The old van struggled along the hilly roads, coughing and sputtering as it labored up toward each crest and revving frantically in a motorized scream as it careened down from the heights. To Max, it felt less like a trip in a panel van than a ride in a creaky trawler that was climbing the petrified waves of an ancient storm, frozen in time and encrusted with ribbons of asphault.
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Max had only a vague notion of where they were headed. But the angle of the shadows on the road ahead indicated that they were traveling north. Considering they had been en route for several hours, that placed them somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. The rocky, tree-covered hillsides seemed to confirm his guess.
The asthmatic engine relaxed a bit as their travels took them to slower secondary routes, and soon was drowned out by the rattling spray of gravel against the wheel wells and jarring rhythms of washboard dirt roads. At last, Joel stabbed the break pedal and killed the engine. The van ground to a halt.
Linda slid open the side door and Max followed her out. He stretched his aching legs and scanned a hodgepodge of cabins nestled into groves at the edges of a tiny valley that was ringed with tree-lined hilltops. The largest building in sight was a clapboard house at the far end of an oval-shaped expanse of severely mowed grass. It was two stories tall and painted in pristine white with black tar roofing and a screened veranda that extended the full length of the first floor. The building was brightly illuminated by the sun, which was on the verge of sinking behind the hills. A pair of gables poked up through the rooftop. In combination with the veranda and jet black door at the very center of the structure, the gables created the impression of a squinting, angular head, as if some wooden giant was buried up to his chin. Max couldn’t decide if the behemoth was rising out of the ground or being sucked down in. Either way, the expression seemed an indication of his irritation at the glaring sunshine blinding him as he strained against the earth.
The brilliant white farmhouse was in such glaring contrast to the rest of the shadowy valley that it took a few moments for Max to make out the figures on the veranda and strolling about near the other buildings. There were perhaps a few dozen people. It was impossible to guess their genders, partly because of the distance and partly because they all seemed to be dressed as Max was, in denim overalls and white t-shirts.
Joel leapt from the driver’s seat and waved his hand in an attempt at a grand flourish. “Welcome to the Freedom Club, our Shambhala of the Poconos.” He dropped to his hands and knees to kiss the dirt.
“Shit,” he said, wiping grit off of his lips. “It don’t taste like paradise.”
He sprang back to his feet, but stepped on the hem of his robe in the process, which prevented him from standing fully erect.
“Unless,” said Joel, contorting his bent body so that he could grin at Max, “paradise is supposed to taste like crap.” He tugged at his robe with both hands, tearing the hem. “It sure smells like crap. In case you hadn’t noticed.”
Max had noticed indeed. It was an amplified version of the fragrance - if so delicate a word can be applied to such an odor - that Joel had been emitting the first time they met at the café back home. Out here, Max guessed, the smell was probably due to nearby stables and animal pens of some kind. Joel may have picked up his stench from tending livestock, but it seemed just as likely that he was capable of generating it all on his own.
Linda reached for Max’s arm. “Come on.”
“Are we going to give him the grand tour?” asked Joel as he struggled to disentangle his foot from his robe.
“It’ll be too dark soon," said Linda with a shake of her head. "We can show him around tomorrow.”
“The dark,” said Joel, “ is when this place is in it’s best light. ‘Course, you’re the boss.” He winked, nodded, and hitched the rope around his waist a little tighter.
“Hold on Joel.”
She extended her hand, with her palm open.
“Oh,” said Joel, reaching into his robe and searching around near his crotch. “You want these?” He pulled out two blister packs of pills and laid them in her hand. They were Max’s Phenobarbital tablets.
Linda turned to Max.“Is this all?”
“I had three packages.”
Joel hung his head and reached into his robe again. “Really? Three? Are you sure it wasn’t just two?”
“Right.” Joel produced another pack and handed it to Linda.
She pulled at Max's arm, leading him onto the grassy oval as Joel knitted his hands behind his back, looked skyward and meandered away, whistling tunelessly.
She handed the pill packs to Max. One pack, he noticed, had been ripped in half along its perforated strip. “He kept eight tablets.”
“I thought he might snag some. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Well,” said Linda. “We can take care of it later.”
Max tried to recall when Joel would have had a chance to get his hands on the pills. He couldn’t think of an opportunity. Then again, most of the day had been a blur. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about refilling his supply for a few weeks.
They started off across the grass. The work boots were heavy on Max’s feet and the stiff denim of his overalls seemed to resist his every step. They had only gone a few dozen yards when he had to stop to catch his breath. Linda waited in silence until he was ready to resume the walk. The sun had sunk just past the hills, and the sky was a bright orange to the west while darkness was rapidly encroaching from the other side of the valley. The giant-head house no longer gleamed. It seemed to Max that the building grew noticeably grayer in the few moments that they paused, although the angry eyes of the gabled windows still reflected the flame of the sunset in burning orange slits of light.
He couldn’t bear the thought of trudging any further in the leaden boots. He dropped to his haunches and untied the laces. He stood and lifted his feet out of the boots, tied the laces together and hung the boots over his shoulder. The short, stiff blades of grass crackled with each step and tingled the souls of his feet. It was mildly stimulating and gave him the energy to continue.
After the rattling ride in the van, the valley had initially seemed dead silent. Now that his ears were adjusted, Max was inundated with a multitude of hums, chirps, and croaks of invisible insects and distant amphibians. A dip in the landscape to their left indicated the likely presence of a stream that was apparently the source of the thrumming that he recognized as the calls of bullfrogs. Countless lighting bugs flashed in the dimmer sections of the trees, and occasionally the shadowy outlines of small birds or bats flitted overhead in acrobatic pursuit of an invisible meal.
Max struggled to keep up with Linda despite her leisurely pace. She led him to one of the small cabins. It was of the same style as the farmhouse, painted white with tar shingle roofing and its own tiny porch that emulated the farmhouse’s veranda. It even had tiny, obviously decorative gables peeking up from the roof and a door painted in glossy black. He followed her up the short flight of steps to the porch and through the door that Linda swung silently inward. She pulled a string attached to a lamp mounted at the center of a slowly spinning ceiling fan. It illuminated a single room that appeared to encompass essentially the entire floor plan. There was just enough space for a small bed, a couch that was barely more than a love seat, a dresser and a writing desk. A narrow door near the back stood open, where Max could see a sink, a toilet and a white vinyl shower curtain. The only decoration in the room consisted of two photographs in simple black frames; one was of Che Guevara, and the other of a bearded man in an orange jump suit and manacles who bore a passing resemblance to Joel.
“This is my place,” said Linda. “We’ll find one for you in the morning. For now, you can have the bed and I’ll take the couch.”
Max dropped his boots on the floor, shuffled to the bed and collapsed on his back without bothering to turn down the sheets.
He heard water running in the bathroom. After a few moments, cool fingertips brushed his forehead.
He opened his eyes to see Linda standing over him with his pill packets and a glass of water.
He held up two fingers
She popped the pills from the pack. Max heaved himself up onto his elbows and opened his mouth. Linda placed the pills on his tongue, and then held the glass to his lips. The water was tepid and tasted of metal. When he finished drinking, she took the rest of the pills and the glass to the bathroom.
He dropped back onto the bed and turned his head to study the manacled prisoner in the photo. The man didn’t seem distressed at his chains. His head was up, with his brow slightly wrinkled and his lips parted as if he where on the verge of speaking. Max suddenly had the impression that the prisoner wanted to ask him a question, although he had no idea who the man could be.
As his eyelids grew heavy, Max half dreamed and half hallucinated that the prisoner said, “These are just chains. They’re nothing. How about yours? Do you have an escape plan?”
Max thought he might.
He slept at last as visions of flashmobs, search engine cabs, chess-playing penguins, couch creatures, laundry monsters, and an eviscerated virtual Betty flitted through his dreams like bats on the wing.