Levels of the Game

Timmy was an eleven year old smash up metal crunching addict. It was chance. He was crossing the street, head down, playing Ace Combat on Game Boy: the traffic light had turned red, brakes screeched, a car stopped inches from him. He saw the bleached horror of the driver. Cool.

Timmy now had a new game: running in front of a car, then jumping back, trying to see how much skid he could get. Long skids: he felt high, high as the sky, bouncing off the clouds. One day, a Chevy skidded into the intersection, clipped a Toyota. Def. Nothing to match this, not even the Drop Tower at Great America, 225 feet in 4 seconds.

Next level: Collisions. Tricky. He had to watch the oncoming car, figure out how fast it was going, watch cars from the other direction, how fast they were going, traffic lights, all at the same time. He was used to traffic. He’d been walking to school by himself since he was eight. Knew what drivers would do. Just by looking at them: one hand on the wheel would only stop for cops and trucks; two hands would stop for a pigeon.

One day, he got a real smash up. Tow trucks were called to pull the cars apart. Nobody hurt, just shaken and swearing. It left him with a woozy off-the-ground feeling.

No one got a good look at Timmy, just a small thin boy flashing across the street, then vanishing. He tried to wear something different every day. He had a bunch of hats and sometimes turned his jacket inside out. He stayed away from the streets near the apartment and school.

A couple days after the smash up, a bigger kid, blonde shaggy hair, red t-shirt, tapped him on the shoulder. He looked thirteen or fourteen.

“You’re Timmy Duggan, aren’t you? Been watching you jump in front of cars. You’re pretty good.”

Timmy darted past him, but the kid grabbed him by the collar.

“Hey, where you going?”

“Wasn’t me,” Timmy said. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not here to make trouble. My name’s Sam.”

“What about?” Timmy would have run again, but Sam had a hold on him.

He pulled Timmy into an alley. Kind of frightening, Sam had pale blue eyes that didn’t blink, alien like. “It’s about a gang for kids whose folks got killed by jerks that run red lights.”

“What do you want with me? Timmy asked.

“I read about your parents. Can we talk?”

“Maybe later, I got to go now.” Timmy shrugged, and sluffed off to school. But, an idea for the next level: Go after red light runners. He reckoned it took even closer timing and the cars had to be coming faster. He chose a big intersection, Van Ness and Geary, for the first try. He went there a couple days in a row, just after school, at three o’clock. The cars were quiet then, stopping at the lights, moving slowly through the intersection, like they were out for a stroll.

Timmy sat in the bus stop, had a coke at Mel’s Diner, walked the streets, and got patterns in his head. Four-thirty, people getting off work, it got noisy: engines racing, horns. He stood on the median, darted out as a green Land Rover sped through the red and a blue Mercedes was exploding into the intersection. Driver of the Land Rover hit the brakes, the car spun, faced the Mercedes. Head on. Drivers slumped. Then both were hit from behind. Their heads bounced. Amazing, I’m flying.

Next morning while he was eating his cereal his aunt showed him a picture of the accident in the Chronicle.

“I knew it was bound to happen, the way people in this city run lights,” Aunt Sue said. “And can you believe one of the drivers says he would have made it through the intersection if a little boy hadn’t run in front of him?”

“That’s not a good excuse,” Timmy said. “Is it?”

Sam was waiting for him after school. “Caught the action on Van Ness yesterday; nice,” Sam said. “But hey, that Mercedes didn’t do anything wrong. Got to think about that. Come on over to my place. Meet some of the gang.”

Sam lived with his older brother in a big new apartment in North Beach. Sleek leather and chrome chairs and sofas, lots of paintings on the walls in the living room. Looked rich. Not like where Timmy lived. Aunt Sue and Uncle Mark had taken over her grandmother’s place: dark scratchy sofa and chairs, yellowish pictures of old people in thick brown frames.

Sam had his own room, a big one. When he closed the door, Timmy heard clicking sounds, like the room was sealing itself shut. Heavy black curtains over the windows. A bluish glow. Five other kids, about Timmy’s size, appeared out of the glow. Eerie, spooky.

Sam saw his look: “Only KARR kids allowed here,” he said. “We mess up drivers that run red lights; teach them a real lesson, something they’ll remember better than a crummy old ticket, like a totally wrecked car. We got rules; read them.”

Kids Against Red Runners Rules
1. Kids punish only Red Runners.
2. Kids cannot try to kill Red Runners.
3. If somebody else could get hurt, Kids cannot go after a Red Runner. Abort.
4. Kids must be under five feet.
5. Kids cannot tell anyone about KARR.

You swear to these rules?”

“Sure,” Timmy said.

“You have to say, ‘I swear,’” Sam said.

“Okay, I swear.”

Then four computers lit up: police records on red light violations, DMV records on license plates and addresses, GPS tracking, traffic pattern recognition systems. KARR knew where every Red Runner car in the city was, and the streets they used to get there, day and night.

The next day Timmy and Sam went to the corner of Lombard and Franklin to watch Juan. Juan was a round kid, round body, hedge hog hair, pug nose and mouth molded into a choir boy smile of innocence. He made Timmy look like a pencil. With his pinched eyes and small mouth Timmy could look lost, but not guileless.

“We’re looking for a red BMW,” Sam said. “Plates: 1000101. There it is.”

Just as the BMW blew through the red, Juan jumped from the curb, ran diagonally right to left across the car’s path, driver’s eyes lit up, car swerved left, smacked into the traffic pole, front end accordioned.

“See,” Sam said. “See how he came at the car so it turned into the pole?”

Sam put Timmy through training drills every day for three months: math drills on timing traffic lights, eye drills on tracking moving cars, angle drills on getting cars to swerve a certain way, foot drills to avoid getting hit. In the next six months, Timmy managed to wreck more cars than anyone else in the gang. But the freaky lightness wasn’t lasting as long. He persuaded Sam to let him scout his own hits. A week after studying patterns on the computer, he figured, if everything works just right, he might get a double--two Red Runners at the same time at Van Ness and Broadway.

5:17 p.m.: the black Jaguar, plates OOOLALA, check, stopped at the light on Broadway. The red Hummer, plates O2 BE ME, check, coming down the slope on Van Ness, the light changed, Hummer didn’t slow, kept coming, NOW, Timmy ran out, turned, gave the driver a look, his mouth opened in a scream. Hummer hit the brakes, slid sideways into the intersection, Jaguar, driver with cell to ear, leapt from its crouch at the light, metal tore, glass shattered, air bags blew. Timmy was half a block away, turned around, a fist pump, an Awesome!, and walked on home.

The next morning, Sam, Juan and the rest of the gang were at the corner. They smothered him like he’d hit a bottom-of-the-ninth-homer; lifted him up on their shoulders.

Twenty years later, Timmy’s record of ten doubles still stands. His exploits and techniques are part the initiation for every KARR recruit.

“So what’s he doing now?” one asks.

“Pushing tin at SFO.”

In the control tower, a smile reflects off the screen of his monitor as Tim maneuvers two 797s within a whisker of each other.


dispatch litareview, 2010