- Kyle Brandon Lee
Promethean Trans Am
The second story I ever published was at a literary magazine titled Furtive Dalliance. While my first story ("Hills Dreaming Themselves Mountains") was published a few months before online, there's just something about having that tangible, physical object containing a piece of art you created. For me, that was "Promethean Trans Am." As much as I love all my stories and poems, Trans Am holds a special spot as it led to my teaching high school Creative Writing and senior level English. That's a lot of weight to put on one story's shoulders but it does the job well.
Sadly, Furtive Dalliance closed its doors a while back and I've not placed the story again since. What better place than my website? Okay, maybe my next collection. Either way, I'm posting the story here for your enjoyment.
Promethean Trans Am
by Kyle Brandon Lee
Dave tuned them out long ago, well before he silently stood and walked away. He knew his brother meant well, but the parties got old. This spot, this arid space of nothingness, bore no special memory, nor did it hold any outward significance he could identify other than where everyone from the factory went to go drink on Friday nights. Dave needed to get away, needed to think. Hours ago and a moment before he turned over his engine, he spotted Bean. Bean was the only one who knew. This last minute party reeked of him, meant as a cheer-me-up. Since the plant closed, it wasn’t hard to gather the old crew, a brotherhood that never needed an excuse. His brother did that for him. Dave hadn’t been able to answer Bean’s questions about his diagnosis before because the answers didn’t make sense.
Somehow, he hoped Bean would just understand.
Somehow, he hoped the world would just make sense.
He hoped by bringing them with him, everything would fall into place.
Fifty or so miles later, the answers were still as elusive and his friends were still dead set on beer. Dave had no words for any of them, even Bean. The doctors did but even those were phrased so ambiguously, neither Dave nor his wife could walk away with any clearer an understanding.
Simply put, there was a growth.
Not exactly cancer or a cyst, all tests showed it to be harmful, or so was the presumption. A foreign body had taken residence within Dave and tendrils fanned out in a multitude of directions, wrapping around numerous organs. It continued to grow and even after seeing one specialist after the other, none could say what it was.
Yet, they agreed it couldn’t be removed. Dave became angry, seeking something to blame. Something at the auto plant? The water? Why didn’t anyone else get sick? Why was he made to suffer as the world skated by? What made him so special to be damned? Then came acceptance and the void of not knowing what to do. How does one share that kind of news with people who’ve known you for years? How do you tell people you’re probably dying even if the medical experts can’t tell you from what? It's not in the words. It’s in the tone. The doctors not giddy about a medical mystery or chance to be in any kind of scientific journal wore the worry on their face. At least, until the copays were processed.
Dave could tell Bean most things. But this growth confounded him on so many levels. He needed guidance but didn’t know from whom. He needed to get away and scream, but he didn't know where or how loud.
Unquestioning support poured in abundance. His wife Monica made sure of that and if not her, then Bean. But his worry wasn't about his wife and friends. He worried about Cami, his silent daughter who would know life without her father.
Whom could he scream at about that?
Whom could he punch?
Whom could he rage against?
The horizon was dotted with mesquite trees and whirlwinds of dust blowing over expanding faults and cracks on the drought weary plains. Bean’s party had long gone quiet, replaced by the crunch of Dave’s work boots over dead twigs and pebbles.
What was out here?
Why was he out here?
After pointless wandering, Dave no longer cared about the beating sun and his unrelenting thirst. These were just parts of nature, the engine of a growingly inhuman landscape which called to him without the courtesy of details. But he did see a shape, a smooth surface with a tarnished glint.
The closer Dave approached the more he could discern what he saw. Forgetting his worries, he grew excited to see the husk of an old Pontiac Trans Am sitting ten or so yards away from the edge of a cliff, the drop of which ranged maybe thirty feet. Sitting at the bottom of the chasm were demolished cars stacked in a haphazard pile like bones in some heartless dragon’s lair.
Dave’s imagination ran free, giving birth to images of muscle cars being sacrificed to some twisted god that thirsted for the blood of speed. Dave spotted T-birds, Mustangs and any number of once desired symbols of power and masculinity. The rusting pyre of Detroit steel contained the dream of youth and midlife crisis and now a black Trans Am sat a short distance away from being the next lamb to be slaughtered.
Curiosity winning out, Dave slipped along the back of the soon to be departed, running his fingers along the chipping paint. He didn’t know much about engines, but he could tell boundless man hours had been invested within. The tires were bald, and every window shattered. The leather interior cracked at all angles, likely happening long before sitting at the altar. Dave put together models of this very car as a child, daydreaming of running free across the countryside as Johnny Law took hot pursuit.
Along the driver's side, Dave lifted the handle to open the door. He took the spot he always wanted, so lost in his childish giddiness, he didn’t hear the door close behind him. Fixtures cracked or missing, Dave embraced the steering wheel as if in prayer, a prayer which moved the beast forward towards the cliff.
No working engine needed to gather speed, Dave franticly tried to escape but the edge came closer. The front of the car went over the edge, becoming lodged with a sudden stop that whipped Dave’s body forward. His head smashed into the steering wheel hard enough to make the world a blur.
He was moments away from sacrifice.
“Dave!” he heard Bean shout. “Dave!”
“Where are you?” someone else yelled.
Wearily, Dave raised his hand out the broken window, hoping one of the two would spot him. He could not see but heard the hurried approaching footsteps. Numbly, he felt hands grab his arm, the wind of an opening door and the stomach turning moment of the Trans Am going over the edge.
After infinitely long seconds ticked away, he heard the crash, the sacrificial death of someone's, maybe his own, dream.
“He’s bleeding,” Bean yelled, possibly too loud.
Dave assumed Bean pointed.
“Dave, can you hear me?”
“Let’s get him to a hospital,” someone went on, panicked. “That’s a lot of blood. He must have been cut in the window.”
As Bean and nameless others pulled him to his feet, the world grew silent, but its colors became more vivid. New sounds came up from the chasm, ones of electric fire and of rustling wind. Bean’s lips moved but Dave could not hear him calling his name nor could Dave hear others trying to reach 911. Looking at them, the details of their faces became hazy. But in perfect clarity rose a great red bird, the tips of its feathers a fire glow orange, white and yellow. With each flap of its wings, the sound of burning roared. Circling behind the bird came another, one of a metallic blue, its flight pattern erratic but beautiful as electricity and thunder exploded in its wake. On the horizon, wind blurred horses thundered as a herd, disturbing the atmosphere and dictating who held dominance. A menagerie spread in glory.
The firebird roared and all went black.
The further Bean pulled up the driveway, the guiltier he felt. Even two weeks removed from rushing Dave to the emergency room, he could hardly look Monica in the eyes. She bore him no fault, but he carried it nonetheless. Dave protected him at times in life and Bean felt a certain responsibility to reciprocate. Had he been paying attention, Bean wouldn't have let Dave wander off. Dave wouldn’t have gotten in that car. Dave wouldn’t have gotten a concussion.
“Hey! Bean Salad!” Monica yelled through the glass after subsequent taps proved ineffective. “You’re daydreaming again.”
Now awake, Bean realized he had been daydreaming for roughly ten minutes. Yet another reason not to look Monica in the eyes.
“Sorry,” he said. “Lost in thought.”
“Coffee's on,” she smiled. “Dave isn’t home yet. Out getting some parts for whatever it is you two are working on today.”
“Transmission.” “Whatever. I don’t speak car nerd.”
As Bean turned off his engine, Monica slipped back into the house. He spotted Cami peeking out the window with an excited grin and handful of paper. She had another portfolio to show off. The five-year-old had her arms wrapped around his leg before Bean could get through the door. He gave her a good squeeze before she ran off to draw another handful. He stalked into the kitchen, grabbed his usual cup that read “Egg-cellent Uncle” and poured from the fresh pot before sitting at the breakfast table.
“I thought he’d be back sooner,” Monica chimed as she returned to the kitchen to resume whatever she had been working on. “I swear Bean, you’re the only one in the family who gets anywhere on time.”
“Watch must be broken,” he joked between sips. But the sudden silence behind him signaled he wasn’t alone. “You hiding on the dark side of the Bean there Cami?”
The exuberant five-year-old jumped out from behind his chair, plopping down the fresh stack of artistry. Cami gave her uncle another healthy hug before urging him to look through the pile.
“Let’s see what brilliant art you have for me today,” he said with genuine interest. Though he lost his job at the factory with the others, he lucked out, turning his welding and art skill into a job as an art teacher, as well as other vocations, at the local high school. He always found Cami’s work to be fascinating. He could easily recognize her drawing to be beyond a typical child her age and the amount of expression she showed often amazed. She had never spoken a word in her life but she had no problem speaking in other ways.
“Are these portraits of your daddy, Miss Balenhew?” he asked.
She nodded enthusiastically.
“Is he flying in this one? A car in this one?”
“What's the black spot on this one?”
“Cami honey, can you pick up your toys in the living room before your father get home?” Monica called.
Cami hugged Bean one more time before galloping off into the other room. Monica sat at the table with her own coffee cup, featuring the roadside attractions of Arizona.
“I swear Monica, she’s going to be an artist,” Bean said, still marveling over her work. “Did you look into that art therapy I was telling you about?”
“Dave’s taking her to her first appointment tomorrow,” she sighed. “But they may just tell us the same thing as the others.”
“Maybe, but it's worth a try right?”
“Oh, it is. But I’m starting to fear she’s too much like her daddy.”
“Cami will talk when she’s good and ready,” he answered as he glanced over another of the five year old’s drawings, this one of her holding her father’s hand, a yellow and red bird flying next to a blue one overhead. “Or if she has anything important to say.”
When Cami wasn’t drawing, she sat in an oversized chair, watching her father and uncle try to fix an old car. She didn’t know what an “engine” would be or do but she understood that to be its name. The two men didn’t laugh and talk like they normally did when they got together to do these projects. They drank the stuff she thought smelled like a cat box as they usually did and her mother would bring them more “beer” after asking if Cami wanted more milk.
Her mother asked “should it take this long to build a car” to which her Uncle Bean replied “Only if you want it done right,” just before he added “But you’re settling for us.”
Her father didn’t say anything.
He wasn’t normally loud but mostly he’d be happy. Not today. He hadn't been his old self for a while now. Her pictures would cheer him up even if he didn’t look that close to what was in them.
“Cami, do you need a snack?” her mother asked, but Cami wasn’t hungry. She shook her head and went back to the table inside to draw another picture.
Well after her uncle left, Cami continued to draw. Even after her mother went to bed early with the promise that her father would take care of the nightly bedtime routine, Cami finished yet another box of crayons. The sun had gone down after her father dried the dishes, the usual ritual topped off with Cami’s final work.
As she added the final splashes of red and orange, her father sat across from her, tired and solemn. He rubbed his head in that way she knew his head ached, but a picture would make him feel better. She pushed back in her chair and walked around the table, paper in hand.
“Let’s see what you have,” he said.
The picture matched most of what she had produced today: her and her father holding hands with two birds and now some horses. This one had a car near her father and a small black dot on his stomach. He said nothing at first. He only stared.
“Cami,” he began. “Did I tell you about the birds and the horses?”
She shook her head.
Her father stared at the picture longer. He reached across the table to pick up her other various piles of art, most of them sharing the same basic combination of him, her, the birds and the horses.
“Do you know where this is?” he finally asked.
That night when he put her to bed, he smiled fully and genuinely.
The next day he woke her up later than normal, late enough that her mother had already gone off to work. After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, Cami’s favorite, her father packed the car. She had been on long car rides before but usually to her grandmother's house or a cousin.
But that’s not where they were going.
Her eyelids grew heavy and soon she napped. The closing of the car door woke her. She saw her father outside looking over a cliff. Hands at his hips, he scanned the length of it. After shading his eyes with a hand for a brief moment, he came back to the car and opened the door.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked.
Holding her hand, her father guided her down a rocky slope. Though she felt safe with him at her side, she still feared falling. When at the bottom, he stopped.
“We’re supposed to be here, right?” he asked. In reply, she pulled on his hand towards the pile of cars that now held up a black Pontiac Trans Am at its peak. The carnage of metal itself looked like a monstrous mountain of jagged violence. But onward she went. Father and daughter walked all along its base, he identifying the different cars under his breath, she picking out the colors that matched those in her box of colors.
“So… now what?”
She pointed to an opening between a green car much like what her Uncle Bean drove and a red car she had never seen before.
“In there?” he asked. “We just go in?”
Again she nodded. She crouched down and crawled into the space. Anxious for her safety, he followed. Once inside, he was amazed. Beams of light pierced through broken windshields and reflected off tarnished mirrors. The space was large enough to fit him and Cami comfortably. It could be an adequate shelter if needed. But Cami knew better.
It was a nest.
Her father crawled to the back and sat. He reached out to touch the debris that once echoed the pride of Michigan’s finest, but the sudden shift in weight brought down a heavy chunk of white metal. His first instinct was to make sure Cami was safe but there she sat, cross legged on the other side of the nest, smiling. Despite his best attempts, he could not free his arm.
“This was a mistake,” he wanted to say but a ruffling of feathers brought his attention to the entranceway. There stood an overly large bird, similar to a hawk. Its feathers looked brown in the shadows but as it extended its wings into the scattered streams of light, those fragments reflected red, yellow and orange. Slowly the bird approached.
Cami watched. As the bird came close, it pecked at his side, softly at first. He did not fight. The bird struck harder, tearing into his flesh. He screamed.
But he did not fight.
Monica’s first thought included Dave running late again. He did that. But he would never be that late or outright miss one of Cami’s therapy sessions. His concern for his daughter’s silence matched her own. A call to the house went unanswered as did several calls to Dave's cell.
Naturally, Monica began to worry.
“Have you heard from Dave?” she'd asked Bean over the phone, attempting not to panic.
“No, not since yesterday.”
It didn’t take much for the two to assume the worst. Whatever growth that manifested inside Dave may have taken a drastic turn. The two arrived at the house within five minutes of one another, only to find the same things.
Pictures of cars stacked on top of one another.
Dave and Cami holding hands next to it.
Monica rarely cursed but anger set her tongue free as a cavalcade of emotions played through her mind. Bean said it first.
“He went back out there.”
Without saying anything more, they piled into Bean’s car and made the highway in record time. That same time crawled as every scenario played through Monica's mind, none of them good.
Much like her daughter, Monica drifted off in the car, having exhausted herself mentally. But as Bean turned off onto the country road, she awoke, instantly alert. He pointed out where the party setup two weeks prior to give Bean his bearings. Shortly thereafter, they came across Dave's car with no sight of him or Cami.
“Dave,” Monica yelled as she opened the door before Bean could even put the car into park. “Dave! Cami!”
Bean quickly joined her in the calls, quickly working his way to the edge of the cliff to locate the pile of dead wreckage. There it stood in its magnificently damaged glory. “Dave! Cami!” Monica called again.
“Here!” answered a tiny voice, one they heard before. But they knew. They both knew.
Monica charged down the nearest, possibly not the safest, slope with Bean close behind. A slight wind picked up behind them, swirling the dirt at their feet. There, at the base of the pile, came Cami, safe and unharmed. Monica collapsed to her knees, hugging her daughter.
“I heard you baby,” she said. “I heard you.”
“He’s in here,” Bean called out from the inside of the pile. “He’s okay. Get me some water.”
Monica looked in her bag, rummaging through for a bottle. Emerging from the entrance, Bean propped Dave up with an arm over his shoulder. Dave looked dehydrated and spent, a large rip in his shirt that exposed his side.
“He’s bleeding,” Bean pointed. He leaned him against a half buried door to a nameless muscle car, taking the water from Monica.
“Dave, buddy, talk to me,” Bean said, desperate for even a small whisper. He put the bottle to Dave’s lips. Upon downing half the bottle in a single go, Dave pushed the bottle aside and coughed. Looking down, Bean poured another quarter or so of the bottle to wash away the blood.
There was no open wound.
“Is he burned?” Monica asked.
Monica carried Cami over to her husband and took his face in her hands. Both were crying.
“Dave, are you all right?”
“Never better,” he said, stroking his wife’s cheek. With a smile to his daughter, he said again, “Never better.”