Written by Pauli Kohberger, illustrated by Michael Stearns (twitter)
J. Jam was a DJ, but he was a lot of other things, too, like a songwriter, musician and general town activist. Above all else, he was a workaholic, which is why he had his notebook open on one of the outside tables at an out-of-the-way restaurant called Jodi's. It was hidden from most of the bustle on the top tier of the town, so, on a good night, he could usually avoid being interrupted by his two best friends.
"Hey, Jam!" A loud, insistent honking came from behind, and Jam turned to see Bob Sparker and Margaret King, ever the party animals, pull up in Sparker's lime green convertible. Looks like it wasn't a good night, then. "Buddy!"
"What's up?" Jam asked, pulling off his headphones. "I'm busy."
"You're eating," Margaret pointed out, leaning out of the window. "Let's go for a ride! You can eat in here!"
"I haven't even paid yet," he protested, holding up the bill. Past Margaret he could see Bob sitting in the driver's seat, sipping something out of a fast food cup. "Where are you guys even going?"
"Just for a ride! Come on, gimme that. Lemme see it," Margaret pressed, and Jam handed her the bill. She pulled out a pen, jotted something down on the paper and gave it a big, dramatic kiss, then handed it back. "It's my credit card number. Now you can come. I'll even let you ride shotgun!"
That was pretty persuasive, and it was a nice night anyway, so Jam ended up riding in the passenger's seat as they whipped their way around the streets and squares of the city. "So how are you doing, pal?" Bob asked, leaning over to wrap an arm around Jam's shoulders. "Working hard?"
"Yeah," he said, kicking back the seat and tilting his head back into the cool air. Through his dark glasses, he could see the dim spots of streetlights pass over his head. "I'm writing a new song. Haven't quite got it yet, but it's getting there."
"I was joking, you know," Bob said, raising his voice up above the wind as he turned back to the road. "When's the last time you had a dinner you didn't work through?"
"When's the last time you had a dinner that wasn't fast food?"
Bob let out a good-natured grumble, grabbed his empty drink, and sipped at it with a rattling sucking sound. Behind them, Margaret barked out a laugh. "He's got you there! So hey, Jam," she said, leaning over the shoulder of his seat. The streetlights glinted off her bright hair. "You got any plans tonight?"
"I gotta meet someone, actually," he said. "A buddy of mine who works in 1-3. Can you drop me off at the plaza? I'll take the bus."
"He lives on the first floor? I'll do you better than that," Bob said, and he turned the car off into a side street. "It'll be way too crowded at the plaza tonight. How about we take the back way?"
He rounded one corner, and then another, and ended up on a street that ran along the edge. Soon they could see the road split off into a lane on the right that was guarded by an unlocked gate. "I don't know if we're allowed to use these roads," Margaret quipped, as Bob parked the car and hopped out. "I think they're only for the electric company."
"Well, technically, I work for the electric company, and he works for the electric company," Bob said, pushing open the gate and swinging the chain loosely around a pylon. "And as for you, Miss King, I'm pretty sure you're the daughter of the guy who runs the electric company. So if we can't use it, who can?"
"Can't argue with that," Margaret yawned, and put her feet up.
They drove down the maintenance road that curved around and around the outer wall of the city, wrapped around it like a spiral staircase. It was a dark, clear night, and the winds that normally buffeted the town had quieted down to minor gales. "It takes longer to get to where you're going," Bob said, his voice a constant yammer, "but the view's one-of-a-kind, don't you think?"
Jam turned his head and peered. Through his sunglasses, he couldn't see anything, and he lifted them up. In the distance, the mountains around Electric Valley could be seen, tall and dark, and the ground was a greyish, barely rust-colored mass. "Yeah," he said. "One of a kind."
There was a veeerroowww as something sped past them in a flash of red. It was so fast that Bob's car jolted to the side, and he yelped as he struggled with the wheel.
"Whoa!" Jam gripped the side of the car door. "What was that? I thought you said nobody came this way!"
"Th-that's what I thought," Bob stammered, looking forwards and back. "I've never seen that car before!"
"Was it a car?" Margaret asked, pulling herself up from where she'd tumbled over in the back seat. "Didn't look like any car I've ever seen..."
For a brief moment there was quiet, and then, slowly, the red car came back into view. Its engine growled as it dropped further and further back. The two cars were almost level now, and they could get a good look at it: it was shiny and sleek, and through its tinted windows they could only barely make out the shape of someone's helmet.
"Holy shit," Jam whispered. "It's a racecar. Probably part of one of those underground gangs..."
"Underground what?" Bob echoed, his teeth almost chattering. "Gangs?"
"Yeah, the drag racers!" Margaret exclaimed, crawling over to the driver's side passenger seat and peering over the side of the door. "I heard those gearheads meet up in the dust valley around town! That's what people say, anyway."
The mystery car revved its engine and flashed its headlights twice. "Looks like he wants a little competition," Jam murmured. "He's asking if you want to race."
"Well, I don't!" Bob spat. He jerked the car away from the other driver, and tried to wave him ahead. "Just go, you maniac! I don't have time for--"
There was a horrible screech of metal on metal as the red car slammed up against Bob's green convertible. He let out a shriek as his car jolted again to the side, nearly grinding up against the concrete wall surrounding the city. Margaret yelled and fell back onto the seat, and even Jam gritted his teeth.
As Bob weaved over the road, the red car pulled up in front of them. Jam turned and looked over his shoulder as the driver kept their car in line with Bob's--
"This is bad," Jam said. "Bob..."
Before Jam could even say "watch out," the car pivoted its taillights upwards, flooding Bob's view with light. He yelped and threw his arm across his face, but Jam was already grabbing his shoulders and heaving him out of the driver's seat.
"I'll drive!" Jam hollered. "C'mon, man, keep cool!"
"But Jam, you don't--" Bob quickly crawled out of the driver's seat as Jam took his spot. "You don't drive!"
"I can!" he insisted, trying to keep all three of them calm. "Margie, call your dad!"
"One step ahead of you," she called out. Jam's gaze flickered to the rearview mirror, and she was laying so flat against the seat he could barely see her at all. All he could make out were the curls of her hair and the white shape of her cell phone, and that was enough.
As one of the few people in town who wore sunglasses all the time, the light barely bothered Jam at all. He grabbed the wheel and kept it turned, hugging the curve around the wall of the city.
"Who does this kid think they are?" Bob groused, rubbing at his eyes. "Agh...Jesus, that smarts!" An exit into the walls of the city whipped past them, then another. "That was 1-3," Bob said. "Jam, we missed it!"
"I know!" Jam hollered. "Margie, what did your dad say?"
"He said he's sending someone out right away!" Margie called out. "Just hang in there, Jam! Try and take the next exit!"
"I'll try," he responded, squinting into the light. "I dunno if I can, though..." He tried to head to the left, then the right, and either way the driver kept pace in front of him. "Hold on, guys, I'm gonna try something."
"What?" Bob asked. "Jam, what are you--"
Jam weaved to the left, then suddenly turned the wheel sharply to the right and hit the gas. He managed to squeeze up between the red racecar and the wall of the city, and Bob yelped and ducked down as the side of his lime-green convertible brushed up against the concrete, sending up a spray of sparks.
To make matters worse, the racecar was closing in to the side. "Get away from us!" Margaret yelled, sitting up in the back. She reached up to grab Bob's drink container and hurled it at the other car, sending the remains of the milkshake inside splattering, thick and gooey, across its windshield. It weaved from side to side, its tires screeching.
"Take that!" Margaret laughed. "That's what you get!"
"We're almost out of town!" Bob hollered. "Margie, get down, for God's sake! We're gonna end up in the--"
There was a screeeech and then a loud, long foooom as both cars bumped over the end of the road. Bob Sparker's car spun out, turning around and around as its tires squealed in the thick dust that covered Electric Valley. It raised dust clouds so thick and opaque that even after the car came to a stop, they couldn't see anything at all.
Bob, Jam and Margaret coughed and hacked, trying to wave the dust away. "Everyone okay?" Jam croaked. "Bob? Margie?"
"I'm good," Bob wheezed. "I wasn't the one standing up like a cowboy back there--"
"I'm fine," Margaret snapped, then burst into coughing. "Ugh...that was awful."
"You should see the other guy," Bob laughed weakly. "Speaking of which...where are they?"
Slowly, the dust dissipated on the wind. A hundred or so feet away was the red racecar, its headlights shining.
"I can't see anything inside," Jam said, taking off his glasses and squinting. "We should make sure they're okay."
"After what they did to my car?" Bob groused. "We should just leave 'em here. You're not supposed to move people who've been in a car accident anyway, right?"
"Only if they're injured," Jam pointed out. "Margie, can you...?"
Margaret stepped out of the car. "Yeah, okay," she said hoarsely. "At least now I can give 'em a good talking-to."
"Well, if you're going, then I'm going too," Bob chimed in, following her. "C'mon, Jam, let's make sure this guy knows who he's messing with!"
Bob and Jam watched as she strode over to the car, leaned over, and rapped hard on the driver side door. "Hey!" she said sternly. "Open up, you little punk!"
Slowly, the window squeaked downwards. The driver inside was wearing a full racing suit, complete with helmet, and aside from moving a little slowly and looking a little dazed, the three couldn't tell much about them.
"You okay?" Jam asked.
Margaret leaned down and muscled him out of the way. "What's the big idea?" she said. "You could have killed us, driving like that!" She pointed at herself. "Do you even know who I am? I'm Percy King's daughter! That's right! The Percy King!"
Bob leaned in too, poking his sizable nose through the window. "And I'm Bob Sparker," he added, waving. "That was my car."
The driver looked back and forth between the three of them. Suddenly, their gloved hands started to shake.
"My dad's gonna be here any minute, and when he does, you're gonna be--hey!" Margaret stammered as the window started coming back up. "You can't just do that! Cut that out! I'm not done yelling at you yet!"
"Ow!" Bob yelped, pulling his head back. "My nose!"
The driver slammed down the gas. Their tires squealed in the dust as they peeled out, and after the dust settled and they finished coughing and hacking, the three of them saw the red car traveling back up the looping road around the city.
"Man," Jam wheezed, almost doubled over. "That sucker sure got outta here fast."
"Pretty much the moment they saw our faces." Bob groaned and got back in his car, flopping bonelessly into the back seat. "You think they got scared?"
"They better have!" Margaret dusted herself off. "Well, whatever. Dad'll have them found in an hour tops. And when he does..."
"We'll get a good apology out of them, at least," Bob sighed. "Maybe some cash for the repairs...what's the damage, fellas? I can't bear to look."
Jam knelt down by the front of Bob's car. "Well, your tires are a mess, and the paint's all jacked up," he called out. Bob let out another world-weary groan. "And you got dents all up on this side, and one of your headlights is out..."
"Fantastic," Bob replied.
"It could be worse," Margie chimed in, pushing herself up to sit on the hood of the car. "It probably still runs, right?"
"Yeah, but let's wait for the cavalry." Bob put his feet up on the top of the car door, crossing his legs at the ankles. "I don't want anyone to see me in this thing when it's all messed up...and besides, I really, really don't feel like driving anymore tonight. Do you, Jam?"
"No," he agreed, getting into the passenger side front seat. He took off his dark glasses and wiped them on his shirt. "Man...what a night."
"What a night," Margie agreed. "We'll just wait here, okay, guys? It won't be long."
The three of them stayed in the dark valley, watching the wind travel slowly across the earth, carrying billowing puffs of dust across the distance. Far away, they could see the ring of mountains that encircled the city, sitting underneath a sky black as charcoal and mottled with deep grey clouds.
"This is spooky," Margaret whispered, pulling her coat around herself. "Isn't it? It's all quiet."
"I like it," Jam sighed, leaning his head back. "Its real soothing. To me, anyway."
"Mm." Bob yawned. "Well, I don't like it, but I ain't staying out here, so it doesn't matter. Soon we'll be back in the top tier, safe 'n' sound. Oh yeah, and I'll get our ride to drop you off at 1-3," he added, nodding towards Jam. "Sorry my little shortcut got us in trouble."
"It ain't your fault," Jam said. He let out a deep groan as he stretched his arms above his head. "It's the traffic that was hell."
Bob let out a laugh, and even Margaret snorted a little. And in the distance they could see the sparkling lights of a small force of police cars, followed by a tow truck, traveling down the city loop.