The Extra Cars is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your curious host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6
"Mind the door!"
Our story continues:
Kim's Convenience is on Clergy Street East, sandwiched between a video arcade where a greasy Greek sells hashish from the back counter and a defunct dry cleaner inhabited by raccoons. The convenience store's crowded facade advertises every kind of amenity, from movie rentals and automated banking to flavoured lip balm and slushies. The old sign, which billed the establishment as a Smoke Shop, has been papered over with Pepsi advertisements as the times changed.
Kim's is air conditioned, which means Old Mr. Kim stations himself dutifully by the front door in order to shove it closed urgently after every passage. "Thank you, come again, mind the door."
The bells over the door jingle. Phat-so looks up.
"Mind the door!" says Old Mr. Kim.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," grumbles Sun, shoving his shades up on his forehead. "Relax, Dad."
Old Mrs. Kim puts aside her broom and rushes over to her eldest, reaching up to smooth down his carefully gelled black locks. He bats her hand away and scoops her into a cursory hug. She purses her lips. "Okay, you taking Phat-so now in you car. I pack you cold drink."
Sun blinks. "What? No, no -- I'm going over to John's. I just stopped by to help load the milk."
"I already did it," calls Phat-so from behind the counter.
"No John's, no," says Old Mrs. Kim, patting down the wrinkles in Sun's T-shirt. "You helping Phat-so with his project, okay. He need you drive him in you car, Sun. Good!"
"What? Mom -- no," whines Sun. "What the hell? I have plans!"
Old Mr. Kim leaves his post by the door to shake his head seriously. "You waste time some other time, Sun. Your brother's school takes precedence. This issue is closed."
"But Dad --"
"Closed," repeats Old Mr. Kim, eyes locked on his son's.
Sun sags. Old Mr. Kim nods briefly, then turns on heel and shuffles back to his stool by the door. Phat-so flashes his brother a hopeful smile, but Sun sneers. "Get your shit already then," he barks. "Jesus Crap."
Phat-so logs out from the register and sweeps his knapsack over his shoulder. He's wearing a Queen's University T-shirt that says ENGINEERS DO IT PRECISELY across the front. The fact that Phat-so has been accepted to university at such a young age is a sore point for Sun, who struggled to graduate from high school. Over the past year he has endured the slow refocusing of his parents' hopes and ambitions from himself to his younger brother, the cocky, carefree genius. "Let's go!" hoots Phat-so.
Sun frowns. He steps out into the oppressive afternoon sun and tries to hold the door as Phat-so crosses the store, but Old Mr. Kim grabs the frame and eases it shut again. "Mind the door!" he mouths through the glass.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
The boys climb into Sun's iridescent purple Civic and connect their seatbelts. The CD spins up and resumes a throbbing, pounding assault of frenetic dance music. "Where do you have to go? The library?" Sun prompts gruffly, lowering his shades.
"Go out to the highway," says Phat-so as he unzips his knapsack and rummages around inside. He's jolted back against the seat as Sun guns the engine and the little car hops over the pavement and into traffic.
"Which way are we heading?"
"It doesn't matter."
Sun glances over at his brother. "Huh?"
"Just drive, Sunny."
Sun weaves from lane to lane, finding and exploiting any space between vehicles to get ahead in the flow. Somebody honks, but the sound is lost to the music and the whistle of air through the open windows. He times his next rush carefully to avoid slowing down before the light at Division Street turns from amber to green. The Civic sails through the intersection and heads north, the shadows clocking around the cabin.
Sun looks over again. Phat-so has taken a camcorder out of his knapsack and is feeding a tape into it. The mechanism whirs and clicks as the tape is spooled. On his lap is an engineer's log book filled with dense notes jotted around glued-in Polaroid photographs of cars.
Sun licks his lips. "Just what. The crap. Are you doing, Phat?"
"It's my new pet project."
"What the hell kind of a project are you working on a month before school even starts again?"
Phat-so shrugs sheepishly. "I'm cataloguing the extra cars."
Sun's eyes widen. "Mom said it was for school!"
"Mom thinks everything is for school."
"And you let her think that, so you can do anything you want. You're a liar, Phat."
"I didn't lie."
"It's a lie of commission."
"You mean an error of omission?"
"Why do you always think you're so smart?"
"Because I'm smart?"
Sun blasts the Civic around the on-ramp, skittering on the shoulder pebbles as he inserts the car forcefully into the highway stream between a sixteen wheeler and a caravan. The caravan honks in panic and brakes for no reason, compressing the line behind it. Sun peels out from behind the big rig and skips over two lanes, the Civic's shadow flashing over the guardrail.
"So what now?" he asks darkly.
"We need to find an extra car. I have a whole list of them, from watching out my bedroom window. License plates, makes and models, scratches, rust and stickers -- I've got everything."
"And what do we do if we find one?"
"We follow it."
Sun glances over at his brother. "That's messed, man. If we take you videotaping the neighbourhood and then us stalking people on the road, it starts to look pretty weird. Somebody's going to notice and think we're perverts or something."
"It takes all kinds, Phat. Seriously. We're going to get in shit."
"We're not going to get in shit. You're paranoid."
"I'm paranoid? This from the sky who thinks the roads are haunted?" Sun shakes his head as he gears down for power and manoeuvres the nimble Civic into a narrow space between two speeding SUVs, engine roaring. "I just don't like taking unnecessary risks," he claims.
"Obviously," agrees Phat-so, his knuckles white from clutching the arm-rest.
Sun lets the car coast along, then stomps on the brakes to join the end of a solid traffic jam. He mutters profanity. Phat-so balances on the window frame and leans out, panning his camcorder across the lanes and watching the image scroll by on the fold-out viewfinder. After a few moments he sighs and withdraws back into the vehicle. "I can't seem to see any," he says.
Sun rolls his eyes. "What a surprise -- it turns out to be a figment of your warped brain after all."
"Wait!" cries Phat-so.
"There!" Phat-so flips the pages in his log book and then traces his index finger down over a column of vehicle descriptions. "Ha!" he croons, then squints at the viewfinder as he zooms in tight. "Light blue Tercel, license matches, rust matches. That's one of them. That's definitely one."
Sun gets a weird, uncomfortable feeling as he spots the car in question. It looks just like any other car, but for some reason it is this mundane appearance that seems to underscore some ill portent. It's almost as though the car looks too normal. He shakes off the feeling. "Damn," he says, "now you're making me all rangy. That car's creeping me out."
Phat-so nods solemnly. "That Tercel drove around the block by our house thirty-one times last night. From eight o'clock until midnight, over and over again."
Traffic inches forward. Sun glides over a lane, putting himself just a few cars behind the Tercel. Phat-so makes a note. The Tercel works its way over to the outside lane and Sun matches every move. Phat-so says, "I think he's getting off at Sir John A. Don't lose him."
"I won't lose him."
"Don't let him get over the hill. Don't lose sight."
"Look, just leave the driving to me. If we need a brainiac attack we'll call you, but I can handle the driving, okay?"
"Okay, okay. Chill."
The brothers sit in tense silence as the slow parade of vehicles sloshes forward in short surges. The Tercel's turn indicator begins to blink, so Sun puts his on, too. They coast along behind as it veers onto the off-ramp and winds its way toward Sir John A. MacDonald Boulevard. They merge into the crowded southbound lanes and proceed sedately, rumbling over a set of railway tracks.
"How long are we going to do this?" asks Sun wearily.
"Until we find out where they go."
The Tercel makes a left on John Counter and heads east. Sun runs the end of an amber to avoid losing sight, the light turning red when they're still in the middle of the intersection. Horns honk. Sun gestures rudely. "Jesus Crap," he mumbles, gearing down and swerving around a mottled green canvas-canopy truck from the base. The soldiers in the back watch the Civic with narrowed eyes.
The Tercel slows at Division Street, and makes another left to go northbound back toward the highway. The brothers look at one another. "Maybe he's lost," suggests Sun lamely.
They find themselves getting back on the highway. The Tercel filters into the middle lane and comes to a stop at the back end of the traffic jam they escaped from only a quarter hour earlier. Sun wilts against his wheel, brow glistening. "It's too hot to do this today," he says.
"Have a Pepsi," says Phat-so, pulling a cold can from his knapsack.
Sun accepts it and cracks the seal, then chugs.
As the sun descends they tail the light blue Tercel back and forth across the city, winding one way and then retracing its route, turning right where it had previously turned left, describing a seemingly nonsensical labyrinth across Kingston.
At Bath and Gardiner they come to a long red. Sun switches lanes to pull up right beside the Tercel. "What are you doing?" asks Phat-so anxiously.
"I'm cutting to the chase," says Sun. "We're just going to ask him what's up. You know -- talking. It may not be scientific but it works."
"What are you going to say?" stammers Phat-so.
Sun chuckles. "He's on your side, dipshit."
Phat-so turns to look out his window as the Civic rolls to a halt. A middle-aged woman with expensive sunglasses and dyed red hair sits smoking a cigarette in the light blue car, her wrist dangling carelessly over the wheel. Phat-so gulps, his mouth dry.
"Go on!" urges Sun, poking his brother in the leg. "You pussy."
Phat-so leans out the window awkwardly. "Hey!" he calls, his voice cracking. "Do you live around here? We need some directions."
The woman doesn't respond.
Phat-so clears his throat, and speaks louder. "Hey, miss! Excuse me? We're lost. Can you help us find Centennial Drive?"
The woman leans over and adjusts her radio, then tosses the end of her cigarette out the window onto the pavement. It sinks into a wad of soft tar. She returns her gaze forward, impassive.
"Um...do you know where that is? Centennial?"
The light changes. She knocks the Tercel into gear and accelerates away. Sun hits the gas as well, flinging Phat-so back against the window frame. "Ouch!" he yelps, squirming back into his seat and wincing as he rubs his shoulder.
"Sorry," says Sun.
"She wouldn't even look at me."
"I know. That's totally fucking rude."
Phat-so shakes his head. "It's not just rude, Sunny, it's like she didn't even hear me. She didn't even blink."
"Maybe she's deaf. Are deaf people allowed to drive cars?"
Phat-so shrugs. "I have no idea."
The sky turns to stripes of grey and copper. Driving west is hard because of the sunset glare. Sun loses himself in perfecting his pursuit, and Phat-so knows his brother is truly immersed when his telephone rings but he neglects to answer it or even flip it to glance at the display. He frowns in concentration as they make another round off the highway and then back on again, then wander through the downtown core along the waterfront.
The colourful sails of a dozen nations' fleets dot the harbour, returning to port after a day on the waves. The spume from their sterns is tinted gold by the ruddy, fading daylight.
"I'm hungry," says Sun, so Phat-so digs into his knapsack and hands him a bag of potato chips, then scoops out one for himself.
"What've you got?"
"You gave me ketchup. Trade?"
It's been two hours since Sun last asked when they would give up. He's focused on the mission now, the muscles in his neck working with tension as he plots his way through the slowly thinning stream of vehicles. The CD has long finished but neither of them bother to put in another. For some indefinable reason sharing food solidifies the project, and makes it seem more critical, their time together hallowed and secret. The boys are onto something too important to afford a break.
"Shit," says Sun. "I have to piss."
Phat-so hands him an empty Pepsi can.
"Jesus Crap," moans Sun. Then he accepts the can and manoeuvres it between his legs. Phat-so looks away when he hears his brother's fly unzip. "Hold the wheel," Sun commands, so Phat-so extends a hand and tries to keep the Civic on a straight course.
It's twilight. The driver of the Tercel puts on her headlights. She turns north on Montreal Street and makes for the highway again. Sun follows. She gets off on 15 North and the glow of the city fades behind them. They plunge into the rich country darkness.
Soon the only light comes from the ruby beacons on the Tercel's rear and the spill of stars up above. The pursuit becomes an abstraction, like a videogame: Sun can see neither the road nor the fields -- only the tail-lights ahead. He tracks the twin red glows as if his life depends on it.
The Tercel slows at Stephentown Lane, surrounded by the looming silhouettes of bushes and trees. Her turn indicator winks on and off. As the Civic draws up behind Phat-so and Sun look at their own pallid, tired reflections in the glass.
Sun checks up and down the road once more and then puts the Civic into gear to follow. As they round the corner he slows down, leaning forward close to the windscreen and blinking. "What the hell...?"
The Tercel is gone.
"Maybe..." says Sun slowly, "maybe she killed her lights. Maybe we spooked her."
He nods as he says this, switching gears and accelerating hard. The engine hums. Phat-so grabs the edges of his seat, clenching his teeth. The Civic bolts faster and faster along the country lane, tearing up the distance until the speedometer is pushing one sixty. Sun bangs the curves like a race car driver, hugging one edge and then the other to conserve momentum. The stars wheel overhead. They're flying. Phat-so could swear they're falling.
And then just as suddenly Sun is gearing down, forcing the car to a skipping, shuddering halt amid a slurry of pebbles and dirt. The last vestiges of motion are drained away only when the front bumper is an inch away from the guardrail that marks a sharp turn in the lane.
Their cloud of dust catches up with them and washes over the car, billowing through the windows. The brothers cough.
"There's no way we missed her," says Sun hollowly. "There's no way that Tercel can do one sixty."
Phat-so nods. "Maybe she pulled into the ditch, and we passed her."
Sun shakes his head. "I don't think so."
Both boys take a moment to catch their breath. Their hearts are racing. Phat-so says, "So...is this my over-active imagination?"
Sun smiles meekly. "Maybe not. Sorry. Yeah, this is messed. Like, for real, Phat. For really real."
Phat-so shifts in his seat, looking around at the unrelenting blackness on all sides. Crickets chirp. "I'm feeling a little uneasy. You know? Don't make fun of me, but I think I want to get back to where there's some light."
Sun nods. "I won't make fun. I'm with you. Let's get out of here."
He puts the Civic into reverse with a casual flick of the wrist. The engine whinnies as it chugs backward, then Sun pops it into first. The headlights showcase a smear of vegetation as they pan. He pushes the pedal and they begin to rumble over the uneven roadway back toward 15.
The car wheezes, then dies. They coast to a halt.
Phat-so looks over. "What happened?"
"We're out of gas," declares Sun with a dejected sigh. "Jesus Crap."
The night looms around them. Phat-so gulps.