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Short Fiction Contest: Flatland Ground Control

Kevin Trotman

For our 50th Anniversary Short Fiction Contest, we asked you to send a 700-word, or less, story in which Montana Public Radio is mentioned in some way. We'll be accepting entries until March 15, 2015. Winners will be announced in April. This story is by Geoff Badenach.

When I was sixteen, I drove my father’s Pontiac across the Musselshell River—well, most of the way.  It’s true what they say about kids believing themselves invincible and immortal, especially when they are behind the wheel of a fast car.  My cousins, Terry and Dusty, and I had a couple of beers each that afternoon, just enough to turn fun to stupidity.  It was inevitable our young lives would include something like that rocket ride skimming across the muddy water.  For what seemed longer than it could have possibly been, the Pontiac flew like a low flying jet—I swear I remember the motor revving to a roar once the wheels left the pavement. 

The slow-motion flight was packed with details—the missed turn, gravel spattering the turquoise side panels; cattails snapping off like icicles; a pair of startled ducks launching themselves.  I believe the Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica” was playing on Montana Public Radio.  When the front of the car touched down, the muddy brown water became a bow wave of perfect white.  It hung there in the air, part cloud, part rainstorm, while the Pontiac plowed forward and settled in about three feet of water.

Even though I saw it coming, I couldn’t help slamming headfirst into the steering wheel.  The impact split my forehead creating a scar I still wear. Then I bled like crazy. Terry twisted to look at me just before we launched and when we landed, his right shoulder crashed into the glove box.  Dusty, because she was in back, just got a split lip when her face hit the seat.

Once we settled, there was a soft gurgling sound as the river found its way into the car. My terror changed to the numbness of shock.  I calmly looked through the blood-soaked hair in front of my eyes at the water against my half rolled-up window and thought, “this is just like an aquarium.”  I dumbly turned as Terry grabbed his shoulder and started hollering; he was hurt, but I suspect he was also thinking how he wouldn’t make the football team that year. 

Dusty blinked for a few minutes and said, “Everybody bail, out the downstream side.”  Her tone was calm and business-like, which surprised me. By this time we were all sitting up to our bellies in river water and she was acting like the dutiful deck hand on the Titanic.  I’ll admit my notions of what is strong and brave changed that day; she showed me something I had only seen in one other woman, my mother.  I recognized her take-charge attitude as courage, a kind of courage I knew I would never experience in myself, no matter how many brave and decent things I did.

We made it to the riverbank and realized we looked worse than we were.  Direct pressure to my forehead stopped the bleeding, but I got a painful knot about the size of a golf ball.  I could barely stand to hold the makeshift bandage in place with Dusty’s pink scarf.  Terry’s shoulder wasn’t exactly broken so we stuck his hand inside his shirt and bound him up with his belt.  I had seen that in a plane crash movie and whether it was the right thing to do first aid-wise, I don’t know, but Terry stopped complaining.

We looked at the car sitting like a Detroit island in the Musselshell.  Dusty waded out and reached in the half-open windows and extracted the beer bottles bobbing in a brown flotilla above the dashboard.  She set them free to float on toward Mosby and waded back.  After a while we started our silent march back to the ranch.  Dusty said, “Your dad is going to be pissed enough as it is.  No sense him knowing about the beer.” 

She was right.  My dad was mad, but he focused most of his lecture on my being careless, irresponsible and a damn idiot, a feeling I have come to realize all fathers feel about their sons at some time. The only thing that broke his red-faced anger was the look of absolute disbelief when he saw how far I had flown the Pontiac.


Enter your story in the MTPR 50th Anniversary Short Fiction Contest.

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Chérie Newman is an arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. Her weekly literary program, The Write Question, is broadcast on several public radio stations, and available online at PRX.org and MTPR.org.
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