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A Toy Car for Emily: A Short Story
What am I reading right now?
Tom Corrigan, a college freshman, visits his family over winter break. He tries to convince his sister Emily that a plastic car has magical lights that glow whenever she isn't looking.
This is also the last short story I ever plan on writing (prefer novels). I decided to put it up here so I can look back at it a few years from now and remember what I was thinking about in February of 2015. Hope you like it.
A Toy Car for Emily
by Stephanie Manova
AT SIX O’CLOCK IN THE AFTERNOON, a taxi rolled in through the Corrigans’ front gates and stopped at the end of the driveway, engine still running as the cabbie popped the trunk. Tom Corrigan, who had no sense of time, gathered his luggage languidly and, studying the intricacies of the sidewalk, made his way to the house, dreaming of Emily and mathematics.
The doorbell rang. Morris Corrigan sat on the edge of the bed with an undone tie and a scotch on the rocks, tallying time on his wrist. His wife, Jane, brushed her hair in the vanity mirror and fixed her lipstick but little else, not one to fuss with makeup. She caught Morris watching her in the reflection. Their eyes stayed stuck like that till the doorbell rang for the second time.
“Aw, hell, Janie. You get it.”
“You don’t want to see him?”
“Like hell I want to see him. You know how he is.”
“Do you think he’s bad? Worse than before?”
“Like hell I think he’s bad. How could I know? I don’t remember what he’s like. I don’t remember anything about anyone. Jesus, Janie, would you get the damn door?”
She checked her reflection one last time, not for appearance but for expression, and, after deciding she looked scared shitless, cracked a smile anyway and wandered downstairs in her stocking-feet, pace quickening to a trot as she wondered how much of little Tommy had been corrupted by the gentlemen outside. She peered through the keyhole.
At age 19, Tom Corrigan looked, if only for a split second, like a kid again. He was watching the taxi drive off in the snow, captivated by the tire spokes as they seemed to switch directions and spin backwards as the car sped. He leaned on the banister with his hands in his pockets, tall and bright-eyed and clinically insane, dreaming about Emily, dreaming of mathematics.
The door opened. Tom caught sight of a figure in the doorway and gathered his mind from the billions of miles of empty space it was scattered it across, grinning wider as he recognized the woman in the frame. She was all blue eyes and cold hands, a surgeon and a mother. He wondered if she knew him well.
Jane smiled a little, if not out of happiness, for the sake of matching her son’s expression. Tom was always grinning, always would be. She couldn’t understand it. He loved everything, he smiled at it, that’s that.
“Aw, gee,” he said, straightening himself out, adjusting his bright blue tie, a true gentlemen, “Aw, hell, Mom. I missed you.”
Jane stood on her tip toes to reciprocate his embrace, pasty-faced, flexing her freshly painted fingernails so as not to get nail polish on his coat. “We call whenever we get a chance, Tommy. All we hear is silence, some crackles. We thought there was something wrong with the line.” She backed away with pursed lips, looking him up and down. “Why don’t you ever talk when you answer the phone? Don’t you have anything to say?”
“Then why don’t you say it?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s too much. I’ve got everything to say but I don’t know how to say it, so I say nothing. Just sit there listening to the phone static, trying to put the words together. It’s impossible. There are so many words, Mom. So many things. Endless combinations of words and things, but I’ll never say what I mean. I can’t stand it. I can’t even stand listening to myself right now. It kills me, Mom. I feel sick. Life’s too short for there to be this much. You know?” He took off his coat and closed the door behind him, grinning still, eyes filmed with water as the everlasting reverie in the back of his mind usurped him again.
Jane sighed as she could never understand, and opened the closet door to put on a pair of heels. “Morris?” she yelled up the stairs, clattering around in the newfound shoes, “Your son’s home.”
There was a silence, then a thud. Morris Corrigan paused and plodded down, slowly and then with less control, sporadic grip on the railing. “You look good, Tom,” Morris said, “Nice suit. Where the hell’ve you been? How’s that university you’re at?”
“Are you eating enough? Keep your room clean? Do your laundry? Like hell you do your laundry. Jesus, Tommy. You can’t even manage a goddamn phone call. A whole year, not one. Why’d you never call?”
As Tom let the question die, the remote sound of rolling wheels echoed through the house, then stopped, only to burst out full volume as Emily Corrigan drove a toy car through the threshold of the living room, carpet to hardwood.
Tommy ran towards her, arms outstretched, smiling ear to ear like he couldn’t contain himself anymore.
“How’s my favorite girl?”
“I’m dizzy, Tommy. You’re really tall. Are you seeing sparkles?”
“Me neither. But I want to. Spin me around again!”
He picked her up and they spun around another time and fell back on the living room couch, grinning at nothing together. “I’m happy you’re here, Tommy. I keep walking around and thinking you’re in the library or the office or something, reading your crazy books or programming computers. Nobody uses those rooms even though you’re gone. They’re pretty boring without you in them, you know?”
“Aw, Emily,” he said, “I don’t think that’s true. ”
Emily got up and spun, fascinated by the fabric of her dress. “I don’t know. It might be. I get bored without you. All I do around here is wear sweaters and eat dinner and finish homework.”
Emily shrugged, and wandered over to the plastic car she’d made her entrance in. “Pretty much. I wish I had a real life car.” she said, hopping in, “I could go places.” She pedaled around for a while, sitting in the tiny driver’s seat, going in circles.
“You know,” Tom said, “you do have a real car.”
“Yeah,” he said, “you’re sitting in one, this very second. Don’t you see it?”
“If a car is real, the lights back here light up when someone’s driving. That’s how they decide at the car shop, which cars are real and which ones aren’t.”
“Yep. They’re called backlights,” he said, tapping the spot where the brake lights were cheaply represented by plastic lining, “So long as they’re lighting up, the car’s real. Here, I’ll show you. Get out.”
Emily stood up. Tommy squeezed in and sat hunched over in the little car. He inched forwards, looking behind him. “Look. Don’t you see that?”
“Weird. The lights were just on till I told you to look over. Try looking away.”
She looked away.
“Okay. Now watch them again.”
“Tommy, what are you doing?”
“Fascinating,” he said, “absolutely fascinating.”
“What is it, Tommy?”
He got up, and motioned to the sofa. “You’ll need to sit for this.”
“Now, Emily. It looks like either you have a very special car, or you a very special girl. Likely both.
“Well. Whenever you aren’t looking, and the car’s moving, the lights back here” he said, tapping the backlights, “light up like an arcade. A brilliant red. Absolutely beautiful.”
“Yeah. I wish you could see it. This car may be a little slow, but it’s as real as any.”
“Oh, man.” She got back in, checking over her shoulder as she drove, “Dang! How do they know I’m looking?”
Tom shrugged. “They just do. It’s a special car.”
After a few minutes of pushing forwards, with and without pedals, checking over her shoulder as quickly as possible, Emily ran out of the room and into the kitchen. “Mom? Can I use the video camera?”
“I don’t see it, Tommy.”
“That’s crazy,” he said, “That car really has it in for you.”
“I guess,” she said, shutting the camera off and staring at the blank screen. After a while she wandered over to the piano, still thinking. A half-hearted rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in B-Flat Minor sounded out. She played the easy parts too quickly and the complexities too slow, mind on the car.
Tommy rocked on the sofa, hands pressed against his ears. “If you’re gonna play it slow, play it all slow.”
“No,” said Tommy, standing up and sitting down at the piano, “I’ve never played this piece before. So I play it as fast as I can without messing up.” He worked through the first few measures with great accuracy and enormous patience, albeit very, very, slowly.
Emily played again, this time exaggerating his slowness, a note a second. “Like this?”
“No.” Tommy played again, this time faster, almost right.
“Let me try.” she said, watching the keys glide up as he released them. “Hey, Tommy, would you let me try again?”
No response. She’d lost him. The piano played on.
Emily went back to her job of catching the car redhanded. She had an idea to see the backlights in action with an elaborate set up of mirrors.
Twenty minutes later, Tom had the first two pages of the Chopin down and Mrs. Corrigan was as inebriated as her spouse. Emily was on break, sitting in the kitchen, spinning a spoon in a glass of orange juice and engineering her next attack. “You don’t need a spoon for juice, Emily,” Jane said.
“The box says mix well.”
“That’s not what it means.” There was an error in the notes drifting in from the living room, a repeated measure followed by a restart. “Hey Tom! Stop playing that piano and come eat dinner with your family!”
The nocturne dwindled out, and, after a stretch of silence, started up again from the beginning, one more time with feeling.
Silence. The bench slid out over the floor.
Tom left it like that, paced from one end of the room to the other. The car was gone, Emily too. He went to the kitchen. The table wasn’t set, dinner wasn’t ready. The sink water ran. He put the plates and food out as people talked at and around him, use the green placemats, it’s your turn to do the dishes, how’re you gonna manage without our money in a few years, we’re worried about you, how are your grades, are you seeing anyone, do you have friends, are you skipping class, how long are you staying home, if you plan on spending the night in this house you better help get some work done around here, how could you not call, treating us like some sort of landlords, we’re your parents, Tom, Jesus Tom, what happened to little Tommy?
“I’m trying,” he said, “Where’d Emily go?”
“In the snow?” He opened the window and searched the expanse of yard, the grape vine covered in white, a tarp over the swimming pool. Emily sat huddled into herself, inside of the plastic car, arms crossed in her bright yellow jacket, hatless and gloveless, fine blonde hair laced with snowflakes.
“Emily?” He shut the window and ran to the other end of the house where he slid the door open and stepped outside, shivering on the veranda. “Hey, Emily!”
She tugged the little car after her, flipping her hood as she approached the house. “Yeah?”
“What’re you doing?”
“I dunno. I thought maybe the car wouldn’t be able to tell I’m the one who’s driving it if I drove it outside.”
He laughed. “Is that what you thought.”
“It’s too cold out here to think anything, kid. It’s cold everywhere we go, you notice that? How can you stand it?”
Emily shrugged, brushed some snow off the hood of the car.
“Anyway. Dinner’s ready.”
They walked in together and sat down at their usual seats. “Emily. Everyone was waiting for you.”
“Sorry,” she said, cutting into the steak, eating quickly.
They ate in silence. Tom shoveled food into his mouth systematically.
“Isn’t this nice?” Jane said, diligent with the salad, “Us eating together as a family?”
Morris nodded. “Christ, I wish I didn’t drink so much tonight. I can’t think. Why’d we ever get that bottle out anyway?”
Jane shrugged, carefully drunk herself.
“It’s ‘cause I make you all nervous as hell,” said Tom. The eating paused, forks scraped slowly, dropping onto half-eaten plates. “Don’t I? You think I’m crazy, don’t you? You all watch your step, trying not to set anything off. If you wanted to talk so bad, why didn’t you come out and visit? You know how I am with the telephone and all those things. I just can’t manage a conversation like that. I try but I can’t. I get nervous. It is what it is.”
“You know, Tom,” Morris said, “You should try and cooperate. Not everything is easy, you know? Some people have problems with language, you have problems with telephones, but you know what you do? You practice. You figure it out. Learn how to communicate in a way other people can understand. You may be smart, kid, but I’ve been smart longer, and let me tell you something. Can I? Intelligence is wasted on people like you.”
Tom, who was still grinning despite an inexplicable sort of sadness swelling up in his heart, started thinking about the telephone, what never made it through those currents of electricity. He said nothing.
“People like what, Morris?” Jane said.
The dad chewed. “Lazy people, Jane. People who think they’re special. He needs to tone it down a notch and do what’s asked of him like the rest of us. See, he’s not even listening, are you Tom.”
The dad shook his head. “Come back down to Earth, Tom. Jesus Christ.”
Emily, who had gotten up from the table a minute ago, rolled into the kitchen on her wheels. “Hey Mom, can you see the backlights lighting up?”
Tom dropped his fork. “Aw, hell, Emily. There’s no such thing as backlights. Nothing’s lighting up. They’re actually called brake lights. They light up on real cars when you press the brakes.”
Without a shift in expression, Emily stopped and sat there in her Little Tikes. “What’s your point, Tommy?” she said, “You never have a point.”
He stood up. “My point is, that’s a fake-ass car. I made the whole thing up. You’re six, Emily. Like hell you can drive.”
She got out, and began to cry. “Liar!” she said, running up the stairs.
He felt suddenly horrible and ran after her. “Aw, gee, Emily. I’m sorry. I’m really really sorry.” He sat next to her in her bedroom, flowers on the duvet, “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean it.”
“Get out of my room, Tommy!”
He stood up and went into the hallway. She slammed the door on him. “I’m sorry, alright?”
“Why would you lie about something so stupid?”
“I don’t know, kid, I don’t know. Can I tell you something?”
She opened the door. Her room was still dark. She turned the light on and wiped her face on her sweater and took it off. “You’re a jerk sometimes, you know that?”
“That’s for sure. I’m terrible. What a mess.”
She sat in relentless silence.
“What’d you say we take a drive in a real life car? You can sit in the front.”
He could see the idea had affected her slightly. “You sure?” he said.
She shrugged. “Our car isn’t any different than the plastic one.”
“What’d you mean? It drives at 120 miles an hour! That’s crazy, Emily!”
“It does that for anybody. It just does what it’s supposed to do. And anyways, it’s not a big deal. I’m just mad you lied. You should’ve told the truth. ”
“Look, I’m sorry. I lie about stupid things sometimes, couldn’t tell you why. What’d you say? Let’s go for a drive in the real car, yeah?”
She shook her head no, and stood up, searching the closet for a clean sweater. “I told you. That car’s fake, too, Tommy. It’s not magic. It doesn’t care who’s driving. It just does what it’s programmed to do. What it’s made for.” She looked him in the eyes, grinning wildly. “You know, Tommy. Maybe the whole world is plastic cars.”
“Aw, hell, Emily,” he said, standing up again, losing his mind, “Holy shit. Don’t say that.”
“What?” She slid into the sky-blue sweater, extending her arms as she fell back onto the papery linen, crinkling the bed sheets. “It’s true.”
“I mean, sure. But why’d you gotta say it like that? Why’s everything gotta be so bad all the time?”
“It’s not bad, Tommy,” she said, flipping through the pages of a book, pretending to read, “It just is what it is. And anyway, what are you even trying to say?”
Tom Corrigan thought about it in the garage, the house growing silent as the hours passed. Moonlight striped through the high window as the daylight failed. The cold settled in and eventually evened, at which point he could no longer account for the passage of time. He turned the Mercedes on to muffle out the silence and let it run. He was grinning still. Smiling at the exhaust pipe, the plastic car parked somewhere in the living room. He looked out at the vast landscape of cement, the elegance of the tools, the shelves of masterful books, storage boxes of past efforts made in a search for meaning, and closed his eyes, thinking he wanted a truth to end all searching; to say, that’s it, we understand the universe, we can stop looking for answers, we don’t need to do anything anymore. We know.
He felt alive.
The morning light pervaded the city outside. Tom leaned against the brick wall with his hands in his pockets, tall and bright-eyed and clinically insane, no thoughts, no dreams. His mind froze over as the gas leaked out and he smiled about it and adjusted his tie, a true gentlemen. And then he stopped smiling and the answer came to him, little Tommy far out of earshot, the real car engine mumbling mindlessly on.