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Chain Reaction

-by Terry Tiller

         

“Cause and effect, chain of events.

All of the chaos makes perfect sense

When you’re spinning ‘round

Things come undone -- ”

 

The Book Sucked

The new book sucked.  That’s what Robert was thinking as he drove the kids home after the late-night soccer game.  That’s what that overpaid, overstuffed prick said – he said  my book sucked.  A year ago, Robert had given his editor the draft of a simple collection of poems, short stories, and essays, and according to his editor, the draft didn’t just suck, it sucked big.  So big, in fact, that his editor would rather set himself on fire than publish it. No one would ever buy it.  Just publish it, Robert had said; it didn’t matter to him if it made money or not.  At the very idea that some motive might be more important than profit, his editor had promptly hyperventilated right there in the office, and when he could speak again, he repeated his stunning assessment of the book’s quality – it sucked – and announced that if he had anything to say about it at all, that was one book that would never see  publication.

Robert invited the editor to shove his opinion where the sun didn’t shine.

His editor reminded Robert that he should be concerned with making money; after all, he had  three sets of braces, two cars, and one expensive ex-wife to pay for. 

Robert suggested that maybe the editor’s views of profit should join his opinion of the book.

The editor reminded Robert that, as editor, he had editorial privilege to decide what was published under the name Robert Blakely.  Robert told him  that he could shove his editorial privilege  right up there with his opinion and his views on profit.   The upshot of this sterling dialogue was that if Robert wanted his book published, he was going to have to do it himself. 

The problem with the new book was simple: it wasn’t a murder mystery.  Granted, lots of people write things every day that aren’t murder mysteries, but lots of people weren’t him, and he’d made his reputation and most of his money writing mysteries, it was what his readers expected, and how dare he try to step out of his neat little this-is-what-I-write box.  The gospel according to his editor and publisher:  Thou shalt write murder-mysteries, and ONLY murder-mysteries, amen.

The book was about his kids.  More specifically, it was about the things his kids liked  him to write about:  flowers, and stuffed animals, the shapes clouds make, and all the other sweetly innocent things that made up a five-year-old’s existence.  Writing the book, which Robert had self-published five months ago under the title Teddy Bear Medicine, had made Robert simply, unbelievably happy.   Publishing it himself had made almost everyone else – his publishers, his editor, and Tina, his expensive ex-wife – unhappy. 

And now.  Robert touched the letter in the breast pocket of his suit.  His book – his sweet, innocent, stupid book – the one that sucked – had spent the last two months on the New York Time’s bestseller list, starting at number twelve and eventually landing at number three, and now that same sweet, innocent, stupid book had been nominated for a Newberry Award.  A Newberry – the most prestigious award given in children’s literature. He’d just received the official notification letter today.  A Newberry.   Howd’ya like that, you self-important little asshole, a friggin’ Newberry.  Sometimes justice was truly sweet.

 

All five of the kids – thirteen-year-old Becky, ten year old Adam, seven-year-old Thomas, and five-year-old twins Misty and Michelle – were sleeping soundly in the van.  There was almost no traffic on this still, October night.  As the van rolled towards its destination, Robert was thinking gleefully of a certain self-righteous editor who was going to eat a large helping of crow for breakfast in the morning.

 

All of these thoughts were driven out of his brain the moment the watermelon crashed through the front windshield of the van.  He saw the object hurtling towards the van and instinctively cut  the wheel sharply to the right, trying to turn the solid side of the van to face it.  The movement was too little, and too late; all he succeeded in doing was adding the momentum of  the badly-timed turn to the force of the watermelon as it shattered the front windshield.  Tires squealed, the van spun sideways and flipped neatly over three times, like an overweight gymnast performing a floor routine, landing at last with a solid, hollow crunch on its roof.

 

Dazed, Robert unhooked his shoulder strap and immediately dropped sixteen inches to the roof of the van, bumping his head and earning a bitten tongue.  The driver’s window was shattered, and he crawled awkwardly through it, dimly aware of the kids crying in the rear seats.  Still on his hands and knees, he turned and began to crawl painfully towards the passenger door of the van.  The smell of spilled gasoline was overpowering.

 

He had just put on hand on the sliding door when he heard the dull, metal-on-metal click of the van’s tailpipe as it fell to the pavement.

 

The next instant, the world exploded in a blinding, white-hot flash.

 

TJ Takes a Walk

 

Man, oh man, they were in so much trouble.  He kept thinking that exact sentence, over and over again:  it was just a joke, man, a joke. It was supposed to be funny, but it wasn’t funny anymore, and  man, oh man, they were in so much trouble.

 

It had started as just talk. Just a bunch of stupid talk, sitting on his girlfriend’s back porch on that cool, October evening, trying to find something fun to do.  There was nothing on TV; he’d run through the channels a couple of times, and all that was on was the tag-end of the late news.  Some local asshole had written a stupid book, and now it looked like he was gonna win some stupid award for it.  The chick on the show – the old bag had to be at least eighty – looked like she was about to have a fuckin’ heart attack just talking about it.  Teddy Bear Medicine, he thought, what a stupid fuckin’ name for a book. He ran the channels one more time, listlessly, and then turned the TV off.

 

No one had any money, but no one wanted to stay home, either.  Finally, one of the girls said “Hey, what about that watermelon?  Man, we could have some fun with that watermelon.”  They all just looked at her.  She’d been talking crazy all night, anyway, and no one knew what kind of fun they could have with a big, old, half-rotten watermelon.  Still, it was just talk, and that was cool.  Later on, it might be more than just  talk.  That’d be cool, too. 

 

“What are you talking about?  What kind of fun with a watermelon?”  they’d asked, and so she told them.

 

“We could push that watermelon off the overpass.  Maybe scare some driver real bad, make him pee his pants, man, that’d be fun.”  They just stared at her.  Still, the idea stuck, and the more they drank, the more they talked about it and the less crazy it sounded.  After a while, they all said it sounded like fun, and they all tried to take credit for thinking up this great idea.

 

The highway overpass was only a couple of blocks away; TJ carried the watermelon while they walked, all of them laughing and talking about how cool it was gonna be to scare some stupid driver down there on the highway.   Finally, they were there, standing on the thin strip of sidewalk on the edge of the overpass looking down at the headlights of oncoming cars.

 

One of the girls watched for the perfect car, and she finally found it:  a minivan.  Cool, TJ thought, gonna scare an old lady headed home to her kids.  All right.  He raised the watermelon and held it ready, barely balanced against the guardrail, waiting.  The girl watched, holding one hand up in the air as a signal to wait.  “Okay,” she whispered excitedly, dropping her hand, and he let that watermelon go.  From below them, there was the sharp sound of glass breaking and the squeal of rubber on pavement as the driver hit the brakes.

 

No one was ready for what they saw when they leaned over the edge of the overpass.  The minivan looked like a wounded dinosaur, lying on its top across two lanes of traffic.  Broken glass covered the road.  He could just make out the shape of the driver, moving weakly, struggling to free himself from the wreckage.  He could hear voices screaming; children’s voices, he realized suddenly.  Not some old lady or old man headed home from the night shift after all; the van was full of kids.  TJ had just opened his mouth to tell his buddies that this was wrong, this was a mistake, and they had to do something to help those kids, when there was a single small popping noise from the wreckage, and the van burst into flames.

 

The heat was staggering, even from fifty feet up.  Without a single word, all of them broke and ran, leaving the smell of burning and the sound of screaming voices behind them.

 

He dove for the safety of his car.  Man, oh man, we are in so much trouble, he thought, panicked.  He didn’t wait for anyone, not even his girlfriend, he just took off, driving as fast as he could to nowhere in particular.  He drove forever.

 

Hours later, in broad daylight,  he was still driving nowhere fast.  He was so intent on putting the sight and smell of the wrecked minivan as far behind him as possible that he never even saw the little girl on the bike until it  was too late.

 

  The Crash                  

The silence after the crash was startling.  More than anything else, that was the single impression Tracey was left with; the impossible squeal of brakes, the hollow, almost unimportant thud as the car hit the bike, and when it was over, silence.  It was as if someone had pushed a mute button on the entire world.  Soon enough, the air around the crash would vibrate with noise and activity, but for a space of perhaps twenty seconds, the silence was deafening.

 

Tracey was sitting on the bench at that particular intersection on that particular day simply because her own car was in the shop.  Under normal circumstances, that intersection was nothing more than a brightly colored blur she sped through each morning on her way to work.  But on that day, she was sitting nervously on the bench, waiting with no real confidence for a bus that she supposed would eventually take her to her job as a court reporter. According to her watch, court started in less than half an hour, and there was still no sign of the bus.  Wonderful.   The other patrons of the bus stop, better prepared than she, were all reading something.  She looked idly over the shoulder of the man sitting next to her; he was reading the Entertainment section of the newspaper, and she could just barely make out the top three or four lines of the bestseller list.  ddy Bear Med was in third place, she read; the man’s shoulder cut off the rest of the sentence.   Then the he turned the page and she was looking at a full-page Dillard’s ad instead.

 

Restless, Tracey passed the time watching a very small child wheel a very large bike down the driveway of her house. She was maybe four years old, dressed in a strange combination of clothes that spoke of either a high degree of independence, or parents who didn’t care, or both:  blue gym shorts, a brown, long-sleeved flannel shirt, and bright red cowboy boots.  Tracey was so involved in watching the girl’s  struggle to keep the bike upright  that she almost didn’t see the car.  The little girl never noticed it at all.

 

The child had just managed to straddle the bike as it wobbled down the driveway towards the road.  It rolled slowly, majestically, into the intersection, and Tracey got one look at the little girl’s proud, determined  face, eyes squinted in concentration, mouth stretched into a wide grin, before the squeal of brakes cut through the air, as loud as an air-raid siren.  There was no time for her to yell or move before the car struck the bike broadside, its wheels locked, its back end fishtailing. 

 

The bike crumpled.  The child, dislodged, was thrown in a long arc up and over the car, landing at least twenty feet behind it, and the bike, now just a crushed ruin, skidded to the gutter.  By the time Tracey started to react, it was all over.  She stood up, dropping her purse to the ground, and as she did, locked eyes with the driver of the car.  The minute lasted forever.  She looked at him, he looked back at her.  She saw the panic in his eyes, but she also saw the decision.  When she talked to the police later, that’s what she told them:  yes, he was frightened, but he knew what he’d done. He knew.

 

The silence and the long moment of locking eyes with the driver, of seeing the dawning comprehension and the final decision register in his eyes were what she remembered later.  Then the moment passed and the world filled with sound again, as other bystanders began to shout and run towards the child. 

 

The driver looked over his shoulder at the child’s body once; just once.  Then he looked back at her, his eyes registering not just comprehension now but also the realization that he could do what he intended to; that he could get away with it.  Tracey made a small move towards him, a gesture intended perhaps to hold him there or maybe just to get the attention of the people now gathering to the crash site, and like a frightened deer, he was gone.

 

She heard the car’s transmission drop into gear, heard it rev wildly as he stepped on the accelerator, and then the car sped away.  In the confusion, she was the only one who noticed its absence from where she stood, looking at the child’s bike, its front wheel still spinning, remembering the sudden silence.

 

Endgame

Only two things were important to Karen:  she had a gun, and she was going to kill him.  Nothing else mattered; nothing else even registered in her brain, not the cold wooden bench beneath her, or the still, almost reverent hum of whispered conversations in the courtroom.  In her lap, underneath the scuffed brown leather purse she carried everywhere – the one Maddie had hated – was the gun.  She didn’t know what kind it was, or even what caliber.  She knew what mattered about it: it was a gun, and it worked.  Any minute now, the bailiff would enter the courtroom.  She was ready.

 

Maddie would hate this, too, she realized.  Maddie wouldn’t  have understood that she had to do this; that she was doing it for her . Maybe it was better that she wasn’t here to witness it.

 

The door to the judge’s chamber opened and the bailiff entered.

 

 “All rise,” he intoned gravely. 

 

All around her, people rose noiselessly to their feet.  Karen stayed where she was, bowing her heard slightly, respectfully.  Perhaps the people next to her would think she was ill, unable to rise.  The judge entered, his black robes flapping importantly around his ankles.  As soon as the courtroom relaxed into his presence, the door in the back of the room opened, and her child’s killer entered the room.

 

He didn’t look like a killer. He was just a kid, for starters; no more than twenty years old, thin and nervous-looking, with dark hair and green eyes.  TJ, that’s what his name was, she remembered, pulling his name from a dim litany of police interviews and news reports. TJ.  Maddie wasn’t the only one he’d killed, either, she knew.  He and his friends had caused a car wreck on the highway that had killed six other people. 

 

He still didn’t look like a killer to her; though, he just looked like a young, scared kid.  In another world, he would have been sacking her groceries or handing her chicken McNuggets out the drive-through window, and she would have looked into his almost-handsome, not-quite-finished face and dismissed him.  Now, watching him move clumsily into the room, bound and shackled, escorted by two armed guards, she looked at him and wondered how she would feel when he was dead.

 

He had killed her daughter, as surely as if he had pulled a trigger or a knife.  He had driven his car into her bike,  had seen her lying broken on the street, and he had driven off and left her there to die.  The need to see him, to watch him suffer and bleed, had consumed her. The need to kill him had become her life.  Now, with her heart pounding in her ears but her hand steady, just as she knew it would be,  Karen rose slowly as her daughter’s killer was led into the courtroom. 

 

The end was slow-motion. She saw the boy shuffling towards her, saw the dark hair, the thin shadow of beard on his unshaven face, saw the pulse beating faintly in the vein just beneath his ear. 

 

Across from her, an old lady had turned to watch his progress into the room. Everything about the old woman stood out in clear, almost painful detail to Karen – her thin hair, her dim, watery eyes, even the way she was mauling the book in her hands in anxiety and anticipation.  Teddy Bear Medicine was printed on the book’s twisted spine. 

 

The boy turned towards Karen slightly as she drew her gun, his eyes first blank, then filled with recognition and surprise and finally horror as he saw the gun and realized her intent.  He tried to move away from her, but he was too late, the shackles binding him were too tight. He managed to pull his handcuffed wrists up to his chest before she fired. 

 

Her first shot went wild, the force of the concussion driving her arm up and away from him.  Several people screamed.  At the front of the courtroom, the court reporter crumpled to the ground, dragging a nameplate that read Tracey Greenwood to the floor with her. 

 

Instinctively, Karen wrapped her left hand around her right, tightening her grip in the gun, and fired again.  Her second shot was true. The force of the bullet drove the boy back into one of the guards, and they fell in slow motion, a  red bloodstain blossoming on the front of his bright orange county jail jumpsuit.

 

The gun was still in her hand.  The other guard dove for cover under the bench in front of her, drawing his own gun.  She tried to drop her gun, but her hands were locked so tightly around it that she couldn’t move them. She tried to tell the guard that she was done, but no words came.   The one person in the world she would willingly kill or die for was already dead; there was nothing anyone could do to her now that would matter or would in any way ease the constant pain in her heart. 

 

As the guard raised his own gun, this time at her, she knew that it didn’t matter anyway.  Whatever happened now didn’t really matter.

 

She was ready.

Epilogue

The Daily Oklahoman:  March 21, 2001.  Panic erupted in a local courtroom today when a woman shot and killed two people during an arraignment.  The victims were identified as court reporter Tracey Greenwood, 34, and  TJ White, 19, charged with vehicular manslaughter in  connection with the woman’s four-year-old daughter.  According to police, Northcutt was shot and killed by a county jail guard after she refused to surrender…..

 

AP:  April 1, 2001.  The coveted Newberry award in children’s literature was awarded posthumously to Robert Blakely for Teddy Bear Medicine.  Blakely and his children were tragically killed late last year in a single-car accident near their home…….

“welcome to Earth; third rock from the sun.”

Joe Diffee

Copyright©2000 Terry Tiller