Max fingered the buckle on one strap of the stiff denim overalls as he shuffled to the restroom at the highway convenience plaza, where Joel had parked the van so that Max could pee. The plaza was a bustling collection of hydrogen recharge points, a few gas pumps for older combustion-engine cars and farm vehicles, fast food joints, and convenience shop counters where travelers in a rush could pick up gum, coffee, newspapers or condoms.
Joel hadn’t wanted to stop, but when the girl, whose name Max had learned was Linda, threatened to let Max have another swing at him, Joel had given in and pulled off the road.
Listen to the Chapter 22 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.
Max passed up the rows of urinals that lined the ceramic-tiled walls, and chose one of the larger stalls designed to accommodate the handicapped. He was going to need extra room to maneuver the overalls. They were dark blue and stiff, with creases at the calf, thigh, waist and chest from where they had been folded when Linda pulled them out from under a pile of blankets in the van. She had also given him a stretchy, white cotton shirt with long sleeves, and a pair of workman’s boots that were a few sizes too large. All the garments were brand new, as though they had just come off the shelves of a department store, except that the places where the tags would have been, - at the back of the shirt collar, the bib of the overalls, and the uppers on the boots, - had ragged tears where the manufacturer information had been cut out.
Just in case anyone cared to glance at his feet under the wall that surrounded the stall, Max undid the second strap and pushed the overalls to his knees to pretend to urinate. He didn’t really have to go. He just needed a few minutes away from his two companions.
Joel had driven north toward Pennsylvania after they had whisked Max away from the mob, muttering and ranting the whole way. The lunatic act, it seemed, hadn’t been an act altogether. Linda was constantly on guard; ready to snap at Joel to keep him focused on the road. To make matters worse, the van’s heads-up display was out and the avoidance collision system was apparently malfunctioning, allowing Joel to take the van screaming up on other cars from behind, which would force him to pump the brake and holler obscenities at innocent drivers. Then he would pass, swerving across oncoming lanes to the left, or onto the shoulder to the right. Fortunately, the collision avoidance systems in all the other vehicles they encountered were working well enough to deal with even Joel’s erratic driving.
For the first half hour or so, Max had sat silently, wrapped in a blanket and wedged against the wall of the van as it rocked and jerked along the road. Linda watched him patiently, when she wasn’t chastising Joel, and occasionally raised her eyebrows or cocked her head in gestures that invited Max to speak up and ask the obvious questions.
The shock of the assault in the parking lot kept him quiet. When he finally spoke, he only mentioned the need to relieve himself. While Linda dug out the clothes and boots for him, Max decided to simply walk away once the van stopped. But as he stood in the urinal with his pants around his knees, he didn’t feel that he had the strength to take off by himself, in the middle of nowhere with no car, no plan, and no drugs.
He hitched up the overalls and opened the stall door. It closed automatically behind him. Water rushed in the self-flushing toilet, and the disinfectant spray hissed briefly before the stall door reopened to await the next patron. He passed his hands under the faucet to keep up appearances in front of another man who was entering the bathroom as Max was finishing up. He tried unsuccessfully to avoid looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He had aged a lot in the past few weeks. His eyes were bloodshot, and the bags underneath were deep and dark. There were creases around his mouth and across his brow that he couldn’t remember having seen before, and his hair was getting long and jagged around the edges where it was starting to grow down over the tops of his ears. The white shirt and overalls made him look more like a day laborer than a lab technician, except that he was too pale for a person who worked in the sun.
As he walked out of the restroom he found Linda and Joel sitting at a picnic table in the grassy stretch between the fuel station and the convenience store. He stuffed his hands into the deep, crisp pockets and wandered over to join them.
“Everything work out okay?” Linda asked.
“Yes,” said Max, “thanks.”
As Max approached, Joel stood and gathered the hem of his linen robe, revealing skinny hairless calves and filthy, sandaled feet.
“Alright then,” he said, “let’s go.”
“Hold on,” said Max, taking a seat at the picnic table bench. “First I want to know where we’re going. Where,” he corrected himself, “you’re taking me.”
“You wanna go dark, don’t you?” said Joel.
“Shut up and sit down,” said Linda to the lunatic. She turned to Max, “You were in danger, we’re trying to help you get away.”
“In danger? From who?” said Max. “Away from what?”
“From everything,” said Joel. “From everyone. That’s how you go dark, newbie.”
“Shut your trap.” Linda smacked Joel across the shoulder. “Look, Max, you closed yourself off in your apartment. . . .”
Max interrupted. “How do you know my name anyway?”
“I’ll get to that. You shut yourself off, dropped out, right in the middle of the town. We know a little about what you’ve been through, what you’re trying to get away from. But if you are going to do it for real, you’ll need our help.”
“Who are you, exactly?”
“That’ll take some explaining.”
Max shook his head. “I don’t care. I just want to go home.”
“No you don’t newbie,” muttered the lunatic.
“Joel,” said Linda, “shush. We’ll take you home, if you like. But you’re not safe there.”
“I’m safer riding around in a broken down van with you two?”
“Believe it or not,” said Linda, glancing quickly at Joel. “Yes.”
She had a look of sincerity and concern in her big, brown eyes that Max thought might have been intensified by her lenses. He wondered what she might look like without the glasses. Her brown hair, which almost exactly matched the color of her eyes, was straight and hung down just to the line of her jaw. Her skin was smooth and lightly tanned, and her lips were pouty and full with no sign of lipstick. Max guessed that she was in her late twenties at the oldest. She reminded him of the activist hippy vegetarians he had met occasionally when he was in school. If it had only been her, Max figured he would probably give in. But there was also Joel.
The lunatic even had trouble sitting still at the table. Every few moments he would open his mouth on the verge of speaking, and then shake his head as though some voice only he could hear advised him not to.
He traced the graffiti carved into the picnic table with his filthy thumbnail, and occasionally blinked at some small revelation he seemed to discover there. Twitchy Joel was more than Max could stand.
“I want to go home,” he said.
Linda pursed her lips and nodded soberly.
“Well now it’s my turn to pee,” she said. “Joel, start the van. I’ll be right back.” She stood and headed toward the restroom.
Joel hopped up and grumbled something under his breath, then tripped spastically toward the parking lot.
Max watched as Joel climbed into the van, which soon produced a puff of blue smoke and roared to life. I can’t believe that guy is driving, he thought to himself. He lifted himself off the bench. Rather than spending time alone with Joel in the van, he made his way to the convenience store to buy a soda, with the hope that it might help calm his stomach on the rough ride home. The clerk, a pudgy, pimply teen, sneered at Max as he perused the bottles in the refrigerated case. He chose a drink and avoided the clerk by heading to the self-service checkout at the front. He pressed his thumb on the biometric screen of the checkout counter. A computerized woman’s voice thanked him for the purchase and noted the debit to his account. Max declined a paper receipt and slipped the soda into a pocket of his overalls.
He wandered slowly to the van, hoping Linda was already inside. When he slid open the side door and found that she wasn’t, he leaned against the fender and waited. He could feel the van bounce slightly on occasion, no doubt due to Joel’s restless twitching.
When Linda finally appeared at the restroom doors, her hair was pulled up away from her cheeks, which were shiny and slightly pink. Max thought she must have washed her face and dried it a bit too roughly.
She smiled at him and winked before she climbed into the van. He almost bumped into her as he climbed in behind. The near touch gave him a minor, disquieting thrill. For a moment, he reconsidered going home, if for no other reason than to spend more time with her. He shook his head and took his place amid the blankets. He wasn’t her type anyway; too old, too nerdy, too tired. Although there was just the smallest hint in her gentle smile as she nestled in behind Joel’s seat that maybe he was her type after all.
Max could feel the blood rise into his cheeks at the thought. He was probably just misinterpreting her desire to help him, if she really was out to help. He reached over and slid the door shut. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the comparative darkness in the van. He hoped Linda couldn’t see him blushing in the dim interior.
She thumped the back of Joel’s seat and told him to turn back. Although Max couldn’t see where they were going, he felt the pressure of the blankets against his back as the van carved around what must have been a cloverleaf, taking them back to the highway heading south. He had a sudden urge to engage Linda in idle conversation. It wouldn’t be long before they got him home, and he wanted to make the most of his time with her, with anyone really.
“What?” asked Linda, when Max made a feeble attempt to speak.
“Nothing.” He cringed and wondered if he was starting to look a bit like spastic Joel.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked.
“No,” she said, resting her head against the back of the passenger seat.
“Okay,” he said, nodding and trying to smile. It felt more like a grimace. He fumbled for the drink in his pocket. The stiff denim made maneuvering difficult. He had to struggle to insert his hand. In the cramped space, he couldn’t straighten his leg enough to extract the bottle. Linda’s brow wrinkled quizzically as Max tugged. He had the sudden embarrassing revelation that it might look like he was groping himself.
“Sorry, it’s stuck.”
“Stuck? What’s stuck.”
“Hold on,” he kicked his leg out, and leaned back.
“Can I help you with something?”
“No, no. Just a second.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I mean, no.”
After a heave, he managed to free the bottle and held it up to show that there was nothing unseemly about his efforts.
“Just a drink.”
He had hoped that the sight of the bottle would relieve her, proving that the awkward acrobatics were innocent. It had the opposite effect. She leaned forward, her brow knitted in alarm.
“Where did you get that?”
“At the convenience store.”
“I hope you stole it.”
Max was aghast. “No. I paid for it.”
“With the checkout ATM.”
Linda rocked forward onto her knees. “A biometric ATM?”
“Give it to me.” Linda thrust out her arm. “Now!”
Max blinked and handed her the bottle. She grabbed the handle of the side door and threw it open. The rush of the wind was deafening at highway speeds, and the light of day blinding.
“What are you doing?” shouted Max over the noise.
She leaned precariously out of the opening and scanned the highway. “Slow down Joel!”
She appeared as though she might tumble out at any moment, and Max clutched at her ankle. As Joel slowed, a stream of traffic passed by. She peered at each vehicle in turn, until one that Max couldn’t see caught her eye. She leaned out still further, and tossed the bottle. It arced through the air and landed in the bed of a passing pickup truck. She hauled herself back into the van and pulled at the door. It was heavy and, with the wind rushing by, she couldn’t budge it. Max put his hand on top of hers and pushed. The door slid shut with a thud.
She scrambled to the front passenger seat.
“What the hell was that about?” asked Max, following her forward and wedging himself between the high-backed seats.
She ignored him, glaring at the pickup truck that was steadily pulling away from them.
Max persisted, “Tell me what’s going on.”
She let out a loud breath. “The UPC symbol.”
“The bottle had a UPC symbol on it - a radio ID tracking label.”
“So what? Everything does.”
“Unless you take them off.”
Max didn't follow her drift. “So?”
“You’ve given yourself away,” she snapped at him
“What are you talking about?”
She nodded at the distant pickup truck. “You bought that with a thumb print access to your bank account. The system knows it was you, where you were, and what you bought.”
“If the system knows, then they know. So, now all they have to do is find the bottle.”
“They? Who are they?”
A speeding black sedan flew past the van on the right, tossing up a cloud of dust as its tires hung off onto the shoulder.
Max watched over Linda’s shoulder as the sedan closed on the truck. It swerved into the left lane, then back to the right, catching the tail end of the pickup, and sending it into a screeching slide. The truck careened left, overcorrected, and swerved back. It caught a guard rail, flipped into the air, and tumbled into a ditch, throwing up a cloud of debris and gravel.
The intervening traffic slowed and Joel slammed the brakes.
“Holy shit dude,” said Joel.
By the time they approached the accident, two men in brown pants and short-sleeved pastel Oxford shirts were standing at the guardrail, with their hands on their hips, studying the mangled pickup. The van inched by with the other cars that crawled past the scene. Max was stunned to see how threatening a pair of men in Hush Puppy footwear could be.
“Do you still want to go home?” Linda whispered.
Max swallowed hard. “Not just yet, I suppose.”
“Turn it around," she said to Joel. "Take the back roads”
At the next exit, the madman flicked on the turn signal and headed off the highway onto a rolling, vacant country road.