August 17, 0004 PPE: Hollywood Park, OKC Sector West
“Bill, you asshole!”
The voice that was supposed to be Jaime's was brimstone-snorting, hellfire-spitting mad. Bill felt his foot tense on the accelerator, his whole body rigid against the truck’s jolting gallop and constant unsteady roar, his spread hands fighting the wide steering wheel for control as the speedometer edged past forty and the cracked and buckling Interstate fought back. He was doing his best to straddle the faded dashes that from time to time still divided the crumbling, grass-veined pavement into double lanes, still licking the raw spot inside his lip where he'd bitten himself the first time that voice on the radio said his name. And still tasting his own salty blood.
“You leave me here pregnant,” the voice was sobbing, “and in debt to the company medics—” No: too shrill, too out of control. “That’s fourteen years of my life, damn you! And the worst thing is I still— I'm still in love with you. Come back, Bill.”
No, not Jaime: no matter how many rubber hoses, how many splinters of bamboo, how many electroshock lightningbolts, Jaime Hernandez would be dead before she ever whimpered Bill’s name like that. No. Jaime was dead. And she was never pregnant.
The fat hitchhiker was still passed out, strapped into the passenger seat, his unshaven jowls and belly-flesh vibrating so in the rhythmless shudder of the cab that Bill couldn’t tell for sure if he was actually breathing. Crashing the gate had been too much for him— he’d been out for half an hour at least, and looked like he could use a night of it.
But the fat guy was right: Bill had reached open country at last, he had all that was left of Interstate 40 westbound to himself, he’d crashed the final gate of the last little fenced-and-moated subdivision of the western suburbs, and so far, so good. The flying monkeys were still keeping their distance.
“You really can't run away, Bill. You know that.” The voice was calmer now, soothing, almost hypnotic, but not Jaime: not Jaime. “They'll just bring you back. To some other plant is all, making something else instead of data chips. Some other Welfare compound somewhere.”
So why the hell hadn’t they come after him yet?
Stupid question. Let the cockroach run a little further across the floor before you squash him— not for Bill’s sake, not just for the sheer sporting pleasure of it, but for the crowd. Back at the plant Marsh and Evans and Stickpin would be rooting him on, the little knot of Code Blue aficionados hanging an extra minute in the breakroom after the bell to catch the Update, Gilroy and Carpenter like always rooting for the goons— only by now they would all have to know it was him.
Bill glanced over at the hitchhiker’s quivering defenseless jowls and felt a smile tingling in the muscles of his face, not quite ready to surface. Maybe they already had come after him. If so— if this fat dude who just happened to be standing out beside the curb as if expecting— on the exact street Bill happened to choose in his panicky stampede out of— at the exact moment when he had lost all sense of— if this jovial hitchhiker stinking of booze and deodorant was in fact an undercover company goon, well then maybe the joke was on the goons this time. Heart failure; coronary overload; it happened every day, especially men forty and older, overweight, out in the heat and drought and all—
“All I gotta do is swear out a paternity search on you and you'll be paying on this kid the next fourteen years, same as me. Just the same as if you’d stayed.”
The man in the passenger seat stirred and gave a deep unhappy sigh, and Bill’s smile gave way to a grin of relief: at least he had a live hostage, in case that turned out to be worth anything.
“But I'm the one who’ll be raising our kid." A sob. "All by my damn self.” Bill couldn't stand it any more: one hand shot out to the radio’s old-fashioned rotary knob and hung there trembling in the throb of diesel. “Think, Billy— and please, not just about yourself for a change.” He closed his eyes, hanging on to the wheel with one hand. There it was, the soap-saga of his life broadcast to the world. How could he go back after that?
And how exactly had his life turned into such a potboiling, cliffhanging radio soap that it made the news, anyway?
“Listen, Billy. The insurance company is going to cut you a deal. They want the truck back is all, their precious load of data chips. This hijacking rap won't go away, it's on your record— but you can pay it off, they say. Four years! What’s four more years? Come back to us! Come back, Bill!”
Willing his eyes shut for one more engine-throb he imagined it was true, that was Jaime’s husky voice, she was telling the truth, and he really could—
But it was the other voices he heard instead, murmuring in the engine’s unsteady constant roar. He took a harsh breath of diesel-perfume and opened his eyes: no, all the bastards had to do was match her voiceprints. If he had stolen some plush limo with a baby dashboard screen he could have seen for sure— some sexy young unknown, probably a redhead with pale Hispanic skin like Jaime, trying to make the most of her first break— and then he would have known. But they knew the truck only had a radio.
The crowd at the plant would know it wasn’t Jaime, and at least Evans would say so out loud— you could hardly get him to shut up— but Gilroy and Carpenter were legendary around the plant for the fundamentalist zeal with which they swallowed Newsworthy whole, no matter who, what, when, where or why. And Jaime herself was gone, dead, transferred, detained— nobody knew, and not so many who remembered would care enough to wonder— and how long can a memory persist anyway when the daily news indifferently disagrees and marches on?
It was the worst acting he'd ever heard, even on Newsworthy: but the acting wasn’t for him, any more than the lady’s no doubt well-calculated costume, he was beginning to understand that. And not just because this ancient relic only had a radio.
Because Bill was a dead man. Bill was a runaway bomb. Because for months now Jaime had been all he had to live for, and Jaime was dead. Jaime could go to hell. He licked his lips and tasted radioactive dust.
Still his hand hung suspended over the knob.
“Thank you so much, Miss Hernandez, for stepping forward to share your story!” The Code Blue announcer's upbeat baritone was so familiar that Bill couldn't remember his name. “Parade coverage resumes in just a moment, folks! Meanwhile Mr. Runaway Dad, William Christian Dodge 21465379-02, you heard the lady, right? Mutual Assurance Corporation, this hour’s sponsor, is giving you a break! It seems they want to save that rusty piece of junk you stole for parts. You have till our next Code Blue Update— or maybe the one after that— to make up your mind: is it life with your new wife and child— or a spectacular sentence of death, live on Newsworthy? Up to you, dad!”
Bill’s hovering hand grabbed for the steering wheel: the rusty wreck of a pickup truck and two disintegrating motorcycles spilled across a long-vanished line into his lane, and he dodged a stray wheel that had been stripped of its tire.
“And you're damn lucky at that, kid.” Bill recognized the gravelly growl from the Hostilities Report: Colonel Milton Shea, Anti-Terrorist Elite. “If it was up to National Security Incorporated, you would already be shipped off to hard labor deep underground in a radioactive zone, making regular paternity payments to help out Miss Hernandez here. But NSI’s hour is coming! And make no mistake, whether you can see us or not— we're keeping you under tight surveillance from the sky. You can pass that along to your rolypoly hitchhiker pal, too. You’re traveling every second in our sights, boys, wherever the hell you think you're trying to go!”
A faded green sign pocked with bulletholes hung awkwardly on its bent remaining leg beside the highway: 281— Hinton— the panhandled outline of old Oklahoma.
So where the hell was he trying to go?
And when the hellfire were those damngod flying monkeys going to dive in and save him the trouble of making up his mind?
“This is Wayne Coleman with your four o'clock Code Blue Update, that Alert by the way still in force for Sectors 9 through 27, now taking effect in Sector 28. Remember, Code Blue is strictly enforced, for your own safety please REMAIN INDOORS; if you see anything suspicious do not attempt to make contact, LEAVE IT FOR THE PROS and of course the usual penalties apply. We’ll be back soon with another Update, to announce our special guest star’s Big Decision, so—”
So if Wentworth was telling the truth this morning in the pitch-black storeroom deep in a back corridor of the plant, where Bill and Jaime— if Jaime ever really was pregnant, if that wasn’t a lie like the rest— but if any of it at all was true—
“Regardless of which as always, subscribers at home, Newsworthy needs your input! Enter your creditcode at the sound of the tone, then star 1 for the life sentence, star zero for the death penalty: that’s 1 for life, zero for death. We'll drop you a running tally in the corner of your screen from time to time while the clock runs out on our Runaway Dad!” The announcer paused and an electronic chime sounded.
So if Wentworth wasn’t lying— and Jaime had believed every word, he could feel it even across that barrier of impenetrable blackness, the weird telepathy between them even then— then where was Jaime right now? Was Jaime all right?
“Okay folks, ready to travel? We now shoooooooot you back to President Rockwell and the World Peace Parade, live on satellite from the Holy—"
Bill snapped the radio off before the bastard could chuckle that smooth infuriating chuckle one more time and gripped the wheel in both hands again just in time to swing wide of a chuckhole that looked more like a miniature bomb crater. Fuck ‘em. Jaime was dead. And fuck Bull Wentworth. Wentworth could have her. He squinted into his side mirror, down the long receding straightaway behind him— the eastbound lanes across the median as deserted as his own, a drifting dustcloud marking his trail— then out past the mirror to the southern horizon.
The abomination of desolation
The countryside he had come so far to see was dying, the wheatfields already dead— wave after wave of dry brittle stalks, yellow-grayish-brown, unbroken except for an occasional fence or the ghost of a road, mile after mile after mile under the shimmering heat. He wouldn’t have a chance out there on foot with no water. He watched a dry riverbed go by, waterless and nameless, its braided filigree of silt hardened by the sun, the little green sign telling its name long faded white.
Crisscrossing the sky-glare he saw the usual tic-tac-toe patterns of dissolving jet-vapor, cut by random diagonals— more flying monkeys up there today than he remembered ever seeing before, now that he stopped to remember. At this moment, though, scanning the windshield to the passenger window where the fat hitchhiker's head bumped rhythmless against the pane, he couldn't see anything actually moving.
He passed one of the baby oil-pumps he used to see endlessly rocking among the cattle that grazed along the Interstate when Pa’s cargo manifest took them south to Texas and Oklahoma, but it wasn’t moving either.
Then, high over his shoulder to the south, he saw three circling birds, motionless on outstretched wings: he felt a tingle at the corners of his mouth and eyes, then the telltale twitch and for the first time in this long nightmare of a day his grim mask of a face cracked open in a smile. Not one of those idiotic grins he couldn’t help trading with the fat guy, but the real thing. Fuck ‘em. Fuck Wayne Coleman and all the sophisticated idiots on both ends of the camera at Newsworthy Network, fuck Colonel Milton Shea and all the robot-brained goons of National Security Incorporated, fuck President Elias Rockwell and all the hard-wired bureaucrats at Human Welfare Corporation. Bill was a runaway bomb. Bill was his own parade. Fuck ‘em all!
Let him who is on the housetop not go down
He had been listening all afternoon
to the voices in the big engine’s rhythmless roar, the same voices he
used to hear when he rode summers with his Pa— mixed-up fragments of
Bible verses and Pa practicing some sermon late at night and the country-western
songs Pa used to love. Nor enter his house, to take anything away
But not Wentworth. Wentworth was lying when he said he’d known Bill’s Pa.
Bill licked his dry lips and tasted dust.
He was wondering how much farther he could go on the fuel he had left, studying the dusty vibrating dashboard for clues, trying to call back the boy who had lived and traveled five or six summers in his father’s old longnosed Peterbilt, remembering his Pa then and the smooth rush of fresh black asphalt, and was suddenly remembering as he maneuvered between two more good-sized craters that this was the highway, Interstate 40 westbound, where the truckers had tried to run for it in the Revolt when he noticed that the fat man in the seat beside him was gazing straight ahead down the highway, holding the handgrip bolted into the ceiling with both hands.
“You okay, mister?” Bill yelled across the roar.
The sound of his voice took him by surprise, a little too loud even above the noise, and he felt his dry lips cracking as they parted and stretched, but the man gave him a mild greyblue glance and a faint smile, completely awake and unsurprised.
“The soup thickens,” he yelled back. “Pregnant, eh?”
Bill didn’t return the smile. “Shit soup. No, turns out she wasn’t. Glad you're alive, man, you scared me. I'm deep enough in it already.”
“Just a catnap,” the hitchhiker said, raising one hand to counterfeit a yawn. “I was up most of the night. Getting too old for that. Say, that was a gripping performance the young lady gave.”
“I—” Bill shut his mouth too suddenly and tasted blood again. “Hellfire. They just have to program a synthetic voicebox these days, don’t they?”
“Ah, they try. Could be a holonoid— could even be an android, if they want to fool you bad enough. But they’ll never replace real acting the way they replaced . . . You just can’t fake certain things.”
They rode in silence, insulated by engine-racket from the necessity of speaking, and the hitchhiker started to whistle randomly without seeming to strike a tune. Bill shifted uncomfortably in the pneumatic seat to look him over again: a dull brown antique suit-jacket like the black one Pa had faithfully worn Sunday after Sunday, a skyblue bodysuit underneath— but the matching longbilled cap poking out of his pocket was one of the expensive disposables, and the booze that stank faintly through his cologne or aftershave or deodorant was not cheap booze.
“So,” Bill shouted casually. “You decide where you’re headed yet?”
“California, all the way!” The man's round rubbery face creased in a grin that had long since worn permanent folds. “Want to come along?”
“Diesel fuel’s a little scarce between here and there,” said Bill, still refusing to smile. “And I understand the last few miles you gotta watch for sharks.”
"Pirates, you mean,” the hitchhiker snorted. “In purple uniforms.” He gave a deep belly-sigh. “But to tell the truth I don't really have a plan. I still half-expect to wake up on my porch back in Hollywood Park any minute. My life is flashing before my eyes— only not this life. It’s the one I meant to live instead. I mean if I was dreaming this is exactly the dream I would be dreaming, and it would be California, and California would still— you know what I mean?”
Bill frowned. An ATE undercover would be a trained actor, among other things— but this fellow was overdoing it a little, like some grade-B digital Hollywood soap-star lathering it on. Judas in heaven: if Bill’s hostage turned out to be an undercover, that made the third time in fortyeight hours a company goon had saved his ass, not even counting the half-dozen times they somehow missed him as he crashed through heavily guarded security gates. He couldn’t stand it.
“You know, I think you saved my life back there!” the hitchhiker burst out on cue, as if he’d memorized Bill’s line by mistake. “I don't know how to explain it, exactly. One minute I'm sitting on my porch finally facing the fact that my life is over, or getting up the nerve to, anyway, and the next minute you come—” He broke off, giggling like a little boy, and in a deep bass gospel voice began to sing:
“Swing lo-o-o-ow, Sweet Cha-a-a-ario-ot, a-comin' for to carry me ho-o-o-o-ome—”
And then he was laughing, his belly
quaking visibly against the rhythmless shudder of everything else in the cab,
until just as suddenly he quit, leaned his forehead into his palm and wept;
one hand crept to a hidden pocket for a crumpled handkerchief while his belly-flesh
and unshaven jowls kept on quaking inconsolably.
They rode without speaking a little longer this time, the hitchhiker whistling tunelessly from time to time, while Bill nursed the bitten place inside his lip.
So if he wasn't an undercover, Bill kept thinking, if he was a genuine lunatic, then what?
Then at least he had a hostage— so far, so good— and if Wentworth wasn’t lying . . .
“So,” he tried again, leaning across the echoing engine-racket this time as he shouted, “what’s your name, pal? I don't recall we formally met.”
“Bill,” the man said, stretching a pink plump hand over the gap between the seats, leaning against the seatbelt with his bulging belly, the grin only stretching wider across his stubbled jowls as Bill frowned and tried shouting a little louder:
“Right! I am! And you are . . . ?”
“And knowing Newsworthy, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they’d got it altogether wrong! Hey, it’s a pleasure to meet someone at this critical juncture in my life who’s as emphatically nutso as I am.” The grin-lines creased deeper as the man’s grin stretched even wider, eclipsing the stubbled cheeks completely now. “William A. Benedict, sir. Known to my friends for years as just plain Bill. And I truly am grateful for the ride.”
Bill forgot the highway for a diesel heartbeat, one hand hesitating in the air, before he understood.
“Dodge is my last name,” he said. “They call me Bill, too— but I guess you heard. There’s my company ID.” He turned his palm down to show it but the fat man leaned a little further, ignoring the tattoo, gave Bill's hand a sweaty businesslike little jerk and then went rattling on.
“Like I said, I left mine in the other suit. I’m retired now anyway. Just today, in fact! After twentyseven years.” The hitchhiker whistled a tuneless fanfare, though his eyes shone glassy and bloodshot like he couldn’t quite believe it yet. “But hey! We have more in common than just a name, you and I! You too have chosen this most auspicious astrological occasion to make your move, under the beneficent influence of President Rockwell's fortuitous Comet. Congratulations are in order indeed! I couldn't be prouder if you were my own long-lost son. Did anyone remember champagne?”
A joker: Bill had drawn a joker. But the man was bending over his ballooning belly, reaching down between his knees, hauling up a rainbow-striped squeezebottle by the strap, hand over hand.
“Well,” he wheezed. “I did, I guess! Close enough, anyhow. It’s filtered springwater. I took the liberty of diluting it with a little—” he burped for effect and a sour-sweet aroma wafted across the cab— “Moonshine Holler. Eighty proof.” He lifted the bottle above his multiple chins. “A toast! Let’s see . . . of course. Vive la revolucion! The revolt of the masses at long last!”
Revolution. The unspoken word hung suspended, swinging in the polarized sun. Bill winced: a joker, maybe, but this particular joker had to be an undercover goon, wired for sound, if not for 3D-enhanced full-color live reproduction, working for NSI or Newsworthy— whoever Wentworth was working for, it didn't matter exactly who. He watched from the corner of his eye as the fat impostor squirted a mouthful of glittering liquid, swallowed with exaggerated relish, lifted the end of the strap and swung the squeezebottle pendulum-style across to Bill with a delicious slosh. Bill’s dry glands tried to salivate at the liquid sound, but his dry tongue stuck to his dry mouth, remembering its long thirst, his whole weary body suddenly remembering its deep yearning for anything wet. But he shook his head and let the bottle swing back.
“You only call it a revolution if it goes all the way around to where it started, ain’t that right? I’ll pass.”
The fat undercover stared for a second with a totally blank expression— but only a second before he winked one greyblue eye, grinning again, then groped inside his jacket for a crumpled pack of cigarettes, flicked out a flamecard and lit one. “All right, then. Cigars are on me, if you don’t mind tailor-made.”
“No thanks,” Bill told him. “But congratulations! Twentyseven's got to be some kind of record these days. I bet they gave you one hell of a party. My sentence was only six months, and my retirement is on every damngod radio station like some fuckinsuckin’ macrocelebrity scandal, competing with live continuous coverage of the president's parade.”
Bill's nostrils twitched. The fat man was leaning across the cab again, extending the burning cigarette between two fingertips, smoke was drifting across the cab in a pungent blue haze and with a sweet-scented shock he realized that it was not tobacco. He kept forgetting who this joker was.
"No thanks," he said, more firmly now that he was tempted. "Not that a little illegal smoke is going to matter when they take my blood sample with an airborne bazooka. I just can't afford to get too relaxed."
"Illegal?" The undercover gave a convincing start and his eyes widened in expert surprise, the smoke lifted as if forgotten in his hand. "Not since— I mean it was, for way too long, but not since— it's been almost two years now, hasn't it?"
"I met people in the camps burned
for possession of cannabis in the past six months. Regular working people
I mean, not from your neighborhood."
The fat man let out a lungful of smoke, his rubbery face frozen in a masterful impression of stunned astonishment. "That can't be true! The Taxation of Narcotics Act! It passed by 24 votes in the House, and seven in the Senate. I wrote a letter!"
The undercover sounded so desperately sure and the drifting haze smelled so seductively sweet that Bill had to fight back an urge to fall under their spell and believe the impossible: but he held his breath and shook his head.
"You been smoking too much, daddy-o. I saw it on Newsworthy at my Mom's. It was defeated in a landslide."
"But—" The undercover sat frozen in place except for the jiggle of excess flesh but his expression, as if actually made of rubber, began to slowly melt as Bill glanced across the cab with a wicked grin.
"Of course, I only have Newsworthy's word for it. But a major corporation like Data Central wouldn't lie to me, would it? At least not to my poor old Mom. You're going to have to do better than that if you want to set me up for a burn."
Bill jabbed at the dashboard with one finger and snapped the radio on just for emphasis, but a burst of martial music gave him more than he expected, brass like flashing bayonets above an electronic drumbeat cannonade.
"—surrounded by the mighty Imperial Guard in their purple uniforms and ceremonial gear, the President waves to the cheering mob along his parade-route through Jerusalem, and to the millions watching via—"
Bill snapped the radio off again with an even more emphatic jab and a disgusted glance at the undercover, who shrank from the look as if President Rockwell's parade was entirely his personal fault. He sat still staring across the cab as if dumbfounded, the burning cigarette forgotten in his fingertips, his extended arm beginning to sag as the blue smoke dissolved and fresh smoke uncoiled and arose. His expression had completely melted away now and in its place shone a look of blank, speechless wonder, like one of Starbolt's captured villains after they gave him the memory-wipe.
And no wonder: it smelled like some righteous holy shit, as Mulu used to say, every bit as good as the bush Moses burned on the mountain. And since the drifting smoke was unavoidable now Bill sucked in the delectable smell, leaning instinctively toward the source, suddenly crowded with memories— smoking with his high-school buddies Zahid and Roy, with strangers he met in his travels, in the camps with the one or two workerbees he trusted, even at the plant with Mulu, with Jaime—
Jaime? Trusting Jaime was the single most idiotic thing he had ever done in his life! Compared to trusting Jaime, picking up a probably wired and almost certainly well-armed undercover goon as a hostage was a stroke of tactical genius.
They both watched as an enormous truck stop sailed past high on a man-made bluff, all its plate glass long gone, dead neon quivering in the prairie wind.
“Say,” the undercover shouted.
“Say, you didn’t happen to bring along any lunch, did you? Every
restaurant I see out here is closed for remodeling.”
Bill shook his head. “Not me. The driver did, whose shift I sort of claim-jumped. It was bologna on rye, with mustard, from the machine I used to stock at the plant.”
“I see. Traditional American
cuisine. Sorry I missed out.” The undercover swung up his squeezebottle
and took another squirt, getting his elbow into the action, then wiped one
sleeve across his jowls and wafting that heavy hot odor held the bright container
out to Bill. “Sure you won’t join me? Toasting is optional.”
Bill stared down at the rainbow-striped plastic in the man’s plump pink hand, trying to make up his mind— and suddenly there it was, his own brown familiar hand, inching furtively closer.
Well, the hitchhiker was drinking it
himself; it couldn’t be fatal. The hostage, he corrected himself. The
undercover, a whispery inner voice reminded him.
Once Bill had the bottle safely in hand he began to feel little by little the depth of his drought— from his cracking lips to the dry root of his tongue, the little knot of dust and nothing that he continually coughed up from the parched desert caverns inside and swallowed down again— Judas, when was the last time he’d had something to drink?
Today in the plant, he remembered, at the fountain: in the midst of a radioactive dust-storm.
But when you see the desolating sacrilege
Once he had the liquid in his mouth, swishing, swirling and swallowing a fireball of liquor instead of the water he had craved and immediately craved again, his tongue seemed to wake up in his mouth.
“Judas in heaven!” he hiccuped, giggling in spite of his taut fixed frown.“If my old man could see me driving this rig down the highway stinking of that he’d shit! Temp’rance was one of his preaching points.”
“Must've been an interesting dude, your old man,” the fat man shouted back, grinning. “Was he a trucker, or was he a preacher?”
Bill hesitated, mouth stinging from the shock, blinking back tears and trying to think, desperately sorting through random memories, wondering who was listening, where the satellite upfeed was bouncing to, what was safe and what was dangerous to tell. But what for? The Reverend Josiah Dodge's dossier in the databanks of National Security Incorporated must contain more data about Bill's Daddy than Daddy had ever revealed to his oldest boy.
“He was a traveling preacher who made his living over the road in a 1989 longnose Peterbilt he called Jezebel. But the churches he preached at didn't want to listen. Well they wanted to hear it, they couldn’t get enough hellfire and damnation, separating the sheep from the goats and all. But they didn’t want to listen. They wanted to keep passin' the plate and build a bigger church.”
“And how about you? One of the sheep or one of the goats?”
“Shit, I never paid no attention. Pa was always rantin’ about some wild thing: prophecies coming true, end of the world, nuclear war, monsters, plagues, disasters and shit like out of the Bible happening again.” Bill was beginning to squint as the sun blazed lower on the windshield, and his voice shook a little, talking about his Pa, but it was getting stronger. “I thought he was loopers. But that was before I noticed how the whole suckinfuckin' world was tending more and more that way.”
The hitchhiker cleared his throat. “Then they built the biggest church of all. The Fundamentalist Elect, I mean. And started in separating, by god. But I guess you know. Didn't you say you lost him in the Rapture?"
"He disappeared around that time, is all we know. Pa never really partook of the Parson’s whole brand of theology." Bill swallowed, already dust-dry again. "Used to say any preacher who would take money for preaching would likely take money for anything. So he wasn’t too popular with other preachers. Other truckers, either, once he started on the CB about it. Finally even his network of tiny little Bible-thumpin' churches quit inviting him, one by one. The Western White House was in born-again Christian hands, Jesus was expected any minute on the rooftop coptor pad, and nobody wanted to hear Pa sermonizin' about false prophets and the Antichrist."
"Not even you, sounds like. Maybe you most of all, since you had no choice." The fat undercover frowned, and suddenly Bill knew what was coming next. "Hey! Was he in that— you know, the Truckers' Revolt?"
Knew it was coming, but winced anyway, then answered as steadily as he could."That's what Newsworthy nicknamed it. At our house, NBCBS was a little more descriptive: 'the Teamsters’ Last Stand.' Fox-CNN got downright melodramatic with their 'Convoy of Doom.' At the time you could still log on to an independent news site— Workers' Daily called it ‘Interstate Inferno.’ They had pictures, too.”
"And the Parson's news team on Good News America tagged it 'Highway to Hell,'" said the undercover. "But listen, son, I understand if— I mean I really don't want to pry, so don't—"
"As far as we ever found out, no. Papa shouldn’t have been anywhere within a thousand miles of the Mojave Desert, according to his last call home. I saw it on the phone bill myself. He was on his way back from Idaho with a load of pipe, and we just never . . ." Bill looked up into the first faint pink tinge of evening on the horizon ahead and tasted dust: radioactive dust. “But if I know my Pa, he was there. As soon as we saw what was happening out on I-40, we knew he had to be there. Because it was already bigger than just the truckers by the time the truckers got into it, and anyone who ever knew the Reverend Josiah Dodge can tell you he was not missin' out on something like that.”
Bill closed his eyes for a second, hanging on to the broad steering wheel with tight knuckles, the images worn and blurred as old videotape behind his eyelids, their colors fading against the brilliance around him, their motion faltering. In place of the newscasters' eager blow-by-blow, their only soundtrack was a chugging diesel and a single odd, random, reverberating voice.
But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be
“Judas," the fat undercover was sighing. "Seems like there’s more history to remember since the turn of the millennium than the whole twentieth century put together. But that summer was the craziest. I really thought the end had come."
Bill tried to let it lie right there, painfully aware that he'd already told his unseen listeners way too much: but a trembling tightness in his chest began to loosen and work its way up his throat, a lump he couldn't swallow, like the hot coals of a flaming dragon's tongue. He cleared his dry throat and stirred the coals. "You remember how Newsworthy summed up that whole unholy summer, don't you?"
The undercover jerked, sending nervous aftershocks through his blue-suited bellyflesh and unshaven chins. "Sheeeez, I ought to know that one, if anyone does. Wasn't it—" He stopped and closed his eyes, mouth open, breathing from the belly—
They said it together in perfect two-part harmony, though in different keys.
"The Outbreak of Petty Lawlessness!"
The fat undercover was going slowly red; Bill snorted. "Sounds like a rash of fraternity pranks, don't it? National Public Radio called it ‘Post-Millennial Letdown,’ which was a lot closer to the facts, I thought. But NPR went under in the Rapture, the Parson's empire went down when he did, and now that they've sold the government, excuse me, contracted out the government, and now that Newsworthy's parent company owns the exclusive contract for data management, hey— the winners still write the history books, right? An 'Outbreak of Petty Lawlessness' is all it will ever be. No matter how many people died in the Parson's purge."
He shut his eyes and saw again the dust falling, covering his swept floor, a fine layer sifting down on the moving conveyors and the hands of the workers as they moved, oblivious, from their boxes of parts to the components passing on the line and back again . . .
But when you see
When Bill looked again the undercover was hanging on to the chrome handgrip, watching Bill carefully across the cab. “This was the highway, wasn’t it,” he said finally. “West of here a few hundred miles. Fortyeight hours straight we stayed glued to those giant screens down in Production. While they . . .”
Bill glanced across at the undercover just as the undercover glanced across at him, a glimmer almost like real tears in the greyblue eyes, and they rode side by side on their pneumatic broncos while the rattletrap cab galloped into a polarized sunset.
“Say—” Bill took a long breath to make it sound nonchalant. “By any chance you didn’t see— you don’t remember a white Peterbilt in the line that day, do you? A longnose with purple trim? Single sleeper? Way too many running lights, a cross made of lights up front?”
The undercover blinked past Bill’s eyes without quite meeting them, gazing northward across the passing prairie. “It’s three years, kid. Lotta news over the dam.”
Let the reader understand
An overpass ahead was suspended in the act of gradually collapsing, hanging in chunks from its reinforcing steel, littering both lanes with boulders of cement. Bill slowed down and shaded his eyes to scout a path: then changed his mind and popped two of his trailerbrakes just in time to swerve clumsily up the off-ramp. He flattened the charred remains of a portable police barricade at the top of the ramp, lurched across a disintegrating state highway and gunned the big diesel down the ramp on the other side.
The fat undercover stared out the window, fingering something in his jacket, watching three parallel jet-trails as they slowly converged on the highway— then turned abruptly and shouted across:
“You didn’t come through downtown, did you?”
Bill shook his head. “I took a long detour to avoid it." And to kill time before dark, but he clamped his mouth shut and didn't kept it to himself.
The fat man nodded. "So, by the way . . .” he shouted tentatively. “Just out of curiosity, these warheads you’re hauling. This rev— uprising. Exactly where are you getting your information, besides this guy Wentworth?”
Bill was starting to grin. “You got to be kidding. You believed—” He let out an involuntary clap of laughter. “Here? In the land of the— fleeced, home of the— depraved, you—” The laughter echoed back across the cab and he couldn’t stop. “I was just bullshitting, judas, I’m surprised you—” He couldn’t stop until the laughter ran out of its accumulated nervous energy like a spring-loaded toy and came hiccuping to a halt of its own accord. “No, pal. I’m just your average everyday Runaway Dad. And like the man on the radio said, a load of cheap data chips is all I managed to hijack. Want to buy a case? Cheap?”
“Well then . . .” The undercover squinted down the highway ahead and swallowed, quivering his chins. “I guess I must have hallucinated it after all. I couldn’t tell for sure at the time. But I work— I mean worked up on the ninetieth floor of— one of the downtown Towers, and my window is tinted, quite a bit darker than these. But this morning I looked down and I could swear I saw— people. Thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Crowding around the Tower. Maybe all the Towers, I couldn't actually see— any— edge.”
The undercover glanced across the cab, not at Bill this time either and not exactly past him, but right through him into some distance hidden in the damp, glistening greyblue gaze itself, then straight ahead down the highway again. “Maybe it qualifies as a vision. It felt altogether religious, looking down on it all like that— and I’m not a religious guy at all, believe me. Because the amazing, the incredible thing was that it wasn't just another food riot; they weren't charging the castle walls with catapults and ladders. Though some terrorista gang did knock out the elevators last night . . . I mean, it looked like they were setting up camp. Like the wandering spirits of all the dead Indians come home. Or else the Parson’s victims— all the ghosts of the Rapture . . ."
The greyblue eyes flicked furtively across at Bill and back to the the sun-glazed windshield. "I still don’t know if I was hallucinating. But all of a sudden I knew for sure it was my last day. And I walked out. It wasn’t easy, either, walking out on a ninetieth-floor career with the elevators dead, out of shape as I’m getting lately . . .”
Even through solarsafe glass, the intensity of the sun grew increasingly murderous as it settled across the west and Bill flipped down his sun visor, squinting ahead down the highway as if the fat hitchhiker's vision hid somewhere in the homicidal glare. So Wentworth wasn’t— so Wentworth was telling the— was it possible?
Then he remembered the voice that was supposed to be Jaime’s, delivering its script to perfection, so convincing in its calculated emotion that he had almost been betrayed by his own breathless gasping to believe. This fat guy was a better actor, maybe, but the script could use some work. No, there would be no revolution today. And Wentworth never knew Bill’s Pa.
The fat undercover gave one of his
deep belly-sighs, rehearsed to perfection. “Never mind. Let's just say
I was hallucinating. It's fifty-fifty I still am.”
Suddenly Bill wasn't so sure himself— unless they were hallucinating in perfect unison, like two mimes having a conversation through a mirror with no glass. He sucked at the salty place where he had bitten his lip. What exactly was it Wentworth had said?
“How they going to stop you? Blow half of Oklahoma over into Texas?” Bill had been too stunned even to wonder this morning, there in the storeroom in the plant where Jaime's dark eyes looked steadily at him out of utter blackness while the tip of Wentworth's cigarette made its unhurried arc to Wentworth's grim lips between each lie— only, Bill was slowly realizing, it could all be true— “Well, they might. You won't have to worry about it if they do.” —each gruff undiplomatic utterance entering him like a blade, answered only by the red glow faintly illuminating Wentworth’s congenital scowl, unchallenged by the silent dark eyes looking steadily across the vaccuum of the black hole of the blasted crater where the fragments of Bill’s blown-away life still fluttered, waiting to fall . . . “We're gambling that we’ll have them too tied up to even worry about one antique truck.”
So he might even be right about that too— Jaime hadn’t been so sure of the numbers but Wentworth did have a point, nobody in the Welfare camps had a damn thing to lose, nobody out on the streets or squatting in the ruins of the Quake had much more: then add the probability of violence, the scent of revenge— and everyone had heard the rumors of an underground resistance—
And if Wentworth was right about the multitude, he was probably right about the cargo Bill was hauling. Unless, of course, Wentworth and Bill’s hostage both were—
He sneaked a panicky sidelong glance across the cab and the greyblue eyes were watching. “Hey. Which Tower did you say you worked in downtown?" Watch it, he was thinking, remember he's wired— "It wasn't the Data Central Tower, was it?” though asking was only a formality because he already knew which Tower it was and knew he couldn't trust the undercover's answer anyway, but his mouth was opening again, his voice welling up like another dragon-tongue of lava in his throat, up and over the truck’s unsteady roar—
So. Does the condemned man have any last words for the world?
“Seems like I never had a job,” he shouted, trying to sum it all up in a soundbite just in case it was his last, “where sooner or later I didn’t wind up sweeping the damn floor. But that’s my fault, I guess. Even if I never had a chance at college like you did.”
And couldn’t resist adding, “I could live with trading my life for food twelve hours a day, I guess, if it wasn’t for the suckinfuckin’ uniform. I don’t need to actually cash my own paycheck at the bank, spend it at the grocery store, pay my own bills and taxes and all that to feel human— I watched my Momma play that game until it wore her out. But when I come out of that plant every night, after sweeping up all the fallout of the day shift— even if it’s poison radioactive dust— and there’s that company goon telling me to get my ass on some bus—”
He took a long, slow breath: then went on or it would have choked him. “Judas, whatever the hellfire I do for a living, my time off ought to be my own, I should be able to sleep in a sewerpipe or under a bridge or in a damngod treehouse so long as I make it to work on time. It’s an inalienable right, like Papa used to say, and when I finally asked him what that meant he said it means you’ve got to fight to defend it all your life, and pass on the fight to your kids and grandkids. In the tenth grade they tried to teach us it meant somethin’ else, inborn or eternal, some shit like that, but I know Pa was right. Because they took it away, every last inalienable right, just like he said they would.”
And irresistibly on: “I didn’t volunteer for Welfare, see? I wasn’t hurting anyone. I never stole anything. I always give back to folks that give to me, Momma taught me that much. I was on my own for eight years and never asked for no charity, least of all what Human Welfare Corporation sells as charity. Pa taught me that. I was a little hungry, the day they picked me up, hadn’t worked steady since fall, but I know enough about foraging to get by. It ain’t a crime to be broke, Jack— or it shouldn’t be— but it’s a damngod sin how many decent men and women are laboring their lives away in the Welfare camps, trying to pay a debt that increases with every meal, every shower, every night's sweat and nightmares in the bunk they share with someone on the opposite shift. I—”
He stopped, mouth wide open, the hot lava cooling in his tongue. What the hellfire had he been saying?
Whatever it was, the fat man only grinned. “I could tell you were a traveler. The way you stopped when I gave you the thumb. Your old man used to pick up hitchhikers, I bet, fishing for lost souls.”
Bill gave him a sour grin. “Not with me along— he made a promise to Momma and didn’t dare break it. But he would tell me stories.”
“I mean, you saw me and so you stopped, just like that. Like you’d been there. Done a little thumbing yourself back before the Crash, maybe?”
Bill scowled into the gathering sunset-glare. “Some. But not by choice. It ain’t the Sixties no more, Jack. Fuckin’ baby boomers had it too damn easy. I was just lucky the goons got me before the banditos or the crazies, or the Millennialists, or the terroristas, the contrabandistas, the gangsta vigilantes, the assassination squads . . . It ain’t what I would’a chose. But I done all right.”
The undercover gazed ahead, watching the road come out of the west like he hadn’t heard a word. “You know I used to be a traveler myself when I was younger. Made it as far as New Orleans once, and only missed Mardi Gras by one day! Then I had to turn around and head right back. I was on a school break. Soon as I graduated, I saved up some money and headed out west.”
“Well— California was the goal, when I started. San Francisco, of course. That was back in the Seventies.” The undercover gave Bill a wink, let out a boyish giggle and his blue protruding belly shook. “I’d seen pictures in Life magazine and I was already growing my hair. But coming from East Tennessee, hillbilly country, there was something about the wide open spaces, too. The wide west. And now that California is, you know . . .”
The undercover looked out the window and after a while began to whistle a slow sad tuneless blues, staring out at the far horizon or into his reflection in the laser-riddled side mirror: Bill couldn’t tell which.
He nibbled the bitten place inside his lip and listened to the truck’s voices.
Let the reader understand
A sun-bleached sign went by giving the mileage in ghostly white lettering to places that might or might not still exist, Weatherford, Clinton, Elk City, Amarillo, and suddenly it occurred to Bill for the first time that if Wentworth was right about what he was hauling in this trailer, his cargo might still be crucial to someone’s plans: someone might actually be waiting for him out here in this godforsaken wasteland.
He dug in his coverall pocket and found half a playing card— from a deck he stocked in the vendor at the plant cafeteria, a different orgy scene on the back of each card— then reached out to the dashboard where he had tossed the other half. For the first time, bracing his palms against the wheel, he fit the pieces together: the deuce of hearts. Across the pair of blood-red valentines someone had scrawled in thick black marker 40 W/m 79, then sliced the card in two. He was seeing the message for the first time complete, understanding for the first time Interstate 40 west, actually seeing for the first time mile 79, all the while looking through to the message hidden underneath.
Jaime’s writing: Bill grinned, though the grin kept twisting on his lips into something else, and turned the severed pieces together in his hand. Across a 3D lasergraph of four or five dark lovelies at work on a single gringo, someone had carefully taped a slip of printed paper cut out of a book, and it too had been sliced in two. This was a different translation— Pa had sworn by the old King James— but the same verse from the Apocalypse According to Mark, familiar and unfamiliar at once. Bill repeated the lines, seeing it for the first time complete, barely moving his lips or giving it any breath as though afraid that to speak it aloud would make it real:
"But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be— let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything away; and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. And alas . . ."
He closed his eyes for an instant and saw the nightmare again, tasted the falling dust . . . but no. Jaime was never pregnant. He let go of the steering wheel for a giddy vibrating moment while he carefully ripped the two pieces in four, then eight, then sixteen, felt for the toggleswitch that lowered the windowglass and let them fly.
Jaime was dead. Because if she wasn’t dead, she was in trouble, and Bill was in more than enough trouble on his own.
“Hey, help me out,” he shouted over the rhythmless roar. “Help me watch for a milemarker.”
The undercover glanced around from his window-gazing. “Which one?”
“Any one. I just— want to see how far we’ve come.”
Bill had spotted a few of the vertical three-digit numbers rusting on their twisted stalks beside the road, but most of them had long since disappeared— though the undercover just looked back out the window and immediately said, “There’s one! One-oh-five.”
“Are they counting up or counting down?”
“Let’s see, we’re headed west, so . . . Hellfire, I used to know which way the numbers ran. I’ll watch for another one.”
But when Bill glanced over a few minutes later the man was leaning on the rattling windowglass again, asleep. Beyond his pudgy stubbled profile a squadron of jets streaked the distance with fresh vapor, flying parallel to the highway and close to the horizon, pursued by their crashing and reverberating wake of sound.
Watching from the corner of his eye for a milemarker, Bill drove.
So, Runaway Dad. What’s it going to be? Life, or death?
Chances were still pretty good that he wouldn’t have to decide. But Jaime—
Jaime was dead. Bill drove.
He heard the coptor above the engine-roar only a second before it came rocketing over the cab from behind, so low that it eclipsed the sun and then almost blinded him as it climbed away again, so loud it left his ears singing.
The undercover lurched awake in the passenger seat, squinting around in the glare. “What was it?”
“Pink one means a news crew, don’t it? Newsworthy.”
“Oh. Yeah. Getting ready for the next Update. That’ll be the set-up shot.”
“I can’t believe it’s been an hour already. Does that make it five o’clock? Or six?”
“I think I was asleep.”
“I think I must’ve been, too.”
The undercover blinked groggily across at him and then grinned. Bill almost smiled back, but his lips stuck together in a dry grimace; it would serve Wentworth and Jaime right if he dropped this joker off instead of their precious cargo and just kept going. But—
But Jaime was in trouble: he could feel it. He watched a dry creekbed go by and he felt his face and voice harden.
“Listen, you been playin’ the perfect hostage, I appreciate that. Really. But let’s be straight: I still don't know you, Jack, no matter who you claim to be.” He saw a tremor go through the bulging mound beneath the skintight blue suit, although the greyblue eyes and the well-creased grin never faltered. “An ATE undercover would be carrying plenty of ID, the real thing, airtight enough to fool another company goon. Same with a Newsworthy undercover. But just for the hell of it, why don’t you show me what you got?”
“I’m sorry, I really am.” The man gave a look that looked a lot like genuine remorse. “I wasn’t kidding about that part. Remember I was saying I gave my wallet—” He stared past Bill a moment and frowned, and then the grin lit up his face again, jowls and stubble and all, and he beamed with sublime happiness like an idiot or a Buddha. “Hey, his name was Bill, too, come to think of it! The junior patrolman. Lieutenant Bill!" He giggled, a minor bellyquake. "And I sent him up with it. My whole wallet, ComCard, ID, everything. Kind of a last will and testament. Close as I could come to looking her in the eye and . . .” A wistful look drifted across his face. “I did save one old picture.”
He groped inside his jacket and held out a faded old snapshot, but the truck was rattling just then over a series of speedbumps that might have been chiseled out of the road by aerial bombardment or landmines, and all Bill saw for sure was a white wedding gown and a black tuxedo.
“Lucy's the one in the middle,” said the man, and put the photograph away. “We never had kids. But I know what you’re going through; she was pregnant when we got married. Big mistake! Thirtyone years worth. I say you’re doing the right—”
“She wasn’t pregnant.” Bill reached out and snapped on the radio.
“—irreplaceable spare parts!” the announcer cut back in as if he’d never even stopped for breath. “This historic specimen of classic American workmanship from the Age of Petroleum, a 1992 diesel Freightliner, and its shipment of cheap data chips— or fifteen seconds of fiery mayhem out on the highway? Which is it going to be, Dad?”
Bill snapped the radio back off. “You know, I think I’d better stop and let you out. The soup gets deeper from here. And for all I know you might be some kind of undercover, bringing in runaway dads for bounty or something—”
“I like it! I like it!” The greyblue eyes glittered and the grin-lines made their well-rehearsed appearance. “Premise for a romantic-action-comedy series. Name your cut. Or do you insist on playing the lead yourself, as well?”
Bill snapped the radio back on.
“—just joining us, here’s a replay of the crime as caught in Hanford Cybertronics’ security cameras. Dodge is at lower left, emerging from behind the dumpster; he clubs Richard Matson, the truck’s assigned driver, to the ground and circles the truck—”
“I never clubbed anyone!” Bill cried out as if the word itself had been a blow.
“—covering himself with the automatic weapon he took from the badly injured Guard, Eugene Spinoza, and up into the cab.”
“It’s a lie!”
“Matson manages to crawl away from the wheels before Dodge gets the truck into gear. The Guards on the gate don’t suspect anything yet— but once they do, Dodge leans out the window with his automatic spraying lead and the pedal to the metal, and battering-rams his way through a stiff return fire, wounding two more Guards.”
“I didn’t! I did not! The Guards didn’t shoot, they ran! I was totally unarmed!”
“Newsworthy staff psychoanalyst Marvin Raye is standing by with a brief explanation of Runaway Dad Syndrome, but first—”
“Fuck you, Marvin!” Bill’s hand darted out with a blurred trembling accuracy and snapped the radio off. “And you too, Wayne!” He shot a glance at the undercover and saw the round stubbled face go abruptly pale, then pink. “I always knew something smelled funny,” he snarled, “this little monopoly on what used to be called news you got the nerve to call 'Newsworthy'— that rude impersonation of my mother a couple of hours ago, and now this— this little—" His eyes narrowed and he resolutely refused to look back at the highway, though his foot seemed to be flattening the accelerator now and the big engine almost drowned him out. "I always wanted to meet one of the jokers that did it.”
“Well I don’t—” the multiple chins quaked as the man swallowed, greyblue eyes blinking rapidly in the sun's glare— “actually myself, we have a machine that— a scenario generator— all the scripts—”
“And who programs it?”
“T-t-techs, the techs . . .” From the corner of his eye Bill saw one plump hand start to slide crabwise down the man’s fat blue belly, out of sight. Blindly he groped for the tire-iron he suddenly knew Matson had stashed behind the seat for banditos and terroristas and Judas knew—
But he stopped, breathing deep and slow, hearing out of nowhere his father’s voice. Just speed up: hammer down. You got three thousand pounds behind you. Whatever he pulls, he won’t dare use it.
Of course Papa had also carried a gun— even in those days the highway was a dangerous place— but Bill found nothing behind the seat but the driver’s empty lunchbox, which he’d tossed there himself after emptying it, so he gripped the steering wheel tight in both fists against the potholes and rubble and shoved the gas pedal as far as he dared into the floor, and the old truck lurched with a whine of complaint into a higher gear.
“All right,” he shouted. “Show me. What you got in your pocket over there.”
The furtive hand emerged from the clandestine pocket clutching something pinkish— no, purplish—
“Here, son. You’re going to need this. Even worse than I do.” Bill's hostage opened his palm and held the gaudy thing out, tears gleaming in the greyblue eyes. “Yeah, it’s loaded. Not that it’ll do you a damn bit of good. But you’ll feel better. Take it.”
Bill’s bewildered gaze flicked back up to the round stubbled face as the first tear spilled, flicked back down, and suddenly he saw: a pistol, one of those ladies’ designer jobs, molded plastic in the vague shape of a flower on a stick, all purple and pink— except from this angle, it looked a lot like a man’s erect genitalia. Then Bill saw that it was meant to, had been made to, and he felt faintly sick.
“It’s Lucy’s,” the weeping undercover was saying. “Licensed and everything. I bought it for her myself, and she won’t go near the damn thing. All the ladies were carrying them for a while there. But I guess I missed the trend again.”
Bill grabbed the gun and slipped it onto his finger like some ornate, obscene ring, heavier than it looked. His gaze lingered along a dry streambed the truck was crossing, the low growth of bramble that followed its course: dry, empty, dead.
“That’s the safety catch,” the undercover said, pointing. “That little wart there by your thumb.”
Bill swung the pistol straight up toward the padded leatherette ceiling, thumbed the wart, squeezed the trigger and a deafening blast rebounded painfully around the cab. Bill and the undercover peered up together at a tiny pencil-beam of sunlight for a long echoing minute, and finally the well-creased grin began to falter.
“Okay, ride’s over.” Bill started tugging out the airbrakes one by one, using the hand that gingerly held the gun, and let the infernal hiss drown out whatever the undercover’s next line was supposed to be. “It’s nothin’ personal,” he shouted. “I’m just starting to feel responsible. And I’m way past the point where I can take unnecessary chances.” He didn’t bother pulling over to the shoulder— he downshifted and braked the heavy trailer to a hissing, shuddering stop, grinding brittle asphalt to gravel under big clumsy tires.
He gestured with the pistol, its unexpected heft lending a slightly drunken authority to the hand that waved it, wavering, past the undercover’s stricken grin where he saw the squadron of jets banking out of the north across the beginnings of a cloudless prairie sunset, six white vapor-trails turning to gold. “You did want to live to tell the tale, didn’t you?”
“Well, actually, right before you came along—”
“Judas! Some people want to argue with you even when you’re trying to save their damn necks. Aside from that, you might be a decent guy. Come on. Out.” He gunned the motor.
“Oh, hell,” the undercover said. “Shit, fuck, piss, amen I did it again! I cracked too many jokes and now he won’t believe I’m serious. But I’m serious! You’re the only friend I have left in the world, now that I gave you Lucy’s gun. I’m an outlaw myself out here. Probably wanted for treasonable repartee by now, after what I said when I walked out.” He swallowed a visible lump that rippled each of his chins, then shut his eyes and cried, “Please! Tell me it’s for real, I’m ready for the revolution!”
Bill swung the garish muzzle of the gun uncertainly across the man’s bulging middle. “All right. Prove you’re really who you say, not a Newsworthy undercover— or something worse— by immediately vacating this truck. Ride’s over.”
The undercover’s expression then was practically tragic. A broken sob sent quaking ripples through his blue-upholstered bellyflesh, an unconscious hand sought out the spot— then began moving slowly down toward the clasp of the seatbelt.
“I walked out on twentyseven years at Newsworthy today. Thirtyone years with Lucy!” He heaved one more deep belly-sigh and opened the clasp. “I thought you understood. I thought that’s why you came. Lucy would be the first to assure you, sir, there are no accidents. It’s no coincidence that we meet this way, oh no. Destiny! We met because we have a destiny in common today! Can’t—”
Bill gunned the motor and waved the gun. The undercover unfolded a pair of mirrored glasses and slid them on without taking his eyes from the trembling purple muzzle, fished his longbilled cap from his pocket and pulled it on, jerked the door-handle open and the heat flooded in. He grasped the handhold above him with both hands and heaved his bulk out of the seat, ponderously turning, felt for the first rung— then stopped, hanging there from his soft pink hands.
“I don’t guess I could talk you into . . .”
Bill raised the pistol till it pointed at the ceiling again.
“No, I guess you’re deep enough in the soup without . . .”
Whatever it was the undercover never bothered to say it; he let go one hand to give Bill the oldfashioned V-sign, peace or victory or a fork in the road, whistled his tuneless little tune one more time and started clambering down.
“Good luck,” he shouted just before his round face, mirrored glasses and skyblue cap disappeared below the passenger seat— and all of a sudden broke out singing again in the deep gospel voice, atrociously out of tune: “If you get to heaven before I do-o-o-o-o . . . Appreciate the ride, pardner!”
The door slammed and Bill sat still a moment in the idling tremble of the truck, missing the joker already— but not the endless parade of jokes. He shifted into gear, nudged the accelerator and felt the heavy trailer tug into motion, gave it a little more gas as the transmission caught up and shifted. He was alone. It felt strange, almost foreign to be alone again though he’d been driving that way all afternoon, except for the lies on the radio, lost the whole time except for the infernal blazing of the sun, winding his way after it as it sank westward in a vast, complicated detour around the distant smoggy Towers of downtown OKC, side streets all the way, sweating even in the ACC till his coveralls were soaked. His undercover hostage had been with him only an hour or so, and slept nearly half of that; still . . .
He glanced across with a sudden pang at the mirror on the passenger side, wondering suddenly and altogether too late if the fat man was going to be all right out there alone in that hot wasteland with his mirrored sunglasses and his squeezebottle of booze—
But the man was lost behind him in the settling coils of dust; all he saw was a side mirror pocked full of holes. And as the old transmission jerked and shuddered up through the gears once more and the dim speedometer needle climbed behind its dusty once-transparent plastic pane and the hellish fields to either side galloped faster and faster past his window, he began to smile. He fastened the safety on the pistol and chucked it to the textured steel floor with a satisfying clang.
But with the descent of solitude a solid palpable absence began to settle on him and on the empty passenger seat and suddenly he could not fight off the feeling that he was fleeing down the Interstate the wrong way. She should be here, he caught himself thinking— or he should be on his way to her, wherever— to rescue her from whatever she—
Bill tasted dust. No. Jaime was dead. Wentworth could have her. And she could have Wentworth’s kid.
The desolating sacrilege
Watching for the next milemarker he called to mind her face, the articulate looks he would catch sometimes when he passed her on the line, her dark eyes glowing for a second— or so he’d always thought— with the same overflow of feeling that swelled in his chest, dropping again to her work; then the secretive fleeting smile. It was for him, he’d known— or thought he did— and with that weird telepathic link like a fine taut wire between them would suddenly find that he was pushing his broom along with that precise little smile on his face.
Where was his telepathic happiness now?
From the corner of his eye he watched for numbers. He was listening to the truck, all the voices of the irrevocable, irrecoverable past that hid in the big diesel’s hoarse roar. Enough happiness! said Momma's. This world wasn’t made for happiness. Five months is enough for one lifetime, more than most people get. Times are hard. Now: survive.
And suddenly, for the first time since Jaime had betrayed him, he wanted to survive. But not just for himself, the way Momma had meant; he had the strangest feeling that he and Jaime— if he could only— if he could even—
He could drive cheerfully to his doom if she were only with him.
The fat undercover had said it best, though he'd been wrong about him and Bill: whatever destiny had brought Bill and Jaime together, well, it wasn’t finished yet. Even if only to find out . . .
There it was! Mile 80, bent backwards
almost to the gravel shoulder but still intact. When he saw the number he
breathed an almost-prayer of thanks— one mile to go! —anything
to stop the merciless jiggle of the pneumatic cushion in the jouncing cab,
his own private carnival rodeo ride run amok— if only for long enough
to stretch his legs, take a peek inside this trailer he was hauling, and if
no one appeared to meet him, drive on with his trailerload of data chips.
At least he would know.
The truck climbed a slight rise and silhouetted at the top of the next, an artificial slope of dead grass where the Interstate bridged an old surface-rail bed, Bill spotted another milemarker.
He blew a series of short warning hoots on his airhorn in case anyone was waiting, then one long honk as he started up the rise, the trailer-brakes hissing as he started his downshift and then suddenly, with a prickle of gooseflesh and a yell— “Judas Christ!”—he was popping all his airbrakes as fast as he could and standing up on his footbrake as he came shuddering to a halt on the absolute edge of the thirty-foot drop-off where a bridge used to be. The front wheels gave a piercing squeak and stopped just barely past the balance-point, and with a slow, sickening tumble, the long nose of the Freightliner dropped over the edge. Bill’s shoulder-harness caught him as he slid forward in his seat, his empty stomach rebounding like a hard rubber ball with the echo of steel against asphalt: but the trailerbrakes held.
He closed his eyes and drew a raw, scraping breath, then reluctantly opened them again. Interstate 40 West had collapsed onto the railroad tracks below, chunks of it as far as fifty feet away, here and there a blackened, twisted I-beam lying among the rubble. The big truck trembled on the brink of the precipice while across a hundred-foot gap, Mile 79 picked up and went on as if nothing had happened. Bill turned the engine off and squinted around in the sudden buzzing silence, shading his eyes with one hand, alert for sound or movement against the blaze of sunset, but nothing moved: not a breeze, not a plane, not a bird.
It looked like fairly recent sabotage, or a mighty tight precision air-strike; a few dozen yards away, the eastbound lanes were untouched. And the milemarker, barely fifty feet behind him: someone was making sure he didn’t miss his appointment. Or trying to . . .
A tingle of electricity ran up the rivulet of sweat along Bill’s spine. Wentworth. He glanced down at the pistol on the floor at his feet, then shoved his door open, leaned out and stood up on the doorsill, catching a hot chrome handgrip with one hand, arching his stiff back in the heat that radiated from several tons of hot metal. Burning exhaust pipe way too close to his skin, a stifling blast of heat coming up from the pavement, the sun beginning to slowly cook his unprotected cheek: he couldn’t feel any of it as he let an old cramped breath go and looked around at the vast unpolarized sky, so much bigger than it had appeared through the windows of the cab, so much more dangerously hot and bright.
It was then, clinging precariously to the side-mirror of the truck tilted over the abyss, blind in the level rays of sunset, that Bill felt the cab creak minutely under his feet: hairs prickled up the back of his neck but for a long unbearable moment he couldn’t move a muscle, suspended there. He swung back into his seat just as the door across the cab clicked, squeaked, cracked a couple of inches and then dropped all the way open. Bill reached down through the steering wheel for the fat undercover’s pistol, stretched for it, then strained, his arm and fingers a foot or so too short and a second too late—
A hand with skin like dark wrinkled leather reached up over the passenger seat, clutched the seatbelt and fell back, dragging the springloaded canvas belt out of its little housing till abruptly it stopped coming.
After a pause the hand reappeared, climbing the seatbelt like a belaying rope and bringing with it its mate. A wide-brimmed black hat appeared next, and as the brim tipped back Bill saw why the climb had been so strenuous: the face beneath was dark fine parchment, weathered and aged for a century or so in dry rainless heat. Two unblinking eyes peered over the tilted seat that were as black as Jaime’s, only they looked back at him without revealing a single one of their secrets;
Jaime never could hide her thoughts from Bill, or so he—
But Jaime was dead. And if she was pregnant, the kid was Wentworth’s.
The old man raised a leathery palm,
his chest still heaving to catch up with the rest of him after the climb.
“Hola!” he said in a hoarse rasping voice.
“Buenos dias,” said Bill. “I mean, tardes.”
The old man wore an antique formal black suit, worn completely out but impeccably tailored for his small frame, though under the threadbare jacket instead of the oldfashioned shirt-and-tie a bone breastplate gleamed against his weathered brown skin, very elegantly worked, and his hair was braided in two thin wisps of silver that fell behind oversized ears. He clambered onto the tilted seat and immediately slipped off, catching himself with one hand and both hard black leather shoes, and they faced one another sidelong across the slope of the cab, each braced uncomfortably on one arm against the dashboard.
So this was the best Wentworth could do? a cynical whisper was complaining in the silence. This whole uprising was nothing but women and old men?
“Grandson,” said the old man, with a grin that spread a radiating fan of deep wrinkles in every direction around it. “You came.” In a language Bill could tell was not his native tongue, his small black eyes on fire with reflected sunset and maybe, it seemed to Bill, with something more. But if it was alcohol, Bill couldn't smell it.
“I'm not— I mean I guess, but— I was expecting a few more. I mean, you got a lot of data chips to unload. Unless you . . .”
The old man lifted a knee with surprising ease and wedged himself upright with one leather shoe on the dashboard. His spotted hands were shaking as he fumbled from an ancient faded fannypack at his waist a tightly-wrapped little bundle of what looked like dried grass and an antique disposable plastic cigarette lighter, bright orange.
“Grandson, long ago, when I was perhaps your age, perhaps foolishly, I went seeking a vision. What I didn't know was that I would return with a responsibility. I confess, over the years I have not always been worthy of this responsibility. But not long ago I began to notice certain signs and I began to watch, as my vision foretold, for a visitor. A new star, never seen before, that would burn across the sky, night after night, in the middle of the fourth dry summer.”
The old man's voice never quavered, even during his confession, though his knobby old fingers struggled with the lighter till Bill longed to reach across and rescue them— but first he had to figure out what was going on. He glanced down at the pistol on the floor again just as the lighter sparked and an eager flame caught the tip of the dry grass bundle.
“I recognized this place by a sign I found here on a stone,” the old man rasped, breathing noisily as the little bundle began to burn. “I still have the stone in a safe place a few miles from here. Even though for all I know it could have fallen off a passing train, any time since the railroad came through in my great-grandfather’s time. But I marked the place and kept watch. And sure enough: a few years later when they built this highway, it crossed the railroad right here. X marks the spot, right?"
He grinned again, giving Bill a glimpse of tobacco-brown stumps of teeth, then blew out the flaming bundle and a thick cloud of sweet blue smoke unfurled in Bill’s face, filling the cab.
"I've lived all over," the raspy voice went on through the smoke. "In the service I saw Europe and a little too much of Asia. But I came back here to check on things, when I could, and make ceremony. In a way I've been waiting for this my whole life.”
With one gnarled finger the old man hooked a loop of silver braid and began to draw it over his shoulder: several feet of it by the time Bill saw, tied to its silver tip, a long bronze feather tipped in white. One trembling hand pointed the smoking bundle in Bill's direction while the other started to fan smoke across the cab with the feather, trailing a swinging cable of silver, and the old man hummed a high-pitched wavering wordless song— not loud, as if singing only to himself— as the two hands working together made a slow circle of smoke in the air.
“Wait.” Suddenly Bill realized the old man hadn’t quite finished; the story he was telling wasn't quite over. “You said— you were waiting all your life— for . . ."
“For this hour of our Mother Earth’s great need. And your great sacrifice.”
Bill jerked and bit into the swollen lump inside his lip, and for the second time today tasted his own blood. “My— what?”
But the old man had closed his eyes
and was moving the smoking bundle in the same deliberate circle across his
own narrow torso, scattering smoke along his limbs with precise little flaps
of the feather, humming the same high wavering song. Then he turned completely
around in the cramped slot of floorboard to stand bent-necked, facing the
trailer behind them— though he was so stooped and shriveled that he
didn’t really need to bend at all— fanned more smoke and sang
East, said a voice Bill didn't recognize inside him, as if the silence itself had a voice.
Then the old man turned to face Bill, kneeling on the slanted seat with one knee, looking past him with eyes so black that Bill seemed to be looking through them into outer space, and fanned smoke and sang; Bill turned uneasily and looked behind him. South.
The old man turned again, facing the windshield, leaning back on the edge of the canted seat, fanned smoke at the tinted glass and sang; Bill followed his gaze across the bridgeless chasm and down the highway to the prairie's flat edge, where the sun was just about to touch earth under a glowing cloudless sky. West.
The old man turned his thin, threadbare back and fanned again and sang, kneeling on the other knee, and looking over his broad black hat Bill saw the long horizon beginning to fall under the shadow of night. North.
It’s all one horizon, he was thinking, why divide it up into four?
Turning with slow, careful, deliberate steps in the opposite direction this time, as if unwinding a wound-up string, the old man looked Bill right in the eye and grinned, his face a mask of radiating wrinkles once more. "It’s a circle. The directions just remind us."
The old man lifted feather and smoke up into the air, closed his eyes and fanned and sang again. Bill looked up through the bullethole in the ceiling into dying purple light.
The old man stooped toward the floor and fanned and sang again and at last he rested, holding the feather and the still-smoking stump of the grass bundle in crossed hands against his chest, with a remnant of the grin across his lean leathery face and no hint of anything at all in the unblinking black eyes.
Bill watched the inscrutable glance search the dashboard for something, divined somehow what it was and reached to open an ashtray. The dark leathery shaking hand deposited what was left of the smoldering bundle— then without a pause reached inside the fannypack and took out a triangular bundle of pink and white striped cloth. The two shaking hands began to unwrap it and a blue field of stars appeared: the cloth was an old United States flag, faded and full of holes. Bill’s eyes widened. Bulletholes, or just mothholes?
The triangular object inside was a pipe of carved red stone that gleamed with the polish of many hands, which the old man set down lovingly on his knee while he dug through the fannypack again, this time for a long, narrow bundle wrapped in blue and white, which before he even unrolled it Bill already figured would be the—
But he swallowed, staring down: the wooden pipestem’s wrapping-cloth was a long triangular pennant, half yellowing white, half old and faded blue, bearing a device of crossed sabers and the small letters U.S. under a large number 7. It too was old and full of holes. But that didn’t mean— it couldn‘t—
The old man grinned that weathered, wrinkled grin as the wood stem and the stone bowl fit precisely together in his trembling fingers. From a skin pouch slung on a shoulder-thong beneath his dinner-jacket he fetched a pinch of brown tobacco, then another, pressing them deep into the bowl. Then he started the singing again at an even higher pitch, closing his eyes and summoning once more from nowhere Bill could spot the orange plastic lighter. This time the lighter gave him no trouble and he puffed the bowl alight, taking strong draughts into his cheeks and blowing them rapidly over his shoulder, until the bowl’s deep shaft was glowing. He offered the stem to the truck’s padded ceiling and its single bullethole, letting a white tendril of smoke leak upward from his nostrils and lips, then bent to offer the bowl to the floor, and then finally held the pipe out to Bill.
Bill reluctantly reached out and took it, rotated it awkwardly in his hands and sighted down the long wooden stem at the smoking bowl, the smoke drifting up as if directly out of the blaze on the horizon. He closed his eyes and sucked tentatively, tasted nothing and tried again, tasted nothing again and stopped this time to firmly expel all the air from his chest before sealing the tip of the stem with determined lips and filling his lungs to bursting with the smoke he must have drawn almost to the tip with his last heroic attempt. He coughed it all out, almost losing his balance on the slanted seat.
The old man, he noticed from the corner of his eye, was grinning merrily and pointing, over and over, at the ceiling. Bill remembered to lift the pipe-stem above his head..
Thank you, said the voice he didn’t recognize inside him. It is a good day to live.
Now the old man was jabbing one finger over and over at the floor. Bill slumped forward, resting his forehead on the rim of the wide steering wheel, letting the pipe-stem droop toward the floor. God he was tired. God of the godless. Wearily he closed his eyes. Deft, gentle hands took the pipe out of his dangling fingers and once more Bill heard the old man’s high quavering song.
It seemed no more than an instant later when Bill’s eyes opened again to see the old man unfastening the eagle feather from his silver braid, handing the feather across the gap between the seats with a gesture Bill knew better than to refuse.
"That’s an eagle feather. The eagle that gave it to me told me it was for you."
Next he took off the broad hat and lifted the tiny leather pouch and its leather thong over his head, drew his braids carefully through the loop of leather and held it out in both hands— but when Bill reached for it the old man shook his head, smiling, and gave a little bow.
Bill understood then and ducked his own head forward, leaning so the old man could drop the thong around his neck. He fingered the little pouch, marveling— what kind of animal had skin so smooth, softer than any cloth he’d ever touched?—as the old man’s slow shaking hand went back to the fannypack and handed a third gift across the cab: a clear crystal, its cool facets sleek as glass.
"This goes inside the pouch," the hoarse whisper went on. "I already put in some weeds I picked while I was waiting. Medicine weeds."
Bill hesitated, a myriad of rainbows winking around him in the dusty slanted cab like mischievous sprites, remembering something the Parson used to say about witches consorting with the evil spirits in jewels and gemstones while Momma listened raptly from her ironing board or her kitchen sink, shaking her head, thrift-store jewelry gleaming.
But the old man smiled, reading Bill's mind again— or at least his face. "It grew in the earth, slowly forming for thousands of years. Good medicine." Bill reached out and took the crystal, discovering by accident that the little rainbows would dance in formation around him if he turned it in the long rays of the sunset. Pretty, he was thinking as he stashed it in the little pouch; nice present. But what—
“I’m supposed to give you a new name, too . . .” The old man fixed him with a hard, opaque stare and abruptly stopped grinning. “Many generations ago, when your pale ancestors came to this continent, your other ancestors, the dark ones, welcomed them. Many of the pale ones joined us in our villages, danced and hunted with us. You yourself are the fruit of that friendship, though most likely you don’t remember. But others of the pale ones hunted us down and danced with our bloody scalps in their hands. You are also the fruit of that lust for blood. That is why you have chosen—”
Oh god, god, god of the godless, the old voices began to moan in Bill’s head, why me?, but he was still drawing a panicky breath and mustering the nerve to protest when he realized the old man had paused, listening. That was when he heard the jets— a sudden distant screaming high above the silence— and at the same time from somewhere at the periphery of earshot, the smooth staccato of a coptor. Judas in heaven, was it an hour again already?
“What exactly do you mean,” he cut in hastily before the old man's speech could resume, “chosen?”
“You might not remember that part, either; it also happened before you were born. But that is why you chose this sacrifice. To carry the unlived life of another is not an easy thing.”
“But— Judas, wait!” He'd forgotten about the sacrifice. “Whose— I mean what does—”
But the jets were banking around from the south now into position, a glitter of blue steel against the blazing sky, three of them in formation, and Bill’s next mumble came out a yell:
“Get down, goddammit, here they—”
And was already too late, because as he gripped the lifeless steering wheel in both hands and stared up, the screaming had already begun to intensify and pierce him everywhere with a numbing paralysis of will: he saw the lead jet flash out of the sun, closing, and with a dumb reflex he ducked under the wheel to stretch a frantic hand down for the pink and purple pistol, far too late— and in the instant his fingers closed on the hideous thing he heard the thock-thock-thock-thock-thock that might have been a lasercannon as a broad shadow screamed impossibly close overhead, might have been hot lead bullets smacking through the windshield, and then just as suddenly the screaming shadow was gone, its eardrum-piercing thunderclap breaking over him a second later like a blast of silence. Ducking upright again in stunned disbelief that he was still intact, unharmed, alive, he saw—
He stared. No. Yes!
The windshield had melted into a glassy puddle on the dashboard. Laserburns stitched the upholstery across the backs of both pneumatic seats. Nasty, smoking ones that stank of molten plastic. But the old man was gone. Just gone.
Bill gripped the pistol in his fist like it was the one sure thing left in the world, the bright unreal world that swiveled around him in stark slow-motion as he reached for the chrome handgrip overhead with one hand, catching a foothold only long enough to aim and launch a backward twisting leap over the jagged edge of the broken Interstate to the solid gravel and concrete shoulder, where miraculously the scavengers and saboteurs had left behind a single section of guard-rail. Never before in all his years on the road had Bill ever squeezed under a guard-rail.
The screaming was circling back, beginning to intensify again, and peeking out from under his guard-rail Bill saw the lead jet rejoin the formation just as a second jet dropped away and swooped down— doing a fancy roll on its way in, so suspiciously timed that he turned his head and spotted the pink Newsworthy coptor hovering exactly where the angle would be most dramatic.
But no: if Wentworth wasn’t lying this was still too close, so he scrambled on all fours to the blasted edge, still cradling the gun, swung down on a dangling rebar to the concrete ledge where one end of a huge fallen steel beam now rested, jumped onto a single large flat chunk of concrete among the rubble below, then threaded his way through twisted girders and concrete fragments still joined by rebar to the railroad tracks, where eight or nine feet of a toppled concrete piling still stood.
He hugged the smooth dirty concrete pillar, stretching his arms as far as he could around its ungiving girth, pressing his unshaven cheek into its grit and pockmarks and shutting his eyes against the glare. The inside of his eyelids glowed red with it, regardless, as if burning with the accumulated glare of the long day's drive, but the sky was suddenly filled with screaming again from edge to edge and Bill was out of time. As he squinted up past his chosen pillar at the incoming jet, the obscene little pistol in his hand seemed to autonomously track his gaze, pressing his knuckles against the concrete to steady itself: now he saw the sparks like a string of firecrackers along each wing of the jet, though he didn’t connect that right away with the thudding noises above and behind him, and he clung to the pillar with his free arm as the jet swooped down and without thinking, without feeling, without desiring or deciding or intending or even aiming, he gripped the ridiculous little gun and waited . . .
He squeezed the trigger and held on without meaning to, forgetting to allow for the kick, so it locked on automatic and spewed out its eight rounds in rapid order: but one of the bullets must have passed through something vital to the steering of the jet— possibly the pilot— because after Bill let loose his panicky salvo it just kept coming and never altered course.
The concrete ledge below the bridge saved his life, he realized afterward, along with the concrete pillar he was hugging, because an instant after the burst of light that seared through his closed eyelids and the explosion that left his entire body ringing he looked around and everything was black and ghostly with smoke, the grass on fire and mysterious winds, the first Bill had felt in weeks, swirling the livid flames across a blasted landscape as though alive. The truck was a blazing hole in the sky that Bill could hardly bear to look at— a fireball that made the sunset behind him pale in its reflection— and towering above it, bigger than he would ever have expected, the jet's tailsection was visible in silhouette for a second before it toppled into the fire.
Suddenly he remembered. The burning fireball in the desert: the bodies arranged on the highway shoulder for counting: his lost Papa. Well, if Pa was dead, Pa was now avenged, and it was a damngod shame that Bill would probably never know.
His skin was imprinted with every smooth and rough spot on the concrete pillar, which he could still feel vibrating in his embrace, but no bones were broken. His back felt scorched from head to heel, but the Teamster coverall hadn’t melted into burning jelly as he’d heard of a Welfare coverall doing from time to time. But this time it was a fuckinsuckin' flying monkey, by god, said one of his voices, and with a sudden nauseous reflex he flung the pistol away— and that was when he discovered that he still clutched the old man’s eagle feather in his other hand.
He swiveled and sprinted along the rubble-strewn tracks under the intact eastbound lanes of the overpass, then climbed the embankment and clambered over the bridge's outside rampart into the seething glare of the fireball, scorching the cheek that had not been getting sunburnt all day. He ducked back below the shelter of the abutment and looked around in a creeping twilight which was more than dusk descending on the land— a spreading mist of more than normal darkness— a dim shadow over the sky smelling faintly of burnt . . . toast.
The wheatfields were burning!
He could go either way. But without so much as a glance back at the sunset Bill vaulted the abutment into the heat and glare and hit the bridge already running: eastward, down the crumbling highway the way he’d come. Why, he was dimly conscious of wondering, when he’d expended all this time and rage and diesel fuel rumbling west all day? But it was as if his feet took over in the smoky gaping ruin of all logic and sense, choosing east, and Bill ran.
Judas, if his ears would only stop ringing!
To either side as he raced, already panting, waves of flame leaped and crackled across the dry dead acres with a noise like a million tiny laughters, and he strained to outrun them but was already losing. The center-line of the highway was the only safe place: choking and coughing and trying to keep his head low, Bill ran.
But where was he going?
The abomination of desolation
All around him tiny rustling bodies and scuttling feet stampeded down the cracked and crumbling asphalt— he even saw a snake slithering frantically sideways— and then he heard the first coptors coming, invisible in the thick pall of smoke, but they clattered overhead and kept going toward the raging blaze. Bill ran.
Against the gathering density of smoke and dusk, just when his singed and exhausted lungs couldn’t carry him another step, Bill caught a flash of metal across the median: a stripe of chrome reflecting fiery sky: a long black flickering shadowy shape in the ditch on the other side of the highway. Again his feet seemed to know, decide, altering direction without breaking stride as he veered off the pavement— but the deep thick dead weeds of the median slowed his sprint to a jog and by the time he reached pavement again he was almost walking.
On the far shoulder of the westbound lanes he stopped and peered into the smoky twilight. Nosed into the invisible fence he saw a long . . . black . . . station wagon: not like the boxy cream-colored Toyota his Momma used to drive when he and Lance and Margie were kids, in fact more like a sleek, sculpted postmodern hearse than an oldfashioned station wagon, gleaming even blacker against the blackened land and the flicker of flames: and it was running. Eyes watering with smoke and disbelief, he staggered down across the ditch and groped his way to the door-handle. It was unlocked!
He yanked open the door and as if only waiting for permission, his numb knees collapsed. A woman lay slumped across the steering wheel, one arm dangling with the slope of the ditch, the rest of her just starting to follow when Bill’s knees hit the ground and she slid off the seat directly into his lap.
He caught her the best he could, though she was clearly female and if he’d had time, his reflex would have probably been to dodge her. But he stared down for a long startled second, cradling her like a baby, until the outline of her face slowly took shape— round and freckled and pale— then gently lowered her to the grass, recoiling for a breathless second at the sticky shock of blood under his thumb, and searched out the pulse in her neck: weak, barely there, and surely ebbing with the loss of blood. The back of her shirt was soaked in it.
The two thoughts flashed simultaneously in his numb, reverberating brain: leave her here in the grass for the cops to find— once they identified her they would take good care of her, to judge by the car— or heave her back in and take her with him. If she was already dead it made no difference either way, he could dump the body anyplace as long as he left no fingerprints. He closed his eyes and listened dully to the frantic whispers debating in the darkness as he waited for his weary bones, his sore muscles and cramped fingers to lead the way.
Oh: right: the fire. She’d be burned. Carefully he gathered the woman’s unconscious face to his chest, worked one arm under her knees as his own knee braced and steadied, and at the price of a distinct strain in his lower back he lifted and shoved her limp body up and across the ultraplush upholstery until her head rolled with a thump against the passenger window and he collapsed on the seat beside her.
Leaning with her head up like that might have saved her life, he was thinking, momentarily conscious again of his thoughts as he found a jacket on the seat and stuffed it between her head and the windowglass. Then, noticing her new leather hiking boots, so new that he could smell the leather when he reached down to loosen the knots, he saw the cat. Asleep, he kept hoping, but the random blotches of white fur refused to move against the the twilight-shadows under the dash, and as he stared the night-shadows seemed to wash in and the cat’s charcoal outline blended gradually into the darkness, leaving only random blotches of white.
Invisible overhead in the smoke and murk more coptors were passing, headed west toward the burning wreckage of truck and jet: then he heard the outriders spreading out to north and south of the highway like two huge dark wings of noise, and the powerful searchlights stabbed down.
Damn the bastards. They took care of her this far, didn’t they? And even her cat. Didn’t they? Didn’t they?
The desolating sacrilege
He remembered the distant circling birds— one hand still on the handle of the open door, listening— but then he remembered the tiny weathered old man, grinning and singing and lecturing him almost like his Pa used to do, but without all the shouting, and just before he slammed the door in the last of the twilight and the first flames licking through the fence Bill looked down and saw the old man’s eagle feather lying in the ditch. Hanging on to the steering wheel with one hand, he leaned out and down and stretched to retrieve it in his fingertips, twice as precious now that it was nearly lost and even stained now, branded with a faint thumbprint in blood along one edge.
The old man’s leather pouch still hung against Bill’s chest— soft leather, more luxurious by far than the velvet seat-cushions in this megarich lady’s car, some wild animal long extinct, maybe— so as a kind of charm against losing the feather again he thrust its point through a knot in the bag's rawhide drawstring and let it dangle down the front of his shirt. He felt the weight of the crystal inside the little bag swinging against his chest as he shifted the station wagon’s vertical gearshift into R.
He was wondering what his new name was supposed to be.
No lights— he couldn’t risk it. The station wagon made little humming and whistling noises he had never heard before, especially under the hood of a car, but it moved when he tested the accelerator; the fence let go with a lonesome scrape of farewell as Bill backed out of the hard dry ditch and gunned the car tail-first up onto the highway.
After the clumsy muscle-work of steering a loaded trailer the car responded like a dream, a vintage Hollywood stunt-car scene as he swung its rear wheels back toward the flaming conjunction of livid fireball and dying sun, threw it into D, floored the accelerator and spun the wheel. He skidded south across the highway and plunged into the thick weeds of the median, already veering east, and he was gone. Vamanos. DT. Outta here.
The eastbound lanes of the interstate were just as battlescarred and weatherbeaten as the westbound, but the station wagon rolled so smoothly over it all compared to the jolting truck that Bill never even slowed down when he shot under an overpass where the goons had set up a portable roadblock on the westbound side— behind him, apparently, after he’d come past. Two transport coptors were loaded and taking off, but sharpshooters still lined the bridge, staring westward at the fireball which dominated all three of Bill’s mirrors, still raw and seething. No one even seemed to glance as Bill whipped by in the smoke and uproar.
After he’d come past— now he saw. Counterpart, no doubt, to another heavily armed roadblock on the eastbound lanes a mile or so beyond the blasted bridge— to keep anyone else who happened to be out on I-40 at a safe distance while they wasted him— live on Newsworthy— right at the top of the news hour. Damn you, Bull Wentworth! Bill felt a little shaky for a minute, almost translucent, as the realization swept over him that he really wasn’t supposed to be alive right now. And some flying monkey in a skyblue Air Patrol uniform was: was supposed to be winging his seven million dollar death-delivery machine across the city in triumph, right now, answering Wayne Coleman’s admiring questions over his radio with modest virility. Supposed to be.
Bill swallowed, but the lump in his throat remained, along with the lingering taste of dust. He had never really expected to live to see the sunset of this day. The pilot might have had— might have been—
It is a good day to live.
The unidentified voice was still with him. He smiled somberly, stroking the soft stiff edge of the dangling feather as he drove, and only then remembered: somewhere up there a pink coptor was catching all of this. None of it would make it through the lasercable lines that connected Newsworthy Network to its client cities, of course— but for the moment it was news, it was happening— Wayne Coleman and Rick Martinez and the other blowdried newsbimbos were stammering out whatever excuses they could for the delay while they scrambled for some footage to substitute for his demise— and Bill was alive, somewhere in the middle of it, and somewhere Jaime was too— he could feel it. All of a sudden, he kept thinking, anything is possible. Anything at all.
June 10, 1992: Hardpan, Colorado
His father was waiting.
Bill had suffered through the normal Sunday dinner invitation after church, the usual nosy ladies and staring kids and one especially annoying old man who had rubbed his knuckles on Bill’s crewcut “for good luck.” But that ordeal was over now and Bill and his father were taking their normal after-dinner walk in their Sunday clothes: one more ordeal to go.
Behind him in the parking lot of the little church Bill could still see Pa’s truck, gleaming pure white in the mountain sunshine, its long trailer towering over the last few cars. He followed his father’s tall back and steady strides, skipping to keep up as Pa led the way past the cemetery of the tiny mountain town toward what looked to Bill like a sheer face of rock.
But the glass-littered gravel road became a dirt track and curved to take the slope at a kinder angle, turning back on itself several times. Pa stopped once to rest without even looking back for Bill— gazing instead across the foothills over miles of houses to the plain, where Denver lay fogged in its smoke— or past that, maybe, to the flat line of the horizon— or past that. Bill looked up at him and was trying not to remember the story of Abraham and Isaac when, still without looking around, Pa started on again.
It was dumb to be afraid, he had to tell himself twice: the sermon that morning hadn’t come anywhere close to Old Testament territory. Still, his father had whipped him for nothing plenty of times and told him it was to hold him to the Lord's way— keep him steady and firm on the Christian path even if he hadn't yet strayed. Because the nature of man was to sin, Papa said, and the nature of a boy was to want to, and it was better to straighten them out while they were still young.
But the mountain air was cool and sharp and Bill had just escaped— from church, different every Sunday but always too long, too slow, too serious— from the fake politeness of the people who clustered around his Pa after the service, around him too with smiles that masked their curiosity about a traveling preacher's boy— from the crowded dining-room table of whatever local big shot was first to reach Pa with the invitation. Bill was twelve years old and had just escaped from his weekly ordeal, all but the last little obligation, and before long he was running far ahead of his father's steady strides. The mountainside was greener up here than it looked from below, the rocks marbled and rosy with sunshine, and he saw butterflies: yellow ones, white ones, a big monarch that skipped lazily away when he chased it.
They reached a ridge of bare rock and Pa stopped again. Bill took the crest still running and was halfway down the dip on the other side when his father's voice snapped again on the dry air:
Bill turned and climbed back up the rise. Someone had cut a giant log into sections but Pa didn’t sit down; he gazed out across the shining plain and asked the question Bill dreaded most in the world.
"William Christian Dodge. Were you listening in church today?"
Pa hadn’t bothered to ask for several Sundays— but Bill hadn’t forgotten the answer. “Yessir.”
“I'll still whip you if you don't, you know that, boy.”
“Well. Do you remember the Scripture I preached on this morning, can you say it back to me?”
Bill had recognized it— he ought to know it. Momma had given him and Lance that one to memorize long ago. He gave it a try. “When you see the abomination— I mean the desolation— where it ought not to be, then let all of you in Jerusalem— head for the hills?”
Bill's father sighed, but didn’t lower his eyes from the horizon. “Close, boy, you got it close. Judea, not Jerusalem. And mountains, not hills. 'But when you shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not— let him that readeth understand— then let them that be in Judea flee to the mountains.'” Papa had a deep, beautiful voice when he got rolling; anyone could tell he loved preaching out of the King James.
But he stopped reciting and looked down: one hard black Sunday shoe rolled a pebble in the dirt. “This here is a mountain we're settin' on. That yonder is a hill.” He pointed with his bony black-sleeved arm across the valley they had climbed from, where the foothills humped together in rocky folds. “And that out there,” he said, gesturing out over not the vastness of the prairie but only its flatness, “is Judea.”
Bill was baffled: it was Colorado. They had driven for hours across it to reach the mountains— even longer across Nebraska before that. But he kept quiet and stared out over the checkerboard of roads and houses.
“Not so long ago," Pa went on quietly, "that prairie was covered with millions of buffalo. Bison, the Indians called ‘em, and they used every little part of ‘em for something. And what do you see out there now?”
Bill stared out across the prairie, wondering exactly what he was supposed to see.
“Hard to miss, ain’t it. That’s right: the habitations of men. That’s the abomination Scripture’s talking about. Your great-grandfather Augustus Dodge helped to settle that country, did you know that?“
Bill shook his head.
“He was one of the hunters that cleared the plains of the buffalo. Starving out the Indian and making room for cattle with one wicked strategy. And then turned rancher and got rich off of those self-same cattle. The red man got a mighty raw deal, son. That's why I don't allow your momma to buy you those toy pistols you want. I don't want you shooting at Indians, even playin', even though I done it when I was your age."
He swallowed, the Adam's apple in his neck making a period at the end of the sentence, and went on preaching.
"And you remember your grandfather, Micah Dodge. He was a carpenter like our Lord. He helped build all those habitations of men. He became a contractor and got rich selling hundred-thousand dollar mansions all alike, six feet apart, as the suburbs spread out from places like Denver. He became a developer, collecting usury off folks trying hard to live like they's rich. Herdin' 'em just like his daddy's cattle."
He took a deep breath and his voice began to edge higher like it did when he was closing in on his point.
"Well, I've read in God's book about how the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children. I've dreamed about it, again and again. And I can feel God's judgement coming. I can feel the Redeemer's breath on my brow right now, he's that close. There's a judgement comin' on the habitations of men. On the sons of those wicked sinners who settled this land— on me and on you, Bill-boy, no matter how fast we think we're getting' away down that highway. Because the world can't get much more wicked than this. Things are going to get bad, and then worse, till even those pansies on the TV news will have to call it a tribulation. Then we’ll see how faithful these whores and harlots of churches will turn out to be.”
Pa took a couple more deep shuddering breaths, his eyes glittering wet, and after a minute seemed to see again. He looked down at Bill.
“Jerusalem is a city, Bill, any city, like that evil city where your mother lives. I've give up hope of ever prying her loose from Chicago. But if you find yourself led into Jerusalem by any name, whether on Satan's errand or the Lord's, just remember what I said. Just remember what a mountain is and what a hill is, and what you saw up here today. Now. Repeat it back to me.”
Bill stared up at him, his tongue suddenly dry and clumsy in his mouth, the words not where they should be— but he knew.
"Speak up, Bill-boy! I told it in the sermon, didn't I? And again just now?" Bill's father suddenly crouched down low, looking Bill right in the eye, stern-faced like he was when he got preaching good in church, his voice gruff against the cool blue air. Bill's tongue unstuck: it was the sermon, he remembered now, Pa had just sort of turned the Scripture lesson upside-down up here on the mountain.
“The abomination of— desolation— that means the—”
But his tongue had forgotten all its words. He squirmed, eyes on the ground as if the answer, or a hole to hide in, might be laying around in the weeds— but when he finally looked up he saw that his father's anger was spent.
“It's desecrating God’s creation, Bill. Whenever you see a sight like that, I want you to remember.”
Pa looked weary, grey in his worn preaching clothes and dusty black shoes. He no longer glared out over the land to the horizon as if it was his to apportion, divide as he chose to the Lord and to men. He brooded now as if he didn't see it— all those thousands of feet down and hundreds of miles across the prairie. His eyes were focused upward now on the hugeness or maybe just the cloudless emptiness of the sky: or maybe he was looking up at something only he could see. Bill's pa brooded, chewing his lip, frowning a little.
Bill didn't sleep that night like he was supposed to, riding in the dark sleeper behind the cab. He peeked through the vinyl curtain and watched the highway and the milemarkers coming, the billboards and the taillights and the headlights across the median. If he listened he could hear the beat of the scripture-verses in the truck’s steady murmur. Not the words, but a pulse in the back of his brain that gradually became part of the steady hiccup of the motor, the jounce of the cab, the gallop of the tires against the road, all the squeaking and humming and rattling voices he hardly noticed any more.
* * *
> end of Book I <
coming soon . . .
The Mission for Today
HELP KEEP THE STORY COMING!
Dear Reader: Each time you click the PayPal link below, you'll be able to donate $1.00. Feel free to donate as many times as you like. Your donation also functions as a "vote" to continue the story. Whenever the total donations add up to $25.00, I'll get busy adding another installment. I'll send you an email when it's ready to read. Thanks for your support — Wing