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How a Marlin Died in a Car Crash
“Road closed? What the hell do they mean by ‘road closed’?”
I squinted my eyes against the incandescent sunlight at the barricade sitting in the middle of the road. ROAD CLOSED, said the big sign, ROAD CLOSED. The black letters flashed in our faces with an air of triumphant brusqueness.
“It means we can’t go this way.”
“To hell with that rubbish! We spent an entire hour driving down here and then they’re telling us we can’t go this way?”
I shrugged, pushing my glasses back up my nose.
“Not like you can do anything about it.”
Mike swore. He rolled down the window of the driver’s seat, and a wave of suffocating hot air immediately swept in. He stood up wobbly and stuck his torso out, and went staring at the white-and-orange shape of the barricade while half-dangling out of the car, both hands off the steering wheel and shielding over his eyes.
That’s the thing about Michael I couldn’t help hating. To get his left knee away from the shift lever, I said: “At least we’d be back before the bell rings.”
He swivelled around to stare at me, with the kind of stare like he had never seen me before; then without a warning, in a quick and fluent movement, Mike pulled open the door and sprang out of the car.
“Sprang” wasn’t actually the right word. Mike was a tall guy, with broad shoulders and long arms and legs, which meant he had to virtually twist and wriggle himself out from behind the dashboard like a squid, and he reminded me of those acrobat people on TV who would fold themselves into small boxes and then got themselves out again with great pains. The sun was beating down boilingly. In just a matter of minutes, the back of his shirt was already soaked dark with sweat.
He stood there, watching the barricade as if he were watching a prey.
The barricade returned his gaze lazily.
So? It seemed to be asking, in its lazy, drawling tone.
Mike stood there staring, sweating under the blazing sun.
So? asked the barricade. What now?
Mike went on staring. Then all of a sudden, his arms shot out.
I gasped, and hastily dove for the window button — too late; in a flash, Mike had already stood up again. In his long arms he held the orange-and-white piece and was dragging it towards the cliffside. I saw him shift his weight, then there was the flying shape —
Down flew the barricade, tumbling and turning in midair, still determined on finishing its third somersault before it went disappearing down into the depth, trailing behind a series of clashes and crashes.
I looked up. Mike was striding back towards the car; he got back into the driver’s seat without saying anything, and slammed the door shut. With a roar, he started the engine, and we shot forward like a bullet. Soon we had thrown the spot behind, muggy air whizzed into a hot wind billowing in our ears; beside the road, bushes on the cliffs melted into a whirling shade of green overhead.
“You’re going to get us into big trouble.” I twisted around to look at where the barricade’s last stout figure had been.
Mike seemed like he didn’t hear a thing. “So,” he said loudly against the wind. “I was just saying, I don’t think that Simon has anything to do with it. It was all made up by them, see? They were just trying to get on my nerves.”
I was still looking back.
“If you’ve seen how Simon —”
“Simon! Simon! All you talked about was Simon on the way! If you really think it was a trick, would you just stop bringing him up!”
Mike rolled his window up. Silence fell, with the sultriness beating soundlessly outside.
“Even if he was the one who ratted us out, I don’t really care.”
“And why’s that?” he suddenly flared up. “This is precisely how they are pulling it off, bud, that’s the trick. You don’t talk about it, I don’t talk about it, then nobody’s ever going to talk, and nothing’s ever going to change. Do you know what they threatened me with to make me drop the thing? They threatened me, bud, they threatened. And I bet they gave you a nice little talk, too, didn’t they? Go on, tell us about it, tell us how they ‘ended this business’.”
Unwilling as I was, I still grunted: “That they’ll give me two more demerits if there’s another word.”
“And it sure worked on you.”
I felt blood rushing into my face. I was about to open my mouth and retort when I found myself actually with nothing to retort at. I had indeed been petrified when I found myself, all alone, in that dingy office facing all those grim faces towering over me; but Mike — it didn’t work on him, I saw him enter that door with his broad shoulders ever so straight, and saw him come out of there with those shoulders straighter still. Nothing ever worked on him.
“Bud,” he went on. “You know why we go to that place every day?”
I pondered quietly for some seconds. “Where else should we go every day?”
“Now you’re acting like a ridiculous lost-cause. Didn’t we just ‘ungo’ there about an hour before? What I meant was why should we go there? Why do we go there?”
I hesitated. “Learning is a privilege.”
“A privilege only counts when you can enjoy it,” Mike said solemnly. “We don’t call being locked up in the same building hours after hours spending time over stuff that only turns out to be rubbish a privilege; it’s a prison.”
The car speeded past the green shades and came out into a great patch of blazing brightness. The cliffs on our left side grew steep and bare; rocks protruded out like bones of a rough sculpture. Yellow dust swarmed and whirled as our car brought in the billowing wind. I had my eyes fixed on the cliffside; that was another thing I hated about him, him talking in that way. A wild idea came to me.
“I swear I saw Simon handing them the note, he must’ve picked it up, he was sitting right next to you.”
Mike dove willingly at once into the subject. “But why should he? I’ve never pissed him off.”
“You don’t understand. Exams are awfully important for him — for us.”
Mike laughed. A clear, hearty laugh that sounded like a steamboat’s whistle.
“Just typical!” he chortled. “You know, I’ve always been wondering, if this business is all about grades and medals, why don’t they just go to a dog show for heaven’s sake? Dogs won’t swear at you, won’t fall asleep in classes, won’t forget their homework, won’t even have parents to blackmail and can be beaten up whenever you like. And you know what’s the best part? The dogs will still love you.”
He sighed indignantly and yanked at the steering wheel, making the tires screech.
“I don’t want to be like them when I grow old,” he said. His eyes were fixed tight on the road ahead but seemed not to be taking it in. “Them — they’re all dead inside. All they have in mind is exams and salaries and taxes, and whether our neckties are precisely three inches above our belts.” He snorted. “Some privilege. Takes all they have to make us stick to it, though. But they just hate their job as much as we do.”
I shifted in my seat.
“So why didn’t you get one of your pals, then?”
Mike looked at me in bewilderment. “What about them?”
“You could’ve had any of your pals sitting in this seat right now,” I explained. “Or even the whole lot of them, and you could’ve gone on chatting about baseball, and Simon, and social issues or whatever — but you picked me.”
“Because you did me a favour.”
“Only once. And I thought you didn’t like us eggheads.”
The look on his face turned into genuine astonishment. Then he laughed. “Look here, bud, you’ve got a big brain, so what? That’s cool. All I’m saying is, we shouldn’t be doing stuff because we’re told to. But because we like to. Now, you like studying, you like scoring A for all your exams, no? Then that’s cool.” His face darkened a bit, and there appeared a trace of lost in his voice. “But I know I’m not made for this, I’ve known it for a good while. I’m meant for something else.”
Silence. The car swept by the rolling yellow dust; under the bleaching sun the road stretched without an end.
Suddenly Mike laughed. That clear, hearty laugh. “Hey, ain’t this sick?” He slapped a khaki-trousered knee. “We’re just like the old man in that book you mentioned in class, aren’t we? The old guy who fought for a big fish.”
“The Old Man and the Sea.”
Mike let go of the steering wheel and threw his arms into the air, letting out a great hooting. The car wheels spun at once like marbles on a tin plate towards the rocky cliffside. At the last minute, Mike pulled the brakes and off went a long sharp screeching. A dull thump! Yellow dirt and pieces of rock came raining down on our roof in loud clatters. The car shrieked to a halt, dragged a huge savage ninety-degree turn with two tires clean off the ground, then landed back onto the ground with an enormous crash. Before we had fully touched the ground, Mike already stepped on the accelerator, and off we shot like a bullet again. As I straightened my glasses back onto my nose, I caught a glimpse of our left rear mirror dangling behind on a badly sprained neck.
“Ha!” I shouted. Mike grinned at me, and we burst into shared laughter.
“Look at that!” He pointed with an outstretched arm.
We had made a turn, and suddenly the patch of dazzling blue came stretching out on either side of the highway. Mike whooped and steered the car until it was dangerously balancing on the very edge of the road; he rolled down the windows. Warm, salty air patted on our faces. I unbuckled my safety belt and leaned out.
The ocean expanded endlessly below, the shimmering blueness piercing into our eyes, as clear as the great sky above, a great sheet of shiny, fumbling floor. I could see little furls of snowy waves appearing and disappearing here and there, twirling along with the countless little light pieces that danced on the surface.
“And who said getting out was a bad idea?” Mike beat the writhing air with a fist.
Suddenly, like thunders shooting out of the water, out came a dozen huge shapes plunging into the air — they were big, bigger than the length of our small car, black silhouettes that shimmered against the sunlight, moving fast like knives slicing through the sky, piercing their way through with those sharp lances protruding out from their upper jaws. In a split second, they had soared across the highway in a sleek movement and dove back into the tumbling waves. Cool beads of water sprinkled down onto our windshield.
“We’ll go closer!”
Mike stepped on the accelerator. “More!” I cried, pointing below.
Another burst of shimmering shapes came pelting into the air. The wind was roaring in my ears, the speeding car blurring the cliffs, the shores, the big clear blue — my heart was pounding; I had recognized what the fish were, they were marlins, giant Pacific Blue marlins with bodies splashed with silvery stripes like garments of watery stars. They were side by side with us, then over us, their strong, powerful bodies flying through the diamond-clear sky.
“I don’t blame Simon for snitching,” I suddenly shouted, the wind pouring into my mouth. “You die, too, in that place if you don’t get yourself some excitement quickly.”
Mike laughed; his voice, too, was parse by the wind. “And when you think of all those poor souls still stuck in there trying to distinguish different formats of research papers!”
The marlins came one after the other; there seemed to be no stop of it, splashing snowy white foam high into the sky — then it was over. As abruptly as they came, they were gone. Back down the tumbling waves as if they had never crossed our eyes.
The air fell quiet. Left only the low roaring of our engine, the blowing wind, and the soft patting of the blue waves.
The car went tumbling forward, we were flying through the air with the front wheels spinning uncontrollably; there were screams, screams I didn’t recognize as mine, the screams mingled with the growling of the engine, everything was moving like mad in a whirl of reeling, sickening pool of light; in a frantic, weltering glimpse I saw Mike yanking up the parking brake —
A heavy bang! I was tossed violently onto the door, the car gave a last roar, then it finally silenced.
Smoke was floating in the air, like the strong stink of burnt tires. I opened my eyes.
The first thing I noticed was that I was still alive; then I saw the twisted guardrail, with the rear of our car stuck in it, punching it into a horseshoe shape. Finally, I saw the red dots.
“Something — from behind — what was it?”
I spun around, tracing the splashes of redness covering the windshield, the seats, and Mike’s stunned face; he followed my gaze and looked around, too.
On the far side of the road, where the redness was accumulating like a small pool, lay a misshaped black body.
There was a moment of horrified silence.
I turned to look at Mike, saw him staring back at me, his face pale and his mouth hanging open.
“Quick,” he finally croaked.
We got out of the car. There were long charred marks from our tires along with the dark red streaks splashed across the asphalt. The redness was like claw marks, pawing wounds that leered from the ground.
And just a few feet away, there lay the body. A gap was to be seen on one side of its stomach which almost sliced the creature clean in two — we could see the bones broken beneath. Stuff that was supposed to be inside now scattered all about in a gruesome, horrid trail.
I felt my head spinning. The heat seemed to be beating down once again.
“What should we do?”
Mike didn’t answer, he only stared. His big shoulders were hunched.
“Mike, what do you think we should do?”
He looked up at me, his eyes blank. Then, slowly he turned, and to my surprise, started back towards the car.
“It wasn’t our fault!” He spun around, his face fiercer than the blazing sun. “It hit us. It hit us from behind, we didn’t know. It should have watched out.”
I gaped at him. “And how was it supposed to know a car would come pelting into its way? That’s what the barricade was for. I told you you would get us into trouble!”
Mike wasn’t looking at me. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything.
“We can’t do anything about it anyway.”
“You killed it!” I screamed. “Don’t you get it? You just killed it!”
Mike turned away.
“I guess that’s what the barricade’s for,” he muttered. And then he laughed, that clear laugh that rang in the sky. “Well, that’s extraordinary!” Bending down, he inspected the spluttered blots covered all over the car. “I think I’ll leave those there, it’s gonna be quite a laugh when —”
“Have you had enough?”
He looked up, and I was glad there was now a startled look on his face.
“Bud, what —?”
“We’ve seen the ocean, we’ve stolen the car, and we’ve killed a creature alive, now what else do you want?”
The smile was gone. “So now you’re playing the traitor, is that it? After all we’ve been through?”
“You just killed a living thing.”
“You are a coward.”
I was quiet for some seconds. When I spoke again, it was all I could do to keep my voice from shaking. “And you are a fool who would steal a car and not even know where he’s heading.” I stopped him before he could retort. “I might be a coward but I can learn. Take a good look at that fish, the one which ‘hit us from behind’.”
I turned away and started walking towards the car. Mike called behind me.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“What are the odds it could make it across the road like the others?” I called back, as I slammed the door shut.
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