The Extra Cars is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your gridlocked host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6
Phat-so Kim of Life & Taxes returns this week to guide us through a grand automotive mystery of paradoxically miniscule proportions. Look sharp for other familiar faces, too.
The story begins:
It's August, and the air over the pavement shimmers. The sky is the colour of old gym socks.
"I'm going to die," claims Phat-so Kim.
"Shut up," replies his older brother, Sun.
The road is a frozen river of steel, harsh highlights winking off fixtures and fenders. Engines chortle, tailpipes quiver. The drivers slump against their windows sullenly or hold their palms up to the vents to test the coolness of the air conditioning. They wish it were cooler. Their flattened palms are a kind of prayer.
Some have no conditioners. They have the glass cranked down, letting out tinny warbles of radio -- music, for the most part, as many have tuned away from the traffic reports in disgust. They fan themselves with folded road-map fans, wiping perspiration out of their eyes as they mutter the darkest oaths.
It's a million degrees outside.
"There are too many cars," mutters Phat-so, hooded eyes panning the clogged lanes. "Where do they all come from?"
Sun sighs. "Don't be stupid. We do live in a city full of people, you know. There's over a hundred thousand of us. This is just what it looks like when we're not in our houses."
Phat-so is sixteen years old and a dedicated contrarian. He is possessed of a remarkable power that enables him to disagree with even the most seemingly obvious fact and, worse, to find ways to justify this wanton scepticism. He shakes his head and turns away from the window. "It doesn't add up. We're not all out driving at once."
"It's rush hour."
"There's tourists, too. There's a regatta on. Lots of extra people around."
Phat-so snorts. "I don't buy it."
"What do you mean, you don't buy it? That's idiotic."
Phat-so gazes out the window again, looking up and down along the endless line of idling cars. "Think about it, Sunny. Are the stores crowded like this? No. Are the parks crowded like this? No. Are the sidewalks crowded like this? No, they're not. There aren't any extra people, Sun -- just extra cars."
Sun rolls his eyes. "There are people in the cars. Jesus, Phat. Are you taking drugs? Because if you are I'm telling Mom and Dad."
"I'm not taking drugs."
"Remember, you can't bullshit me. I saw you try to smoke at that party."
"That was tobacco, Sunny."
"It's a slippery slope."
"You're a slippery slope."
"That doesn't even mean anything."
"It almost means something. Just one little nudge and it'll mean everything. That's how slippery slopes work, you know."
The brothers sit in silence for a spell. Sun drums idly on the hand-grips of the steering wheel after brushing away a smudge of grease. He smiles, his pride restored: the little tricked-out iridescent purple Honda Civic is his most cherished relation. From the sparkling seventeen-inch aluminium alloy rims to the trunk-installed sub-woofer, there is not one iota of the vehicle that has not been the subject of Sun Kim's exquisite attention.
Sun Kim works at the car wash, and he washes his car every day.
"There!" cries Phat-so suddenly, pointing through the windscreen to the jammed traffic on the opposite side of the highway divider.
"What?" grumbles Sun.
"There!" repeats Phat-so. "That red Camaro with the scratches on the side -- do you see it?"
"That car was ahead of us. I just lost sight of him over the hill, and now there he is, going westbound. What's up with that?"
"I'm sure there's more than one red Camaro in the world."
"With the same scratches?"
"Maybe Camaro drivers aren't very careful, as a group. I don't know."
"It's the same car, Sunny."
"So what if it is? He probably said 'screw this shit' and found a way to turn around."
Phat-so's hair is electric blue. He runs a hand through it as he shakes his head and clucks condescendingly. "Your theory is that he got sick of sitting in a traffic jam going east, so now he's opted to sit in a traffic jam going west?"
"It's not my theory, Phat. I, personally, don't give a shit."
Phat-so, excited, holds up a finger urgently. "Okay, forget why, then. How about how? The next ramp is ten clicks away. How did he do it? How did he get over there?"
Sun sighs again, closing his eyes. "Maybe you have sunstroke. You're crazy, Phat. Like I told you, the city's full of tourists right now."
"So how come every car around us has a Kingston dealership emblem on the back? Look at that one -- that's Gateway Toyota on Princess. And that one's from Raymar on Dalton Street, right by the Tim Hortons there. Everyone we can see is local, Sunny."
"Just because there's more cars in the city causing congestion doesn't mean they necessarily end up right next to us. We're just part of the regular flow of regulars, on our way to our usual places, slowed down because the city's full. I think you're over-complicating something simple, Phat."
"What about that schoolbus? What the hell is a schoolbus doing driving around in the middle of August?"
"Ever hear of summer camp, dipshit?"
Phat-so hesitates, his mouth open and his hand sagging. Sun smiles smugly. Attention is diverted as the line of brakelights ahead begin to wink out like a row of dominos. A moment later the cars coast cautiously forward. Engines throttle. People cheer.
"There was probably just an accident up there," says Sun, shifting gears. "Now it's cleared up. There's nothing more to it than that."
Phat-so does not reply, his mouth tight. They round the top of the hill and see the spread of lanes slowly opening up ahead. There is no sign of emergency vehicles, tow-trucks or debris. Phat-so frowns dubiously. "I don't know..." he drawls.
"Shut up," mutters Sun. "You've got too much imagination, Phat."
Phat-so Kim isn't listening to his brother: his eyes are pegged to the passenger side mirror. He doesn't say anything, but if Sun had looked carefully he would've seen a field of gooseflesh rise on the back of his little brother's neck.
Sun glances over briefly, sneering. "What're you looking at now?"
"Nothing," says Phat-so quietly.
As the congestion loosens and the Civic gains speed Phat-so forces himself to turn away from the mirror. Watching the red Camaro with the scratched door two cars behind them suddenly gives him the creeps.