By Kenneth Lowe

RM Bulseco. Used under creative commons.

“Well, you’re home early,” Dad said as Riley trudged up the steps onto the front porch, using the tone of voice he’d cultivated across decades of bad dates and a failed marriage and dead-end career after dead-end career, that is made to sound as nonchalant as possible to hide the aching yearning of the speaker. The tone that, by the time a daughter is 16, she recognizes even if she can’t diagnose it yet. “What say we practice driving?”

Riley’s path home from the school that had closed its doors three hours early that day took her beneath an underpass of 80 West, and from their front porch she could turn to look up at the on-ramp to the highway and see the ocean of automobiles, motionless and powerless and angry. The big truck stop billboard that was always visible from inside the living room picture window was advertising a new low price on gas of $20 a gallon. CLEARANCE! roared the signs on the windows of the convenience store. HELP WANTED! HIRING IMMEDIATELY!

“Sure,” she said.

“I think we’ll practice on the Triumph,” Dad said, his voice full of the effort it took to get vertical from his usual position on the rocking chair, both hands planted on his knees. “You gotta learn stick sometime. Can’t let the drunk boy who wants to drive you home be the only one who knows how.”

This was the man who earlier that month had fist-bumped her when she’d told him she’d made out with Jenna in the back of the room during second period Chemistry while the teacher had slipped out of the classroom under cover of a movie to go cry in the hallway, the man who had then spent the rest of the day and the following morning making jokes about how the two girls must “have Chemistry,” each becoming increasingly labored and woefully easy to see coming.

He trundled over to the garage door, bent over to take hold of the handle, and heaved it up. His T-shirt rose up to reveal his gut at the same time the open door revealed the 2027 Ford Taurus, which would’ve looked twice its age even without the rust creeping along the bottom edges of the doors; the naked frame and tank of a Ducati with no wheels on it and its brake discs and drive chain sitting in a dusty puddle of oil on top of a towel on the seat; and the Triumph TR6, its dignified green paint waxed, its every metal part polished, the stain on its wood paneling catching the low sun of the winter.

“It’s even nice enough to drive with the top down today,” Dad said.


“You want me to back her out for you? Heh heh heh.”

“Jesus, Dad.”

Riley had never sat in the Triumph’s driver’s seat before. It felt like being hugged by your great aunt, if she was wearing a leather jacket. The street ahead of her stretched on until it dipped down a steep descent toward the lake, one that scared her on her bicycle when it was wet. She reached for the ignition.

“Ah!” he slapped her hand away and she rolled her eyes. “You’ve never driven this chick magnet before. What’s the first thing you need to do?”

“I don’t know, Dad.”

“You know, sweetie, come on.”

In the distance, somebody on the on-ramp was laying on their horn, long and loud and furious, joining a chorus of others. When she looked away from the worn grey man to her right, the only things she could see were the house across the street their neighbors had left abandoned last month in a tornado of shouting and broken dishes, or the sun, flat and dull and somehow still blinding, a whole astronomical unit away and yet right in her fucking face all the time. She put the visor down and then angled it over to the left to shade her eyes.

“You get ergonomical, honey. You get that seat where it should be. You check your mirrors. Go on now!”

She fumbled with the seat for a full minute before he got out of the car, walked around to her side, and helped her with it. A car tore past in the oncoming lane as he was in the midst of taking a creaky knee before her to do it, and the way the door obscured the upper half of his body must have suggested something to the driver, who hooted and honked as the other twentysomething guys in the back all made noise. Without looking up or interrupting what he was doing, Dad gave them the finger.

As he was walking back around (always walk around the back of a car, he’d told her when she was five, that way the dummy at the wheel is less likely to run you over), a police cruiser peeled around a corner in pursuit of the joyriders, sirens wailing.

“Mirrors,” he went on as he took his seat again and closed the door, timing his pause to give the sirens a minute to fuck along down the road, “mirrors being in the wrong attitude are not something you wanna discover doing 70 on the highway. Now, the best way to set things up is so you don’t have to turn your head. You should be able to see everything just by moving your eyes.”

Dad went on a bit about the first cars to have mirrors, about how they had needed to do it after they got fast enough to really be dangerous, and Riley had no idea how much of it was true or just made up. She knew he didn’t either. The mirrors were in the right place by the time he finally wound down.

“You start this one different than you do the Taurus,” Dad said. “The car can buck around on you because you’re driving it, not some fucking computer. Okay?”


“On the Taurus you need to have the brake down, on this one it’s the clutch. That’s on the left, all the way on the left. You use your left foot on that one, and you use your right for the gas and the brake the same way you do on an automatic.”

Riley was surprised by how firmly she needed to push down on the clutch.

“You gotta floor it.”

She did.

“You’ll feel it in your calf the first few days. You can also pop the transmission into neutral before you start it, that also works. What’s it in now?”

She looked at the stick, with its neat little lines pointing to numbers inscribed on the knob.

“First, honey, it’s in first, right?”

“I guess, Dad.”

“When it’s wiggly in the middle like this,” he popped it out of gear, “It’s in neutral. Here it is in first again. Keep your hand on the stick. It’s good to let it rest there. Keeps you from fucking around on your phone or eating a taco or all those things you see careless pricks doing while they drive, you see what I mean?”

“Uh huh.”

“When you start the car, you’re going to keep that left foot all the way down on the clutch. And then you make sure you’re in gear, which you are, and then we’re going to give it the same amount of gas you’d give the Taurus to get moving, and you take pressure off the clutch until you feel the engine catch the wheels. You look like you have no idea what I’m saying.”

“It can’t be that hard,” she said, and turned the key.

The car sprang to life, bucked 18 inches forward, and stalled immediately. The radio turned on, and remained on as the aftermarket electrics complained that the battery was draining.

“…of refugees being turned away from bunkers by security forces on the same day NASA has revised its projections to indicate landfall could occur as soon as this evening. Here in Denver, humanitarian observers estimate 100,000 people are camped outside the city, with ongoing violence between members of this group and—”  

He reached over to shut the radio off just a little too quickly.

Riley stared at the road ahead. The sirens had not really stopped, but sounded like they were chasing the joyriding car around the neighborhood. Their wail, the revving of engines, the horns of those trapped on the on ramp, the panicked beeping of the car seeming to scream the battery is RUNNING OUT, you need to DO SOMETHING—

Her father’s hand, which was bigger than her face, settled on her shoulder, and the other hand gently reached over and turned the ignition off. She found herself focused on the veins in the back of it, on the high school ring that was choking off his right ring finger, on the tan line from where he’d had the wearable until the day when it beeped at him angrily about having another beer and he stepped on it until it crunched.

That same hand reached over and cradled her cheek in its palm the same way it had when he’d woken her up on her third birthday, the same way it had when she’d sat on the front porch staring at the moon the night Mom took the van and didn’t come back.

“You know what driving is about? It’s not about turn signals and 10 ‘n’ 2.”

She didn’t say anything. He brushed away the tear that rolled down her cheek.

“Two things, kiddo. The first is awareness. The second is focus. Today we’re just gonna do focus.”

She got it in gear, and he told her all about the friction point and made three labored jokes about how you need to know where to find it if you’re going to get that second date as she repeatedly stalled the engine. But finally, the sirens stopped and she managed to get the car launched along the street and was able to shift up to second and then come to a stop without screwing anything up. She felt him tense up a little whenever she approached a stop sign, then relax as she came to each too-firm stop.

“Let’s go out to the lake. Plenty of opportunity to get it up to fourth out there and practice curves. Heh heh heh.”

“God damn it Dad.”

But she laughed a little.

When Riley had been little, the lake was high and blue and wide as the sky, even though she knew it was ringed by the asphalt road and the cute little manses of the people whose kids didn’t go to the same school as she did. Now she was sixteen, and the lake reflected a sky that was a smoker’s cough. As she stuttered through the turn off that got them onto the lakeshore road, she saw one of the houses now, gap-toothed. Back in some long-past chapter of Riley’s life that seemed like it had happened to some other girl, she’d gone to the birthday party of one of the kids there once because they’d done the thing where they invited their whole grade: There was an in-ground pool in back, she knew, because she hadn’t wanted to get in her bathing suit in front of everybody and Riley had just left before they got to the presents, because she could see from the boxes and she could hear in the whispered conversations that she was the only kid at the party whose gift was just a handmade necklace when everybody else had brought things that had fuel cells or smart sensors in them.

There was a big sign out front now that read: “THIS PROPERTY PROTECTED BY AEGISTEK SECURITY! YOUR HOME SECURITY SYSTEM IS INCLUDED WHEN YOU PURCHASE BUNKER SPACE. LEARN IF YOU QUALIFY TODAY!” and a whole lot of other things that blurred past her as she sped up. The tach was up above 5,000 rpm.

“Hey, uh—” Dad started to say, but she slapped the stick from third to fourth with the decisiveness of a Formula 1 jockey, and took the 25 mile-an-hour curve at 50, tires squealing as she drifted into the oncoming lane. Fifth gear. The sun a bloody red in the rearview as the road curved east. Somewhere on the lake, people shooting off fireworks from their boats. A blind curve coming up, the lane marker a solid yellow line. The engine roaring fire and oil, the scent of transmission fluid drifting to her nostrils.

Dad was not the type to panic. She’d once heard him call her into the garage, and found him lying facedown on the floor, his left arm wedged up beneath his hip, his wrist broken by the fall off the ladder where he’d been replacing the bulb. Without a trace of pain or urgency in his voice, he’d said “Guess who has one functional thumb and needs an ambulance!” Then, he had pointed at himself with his free hand’s thumb and said “This guy!”

So when he said “Riley, get in the right lane and slow down,” she did it.

She put it into neutral and just took her feet off everything, and the Triumph became a sleek and purring thing beneath her. The slightest pressure on the steering wheel, the mere attitude of her glance, the slightest thought of what she wanted it to do, and it curved toward her will like the sea toward the moon. Dad’s sigh made no sound, but his belly heaved just perceptibly.

“You don’t always need to give it gas. Most of your speed control is taking your foot off the gas. Not even hittin’ the brake! You know how I know? A fat old man told me once. So it’s gotta be true.”

“Fat old men say a lot of things,” Riley said.

He was silent for a long moment. They were on a long downward slope that propelled the car forward under the power of its own gravity, the water to their left and the gnarled grey trees to their right.

“We do,” he said, looking at some point out among the trees. “But you know, babe, some of them are even true.”

All of a single moment, the daylight darkened, they reached the nadir of their descent, and Riley felt the upward slope drag against the car’s momentum as the sound of an air raid siren drifted from across the lake. Just as he’d taught her, Riley moved just her eyes to look past the man in the seat to her right and glanced at the right rearview mirror, where the sky had become a choked black tinged with red, just above the words OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

They coasted to the top of the hill on momentum, and she gently applied the brakes to stop them at the crest of it, at the point where Riley could see the road curve to follow the lake and the turnoff that led out into the farms, a wide landscape of nothing shrinking toward a horizon that led to nowhere. As she watched the darkness spread, lights flickered on at the farmhouses and along the road. The siren, for a wonder, stopped.

“Which way?” he asked. He trembled, but he looked right at her. “It’s up to you, you know.”

Overhead, the clouds churned so quickly and vividly that she felt she could reach her hand up and bathe it in them. It was getting hotter even in the gathering dark. She became aware of a rising noise, the roaring, ripping sound that a thunderbolt makes when it truly splits the sky, but drawn out like a toddler slowly tearing apart construction paper just to see the fibers where it breaks.

“I need more practice,” she said finally.

“I know, honey,” he said. He spoke quietly, before the noise overtook everything. “But you know what?”

She met his gaze, saw his rueful smile.

“We have all the time in the world, kid.”

He held her hand, and then placed it on the stick, covering it with his own. Riley checked her mirrors, and she nudged her seat just a centimeter forward, and she turned on the headlights without him even having to tell her, and when she let out the clutch the tires squealed and they took off —second, third, fourth, fifth—through the dark wind, ahead of the cracking sky.