Verity turned the key in the driver’s door of her red Taurus. It unlocked with a snick. She opened the door and pressed the unlock button to let her boyfriend Daniel in. The pair settled in on the tan seats. Daniel shivered; the leather was cold through his jeans. The trek across campus to the student parking lot had left them both chilled, and while the car provided protection from the wind, it did nothing to actually warm them. Verity turned the key in the ignition; the car whined a bit before it came to life. Classical music streamed softly out the speakers.
“I think I failed the chem exam,” Daniel said as they waited for the engine to warm up. Verity rolled her eyes. “You say that every time and come out with an A.”
“No, seriously, this time I think I really fail…can you hear that?” Daniel interrupted himself. Verity shook her head. They went back and forth about Daniel’s chemistry insecurity, and his math insecurity, and his geography insecurity.
“Well, Mr. Straight A’s, when you start failing a class like I am in Calculus, then you can talk to me about academic anxiety.”
“You’re not failing Calculus. You have a C. Do you hear that?” Daniel looked to his left, to his right, then to his left again trying to find the source of the sound.
“I don’t hear anything,” Verity said, laughing. He looked like he was going to cross a street. “And a C is totally failing.”
“It’s not failing. And we’re only, like, barely past midterms. You have time to bring it up. Professor Sparling is big on extra credit. Last term, Fred —you’ve met Fred, right?— skipped half the semester and turned in enough extra credit to scrape a passing grade. And, really, you don’t hear that?”
“A C is the same as an F to my parents. And, no, I still don’t hear whatever it is.”
Finally the engine was warm enough to go. Verity shifted into reverse and backed out of her parking space. Her tires spun in the gravel and for the brief moment before they gained traction she thought she’d somehow hit a patch of ice. The university’s parking lot was huge. They made several turns before making it to the paved section of the lot. It took two more turns before they finally reached the driveway that lead out onto J Street. Daniel flicked on the heater and held his bare hands up in front of the vents.
“Why is it so cold? It’s only October,” complained Daniel as Verity turned east toward town.
“Because global warming is a hoax. It’s actually global cooling. The whole thing is orchestrated by the Chinese to get the United States to stop working on technological advancements and come up with alternatives to plastic straws and diesel engines instead, and possibly freeze to death in the process.”
Daniel chuckled. Verity’s sense of humor was one of his favorite things about her. That, and her smile. He looked at her hands on the steering wheel and envied her thick, blue gloves.
“Did you make a list of everything we need for the project?”
“I thought you did.”
“I guess we should make a list then so we don’t forget anything.” Daniel wrestled his phone out of the zippered pocket of his jacket. He pulled up the Notepad app and typed with one hand, leaving the other in front of the vent. “Styrofoam balls, toothpicks, paint,” he listed off. “Notecards, you don’t hear that?”
“I hear the engine and Beethoven’s Fifth.”
“It’s a ticking.”
“It’s a ringing in your ears. Write down ‘paintbrushes’.”
Daniel typed that in, then switched which hand was in front of the vent. Verity gently braked and rolled to a stop at a traffic signal.
“We need a thin Sharpie, too,” Daniel added to the list. “Seriously, you don’t hear that?”
Verity shook her head, paused, and held up a finger. Possibly she did hear it. The light turned green and the sound of the car accelerating overshadowed anything she may have heard.
“Not knowing what that noise is is going to kill me. When you stop at the 9th Avenue stop sign, stay stopped until you hear it.”
Three blocks later Verity stopped the car at the intersection of J and 9th. She checked her mirror, and when she saw no one behind her, she kept her foot on the brake and listened. She inclined her head and scrunched up her face in concentration.
“I finally heard it,” she said, easing onto the gas and turning right on the one-way street. “Maybe the CD in the player is vibrating?”
Reluctantly, Daniel moved his hand from in front of the warm air long enough to hit the power button on the stereo. The music cut off; the pair listened.
“I still hear it,” said Daniel. He left the CD player off, however, in order to better hear the noise. He also didn’t want to move his hand again. His fingers were finally starting to feel less like sausages.
“Maybe it’s the heater,” Verity suggested. “Turn it off and see if you hear it.”
“I will freeze to death if I turn the heater off,” protested Daniel.
“You will not. Just give it a try.”
He argued back, “I heard it before the heater was on.”
“Well, I didn’t. Give it a try.”
Verity sighed and turned the heater knob to off. She didn’t understand why a Louisiana boy would come to rural, upstate New York for college. Especially one that was such a baby about the cold.
“I still hear it. Can we turn the heat back on?”
“You hardly listened at all.”
“It’s incessant and annoying. I can’t believe you can barely hear it. I’m going to get frostbite.”
Verity scoffed but turned the heat on anyway. They’d been in the car long enough for it to warm up considerably; Verity knew, though, that Daniel wouldn’t be comfortable until she was absolutely roasting.
“Has Walmart always been this far away?”
“No. Last week it was a five minute drive instead of fifteen. Walmart was bored Friday night, didn’t have a date, so it got up and walked a few miles.”
“How much longer, Ver? I think pneumonia’s creeping into my lungs.”
“We’ve been driving for about seven minutes, and you’re not getting pneumonia. You’ve been blasting the heat for those seven minutes and it’s gotta be at least 60 degrees in here by now and you’re wearing a heavy coat for cryin’ out loud.”
Daniel harrumphed. The native New Yorker he was in love with would never understand the plight of his thin Southern blood. The constant tick was grating on his nerves, bothering him almost more than the temperature.
“Did it just get louder?” he wondered aloud.
“Turn the music back on and drown it out.”
“I need to know what it is.”
“Why?” Verity did not understand his need to know. Annoyances were meant to be dealt with, circumvented, counteracted. How was prolonging it to satisfy curiosity better than just making it inaudible? She could barely hear it anyway. Daniel’s commentary about it was more annoying than the actual sound. She turned a sharp left onto Hill Road, which, though narrow and twisted, had not the slightest bit of incline.
Daniel left her why unanswered and opened the glovebox looking for loose items that could be rattling. He pulled the car manual out. Under it he found three old insurance cards, a tire-pressure gauge, five nickels, a Dum-Dum lollipop, and a wrapper with chewed up gum. He pulled all of it out and listened for the noise. Still there, tick ticking away. He dumped everything back into the glovebox. He smacked his hand on the dashboard in frustration.
“Yeah, that’ll help.”
“C’mon. Help me figure it out.” Daniel groped around under the seat and in the pocket of the door. Then he turned his attention to the center console. There was only one thing inside. “Why do you have a Savage Garden cassette? You don’t have a tape deck.”
“I took everything out of my old Toyota when I bought the Taurus. That car had a tape deck. I never really thought about it after I dropped it in.”
“Do you have a clock in here?” Daniel asked suddenly. Verity pointed at the dash. “Not that one. Like a wind up clock.”
“Why would I have a wind up clock in my car?”
“You have a cassette tape in your car. I’ll take that as a no on the clock. How about a clock watch?”
“A clock watch? As opposed to what, a sundial watch?”
“Like a tick tock watch, not a numbers watch.”
“Tick tock watch? How old are you? The words you’re looking for are analog and digital.”
“Fine, Smarty Pants. At least I’m not failing Calculus.”
“Harsh, and no, I don’t have a watch.”
“Sorry. Well, not really since you know I’m joking. That noise is going to kill me, if hypothermia doesn’t get me first.”
“Stop being so dramatic. We’re almost there. We’ll get out of the car, go shopping, you’ll forget all about the noise, and we probably won’t even hear it on the way home.”
They pulled into the parking lot a minute later. Verity put the car in park in one of the closest spaces. Daniel grabbed her hand before she could reach for the key. He shushed her when she tried to protest. She looked at him expectantly. He finally gave up and shrugged. Verity turned the key. Without the sound of the engine in the background, the noise became more pronounced. Verity had expected it to stop. Daniel thought it sounded faster.
There was a blinding flash and terrifying roar as the bomb detonated under the hood. Verity threw her arms out, but they didn’t stop the concussive force or hail of shrapnel. Daniel was stunned still as the world exploded around him and fire rolled through the car’s cabin. His last fleeting thought was, ‘Thank God it’s warm here.’