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In Cars



By Neil Bhandari

Well before sunrise, all 43 members of the Ortmann Elementary School 5th Grade Gifted Program gathered in the parking lot to board the bus for what was to be the highlight of the school year- the overnight field trip to St. James College. Quieted by their early wake time and the presence of their mothers and babysitters- who would be leaving as soon as the bus arrived, thankfully- the children silently bubbled with anticipation for the tree climbing and nature hikes they would be participating in, and probably more importantly, for the chance to spend the night in dorm rooms with their best friends.

The bus arrives, the mothers kiss their children, the children board the bus and wave out the window, the sun rises, the teachers do a quick headcount, the bus leaves and the kids are wide awake- talking, laughing, yelling- giddy electric. In the back row, as far as possible from the teachers and bus driver, three boys- Shaun McGillis, Demonte Johnson and Aaron Peterson- debate the relative merits of a variety of spitball projection methods, testing each, eventually agreeing that Aaron’s Bic pen casing serves better than a drinking straw or a simple finger flick. They entertain themselves for an hour by firing wads of saliva and paper at Nick Henson and some of the other boys in the rows in front of them, until they’ve racked up enough direct hits that someone tells Ms. Herrick, and they’re forced to stop.

Nancy Herrick sits alone in her seat, across from Sue Wilson- the other 5th grade teacher- and Sue’s husband James, a retired high school English teacher, working on a book of difficult Sudokus, cycling through her phone’s Sent Messages folder and contemplating whether or not to cut her hair drastically short this weekend, or if that sort of change is better held off until summer vacation.

Meanwhile, in the middle rows, the girls have been texting one another from mere feet apart, sending digital secrets about crushes and hair styles and who’s ugly up into orbit and back down into the bus, cradling their phones and giggling like wild. They manage to keep it under control until Andrea Deming reads, “Nicky is a buck toothed knuckle monkey!” much louder than she’d intended, and the entire bus roars. Nick doesn’t mind all the razzing. He’s the best kickball player in 5th grade, he has plenty of friends, and, according to his older sister, if the girls are talking about you, even teasing you, it’s because they think you’re cute. So no, Nick doesn’t mind. Ms. Herrick, though, does, and even though she knows that the kids are excited, and she knows she shouldn’t already be yelling on what’s supposed to be a fun trip, she can’t stand that the kids make so much fun of her favorite student. Nancy stands up out of her seat, and turns to face them.

“Listen up! We’ve been telling you this all week, so consider this your last warning. I know you’re excited- we all are- but that doesn’t give you the right to be rude to each other and it doesn’t give you the right to disrespect anyone- your classmates, your teachers, your hosts- anyone while we’re on this trip… got-”

The breaks screech metal horror, and Ms. Herrick tumbles backward as the bus comes to a crushing halt. Before she can say anything or ask for help, she hears a collective gasp as the kids rush for the passenger side windows, screaming and pointing up ahead, some of them laughing. She rights herself-still on the ground- and turns to look out the windshield. Her eyes widen as her mouth freezes in shock, but James Wilson, absurdly calm, mutters, Three cars… Upside-down… Three Car Monte… Heh… That’ll teach ‘em.

Everything sounded good. Ainsley had been quite satisfied with the parameters of the final proposal, and Mr. Stevens—Michael’s boss—seemed to think they’d had it in the bag all along. One more meeting, maybe two, a few signatures, handshakes around the room, and they’d all be significantly richer. Really, there was no telling how far it could go, but for now, as he wrapped his scarf and shrugged his black wool coat into place, his thoughts moved to Anna, and how thoroughly pleased she’d be at the news.

She’d initially been reluctant when he was considering the position, thinking that if they were going to make the move to D.C., now was the time. He’d been insistent, though, assuring her that in five or six years at Waters he would make enough for them to take it and run, and buy a place in Loudoun, less than a mile from her parents. Tonight, he’d have real-life proof that things were going according to plan, and that her dreams of rejoining the world of sundecks and boat shoes, where she’d been raised and educated, were still on track. He felt his phone buzz as the elevator reached the lobby, and as Tim the Elevator Operator wished everyone a good night, he heard Anna in his left ear.


Big news…


Really. I’ll be home soon. I love you.

As he pulled his car out of the underground parking lot, Michael considered stopping for flowers before getting on the highway, but decided against it, assured that getting home on time topped by the details of the deal would be more than enough to please her. Who knows- maybe she was already putting on something special, in hopes of having it taken off within the hour. He grinned and felt warm in his hands and crotch.

Michael had already been on the road for half an hour- the drive usually took twenty minutes- and gone less than five miles, before thinking to check the traffic report. He reached for the dial, slowly gliding through the unfamiliar, talky terrain of AM radio, pausing just long enough at each frequency to ensure it wasn’t what he was looking for. Finally, somewhere in the 700s, he locked on just as the broadcaster was tossing it to Beverly James with an eye on the roadways. Beverly immediately sounded serious, informing Michael of an incident on 33, just two miles ahead, involving an overturned car. Emergency vehicles are on the scene and there are not yet any further details or reports of injuries. After that, she moved into rapid recitation of highways and drive times, each of which seemed to be moving at its respectively appropriate pace. Of course. His phone buzzed again, and again Anna existed in his ear- sounding like she’d already opened up a bottle of wine- asking if he was on his way and why aren’t you home yet- eager, not nagging.

Traffic crawled on, and eventually Michael heard the singing sirens and saw the blue and red lights, and as he approached the scene to his left, he instinctively held the brake for an extra couple of seconds, trying to sneak a glace into the passenger side window of the overturned sedan. He could see that the driver was a woman, still belted into her seat, her head levitating inches off the ground- the ceiling of her car. She was speaking, calmly it seemed, into her cell phone while two fire men worked to pry open the driver’s side door. Michael rolled past and made it the rest of the way home in less than ten minutes.

I was on my way to band practice. Well, still an audition, I guess, ‘cause I’d been playing drums with these guys for about three weeks, but hadn’t really been made an official member or anything, yet. The ad I’d seen at Record Swamp said “need rock drummer 4 kick ass band- call Rick,” and there were little strips at the bottom you tore off with Rick’s phone number on them. Kinda cheesy. But still, they seemed pretty cool and they liked the Stooges and MC5, which is about the best you can hope for when you’re trying to start a band twenty miles outside of Cincinnati.

So anyways, I was on my way over there- we practiced in Ricky’s mom’s garage cause she worked nights and his neighbors had moved out or something- driving and drumming my hands and left foot to whatever was on the radio like I always do, when I heard this buzz, like a sizzle, like bacon on a pan, you know? I just assume it’s the radio, frequencies or crossed wires or whatever. So I go another few minutes til I hit a red light, and then I hear it louder, this time like super close, like it’s just outside my window or something, so I turn to look, and I shit you not, this dude’s car TURNED UPSIDE DOWN. He didn’t get hit, he didn’t swerve, it wasn’t raining or anything, one second he was driving, grinning, talking on his phone in the lane next to me, and the next second we’re at a light and his car is sitting there upside down. So I’m freaking out, and when the light turns green I pull over in front of him and jump out of my car to try to help him out, but it’s the weirdest fucking thing. I bang on his window, you know, to make sure he’s conscious or whatever, and he rolls down the window and says,

(Into his phone) Hang on a sec. (To me) Whatsup?

Oh my God, are you ok? Are you hurt? What happened?

What happened to what?


C’mon kid, quit playing around. (Into his phone) Some burnout- probably asking for money or something…

And he put his window up. That was it. It was like he didn’t even know it. And when I got back into my car, he just sat there talking on the phone. I could see him in my rearview mirror as I was driving away. He didn’t even go anywhere- he couldn’t. He just stayed there, upside down, talking and grinning.

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