Short Story: The World as Seen Between a Cracked Frame by James Callan

The World as Seen Between
a Cracked Frame

A short story by James Callan

A red-hot speedster sits at the bottom of a cold, brown river. A shimmering hot rod, once known for its speed, has gone static, lost in the gloom. Brazen as fire, it would rocket across town, eject like a bat out of hell, erupt like a cheetah with a warhead up its ass –the antics of a wild, cocksure, egotist. Loud engine with a loud paint job, it would catch the light, a sun-scorched cherry, a scarlet flame, a motion trail of zero-to-sixty in 4.2 seconds, an insane, 228 mile-per-hour top-speed torpedo. If it had wings, it would have flown. If it had gills, it might now breathe. And maybe the silver Jesus fish on the back bumper is happy down there at the bottom of the drink. But one thing is for sure: the black, prancing horse has drowned, never to gallop again.

Submerged in the mud, a Ferrari F40 becomes just another sunken treasure lining the waterlogged bowels of a serpentine monster, an unforgiving ribbon of rushing water and agricultural runoff. Bisecting a small town into north and south, into two distinct neighborhoods –the okay and the rough– a torrent of spring rain spiked with upstream, industrial pollutants cleaves through a dying community. It weaves and slithers, a menacing python, a hungry water dragon that swallows drunkards, the careless, those who misjudge its current, and adventurous, little boys. It drinks them in without a second thought, without regret, without a pause for remorse. Sports cars too. Any cars. Those who drive them. Those who elect to jump, end their misery. The river isn’t picky. She does not reject what is offered to her.

Blue sky below, dark water above; an Italian luxury sports car reflects the world upside down in its cracked windshield as it loses control, fishtails, breaks through the Lego barrier of a crudely constructed, multicolored bridge, the architectural design of a nine-year-old. It spins, somersaults, and plummets to the deep, malicious current below. It does not splash as it impacts upon the sheet of dyed felt stretched out over the hardwood floor. The coin-sized lily pads do not stir, do not budge beyond the micro-motion that comes as a byproduct of a Hot Wheels toy car crashing down after a brief stint of free fall. There is a muted thud, a single resounding note, as a vehicle with a price tag well north of a million dollars sinks to a cold, aquatic, automotive hell.

There is the ding of a microwave downstairs, the notification of a hot, steamy meal resurrected from its deep freeze, the best Daddy can manage after Mommy has passed on the torch, passed on her kitchen duties, passed on. Then the television goes on because it’s easier to zone out than talk over reheated mashed potatoes and semi-thawed patties of whatever. One more circuit of play. One more reiteration. Finally, Daddy cries out his name, shouts out what is already known, that dinner is ready, or rather, simply “Dinner!” at the top of his lungs from the bottom of the stairs as a one-dollar, hand-me-down plaything bounces off the hand-dyed wool that pads the floorboards.

It’s all familiar. It’s been seen before. Over and over again in a young child’s mind, showcased in his play, an obsessive loop, a glitching, instant replay. It’s been seen time and time again. 471 times or more; 471, the generated horsepower of a Ferrari F40. It’s been seen in daydreams, night dreams, nightmares, daymares, mares, prancing horses, flying horses, seahorses, automotive, and river-bottom corpses. It happens all the time, every day. Reconstructed, simulated, mimicked in Lego agony. Encore. Endless. There is no reality outside of a world that is reflected in the frame of a cracked, free-falling windshield. There is no time that exists beyond those fleeting seconds between a breached barrier and the surprisingly subtle splash of water below.

It happens all the time. And really, it never ends. But once, it began: an origin story of sorts, the birth of a comic book villain –if only it was all just pretend. Before the offshoots and scions, the propagated young branches of tragedy that had taken root, multiplied, bloomed, a profusion to steal the sun, blotting out the far horizon, stalling the future; before all this, the Mother Tree stood tall, its roots far-reaching, its moving shadows a long, prolific train, a black funeral dress spread wide and voracious like a volatile pathogen, an ambitious, vigorous cancer before it toppled over, crashed down to end an era, to begin what never ends, a tireless orbiting of the moment everything sank. And now, it has festered into an inescapable thought, a calamitous satellite circling the shattered globe of a child’s mind. It happened last year. Of course, it wasn’t actually a Ferrari F40.

The gray sky below, turbid water above; a Japanese minivan reflects the world upside down in its cracked windshield as it loses control, fishtails, breaks through the concrete barrier that was meant to stop it, and would have, but for the automotive battering ram, the 18-wheel behemoth, the semi-truck that paved the way to disaster, the catalyst of a mother’s doom, a child’s recurring nightmare. The trucker may have been texting, possibly flicking through the library of music on his phone to select a soundtrack to alleviate the tedium of his multi-state route, or maybe he nodded off, though not likely while on a two-lane bridge passing through the heart of town, probably just looked away at the wrong time, spilled fresh, hot coffee down his chin or shed live embers from a cigarette into his lap, or maybe he just plain-and-simple fucked up, coughed real hard and jerked the wheel, or decided to leave life behind, leave his more-than-likely cheating wife to do as she pleases without him, take out a minivan in the process, its driver, a mother, collateral damage in the heat of the moment. And what a moment it was, encapsulated in time, preserved in a young boy’s memory cells, played out on the eternal reel projecting catastrophe in the cinema of a motherless child’s mind.

The timing was perfect, cruel, and concise. On his bike, the boy crossed over the river, and pedaled into the rough neighborhood against his parents’ advice. He was rebelling, being adventurous, testing boundaries, bending rules, exploring new territories of misbehavior, new territories of his town, gauging the consequence that came with exerting his will in disregard of Mom and Dad.

Coincidentally, his mother didn’t see him as she too drove over the bridge heading in the opposite direction, and may or may not have seen what came next, the moments leading up to a truck veering sideways to smash into her Toyota Sienna, to smash into her side, to pin her arms and break them, to crush her ribcage making breathing more than a little difficult, but not so difficult as breathing while underwater, which would become her impending challenge when the truck slammed on its brakes just in time to slow its momentum from sending its bulk from plummeting over the edge, but not quite in time to stop from obliterating the traffic barrier, from pushing the devastated minivan over the boundary into the river below, from reducing a five-star safety rated vehicle into an ornate anchor, a seven-seated concave deathtrap firmly resisting a cold current at the base of a sediment-rich artery. 

A boy on his bike takes it all in. Wide stare, his wet eyes reflect a family tragedy. As if a movie, an action sequence, he watches, transfixed, pauses, replays. A son witnesses his mother’s demise. He sees it once in real-time. He sees it, innumerous, in his tortured mind, his prepubescent, broken brain.

His adventures are forgotten, discarded, and cast aside, like sparks of an automotive accident, a truck colliding with a minivan, little fire sprites taking flight, will-o’-the-wisp scattering, crashing, kamikaze on wet pavement, gone cold, gone tumbling down into the turbulent waters below. His escapades have vaporized in the flame of a semi-truck jackknifed across a bridge spanning a cruel torrent. His exploits have gone transparent, vanished in the bite of his budding grief. His adventures are mute, humble, and infinitesimal. They have been upstaged, waylaid, and rendered obsolete by their evil twin. There is no more adventure. There is only misadventure. The worst of its kind.

There are 365 days in a year, 137 more days than the max MPH capable in a Ferrari F40, 106 fewer days than the generated horsepower of its 2.9L twin-turbo V8 engine, its mechanical heart. It doesn’t beat like a human heart, but its pistons hammer out a rhythm like no human heart could ever muster, wouldn’t want to –there’s overkill and then there’s being killed. The human heart beats about 35 million times a year, about the cost in dollars of twenty-three Ferrari F40s, about the cost of one thousand Toyota Sienna minivans, far less than the cost of one mother. The human heart doesn’t bleed when someone grieves, but it aches, it burns, it weighs about 35 million pounds, weighs down the soul, pins it under the insurmountable hurt, keeps it there, hostage, below the deep current of transpiring days and nights.

Exactly one year after losing his mother, a child bikes to the bridge where he had last seen her. He brings his favorite toy, red like her lipstick. He pockets his Ferrari F40, fast and indomitable on any road. He stops between two neighborhoods, one that is okay, and another that is rough. He stops below the apex of a shallow, upside down, U-shaped steel frame, atop the flat asphalt it supports and beside the replaced, concrete barrier that stands out, newer than the rest. He stops, breathes in the chilled air, looks down to the black water which he hovers above, and floats beyond, like an angel overhead, casting its semi-shadow across the fast-moving water, a vague silhouette dead-center over one of our world’s many capillaries, many avenues leading to an unavoidable end.

A Ferrari F40 rides the guard rail like a circus act, like Evel Knievel, like an idiot or a drunk, like a ten-year-old kid. Without regard for safety –the rules be damned– a red-hot speedster disengages from the small, sweaty hand that holds it, that guides it, racing onward, top speed, a 228 mile-per-hour fledgling learning to fly, a prancing horse that thinks it might be Pegasus, an underwater ornament that never learned to swim. A child reacts and reaches out to grab open, free air, its cold molecules spilling through his little, clammy fingers. He panics, unable to cope, unable to reenact his favorite scene, the only scene in the whole of the world. He can’t bear losing it; that which is most dear to his heart, the overtaxed organ that aches as if an eighteen-wheeler smashed into its purple mass. He can’t bear losing it; the chance to relive the moment.

He looks down into the raging water. He lets go. He sees the world upside down.



James Callan grew up in Minnesota and currently lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand. His wife and son are great apes of the human distinction, but the remainder of his family consists of varying lifeforms, including cats, a dog, pigs, cows, goats, and chickens. His writing has appeared in Carte Blanche, Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Mystery Tribune, and elsewhere. He is the author of A Transcendental Habit (Queer Space, 2023).


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