2018 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction
Winner 2018 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction
Judged by Clint McCown
$1,000 First Prize
Followed by bio
I opened the window. My room was on the ground floor at the back of the house next to a big laurel bush. There was the sound of rain on the leaves and the windowsill was slick. I threw my pack onto the grass and lowered myself into the wet leaves. Shivered. When I crawled out onto the lawn I looked back at the house. Everything was still dark. I walked over to the car I bought a week ago when I turned sixteen. An Impala—cherry red, sort of, with white walls, mostly. It cost $600.00. To get that it was red you had to allow for how the paint was mixing with the rust. I pulled open the door and slid into the seat. Smelled like cold grease and chair stuffing and stale cigarette smoke. The starter labored and the engine caught. I shifted into gear and accelerated. I was headed straight for the girl from the garage loft named Dana. Or maybe it was more the idea of Dana I was speeding towards. I wasn’t sure. That didn’t matter at the moment. Because what was important at the moment was how it felt driving in my own car with my arm draped across the back of the passenger seat and a cigarette dangling in my mouth—school gone, parents gone, eyes narrowed at the rain-slick swirls sliding across the windshield. Unmoored. Moving. Blasting through the beat night. New York—Denver—San Francisco... but first, Westbrook, Connecticut.
The car shuddered. One of the wheels threw a weight.
Dana was kind of my girlfriend but not really. Mostly not really. It was one of those hormonal relationships that take root in self-doubt and fear and grow that way, which is to say in an atmosphere of lust and doom without much of anything being said. She wore madras and beads and smelled of herbal tea and astringent skin cream. Her hair was long and stringy, falling flat across her face framing eyes that had a sultry lidded slope. She had crusty patches of acne around her nose and mouth. When we made-out she had this thrilling ability to conform her body to every inch of mine. I thought about this a lot. Her body. It helped take my mind off the medicine-smelling skin. She was waiting for me at the end of her driveway. She wore a wool cap and a red rain slicker and her hair hung in wet strands below the hat like jellyfish tendrils against white skin. She was sitting on a huge canvass suitcase. I glided up, the engine throaty, and rolled down the window.
“Hey, gorgeous,” I said.
“You didn’t say it would be raining.”
She dragged her suitcase to the door and heaved it into the back seat. Then she settled next to me. Her rain slicker made that plastic sound where it stuck to itself and the edges of her mouth had fresh little blooms of acne. She smelled like wet wool and Dial deodorant. I turned back onto the street.
“You’re being awfully cavalier,” she said.
“Bet you don’t even know what cavalier means.”
“Fancy fish eggs.”
“That’s hysterical. Are you going to be a comedian all the way to Texas?”
“That where we’re going? Texas?”
“I always wanted to live there.”
“I always wanted a pair of those boots, for one thing. The ones with swirly stitching and pointy toes. You can’t ever wear stuff like that here. We’re far too provincial.”
“Well, I guess Texas is basically on the way to everything else.”
“When we get to Texas I want to live in one of those cute silver trailers. The ones that look like big shiny bullets.”
“And we’ll have to get my boots at Rocketbuster in El Paso.”
“Got it. Rocketbuster.”
“Except how is this car going to get all the way to El Paso?”
“What’s wrong with this car?”
“How about… everything?”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
She frowned. “I hope you’re not going to speak in clichés all the way to Texas.” She pushed a strand of hair away from her face. “This is going to absolutely kill my mother. She says you’re a real loser. You ever been called that before?”
“Lots of times.”
“Are you planning on going to college?”
“Absolutely. It’s the second best thing for a writer. The first best thing, of course, is a really good war. Like with Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut. But we don’t really have any good wars right now. So I’ll probably go to college instead.”
“Sounds like a strange reason for doing things.”
“I’m a man of complex ambition.”
She took out a little notebook. It was pink with blue flowers.
“Qualities of my future husband. I think I have to put a question mark by college.”
“I’m going, I said.”
“You didn’t quite convince me.”
I’d been planning to run away for a while. At least as soon as I got a car. That’s why I was working nights at that stupid pharmacy. Then this cheesy couple came in to buy a steak tray as a house gift or something. They were from New York City. You could tell because they were wearing clothes city-people assume everyone wears in the country. Orvis for him. Brand new jeans over pantyhose for her. I’m very observant when I want to be. Anyway, they wanted the tray gift wrapped because it was a present and I told them that was impossible because it was ten at night and we were closing. Also it would have taken me a week and a half to find the box. They told me I was losing a sale because of my attitude. I said that was okay with me. Or something like that. Anyway, the next day the owner fired me. That sort of happened the week I got suspended from school. Me and this other kid were timing the drive-through at Burger World. You run up between the window and the car and grab the bag of food as soon as they hold it out. The husband in the car got pretty upset. Apparently we terrified his wife and made his kids cry. So he stalked us all the way back to school and called the cops. He accused us of assault. That night this other friend tattooed me in his garage with a home-made tattoo gun. He did it for free because he was just learning. I don’t want to talk about why I did that.
“Why are we wobbling?” Dana said.
“My seat is vibrating.”
“Just don’t think about it.”
“What kind of answer is that? How mature. I would really rather not wobble all the way to Texas.”
“It will go away in a minute.”
“Pull over at that CVS.”
“So I can get some essential items.”
“You need something you haven’t packed? That suitcase is like a house.”
“Just pull over. God.”
I turned into the lot and came to a stop by the big glass door.
“Give me some money.”
“But this is for, you know, gas.”
“It’s an emergency. Obviously.”
After she went inside I settled lower in the seat, eyes level with the back-lit dash. Dana was all right. Although she was already pretty annoying. She was more a piece of a romantic image anyway. Maybe she wouldn’t talk so much after a while. Maybe she’d get tired and sleep on the long flat roads out west. In a few days my mother and father were going to find out that I was gone. Really gone. Maybe I would call them. Probably I wouldn’t. In fact most definitely I would not. If they didn’t want me in their house then I wouldn’t allow them in mine. And my house would be a lot bigger. Mine was this, the beat night, and all the places it might lead. Texas, I said out loud, laughing a little. On the radio, Highway Star by Deep Purple came on. I turned up the volume. And I supposed I was happy.
“Miss me?” she said, pulling open the door.
“What did you get?”
“Nail polish remover, cotton swabs, and this cute little butterfly purse.”
On the highway she described the fight she had with her mother in the Milford Mall over a pair of jeans. Her mother said the stitching on the pockets made her look cheap. She yelled back that the stitching was art and her mother was a sad shopping-bag housewife. When she came out of the dressing room her mother asked how much the jeans cost and she said only two hundred and seventy-five dollars. Then her mother grabbed one leg and she clung to the other and they did this tug of war until a salesman from menswear rushed over.
“He was bald and icky and he smelled like Skin Bracer.”
“Those guys always smell like Skin Bracer. It’s like a job requirement.”
“I’ll show her,” she said. “I might just end up making fuck films in California like Sasha Dupree.”
“What would you know about Sasha Dupree?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” She looked at me. “By the way, I think what you did to your arm is gruesome and immature. The skin is all swollen and gross. Now that we’re getting married you can’t tattoo yourself like that ever again.”
I pulled my arm in closer.
“That’s okay. I didn’t do it for you.”
“Who did you do it for then?”
“Oh. Because you miss him?”
“Something like that.”
“What is it supposed to be?”
“A dragon. He liked dragons.”
“It looks like a big doodie.”
“It needs to heal. That’s all.”
My brother died of AIDS a year ago. He’d already had it a long time. He got it in New York at one of those places. A few weeks before he died my mother said there’s no law that says you have to love your children. But she couldn’t have known how soon he’d be back in the hospital when she said that.
“Anyway, that tattoo involves me now, doesn’t it?” said Dana. “I’m going to have to look at it for the rest of my life. Why didn’t you just go to one of those tattoo places?”
“Well I had to make a special entry in my notebook about it.”
When we got to the New Haven Bridge the front wheel started thunking and the steering went mushy. I veered toward the railing and came to a stop but I was at an angle in the road. There was no breakdown lane on the New Haven Bridge so I didn’t have much of a choice. The first few cars rushed up behind us and squeezed passed. Horns blaring. Then cars started to stack up. I sat behind the wheel and stared beyond the hood into what was suddenly an impossible distance around the slow curve of choppy asphalt to the downtown exit.
“Oh my God. We’re not actually stopping here, are we?”
“That all you have to say? Crap?”
“At the moment, yes.”
“This is embarrassing. Go.”
“Go I said!”
“I can’t. I’ll ruin the wheel.”
“So we need the wheel to get to Texas.”
“Oh my God this is absolutely not happening.”
“Just be quiet. I need to think.”
“What’s there to think about?”
“Where the jack is.”
I got out of the car and walked around to the trunk. But I did this mostly for show. The spare was flat and the rusted mounts that should have held the jack were empty. Car comes as is, kid. Nothing I can do about that. Tell you what, though. I can sell you another jack. Got one in a Galaxy that’s available. Thing is, it will cost you fifty bucks. As for the spare tire, that would be another fifty. It’s up to you. I put my hands in my pockets and looked out over the New Haven petroleum storage facilities. A huge tanker was all lit up. A tugboat nestled alongside. There were ribbons of rain moving through the glow of the derricks and rain from a distance always looked like it fell in slow motion unlike the rain that soaked you on the side of the highway which fell sharp and fast. Stinging your face. New Haven smelled like diesel and dirty tidal marsh. I got back in the car where Dana was kicking the dashboard and crying.
“Quit kicking,” I said.
“I want to go home.”
“No you don’t. You want to be Sasha Dupree.”
“Hurry up and change the stupid tire.”
“Why not? Are you retarded?”
“There’s no jack.”
“No spare tire, either.”
“Oh my God. Who drives to Texas without a spare tire?”
“Maybe I should walk down there for some help.”
“Down to the first exit.”
“And leave me up here all alone? Are you kidding?”
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Let’s see. We’re on a bridge. Maybe you should jump.”
We sat without speaking while she bit her nails before fumbling for a cigarette with trembling fingers. But she never really inhaled. That was the annoying part. Eventually a police cruiser rolled up. Rollers flashing. The officer got out and walked up to Dana’s window with his big bright flashlight.
“What’s the situation here?”
She stuck her teary face in the glow—
“Help me, I’ve been kidnapped!”
Next what I did was I just got out of the car. I mean, why not? Then I started walking back down the bridge the way we had come. It was pretty easy. There was just the one cop and the bridge was jammed and Dana had started kicking the dash and crying again. The cop ordered me to stop but I just kept walking. I was only sixteen, after all. What was he going to do? Shoot me? I walked past this huge line of cars. The faces inside the cars were mostly hateful. They scowled at me with moving mouths but I couldn’t hear because the windows were all rolled up. There were just the mouths raging in silence with lips curling around teeth that were mostly crooked and grayish and kind of pointy like teeth usually are. Face after face like that. When I looked away from the cars toward the beginning of the bridge I saw other things, too. I saw my mother’s vodka-glare after her fifth drink. I saw my brother’s eyes slowly losing focus in the hospital. And I saw my father folding his arms and bracing his legs when he said he was sending me to one of those boarding schools that fix kids like me… Bridges. Each arches a desperate space. I suppose I knew I’d get across this one eventually. But not that night. And not with Dana. After all, I had not been sixteen very long, and it was a long way to Texas in a car as broken as mine.
Deac Etherington was a finalist for the 2017 Arcturus Award for Fiction, Chicago Review of Books; finalist in the Adult Fiction category at the 2018 San Francisco Writer’s Conference; and winner of the 2018 Flash Fiction Contest for Light and Dark Magazine. He holds degrees from Connecticut College and Wesleyan University, is a former English teacher and headmaster, and an SSI Divemaster. He lives in Southern Arizona where you can drive all the way to the Sea of Cortez when you want to change the view. He is currently at work on a novel. Find him on Facebook.