I am participating in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, “a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours.” For the second challenge I was given action-adventure, a river and a child safety seat. Update 11/14/18: this was the winning entry in its group.
Every Monday, I wake up at 6:21 AM. I must prepare, focus, and be ready for any obstacle or challenge thrown my way, so despite the number of things I have to do in the next hour, I take two minutes to meditate. I once read that samurai meditated before going into battle, though I wonder what those superior warriors would have done if they had to drive four kids to school. Carpool days are the worst.
It’s a Herculean effort just to get my son Daniel dressed and packed, with 2.5 breakfasts in his stomach because he eats like a Hobbit. My first stop, Freddy Jamison, runs five minutes late and routinely forgets his EpiPen. Stella Angell, the next pick-up, wipes her boogers on the car’s armrests when she thinks I’m not looking. And then there’s the newest member of our carpool, Elaine Harbinger, or rather, her son Ethan. Ethan is so tiny that he still uses one of those five-point harness toddler safety seats, not the regular booster that other 1st graders use. That toddler seat is murder on my new-to-me minivan, but when I suggest to Elaine she might put him in a “big kid seat,” I am singed by a withering glare. “Car seat safety regulations say a child must be at least 40 pounds to ride in a booster. Safety is more important than your seats, isn’t it, Jackie?”
Miraculously, today we are only halfway down the block when Freddy’s mother comes running with his gear, and Stella has yet to besmirch my armrests with the contents of her nose. When we arrive at the Harbingers I expect an earful for the late arrival, but instead Elaine stares stonily ahead, arms wrapped protectively around little Ethan. She is very unlike her usual cool self, and reluctant to let him go. She buckles Ethan so tightly he lets out an adorable squeak.
“Ethan,” she says. “Mommy loves you very much. I would never let anything happen to you. Remember that.”
“Your mother is very, um, passionate, Ethan,” I say as the minivan’s door slides shut, Elaine watching us as though her eyes can cut through tinted glass. It’s 7:52; I’ll have to take the river route to get to school on time.
“Your mom always looks so nice, Ethan,” Stella says. “Mommy Jackie, you should dress like Ethan’s mom. Then you could get a job.”
“I have a job!”
“You do?” Freddy and Stella are incredulous. “Doing what?”
“I am a systems analyst for StrideCom.”
“That sounds like a made-up job.”
“No, it’s a real thing. I’ve been to her office,” offers Daniel, finishing up something in a noisy wrapper.
“Do you do anything important? Or top secret?”
“Well, we do have important clients. I’ve been working on…” I trail off as I spot Elaine Harbinger behind me, taking the same turn toward the river and approaching fast in her sleek Jaguar SUV.
“Ethan, buddy? Did you forget something? I think your mom is behind us.”
“My mom doesn’t forget anything.”
“I guess not.” Normally I don’t take the road that winds along the Miwok River even though it’s five minutes faster than the highway. It’s not a big drop to the river, but it’s steep, with only a waist-high guardrail. Elaine is now tailgating us, and there’s no shoulder for me to pull aside.
“Crazy lady,” I mutter. Then Elaine does the unexpected; she rams her Jaguar into the minivan. The kids let out a chorus of shrieks. Elaine is visible in the rearview mirror, hands white on the wheel. Her car surges towards us again.
“Hang on, kids!” I yell. The faces in the rearview mirror are terrified, even as Stella wipes something on the armrest. Just as we are about to clear a corner, Elaine slams into us. The minivan cuts through the flimsy guardrail like a runner through a finish line. We bounce violently down the sharp slope, stopping abruptly in the gravelly banks of the river. Luckily we’re in a drought, or we’d be underwater.
“Everyone okay?” I gasp. Before the kids can answer, Elaine yanks my door open and pulls me out of the car by my collar.
“Okay, sweetie?” she calls to Ethan before hissing to me, “THAT’S why it’s important for him to be in his car seat. No dicking around, Jackie – where’s the Stanley file?”
“The Stanley file?”
“Yes, you idiot. The StrideCom Stanley file.”
I’m thinking fast. I’ve only heard of the Stanley file. Stanley is a top-tier client and their encrypted documents are stored remotely, but Elaine Harbinger thinks I have an actual file in my minivan. “It’s, uh, in the back. I’ll get it for you.” Elaine follows me as I walk to the trunk. She’s holding a gun tight against her thigh, but she’s also limping. Her high heels slip around in the silt and rocks of the riverbed, and even though she has a gun and I have coffee stains on my shirt, I feel a rush of adrenaline.
The back of the minivan looks like it’s been through a salad spinner. I make a show of digging around for my messenger bag underneath the kids’ backpacks as I try to find anything that might subdue Elaine. I’m regretting not buying that 3-pack of pepper spray I saw at Costco when my hand hits something: Freddy’s EpiPen case.
“Found it.” I slide the syringe out of the case, keeping it hidden beneath my bag. Elaine tucks her gun into her waistband and leans forward. I hope the EpiPen doesn’t give her a heart attack or, alternately, superhuman strength. I take a meditation breath and plunge the syringe into her thigh. Elaine’s eyes widen and I envelop her in a hug to pin her arms. After a few beats, she relaxes and crumples to the ground. Panting, I fish out my phone and dial 911.
“I gotta pee.”
Like I said, carpool days are the worst.