Bad Brake

(Author’s note:  IMPORTANT!  These stories are posted in reverse chronological order.  Older stories should be read first by scrolling further down on the home page.)

On a bright, hot, suburban summer day, a group of neighborhood kids were playing street hockey in the middle of the road at the end of a cul-de-sac.  Just as one of the older kids wound up to unleash a slapshot, a squeal shattered the quiet neighborhood and a loud, speeding, orange Dodge Charger fish-tailed almost uncontrollably around the corner at the other end of the street, sending the kids running for cover.

The car slowed down a bit as it neared the group of kids, and the driver waved out of the side window and smiled proudly.  The kids all grinned as their heart rates started returning to normal.  Two of the children waved back, acknowledging their father on his way home from work. 

As the driver slowed and rounded the U-turn at the end of the street, he caught a glimpse of glaring eyes coming from a window of the neighboring house.  After checking his mirrors before backing into his driveway, he glanced back to the window but there was nobody there to return his stare.  The instance was a little unsettling and gave the driver a cold chill down his spine, but he managed to shake it off without too much effort or afterthought.

“Game on!” shouted Michael, the oldest son of the driver, to the rest of the group consisting of his younger brother, Daniel, and friends from the neighborhood. 

As the sun began to set and darkness encroached on the cul-de-sac, the game drew to an end and the kids started dispersing every which way, going toward their respective houses.  “Head towards the house, Danny.  I’ll grab the net and meet you at home,” Michael instructed.  Although there were almost four years between the two, they had been raised to be very close and shared a lot of the same interests in toys and hobbies.

As Michael slowly wandered toward the goal, he couldn’t help but notice the feeling that he wasn’t alone.  He kept looking around and checking behind him, to ensure that nobody snuck up on him.  There was no one to be found, but it still felt like someone was watching him.  As he reached for the PVC pipe goal covered with netting, he locked eyes with their creepy next-door neighbor. 

The widow next door glared disapprovingly through her kitchen window.  She was very quiet and withdrawn from the neighborhood, and didn’t fit in or go out of her way to make friends.  The kids in the area were all scared to talk to her or go on her property for stray toys.  Even adults in the suburban addition appeared to go out of their way to avoid the relatively young, attractive woman, and she didn’t seem to mind.  Nobody in the community completely knew all of the details surrounding her situation, just that she had lost her husband way too soon and that she relocated to grieve and find a new life.

Michael succumbed to a full body shiver before picking up the net.  As he held his arm out, he was positive he heard something approaching him from behind.  The boy spun around and was knocked to the ground by a dark, fuzzy, blur.  Michael started to scream, but was stopped at the last second by a hot, wet tongue licking the side of his face. 

“Duke!  Bad dog!” Michael lectured.  His furry friend must have escaped from the house when Daniel opened the front door.  Michael gathered his wits, took a couple deep breaths, grabbed the goal, and yelled for Duke to follow him home. 

Sitting around the dining room table, Michael and Daniel’s father spoke up.  “I got stared down by our neighbor again on my way in tonight,” Jonathon shared with his family.

“Probably because you were driving like a maniac again…” Cathy, Jon’s wife, muttered under her breath.

“What was that?” Jon asked.  The comment was just loud enough for Jon to hear, which was Cathy’s intent. 

“Oh nothing,” Cathy replied, sticking her tongue out for the boys to see while she passed the garlic bread around the table.

Jon and Cathy had met through mutual friends from their church.  Jon had grown up to be a good person, but had only recently started to develop his faith.  Cathy was practically raised in the church.  Knowing Jon’s background, Cathy was skeptical of forming a romantic relationship when she first met him, for fear that their personal beliefs may not match up and potentially cause problems down the road.  After spending more time with him though and seeing his faith grow, she was assured that would not be a problem.

“She was watching me today too,” Michael admitted, still shaken up a bit from the combination of the eerie feeling of being watched and the scare of the dog knocking him down while his nerves were tense.  “I went to get the net when we were done playing, and I saw her staring at me through her window…and then Duke knocked me down.”

After dinner, the boys were instructed to take a bath and get ready for bed.  Once they were tucked in and their bedtime story was finished, Jon joined Cathy downstairs on the couch.  With his wife cuddled into his side, he was overwhelmed with emotion.  He couldn’t understand what had made him so lucky to receive the life that he had been given. 

Jon never finished college, growing weary of sitting through mindless classes jotting down notes that he never studied.  Eventually, he stopped the charade of even going to class altogether.  Instead, he hung around the dormitory with his friends, played video games, watched movies, and fixed his friend’s computers in his spare time…which he had plenty of.  By the end of the semester, the college did not invite him to return.  Somehow, Jon had managed to meet the right people to network his way into a job repairing hardware, which led to a very respectable career in software programming.  Once he had established himself and his career, he was set up with Cathy and never looked back.  The fact that he was lying on his couch with his beautiful wife in their suburban dream home complete with white picket fence, dog, and 2.3 kids was beyond his comprehension.  There was no explanation for how he had ended up “living the dream.”

With the next morning breaking, Jon made his way to the driveway where he parked his pride and joy.  He dropped into the bucket seat behind the steering wheel, twisted the key in the ignition, and savored every second of the beautiful tune being played by the muscle car’s exhaust.  He stomped the gas pedal a few times to run up the throttle and help get the engine warmed up.  Satisfied that his beast was ready to run, he threw the gear shifter into Drive and mashed the gas.  He jerked the wheel at the end of the driveway, then immediately began counter-steering as the Charger drifted around the end of the cul-de-sac.  He narrowly avoided hitting his own mailbox, but managed to unwittingly clip the neighbors’ trashcan, littering the street in his rearview mirror.

Just like every other day, the widow next door was none too impressed and actually a little more than perturbed that she would have to go outside and clean up the careless (and dangerous) stunt driver’s mess.  She gathered the loose litter back in the trash can before the wind blew it all over the neighborhood, but she decided against righting the receptacle in hopes that Jon would catch the hint that he was the one that knocked it over. 

When Jon came to a screeching halt in his driveway at the end of the day, he couldn’t miss the overturned garbage can lying on the edge of the street.  There wasn’t trash lining the street, so he decided not to mess with it, assuming that some rambunctious kids must have knocked it over.  As he turned to go into his house, he noticed the widowed neighbor standing in her doorway with her arms crossed and a stern look on her face.  Not sensing the vibe that she was trying to emit, he cluelessly just shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Kids…what’re ya gonna do?”

Once Jon made it into the house, he noticed an eerie quiet coming from every room.  The tv wasn’t turned on, nor were the kids running around or playing noisily.  He curiously wandered from the entrance, through the living room, past the bathroom, and into the kitchen where Cathy was putting away clean dishes.  “Man, it’s quiet in here…a little TOO quiet!” he commented, flashing a smile to Cathy.  “Where are the boys?” he inquired.

“I sent them to play at a friend’s house,” Cathy informed him.  Jon could already tell that something was amiss.  “Our neighbor stopped by to talk to me today,” Cathy continued.

“Well I’m just glad you’re still alive then!” Jon said, his joke clearly missing its mark.  Cathy was obviously in no mood to mess around.

“She told me about some of the stunts you’ve been pulling when you drive through the neighborhood.  From the sounds of it, your antics are getting a little more brazen day-by-day; swinging through a turn broadside while our kids are in the street playing??  Knocking over trash cans, then ignoring the mess and acting like you didn’t do anything wrong?  Jon, I know that car is your ‘toy,’ but the fun stops when you endanger our children,” Cathy went on.  “You need to slow down and pay more attention to what you’re doing.” 

I knocked over that trash can?!” Jon asked incredulously.  “Hold on.  Forget that.  First, let me defend myself.  Yeah, sometimes I get a little squirrelly when I’m in the Charger.  I might get a little daring with some of my decisions, but I would NEVER put our boys at risk.  If I didn’t have the car under control, then I wouldn’t feel comfortable messing around like that.  Besides, the kids get a kick out of it.”

“Jon, that’s absurd.  The very definition of fish-tailing is for the car to be on the edge throughout a turn.  That is, on the verge of being out of control.  A little loose gravel, and you completely lose all control of the vehicle,” Cathy lectured.  “And what if an animal darted out in front of you?  Or even worse, one of the kids?  How long would it take for the car to stop??  Just think a little bit and stop acting like a teenager who just got his license and has to show off for his friends!”

“Alright, I got it,” Jon conceded. 

The rest of the night was a little quiet, awkward, and tense.

When Jon’s alarm clock chirped at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, his mood still hadn’t completely rebounded from the stern talking to he received the previous night.  He quietly began his morning routine, keeping to himself as he readied himself for the day.  Cathy knew that Jon wasn’t very happy about being talked to like an impulsive kid, so she opted to give him space. 

After Jon disbursed hugs and kisses on his way out the door, he grudgingly slinked toward the powerful orange speedster occupying the garage.  His mind raced as his frustration began to boil over.  “I work hard to provide for this family, then try to blow off a little steam and have some fun, and she talks to me like an out-of-control child!” Jon seethed to himself.  His rational mind knew not to pull anything childish this morning, but his realistic mind knew that his impulsiveness was quickly winning the internal war.   John slapped the garage door opener, collapsed into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition, threw the gear shifter into first, and smashed the gas pedal to the floor.  A cloud of burnt rubber began filling the garage.  The Charger slowly crawled down the driveway since the tires were spinning entirely too fast to gain traction.  Jon carefully maneuvered the car around the cul-de-sac as the speedometer reached 100+ miles per hour, but the car’s actual speed was closer to 15-20 miles per hour. 

Cathy flung the house’s front door open and glared disapprovingly at her petulant husband.  However, with his “in-your-face” attitude, Jon was far too preoccupied staring down his tattle-telling neighbor’s house to notice his wife glowering at him.

Jon’s work day was completely miserable.  He FELT even more immature than he had ACTED that morning.  Seconds seemed like minutes, minutes like hours, and work repeatedly failed to distract Jon’s thoughts.  Anxiety began taking hold of him once the day finally began winding down, knowing that he would have to drive through his neighborhood, down his cul-de-sac, and up his driveway before facing his wife at home. 

After turning into his sub-division, Jon just let the Charger idle through the narrow streets, trying to avoid bringing anymore unwanted attention his way with a screaming exhaust.  He decided that he would have to park in the driveway so he could try to clean up any skid marks that he had left in the garage that morning.  Reaching the driveway, he calmly put the car in park, took a deep breath, looked at himself in the rear-view mirror, and resigned himself to whatever reaction awaited inside. 

“Long day?” Cathy asked as Jon silently entered the house through the garage door and slipped his shoes off.  She seemed to already be aware of, and sensitive to, Jon’s utter embarrassment toward his behavior that morning.

“You bet.  Listen…before you point out my childish reaction this morning, I already know.  I’m sorry for acting so immature.  My frustration got the best of me, and I reacted poorly.  I understand that you weren’t yelling at me for blowing off some steam, but were concerned for the safety of our children.  I’ll be more cautious and thoughtful in the future.”

Cathy gave Jon a hug with an understanding smile.  “Good.  But know that I also don’t want you hurting yourself either,” Cathy pointed out.

That night brought on a fierce thunderstorm, so Jon and Cathy decided to have a movie night with the boys in the living room.  They popped popcorn, poured soft drinks, spread out blankets and pillows on the floor, and turned out all of the lights. 

Jon awoke with a start the next morning.  The power had gone out, and his alarm never went off.  He glanced at the clock instinctively, just to see it flashing 12:00.  He checked his watch on the nightstand, and saw that he was supposed to be at his office in 25 minutes.  It took 15-20 minutes to drive there depending on traffic and stop lights.  He hated starting his day in a frenzy, knowing that the entire day following always felt rushed.  He hastily splashed water on his face, tried to comb his hair a little, and threw on the first things he could grab from his dresser and closet.  He ran out of the door without eating breakfast, giving Cathy a peck on the lips on his way by.  “Love you!” he shouted while he passed through the door.  She responded likewise, unsure if the words ever reached his ears.

Jon wasn’t very pleased about leaving the Charger outside during the thunderstorm the previous night, but it was his own fault.  Now he would have to spend a couple of hours washing away all of the rain spots once the weekend came. 

Jon hopped in the driver’s seat, but not before noticing a vivid rainbow streaking down his driveway.  He took a second to admire the beauty that followed such dull, gloomy skies mere hours before. 

He couldn’t believe how fortunate he was to catch so many green lights and such sparse traffic.  He mashed the throttle as he merged with traffic on the highway, then eased up once he was at a decent speed.  Seeing the time tick by, Jon’s urgency to get to his office was renewed.  He stomped on the gas and aggressively veered into the left-hand passing lane.  His speed gradually increased as he sped by other cars like they were standing still.  He stole a glance at the speedometer and was surprised by how fast he had managed to get the Charger without yet drawing the attention of the police.  Deciding not to test his luck any further, he smoothly let up on the accelerator.  The car began slowing, but not very quickly.  Jon maneuvered through traffic by weaving in and out, left and right, until he came up on a bit of a roadblock – a tractor-trailer passing a pick-up truck and trailer. 

Jon tapped the brake, but the Charger only slightly reacted.  There was no resistance from the pedal as he pushed it to the floor, and saw no change in speed other than the small difference he got from the engine naturally slowing itself.  Jon gripped the wheel and pumped the brake pedal repeatedly.  With each depression of the pedal came less and less of a reaction from the car.  Quickly, Jon realized he had no brakes.  Bearing down on the rear-end of the tractor-trailer that was in the passing lane, he saw that the trailer was one of the shiny, round, metal trailers that is often associated with gasoline delivery. 

Jon’s mind raced through the last several moments.  His mental images replayed the rainbow that was cascading down his driveway when he pulled away from his house.  He was heartbroken when reality sank in, and the thought occurred to him that the rainbow effect he was entranced by was due to the mixture of water and other fluids combined.  If he hadn’t been in such a hurry, maybe he would have thought about that before hastily driving away in a bright orange death trap.  This whole situation could have been avoided. 

The next thought that raced through Jon’s brain was that he had wasted so much time with Cathy recently due to his immature behavior.  He cursed himself, briefly closed his eyes, and muttered, “I love you.”  A fleeting memory of bringing his youngest son, Daniel, home to meet his big brother, Michael, was the last thing that Jon imagined.

Jon’s thoughts were abruptly ended by a sudden jerk and a brilliant white flash.  As the Charger slammed into the rear-end of the tanker truck, gasoline poured out all over the road and drenched the car.  Sparks from the metal-on-metal collision ignited a flame, which instantly triggered a massive explosion.  Heat from the fireball melted tires on surrounding vehicles as they traveled, sending them into uncontrolled skids.

Cathy was watching the morning news show when the anchor hastily butted into an irrelevant story about a cat that was born with 6 toes on each paw.  A “Breaking News” graphic flashed across the bottom of the screen.  “This just in,” the anchor began.  “We have just received reports of a massive pile-up on the interstate just outside of the city during the tail-end of this morning’s rush hour.  From details we have gathered, a speeding orange Charger collided with a full tanker truck, igniting a massive explosion.  No identities have been revealed as the investigation is just getting underway.”  Cathy didn’t need to wait for an official identification…she already knew.

Next door, the widow had just seen the same report.  After washing brake fluid off of her side-cutters, there was no need to panic.  With her complaints of Jon’s dangerous driving, and Cathy corroborating that story, police would never suspect any foul play.  Turns out that the widow wasn’t necessarily concerned for the safety of the neighborhood children, but rather jealous of the life that she lost.  Technically, she rejected it, as opposed to lost it.  Nancy now lived in solitude after throwing away her “Happily Ever After” ending in Cancun, Mexico while on her honeymoon.

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