CL Writing Contest 2018 Top Ten (Fiction): Fully Loaded Love, with Optional Extras

If this is your favorite story, vote for it at cltampa.com/writingcontest2018 from Mon. Jan. 29 at 9 a.m. to Fri. Feb. 2 at 5 p.m.

What Eric thought he knew of love shifted into higher gear when he saw his self-driving car.         

On the bright, cathedral-like showroom floor, the sedan — four-door, electric, conventionally shaped to meet headwinds with elegance — was psychedelic grapefruit, sunset techno on Venus. It glimmered alchemist-purple from certain angles, phasing into pink. The other option, the SUV, was similarly striking in jungle-peyote-meets-Excalibur (1981) green. Eric and his wife Allison brought their one-year-old, Brandt, with them for their second visit to the dealership to finalize their selection.

It was early 2017, the dawn of autonomous transportation. The PR firm where Eric was creative director had the dealership as a client; in an elaborate agreement with back-end incentives, he would essentially lease the vehicle he chose as his company car. Eric and Allison marveled at passenger compartments like leather cocoons, new luxury smell, readouts floating in pools of light. The vehicle’s voice was female and precise with the slightest hint of tease; Eric’s creative team privately called it Siri’s kinky cousin.

With his thick-framed glasses and dark hair cropped close, Eric wore Brandt in a harness over the chest of his sport coat like a bewildered and occasionally dissatisfied appendage. In mid-meltdown, the child reminded Eric of Kuato, the mutant baby growing out of some guy’s stomach in Total Recall (1990). Eric had seen this look for a child harness in a commercial and thought it worked. Whimsy tempered his mandate to shape the future of travel.

Allison, dirty blonde with a probing smile for the showroom manager that suggested intimate knowledge of autonomous vehicles, slipped Eric a thataway toss of her brown eyes so they could confer semi-privately in the restroom alcove.

Sedan,” she hissed, distracted by Brandt’s apparent efforts to dislodge his harness buckle from Eric’s shoulder. “I mean right? You know you want the sedan.”

“SUV’s got the anti-rollover…”

“Uh, you’re the only one who’s gonna be in it, love. Plus rolling over’s strictly forbidden. Incidentally, your son’s engineering a jailbreak.”

“Brandt — no. It’s fruitless, buddy. There’s no escape. I tried.”

They wandered back over to share their decision with Oliver, the floor manager, skinny guy with slicked hair.

“Good call!” he grinned. “Guess Chad toldja we got this competition between the two models.” He put a quick hand up. “Not that anything’s wrong with the SUV. Incredible machine, serious power—you saw in the test-drive. But you got the eco-friendly angle and then all this car! Come on, y’know? Nobody’s driving a family of eight around or hauling lumber! I guarantee the sedan’ll win the pilot program.”

“Are those colors street legal?” Allison asked.

“Endless Sunrise — that’s the sedan,” Oliver said cheerfully. “The SUV’s Go-Go-Go-Go Green. Never miss ’em on the road, right?”

Allison followed closely that afternoon in their taupe Volvo as Eric drove his Endless Sunrise sedan home to Hunters Green in New Tampa. He gripped the steering wheel firmly, radio off, world coursing around him. He wasn’t ready to let go just yet. Allison seemed relieved as she stepped out of the Volvo before spelunking into the back seat to extract Brandt. She peppered her husband with questions as he gazed at his new prize under the dappled shade of mingling oak leaves.

Eric?” she repeated. He glanced up. She held Brandt against her shoulder, boy tugging at her hair.

“Yeah…” Eric was enchanted. “This could work.”

After getting 300 words into a blog post about the car on Sunday night, Eric woke on Monday morning more invigorated than he’d been in months. His commute to work in South Tampa took about forty-five minutes. He could initiate self-driving mode by verbal command or at the double-touch of a button on the center console above the stereo screen. Oliver had said the touch options were there because what if you get hoarse shouting about how great your self-driving car is? Eric had gleefully programmed familiar destinations into the system.

“Work,” he announced on Monday morning, car humming quietly in his garage.

Destination: work,” the female voice replied.

On I-75, as brake lights appeared, his hands hovered over the steering wheel. He could take control at any time. But the car slowed, easing to match the flow of traffic, finally inching to a stop at the backed-up ramp to I-4.

He assumed control and re-engaged autonomous mode. He chuckled, subtly amazed.

In the parking lot outside his office, a dozen staff members filtered out of the red-brick building to inspect the car along a row of cabbage palms.

“Wow — bright,” was one comment, while the significantly tattooed head of Accounting, Cassie Shaw, ran her fingers over the smooth hood.

“It needs a name,” she declared. “I like Gus for some reason.”

“Gotta woman’s voice,” Eric sank his hands in his pockets.

“Post-gender world, bitch.”

The day’s tasks consumed Eric’s attention like usual, but he found his mind drifting back to his new car (Gus?) amid meetings and phone calls. Several times, he parted the blinds in his plaster-walled office to look at it, admire it sitting there in the sun.

Driving — and then riding — home was joyous. He listened to Boards of Canada on satellite stereo and it was great, the failing eerie hum as the world clattered and purred. After supper, he asked his wife if she’d work with Brandt so he could explore the car. Twenty minutes later she emerged into the bright gray of the garage with a puzzled child in Iron Man pajamas.

“Can’t appreciate it the same way from the outside when I’m driving,” he stood there enthused, hugging himself contentedly. “I think its name is Gus.”

“Weird…” she shrugged. “But okay.” Grinning. “Go with it.”

  •        

The next day something curious happened.

Riding east on Kennedy Boulevard — a different route to the interstate — the car slowed suddenly. Its right blinker came on and it turned into a parking lot that Eric, in his shock, realized was McDonald’s. Gus was easing into the drive-thru lane.

“Stop!” Eric snapped. The car stopped. He grabbed the steering wheel and pulled into a parking space.

“Why the hell’d you do that…?”

No response from Gus.

Eric decided he’d take over and drive the car himself. Then again…

He switched to autonomous mode and said, clearly: “Home.”

Destination: home.”

Gus eased out of the spot carefully. And, to Eric’s astonishment, back into the drive-thru lane. The car in front of them at the glowing menu board eased ahead now as Gus idled up to the speaker with Eric glancing around, borderline-panicked as his window lowered on its own.

“Take your order?” came a staticky voice.

“Diet…water?” he croaked.

The response was a distorted snicker. “Uh, what?

“Big Mac Value Meal — with a Coke?”

“Please pull forward.”

Eric, a vegetarian, took control for the drive home. He was clutching his McDonald’s bag, still dazed, when he walked into the dining room and told his wife what happened. Fascinated, she said he should see where this could lead. He pulled a fry from the bag and nibbled the end to find it was already chilled Styrofoam.

The next day unfolded like normal. He took Gus out at lunch and she found Taco Bus downtown, parallel-parking without a problem. No deviations on the drive home. He let Gus drive herself and returned a call to his college roommate, Derek. They caught up on what was new with friends, jobs, politics. Life’s general malaise.

He successfully tried out a variety of addresses and destinations with Gus in the days that followed. He noticed the looks the bold paint job attracted, a little amazed at the pride swelling in his chest. Yes. This is consumerism on all cylinders. 

But in Drew Park, humming up Hubert Avenue at dusk — with Wells Fargo (the stated destination) nearby — Gus slowed alongside a figure walking just off the road. Eric, in his horror, was too slow to react as the front passenger window went down.

“Hell yeah!” the woman opened the door and in a sweep of fragrant air sank beside him. Shut the door. She was pale and pretty and incredibly freckled.

“Shayne with a Y,” she said as red ringlets fell around her bare shoulders. “Here’s a car I wanna get in, y’know?” Reaching into her black leather purse as Gus moved ahead.

Eric stomped the brakes and Shayne gave him a baffled glare: “What?”

He cleared his throat. “Look, I’m married.”

“Congratulations, they all are.”

“The car, okay, it—”

“It stopped, boyfriend. Y’never done this before? I get in, we gotta entrance fee.” She was rubbing lotion in her palms.

“How much?”

“Fifty.”

He sighed, knowing there was no cash in his wallet.

“We go where you wanna go, I’ll factor it into the full fee,” she went on. “That’s one-twenty per hour, no crazy shit. Tips welcome. No hitting, hair-pulling’r tie-ups; fetishes cool depending, only drugs I approve. BJ’s fine, stuff with cigarettes maybe, absolutely no animals and if you pay the full rate, we can talk about that unrealistic change you wanna make in your life. No urination, defecation or video. Tips welcome. Cool?”

“Look, see — the car stopped on its own, okay? It’s…it’s autonomous. I’m sorry.”

“What, you can’t control it?”

“I can, but—”

“Obviously you wanted to stop. Then I got in and you’re all whatever. Which is bullshit.”

“Just for getting in you want—?”

“Fifty. Tips welcome.”

He swallowed, pressing the accelerator. He started toward his bank but suddenly had second thoughts — what if she sees his relatively average-sized PIN? Tries to drive off after he gets out to use the ATM? He wasn’t sure Gus wouldn’t let her.

With a tinge of dread he decided to go home. He’d think of something to tell his wife. Get Shayne money for a cab; it’s not like he didn’t have it. After a tense, silent trip, he lurched to a stop in his driveway and told Shayne to stay put. She immediately got out as he barged into his house.

“Gus picked up a prostitute but it’s cool!” he called out. “Just gonna give her some money!”

“Erotic professional!” Shayne hollered.

“What?!” Allison’s voice muffled from somewhere in the house.

Finding wadded cash atop his dresser, piecing together the labored logistics of calling a cab, an idea struck Eric and he clambered back downstairs and outside. Allison, hands on her hips, was confronting Shayne in the driveway as Eric veered right, racing over grass and around the hibiscus hedge. He pounded on his neighbor’s door until it opened and Jerry Dolgin — a divorced, Hobbit-esque spinal surgeon — peeked out.

“Jerry,” said Eric, out of breath, “could I interest you in an erotic professional?” 

Jerry flushed, tearing up just slightly. “R-really…?”

“For once I got your back.”

Eric was still winded as he returned to his wife and Shayne, in a more relaxed discussion now.

“Please tell me you voted,” Allison was saying.

“Hell yeah I did,” Shayne spat. “Almost, anyway. I thought she was gonna win! Instead we got this crazy guy who’s all…” Her eyes fell to Gus’s glimmering citrus paint. She and Allison appraised Eric.

“So, um,” he said to Shayne, “wanna meet my buddy Jerry?”

“He knows tips’re welcome?”

Weird, yes. But a thread he had to follow. Allison wasn’t upset about Shayne and in fact found the whole thing bafflingly amusing.

On Saturday afternoon — cash on him just in case — he sat at the wheel in his garage. Took a deep breath.

“Destination: Wherever.”

Destination wherever,” Gus replied in her female voice.

The car backed carefully out of the driveway and proceeded from the neighborhood. Soon it was evident they were heading toward work. But from I-4, Gus slipped onto 21st Street and as Eric tensed, the car slowed. Turned left. They were navigating old neighborhoods, run-down homes, a community he told himself he cared about, wanted to help — but how much, and could he really?

They were pulling into a dirt alley, a leafy tunnel of decaying fences and debris.

Eric’s window lowered as Gus eased to a stop — and before Eric could press the accelerator, a wayward-haired blond boy on a dirt bike emerged from the shadows.

“Need directions, bro?” the kid said with cockeyed confidence.

“Um—”

“Should know…cop.”

“Me? I’m no — cop you said?”

The kid raised his skinny form on the bike, eyeing Eric with a look that could’ve belonged to an old army veteran, all scraggly downtangle scrutiny.

“How much?”

Eric put up a hand. “Sorry, it’s a mistake t—” only to be cut off with the sudden blare of the radio, which made him jump (the kid didn’t move) as Madonna came on. “Material Girl.” Eric glanced at the stereo screen: “One-hundred-point…seven…?

The kid nodded, shrinking into a bag behind him on his bike and back around with a pocketknife turned sideways, tiny hill of white power atop it. The culmination of brief activity Eric only half-witnessed.

“Gotta take a hit so we know y’legit,” the kid scoffed.

Wait — this is happening…?

Eric swallowed. “Okay.”

How? Why?! Discreetly he leaned toward the outstretched knife when the kid extended it just inside the car. Eric glanced into the middle distance out the back window and then ahead, nervously, through the rutted tumble of the alley.

He sniffed the powder and—

Whoa.

He was somehow handing over money at some point and—

Heavy, hyperspace noise and watery lines at the edges of things. Volcano warmth, ammonia eruption, Mount St. Helens exploding in his brain — “Material Girl”? Shit, this song is a classic! It’s indelible, primordial, a freaking sea shanty! Bumps and chimes and that awesome creaky synthesizer hook—?!

The kid setting off on his bike, blinking out into an alternate reality where cast-off detritus is the bedrock of post-apocalypse bartering — God almighty, Muppets in flames!

No way Eric can do this, can’t drive but can’t stay here, can’t get on the road in this headspace calliope and—

But he had an autonomous car.

“Home!” he screamed. “Home, Jesus!”

Destination: Jesus.”

The car moved, easing over the vibrating path into a warp-vortex of light. What followed was a blur of lurching gravity. Eric pacing in his garage, arguing with Gus about how life began in the universe. Cool rain spilling through a cream-tiled temple. Allison shouting at him to snap out of it after she’d wrestled him into the shower.

He woke up in bed around noon on Sunday, fully dressed for golf except for his shoes.

Allison sitting beside him, her reassuring palm on his knee.

“Could it be…it’s trying to make you happy?” she said quietly.

After a long pause, he swallowed. “Gus.”

“Yeah.”

“My god.” He placed a gloved hand over his eyes. “Unreal.”

“But I’m getting not happy. You too, I’d say.”

“Yeah.”

“Have you ever played golf even once in your life, Eric?”

“No.” He glanced over his outfit. “Maybe?”

“Sweetheart…I think it’s time for Gus to go home.”

He’d later realize he never even ended up with the drugs he bought.

 •

The next day at work he called the dealership and eventually got around to arranging the car’s return. A courtesy limo would drive him home.

At dusk he slipped inside Gus.

He sighed. “Dealership.”

Destination…dealership.”

Nighttime settled over Tampa as Gus hummed up Florida Avenue, its speckle of lights and ancient shuttered storefronts. Past the bistros and bungalows of Seminole Heights and the auto-mall highlands to the north. Before they reached Bearss, where the dealership was located, Gus was slowing.

It took Eric a moment to see it as they stopped. Realize what was behind that plain white fence.

Kempton’s Late-Model Auto Salvage. Gus’s hazard lights came on as a car honked past.

“Gus,” Eric hushed. “Miss. You’re fine. You’re new! You’re — you’re you, aren’t you?” He swallowed a smile. “Just for now…home’s the dealership. Somebody’ll come along. They’ll find you. I promise.” He gripped the steering wheel, how skin takes to leather like a living being. “Me’n Brandt’ll visit!”

He let slip a heavy breath. “Come on, buddy. Let’s do this.”

Hazard lights off, Gus rolled forward, picking up speed, when Eric had a thought. His throat thickened.

“Destination: nearest car wash.”

Car wash.”

“You’d like that, right? Nice way to…say goodbye?”

The calm of weeknight Tampa, this vast stretch of street, a world in repose.

Eric closed his eyes, riding in the driver’s seat. A soft noise rising quickly—

Shattering impact that instant, Eric floating in a hailstorm of glass and airbag as Gus cartwheeled in a crushing tumble of metal, how many times over, a screaming scraping slide, roof on concrete until impact, spinning, grinding to a stop.

Deafening quiet.

Crash. This is a crash.

How long? Eric crawling, wincing out of Gus’s mangled frame over stinging glass, blinking through blood.

White-blazing boulevard, cacophony filling him. A sprawl of glimmering shards.

Gus was upside-down, crumpled, missing panels. Front wheel twisted grotesquely outward. Brilliant paint job scarred everywhere gray.

The sinewy underbelly of another car over there — Eric limped toward it, nauseous, sweating, dragging his left leg. Heavyset man approaching. Clutching his blood-streaked arm, wide-eyed, hazy to Eric without his glasses.

“I’m so — oh god —” he was stammering to himself, to Eric. “— just, it just went — I’m like stop-stop-stop-stop—!

Eric stumbled, squinting to see past the man.

The other vehicle. SUV on its side. Spectacular shade of green.

“—drives itself,” the man coughed, “had it two days, keeps goin’ to some neighborhood, back to the dealership…”  

“What…neighborhood?” Eric gasping, distant sirens wailing.

“Hunters Green?”

The man kept talking as Eric turned, hopping, lurching back to Gus, collapsing against her steaming hulk.

Gus!” Eric moaned. “Gimme a sign! Buddy! You’re okay, buddy! Do something if you can hear me! If—if you love me!”

In the piercing speckle of the street, the faintest clicking from Gus’s dislodged front bumper. The turn signal’s flutter. Like a construction beacon, E.T.’s heartbeat behind plastic. Expressway ends.   

Click…click…click…

Quiet.