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Steinke blew the straw's wrapper across the booth, hitting Knox in the forehead.
“Cut it out,” Knox said.
“But really, the thing you have to do is the Flambeau Fifty.” Steinke said, dropping his straw into the red plastic cup and stirring his Mountain Dew around until it fizzed.
“The fifty?” Knox said.
“Like NASCAR, but better.” Steinke said.
“I hate NASCAR.”
Steinke shook his head as he dumped his fries into a lake of ketchup on his tray.“You get your choice of either the red or the green Ford Fairmont, and start out from the Red Shed's lot in Park Falls down Highway 13.”
“No doubt.” A handful of fries disappeared into Steinke's mouth. “But everyone's done it. It's one of those – ” his hand waved in the air as he chewed.
“Institutions?” Knox said.
Steinke nodded and took a drag from his straw. He picked up another fry and stabbed the ketchup-coated end at Knox.
“You're gonna look like a complete dumbass when someone asks you what your time was and you say you've never done it,” Steinke said.
“As opposed to what you're going to say to the cop when he pulls you over.” Knox put a mock earnestness in his voice. “Honestly, officer, it's cool. This is an institution.”
“So I take it you go where, to Prentice and back?”
“Nah. You turn onto 70 at Fifield and head to Draper. At Draper, you go to Loretta, turn around at the Loggerhead Bar, and head back to Draper. Then double back in at Marty's Liquidators in Draper back to the Loggerhead.”
“Why?” Knox said.
“Makes it an even fifty miles, I guess. That's just the way it's always gone.”
“Why not Google it and find out?”
Steinke waved the question away. “So then you head all the way back to the Red Shed on County E. I did it in fifty-six twenty one.”
Knox folded his arms. “It's still dumb.”
“Bet you can't do it in less than than an hour.”
“Hey, who smoked you at Grand Tourismo last week?”
Steinke shrugged and slurped his Mountain Dew.
“Seriously,” Knox said, “log on to any X-Box in town, check the leader boards.”
“You don't drive with your thumbs, dude. No whitetails to dodge at Le Mans.”
“I'd so make it in fifty-two flat.”
“Sure you would.” Steinke reached the bottom of the glass, drawing out the final gurgle as long as he could.
“Fifty-one, even,” Knox said.
“The record is fifty thirty-six, set by Ernie's psycho uncle back in eighty-seven.”
Knox watched Setinke herd puddles of ketchup together with the last fry.
“The Fairlanes both run the same?” Knox said.
Steinke smiled as he popped the fry into his mouth. “The red one handles a bit better, but the green one has better brakes. Wanna go see 'em?”
The dashboard lights gave the dials an eerie yellow-green cast, and Knox could barely make out the numbers, let alone the hash marks in-between. Backlit post-it notes covered holes in the dash. He lifted a note and light from a naked bulb deep inside the instrument panel stabbed at his eyes. He put the note back in place, saving what was left of his night vision.
Steinke tapped on the window. Knox reached for a button that wasn't there on the armrest. He cursed and fumbled for the crank. The window came down half-way and jammed. Someone in the parking lot sniggered. Though Steinke claimed that he hadn't said anything, twenty-odd kids from school had just happened to be waiting for them, hooting and clapping for Knox.
“So what do you think?” Steinke said.
“You drove this?”
“No, I drove the red one.”
Knox shifted to relieve the pressure from a metal bar in the seat, trying to find some foam that had some life left in it.
“No way this thing can go fifty miles, not even if it started from the top of Tim's Hill.”
“It runs fine. They were both built when guys would get drunk on the assembly line, so they had to make 'em tough.”
Knox arched his eyebrows and pulled a face.
“Really,” Steinke nodded. “Randy Cuddahay worked a job where they gutted out an old GM plant. He found refrigerators, hammocks, and thousands of bottles in the rafters of the place like rat's nests. He told me all about it. Gotta be the same way at the place that made these.”
“That doesn't help,” Knox said.
“So you know where to go?” Steinke said.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay.” Steinke held up his phone. “I'll time you on this. Tanya Cleveland's going to be at the liquidators parking lot to make you make the turn-around.”
“Why would anyone cheat at something as stupid as this?”
“You'd be surprised. Got any last words?” Steinke grinned.
Steinke backed off and held up his phone. “Ten seconds! Nine!”
The crowd took up the chant. “Eight! Seven! Six!”
Knox puffed out his cheeks and put the car in gear, revving the motor. One hand patted at the seat belt, making sure it hadn't unlatched. His hand came away sticky.
Steinke's arm dropped and Knox gunned the engine. The Fairmont lurched forward as the engine protested. Knox took the corner out of the parking lot wider than he intended, back end fishtailing as he corrected. Damn, the car handled like a drunk on a frozen lake.
The car straightened and kicked into the next gear. Through the open window, the kids chanted.
“Knox! Knox! Knox!”
The smile on his face drowned out the nagging voice in the back of his head.
His split at the turnaround was 26:02, or so Tanya called out. A quick bit of mental math told him he was going to do better than Steinke. He had learned much about the car on the leg out: hold the steering wheel cocked just so to go straight, anticipate the slop between the steering wheel and the tires, the point where the brakes turned from soft pillows to battleship anchors. He'd be faster on the way back, maybe a whole minute. That would put him where? More mental math: almost a half minute behind the record.
As he waved a hand at Tanya, he began to wonder. It wouldn't take much more to break the record. A few calculated risks, a bit of boldness, and trusting his reflexes. It wasn't like he was going to get any faster or see any sharper from here on out. He was at his prime, wasn't he? That's what all the old farts kept telling him anyway. 'Enjoy it while it lasts,' they'd say and smile at him in that same way they would tell a kindergartner to enjoy recess. Man, did he hate it when they said that. On the other hand, he'd tell the kindergartners the same thing. He really missed recess.
But for a stupid record known only in the ass-end of Northern Wisconsin? He didn't need the Flambeau 50 record. He'd do something better, wouldn't he? Make a million dollars, marry a hot actress, or become a pro golfer.
What if he didn't?
He didn't know he made the decision until he realized the pedal was all the way to the floor.
He was doing ninety. Holy shit – ninety! The jack-pines flew past him in a blur. His eyes felt every contour of the road under the high-beams. The hair on his scalp stood on end as he concentrated, calculated, adjusted to the road, to the turns, to every shudder running through the hard plastic steering wheel.
Curve ahead. Anticipate the slop in the wheel. Ease off the gas. Tap the brakes. Coast to the apex, straighten, and power!
Knox grinned. He was Vin Diesel. Not the movie star, not the actor playing the role of the sickest driver alive, but the actual sickest driver alive. Knox knew he was sickest driver alive. One day, Vin Diesel would be playing him.
“I am Vin Diesel,” Knox said as he brought the Fairmont back up to speed. Just imagine what he would be able to do with a real car.
He took the curves like a dancer crossing a crowded room. Every ounce of his body sang. The speed put him in the moment, and he controlled everything. He was the master of everything. It was so damn easy.
“I am Vin Diesel.”
He brought the Fairmont around the next curve, powering at the apex and scanning down the road in anticipation of his next move. A flicker of motion in the corner of his eye: a flash of green light, and a mass of dark hurtling toward his door.
He twitched the wheel over, away from the danger – too late. A giant drum sounded in his ear and his door bulged inwards. The Fairmont slewed out of the turn, pointing its nose directly into the forest. Knox stomped on the brakes, and heard a screaming. Maybe it was him, maybe the tires. Then it went quiet as the world turned sideways, only to return tenfold as the car slammed back to the pavement on its side, then the roof, the far side, and back on the tires. The trees came closer.
Ohfuckohfuckohfuck – Knox saw everything in hyper-clarity, each moment taking forever, but unable to move a muscle.
The world boomed and spun long after the tires had left the pavement far behind.
The Fairmont was only recognizable as a car because the metal pancake had tires attached. How he got out, he didn't remember. Other than a scratch along his back, and some bruising around the collar bone where a seatbelt would have crossed, he felt fine. It didn't seem possible. His first memory was talking to Steinke on the phone.
“Bro, you what?” Steinke said.
“I fell in the ditch. Something hit me.”
In there was a pause, Steinke's muffled voice followed by everyone laughing.
“Car or deer?” Steinke asked.
Knox remembered the green glow, not from headlights, but eyes? “Deer, I guess.”
“Is it still there? I make an awesome venison chili.”
“I don't see it,” Knox said. “And I'm okay, thanks for asking.”
“You pussy. Need someone to tow you out?”
“The car, man, it's not good. I don't think it's driveable. My old man is going to kill me.”
Which was only half true. His dad would just turn him over to his mom, which would be ten times worse. She'd lay into him while Dad stood behind her, arms crossed and nodding at everything she said like some kind of henchman. She would put Knox in a bubble. Grounded for life, extra chores, community service, bible study, and no phone. He would cease to exist, remembered only vaguely by his friends. Oh yeah, that Knox guy – whatever happened to him?
“Calm down, we have it all covered,” Steinke said.
“I have a theory,” the man said as he threw a lever. The green scrap heap groaned as the steel cable pulled it up the muddy slope. “When a guardian angel falls out of God's favor, he assigns it to the worst possible outpost on earth: overseeing the roads of County Trunk E and the dumbass teenagers who drive it.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Knox said. The tow truck's amber flashers blinded him every few seconds, but it was either endure that or stare at the wreck. He'd rather be blinded.
The man snorted. “You guess. I spotted the deer you hit. Looks like the skeleton tried to jump half-way out of its body. Not a bit of meat on that thing that wouldn't be seeded with bone chips.”
The Fairmont screeched as it hit the pavement, and wailed all the way onto the flatbed.
“Look, um...” Knox squinted at the man's lapel, trying to make out what his name tag said.
“Barry. I don't know what Steinke said to you, but I'm really glad you came out to help me. Thanks – really.” He was looking forward to just getting home, crashing in bed, and putting this all behind him.
Barry grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Son, don't thank me yet. You've got to help me unload this carcass back at the junkyard.”
Barry didn't quite laugh at Knox's reaction to the junkyard, but he sure did smile a lot. Behind the grayed wooden fence were the normal piles of rusting metal, gutted pickups, broken manure spreaders and hay wagons with broken axles, but these only took up a third of the lot. The rest was evenly divided between two distinct piles of cars: one red, and one green. As Knox let his eyes wander over the piles, he realized they were all related somehow. No one wreck was identifiable as a whole vehicle, but by taking a headlight from one, the body panel of another, a hubcap, a fender, he put a picture of the resulting car in his mind.
“They're all Fairmonts,” Knox said.
“Nothing gets past you,” Barry said.
Barry licked a finger and pointed to each pile. “One hundred and thirty-one; one hundred and thirty-two including this bugger on the back of the truck.”
“They're not all from the Flambeau Fifty.”
“Don't think so?” Barry said. “Been running for over twenty years, and teenagers have been pretty much the same dumbasses since the good Lord said 'Let there be light.' Maybe someone had the foresight to horse-trade for spare cars. Maybe that same someone, or someones, tears down the replacement car and rebuilds it exactly like the old one, internal roll cage, flame-retardant interior, and racing bladder included.”
Barry gave Knox a conspiratorial look. “Maybe that's why no one has died despite all the slick roads, possum, 'coons, black ice, loose gravel, snow, beer cans, dropped cigarettes, loud music, hormones, and such.”
“Don't forget the deer,” Knox said.
“And especially the deer.”
“So what now?”
“Now, you're going to help me rebuild a new Fairmont. After school, weekends, however long it takes until we have a replacement.”
“I don't know a thing about fixing cars,” Knox said.
“Well, I'm sure you'll be a fast learner, because you know how important it is to get it right. So the next dumbass won't bite it when he thinks he's Peter Fonda.”
Knox could imagine it. Someone who had screwed up as badly as he had, knowing how close he had come to dying for an idiotic race. Working to make sure the next idiot had a chance. Yeah, he owed that guy.
“Vin Diesel,” Knox said.
“I'll bring the movies over on my first shift. You'll like them.”
“I doubt it.” But there was a gleam in Barry's eye that betrayed him.