“Rerouting,” Siri said for the third time.
“Honey, why don’t you just do what she says?”
Rick glared at his wife. “No. I’m not getting us lost because some nerd in Cupertino thinks he knows the backroads of Escambia County better than I do.”
“But we are lost,” Patti said.
“We are not lost.” Rick turned off the GPS. He had listened to the persistent droning of female voices since Nashville and was tired of it. At least he could put Siri in silent mode. “Once we drop Uncle Glenn in Brewton, it’s a straight shot to your sister’s house.” He pointed to the digital clock in the dash. “See? It’s not even midnight. We’re making great time. We just need to find some gas soon. That’s all.”
“What did the guy say about the van?” Patti asked.
“Something about the fuel injectors. It’s too much to fix right now.”
“Really? What about the money from the tax refund?”
“We used it all on the lawyer for you know who.” Rick nodded toward the backseat. “As long as we don’t run too low on gas, we’re fine.”
“Are we low?”
“We’re fine,” he repeated, trying to ignore the fuel light that glowed on his console. He pressed the radio’s seek button, hoping for Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin. Finding neither, he settled for the Don Williams.
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be.
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?
For twenty miles they rode along a deserted highway with only the occasional dented county road sign in the headlights’ glow. No gas stations. No street lights. Not even a passing car in the opposite lane. The only thing on the road was a dysfunctional Honda Odyssey carrying the Casey family — two adults, two children, and one geriatric great-uncle hitching a ride to his new home with distant relatives.
“How much farther?” seventeen-year-old Courtney asked from the back seat. She hugged the door to avoid Uncle Glenn, whose snores brought occasional waves of stale denture breath. Blake, her younger brother, served as the driver-side bookend, keeping the dozing octogenarian from listing to either side.
“We don’t know, honey,” Patti said. “Your father turned off the GPS.”
“Turned it off? Is that why we’re riding through this dystopian nightmare?”
“We’re not lost!” Rick said, louder than he meant to. “I’ve traveled these roads a hundred times. They just look different now. That’s all.”
“Well, I need to use the bathroom,” Courtney said.
Rick glanced over his shoulder. “Again?” He had to go too but preferred to pin the stop on someone else.
“That wasn’t me last time,” Courtney said. “That was Blake.”
“Was not,” ten-year-old Blake said from behind a glowing screen.
“Was too,” Courtney said. “You and that Red Bull you bought in Birmingham.” She sniffed and gagged. “Ew. What’s that smell?”
“Oh, wow.” Blake mirrored his sister’s sick expression and spoke while holding his breath. “That’s foul.”
“Dad!” Courtney said. “So gross.”
Rick held up his right hand. “It wasn’t me this time, I swear.”
Patti turned and shushed her kids. She pointed to Uncle Glenn, who continued to flatulate in apparent blissful slumber.
“I can’t breathe.” Courtney repeatedly pressed the window button. “Dad, why won’t this thing work?”
Blake and Patti frantically worked their buttons, too. Rick smiled. They looked like missile silo operators pressing ABORT after accidentally launching a nuclear warhead. He deactivated the window lock on his armrest, and three panes of glass slid into their doors. Patti, Courtney, and Blake thrust their heads into the oncoming night, gasping for air. Glenn and his nuclear colon slept through it all.
“This is so screwed up,” Courtney said after pulling her head inside. “I mean, this is exactly why we need socialized medicine.”
Rick and Patti shared a look of amusement.
“It’s not funny, guys,” Courtney said. “You think I’m some misguided millennial, but I have opinions.”
“Yes,” Rick said. “We are well aware of that.”
Patti shot him a look.
He returned it with an eye roll and a shrug.
“And besides,” he said, “aren’t you actually Generation Z or something like that?”
“Whatever,” Courtney answered, proving her paternity. “In any other country, poor Uncle Glenn could move to a facility equipped to care for him instead of riding ten hours to live with some second cousin who can barely care for herself. And he wouldn’t even have to pay for it.”
“No. We would,” Rick said.
“Rick,” Patti said with a sigh. “Can we please get back on the interstate with everyone else?”
“It just makes more sense to me, that’s all.” Courtney rolled up her window and stared out of it.
“So does installing a Porta-John in your seat so we don’t have to stop every thirty minutes. But who’s gonna pay for that?”
Ten minutes later, the Honda’s headlights landed on a sign that Patti immediately proclaimed an answer to her prayers.
Brewton — 20 miles.
“I can’t hold it that long,” Courtney said through gritted teeth as she shifted in her seat.
“Look,” Rick said, “if Brewton is that close, there’s got to be a gas station up here somewhere.”
In the rear-view mirror, the persistent light of Blake’s iPad went dark.
“Yeah, son. You gotta go too?”
“What? No. I want to know why we can’t shoot fireworks at Aunt Wendy’s house. Don’t they celebrate the Fourth of July in Pensacola?”
“Of course they do, honey,” Patti said. “We just want to have a quiet, relaxing holiday. That’s all.”
“That’s stupid,” Blake said.
“What’s stupid,” Rick said, “is burning down Arby’s with a pack of Roman Candles.”
“No, Patti. He knows why we can’t shoot fireworks. We had to get permission from his parole officer just to leave the state.”
“Actually,” Courtney said, “for minors, they’re called Juvenile Probation Officers.”
“I don’t care if it’s Dog the Bounty Hunter. I didn’t expect to ask his permission to take my ten-year-old son on vacation.”
“Rick, really.” Johnny Cash sang about Folsom prison, and Patti searched for a new radio station.
“It’s the gun culture,” Courtney said. “When does it stop? One day, you’re shooting Roman Candles, the next an assault weapon.”
“Those weren’t Roman candles,” Blake said. “Those were Crandall Candles.”
“What?” Rick asked.
“Honey,” Patti said turning in her seat. “Is that why you wouldn’t tell the police where you got the fireworks? Because they were from Todd Crandall?”
“Rick, you remember Todd. He was on Blake’s flag football team this spring. The dad’s name was Barry, I think.”
“The dude with all the chest hair and the Bernie Sanders bumper sticker?” Rick asked. “Yeah, that makes total sense.”
“Todd juices those babies up,” Blake said with a mischievous laugh. “When they land — BOOM! Let’s go! Anyway, we were shooting at the dumpster, not the building. One candle just went crazy.”
“Yeah,” Rick said. “So did the manager when he ran out holding his smoking Beef and Cheddar.”
“Look!” Courtney shouted. “It’s a gas station.”
They were still a few miles from the city, but beyond the next hill, a bright orange Phillips 76 globe illuminated the dark horizon. The mood in the van brightened with it.
“I see it. We’ll stop.”
“I see it, Patti.”
“Rick, stop sign!”
He did not see that. He slammed his foot on the brake, just in time to avoid t-boning a chrome-laden, seventies era Impala creeping through the intersection. Rick’s heart pounded as the Honda’s engine stalled. Colors illuminated the dash, and the van emitted a shrill beep. Rick shifted into park and pressed the start button. He tried it again.
“Dad, let’s go,” Courtney said.
“That car,” Patti said, a tremor in her voice. “It’s stopping.”
“Those guys look mad,” Blake said.
Rick agreed with Blake. Whether they were upset by the near collision or simply smelled blood in the water, the sharks were circling. Rick slammed his hand on the dash and pressed the start button until his finger hurt. The radio played on. The A/C even worked. But the engine remained obstinate.
“Rick, honey,” Patti said with a whimper. She motioned out her window. “I’m trying to stay calm, but there are five large black men walking toward our van.”
“Really, Mom? What does it matter that they’re black?” Courtney asked.
“It’s a descriptor, darling,” Patti said, sounding anything but calm. “If I called them pink polka-dotted penguins, would that make you feel better? Rick, start this van. Now!”
“I think two of them are actually white,” Rick said. “Just pointing that out. And it won’t start. Fuel injector, remember?”
“I got this,” Blake said. The others ignored him.
“Rick, what are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry,” Rick said and reached under his seat. “I’ve got fifteen chances to get us out of here.” He pulled out a Beretta 9mm.
“You’ve got a gun?” Courtney shouted. “I can’t believe my own father carries a weapon of mass destruction, and in our car? I think I’m hyperventilating.” She lowered her window and gulped the night air.
“Roll up that window, young lady,” Patti said. “Right now.”
Rick pulled back the slide, chambering a round. “Courtney, it’s a Beretta. Not a ballistic missile.” He lowered Patti’s window.
“Rick, stop. What are you doing?”
With his best Dirty Harry sneer, Rick raised the gun into view. The men stopped. Two of them pulled up their shirts to reveal their own support for the second amendment. Rick’s face and his gun fell. He tried the van’s start button again. The engine whined but refused to turn over. Courtney gasped and Patti, no longer praying, pleaded with Rick for the love of God and country to roll up her gosh darn window right this instant!
Suddenly, the backseat filled with blinding light. Sparks flew, making little holes in Uncle Glenn’s polyester pants.
“Blake, what the crap?” Courtney shouted.
“Okay, boys!” Blake yelled. “Say goodbye to your Beef and Cheddars!”
A hot flash seared the leather interior of the van as a loud “thunk” sent a fireball flying past Glenn and Courtney, out the window, and into the rabble gathered around the Impala. An impressive explosion scattered the men in all directions.
“Get wrecked!” Blake yelled as the second and third explosions flew from his Crandall Candle. One of the men dove under the Impala. One suffered a direct hit from a fireball and clutched his gut before crawling behind the car.
“That’s right,” Courtney yelled. “My brother’s a pyromaniac and my dad’s a Republican. Run for your lives!”
Twelve weaponized projectiles rained bedlam on the men. Rick used the diversion to press the van’s start button into oblivion, while the Beretta lay impotently in his lap. All five men found their way inside the Impala before it peeled out and sped away into the darkness.
Patti must have been praying again because the Honda suddenly came to life.
“Yes!” Patti yelled. “Get us out of here.”
“Oh, yuck,” Courtney said, on her knees and hanging half outside the window.
“What’s wrong?” Rick asked.
“Uncle Glenn pissed his pants.”
“Yeah, well,” Rick said, “so did I. Now get back in the freakin’ car before those guys come back.”
“We’re almost there,” Patti said to her sister. “We just dropped off Uncle Glenn. No. Don’t wait up. It’ll be late. Just leave the key for us. Okay. Bye bye.”
Rick found his son in the rear-view. “You saved our bacon back there.”
“You mean your Beef and Cheddar.” Blake laughed.
“Dad,” Courtney said. “I was thinking. If we had a zero-emission vehicle, we wouldn’t have stalled back there.”
“Oh, yeah? You think those guys would have let us use their charging station?”
“Rick,” Patti said, but he could see the smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.
He put a hand on his wife’s knee and gently squeezed. “See,” he said, “ I told you we weren’t lost.”
She smiled. “Hey, Rick?”
“You missed the turn.”
“But the phone said — ”
“Rerouting,” announced Siri.
Rick sighed. “Whatever.”