But instead of turning the Corvette toward Huntington Beach, Tommy swung left on El Capitan and drove higher into the night and the storm. He wove from street to street across Spyglass Hill, past the houses of strangers who would never in this lifetime believe him if he rang their doorbells and told them his incredible story.
He was reluctant to go to his parents for fear that he had put too much emotional distance between them and himself to warrant the unconditional acceptance that they once would have given him. He might babble out the story of the devil doll only to see his mother’s face pinch with disapproval and hear her say, You drink whiskey like your silly detective?
No whiskey, Mom.
I smell whiskey.
I had one beer.
One beer, soon whiskey.
I don’t like whiskey.
You carry guns in every pocket— One gun, Mom.
—drive car like crazy maniac, chase blondes— No blondes.
—drink whiskey like it only tea, then surprised when see demons and dragons— No dragons, Mom.
—demons and ghosts— No ghosts, Mom.
—demons, dragons, ghosts. You better come home to stay, Tuong.
Better start living right way, Tuong.
Better stop drinking whiskey like tough guy, stop trying always to be so American, too American.
Tommy groaned aloud in misery.
Still letting the imaginary conversation play out in his head, he cautiously steered the Corvette around an immense branch from a coral tree that had blown down in the storm and blocked half the street.
He decided not to go home to Huntington Beach, because he was afraid that, once he got there, he would find that it wasn’t really home any more. Then, having discovered that he didn’t belong in the Phan house in quite the way that he had once belonged, and not being able to return to his own mini-kin-haunted house in Irvine, what place would he be able to call home? Nowhere. He would be homeless in a deeper sense than were those vagrants who wandered the streets with all their worldly goods in a shopping cart.
That was a discovery he was not yet prepared to make
— even if he had to deal with the mini-kin alone.
Deciding that he should at least call his mother, he picked up the car phone. But he put it down again without punching in her number.
Car phones for big shots. You big shot now? Phone and drive too dangerous. Gun in one hand, whiskey bottle in other, how you hold phone anyway?
Tommy reached to the passenger seat and briefly put his right hand on the Heckler & Koch. The shape of the pistol, the sense of godlike power cast in steel, did not comfort him.
Minutes later, after the rhythmic thump of the wind¬shield wipers had once more half hypnotized him, he came out of his daze and saw that he was on MacArthur Boulevard, on the southern end of Newport Beach. He was travelling west in light traffic.
According to the dashboard clock, the time was 10:26
He couldn’t go on like this, driving aimlessly through the night until he ran out of fuel. Preoccupied as he was, he might become so inattentive that he skidded on the rain-slick pavement and crashed into another car.
He decided to seek family help, after all, but not from his mother and father. He would go to his older and beloved brother Gi Minh Phan.
Gi had changed his name too - from Phan Minh Gi, merely reversing the order to place the surname last. For a while he had considered taking an American name, as Tommy had done, but decided against it, which earned points with their parents, who were far too conservative to adopt new names themselves. Gi had given American names to his four children — Heather, Jennifer, Kevin, and Wesley; however, that was all right with Mom and Dad because all four had been born in the United States.
The oldest of the three Phan brothers, Ton That, eight years Tommy’s senior, had five children, all born in the USA, and each of them enjoyed both a Vietnamese
and an American name. Ton’s first-born was a daughter whose legal name was Mary Rebecca but who was also known as Thu-Ha. Ton’s kids called one another by their Vietnamese names when they were around their grandparents and other traditionalist elders, used their American names when with friends of their own age, and used both names with their parents as the situation seemed to require, yet not one of them had an identity crisis.
In addition to a nagging inability to define his own identity in a way that fully satisfied him — and compared to his brothers — Tommy suffered from an offspring crisis. He didn’t have any. To his mother, this was worse than a crisis; this was a tragedy. His parents were still old-world enough to think of children neither as mere responsibil¬ities nor as hostages to fortune, but primarily as wealth, as blessings. In their view, the larger that a family grew, the better chance it had to survive the turmoil of the world and the more successful it would inevi¬tably become. At thirty, unmarried, childless, with no prospects — except the prospect of a successful career as a novelist writing silly stories about a whiskey-guzzling maniac detective — Tommy was undermining his parents’ dreams of a sprawling Phan empire and the security that, to them, sheer numbers ensured.
His brother Ton, sixteen when they had fled Vietnam, was still sufficiently mired in the ways of the old world that he shared some of the elder Phans’ frustration with Tommy. Ton and Tommy had been reasonably close as brothers, but they had never been the kind of brothers who were also friends. Gi, on the other hand, though six years older than Tommy, was a brother and a friend and a confidant — or once had been — and if anyone in this world would give the devil-doll story a fair hearing, it would be Gi.
As Tommy crossed San Juaquin Hills Road, less than
a mile from Pacific Coast Highway, he was planning the easiest route north to the family bakery in Garden Grove, where Gi managed the graveyard shift, so he didn’t immediately react to the peculiar noise that rose from the Corvette’s engine compartment. When he finally took note of it, he realized that he’d been dimly aware of the noise on a subconscious level for a couple of minutes:
underlying the monotonous squeak-and-thump of the windshield wipers — a soft rattling, a whispery scraping as of metal abrading metal.
He was at last warm. He turned off the heater in order to hear the sound better.
Something was loose… and working steadily looser. Frowning, he leaned over the steering wheel, listening closely.
The noise persisted, low but troubling. He thought he detected an industrious quality to it.
He felt a queer vibration through the floorboards. The noise grew no louder, but the vibration increased.
Tommy glanced at the rear-view mirror. No traffic was close behind him, so he eased his foot off the accelerator.
As the sports car gradually slowed from fifty-five to forty miles per hour, the noise did not diminish in relation to the speed, but continued unabated.
The shoulder on his side of the highway was narrow, with a slope and then a dark field or a gully beyond, and Tommy didn’t want to be forced to pull off here in the blinding downpour. The Newport Beach Library lay in the near distance, deserted looking at this hour, and the lights of the high-rise office buildings and hotels in Fashion Island loomed somewhat farther away through the silvery veils of rain, but in spite of being in a busy commercial and residential area, this stretch of MacArthur Boulevard was less of a boulevard than its name implied, with no sidewalks or streetlamps along its
westbound lanes. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to pull off the pavement far enough to eliminate the risk of being sideswiped — or worse — by passing traffic.
Abruptly the noise stopped.
The vibration ceased, as well.
The ‘vette purred along as smoothly as the dream machine that it was supposed to be.
Tentatively, he increased his speed.
The rattling and scraping didn’t return.
Tommy leaned back in his seat, letting out his pent-up breath, somewhat relieved but still concerned.
From under the hood came a sharp twang as of metal snapping under tremendous stress.
The steering wheel shuddered in Tommy’s hands. It pulled hard to the left.
Traffic was headed upslope in the eastbound lanes. Two cars and a van. They were not moving as fast in the rain-slashed night as they would have been in better weather, but they were coming too fast nonetheless.
With both hands, Tommy pulled the wheel to the right. The car responded — but sluggishly.
The oncoming vehicles began to swerve to their right as the drivers saw him cross over the centre line. Not all of them were going to be able to get out of his way. They were restricted by a sidewalk and by the concrete-block wall surrounding a housing development.
The catastrophic twang under the hood was immedi¬ately followed by a clattering-pinging-clanking-grinding that instantly escalated into cacophony.
Tommy resisted the powerful urge to stomp the brake pedal flat to the floorboards, which might cast the Corvette into a deadly spin. Instead he eased down on it judiciously. He might as well have stood on the pedal with both feet, because he had no brakes.
None. Nada. Zip. Zero. No stopping power whatso¬ever.
And the accelerator seemed to be stuck. The car was picking up speed.
‘Oh, God, no.’
He wrenched at the steering wheel so forcefully that he felt as though he would dislocate his shoulders. At last the car angled sharply back into the westbound lanes where it belonged.
Over in the eastbound lanes, the wildly sweeping glimmer of headlights on the wet pavement reflected the other drivers’ panic.
Then the Corvette’s steering failed altogether. The wheel spun uselessly through his aching hands.
The ‘vette didn’t arc toward oncoming traffic again, thank God, but shot off the highway, onto the shoulder, kicking up gravel that rattled against the undercarriage.
Tommy let go of the spinning steering wheel before the friction between it and his palms could burn his skin. He shielded his face with his hands.
The car flattened a small highway-department sign, tore through tall grass and low brush, and rocketed off the embankment. It was airborne.
The engine was still screaming, demanding accel¬eration.
Tommy had the crazy notion that the Corvette would sail on like an aircraft, rising instead of descending, soaring gracefully above a cluster of phoenix palms at the corner of MacArthur and Pacific Coast Highway, then over the businesses and houses that lay in the last couple of blocks before the coast, out across the black waters of the vast Pacific, head-on into the storm, eventually up-up-up and beyond the rain and the turbulence, into a tranquil realm of silence with an eternity of stars above and deep clouds below, with Japan far to the west but growing nearer. If the genie of medicine, Tien Thai, could
fly around the world on his own engineless mountain, then surely it was possible to do so even more easily in a Corvette with three hundred horsepower at five thousand rpm.
He had been nearing the end of MacArthur Boulevard when he ramped off the embankment and the drop from the highway was not as drastic here as it would have been if he had lost control just a quarter of a mile earlier. Nevertheless, having been launched at an angle, the car was in the air long enough to tilt slightly to the right; therefore, it came down only on the passenger-side tires, one of which exploded.
The safety harness tightened painfully across Tommy’s chest, cinching the breath out of him. He hadn’t been aware that his mouth was open or that he was screaming, until his teeth clacked together hard enough to crack a walnut
Like Tommy, the big engine stopped screaming on impact too, so as the Corvette rolled, he was able to hear the fearsome and familiar shriek of the mini-kin. The beast’s shrill cry was coming through the heating vents from the engine compartment. Gleeful shrieking.
With a hellish clatter to rival the sound of an 8.0 earth¬quake shaking through an aluminium-pot factory, the sports car rolled. The laminated glass of the windshield webbed with a million fissures and imploded harmlessly, and the car tumbled through one revolution and started another, whereupon the side windows shattered. The hood buckled with a skreeeeek, started to tear loose, but then was cracked and crunched and twisted and jammed into the engine compartment during the second roll.
With one headlight still aglow, the Corvette finally came to rest on the passenger side, after two and a quarter revolutions. Or maybe it was three. He couldn’t be sure. He was anxious and disoriented and as dizzy as if he had spent the past hour on a roller coaster.
The driver’s side of the car was where the roof should have been, and only the suspending web of the safety harness prevented him from falling into the passenger seat, which was now where the floor should have been.
In the comparative stillness of the aftermath, Tommy could hear his own panicky breathing, the hot tick of overheated engine parts, the tinkle-clink of falling bits of glass, the whistle of pressurized coolant escaping through a punctured line, and rain drumming against the wreckage.
The mini-kin, however, was silent.
Tommy didn’t delude himself that the demon had been killed in the crash. It was alive, all right, and eagerly wriggling toward him through the wreckage. At any moment, it would kick out a vent grill or climb in through the empty windshield frame, and in the confines of the demolished car, he would not be able to get away from it fast enough to save himself.
Gasoline fumes. The chill wind brought him the last thing he wanted to smell: the astringent odour of gasoline fumes so strong that he was briefly robbed of his breath.
The battery still held a charge. The possibility of shorting wires, a spark, was all too real.
Tommy wasn’t sure which fate was worse: having his eyes clawed out by the hissing mini-kin and his carotid artery chewed open — or being immolated in his dream car on the very day that he had bought it. At least James Dean had enjoyed his Porsche Spyder for nine days before he had been killed in it.
Although dizzy, Tommy found the release button for the safety harness. Holding on to the steering wheel with one hand to avoid dropping down into the passenger’s seat, he disentangled himself from the straps.
Tommy located the door handle, which seemed to work well enough. But the lock was shattered or the
door was torqued, and no matter how he strained against it, the damn thing wouldn’t open.
The side window had broken out in the crash, leaving not even a fragment of glass stuck in the frame. Cold rain poured through the hole, soaking Tommy.
After pulling his legs out from under the dashboard, he squirmed around to brace his feet against the gear console between the seats. He thrust his head through the window, then his shoulders and arms, and levered himself out of the wreckage.
He rolled off the side of the tipped Corvette into matted brown grass soaked with rain, into a cold puddle, into mud.