. Saturday, May 5th, 2018

9:54 AM

He stepped on the gas pedal twice. Then he crossed his fingers, and twisted the key.

Here goes nothing.

The starter motor whined for a second…

And the Chevelle barked to life. A moment later it settled into a fast, booming idle.

Ah. Thank you…thank you… thank you…

-and about goddam time.

He’d started the engine cold, so for the first few minutes it ran fast and rich, drinking extra gasoline at a quicker pace in an effort to keep itself from stalling.

Not all of what it drank actually got used, though, so within moments, the garage began to fill with the eye-watering stink of partly-burnt Sunoco 110. He winced: not at the smell, but at the thought of all that twelve dollar-a-gallon racing gas being turned into nothing more than expensive air pollution.

Not that he had much of a choice in the matter; the vintage engine had been designed to run on ridiculously hi-octane gas, and although the stuff once used to be cheaper and more plentiful than water back in the late-sixties, it had long since disappeared from the gas stations of today. Which left racing gas as the only substitute.

Because, if he drove it on anything less, or God forbid, drove it hard on anything less, the big V8 would soon be dead; murdered from within by burnt valves and broken pistons, their failures cascading into further failures that would spread like a sudden mechanical cancer, until death occurred.

It was a mechanical certainty, with the only variable being how long that death took to occur, and how violent it would be when it happened. God knew, he’d seen enough YouTube videos of engine-dyno-sessions-gone-wrong. Enough of them to make sure he didn’t ever want to find out for himself.

Well, you wanted everything to be “original”…

God help him though; it did sound beautiful. With the possible exception of his wife’s whispered voice and the sound of his children’s laughter, few sounds in the world could match it.

Part of the feeling came from the same place that had been inspiring teenage boys (and increasingly girls) to hotrod cars since the beginning of automotive time: for some people, loud, fast things just flipped a switch somewhere inside them, turning them on.

The bigger part of the feeling though, the thing that really flipped his switch, he got from just listening to something that old sound so very much alive, and from knowing that it was still alive because of him.

So, twelve dollar-a-gallon gas notwithstanding, he tried to enjoy himself as he listened for any signs of the misfire he’d first heard last week. With any luck, he wouldn’t, and he’d be able to consider the problem fixed. Then they could both get on with life.

God willing.

It had been the distributor. Which of course was one of the few things he hadn’t rebuilt with the rest of the engine.

Even though it was the same forty-plus years old as everything else, dumbass.

On the way back from Redstone Raceway last Saturday it had simply, “shit the bed”, as his father used to love saying, and left the Chevelle barely able to limp home.

So, he’d pulled the failing part that afternoon and then spent the next three nights cleaning and rebuilding it in order to reinstall it the following Saturday.

Yet despite all his earlier work and the care he’d taken reinstalling it this morning, he’d still been surprised that the engine had started at all. And even now that it had, he still waited anxiously for it to stumble or miss a beat.

His pessimism came from the fact that he’d had a bitch of a time getting the thing apart. Then, when he’d gone to put it all back together, he’d accidentally cracked the distributor’s aluminum housing. The housing, of course, was a rare part found only on that particular engine. Not to mention that it was also the original one for his particular car, which made it practically irreplaceable.

So rather than get another, he’d chosen to try and fix the thing himself with something called “Super Weld”, a grey putty that promised to bond everything from plastic to steel, and always “WITH AN IRON GRIP!” He normally didn’t place much faith in “Super” anything, but he’d been desperate, and the store clerk had promised him it would work, so he’d given it a shot.

Besides, even if it didn’t work, what would happen? Sure the distributor might crap out a second time and the engine would run like shit again, but at least it wouldn’t be a show-stopper; he’d just be back at square one. Only next time he’d send the damned thing off to Jeff Dottery’s shop in Hamburg and let him fight with it.

So far so good though.

Slowly, optimism began to creep in. After all, repairs like that either worked or they didn’t, and if anything was going to blow, he reasoned, it would have blown by now. But so far nothing had, and the engine seemed to be running fine.

After listening for another minute he made a few more stabs at the gas pedal. Each time, the big Chevrolet responded with a crackle.

Yeah, I think that did it.

I wonder if the kids want to go for a tune-up.

Maybe I’ll even ask Jane-

Although she’ll probably say no.

***

The three of them sat out at the end of the runway, looking over at the house through the Chevelle’s passenger window. Jack still wondered if there might still be a chance. Although the kids, he knew, were just looking because he was. And that wouldn’t hold them long, either; they’d all, quite literally, been there before, and the results lately had always been the same.

Gary gave up first. He began to fiddle with the CB radio that hung under the dashboard. Jack, meanwhile, had already slipped the Chevelle’s transmission into DRIVE, and could feel the engine thrumming steadily through the floorboards as it tried to push the big car forward. He needed only to let off the brakes and step on the gas: then it would be one good (if slightly illegal) time with his kids, coming up.

Yet there they sat.

I should just go back in and ask her anyway. Hell, I should just go in and tell her. Even if I have to drag her out, she’ll end up having a good time in the end. It’s nice out- maybe we can go up to Hillside for ice cream.

As he tried to decide what to do, a part of him quietly hoped that she might solve his problem for him and come out on her own. Maybe she’d hear the engine still idling outside, wonder what might be going on, and come out for a look. If she saw her family sitting out at the end of the runway smiling back at her, then perhaps she’d stop for a moment and reconsider whatever monumentally important task she’d been doing inside.

And if she did that, well then maybe, just maybe, she’d say to hell with it and finally come trotting down the driveway to them.

And if allll of the above somehow miraculously happened, you could bet your ass he’d tell Gary to hustle his ass into the back seat—sorry; Roll Control and Kenny Loggins and the rest of their usual little game would have to wait—beside Denise, so that their mother could ride up front.

That was what Jack really wanted, because he knew that if he could just get Jane into the passenger seat beside him, where the warm curve of her thigh would be within easy reach while he drove, that her hand would settle over his the way it always used to, and she would come back to all of them.

If she’d just do that, just do that one simple thing, then that would be all he’d need; the world would be set right again, and he finally would let off the brakes. And away they’d all go.

But that’s a lot of maybes. Good luck making them happen.

She just seemed to be so… gone, anymore: staying late at work, travelling for work, or bringing work home with her. And although he knew that she tried not to let those things interfere with her home life, for the last few months Jack had begun to feel as if home was losing ground. The kids, and increasingly he, had begun to feel more and more like just another job that she needed to get done, right there next to the laundry (which he knew she was doing right now, because according to her, dammit, it needed to be done today).

It wasn’t that she wanted to be away from them, she just seemed to get so… wrapped up… in things.

And then, when she got started on something, watch out; the woman became a machine. Everything else about her just seemed to fall away-

No, that wasn’t quite right. Nothing about her fell away. The opposite happened, really; she locked her real self up. Locked the Jane that her family loved away, out of sight, and left them instead with a person who looked like Jane, and sounded like Jane, but was decidedly not Jane.

Which wasn’t her fault either, he supposed. He thought about her last assignment. That pharmaceutical place down in New Jersey, with all those poor people. He remembered how much they’d hated her…

I’d probably become a machine too, doing what she does. It’s not exactly a job you gloat about at parties. I wonder if she even thinks, really thinks, about it herself. I sure as shit couldn’t.

Although, you’d think she would jump at any chance to get away from it for a while… if she really disliked it. Or maybe in some weird way she does like it-

More than she likes being with us? Jesus, I hope not.

Although that’s why they use her. Because she’s so good at it. And how can you be so good at something for so long without at least liking it a little?

And I know it’s one of the reasons she likes me- because I’m a fixer. She takes things apart, breaks them apart, but I fix things. So I give her balance.

Or at least I did.

He looked at the house for another moment, trying to give his earlier hope a chance, but she still didn’t appear. He thought again of going back for her. Then he looked around at the kids. Whatever he decided, he’d have to do it soon; they were already getting restless. Gary had stopped fiddling with the CB’s switches and begun twirling the device’s mike from its coiled rubber cord. Denise had already whipped out her phone, but suddenly began muttering about having no signal. It wouldn’t be long before they started asking him about the delay.

Still, something told him to go back, that he really should go back.

Stop bullshitting. Just go back in and get her.

But then Gary spoke.

“Yo Dad, I think it passes the sitting-at-the-end-of-the-runway test. Why don’t we see how it goes?”

“Yeah Daddy, are we moving out or not? Remember, Ben’s coming for lunch and he’s gonna be here soon.”

Finally, Gary looked up from the CB.

“Dad… she’s not coming. I already asked her. She said she had too much to do.”

Yeah. She told me that too… a lot to do before lunch, maybe next time… blah, blah… but I’ve gotta talk with her later. She can’t keep this up-

We can’t keep this up.

Jack looked at Gary. “Now, before we go… you good?”

Gary patted himself on his side. “Yup, just this morning. Not like I’ll need it. Knowing you, there’s more in the trunk. Probably a month’s worth.” The boy smiled.

“Bet your ass there is. Because that’s something we don’t ever screw around with, right?”

The boy nodded.

“Okay, good. Now-” Jack looked backward towards Denise. “Soundtrack please?”

She smiled, “You got it Daddy!”, and stabbed at her phone. “Danger Zone, it is…”

But after a minute had passed, Denise still hadn’t produced the song. She growled, then announced, “I’m sorry guys, but for some reason I don’t have a signal. And I was getting “Danger Zone” off Spotify, so…”

Jack checked his own phone. It too, showed “NO SIGNAL”. “Gary?”

But the boy, now looking at his own phone, just shook his head. “Sorry…”

“Okay, doesn’t matter,” Jack announced, “I’ll sing it myself-” and he set off on his own ragged rendition of the song, complete with guitars.

“Oh God please! Make it stop!” Both kids had practically shouted in unison.

“Okay, okay,” Jack smiled. “No soundtrack then… ya’ big babies… Which I guess leaves us with just one last thing to do.” Jack pointed to the red toggle switch that enabled the Roll Control. “Would you do the honors, young man?”

Gary flipped the switch. A red light came on. And then Jack wound the engine up, up, up

“Tower, this is Chevelle One-Nine-Seven-Zero. Ready for takeoff.

“Roger that Chevelle. You are clear for takeoff…”

The game wasn’t quite the same without “Danger Zone” blaring in the background, but it was still pretty fun. And when Denise finally finished her “safety briefing”, with the words-

Hit it!

-well, that was always fun. Gary hit the small red button that released the Chevelle’s front brakes just as Jack stabbed at the accelerator, and the Chevelle shot forward with a roar. Atlas House shrank in the rearview mirror. Then was lost in the white cloud of tire smoke that the Chevelle had left behind.

And a moment later, it was gone.

***

A few minutes after that, they were cruising sedately down the access road that led out to the main. Jack drove with his right hand on the wheel. The other hung down through the Chevelle’s open window, his fingers drumming against the cool metal of the door as a White Stripes song tried to beat its way through the car’s small dashboard speaker. Whatever might be going on with the cell signals, the FM was at least still working.

Beside him, Gary sat with his arm hung out of the passenger window, knifing his hand through the slipstream. Denise sat with her chin resting on the back corner of her father’s seat, an absent but contented look on her face.

The road started a gentle slope upward, so Jack stepped a little harder on the gas to compensate. Then he stepped a little harder still. The engine’s tone deepened and Chevelle surged ahead. Without breaking her gaze at the oncoming road, Denise grabbed for the seatback so she wouldn’t slip backward. Gary, meanwhile, turned and met his father’s eyes. The boy gave his father a speed-induced smile and a thumbs-up. Then he turned back to the windshield, the smile still on his face.

Jack returned his son’s smile with a smile of his own, but was surprised to feel it fade the moment the boy turned away. Then he remembered sitting out at the end of the driveway, and understood why. A wave of regret rolled over him.

Now I know I should’ve brought her with us. This is one of those short, happy moments that the kids will remember forever, and she should be part of that memory…

But now she won’t.

He thought once again about going back for her, only not like before, not just with vague promises of what a good time they might have. No, he’d go back armed with real, factual knowledge of what a good time they were having, and would have, if she’d just go with them.

But that wouldn’t work, and you know it.

He sighed resignation. Neither of the kids heard him, probably because the music and the engine made just enough noise to mask anything shy of shouting, but in this case that was a good thing. After all, what good would it do to dampen their fun with his regrets? And really, wasn’t resignation just the thing he needed?

I should just let go and enjoy the moment. After all, I’m here, even if Jane isn’t…

So, for the kids’ sakes he willed the moment to last, and tried to enjoy it. With or without her. A moment later, as the car sped ever faster up the hill, he found that he actually could enjoy it, and that he really did want it to last. Even his right foot hesitated to lift off of the gas pedal. Hesitated to end the steadily building rush of acceleration, because to do so would be a tacit admission that the moment would end.

But like all good things, it had to end, and his foot had to lift-

Because they were approaching a stop sign.

***

Popping, burbling sounds came from the Chevelle’s exhaust pipes as the engine wound down. A moment later he switched on the turn signal.

At the intersection, they would turn left and head for home past Murphy’s farm. The kids liked that part the best, because when they reached the straightaway that dissected Murphy’s cornfields, Jack would always “put his foot in it”. Then the Chevrolet would get its “Italian tune-up” and the kids would get the thrill they’d come to expect.

The old farmer wouldn’t mind, either; he did the same thing with his son’s old Buick. At least Jack had thought it was Murphy. He couldn’t be sure because he’d never actually seen for himself. Sometimes though, late at night, maybe while he and Jane were on the back deck drinking wine and enjoying the summer air, they would hear.

First the car’s engine would start, barking to life and settling into a fast idle that sounded a lot like the Chevelle’s. But then it would begin to rev: slowly, higher and higher, until it redlined.

And for a few seconds the Buick would sound nothing like the Chevelle, or anything else that had ever rolled off of any GM assembly line. Instead it would sound like some enormous monster, calling out in an eerie, warbling howl. A howl so loud that it echoed off of the neighboring hills.

The container did it, of course. Murphy kept the Buick parked deep inside of what looked like a large, army-green shipping container, the kind that’s meant to be loaded on an ocean freighter or truck/trailer, that he’d somehow buried beneath a hillock out by his barn. And thus situated, the open end of the container tended to act like a kind of big, directional megaphone, focusing the sound waves from the car’s exhaust pipes so tightly that their sound traveled all the way to Jonas Hill and back. The container itself also resonated, adding that weird warble to the sound.

Jack could imagine campers in some of Jonas Hill’s state parks stopping what they were doing when they heard it. He could see conversations pausing around campfires as hikers and vacationers became, for just a few seconds, like their prehistoric forebears, listening to some unknown beast roar off in the distance.

But in the end of course, the great, mysterious beast always revealed itself to be nothing more than acoustics, plain and simple. Jack could tell every time, because a moment later the sound would shift. That would be Murphy idling the Buick down the ramps from the container and into the open air. A moment after that, the Buick would tear off into the night, tires screaming, sounding like a normal car again.

Conversations on Jonas Hill would resume, perhaps with a little nervous laughter.  Maybe one or two of the campers would check their smart phones, holding them up like bright, modern talismans against the darkness that some ancient part of their DNA still told them to fear.

Not once had Jack or Jane ever heard the Buick come back. They guessed that Murphy either took it easy on the way home, or just came home long after they’d gone to bed. The next day though, the Buick would be back, shiny and clean, parked once again beside the barn in the shipping container. The only evidence of its having gone anywhere would be the fresh tire marks scrawled across the pavement from the spot where the dirt driveway met the road.

A ‘69 GSX in Spring Green, with the 455 and a four-speed- I wouldn’t mind a chance to hoon around in one of those myself.

Although, God help me, not for the same reason Murphy does. If I ever lost one of my ki-

STOP.

They reached the sign just as another car blew through the intersection. It was headed from right to left, the same way he intended to go. But… he looked both ways: the Sunday morning roads were otherwise empty. So, he decided to wait and let the other car get a good head start. That way, they’d have plenty of room for a nice, thorough “tune-up”.

They wouldn’t have to wait long either; the car was a new Mustang convertible, and the badges on its fenders proclaimed it to have a “5.0” V8 under its hood. They made, what- four hundred-plus horsepower?

Whatever the number, the Mustang’s driver appeared to be using all of it; the guy was really hauling ass. Hell, he hadn’t even stopped for the intersection before accelerating again. He’d just jammed on the brakes for a split-second, looked at the oncoming Chevelle, then roared onward.

Asshole… We put a scare in him at least.

The Mustang’s top had been down, and its driver’s face had been clearly visible for that split second. The poor dumbass had looked terrified. But it served him right.

Another retard with more right foot than brains.

As he sat watching the Mustang drive off, he realized that the music had stopped. So he looked down at the Chevelle’s radio. It was still on, but the little red RECEPTION light had gone out. Then the speaker started to hiss. He reached for the knob-

Suddenly tires screeched from the left. He jerked his head back up-

“Uh, Dad? What’s-” So Gary had noticed it too…

A quarter mile down the road to the left, an approaching car had gone off of it and was doing violent snap-rolls across the far side of the adjacent field. While closer in, Jack’s eyes registered skid marks-

But they seemed to go the wrong way to have been made by the now-rolling car. They tracked off into the opposite field, where-

Oh…

Now Jack saw the reason; the Mustang that had just blown past them not seconds before was now slowly bouncing to a stop in the freshly plowed dirt. He didn’t understand though; the Mustang looked empty…

Then he realized that something else was wrong. Very wrong.

Because everything was blue: the Mustang, the wrecked car, the dirt, the trees beyond…

From behind him, Denise screamed.

Coming down the road and across Murphy’s field was a glittering blue wall. He could see through it, but it shimmered with faint ribbons of light that seemed to run down its face like water. It hugged the ground so closely that it followed the furrows in the dirt, yet at the same time, it stretched all the way off to the sky and both horizons. Ahead of it rolled angry black lightning clouds.

Soon it reached Murphy’s barn. The blue spattered through the sides and then sliced down through its roof, although seemingly without doing any damage to the barn itself. Then it ran over the buried shipping container. The container’s door stood open, and the Buick sat inside. The shimmer seemed to boil against the container’s top, and small blue sparks sizzled down inside. They landed and scuttered across the Buick’s roof.

For a fraction of a second the Buick stood framed in green relief against the massive sheet of blue. But then it too got swallowed as the wall finally spattered down. Jack watched the wall come, fascinated…

Someone started shaking him, which broke the trance, and he looked around. It was Gary- Gary was shaking him, and screaming. Denise was beating on the seatback and yelling at him too.

Daddy! Go! Go! Go!” and she screamed again. Gary yelled at him over and over to go right go right go right!

“Yes, oh shit we have to go we do have to go…

The blue wall was only a few hundred feet away and still sliding towards them. He hauled the Chevelle’s steering wheel right and stomped on the gas pedal. The engine spun up to a howl and the tires squealed. The car lunged forward and then began to arc right.

Then it fishtailed, and Jack’s first real feeling of terror set in. If he spun the big car out the blue wall would catch them before he could straighten it out again. He didn’t know what had happened on the road behind them, but he was desperately afraid to find out.

He yanked the wheel back and forth as the heavy car’s rear end snapped from side to side. Until at last the tires found purchase and the car straightened out. Finally able to transfer its power into full acceleration, the engine revved up to its redline. Then the transmission shifted up into second gear and the acceleration began anew. For a split second the tires spun again, and they made a chattering squeal, but momentum had shifted to their side by then, and they grabbed hold once more. In the rearview mirror he glimpsed the twin strips of rubber they’d left behind-

Just as the wall slid over them.

Seventy, eighty miles per hour, the car raced down the two-lane road. Gary alternated between looks at the road and looks at the wall. Denise sat back, bolt upright, bracing herself with one hand.

They seemed to be opening up a lead on the… whatever-it-was, but Jack knew that lead wouldn’t last; the road wouldn’t go straight for much longer. Gary turned to him. The boy’s eyes were wide.

“What do we do Dad? What is that thing?!”

“Daddy I’m scared. What are we going to do?”

Denise looked at him in the rearview mirror. He didn’t know what to say to either of them. He knew he had to figure things out, but his brain and eyes were wholly preoccupied with flight. All he could spit out were a few distracted sounding words.

“I’m not sure yet. But we’re gonna be OK, just hang on.”

He snatched a look at the gas gauge: they had just under half a tank. He checked the temperature and the oil pressure gauges- Oh Jesus!

The road had begun to curve, too sharply for thirty-three hundred pounds of car to take at high speed. He eased off of the accelerator, fearful that letting off too suddenly would cause the Chevelle to snap sideways into a spin. His caution proved pointless; just as he lifted his foot, another car appeared from around the turn, going the same direction.

The Chevelle still hurtled along the narrow road at eighty-five miles per hour, but the other car seemed to be crawling at less than forty. Jack wouldn’t be able to brake in time. Everyone in the car sucked in breath. Gary and Denise began to scream, “Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!” in rapidly rising voices.

Fuck it, I’ll pass him-

Oh shit…

Yet another car appeared, this one in the opposite lane. Gary and Denise’s voices devolved into a garbled litany of warnings.

As if I don’t see what’s coming!

Too much seemed to be happening at once. He couldn’t think, had to think, and Jesus, the kids…

Why won’t they shut up and let me think!

For the first time in his life, Jack swore at his children.

“Shut up, goddammit!”

He yanked the wheel left and then back right again, just as the oncoming car slid past them. In the rear view he saw both cars spin out.

But he couldn’t afford to keep an eye on them; blue had begun to splash through the trees.

“Daddy-“

Jesus, Denise!

“Please honey, just shut up and let me drive!”

“But Daddy-“

Goddammit! Do you see what I’m doing? Let me drive!”

“But Daddy they disappeared!” She started to cry.

“Deni- Wait what?”

She went on, sobbing, her voice nearing a shriek. “They disappeared! I saw people get out of those cars, but then that blue thing came and they were gone. I saw it. They were just gone!”

He thought of the Mustang coming to a stop behind the wall, and of the other car that had crashed for no apparent reason.

Oh God… that fits.

He looked in the rear view again. The blue thing still slid behind them.

Whatever that is, we have to stay ahead of it.

“It’s alright honey. Calm down.” He realized that his voice was louder than it needed to be, so he tried to sound calm himself. “We’re gonna be okay.”

Although I think we just killed those people. And we’re gonna run out of road soon.

Another car appeared in front of them, but by then the road had straightened and they passed it easily. As they did, Jack blew the horn and Gary directed the other driver’s attention backward. The man’s face dropped at what he saw. Then he was behind them. Another car passed them going the other way. He laid on the horn again to warn its driver. Brake lights flashed, but too late; the wall crossed over it a second later. The lights went out just as the car disappeared behind the curve.

The other car was still in sight, but falling further and further behind. Two more cars passed opposite them and he tried the horn again, but couldn’t tell if it did any good; the road had again curved, too much. Then they passed another to their front, honking and pointing. The whole time, the Chevelle never slowed to less than seventy miles per hour, yet the wall seemed to keep pace behind them. It was all the damned curves and turns.

Seeing that, Jack suddenly realized that they had another problem. The wall seemed to be travelling in one steady direction: south. But the road did not, and in another mile, they’d have to make a choice, because the road was going to end in a four-way intersection with a bigger road, State Route 87. When it did, they’d either have to go straight, or take a right and follow 87 South.

If they went straight across, that road would take them on a hopeless series of twists and turns before climbing a steep hill. But 87 South didn’t exactly go perfectly south either. It really ran at an approximate forty five degree angle for almost twelve miles before it reached the Turnpike.

But if it follows us to the Turnpike, even that doesn’t go straight south! And there will be a lot of cars; by now other people must be catching on. Shit, shit, shit! I don’t know what we’re going to-

But there was no more time to think about it. He caught sight of the traffic light that hung over 87.

It looked dead…

The Chevelle’s speedometer indicated ninety-five miles per hour when he finally began to brake, two hundred feet from the light. The car’s exhaust pipes crackled and popped as the engine wound back down and its brakes sent a hum through its body as they tried to shed speed.

Jack scanned the traffic ahead, trying to calculate where they might enter it. Then, from the left, he saw a minivan coming down 87, going much too fast.

Just before they reached the intersection, the minivan raced through, weaving around the other traffic. Strapped to its rear were several children’s bicycles. Jack could see them sway and jounce as the minivan swerved. The other cars slowed in surprise, choking the intersection. He couldn’t see how to make the turn and keep going, but with the wall still only a quarter mile behind them, he saw no other choice. He turned the wheel hard to the right. The Chevelle lurched over and started to slide…

…right into the path of another speeding car. Its panicked driver tried to brake and swerve around, but couldn’t. The car glanced off of the Chevelle just in front of the left rear wheel.

Everyone in the Chevelle screamed as the impact knocked it from its slide and sent it into a looping spin. The other car swerved again, but its momentum carried it into the light pole, where it hit with enough force to split the pole at its base. Then it bounced backward across the intersection.

With the road suddenly blocked, more speeding cars also tangled in the wreck, choking the intersection further.

The Chevelle slid to a stop. Jack looked up through the windshield just in time to see the pole split and start to fall. The arm that held the traffic light did a lazy spin as the pole went over, picking up speed along the way. Its motion swung the dangling traffic light around in a tight arc, like a mace. Then it snapped downward.

Jack realized that they needed to go, or the pole would fall across the road and trap them. He stomped on the gas and the car roared forward again.

“Oh shit! Oh shit! Jesus guys hang on!”

The traffic light swung down just in time to punch a deep dent in the Chevelle’s trunk lid, then drag across it with a ragged screech. The Chevelle’s rear end sagged under the weight, and everyone inside snapped forward as the car suddenly jerked to a halt.

The tires lost traction and began to spin, making a blubbery, howling noise. For a moment Jack thought the pole would trap them anyway. That the Chevelle’s tires would just keep spinning until the wall came and ended everyone’s struggle for good.

Come on dammit!

A cloud of white wafted up from the spinning tires, carrying along the sour smell of burning rubber. It wouldn’t work. The light had caught on the edge of the trunk and wasn’t going to come loose. Suddenly a new idea sprang into his head. He reached down and slammed the gearshift into REVERSE. Again, he stomped on the gas, and the car went-

Nowhere?

The engine raced up, but the car sat still.

Oh fuck me! Did I break something? Now?

He took a frantic look out the window. The wall was only a few hundred feet away. The engine still raced without moving the car. He didn’t understand-

“Dad! It’s in Park!”

Stupid, stupid. Why didn’t you look you stupid ass!

He reached down again and slid the lever back one more notch. But the transmission caught while the engine was still racing, and the Chevrolet suddenly shot backward. His eyes snapped to the rear window where suddenly the traffic light loomed large, the end of the light pole close behind it. His foot went to the brake, but it would be too late- the Chevelle had jerked backward too quickly.

The traffic light smashed through the rear window and tumbled across the rear tray, before coming to a stop halfway over the back seat. It lay there, like some yellow three-eyed monster that had fought its way in, but died trying. Broken bits of Safe-lite glass pattered down all around it.

Denise screamed. The light had missed her but the bits of glass in her hair testified to just how close it had come.

We’re all OK, though. Good. We’re getting the Hell out of here.

Jack snatched one more time at the gearshift and yanked it back into DRIVE. Again the Chevelle howled forward. This time the light bounced backward out of the window and rattled across the trunk lid without catching. It clanked down over the rear bumper and smashed to the asphalt as the Chevrolet pulled free.

Gary started patting Jack on the shoulder. The gesture felt surreal, as if Gary were praising him for hitting a home run or making a good joke; anything other than keeping him and his sister from dying a few seconds sooner. Jack looked around at both of them.

Gary was obviously okay. He actually seemed thrilled to be alive and thrilled with his father for making it happen.

But he hadn’t been nearly bludgeoned to death by a traffic light. Denise sat with glass still in her hair and the same frightened look she’d had on before. Without the rear window, the sound of the exhaust came through much louder, and he had to shout over it.

“You kids OK? Denise honey, you OK? I’m so sorry sweetheart!”

Gary confirmed his appearance with a wide-eyed, glowing statement about how awesome his Dad was. It hadn’t yet occurred to Jack that his boy might already be deep in shock.

Denise however, left no doubt about it; her eyes stared at him as she spoke, and she called him by name, but she sounded like she was talking to herself.

“Daddy I’m scared and I want to go home.”

He had no answer for her. Replying with the truth wouldn’t have helped; he was scared and wanted to go home too.

He thought briefly of Jane. More and more, not knowing if she was okay had begun to eat at him too. But by the look of things, they wouldn’t be going back anytime soon.

By the look of things, they’d be lucky to see Jane, or home, ever again.

 

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