FICTION ISSUE #20

"Via Della Spada" by Galen Cheney, 45" x 120" Oil and Enamel on Wood Panels
*Image: “Via Della Spada” by Galen Cheney, 45″ x 120″ Oil and Enamel on Wood Panel

 

The Record We’re Writing

By Tyler Barton

 

The Sunday after all this happened, the Gettysburg Examiner reported that Austin Harris flipped his go-kart six times. I was thirteen then, sensitive to nothing but myself, but now I wonder: why even include the number? Like he was a rock we’d skipped with pride? Like that’s all the hicks down at Huntersville Speedway were up to—a competition to see who could bust it up best? Plus, it was just wrong.

Keithie swore it was seven flips.

He found me in the shade behind the snack bar, not watching the heats, playing Pokémon alone, chipping away at another bored-to-death Saturday. Keithie Blum only ever equaled bad. The fender of his trash gray #11 always grinned in my rearview. His dirtiest move was tapping my right rear tire coming out of turn two, spinning me out across the dusty berm.

Over the whine of approaching sirens he recounted the whole crash, flashing those stained-orange buck teeth, wiping his sweaty forehead on a Jeff Gordon tank top.

“You missed some real shit, Grimm,” he said. Apparently, Austin came out of turn four, followed his line up to the front stretch but spun right, swung toward the wall, and leveled it nose-first. And then another kart T-boned his side panel hard. Over he went in a barrel roll.

I didn’t know Austin Harris. He raced 650s. Seventy-some kids racing at Huntersville, ages ten to twenty-one, across eight different engine classes, and not a single one was my friend. All that mattered to me: the track was shutting down for the day. I almost told Keithie off before leaving him standing there, but I bit my tongue. I thought of home, my real friends, splitscreen Goldeneye and plans for the future. A beautiful Saturday night stretched in front of me like highway.

Back at our pit, Dad was already packing up the trailer.

“You hear?” he said, dumping the cooler out into the grass.

I shrugged, picked up a Powerade.

“Harris died, Jackson.” Dad dried his hands on his Wranglers. I nodded and got to work.

Thinking about it now, I can remember hearing Mr. Harris’s screams as we packed, but who knows if that’s accurate. They say every time you replay a memory you change it.

We team-lifted my clean, red #31 back into our trailer, broke down the canopy, and loaded the Bronco in silence. I didn’t know what was going through Dad’s head, but I was pumped for a July Saturday night without Keithie putting me into the wall, free of the endless track, the hot bark of motors, the veins driving out of every screaming father’s neck, the John Deere and the dip spit. Climbing into the truck, the cracked leather seat torched my hands, like a Nintendo cartridge after hours of playing. We were leaving, maybe never coming back. I daydreamed Dad buying me a PS2—maybe even a guitar—once we sold the kart.

“This shit never happens,” Dad said as we pulled out of our spot in the grass and joined the slow procession of trailers leaving Huntersville Speedway. We cranked the windows down, but everywhere the air was stale. Air-conditioning stayed turned off at the track. Dad always acted like we had to rough it.

We crawled past the other pits. In the passenger seat of a green F-350, a kid I raced against, Wes, wore his helmet to hide his tears, which he did after every loss. I waved. Wes snapped his visor closed. The trackside loudspeakers blew out a crackled “God Bless America” on repeat.

Next was the Blum pit, with their repurposed ice-cream truck parked smack against the wall so they could sit on the roof with a clear view of every race. There was a stupid rumor they were so poor they lived here, in the truck, and that’s how they always had that spot. I imagined Keithie up there watching from his broken bag-chair, counting Austin’s every flip.

The traffic was backed up, so we idled beside the snack bar in silence. The country smell of fry oil made me disgustingly hungry. I looked back at the clay track, its walls marred with dashes of paint from every kart that ever made contact. There was plenty of red. Plenty of it mine. But I’d never flipped. Let the record show: I didn’t know even know our karts were capable of flipping. We drove so close to the ground. It seemed like Dad might say something, try to explain it to me, but he just looked unblinkingly ahead and drove. There was too much I didn’t know about driving and damage, the way people use each other.

I put my headphones on and started Green Day’s Nimrod from the top. They were my first angry band. “Nice Guys Finish Last” opened the album, as Billie Joe Armstrong whined those same four words. I didn’t understand all their lyrics but knew each one by heart. In the passenger seat of my Dad’s Bronco, as we left everything about racing behind us, I nearly air-guitared along to the song.

____

Home was an hour away. The wind whipped the brown hair on our heads. Dad and I didn’t speak as he drove over rocky, potholed, half-paved roads into what would be my longest night on record. Huntersville, hardly a town, didn’t even have a post office. Just mobile homes and a scrap yard. On race days the population of Huntersville doubled. The track was the town’s pride.

With the windows down, I had to turn my Discman up to ten. I wondered if Dad could hear my music, and if so, what did he think? Normally, riding in the Bronco meant 107.7 The Deer and one goofy country song after another, each in the same key, a never-ending celebration of dirt. But tonight Dad left the radio off. He couldn’t get in lecture mode without beer, so I doubted some grand lecture was coming. The silence was still unnerving, even with my own music full-blast.

We stopped at Rutter’s and he stood at the pump speaking low into his Nextel. After paying inside, he handed me a Snickers ice-cream bar and pulled the key from the ignition.

“You know we always wear our neck brace, right?” he said.

Keithie hadn’t mentioned anything about Austin’s missing gear. No one ever forgot their neck brace. I sat there picturing the scene the way Keithie had described it and felt myself turning over.

Dad laid on the horn, looking at me like Right, Jackson?

“Of course,” I said. I hoped to somehow tell him that I never wanted to wear another neck brace in my life. I never wanted to race a go-kart again. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. We had six races left. Dad had always told me: We don’t leave a team midseason. That was why in fifth grade he dragged me to every basketball game, where I waited on the bench for the embarrassing ends of blowouts, why I couldn’t quit T-ball until I got the plastic trophy for participation.

Holding it all in, I sat still and waited for the truck to move. I’ve never felt hung up on the idea of being a man, but I was scared of not being a good son.

____

The roads’ smoothing out was the first sign of home. We crossed the creek, climbed Blue Hill, and crested the ridge to glimpse the distant city of York. Before that lay Deliver borough, a small cluster of civilization. It wasn’t much, but there were sidewalks and streetlights, four stores still in business. Our maroon split-level sat just outside of town, so we turned down Colt Run road and passed the darkened house where, two years before, a high school girl started her father’s Mustang and left the garage door down on purpose. I used to wonder about her friends.

In York county, the future I imagined was with the few kids on my road, my only buddies—Toby, Dylan, Jared—busting out of school at 3 p.m., hopping into a Honda, and speeding off to York city, hanging at Gamestop, seeing a show at Club 19, maybe someday playing our own.

But after three summers of racing, my friends thought I was turning hick. They said my voice sounded different. And I saw the way they’d look at me after helping Dad in the garage, my grease-gray hands staining controllers and cards. Plus, I hadn’t seen them much recently. Weekdays, Dad dropped me at Grandma’s on his way to Keystone Tool and Dye. He thought I was too old to sit in the waiting room downtown while Mom saw patients, but not old enough to stay home alone. Old enough to drive but not to be trusted. Weeknights were the only times I saw my friends in summer, and add to that a nine o’clock curfew. I not only felt out of the loop, but feared they thought I wasn’t one of them. Or, more likely, they weren’t one of me.

Let the record show: the Grimms weren’t hicks. Dad acted backwoods only at the track, out in the actual country. Housing development kids were wrong when they called Deliver Township “the country.” They’d point to the broken asphalt roads, the farms that dotted our rolling hills. They’d open the DHS yearbook to the photos of teens driving tractors to school. But take a left at the end of Colt Run road, and you’re ten minutes from the mall, twelve from York city. My parents—a toolmaker and a psychologist—made decent money. Our yard was clean and green. From atop the septic mound out back, cows could be seen, but I’d never touched one. I mostly stayed inside. Dad didn’t even make me cut the grass. I still don’t know how.

When we pulled into the driveway, it was six, and Mom’s Jetta was gone. Probably at Aunt Deb’s talking in the hot tub, drinking wine and smoking, even though she’d promised to quit. She’d get home at 9:30 every weeknight and then stand out behind the trailer. From my window I’d watch, disappointed, as smoke floated into the sky. Then, if Dad was still up, they’d have a ventriloquist argument on the patio, yelling at each other behind clenched teeth. Through the walls they were like muffled engines idling. When she’d finally come inside, her blonde-highlighted hair would smell like the track, even though she’d never been.

Once inside, I declined Dad’s offer of Tombstone pizza and got on the phone. Toby and Dylan’s mom told me they were at Evan’s, practicing. I thanked her, hung up, and hustled down the stairs, thinking, Practicing what?

I already had the basement door open when Dad stopped me.

“Jackson.”

I froze, but kept my back to him. This speech, whatever he wanted it to be, was the last thing I wanted.

“What happened today,” he said. “I know how you’re feeling—”

“I’m not scared,” I said, as if coaching myself aloud. All he needed was for me to turn and look at him. I kept thinking of the night Dale Earnhardt died, how he sobbed in my room but wouldn’t say a word.

“We’re gonna have a sit-down soon,” he said. “Discuss this.”

“Of course.” I only wanted to discuss the money from the selling the kart.

“Heading to Toby’s?” he said.

“Evan’s,” I said, glancing back at him.

“The Backstreet Boy?” He bobbled his head and made a face, mocking him. I smiled. Evan gelled his blond bangs into spikes. Neither of us liked him.

“Go ahead and stay out till ten. Just don’t tell your mother,” he said, “about any of this.”

Austin, in my head, rolled slowly through the air.

“And don’t play too many video games,” he said, as the door closed between us.

____

Evan had moved to town in June, and everyone was always at his house. He had all three game systems, two guitars, pool and foosball, plus a totally roomy basement. Before racing season, before Evan, my friends and I would hang in my room, laughing at MarioParty and singing along to Pinkerton. But we often got shut down at nine when Dad banged on the wall his room shared with mine, wanting quiet. Evan’s parents let him be.
When I pulled open the sliding door into Evan’s basement, Toby, Dylan, and Jared were practicing the Kalimari Desert glitch. MarioKart. I breathed relief.

“I’ve got a real one, jerkoffs,” I joked. Everyone knew that. No one cared, me included. Toby put his hand in the air like saying Hey. The guys had come to Huntersville once, and afterward, when my Mom asked them if they’d had fun, Dylan said, “I think I still have dirt in my mouth.”

I took a seat on a beanbag chair the size of a monster-truck tire. Empty Mountain Dew cans bordered the pool table. Evan strummed the chords to a mean song. His hair was gas black now, and his shirt said Alexisonfire. I read it over and over, trying to figure out what it meant.

“You fucking missed it, dude,” said Toby.

“You swearing now?” I said. His mom would have grabbed him by the curls.

“You totally missed it,” Dylan added.

“Evan let us light some cherry bombs off the pier at Conewago Creek,” Jared said. Evan’s dad apparently did some big show on the Fourth, and even let Evan light some mortars they’d brought from New York. I’d been at the track that night. The spectators had held sparklers.

Some band was screaming on the stereo. I reached in my bag for Nimrod, but Evan was strumming in rhythm and Toby mouthed along. I left the CD in the bag and took the fourth controller.

“Then we raced home,” Jared said.

“The fastest I’ve ever run,” Dylan said. Evan smiled. A nasty patch of pale hairs lined his upper lip.

“You totally should have seen it, dude,” Toby said.

I should have. I knew that.

“Some kid died today,” I said. The room got quiet. Bowser shoved me off Rainbow Road, and I disappeared into space.

“Doesn’t that, like, happen every couple minutes?” Evan said. Jared laughed, then Dylan joined.

“No, I mean while racing and all.”

“How can you die from doing twenty in a bumper car?” Evan joked, looking down at his guitar.

“We go over fifty,” I said. No one backed me up. It was actually more like forty, but Evan looked surprised, a little jealous.

“Bullshit,” he said.

I turned to Toby. “Kid flipped his go-kart like ten times.” I was trying to squeeze more out of Austin’s accident. “It ain’t like this stupid game where you just fall off the track, and then a turtle fishes you out and brings you back alive and all. This kid broke his fucking neck.” The word made me need to cough. “Kid died just like that.” I kept trying but couldn’t say his name, couldn’t add even one detail to make it sound real. Here’s all I knew about Austin Harris: older kid, bad acne, hogged the jiffy-john. I couldn’t even tell you the color of his kart.

“That sucks, dude,” Toby said. I nodded at him.

“This game is stupid,” Evan said, shoving his guitar across the carpet. It let out a dissonant ring. “Let’s play Vice City.”

While I wondered how many video games equaled too many, Evan switched the TV over to the PS2 and put in Grand Theft Auto. Toby looked at me and rolled his eyes like saying Sorry. Toby and I had a decade on Evan. The fact was that we knew all of each other’s favorites, secrets. We’d seen our first porn together—a nude Princess Peach masturbating with her wand. We knew the codes to each other’s garages. Dylan was only eleven. Jared was small, bribe-able. But Toby was solid.

“Sucks that you weren’t here today,” he said again.

“Yeah, well I wasn’t,” I said.

Because I’d been racing, and racing was all day every Saturday, April through September. Racing was an 8 a.m. wake-up, turning right at the end of Colt Run, driving deep into the country, past the trailer parks outside of Gettysburg, and it was waiting for hours, where I listened to Green Day friendless under the bleachers, because I didn’t talk shop about kart mechanics or chew sunflower seeds or love any football teams. Racing was Dad’s head lodged inside a chassis, morphing back into his youth when he lived two towns over in Table Rock, working after school and weekends at the junkyard scrapping metal, before his dad died in some war I always forgot the name of, before he met Mom at a party the month she graduated from Gettysburg College, before he sold his Harley to pay for their wedding. Racing was his voice changing, pronouncing words wrong, adding “hell yeah” and “fuckin’ A” and “ain’t that some shit” to the ends of his sentences, even though in our house we never swore. The track was the only place I ever saw him spit. And finally, finally, racing was three short bursts of driving, which was fun, and scary, and almost like a coaster at Hershey Park except the line was so long it wasn’t even worth it, and it was wrecking, and missing everything about home.

How could I tell Dad I wanted out when it’d been my idea to race in the first place? When I was nine, obsessively running my matchbox NASCARs around the rug with Talladega on TV, I told him I wanted to drive. He said, “I always dreamed of that when I was a kid.” A week later he bought a go-kart, and even though it looked like a solo sport, with only one body in the driver’s seat, it wasn’t. The driver got the points, the trophies, the hugs. People watched the driver throw his hands in the air after the checkered flag flew. The driver gave the speech his dad wrote for him at the VFW banquet in October, and everyone applauded. But people didn’t clap for Dad triple-checking every screw. They didn’t sit inside our hot trailer or home garage and watch him reassemble carburetors. People didn’t come pick up washers that dropped from the dolly into the uncut grass. That was racing: picking up parts that fall off the kart. Hands and knees on the ground, cursing, sweating. Racing was Dad making the kart quick and perfect, and then me pressing a pedal, turning in circles, keeping focus for twenty laps. And that’s why I couldn’t quit, why I had to keep missing everything: I was on a team. And it was a team, for once, that actually depended on me.

After an hour of stealing cars, shooting hookers, and leaping from roofs—only to re-spawn and kill again—Evan finally got bored of Vice City.

“Let’s practice, already,” he said to Toby.

Everyone but me stood up. Evan grabbed the acoustic and handed it to Jared. Dylan ran to the Casio in the corner. Toby followed Evan to the curtain underneath the stairs and pulled it back to reveal an entire drum kit.

They had a band, and it was news to me. Toby and I had talked about a band once or twice on the bus, but I had no clue it would happen this fast, and without me.

“City of Four,” Dylan explained. The school talent show was in September. “You could maybe play bass,” he added.

“You have one?” Evan asked me.

“Uncle does,” I lied.

“Sweet. Get it, and see if you can learn. We’re trying out bass players soon.”

No one looked my direction. Evan lifted a glossy, sunburst Les Paul from a case.

“Boy, sure hope I do good in my tryout, so I can join a shitty screamo band,” I said.

“You don’t have to be a dick,” Evan said. “I’m offering you a shot.”

I tried to envision myself swinging for his ugly little moustache. “Hey Toby,” I said instead, “what did the baby do when he realized he couldn’t sing?” The room was silent. My face got hot.

“He screamed,” Evan said. Then to mock me he added, “Ain’t that the punchline?”

They all laughed. I sat down and faced the TV. With my headphones on, I raced the computer and ate a Family-size bag of Martin’s while they tried to learn “New Noise” by Refused. None of them knew how to play.

After an hour, band practice devolved into lounging on beanbags and talking about song titles. Dylan fell asleep. I stood and looked at the clock. Curfew was ten or I’d get grounded for Sunday. Dad’s room was right above the garage; he’d know if I came in late.

Evan went upstairs to ask his mom if it was cool for the band to stay over. I slid back the glass door, about to bail without a goodbye, but then I looked back and saw his guitar lying in its open case. I grabbed it. In the doorway I did a charade of rocking out like Evan, jerking the neck like it was a massive penis, twisting my face in a silent scream. That was the whole joke, and for the record, all I needed was a laugh. Jared barely smirked. Toby shook his head.

I heard the door open at the top of the stairs and left with the guitar in my hands.

____

I knew nothing. Not how to play it. Not how to tune it. Not where to put it. Not why I took it.

I didn’t even realize it would be so heavy. The wind blew straight at me as I walked along the street toward my house. The yellow moon was huge. Colt Run road felt dangerous, like Banshee Boardwalk, the dark MarioKart level where ghosts dive-bombed and walls disappeared, and when you raced off the track, it took so long for the game to bring you back that there was no point in trying: you’d already lost. I thought about just tossing the guitar into a ditch, but instead held it tight, like it was possible to squeeze the answers I needed out.

From the lip of our driveway, I saw the light in the garage. Mom still wasn’t home, but Dad was up, waiting to have that sit-down. I tried the porch door to the kitchen, but it was locked. I just wanted to get to my room, but he was in my way.

The Bronco is where I would wait him out. Climbing in the backseat with the guitar, pushing my helmet and neck brace out of the way, thoughts of Austin returned. I wondered which flip did it.

The silence killed, so I put Nimrod in the Bronco’s stereo, turned the volume low, and tried to strum along. Nothing I did to the guitar seemed to make audible noise. The strings cut into my fingers. I felt so tired.

Midway through the CD I turned the key and got out, leaving the guitar. I’d come back for it before morning.
The garage light was still on. I had no choice but to open the door and face him.

Dad was slumped at his workbench, a Yuengling in one hand, a blue pop-ice in the other. Empties rolled near his feet. He looked at me standing nervously by the door. He talked fast, started blinking. He held out the pop-ice like You want this?

I shook my head. He dropped it on the workbench. As he started in, I felt my fists clench.

“I ever describe all it is we do to make this thing safe? Just look at this a second.” He stood up and laid his hands on kart’s side panel as if massaging it. There was a silence. I wanted to disappear.

Then he explained the kart, every part. The Plexiglass nose-cone puts a two-foot barrier between the driver and any impact. The chassis is carbon fiber, light as hell for optimal speed, but strong, indomitable. A steel rear bumper keeps other racers far away from the motor. And the motor—Jesus, a work of art, the heart for the whole machine—firmly mounted above the axle. And the brain? Well that’s inside the driver, protected of course by the DOT approved helmet and a thick foam neck-brace.

I watched the blue popsicle melt, slowly swallowing a screwdriver. Dad looked around for the helmet and neck-brace, like he wanted to give a demonstration on how to wear them.

“They’re probably in the truck,” he said, turning toward the door. Scared, I moved to block him.

“Dad, don’t worry about it.” The worst thing would be for him to find the stolen guitar. He sat down on the leather weight-bench he’d bought me, the one I’ve never used.

“We always strap our neck-brace,” he said.

“Of course,” I said through my teeth.

“And I check all our gear twice before you go out. What happened today has never happened, and it can’t happen to us because we’re careful and I give you the highest quality stuff, always. I put a lot in to make sure everything’s right.”

It was true. He spent every weeknight working in the garage. Before we had the kart he spent all his time drinking in front of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and arguing with the Philadelphia Eagles. Mom’s last appointment always ended at nine, so he was by himself every night while I played games. He was lonely before the kart came. But now I was the lonely one, and he refused to see it, just like he refused to see my young anger, while I stared at my feet in the garage, as anything but plain fear.

“And you know they drive a lot faster than you up in 650s,” he added.

“I’m not fucking scared, Dad.”

He gazed at the power drill. He hadn’t heard me. “I know I haven’t been involving you enough with the mechanical stuff. I’m teaching you to drive but nothing about how it works.” Every point of his one-sided argument pissed me off more. I bit my lip and walked across the garage toward the door.

His voice followed me, “I just always thought you weren’t interested. This week I’ll have you help me with the dyno-tuning. You’ll be right in there on repairs.”

I yanked open the door.

“Where are you going?” he said.

I stopped but kept my back to him. The way he looked at me when I cried was piercing, so I pushed it all back into my throat.

“Jackson, look at me when I talk to you.”

I turned.

“I just need to spend more time with friends,” I told him.

He sucked in his lips and watched the blue popsicle dripping from the garage floor.

“They’re not real friends,” he said.

Here is where the record shows that I’m the one who started screaming.

____

In my room, I paced while he shouted back at me through the floor. I wasn’t listening. I was trying to punch a hole in the wall beside my bed. The record confirms: it was my first real punch. And then my second, and third. And then I bled. My hollow arm throbbed as I lay in bed with this new fury. I breathed slow, shut my eyes, but fought sleep, because the guitar still waited in the truck.

Dad finally came up to his room at eleven. I needed him asleep in order to sneak downstairs. But then he did the thing that exhausted me more than anything. He started talking through the wall, the one I had failed to destroy.

With a weird calm, he listed everything I was supposedly learning at the track. Hard work. Honesty. Sportsmanship. “We always shake the other drivers’ hands.” I put my pillow over my face. “And this is stuff you don’t learn from Nintendo, and that music, and your mother. Plus now you know to drive. What could be more exciting?”

I managed to moan back, “Okay.”

And he wouldn’t remember it this way, but this is when he won: “We’ll have this conversation in September, after we finish out our season.”

I could have told him no, or talked back, or admitted to lying about not being scared, that Austin was haunting me, turning me crazy. But I gave up. My guts were spent. More risks had been taken in one day than in my entire life. I said nothing.

I lay there and thought about smashing that guitar to pieces, swinging it like an axe at my go-kart, or sledge-hammering the walls of my room. Or just walking it back to Evan’s with a tearful apology. From minute to minute, I went from feeling like something had died to feeling like something needed to be killed. Either way, the guitar couldn’t stay in the truck. As I stood up from my bed, the garage door crunched open.

“About time she’s home,” Dad mumbled from his room. Mom was back. I’d run down and get the guitar after she was in her room. She slept separate from Dad, claimed his snoring brought her to tears.

The basement door never popped open. She was probably having a last cigarette behind the trailer. I pulled up my blinds and didn’t see her, or her car. Dad’s snoring started up behind the wall, but there were footsteps in the garage.

____

When I inched open the downstairs door, two shadows moved. A flashlight’s beam showed the cracked leather seat of my go-kart. Wind pushed in through the half-opened overhead door. I stood still and watched it happen. Someone sat in the seat, turned the key, and whispered:

“How do you start it?”

“Like a mower.”

“Do it.”

“We should leave.”

“Just pull the cord.”

Toby ripped the starter rope, and with one loud bang the go-kart was chugging. Everything started and nothing was stopping. Evan kicked the pedal and surged forward, the garage door nearly clotheslining his naked head. I remember him laughing behind that puny moustache.

Toby ran, ducked under the door, and turned the corner. I followed. At the end of the driveway, his feet betrayed him and he spilled into the street. Evan tore down Colt Run while in the opposite direction Toby limped toward his house, disappearing into darkness. My fear flipped to anger, combusted like fuel. At that age, fear made life slow, set your brain to crawling over every awful possibility. But anger worked opposite, focused the world into one charging race.

I was already in the Bronco when the light in my father’s room came on. Ignoring it, I turned the ignition. The engine growled much louder and deeper than my kart’s. Green Day shot out of the speakers. I tilted the seat forward at a harsh angle, the headrest pressing into the back of my neck. My legs just reached the pedals: one foot on the brake, one on the gas. Driving a go-kart is nothing like real driving.

Because driving was tearing straight through the yard, bouncing over the ditch, and cutting the wheel too hard, the truck’s rear weight pulling me into a spin. Driving was bigger than me, was winding through the neighbor’s grass, was finally finding grip on the asphalt, my left hand fumbling for a switch or knob for the headlamps, and nothing working. The massive white lights that ringed Hunterstown Speedway were gone, and Colt Run road, with its dark tunnel of treetops, was a cave I steered the Bronco blindly into. Evan drove ahead of me, somewhere in the blackness. The only thought in my mind: Get him.

Shadows like ghosts swung between the trees. I gripped the steering wheel so hard the leather twisted beneath my hands. It was as if Austin trailed me, plotting to take my position or knock me out completely, and I was bracing myself for the wreck.

At the intersection of Conewago road, it was either left or right. I guessed right, into the country, out from under the oak canopy, toward the fields and the creek and the pink moon. My eyes adjusted to the dark. There were stars. The deserted road flattened out, flanked by Mann’s orchard. I steered straight. It became a race I had to win, with the volume on the stereo cranked and the gas pedal pushed harder and Billie Joe crooning through the speakers. Did I yell along?

Headlights flashed over the hill up ahead. In them idled a small shape: Evan. A horn blared. The light grew huge as the car came at me. I swerved into a mailbox; it toppled over the windshield. But I just kept climbing the hill, black branches whipping my window like hands.

When Dad calls Mom’s apartment in York City to ask when exactly his twenty-year-old son plans to get his license, I recall this climb up the hill and try see myself slamming the brake after that car passed, figuring out how to reverse, speeding back to Colt Run where I hurry inside and up the stairs to await the outcome of everything from my bed. But the record doesn’t show that. It shows me cresting the hill. The placid creek down below. Evan before me. No time to brake. The Bronco’s front bumper sends him fishtailing down the slope, bouncing off trees, skidding across the stone pier at the water’s edge.

____

Behind the wheel of my father’s truck, at the peak of the ridge that snaked down to the Conewago, I saw pieces of my go-kart—chunks of red Plexiglass, a muddy tire—strewn between trees. I saw the kart on the pier in the moonlight, its engine blowing smoke, Evan climbing from the seat and falling to his knees.

Can you see me racing down the hill and tripping through the mud? How selfish do I look letting Evan lie there screaming, while I take final care of the kart?

The record loves a bloody detail. That’s what people want. Body counts, gunshot wounds, damages in dollars. But thanks to the cushion of the nose-cone, Evan only broke his left leg in one bright white place. Now, around a crowded diner table after one of our shows, Evan’ll tell people I’m making this part up. But when I lifted him off the pier, I swear he said, Jack, I was going a hundred.

We finish with Evan slumped against my shoulder, us limping up the hill toward the truck. Then it’s Mom’s red Jetta skidding to a stop beside the Bronco, and my father jumping out, making this face like he couldn’t recognize me, like I was a ghost, or a murderer. I walked straight toward him anyway. And his arms were open anyway.

I was still covered in mud when the ambulance left with Evan. Dad wiped his thumb over my upper lip as I admitted what happened, trying to make him see why I’d pushed the kart into the creek.

____

I didn’t attend Austin’s funeral, or the memorial race they held in his name. I read about him in the paper, the first news story I’d ever cared to finish. It states the facts plainly. He flipped six times. He loved racing, his friends, and Penn State Football. His mother marvels over how well he played the saxophone.

I hear the article as I judge a bus driver’s decisions. I envision the mangled metal of cars when I hear ambulances search the city. I never take a shift driving the band van. In my mind, Austin’s wreck is anyone’s fault but his. I always try to make his kart land softly in water even though that’s never what the record shows. I replay the story too often. I have made him into more than a person. When I scream into a microphone, or at my father, it’s because I have made Austin’s kart red, like mine, and that’s not right either.

Tyler Barton

Tyler Barton studies fiction writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he serves as a fiction editor for Blue Earth Review. His work has been published in NANO Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. Find his stories at TSBarton.com. Find his jokes at @goftyler.

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