Bewildering Stories

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part 1

by Byron Bailey

Steam hissed and billowed out from the hood. I slammed my fists down against the soda sticky dashboard, felt a stinging jolt in my wrist. Worthless pile of scrap! My fingers sought out a safer target, clutched reflexively on the steering wheel and squeezed. Man versus machine, locked in mortal struggle. When my grip cramped, I screamed.

“What’s wrong? I done put vodka in your gas tank not less than two hours ago.”

In answer, even more steam shot out like a geyser at a tourist-infested national park. My mother wasn’t drinking no shine when I was conceived. That much water couldn’t come from any radiator, not without a hose strung all the way to the Pacific. Traps. My car was full of them. How much of a fool did that heap of rust think I was? Then I noticed the tourists gawking. The sweat on my forehead congealed. A potato-faced grandma drove by, her mouth agape like a brook trout gulping for air.

The vehicle in the flashing lights pulled up behind me, red and blue alternating, one color dying as the other was born. My mood was pessimistic as the police officer got out of the car. The naive smile of general goodwill upon his face made my stomach tighten into a queasy ball of ice. Between gulps of Tennessee’s strongest, Pa always told me to look for the good in every situation. At least blood didn’t stain police blue as badly as it did ambulance white.

“Looks like you have a serious problem.”

If only he knew.

“Eighteen years on patrol and I’ve never seen anything like it. What do you got under that hood?”

My car was very good at getting people to ask that question. The secret was the bait. Most people required more enticement than a moldy hunk of cheese. But who could resist the frenzied wails of a child coming from where the engine was supposed to be? Was there a person who wasn’t curious about iridescent fumes smelling of licorice and sulfur blanketing the sky orange? Someone always asked the damning question.

“Let’s have a look.”

“That won’t be necessary. Wouldn’t want to trouble you.” Warning the victim never helped, only whetted the curiosity further, made the police officers use handcuffs.

“That’s what I’m here for. You know, to protect and serve. Now let me do my job.”

“Just give it a few minutes and it’ll be fine,” I pleaded. Murderous vehicle. It was just asking for a full tank of root beer — better yet, ginger ale. Give a car vodka and it gets cocky. “Be fine! Son, what kind of guano do you got for brains? Look at that! It’s like one of those hot water things at Yellowstone.”

“Geyser,” I volunteered.

“Yes. A god damned geyser under your hood and you say it’s going to be fine. I got to have a look. Now pop the hood.”

He was the man with the badge and the gun. With a sour taste in my mouth, I popped the hood and waited. My muscles twitched with urgency. Timing was the difference between life and death.

He reached for the hood, then lifted. As he clutched for his gun, I jumped out. Timing. The gun’s barrel raised. I leaped, slapping the gun away from his temple. We both tumbled to the roadside, asphalt skinning my knee.

There wasn’t much fight in him. None of them ever had much fight left. He merely lay on his back and stared at the open hood. His mouth hung slack, drool dribbling down his chin. At least the geyser stopped. The bait always disappeared after the trap was sprung. I picked up the gun. Before anyone else could drive by, I stood up and without turning around to look, slammed the hood down.

“That’s going to cost you.”

I fired all six shots at the tires. They deflated but not for long. Rubber tendrils sprouted from the holes and grew. I turned away. Watching always made me queasy.

My car didn’t look like the malevolent entity intent on destroying my soul that it was. Instead it looked like any other car so riddled with rust that its make was unidentifiable. One mechanic suggested that it might be a Ford Escort. Another theorized that it was a Dodge Ares. The wisest mechanic I know, though, simply shook her head and said, “Heap of rust.” HOR, that’s my car exactly.

“The horror,” the police officer mumbled.

I nodded in sympathy. Heap of Rust.

The sun glanced coldly down at me. I suppressed a shiver, only succeeded in making myself feel colder. It was a northern sun, filled with ice and anger. Everything up north was filled with ice and anger. Greenback-clutching Yanks. Frost-veined politicians. A little farther north, earth-grinding glaciers straining to march southwards. My car had to be a Yank vehicle, no doubt about it.

The police officer twitched. A rasping gurgle came from his throat. Those psychologists with their fancy pink and green pills might know about problems of the brain. But those who see under the hood of HOR have problems too great for any drug or therapy to fix. I would almost say that the problem was spiritual except that none of the priests (Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic), preachers (Southern Baptist, Wesleyan), bishops (Roman Catholic, Mormon), monks (Roman Catholic, Tibetan) or medicine men (Cherokee, Sioux) could do any good.

I couldn’t leave a perfectly good police officer on the road to die. My mother didn’t give birth to no Yank murderer, no she didn’t. I care about my fellow human being as much as is reasonable. I don’t grind my heels into the backside of those crawling their way in the muck. Instead, I grab them by the arms and heave until I get hernia. It was time for me to get hernia.

I pulled the police officer to his feet. He was a heavy one, a lot more meat on him than was obvious at first glance. He wasn’t heavy enough to give me hernia, though, even though my elbow joints ached after I eased him into the back seat. He immediately curled up into a ball and commenced to rock slowly back and forth.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Uuuughhh.” I think that’s what he said. Can’t be too sure though, with his voice low like a whispering deer tick.

I read his badge silently then tried to smile. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Eckert Smoats. My name’s Bart Grabinson. You probably heard of me. I’m on the FBI’s most wanted list. But don’t let that bother you none. I’m not at all the murderous bastard the feds are making me out to be. In fact, I didn’t do a single one of those two hundred twenty-two murders — I think that’s the current number they’re saying I done. It’s the car, you see. People like you just have to look under the hood.”

I grimaced. The first one to ever look under the hood was Uncle Bart, the man ma and pa named me after. Poor Uncle Bart with his oil-stained coveralls and half-shaved face glistening with auto liquids. He was the best junkyard tycoon ever to glance at a car and know immediately what parts were worth the effort of ripping out. The man was a legend. He died with his screwdriver rammed through his skull.

I should have never bought HOR from that used car dealer. But how was I supposed to know that anything was wrong? He did have those glistening fangs, glowing red eyes, and jutting horns but that only meant that he was a Yank who was honest about what he was. He did have that horrible tie, though, all red with sprinkles of bile green. Made me think of a squished opossum left on the road too long.

I drove down state road 222. Eckert Smoats moaned, gasped, gurgled and finally spoke. “Give me gun. Please.”

“Not a chance.” I wasn’t trying to be cruel or anything. It was his gun and under normal circumstances, he could do whatever the hell he wanted with it. It was just that now he was my responsibility. Everything was my responsibility now. One lone crusader struggling to stop the killing — that’s how I liked to think of myself. Much more romantic and comforting than the tad bit more accurate scared son of a drunk on the run.

Still, HOR was my responsibility. I was the idiot dumb enough to listen to the honeyed words of a Yank used car dealer with a hideous tie. Between sips of Tennessee’s strongest, Pa always said that the world was screwed up presidentially because too many Yanks and Yank wannabes failing to live up to their responsibilities. He would then explain how it was my responsibility to keep the still going. I know what happened when I shirked my responsibilities. Furniture became a smashed pile of kindling — not granny’s rocking chair! Noses got busted bad. Ma wailed something fierce and pitiful. All because I acted like a Yank and shirked my responsibility.

Now my responsibilities were greater. When I shirked them, lots of people got killed. I thought all I had to do was dump HOR into Lake Castor. Simple solution. With HOR, solutions were never that simple, though. I made a raft of inflated monster truck tires under a platform of plate steel. Then I butcher-tied HOR to it, rowed to the middle of the lake, slashed the tires, and swam. I don’t think the brookies appreciate me none. Three days later, Lake Castor was nothing but a pit of mud. Naturally, the five EPA fellows who showed up just had to look under the hood.

Responsibility. All mine.

“Gun,” Smoats Eckert moaned. “Need gun. Now.”

I handed him a bottle of vodka. As sure as Yank used car dealers, HOR wasn’t going to get any more vodka soon. It seemed only right fitting that the victim receive a little of the culprit’s liquor. Maybe if HOR was real nice-like and didn’t kill anyone for a week, I might put a few drops of raspberry cordial in the tank. But vodka? Never again.

Eckert Smoats didn’t say anything, merely clutched the bottle feverishly and took the longest sip of 100 proof liquor I have even seen. Awe tingled in me as the bottle emptied in one inspiring gulp. Not even my pa, a master drinker if there ever was one, could down a bottle like that in less than four gulps, maybe three. Before me was a man filled with vast inner resources.

It took more than vast inner resources to survive HOR, though. That crinkled old guy in the fancy dress — the pope I think he was — had a lot of inner resources, too. Took seven hours on his knees praying and moaning before he finally strangled himself with his rosary beads. The only person to last longer was that Cherokee medicine man. After three days dancing and chanting around and around in a circle, I thought he had a chance. On the fourth day, he dropped in a dead heap. The only thing inner resources ever done was prolong the inevitable.

“You feeling any better?”

He belched. I took that as a yes even though the snot running down his nose didn’t fill me with a great deal of encouragement. “Gun,” he moaned.

I handed him another bottle of vodka.

“Just out of curiosity, mind you, what did you see under the hood?” I asked quietly, my ears quivering with anticipation. I might not be the smartest one to ever crawl out from the hills. But it didn’t take huge brains to realize more was under there than a four, six, eight, ten, twelve, or two thousand cylinder engine.

Eckert Smoats laughed, vodka spraying from his mouth all over the inside of the car. “Want to know? You look.” He licked a little vodka off his arm, then got back to some right impressive drinking, finishing the bottle in another gulp.

“Gun,” he moaned.

I handed him my last bottle of vodka. When he finished with that one, he lay on the back seat and slept. I drove all night, through two states, always south. Common sense said that problems with Yank cars could be fixed up north. Common sense doesn’t work none with HOR. Done been north. More dead. That’s all going north did. Lots more dead.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by Byron Bailey

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