We drove in silence for hours. It was a chore to get out of Truculent (sic?). Everything was devastated. Not a single building or tree stood intact. Yet, this didn’t seem to bother anyone. Earth moving machines were out in abundance, pushing away the remains of the old buildings while construction crews went to work building new ones. They would work for a few hours, until the next storm came, and then retreat into their shelled homes, clutching their skyrocketing homeowner’s insurance form and thankful their business was labor and human resources and knowing there would never be any shortage of that. And there was always plenty of overtime to be had. Dad had to navigate the van over all the rubble. The vehicle was not made for offroading. The nine men in the back sat there, legs crisscrossed, faces expressionless, as the van jostled over the remains.
Luckily, we made it to the edge of town without bursting a tire, although the alignment was seriously out of whack. Dad had to turn the wheel sharply just to keep the van on the road. I was pretty sure the muffler had been torn off on one of the rubble piles as well. The van now roared ferociously.
The Flats, where we had dumped the corpses earlier (was that just yesterday?), seemed to continue on this side of town and, before we knew it, we were once again traveling along this unbroken yet strikingly blasted landscape. Nothing could grow here. Not even sand. It was just hardpacked dirt for mile after mile. Unbreaking. Unrelenting. The sun beat down on top of the black van with the skull and crossbones emblazoned on the side like some eerie portent.
Numb, I sat there, Brilliance clutched in my hands. The flame flickering from the lip of the urn didn’t really seem to contain any heat. Had it contained heat at one time? I didn’t know. How would this all end? Would we be able to return the flame to its rightful location? Did we want to return the flame to its rightful location? Would returning the flame only give the Nefarions more power and control over their surroundings? Would it allow them to change and rearrange our world even more than they already could? Was it really our world? Who was to say it was our world? Wasn’t it entirely possible the Nefarions were here before us and had only retreated into their special corner of space and time in order to escape us like some tribe of metaphysical Native Americans? Had the entire human race successfully quarantined them? Given the history of humanity, it wasn’t hard to imagine this as the case at all.
“So,” I said, placing Brilliance on the floor and rolling down the window to let in some air even though it was sick hot air and letting in the air meant letting in the roar. “Say we do return this to the Nefarions... Will they go away? Will things go back to normal?”
“It’s hard to say,” Dad said. “I don’t think we can necessarily blame the Nefarions for everything abnormal happening. It’s true that, without the flame, more of them spend more time in our world than they would otherwise. But they are only here because they are searching for the flame.”
“I think they found it.”
“Yes. I think you’re right. Which is why we have to be especially careful now. One wrong move and we could end up dead or imprisoned.”
“Do you think that’s what happened to grandfather?”
“Well, they came after him but, if you ask me, he kind of had it coming.”
It was the exact kind of Dad answer I had expected. A little wishy-washy. Not exactly full of resolve, the good and bad comingling in everything.
The van continued to wobble and scream along the road, not passing another car, and we fell into a lengthy silence. Why couldn’t we have been stuck with a car that had air conditioning?
The heat, the sporadic yet steady drone of the road beneath us, the ferocious exhaust and the unbroken boredom of the landscape conspired to drag me down into sleep, paralyzing sluggishness. The fear of once again being shot at kept me awake. I was afraid, if I dozed off, I might never wake up. While one of the original ten men had posed as my bodyguard I didn’t necessarily know the remaining men were there to protect me. For all I knew, they were just the Nefarions in disguise. After all, they seemed to contain some sort of magical ability. Dad couldn’t even see them. Hearing them wasn’t really an option since they didn’t make any noise. The whole shooting back at the motel could have just been something staged to lure me into a false sense of security. I didn’t take the fallen guy’s pulse. I didn’t even really stick around long enough to see if there was any blood. The eagle-headed man could have just fired off a cap gun and the tenth man could have fallen. I merely followed the expected reaction to that sort of thing. That is, to get the hell out of there as fast as I possibly could.
Dad, unfortunately, did not have nearly the aversion to sleep I had. His head bobbed periodically, the van swerving off to the shoulder of the road before he jerked his head up and whipped the van back onto the road. Maybe he was hung over from yesterday. In all the years I had known him, I had never seen him drunk. I didn’t even know he drank. He said the imposter made him. I believed him. I didn’t believe him. I had trouble believing anything. Over the past couple of days he went from being the plump, blue collar dad I had always known to being a skinny imposter named Gary Wrench to being my skinny father. All of them had been completely believable. It was no great leap to think he was now my skinny father the drunk. He could have told me anything and I would have believed it at that point. Or I wouldn’t have believed it. Maybe his total lack of resolve had finally infected me. Maybe I had always shared his lack of resolve. I was never what you would call “headstrong.”
I went back to the beard, that bastion of slow glacial growth, for comfort. Sometimes I didn’t know where I would be without the beard. I had certainly resolved to grow that. And it was a resolution I had stuck with, even through the maddeningly scratchy stage where I would plunge my fingers into its thick growth until it felt like the skin beneath was raw. Of course, it was also just as likely that my intense laziness prevented me from shaving. The more the beard grew, the more work it would have been to shave it.
Dad’s head flopped down again, this time coming to fully rest on his chest. I wasn’t really too worried about the van going off the road since the side of the road was every bit as hard and durable as the road itself and there weren’t any obstructions to hit. I wondered how long we would have to shoot off in a given direction before we reached something. At that point, I think I would have almost welcomed it. The satisfying crash into some obstruction or the depthless plunge over a cliffside, at least it would have been a change from the droning monotony of The Flats.
I nudged Dad on the arm.
“You want me to drive?” I asked.
“No! No! I got it. Just needed to rest my eyes for a minute.”
“You probably shouldn’t do that while you’re driving.”
“No. I’m fine now. I feel totally refreshed.”
We drove for several more miles before the van made a painful kind of grinding sound, began spewing black smoke, and shuddered to a halt.
“Damn,” Dad said.
“What happened?” I asked. I had always assumed fathers knew everything about cars even though I figured Dad probably knew as little about them as I did. Sure, he could probably walk you through the construction of a hot air balloon basket and maybe give you a dilettante anthropology lecture but his knowledge of anything practical (if either of those could be considered practical skills) probably ended there.
“Don’t know,” he said, staring wide-eyed at the smoke furling out from the engine.
“What does this van run on, anyway? I don’t remember us ever putting any gas in it and we’ve driven a whole lot.”
“I have no idea what it runs on. The car ran on fire. But this thing, all you had to do was hop in and touch the wheel. I never really thought about what powered it. There’s no gas gauge, so it probably isn’t that.”
Dad popped the hood of the van and we both climbed out. We lifted up the hood and peered down into the engine. It looked like it was filled with corn. I didn’t see anything resembling a mechanical part down there. Most of the corn, still in its husk, was burnt black.
“Well, there’s our answer, I guess. It runs on corn. I bet there isn’t a cornfield within a thousand miles of this place.”
I was beginning to doubt there was anything within a thousand miles of this place.
“I guess we’re hoofing it,” he said.
I looked down at my bare feet. They had toughened considerably over the past few days but I didn’t know if they were ready for the heat and abrasiveness of what lay in front of us.
Then I noticed the nine men filing out of the van.
“I don’t think we’ll have to walk anywhere,” I said.
A gunshot punctuated my sentence.
Dad went down onto the ground. The nine men immediately surrounded him. Another shot was fired and one of the men went down. Another man stuck his hand into his stylish black blazer, pulled out a gun and began firing at a speck on the horizon.
Now I figured they were actually there to help us and probably were not spies. Although, again, someone could have shot Dad and tried to shoot me while one of my bodyguards fired bullets into the distance but not intended for any kind of target. Always that false sense of security there to make reality that much more painful.
Dad’s arm had turned into a piece of wood. A two-by-four about two feet long. He flapped it around in the air.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I guess,” he said. “I don’t know how I feel about this arm, though.”
I helped him up and into the van.
“I guess you can drive now,” he said. “I’d feel safer having someone with two arms do it.”
Eight men crossed to the back of the van, leaving the ninth lying there by the side of the road.
“Do you need to lie down?” I asked my father.
“No. No,” he said. “I’ll be just fine.”
He managed to work himself up into the passenger seat and I took the wheel. I didn’t really have to drive, I supposed. Just steer. Then I remembered. I hopped out of the van. The eight men stopped trying to push it and approached me, encircling me. I went to the downed man and felt for a pulse. Nothing. I turned to the man closest to me and put my index and middle fingers on his jugular vein. There I felt a very steady, very strong pulse. Then I put my fingers on the same place of the downed man and, again, felt nothing.
So he was either dead or he had learned to do some sort of trick to keep his heart from beating although he had now been down for more than a few minutes and I thought if anyone could keep their heart from beating that long then he would probably be either dead or in some sort of danger. Nevertheless, I was satisfied. The more I thought about anything, the more of a conundrum it became. The best thing to do was try not to think about anything at all. So I climbed back into the van and let the eight remaining men push us.
Dad sat in the passenger seat, enthralled with his new arm, waving it around in the air, beating it against the dash and the console.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to open the map,” he said. “So I may not be much of a navigator.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think we need a map. My bodyguards will probably do a good job of getting us where we need to go.”