What If? Quick Take: 1996 Dodge Neon Hatchback

Abimelec Arellano

Welcome to What If? Quick Take, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. While the cars shown in our regular What If? features are full 3D renderings and can appear in any number of images, the Quick Takes are off-the-cuff expressions of Abimelec’s imagination. Each one is accompanied by a short story. Enjoy! — Jack Baruth

Rechell could hear the shower running as she walked in the door, she could hear the trinkle-tinkle laughter of her cousin Charisma over the rush of the water, she could hear the basso-lack-of-profundo responses of her fiancé, and she could hear the voice in her own head saying: Enough.

It had been another unremarkably crummy day at HappyTots, the place where she worked fifty hours a week as a “child care specialist”. Legally speaking, she had two jobs. The first job was with CheerfulChildren LLC dba HappyTots, and it was ten hours a day, Monday through Thursday. The second was with CheerfulChildren II LLC dba HappyTots, and it was ten hours a week on Friday. She was never quite sure how this was legal, but she knew why they did it: so they didn’t have to pay her five hours of overtime each and every week. HappyTots was open eight to six every day so their nine-to-five customers could make it to and from work. Thus the fifty-hour weeks, at eight dollars and thirty cents an hour.

Rechell hated every minute of it, but if you ran the film of her life in reverse you could see that this was actually the high point so far. Going backwards: she took the HappyTots job in June of 1996, two and a half years ago, after graduating from an Ohio State regional campus with a degree in elementary education only to find that only the inner-city districts would hire her. The suburban schools had waiting lists for K-5 jobs, ten years deep, shelf-stocked with women who didn’t really need the work thanks to advantageous post-college marriages and who were happy to be substitute teachers on an every-so-often basis just to keep their names at the top of the hiring list.

Two years before that, in 1994, she had met Will during a drunken girls’ trip to the real Ohio State campus in Columbus. They’d hooked up that night, of course. It was no big deal for Rechell, who had lost count of her boyfriends somewhere around the three-dozen mark in either her senior year of high school or her first year of college, she couldn’t remember. But for Will it was love at first sight. He was a six-four, two-forty dour lump of a man who, as one of his friends said, was “born as a middle-aged dude”. He was a junior manager for a healthcare firm, a few years out of school and doing pretty well.

At the time, Rechell had been dangerously close to failing out. It wasn’t that she was too stupid to understand fifth-grade math; of course she understood it. But the other things surrounding the core classes, all the “Psychology Of The Developing Child” stuff, was like molasses in her head, hard to grip and it wouldn’t stay when she thought she had it. Will fixed all of that. He wouldn’t let her go. Kept calling her after that hookup. Drove out to help her with classes, to sleep with her in her off-campus studio. He was grateful for her. Nobody had ever felt that way before, about her anyway. She would wake up to find the whole place sparkling clean, Will wearing an apron and scrubbing the toilet with unfeigned intensity. Will said that he would do anything for her. He asked if he was her first real boyfriend. She took a breath, evaluated the situation, and lied to him. Said she’d only dated two people before him. Will accepted this without question. “That’s good,” he said, “because you’re my first real girlfriend.” He was twenty-seven years old. To keep him from being forcibly acquainted with reality in the form of a laughing former hookup or ex, Rechell always insisted that they go out for dinner in Columbus or somewhere else that wasn’t home.

Before that there was high school and the whirlwind of boys, gas-station low-percentage vodka, nights where she never came home. And underneath all that was the nightmare of her pre-teen years, the feather-soft steps coming towards her bedroom door in the darkness, all the things about which it was no longer necessary to think. She had Will. She had a job. It made her tired and the two old nurses who owned all the different iterations of CheerfulChildren were so nasty to her it made her feel nauseous sometimes, but she was doing okay and soon she would be married to a man who had a real career. He’d already bought her a car, a 1996 Neon Hatchback, with the astounding sticker price of $13,495 and a real five-speed transmission. It had a tape player and on the way to work she would play “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and think about junior prom and a boy named Daunte. Then she would feel sad and better all at once, like a bruise that was almost good when you pressed it.

In fact everything had been quite fine until the appearance of Charisma. She was her mother’s half-sister’s daughter, two years older than Rechell and, everyone agreed, a lot prettier. She worked as an LPN at the hospital in Columbus and up to last month she’d lived with some mysterious older man in a suburb north of town. Something had happened and she’d shown up at the door of Will and Rechell’s tidy little condo with all her luggage one night, long streaks ruining her makeup.

“We can get her a hotel,” Will had suggested, but Rechell had angrily countered: She’s family! Charisma had set up with her complete suite of animal-pattern luggage in their spare bedroom. The first two weeks had been a parade of random men and a lot of noise that ensured Rechell arrived at HappyTots every morning already feeling half-dead from lack of sleep, but then the parade had come to an end and been replaced by something worse. Charisma would bounce into the family room in thin pajamas, announce that she wanted to watch whatever movie they were renting, and settle in between Rechell and Will. “Thanks, cuz,” she would say, kissing Will on the cheek and snuggling up to him, then falling asleep with her head on Will’s shoulder.

Almost immediately Will and Charisma became inseparable. They’d meet for lunch every day, something Will had always wanted to do with Rechell but which hadn’t been possible due to the no-lunch-break policy at HappyTots. Charisma worked odd hours at the hospital and she was frequently around when Rechell wasn’t, or vice versa. They didn’t talk much. But Will was always bursting with stories and news from Charisma, all delivered in this super-disgusting tone of voice that made it plain just how much he admired her cousin.

Abimelec Arellano

“Charisma really has the world on a string,” he said to her in bed one evening, just when Rechell had been hoping to steer their discussion towards maybe making some plans for their actual wedding. “She picked the right profession. She’s in control of her life … her finances … her body.”

“Well then, maybe she can control her body into her own apartment or something,” Rechell snapped.

“As you will recall, Rechell,” Will said in that prissy distant way of his, “I didn’t want her here, but you insisted. What goes around, comes around.” It was a hick phrase that Rechell’s mother used to say, and it sounded especially awkward in Bill’s tight little mouth. One Friday evening Rechell came home from work to find Will and Charisma both gone. She called Will’s cellphone but there was no answer. She paged Charisma but got nothing. Finally they rolled in after two in the morning, drunk and entwined around each other, laughing about something that someone had said in the bar. Rechell went into the family room and put her body between the two of them.

“Are you coming to bed, Will?” she asked, the arrival of tears shaking in her throat.

“Looks like Momma is here to spoil the fun,” Will slurred in response, but he did in fact follow her into their room, where he promptly threw up and passed out.

Now Rechell found herself in that same family room, listening to what was clearly Will and Rechell laughing in the shower. Her knees felt weak. She didn’t want to go in — but she had to. She crumpled her fingernails into her palms, the way she did when she was young and she wanted to be far away from where she was. Then she wiped her face with her forearm and opened the bathroom door in a single angry motion.

The room was filled with steam from waist level on up but she could see Charisma soaping her admittedly perfect body in the chrome-and-glass shower, giggling at something Will had said. Will, in turn, was fully dressed in his Brooks Brothers suit, sitting on the toilet, gesticulating wildly. At the sound of the door slamming against the stop, and the inrush of chilled air, both of them went quiet and looked at her.

“Hey there, buttercup,” Will said. “Our cuz was just telling me that –”

“I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT!” Rechell’s voice was bigger than she was, it was all the voices at once, all the times she’d stayed quiet, now forged together into a single bugle blast of pure rage that was directed at her father, her indifferent boyfriends, her lecherous teachers, the nurses at HappyTots — but most of all, it was directed at the man she suddenly recognized as her ex-fiancé. “I HOPE THE TWO OF YOU ARE …” and now she was running out of power, the live wire running through her body had smoked itself out like a bad bulb, “… VERY HAPPY!”

Will and Charisma chased her into the bedroom, Charisma still luminously undressed and flouncing in a manner largely calculated to retain Will’s attention, as Rechell started overstuffing everything she had into the only suitcase she owned. Screaming wordlessly, she ran back and forth to the Neon, throwing clothes and shoes into the back until the windows were entirely blocked by polyester pants, shoes from Payless, cute tops that didn’t fit her anymore. On her last trip out the door, with the Neon’s glow-in-the-dark key clenched firmly in her right hand and an umbrella in her left, Will interspersed his unpleasant bulk between her and the world outside.

“Rechell, that is my car, I paid for it.” She punched him in the stomach. He crumpled.

“Baby, you’re hurt! I’m a nurse! I can help!” Charisma threw her body onto Will and they rolled out onto the front step as a neighbor child on a rusty bicycle openly gaped at the situation. Rechell stepped over and past them. Slammed the hatch shut on the Neon. Fired it up. Pulling out onto the main road, she let the clutch come out too fast and the Dodge’s nose darted left and right like a dog sniffing for the scent of a criminal before snapping straight and pawing for the road ahead as the speedometer swept past the 50 mark. She hit a pothole and the hatch popped back open, flew straight up for a moment before being pressed into parallel with the roofline by the wind. Immediately her clothes and random possessions started emptying themselves into the air, across the street, into the windshield of the car behind her. There was a screech and then a thump behind her. Then it was just the rush of the turbulent air into the cockpit of her escape pod.

At a gas station three miles down the road, Rechell closed the Neon’s hatch, properly this time. She bought a Coke and a 3 Musketeers bar. On the way out, the rack of maps caught her eye. Most of them were for places in Ohio, but there was one that said “Western United States and Alaska”. She pulled it from the rack and walked out without paying. On I-70 West, with the signs for Indianapolis visible in the sodium glare of the highway lamps, she opened it and spread it across the two-spoked steering wheel. She closed her eyes. Put her finger down. It was a place called Bakersfield. And that was where she was going to go.

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