There was a drop of my father’s blood on the dashboard. He held up the pinewood car with bandaged fingers; the one wrapped around his right index finger was sopping red. “Best one yet, kiddo.” It really was.
Dad and I had a deal: he’d carve the cars and I’d take care of the rest. Dad kept it simple: he whittled the wood down and shaped it with my granddad’s hand knife. Dad was pretty good with it but occasionally his hands would get shaky and the knife would slip.
Dad said all the other vets from Peru had the same hand tremors. Some kind of gas they breathed in during the war. I never asked for more details; I was little then, but I knew when an adult was pulling the drawbridge up on me.
“What color should we paint it?”
Dad always let me pick the colors. I never picked the right ones: I always wanted to do polka dots, zebra stripes, or neon splatters. Dad loved accuracy; he’d spend hours pouring over repair manuals and photobooks, making sure every inch of the wood car was a mirror image of the original.
“Let’s do blue and silver. That’s how it was in the movie, right?” We were both surprised by my choice. I don’t know why, but I felt like this time getting it 100% right mattered in a way it hadn’t before. Maybe some part of me already sensed the thing growing on my Dad’s brain and was just trying to make him happy in the brief time we had left together.
“Blue and silver it is, kiddo,” he said. He set the car down on his workbench. It was a perfect replica of a 1955 Chevy 150. Dad reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny black strap. “I finished the seatbelt this morning. Black nail polish and a rubber band. Not bad, huh?”
It did look pretty good, but I noticed that something was missing. “How are they going to-”
My Dad smiled and pointed to a pile of safety pins on the bench. “I was going to make the clip last. Hammer it out of a couple of these.” Dad had taken care of everything: it was on me to get the last missing piece.
I left the garage with bait, a small net, and a holding box. I saw a couple of drivers behind Matt’s house the last time I slept over. Matt said he heard his mom complaining that the littles were getting into the pantry and stealing food. We went over the fence after dark and saw a few of them scurry off into a nearby bush.
I knocked on Matt’s front door but nobody answered. I knew where the key was to their garden door; I had seen Matt fish it out of the bottom of a hollow rock by their mailbox. I grabbed the key and snuck into the backyard.
Climbing over the fence, I landed as lightly as I could on the ground. I didn’t want to squash any of the littles. I remembered my scout training and scanned the area, searching for tiny footprints, campfires, shacks.
Near a cluster of mushrooms I saw a pair of thimble-sized tents. I set down the bait and peeled the plastic lid off: instant beef stew with roast vegetables. It wasn’t long before the littles came out of hiding: a male, female, and a pair of younglings.
I struck fast, swinging the net at the male. He and the female dove out of the way. I stepped forward to swing again and felt something crunch beneath my feet. I heard tiny voices wailing incomprehensibly at me and realized that I had stepped on the younglings.
The male and female stood in place, making weird noises that sounded like sobs. My scoutmaster told us we shouldn’t be fooled by these sort of noises. The littles may look and act like us, but they’re not us. They’re soulless.
I scooped up the male and dropped him in the holding box. I hopped back over the fence, leaving the female behind. We only needed one to be our driver. On the way out I stopped back in front of Matt’s door and wiped my feet on the welcome mat. I saw something tiny, stiff, and blue stuck in between the mat bristles. It looked like a pair of bloody blue jeans.
By the time I had come back, Dad had finished the seatbelt. “Look at what your mom made!” Dad held a tiny pair of racing gloves, a crimson red jumpsuit, and a white scarf in the palm of his hands. “He’ll be the most handsome driver in the derby”, Mom said later while we were having dinner.
Dad put the driver under his microscope. “You picked a good one,” Dad said. “He’s healthy, young— good reflexes, too. Look at how he’s wriggling. This one’s going to put up a fight.”
Dad wasn’t kidding. It took us two weeks to train the driver. We had to go so far as to lay down pillows all over the garage floor to keep the driver from jumping off Dad’s work bench.
After two weeks, the driver began to “rag-doll.” That was the ideal state for a little, according to the pinewood handbook. You could just pick them up, buckle them in, and push them around without complaint. We did a couple of trial runs on the race track my Dad set up in our backyard. No crashes, no casualties. The perfect car.
Perfect car or not, we came in second at the derby. Dad and I didn’t care. We knew we had put together the best car and driver, even if gravity didn’t agree with us.
I still have that car. I keep it on a shelf in my living room. The driver is still in there, too— hands at ten and two. The taxidermist said it was his best one yet.
ASHLEY NAFTULE is a writer and theater artist from Phoenix, AZ. He’s been published in Pitchfork, Ghost City Press, Vice, Popula, Occulum, Rinky Dink Press, Bandcamp, Four Chambers Press, The Outline, Cleveland Review of Books, Longreads, Amethyst Review, Bone & Ink Press, and The Molotov Cocktail. He’s a resident playwright and the Artistic Director at Space55 theatre.