Element

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SEVENTEEN

They were standing in a parking lot, leaning over Josh’s Peugeot. “What kind of modifications?” John asked. Josh reached into the car and pulled a lever under the steering wheel. Stepping around John to get to the front of the car, he reached his fingers under the hood and popped a release, allowing him to lift it up. He pointed to a spot.

“First things first, new steering pump. When you turn really frequently, you can get cavitation in the power steering fluid. That’ll cut down on your steering ability. So I replaced that.” He pointed to something else. “Cold air intake for increased air density. More oxygen, more energy. Uhhhm, new tires.” John looked at the one by his leg. “Premium radials. Very expensive.”

“What does radial mean? I’ve been wondering.”

“Underneath the rubber, there’s a steel drum. Between those, there are layers and layers of synthetic cords. Some tires are what are called bias ply. They’re not common anymore. That just means the cords are oriented at an angle of sixty degrees, either left or right from an imaginary line pointing straight ahead.” He gestured with his hand. “Can you picture that?”

“I think so,” John said.

“Well, back in the forties, a company invented a tire where the cords were oriented going sideways, perpendicular to the direction of rotation. Can you picture that?” John nodded.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Okay, well, they just ran better. They felt better, and generated superior fuel economy. So now everyone uses them.”

“So what’s the advantage of buying more expensive ones?”

“Better handling.”

“I see.” John stood up, putting his hands on his hips.

“They have a run flat foam in them too, though to be honest, even if a tire got damaged by a bullet, it wouldn’t deflate immediately. It would take a little time. Not quite half an hour but some time. Unless it was a larger caliber bullet.”

Josh reached to the door handle and pulled the driver’s side door open. “If you look at the dash, you’ll see a row of switches.” John did after hunting around. They were under the radio.

John asked, “These four rocker switches here?”

“Yes. They independently control the lights. The left two control the front headlights, while the right two control the left and right rear brake lights.”

“The purpose being?”

“Say you think your vehicle is being watched. If you’re around other cars, you can ‘break’ one of your taillights. Or ‘burn out’ one of your headlights. Then, you can get out of the area while they’re still looking for a car with perfectly working lights.”

“That’s awesome,” John exclaimed. Josh got a satisfied smirk. “What else you got?”

“Driving computer’s got a new chip in it to boost power, added a short throw shifter so shifts are faster, and there’s some emergency equipment in the trunk.”

“This thing is thoroughly decked out.”

“It’s getting there. I’ve got a few more mods to make.”

“Won’t hacking the computer void your warranty?”

“Oh nah. When I take it in for maintenance, I just stick the old chip back in.”

John laughed. “That’s awesome.” He shook his head and said it again. “That’s awesome.” He looked it over for a few minutes. “So have you taken any high speed driving courses?”

“Nope. I know how to do evasive driving, but it’s all self taught. There’s a book you can buy. The author’s… shit. Something something Eriksen. Anyway, my Dad had a bunch of old cars so he let me use those to drive around the neighborhood and practice.” He looked away from John. “You know, this parking lot is probably big enough to do some tricks. Can you drive stick?” John’s heart fluttered.

“Yes.”

“Want to learn how to evasive drive?”

John’s eyes went wide. “HELL YES.”

“All right, get in the driver’s seat.” John looked at it and then sank into it. It was soft and comfortable. Josh came around the other side and tried to open the passenger door. Finding it locked, he reached through the open window and unlocked it, pulling it open and getting in the passenger seat. John reached over his shoulder and fastened his seatbelt. A hand appeared in front of him. A key dangled from it. John took it and put it into the ignition.

“Okay, start the car.” John twisted the key. The alternator turned over a few times and the motor purred to life. “Okay, first things first. Here’s your e-brake.” Josh patted it with his hand. “This is a front wheel drive car. That creates some problems when it comes to doing some more interesting tricks. There are some you just can’t do but that’s all right. Put us in drive and just take us around the parking lot.”

“Slow?”

“Yeah, just get a feel for it.” John shifted into drive with his left hand. It was disorienting and felt weird. Putting pressure on the pedal with his sandals, he felt the car pick up speed. “Okay, take us around counterclockwise.” John took them to the perimeter of the parking lot. “Give it more speed now,” Josh said. John did. “A little more.” The car accelerated hard for a moment. “That’s better.” They were rolling at a good clip now, towards the outlet at the other end of the long elliptical parking lot that was strangely devoid of cars. The other end got closer.

“Should I slow down?”

“No. Just keep it steady. Okay, see that lamp post on the end?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, as you approach it, you’re going to stay to the right. You’re going to wanna maintain some horizontal distance from it. When you get to about… that crack there, slowly apply brakes. Then, when I tell you, press on the brakes hard, shift to the second gear and when I say, let off the brakes, pull your e-brake and cut the wheel until you’ve turned seventy degrees.” John’s lower lip rocked slightly. “Okay, now, hit the brakes!” John pressed the brakes hard. “Downshift!” The light pole got closer. “Pull your e-brake! Turn it!” John struggled with all the commands. He turned the wheel hard. Josh reached over and pulled the wheel harder. The tires squeeled slightly. The car made the turn with a sideways slide.

“Oh shit.”

“We’re fine. We’re fine. Okay. That wasn’t bad. Let’s go around again. Once you’ve made your turn, release the e-brake. Also, after you’ve completed your turn, hit the gas. Obviously not too much because we’re in a parking lot but build your speed back up.”

“Okay.” John drove the car around the narrow end of the parking lot and lined up for another shot, in the opposite direction from the one he’d started in. He pushed down the pedal and felt the engine build up again. He stole a quick glance at Josh, who was looking straight. They got close to the end of the parking lot.

“Okay, now, turn it hard.” John turned the wheel hard this time and heard the tires squeal. He half expected the side of the car to lift up. But it didn’t. “Good. Much better. Don’t be afraid to push this car. It can take more than anything you’ve got to give it.” John tried not to take that a bad way. “That was meant to serve as a confidence booster. Okay,” Josh breathed out. “Let’s try something called a pendulum turn.”

Sitting on a bench beside an adjacent parking lot, Cory peeled an orange. She was sitting above some grass, under the hazy sky. As she stripped off the rind, a bee hovered over some flowers to her left. She didn’t pay it any attention and continued what she was doing, even as the gray Peugeot hummed through a narrow bottleneck into the parking lot she was above, drove along the side, and squealed into a clumsy pendulum turn. The car picked up speed in another direction and a few moments later, squealed again.

More confident now, John accelerated for a third attempt. “Use your brakes to make it turn more during the flick.” The car screeched to the left, pulling them sideways, then screeched in the other direction. Josh had on sunglasses now, no doubt thinking he looked cool. He was right. “One more time.” John sped up the car for a few seconds and then holding the wheel hard, turned it to the left briefly and then turned it rapidly in the other direction, letting off the gas pedal a moment later. The result was a nice sideways drift of the back of the car. John counter-steered. Josh pressed his hand to the dashboard.

“Not bad,” he said. “Not bad.” John was grinning broadly. “Okay, switch places with me. I want to show you something else.” John shifted into park and popped his seatbelt, climbing out. He and Josh crossed in front of the car. Taking John’s seat, Josh slammed his door and adjusted his mirror. Shifting out of park, he got a little momentum, taxiing around the parking lot to the end they’d entered from. Then he looked at John. “Hold on,” he said.

He floored the car. The acceleration was tremendous, throwing John back into his seat. Looking forward, John tried to keep his breathing relaxed as the car’s speed rose. Thirty, forty, fifty. Impossibly confidently, Josh yanked the wheel halfway around and pulled the e-brake. The result was no less than spectacular.

John’s reaction was understandable. As the car spun around a full hundred eighty degrees, he pressed on the dashboard and screamed. Josh released the e-brake and the car screeched to a stop. John opened his tightly shut eyes.

“Holy fucking shit.”

“That was a bootlegger’s turn,” Josh said with typical poise. “Supposedly, it was invented by one of your countrymen during prohibition.”

“Holy shit,” John gasped. Cory came down the hill and leaned over John’s window.

“Hi boys. Evasive driving?”

“Yeah, just teaching John some tricks.”

“Cool man. You want an orange?”

Josh laughed. “Sure.” She stuck her hand in and handed each of them a section.”

“Thanks.”

“Thanks.”

“Sure… You guys wanna play Xbox later?”

“Sweet,” John said.

“How many controllers do you have?”

“Four now. I got a new one.”

“Cool.”

She looked across the parking lot. Brian was coming over a hill with André. They were returning from a sandwich shop.

“So when are Vik, and Katie and Erika getting back?”

“What time is it?”

Josh looked at the dashboard. “Five-thirteen.”

“Oh, any minute, probably.” John looked at Brian and André who looked at him and then looked briefly at each other. Wondering what that meant, John looked past them at the freeway. Cars and trailers swished and growled by. Cory looked at Josh and John and smiled, kneeling down to rest her elbows on a window frame. John ate his orange and spit the seed out. Cory ate a section.

“So what’s been eating Viktor?” Josh asked. “He’s been in a shitty mood all day.”

“You know the strike article?”

“Yeah…”

“I guess it didn’t get published after all. I hadn’t looked at the papers so I didn’t know. But he’s been checking them.”

“After all that?”

“Afraid so.”

“Fuck.”

“Well it wasn’t very scandalous.”

“It was enough. We put a lot of planning into that.”

“I know…” John shifted his eyes back and forth between them. “Well don’t say anything about it right now because Viktor’s really pissed about it.”

“I won’t. I can tell. What else is new right?” John’s eyes widened a tad and he looked at Cory, who seemed to have a knowing smile. “Well,” Josh said at last, “you can’t publish every one. This is a job like any other one.”

Cory looked down at nothing and set the side of her head on her arm. “We took some really big chances with that one,” she said, finally. “Like, we could’ve gone to fucking jail.” Josh just looked at her. “I dunno. After this, we might start leaning towards higher risk stuff again. Try to be more sensational. I personally don’t agree with that but I’m not the one making decisions.”

“You see that right there? That’s what pisses me off. You fucking should be. You’re as much a part as anyone else. You do way more than fucking Brian. Oh hi, Brian!”

“Get bent,” Brian said, walking past. Josh laughed.

“You know I love you, bro!”

“Whatever.”

“Look, I don’t mind Katie being in charge,” Josh said. “But you’re right. I don’t want us taking really unnecessary risks for the sake of it. I mean, that’s an inherent part of this whole escapade anyway. There’s no need to push it even further. I’ve been holding my tongue. But if you’re right, I may end up saying something I’ll regret. Because Viktor of course won’t. I mean, no offense, I know he’s your boyfriend and all, but he just won’t. You know?” Cory’s mouth scrunched up. Josh was suddenly quiet.

He cast an uncertain glance at Cory who suddenly only seemed to feel like looking off into the distance.

Josh looked to John momentarily. John looked down at his fingernails. With that, the conversation was over.

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